JOHN WATERS was born in the Lutherville suburb of Baltimore in 1946 and became famous in the 1970s for flouting Hollywood’s rules and reveling in bad taste. In his 17 Oscar-free classic cult films, Waters has exploited as much entertainment as possible from lowbrow sexploitation and the provocative deviance of subcultural taboo. Today he is fully embraced as the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke, or simply the “filthiest man alive.” A figurehead for a particular type of misfit – angry, subversive, creative, and funny – Waters recognizes that the margins he and his crew relished living on are becoming narrower and the outra geousness they espoused more commonplace. “My father sold fireprotection equipment, and I sold shock, which is also a product,” he admits. But human nature will ensure that the bizarre continues to thrive, and Waters, who still spends most of his time in Baltimore, has been broadening his investigation, using art, writing, and show business to test the possibilities for good bad taste. This summer, Waters released his travelogue Carsick, an account of hitchhiking across America in 2012. It is a celebration of America’s weird and generous citizenry.
PETER RICHTER: I thought I’d be driving to your house in Baltimore. I didn’t know you also have a place in New York.
JOHN WATERS: And in San Francisco, too! I stay in Province town in the summer.
Three of my own. I rent the one in Provincetown. It will be my 50th summer there. I wrote most of my books there.
Is it a good place to write?
Didn’t Norman Mailer live there as well?
Yes, we were good friends. He lived a little further down the street. His son, Stephen Mailer, was in Cry-Baby (1990). He was the square – Johnny Depp’s adversary. I’m also very close with Michael Mailer and with John Buffalo Mailer, so I know the whole family. Norman sometimes came over for dinner. I liked him. We got along well.
Did he like your work?
He knew my films. I don’t know if he knew my photographs. I’ve had exhibitions in Provincetown, but Norman didn’t really follow the art scene, though his wife painted. I can’t recall him collecting any contemporary art. It was a work of art in itself that he of all people lived in one of the gayest places in the world.
Where else do you write?
I write wherever I find myself, Monday through Friday, always in the morning. I’m very strict with it. Every day from eight to eleven. I mostly make art in Baltimore, because my studio’s there, but my art is something that I create through writing. It’s usually something written, something conceptual. So writing is actually what I do. That’s what it can say on my tax returns. I write my films, my spokenword acts, my art, and obviously my books. They’re just different ways of telling stories.
Why from eight to eleven?
Because I’m very organized. I’m the most easily kidnapable person I know. My routines are the same, everyday, down to the second, at least from Monday to Friday. I wake up at six, read five newspapers – not the editorials, because I have my own opinions. Then I go to my writing room. The people who work for me come around ten. We have a meet ing at noon. In the afternoon I take care of business affairs. Basically I think up fucked-up shit in the morning and I sell it in the afternoon. Monday through Friday. I go out drinking on Friday nights. I’m so meticulous that I even time in my hangover on Saturday. The true adventure for me when I tramped across the country was to give up control of my daily routine. I had to be spontaneous all of a sudden.
Hitchhiking through America was for your recent project. Is the book you’re writing about it done?
It’s finished – it comes out in July.
How was it?
I wanted an adventure, and I got one. I hitchhiked from my home in Baltimore to my apartment in San Francisco. It took nine days and 21 hours. Before I set out, I wrote down the 15 best rides I could imagine, and the 15 worst ones, including a death scenario. I couldn’t have imagined any of them after I actually did it, because once you’ve done it, you know what it’s like.
But how was it?
I can recommend it. I believe in the kindheartedness of people, and for me that belief was proven correct.
But nobody hitchhikes anymore!
I only saw one other hitchhiker the entire way, and I told the driver not to stop for him.
He didn’t look kindhearted?
He looked crazy. A kid once asked his dad, “What’s this guy doing in our car?” A lot of people thought I was homeless. Most people don’t even know what hitchhiking is anymore, but I definitely recommend it. People who hitch hike have mostly just gotten over something.
You recently showed some films in your exhibition at Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin. What kind of films work better in a gallery than in a cinema?
These films are technically atrocious, which works in the art world. Bad technique and film work really well as art, but not in commercial show business.
Do you generally like an “art” context more than the movies?
Well, I love the elitism of art. Art for the people is an awful idea. Only one person really has to like a piece for it to be called art. My work is basically about show business and the unhappiness that people feel every day when they wake up and have to face the fact that they’re not in show business. I don’t mean that in a smartass way. The people with the least amount of self esteem go into show business, because for the rest of our lives we’re asking strangers if we’re good or not. We always need reaffirmation. People with high self esteem don’t need that. I know the art world thinks celebrities are suspicious, and I make fun of myself for that, because I’m a celebrity.
Where else can film and art meet?
I think stills from a film are what you keep in your head. You don’t remember films. You remember certain images from films.
Then why do you make the effort to put other images before and after those? For example, in Pink Flamingos –
There it’s Divine with the pistol.
It isn’t when Divine eats dog shit?
Divine with the pistol! That’s the shot of the movie. The posed photo, taken on the set. It’s more memorable than the image in the film.
But all films are –
All films are too long. People should just take out the stills they like the best. Then you have a storyboard, and you somehow watch the film anyway.
Is that the reason you haven’t made one in ten years?
No, it’s because my last film didn’t make any money, so I can’t get any more for a new one. I’ve directed 17 films – some are even on TV. It’s not that I need to. I would. My last book was a bestseller in the U.S. It doesn’t matter how I tell stories. I still go to meetings for new film projects, but now they want films that can work in China. No more subtitles, just action and special effects. Or the lure of the Oscar. All films out now are squinting at an Oscar.
Have you ever thought about crowdfunding?
No no no! I’m not poor. To beg for money when you have it already would be dishonest. In the end I could sell my houses. I’m 67 years old, and as much as I loved Occupy Wall Street, I have three apartments. They’re definitely having the same fun that I had when I went to riots in the 1960s. I had a ton of fun back then, and they’ll have their fun today, and then they’ll have a few houses, too. I’m definitely for all of that, but you can’t be an anarchist with three houses. If I were young, I’d want Bitcoin gift cards. If I were young, maybe I’d be a hacker. They sit in their parents’ houses all day and take down governments.
If Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby were a hacker, he wouldn’t look as good as he did as a rocker.
His posture would be appalling. But then again, Obama should have had Julian Assange build HealthCare.gov – it would have worked then. Let the hackers do it!
But what will happen to your “bad taste”? That requires a sense of taste – something hackers aren’t really known for.
Not true, they have taste. They should put all the Republicans’ porno collections online. With titles. That would be splendid.
How do you define bad taste today?
Reality TV is true bad taste. Looking down on some one’s circumstance and making fun of them. That is really bad taste. Good bad taste? I think Johnny Knoxville is excellent bad taste.
Johnny Knoxville made the impression that he was in good hands in your film about peculiar sexual fetishes, A Dirty Shame (2004).
He loved it. He’s the only straight man I know who’s into the bear movement – brawny gay men who like to cuddle. He always says the only thing he wants is to someday be on the cover of American Bear, but they won’t let him. He isn’t hairy enough.
I imagine there are a lot of them around Norman Mailer’s house in Provincetown.
Oh yes. And I mean, they’ve always been chubby, but now sometimes they’re 400 pound dudes.
“Basically I think up fucked-up shit in the morning and I sell it in the afternoon.”
At least they’re turning the obesity epidemic in America into a sexual fetish.
You call them chubby chasers. Then there are feeders. Feeders are S/M chubby chasers who feed their partners in order to fatten them up. They shove a funnel in their mouths and pump in cheesecake until they can’t move any more. That’s the other side of it.
How do people react when you say stuff like that abroad?
Oh God, I was in Berlin so many times when the Wall was still up. It was amazing, just punks, gays, and old Nazis. Back then there were clubs like Dschungel, places that opened at four in the morning and just had this kind of emergency room lighting. I don’t need to tell anyone in Berlin how the most fucked-up people tick. They have their own history as one of the most fucked-up places in the whole world. I can tell them how to be a happy neurotic.
Is it convenient that the haut gout of fucked-upness, happy neurosis, and so on are, for the most part, aesthetic common sense these days?
My career is based on trashing, which wouldn’t work today. It worked in the 60s, when it was still “us against them” and the critics were bourgeois establishment. They took the bait. Today all the critics are hip.
Do you miss that establishment?
You can’t go back. Everyone is hip these days. That’s why I don’t want to be an “outsider” anymore.
Is anyone even an outsider these days?
No. Everyone thinks they’re an outsider, even Obama! People never used to want to be called that – it was an insult. Now it’s backwards, so I don’t want to be an outsider anymore.
It’s always about hierarchies? Outsiders against insiders. Underground against high art.
It’s always the middle that’s troubling. At least for me it is.
What happened to the people that you used to call “in”? The quarterbacks and the prom queens in high school?
I talk about them on my tour. They start going downhill the day they graduate.
They become outsiders?
Worse! They’re not even that. I don’t go to my high school reunions, but someone who went told me that the former alpha male of the class noted his interests as follows: taking care of things around the house. That was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Interview by PETER RICHTER
Photography by HEJI SHIN