John Waters, the American director and writer of transgressive indie films (Hairspray, Pink Flamingoes), has been called a lot of different names, but on the phone he is a poised, delightful man in his seventies. Like talking to Vladimir Nabokov, if he adored grindhouse.
In 1994, Waters released Serial Mom, a black comedy about the serial-killing matriarch of a suburban family. Featuring Kathleen Turner as a spree murderer, the film garnered positive feedback from critics and box office death; it went on to became a cult favorite, like most of Waters’ films. Next month, Shout! Factory will re-release the picture in a Blu-ray Collector edition, featuring various extras. (And last month, there was a Criterion release of Multiple Maniacs—it’s a good time to be a Waters fan.) Paste had the chance to interview the maestro of Baltimore cinema.
John Waters is exceedingly polite. John Waters is a workaholic, so his time is tightly scheduled, but when he is with you, he is fully present. John Waters seems to be without artifice. John Waters wishes you to know that his obsessions and interests are sincere, and he is not winking when he makes these movies. His satires are volleys at the fortress of square life. God loves irony, but John Waters does not.
“I love the man, I love the man dearly … He’s the boldest of the bold of the filmmakers; I wish I had the guts of this man,” Werner Herzog said of him. In conversation, John Waters will tell you exactly what he is thinking on any given subject, but he is so charming about it. Like most artists who have aroused controversy and affection, John Waters seems to be both interested in your reaction to his work, and probably could not give two hoots in hell if you hated his guts.
What more can I do but give you the man himself?
Serial Mom has become a classic. Why do people like this movie so much?
Waters: Because everybody’s mother, in a way, is a Serial Mom! Everybody has pet peeves—you had friends that they didn’t like. Now, your mother didn’t go set them on fire, but you kind of, maybe, wish your mother did go back to school and murder a teacher that was unfair to you. This is a comedy, so we know it’s not realistic, but I think everybody, in some way, wishes that they have a Serial Mom. In another way, this movie was done before O.J., and there’s kind of a lot of similarities to the true crime genre and reality stuff they have on television. Every crime they do over and over again on every channel, even if it’s usually a classy channel like the History Channel or Discovery Channel. So I think in a way we satirized something pretty early.
Paste: Now if everybody has a mother like this Serial Mom …
Waters: Everybody has a mother not quite like this, but everybody has a mother who has pet peeves. Like your mother, what does she hate?
Paste: She doesn’t like rudeness, I suppose.
Waters: Okay, so she wants people to have some manners. My mother wanted that, too. And we need to learn good manners. Now that’s something I still believe in. […] I’m very right-wing on the white after Labor Day. I think people should go to jail for that—I think we need to bring back fashion jail.
Paste: I read recently that you are on that Feud show. How’d you get on there?
Waters: I had to keep that secret for a long time.
Paste: Can you tell our readers who William Castle is and why you played him?
Waters: It was interesting they asked me to play him because I don’t really look like him. But I talk about him a lot. He had gimmicks in all his movies. He had skeletons that went out on wires and buzzers that went off under your feet. I kind of gave a tribute to him with Odorama in my film Polyester, where you scratch-n-sniff smells during the movie. I wrote the introduction to William Castle’s biography when it was later promoted … I’ve been a big William Castle fan forever, so it was fun to play him. Especially when I get to do a scene with Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.
Paste: That sounds really fun.
Waters: Well, all movie-making is slow. “Hurry up and wait,” and slow, and slow. But I had a great time with Jessica because I hadn’t met her and I was still scared of her from her movie Frances.
Paste: Everyone is excited about that show. I haven’t seen it yet myself.
Waters: What’s the matter with you?
Paste: I’m really busy. I’m interviewing Hollywood guys on the phone. That’s what I’m doing.
Waters: Oh, I’m not a Hollywood guy, I’m a Baltimore guy.
Paste: Did you ever see The Wire?
Waters: Of course I saw it! I know David Simon; I married him and his wife—I’m a minister. All the people who made The Wire have worked for me.
(Waters is a minister of the Universal Life Church of Modesto, Calif. He was ordained in 1991 at the behest of J. Depp, who wished Waters to marry him to Winona Ryder. Although the Ryder-Depp nuptials were never fulfilled, the Rev. Waters has joined thirteen couples in matrimony, with no divorces on his record.)
Paste: What do you think about it, as a long-time Baltimorean?
Waters: It’s one of the best shows ever.
Paste: I don’t know Baltimore that well, but I liked it very much.
Waters: Well, some parts of Baltimore are exactly like that. We make real movies about real parts of Baltimore. But there’s also lots of places in Baltimore, and nobody makes movies about these parts.
Paste: Isn’t that strange that happens? You have these movies which people say, “Oh how odd, how strange.” But this stuff is going on around all of us all of the time … people think that directors make all this stuff up, but the world is weird. It’s just that it doesn’t usually appear in movies or TV shows.
Waters: When I went to Madrid, I realized that everybody looks like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. I mean, everybody! Look at Fellini movies. Go to Rome. People look like that! So in a way, it’s not a big exaggeration. You’re reflecting what you grew up in and the local color of the city that you grew up in—if you’re lucky enough to have any left.
Paste: Yeah, if it can be found. I think these things just get generated and people either choose to ignore them or go out to find it. For some people, it’s like they’re afraid of it or turned off by it. I don’t really understand that myself.
Waters: Just like I am afraid of romantic comedies.
Paste: Why are you afraid of romantic comedies?
Waters: They are horrible and predictable.
Paste: Yeah. Nobody really runs into each other like they do in the movies; like there’s a meet-cute or something. I’ve never seen that happen.
Waters: I guarantee you it will end badly.
Paste: How do you mean?
Waters: Romance is now done in a “romantic” way because people over a certain age think that’s how love should be. Love is only like that in Hollywood movies. That’s very melodramatic.
Paste: I like Moonstruck for that reason. Nic Cage has that great speech about how love is a destructive. It kind of pops out of nowhere and it’s a problem. It’s never easy.
Waters: Being in love is a hard job.
Paste: Your stuff holds up so well. I see a lot of people try to make things that are shocking—it seems that a lot of people are really bad at it.
Waters: Right now, Hollywood makes hundred-million-dollar gross-out comedies that are not one bit funny, so I think that’s an issue. If you’re just trying to try shock people, that’s easy. It’s not funny. You have to use that kind of material to change how people think about things, and look at different things in a new way—and then it can be good. But just grossing them out is easy to do, and it’s not so entertaining anymore.
Paste: What’s shocking, then?
Waters: (with great emphasis) The President! The President is shocking! What’s shocking? So many things. You pick up the newspaper every day, and it’s shocking. But that’s not a good shock.
Paste: People keep describing you as “camp,” but I don’t think “camp” is a real thing. I think it’s a word that people make up to describe things they can’t categorize.
Waters: I haven’t used that word since talking about Rita Hayworth in an antique shop with a Tiffany lampshade with several older gay gentlemen. It’s not a word anybody uses anymore.
Paste: Thank you!
Waters: It’s not a word anybody uses. … Then the word became “trash.” People use so many words for the same thing. “Camp” is the word they used, but I don’t know anyone who says that word out loud.
Paste: I’ll give you an example. I watched Batman, the old ’60s Batman show. When I saw this as a kid, I didn’t think it was supposed to be a satire. I just took it for real. … It never occurred to me take it tongue-in-cheek.
Waters: That’s true. That’s the thing we did in my films. Like the Russ Meyer [exploitation] movies. The audiences wanted to see those movies. They thought that they were sexy. They thought that they were scary. They didn’t think they were funny; they didn’t think they were “so bad they were good.” People were jerking off to those movies, not laughing. That’s the difference. My work was satirizing the genre. The genre got popular not for any irony reasons, but because they went further than other movies to offer audience something that people wanted to see, that Hollywood wasn’t giving them.
Paste: I want to talk to you for a second about The Wizard of Oz … There’s something about that movie. You mentioned the Wicked Witch in one of your interviews. What is it about that character? There’s something really ancient and powerful in that film … It feels like it’s older than the film it’s made on. Like we just discovered it. ...
Waters: Well, the Wicked Witch was great! I wanted to run off with her, and not go back to that smelly farm. She had that green skin. That’s why I hated that musical Wicked because they made my childhood heroine an ingénue. They made her pretty—don’t make her pretty and make her sing power ballads! … She was dropping houses on people! My name is Waters, so I would hate it if water melted me. Basically, I love the idea that she can only die if water got on her. And she wore a beautiful outfit.
Paste: The other thing that’s weird about it is that Dorothy doesn’t know she’s killing her; she was just throwing it on the scarecrow, not on the witch.
Waters: Because of the fire.
Paste: Yeah, that’s right. Which is still pretty damn scary.
Waters: Well, they were already heroin addicts from walking through that poppy field, too. They’re jonesing.
Paste: Yeah that Wizard’s up to something, too. He is spooky or suspicious even before you know he’s a fraud.
Waters: Well, he was just smoke and mirrors. I got an honorary degree this year from the university and I felt a little bit like the scarecrow, when they gave him the brain and the certificate and everything. It’s kind of the same.
Paste: Let’s return to Serial Mom. … What else is new on the DVD release?
Waters: Every extra that was on every different release before are gathered together. And [there’s] a long conversation that Mink [Stole], Kathleen and I had about the making of the movie—we shot [it] really about a month ago. So that’s the new part, and the fact it’s a beautiful Blu-ray version that’s never been out before.
Paste: What’s it like getting back together with Mink?
Waters: Oh, Mink and I are great friends. Mink’s been in all my movies. As for Kathleen, I’ve seen her in many plays since—I’ve stayed in touch with both of them—but we haven’t been together to talk about the movie ever, essentially. When you get back together with people you made movies with, you don’t sit around and talk about that so much. You talk about whatever your lives are like at the time. Serial Mom, when it came out, was not a success at the box office at least. But nowadays it’s appreciated way more, and I love the fact that it almost alway plays on the television on Mother’s Day.
Paste: When Shawshank Redemption came out … It got beat that year by Forrest Gump or something, but now it’s considered one of the all-time greats.
Waters: Let me tell you, when I went to jury duty in Baltimore, they would show Shawshank to the jury! I thought it was a pretty odd choice for a jury movie.
Paste: They showed you Shawshank before ….
(The writer from Paste magazine guffaws with excessive vigor, interrupting the interview for several seconds.)
Paste: If you came into … I hesitate to use the word “industry” because I don’t know if it’s an industry anymore. But if you came into the biz today as a young person, do you think you’d end up in the same place? Would you be doing the same stuff as before?
Waters: Well, today, the difference would be: when I started, there was no video, there was no internet. So basically today my film, if I’d done it in college, it would probably open in eight theaters for a regular run on a Friday night, and if it didn’t do well it would be out the same weekend. When Pink Flamingos came out, it opened in each city over a two-year period. It would spread: it would go one night, then two nights, then three nights. It took almost three years to open everywhere around the country, and we had the luxury of time to do that. That would be completely impossible today to do. What would happen is you could open right away in a real movie theater and it would either die or not. That’s the way all art movies happen today.
Paste: In some ways, it’s easier because the tools are accessible to everybody.
Waters: Well, they’re looking for it. The studios are looking for the next weirdo movie that somebody’s going to make somewhere. They’re falling over themselves looking for that. They were most definitely not looking for that when I did it.
Jason Rhode is a Paste staff writer from West Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.