“The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.” This six-word definition of “camp” offered by John Waters in a cameo on The Simpsons might also be the motivation behind his entire career. Rising to cinematic infamy with his self-declared “trash trilogy” (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living) in the 1970s, the fearless filmmaker, actor, author and iconic moustache sporter has continued to ruffle feathers ever since. Yet while his cast of characters might make you run to the other side of the street, Waters would rather celebrate than mock, shock or insult.
“I’m interested in people who might be depraved, but they don’t know it and they definitely don’t think they are,” he says with trademark dry martini wit. “I’ve always tried to make people laugh about it, whatever it was. To me, depravity is someone who’s insane, causing both themselves and other people unhappiness. That’s not what I’m about. I’m much more interested in people who are insane but find it gleeful and exciting, using that insanity creatively to make life better.”
This month, Waters appears at the Calgary Underground Film Festival with his one-man live show, This Filthy World. Part retrospective, part standup comedy and all tongue-in-cheek, it dishes out behind-the-scenes dirt from his DIY days to the breakthrough of Hairspray (both the ’88 original and its Travolta-fied 2007 remake). Everything began with his childhood friend Harris Glenn Milstead, who transformed into larger-than-life drag queen Divine for 10 of Waters’ most notorious titles.
“It was kind of like the studio system,” Waters says. “He had a small part in my short film Roman Candles, and crawled his way up because people liked him the best. I could see that he had this great screen presence and that audiences really reacted, so I created this character that was like Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla put together. He scared critics, but he started getting good reviews when he took that image and played the exact opposite of it. It worked for Dolly Parton when she became an alcoholic and won the Oscar. So hey, Justin Bieber — play a junkie!”
From eating dog feces in Pink Flamingos to playing Ricki Lake’s mom in the 1980s Hairspray, Divine’s star power was expanding with each subsequent performance. Sadly, Milstead passed away just one week after the latter’s critically acclaimed opening, shortly before he could take on a followup role that may have busted him into the mainstream consciousness for good. The mind ponders how he would have reacted to the film’s recent remake, plus seeing John Travolta in his size 16 pumps.
“He would have wanted to play every role,” Waters laughs. “But he was actually much more interested in playing a man. I think performing in drag might have become old hat for him. In fact, right before Divine died, he was cast to play a recurring role as a gay uncle in Married With Children. It would have been really early for that kind of thing, and could have made him a huge success.”
“Divine passed away at 42, and that’s the age of my friends’ kids who have grown up now,” Waters continues. “Me and my group of friends, like Pat Moran and Mink Stole, have all bought gravestones together. We call it Disgraceland, and we’re all gonna be buried together. I find that comforting. I don’t believe in Catholicism, but I was raised on it, and they always used to say that you couldn’t be cremated. I didn’t want that in case the resurrection happened. What will that do to real estate prices when every single person comes back to life?”
Following Hairspray’s unqualified success, Waters’ next offering was Cry-Baby, a ’50s-themed rockabilly musical taking aim at the squeaky clean delinquent teens of Grease. Alongside an ensemble cast that included Iggy Pop, Patty Hearst and former porn star Traci Lords, the film also starred a young Johnny Depp, then known as a pin-up for his role in 21 Jump Street.
“Johnny was already a star, but he hated doing that show at the end and never wanted to be a teen idol,” Waters says. “The thing I helped him with was that Tim Burton came by and looked at dailies of Cry-Baby, then decided to cast him in Edward Scissorhands. Johnny is a great gentleman, and I think he handles stardom really well — especially that giant kind of stardom.”
Throughout the ’90s and into the aughts, Waters continued pushing buttons with the twisted triple-header of Serial Mom, Pecker and Cecil B. Demented. His most recent directorial effort is 2004’s A Dirty Shame, a sex-crazed satire about the problems caused by puritanical repression. Ironically, this earned him the most restrictive cinematic rating of NC-17.
“I’m amazed that happened, and I think the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] is ridiculous,” Waters says. “They just gave Bully an R rating. It’s a documentary against bullying, and now bullies can’t see it! That’s some good thinking. They have these preposterous rules, and I think rules are meant to be broken, but they refuse to do that. A Dirty Shame doesn’t even have any sex in it; the characters just talk about it. It should have been rated G because it’s so juvenile! No adults should have been allowed to see it.”
In 2008, Waters announced his next project: A children’s Christmas film called Fruitcake with Johnny Knoxville as the lead. Unfortunately, this was also scrapped due to the rejection of several studios, as the filmmaker quipped, “In this economy, I’m going to have to do a puppet show.” Four years later, Waters has now pushed it onto the backburner, and seems fully content with his other endeavours.
“That’s the movie part of my life, which is the smallest part,” he says. “I have a million other projects on the go. I’m writing another book, I just had another art show, and I’ve done this one-man show maybe 60 times in the last year. I’ve got a lot of TV projects that might happen as well. Right now I just want to tell people some stories. I want to make another movie too, but it’s not like I haven’t made ’em.”
Through it all, Waters’ hometown of Baltimore remains a constant source of inspiration. As the backdrop for every one of his films since 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, he professes a love for its blue-collar bars and the uneasy mix of “hipsters, hillbillies, African-Americans and the 10 per cent rich.” When the topic of HBO’s Baltimore crime drama The Wire comes up, Waters lights up like a jack-o’-lantern.
“Are you kidding? It was the best show ever on TV,” he exclaims. “All of the people who worked on my movies worked on The Wire too. Pat Moran started with me, and she cast it. Vincent Peranio was my production designer starting with Pink Flamingos, and he designed the show as well. I’m an ordained minister, and I actually married [The Wire creator] David Simon and his wife. That was a secret, but she told the story on the Craig Ferguson show, so I guess I’m out of the closet.”
In the 2006 DVD version of This Filthy World, Waters looks all the way back to his childhood in a Maryland suburb, summing up these formative years in a single line: “It was hard to be depraved in Lutherville.”
“I recently took my elderly mom for a drive, and decided to bring her to the very first house we lived in,” he says. “I was probably 12 or 13 when we moved away, but I decided to go online and find who owned it. So I called them up and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but I’m John Waters and I used to live in your house.’ There was silence on the line, and then the man said, ‘Yes, I know you did.’ I asked him if I could bring my mom to see it, and he said, ‘Yes of course, but my wife will be mad that it’s such a mess.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, my mom can hardly see anyway!’”
“When we got there it was really strange,” Waters concludes. “I remembered that I pretended to be Elvis Presley in my bedroom there, and across the street was the juvenile delinquent that I based Cry-Baby on. Up the street was a small part of the neighbourhood where the black people lived, and I would hear them walking by at night singing rhythm and blues songs, exactly like Ricki Lake does in Hairspray. These flashbacks happened and it was kind of amazing. It was hard to be depraved in Lutherville, but as I’ve always said, you have to know the rules of good taste to have fun with the bad. I’m glad I started my rebellion against the tyranny early.”