The last time I spoke with John Waters was nearly eight years ago, a time of transition for the filmmaker, pop-culture commentator and connoisseur of all things tacky. Back at the dawn of the millennium, Waters had graduated to making movies with significantly bigger budgets and big-name stars, but didn't seem quite sure how to make it all jibe with his rep as underground cinema's Sultan of Sleaze.
The director still seemed stung by what he perceived as his fans' rejection of Cry Baby for not being "crazy enough" and even vowed during our 2000 phone chat that "I never want to make a movie again that isn't R rated."
Today, Waters' mega-successful Hairspray is the toast of Broadway; Cry Baby will be likewise reborn on Broadway amidst great expectations on April 24, and the director now informs me (by phone from his new Northern California digs) that his upcoming film, Fruit Cake, is a "terribly wonderful children's Christmas adventure." Fruit Cake will begin shooting this winter, and Waters thinks it will probably wind up being rated PG-13, albeit a "very hard PG-13."
In a nutshell, 2008 appears to be a very good time to be John Waters, although you'd have to look hard to recognize the straggly-haired kid who, along with a few of his Baltimore pals, made a cheeky little 16mm flick called Pink Flamingos some 30 years ago and introduced the world to the term "midnight movie." Waters has not only made his peace with being a marketable commodity, he has fun with it these days, touring the country with his one-man-show This Filthy World, which he'll bring to the Salvador Dalí Museum on Sat., April 26.
Despite some distracting crackling and other odd noises erupting over the just-installed phone lines in his brand new home, Waters was in good spirits and fine form when I called to check in.
Creative Loafing: So how's the 21st century treating you?
Waters: Great. You never know what's going to happen in your career.
The last time we spoke, back in 2000, you seemed pretty proud of the fact that you had never in your life touched a computer. Are you still computer-phobic?
Oh, I'm on Blackberrys all day long, every day, and all the things I used to make fun of I completely do. It'd be stupid not to. It was almost like those people that didn't want to see talkies or people that didn't learn the new way to edit movies. You had to learn. You had no choice.
And reality TV? You watching lots of that, too?
I live in Baltimore. Why would I want to see a reality TV show? I experience that every day. I don't need to watch television.
What about the new century's other big innovation? What's your take on Saw and Hostel and the whole torture porn phenomenon?
I'm not really a fan. I used to love horror movies when there were limits and things you couldn't do. And then it got to the point where it was all satires of horror movies, and then the satires became so popular you couldn't do a serious horror movie. The only way you could do it was to eventually go back to really frightening, cruel horror movies. So I'm not against it — I think it's an interesting thing that the horror film will always be remade — but it's not my main thing. Basically, I'm an art film hag. I like films that change how I think about something and that surprise me.
Some people argue that torture porn is so extreme that it's genuinely subversive. Are you saying that being shocking will really only get you so far?
Well, after Pink Flamingos, I never tried to top that. And if I had, you wouldn't be calling me.
So is it still possible to be subversive in 2008?
Oh yeah. That movie Tarnation was a great underground movie. And I think Todd Solondz makes brilliant, subversive movies, way more than I could ever do. But really, it's just not a great time now for independent film. There used to be 20 places to go pitch your movie. There's three now. Even New Line went out of business, and all the companies have bought each other. Thank God for Juno and Little Miss Sunshine — no matter what you think of those movies, if we didn't have them none of us would ever be able to get our films made. It's not easy.
Yikes. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?
Well, it's easier in that you can live in the tiniest town in Idaho and because of Netflix you can see every art movie that ever played in New York all year. So you can see way more movies now than you ever could before, but it's harder to see them in a theater. A lot of people don't seem to mind that, but I do.
By the way, in our last phone conversation you mentioned being proud of never having seen The Birdcage, the Hollywood remake of La Cage aux Folles, with Robin Williams. In light of Hairspray's snowballing popularity, with and without John Travolta, are you still "against family-friendly drag queens."
I stand by that. In Birdcage, it's a man playing a gay man. In Hairspray, it is a man playing a frumpy woman. I don't think it's a drag role, actually. I'm still leery of any gay-friendly family material. I like gay people to be outlaws. I know that's a thing of the past, but there are no gay parts in Hairspray. I mean, sometimes that role is played by a gay man, but not always. It's like how a woman always plays Peter Pan — it's just to give it a weird little edge. By the way, Beaver Cleaver was in the Broadway production [of Hairspray], and to see Jerry Mathers dancing with a man in drag — because of me — was really a happy experience. Anything can happen in America.
You're appearing at the Salvador Dalí Museum this week. Are art museums a typical venue for your one-man shows?
I've done them mostly in colleges, but I've played comedy clubs, I've done many punk rock clubs, I even opened for William Burroughs when I was very young, when he had a spoken-word act. I test jokes; I see what works and what doesn't work. It's like a test screening.
But you do these shows like 20 or 30 times a year. How do you keep it all fresh?
If someone laughs, it's fresh for me. It's the same way when you do a Broadway musical. There are people who've been in long-running plays for five years and you can't tell the difference in their enthusiasm from the day it opened. That's called just being a pro.
You're also judging the museum's Dalí look-alike contest. Isn't that a contest that you yourself should win?
No, I don't have Dali's mustache. I'll stick with my own look. But it's fascinating to read about Dalí. You know, he only masturbated. He was obsessed with masturbation. I'm wondering if any of the look-a-like contestants will carry it that far.
That would certainly be in keeping with the spirit of Dalí the provocateur.
Well, all great art makes you angry at first, and then you love it. I think it should make you angry — that's the job of contemporary art. Next to my bed is a Mike Kelly piece that looks like devil-writing by a Satanist with a lisp: "Thay you love Thatan!" It usually makes people laugh in my bedroom — which at 60 is the only way you can get people to sleep with you. Make 'em laugh.
Will there be a lot of laughing going on at the Dalí Museum this week? Who do you expect to see in the audience at your show?
I think anybody who has a good sense of humor about themselves and can laugh about the worst thing that ever happened to them. You're my audience. My audience is minorities that don't even fit in their own minority.