Still Waters: Filmmaker John Waters at Home

Lets get this strait: John Waters won't discuss his latest project. The last time he publicly discussed a script he was working on -- Cecil B. Demented, the story of a young trash filmmaker who kidnaps a big-time Hollywood actress to force her to star in his movie -- he didn't get backing, and he thinks he jinxed it by talking too much about it.Yes, he is working on a script -- he's always working, 7 a.m. to noon each morning -- but he's not saying what or when. (He writes and directs all of his movies, and won't direct other people's scripts, which is one reason for the long pauses between films.) But what does one ask John Waters, anyway? A self-described "press junkie," he's talked and talked about his life, his movies and just about everything else, and written hundreds of pages about himself (Shock Value, 1981, Crackpot, 1983, Trash Trio, 1989), pre-empting the most esoteric questions a poor journalist could think of.Yet he manages to keep the John Waters thing from becoming shtick by dint of always good and ever-changing work, and because of his truly good personality: he is thoughtful, very smart, apparently kind-hearted, and ever-interested in the world and its surprises, all of which keep him from sinking under the weight of his own press.So here is the "celebrity-at-home" interview, which is actually a pretty good draw, because it means there's plenty to write outside of what the celebrity -- always schooled in answering questions, never letting the cracks show -- says. Seven years ago Waters moved from apartment life -- elevator, doorman, neighbors galore -- to a quiet, lush, elegant but not at all ostentatious square mustard-colored villa in North Baltimore, four low-ceilinged stories surrounded by heaped-up hedges and leafy stuff. His assistant, Colleen Roome, a red-headed Brit, answers the door; Waters is close on her heels. He's tall, over six feet. Light on his feet. Shakes hands. Smiles sincerely, occasionally pops you on the shoulder conspiratorially when making a point. Shows you past the electric chair that Divine dies in in Female Trouble, past the machine gun Johnny Depp gave him, past the cross made out of movie-stills of film Jesuses: Waters' own artwork."I'll be just a minute," he says, leaving us in a living room of elegant furniture, a coffeetable piled with art books, a Warhol Jackie over the fireplace, more art on the other wall, and two walls of books. A few names, about or by, jump out: Gore Vidal, Pete Dexter, Georges Perec, Mencken, Mailer, de Sade, Lowell, Auden, Didion, Trillin, Oldenburg, Mondrian, Pasolini.There's music playing too loud on the stereo -- the kind of loud music you play when you're home alone, maybe cleaning in another room, or maybe just wanting it pounding through a place to say it's all yours. Aggressively grinding guitar, quick sexy drumbeat, whispered unknowable words. Waters turns it down when he comes back. Pink Flamingos is due for rerelease next year. It's his most infamous work, the work that got him in the most trouble and still occasionally gets him charged with obscenity (he pays the fine rather than go through the whole trial thing). Besides the Divine 'n' dogshit scene, there is sex with chickens, an amazing singing asshole, plenty of genitalia and assorted scatology, plus a good measure of campy violence. In the works: a documentary about the making of Pink Flamingos, "which I'm cooperating with," says Waters. "Usually there's a shock limit of about ten years, but Pink Flamingos held up. I'm proud of that. I never thought anyone would still be talking about it 25 years later. When I was young I thought being rich would be to have $500 in the bank and to be able to travel all over. All I knew I wanted to own was a Xerox machine and a black Buick." The Xerox machine he's got, but his Buick is gray, and secondhand. "I never buy new cars. I went to the same man for years till he died. I never understood wanting to have a big fancy car with vanity plates. I'd prefer that people not recognize me. And before, it was because I was doing illegal things, I didn't want anyone to remember the car. Besides, there are more things I'd rather buy than expensive cars. Like art. I'd like to have a beach house, but I buy art instead, it's one of the few things left that still shocks and surprises me. I do have an apartment in New York. I go up every other week on the Metroliner." Waters puts on coffee (Melitta, perfectly made) and while it's brewing gives us a tour of the house. "I always liked this house, so eventually I knocked on the door and offered to buy it," says Waters. "The owner said, 'Hmmm, John Waters, maybe,' so I nagged her for five years and here I am." It's country-looking, from the brick floors in the basement kitchen to the garret-like guest rooms on the top floor. "Not too comfortable," he says. "So people don't stay too long." In one of the guest rooms is a collection of books about his obsessions. "Crime." He points. "Society, sexual perversions, Nazis, severe weather. Here, here's my weird stuff closet." It's a walk-in filled with props and doodads, "stuff people sent": rat skulls, candy bullets, a photo of serial killer and death row resident Richard Speck, Pia Zadora's latest Christmas card. Some of these would have made up the Letterman Top Ten List. "But I got bumped because Diana Ross took too long," Waters says. "I love Diana Ross, but... As an apology gift they gave me the Unabomber loveletters -- they were copies, but it's pretty great. He praises masturbation... wackin' and bombin' out there in the woods. You know, it's interesting, I don't think he's going to get the death penalty. There's not the rage against him that you feel against the killer of Polly Klaas, giving the finger to the jury..." Here's the TV room, with a giant TV, "which I never watch. TV is good for watching porn and war, that's it, except for Homicide [filmed in Baltimore], which everybody I know works on." Here's the dining room, with the long, long, wide table. Here's the kitchen, which is not just normal, but positively domestic. He uses Palmolive for his dishes. There is dry angelhair pasta in jars in a row near the sink. A glorious big blender. McCormick spices, dozens of them. A few bottles of Round Hill cabernet. The Baltimore Sun on a table. The Silver Palate cookbooks, the white and the red one, and 365 Ways to Cook Pasta.Can we see what's in the fridge? A pig's head, maybe? A box of dog turds? A glass of tears? A Serial Mom-style roast-cum-murder weapon? "It's not very exciting, I have to go shopping," Waters protests. "My cleaning lady doesn't come till tomorrow, so I did clean just for you [little hand-bop on upper arm]. You know I do do all my own cooking. Ever since I quit smoking I cook a lot, and there's nothing I don't eat. And I'm so organized -- I make a list of six meals for the week and cross them off after I eat them. I have turned into my father, believe it or not. Yeah, sure, go ahead."There are portobello mushrooms, mayonnaise, a bottle of white wine, (Macon something) a few loose eggs ("EHHHGGS! EHHHHGGS!") rolling around, salsa, corn..."And arugula," Waters says. "If I'm ever condemned to the electric chair I'm going to request for my last meal one leaf of arugula. Because you shit yourself when you're electrocuted. People forget that and order steak and potatoes and things."Then there's the art: a violent little George Grosz drawing, a Richard Tuttle -- a few layers of blank paper with a red and black crayon border drawn around the edges -- Lichtenstein prints, a Richard Artschwager painting of a mirror that reflects nothing but has the exact greeny silver color that we think of mirrors as having, even if they never do really have that color because they're always reflecting. "My cleaning lady is my best art critic," says Waters. "She says, 'You paid money for that? You better write it down 'cause when you die they're gonna throw it out.'"Waters has always bought art, ever since he picked up the Warhol Jackie for a hundred bucks in '64 upon graduating from high school. What he's chosen since is up-to-the-minute, hip, quirky, often aloof and surprisingly tasteful stuff for the philosopher of bad taste. He loves the inscrutable, chic Twombly, owns Five Greek Poets and Two Philosophers, a series of drawings with the words 'Homer,' 'Pindar,' 'Callimachus' and 'Plato' in pencil-scrawl on a white white background. "It's about confidence, and freedom," Waters explains. "And then to a writer it's great because it's handwriting. You can't imitate it. It's like ancient scrolls. It's beautiful. 60 Minutes makes jokes about all my favorite artists. They always say 'the emperor has no clothes.' I don't understand that. If the emperor can convince you he's wearing clothes when he's not, that is art."There's the art, and then there are the French posters for Waters movies -- "the French have the best posters" -- and then there is the fake food. Waters is deft at high-culture/low-culture juxtaposition. There's a box of fake chocolates, one missing, in the living room. A whole plastic roast turkey in the dining room. Fake packets of ketchup, sushi, pie, bread and Oreos placed in funny corners throughout the house. In the bedroom: a single immense spear of asparagus right on Waters' bedside table, along with the Magic-8 ball and the book he's reading about Fassbinder. The bed's a not particularly large double bed; the open closet door has three pegs heaped with dozens upon dozens of neckties.Back down the dark-wood turn-around staircase. Out to the back patio -- "close that door behind you, air conditioning, these old houses" -- with the stone Trojan horseheads, the potsful of somewhat recalcitrant impatiens. The yard is gorgeous, a clearing under tall trees which turn the light beneath them liquid and mellow. The ground is covered with ivy -- "in the spring it's full of wildflowers" -- and extends back to a pair of small stone pillars -- "Don't take my picture there, that's been done to death." He's wearing a dandyish plaid blazer in tan and ecru, pale olive pants, plus brilliantly white slip-on canvas loafers which he worries about before jumping obligingly down into the humid Baltimore muck. We're glad it's not just plain lawn. That'd be so... Serial Mom. You can't interview Waters without asking his opinion on current movies. "Most recently, I liked Fargo and Welcome to the Dollhouse. And My Favorite Season, the Catherine Deneuve movie," he says. Twister? "The special effects were too good. I don't like special effects if they're seamless. And I hated the PC artsy character who wears the patched denim maxi skirt. There is no worse style."Waters donates money made at his premieres to AIDS Action in Baltimore. He's on the accession committee of the Baltimore Art Museum, which does have a nifty little contemporary art wing. And he gives to the ACLU. "I am liberal," Waters says. "I am politically correct. But I've always poked fun at liberal sacred cows. I was at the Vermeer show in Washington and there was a blind man going through the exhibition. It ruined the show for me, it made me so crazy. It's this ultra-liberal thing. Like everybody's supposed to throw down their canes and jump out of their wheelchairs and dance! That's why it's the PC people who are most bitterly punished in my movies. The people with happy neuroses win."The great thing about Waters is that he's not resting on past laurels. Perhaps that's because only in the past decade or so, with wider distribution and big-studio backing, has he gotten real financial remuneration. But more than that, he keeps on changing his style, from deep grossness to rococo kitsch to nasty pathos to subversive retro romance to broad satire, always with the lascivious irony that makes it matter.You could make a case that Waters has formed the (bad) taste of several generations. Without John Waters and Divine, would fashion be as devilishly ironic? Would humorless Karen Finley ever have done revolting things with eggs and yams without highly humorous Waters? Would David Lynch have been possible? How about the rabbit lady scene in Roger and Me? How 'bout even Clueless? And just the other day, someone put a plastic pink flamingo in the foyer of my office building, leaning up against a light-up plastic saint. If that isn't Waters, what is? If the links aren't direct, the Waters aesthetic has surely trickled down into a whole lot of society.But asked about who he's influenced, Waters is modest. "If I've done anything, I've given trash a good name."A retrospective is a little like being dead," he laughs. But life itself keeps surprising him. Just when you thought there was nothing new and outrageous in gay culture, for example -- "I'm against the Disneyization of drag queens," says Waters, "like with To Wong Foo and Bird Cage. Drag queens should scare people. It shouldn't just be straight men in drag putting on dresses over their hard-ons!" -- along comes something unique."Drag kings!" Waters exclaims. "Women disguised as men, who make great-looking guys, who try to pick you up and then reveal themselves as women. It's the best thing I've heard of in a long time! I put that in my script. That's why you have to go out, to get ideas." He will talk about his movies -- self-criticizingly. "There are a lot of things I'd change if I had to redo them. Mondo Trasho is way too long, Multiple Maniacs has too much dialogue. Pink Flamingos -- the fire scene is too long. Female Trouble I'm pretty much happy with. Polyester, too. Hairspray, my unintentional family movie! Crybaby? I suppose I'd rather have Johnny Depp end up with Hatchet Face instead of the ingenue. Serial Mom is just the way I like."New generations still get to come of age with Waters movies. He's big on the college circuit, where "it seems like half of everybody is gay now. Now that's impossible. I think they're faux gay, trendsexual. The richer the college the more politically correct it is to be gay. And no, I don't think they're bisexual. I don't think there are that many true bisexuals. The ones I know are so unhappy. You'd think it means more sex, double the chance. But the ones I know seem to find it impossible to fall in love." Throughout his career -- it's ultra-evident in his movies -- Waters has been pro-youth, in favor of bucking, no, steamrolling authority. He's smart enough to realize that new ideas come in raw form from young people."I love the young queer 'zines making fun of my generation, all that politically correct gay stuff. I always hated the disco, Studio 54 scene, so I'm thrilled to see young gays make fun of gay conformists. They have a good sense of humor. But I feel bad for kids today. AIDS ruined everything. Kids can't experiment or explore fantasies anymore. You know, I don't see how anybody says people choose to be gay, since you're more likely to die. And there are still as many gay people as ever. It looks to me as though there are more. More are out, anyway." And lissen up, straight men, Waters is looking out for you, too. "In Baltimore at least there are plenty of male fag hags who aren't closet queens, they're just straight men who are friends of gay men. Which is smart. All straight men should go to gay bars because the cutest and smartest women are fag hags. And if they're the only straight man in a gay bar, the law of averages says they'll meet someone." Waters has never wanted to get married. "I don't feel the need to imitate heterosexual traditions. But people who want to should. I find it odd that it threatens heterosexuals. Why would anyone care? God knows there are a lot of bad straight marriages." Nor has he ever wanted kids. "I'm way too self-involved and workaholic to have kids. I'm very organized. Too organized. My life is overly managed. I even have to plan for a hangover. I haven't had a spontaneous minute in 20 years. I've turned into my father, only in the opposite direction. But I make a very good uncle." Oh dear, John Waters as uncle? "A good crazy uncle," he amends. One more thing. How often does he have to trim his mustache? "I shave around it every day, trim it twice a week with scissors, and if I make a mistake, I draw it in with pencil." He calls us a cab, which arrives in about two seconds. He bolts out the door after it as it cruises past the unmarked house. When it stops, he goes back, plucks some wilted flowers out of his hedge, tosses them into the brush, apologizes gently. "I've got a lot of work to do today," and disappears back inside.

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