Cult filmmaker and ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters is returning to Australia to promote his book Mr Know-It-All and perform his spoken word show, Make Trouble. Kristian Fletcher – perhaps his biggest and most knowledgable Australian fan – interviewed Waters for the Star Observer.
The man behind such movies as Hairspray, Cry Baby and Pink Flamingos, John Waters has been a purveyor of bad taste since the late 1960s. His films can be both shocking and soaked in biting social commentary.
Waters has long believed you must have good taste in order to appreciate bad taste. “My fans are smart,” he says.
Having toured Australia four times – most recently for his 2010/2011 This Filthy World Tour and with his own Sydney Opera House film program – John Waters is excited to return to our shores.
“I always have a good audience there – everyone has a great sense of humour in Australia,” he enthuses.
“I’m constantly rewriting my spoken word show. It deals with politics, crime, fashion, movies, and how you can cause trouble when you’re young and still triumph.”
The film career of John Waters can be broken into two distinct periods, with his early films showcasing his gang of Dreamlanders (gang of actor friends), headlined by the unforgettable female impersonator Divine.
Divine both shocked and entertained and could perhaps be responsible for changing the face of drag.
“If Divine were alive today he would want to have RuPaul’s job!” says Waters.
“I think Divine had something to do with making drag queens hip again; making them edgy. When I was younger, they all wanted to be beauty queens. Now they carry chainsaws and have really cool names.”
Waters’ Divine-led films were pushing boundaries in the early ’70s and became staples of the American midnight movie circuit.
One feels Waters tires of references to Pink Flamingos, however the 1972 trash film remains his most infamous and best remembered, thanks in part to a final scene in which Divine eats fresh dog faeces.
Looking back on his earlier work, Waters was really “just trying to make people laugh”.
“Sometimes my humour made the movies infamous but I was always trying to make a point – to get you to change your mind about something.
“It’s easy to be gross. I never try to be just shocking. After Pink Flamingos came out, I never tried to top that ending. I never tried to go further because that would be a trap I’d never get out of.”
In his recently released book Mr Know-It-All, Waters affectionately describes “failing upwards in Hollywood”.
“There were always people post-Pink Flamingos who thought I sold out, always trying to have a hit. I wasn’t really selling out because no one really bought me until later.”
By the late ’80s, his film budgets were somewhat bigger and the subject matter less controversial, but the films maintained their Waters edge.
Where once his Dreamlanders formed the ensemble cast in his earlier works, Waters was now filling the casts with ‘infamous’ names such as Patty Hearst and Traci Lords, and bringing newcomers Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake into the public eye.
Waters’ ’90s films Serial Mom and Cry Baby are spoken about by Waters with much enthusiasm, are now firm fan favourites from the director’s filmography (the latter even received an ill- fated stage adaptation after the success of Hairspray on Broadway).
“Cry Baby has found its place,” he says.
“More kids have come up to me and said they grew up watching that movie and I think it’s because of television.”
But should a John Waters film be experienced in a cinema?
“I think any way you want to watch my movies is fine. If someone wants to watch Multiple Maniacs on a cellphone it’s probably better – you don’t see all the mistakes!” he quips.
In the age of streaming and politic correctness, Waters’ films still pack a punch and attract new audiences that perhaps never experienced the films on first release (interestingly, none of Waters’ pre-1980 films have been released on DVD in this country).
His back catalogue is slowly being remastered on Blu-ray, ensuring another generation of fans are exposed to his works. Polyester will even include a Scratch ‘n’ Sniff card to replicate Waters’ Smell-O-Vision film gimmick from 1980.
Discussing the changes in the film industry, Waters speaks fondly of his 2000 film Cecil B Demented, which sees a group of renegade film-makers kidnap an actress and force her to appear in their underground film, all in an attempt to stamp out mainstream cinema.
In an era of streaming and multiplex movies, it was years ahead of its time.
“With the whole concept, it would be hard to get that film made today,” Waters opines.
“I agree that commercial cinema is taking over the world. Maybe we do need some activism by cinema radicals.
“The movies I made the most money from were the ones which did poorly [at the box office],” he adds.
His last film as director was in 2004 (A Dirty Shame) but he is yet to slow down, finding a second career as an author and touring his stand-up shows, all discussing his loves, loathes and outrageous film career.
And his plans for his upcoming Australian trip?
“I’m the opposite of a tourist! I’ve never seen a kangaroo in my life. I like going to the places most obscure.
“And I get to actually meet the fans which is really important.”
John Waters’ Make Trouble tour will include shows at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday, 15 October (tickets from sydneyoperahouse.com), Brisbane Powerhouse on Wednesday, 16 October (brisbanepowerhouse.org), Hamer Hall, Melbourne on Friday, 18 October (artscentremelbourne.com.au) and the Nolan Gallery Hobart MONA on Saturday, 19 October (mona.net.au).
Other events coinciding with the tour will include screenings of Pink Flamingos at Metro Arts, Brisbane (stickytickets.com.au) and Polyester in Odorama at the Pivotonian Cinema, Geelong as part of the Geelong Pride Film Festival (gpff.ferve.tickets).
Waters’ latest book, Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst, 207 Oxford St, Darlinghurst NSW, (02) 9331 1103, thebookshop.com.au. The Bookshop delivers around Australia and internationally, and will include a free copy of the latest Star Observer with your order on request, subject to availability.
Kristian Fletcher is a Brisbane-based movie exhibitor and event co-ordinator who presents the annual John Waters Fest in Brisbane each April. For more information, visit kristianfletcher.com.