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John Waters: The Gambit interview 

click to enlarge PHOTO © GREG GORMAN
  • PHOTO © GREG GORMAN

Four years ago, filmmaker John Waters was asked to write an appreciation of Tennessee Williams as a foreword to a new book about the playwright. That essay grew into Waters' latest project, a book titled Role Models — about the people who have shaped the director's life, from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to the strippers and bar owners of his native Baltimore. "Tennessee Williams saved my life," Waters writes ... and then goes on to describe how, as a 12-year-old in the 1950s, he stole a collection of Williams short stories out of the "adult" section of his local public library.

GAMBIT: Kids steal books, but you have to be the only boy in history who stole a Tennessee Williams book.

JOHN WATERS: From the library! But if they let me read it I wouldn't have stolen it. When I come to New Orleans, one of the first places I go is a bookshop on Pirate's Alley (Faulkner House) that's a shrine to Tennessee Williams. He was the first person I ever read that let me believe I didn't have to be like they were telling me I had to be, and there were people who didn't fit in — and didn't want to fit in! That was more important. He gave me that freedom as a child early to realize that.

G: Tennessee was on the downswing when he died in 1983. Do you think he would have had a renaissance?

JW: I don't know. Would he have had a renaissance? Would he have had a facelift? There's a lot of horrible stuff that could've happened. Edward Albee certainly, later in life, had a complete turnaround. You don't know what would've happened. Could Tennessee Williams be successful if he was sober forever? That's a harrowing question.

G: You attended the Tennessee Williams festival in New Orleans a few years back. Did you get to meet Dakin Williams (Tennessee's brother)?

JW: I didn't. But it was amazing to see all these Tennessee Williams lookalikes walkin' around (laughs). I had a good time, but it was bizarre!

G: Did you get to meet any other Tennessee Williams obsessives?

JW: I met a lot of 'em! Are you kidding? It was like a cult gathering — the People's Temple of Tennessee Williams addicts!

G: Was Tennessee the reason you moved to New Orleans in the early 1970s?

JW: Certainly I thought about it. I wrote in my new book about how much more fun it is to ride on the bus named Desire. It was my Christmas card one year. My friend was at the next stop and got a picture of me getting off. It's still amazing to me when I see the bus named Desire. But when I was there, the streetcar was still there.

  I lived on Rampart Street right across from that Schmegmann's [sic] market, and it still looks exactly the same. I would hear 24 hours, all night long, "Mrs. So-and-So, your groceries are ready on Aisle 3," and it was like a nightmare. I lived there with Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills — he played Crackers in Pink Flamingos and she was a topless go-go girl, and we stole drinks from people in bars. I don't know why we didn't get mononucleosis, 'cause we would go from bar to bar lifting people's drinks when they weren't looking.

  When I was living in New Orleans, I was the poorest I ever was in my entire life. I went to Buster Holmes every night and had beans and rice for 30 cents and I remember how absolutely delicious they were. I had made Pink Flamingos; I had shown it in Baltimore and gotten a distributor, New Line Cinema, but they held it for almost a year and a half. So I didn't have a penny. Finally I heard it was opening in New York, so I jumped in my car and drove to New York. And my life changed.

G: If you lived at Rampart and Elysian Fields, you lived about half a block from (A Confederacy of Dunces author) John Kennedy Toole's mother (Thelma Ducoing). Did you know that?

JW: No! I didn't know that! Oh, my God! And of course I love that book — it's still the first book I send to anyone I know who gets sentenced to prison. 'Cause it'll make you laugh, and nobody feels much like laughing when you just started serving a prison sentence. It's a tradition.

G: You once said you were interested in directing the film version, but that project seems kinda snakebit.

JW: It'll never happen. How can a movie ever live up to that book? So many people have tried to do it — when I tried to do it, it was when Divine was alive, and we wanted him to play the main part (Ignatius Reilly). Some of the top directors in the world have tried to make that movie, and I don't know if it'll ever happen. Maybe it shouldn't.

G: New Orleans, like Baltimore, is a port city with distinct neighborhoods and a lot of characters. Do the two remind you of each other?

JW: No, I think they're very different, because New Orleans doesn't even participate in the United States. It's really outside of all culture. It's about music, and drinking, and now there's good art there, too. I have a great time there, but it doesn't remind me of any other city, and I don't think it would be flattered to be compared to anybody else. My favorite neighborhood is — what's it called? It's that little island with so many trailers on stilts — it's where all the hustlers live (laughs). It's kind of isolated, but it was really flooded. It's the first place I ever saw trailer parks on stilts. That was fascinating to me. But (New Orleans) is like no other place in the world; it's so eccentric it's like it's turned on itself and become a parody turned back into reality, which is good — an exaggeration of oneself.

G: You were in a movie shot down here: Blood Feast 2, which was filmed in Abita Springs. Did the people there know what kind of movie was being filmed?

JW: I was just there for three days, so I was never in the real community there. The most outrageous thing that happened to me — there was a film where someone pretended to be me that was shooting in New Orleans. ... Someone came to New Orleans, said they were making another movie about teen dancers, said they were me, and nobody questioned it. Even the film board at the time dealt with them! I finally blew the whistle. People were mortified. The papers had covered it. And the guy went to jail, and wrote me a letter which I never answered. It was astounding to me. I'm pretty identifiable.

G: We're becoming "Hollywood South" down here, with these huge tax credits —

JW: You're stealing everything! That's why I can't get a movie made, because of you!

G: Any advice for people who find their neighborhood has become a backlot?

JW: They do get grumpy. I don't have any advice, because when someone wants to film in your house, it is the worst possible thing they could possibly ask you. Just know your state is making no one else be able to film movies anywhere else in the country. You and Michigan. Because of your state, I can't get a movie made now. And there's only one thing I hate about your city: the weather. I hate hot weather. So I would die if I lived there.

G: You write (in Role Models) that it's tough to go out in Baltimore because a lot of your favorite bars are gone. Do you think irony and hipster culture have taken a toll on America?

JW: There's still bars in Baltimore, I can promise you. But hipsters don't go to those bars. They'd get beat up! Well, it depends: if you come with me you won't get beat up. But what happens is when hipsters — or liberals, which is even worse — come in and smirk at people. Or think they're better. Or make fun of the people, or look down to them; I never look down to them, I look up to them. So the worst thing you could do if I ever took you barhopping is to look and laugh in any kind of way, because I don't go there to laugh — I go there to marvel.

G: My favorite chapter in Role Models was the one about "real people": Zorro the stripper and Miss Esther the bar owner.

JW: Playboy is printing that chapter. Just think about it. A gay man writing a tribute to a bald lesbian mother in a heterosexual magazine. I think it's fair. And Zorro would be thrilled to be in Playboy. Finally!

G: You got more than you expected with Little Richard.

JW: That was in the '80s — that was a long time ago! But I don't know he's changed, from what I read. He's in two worlds: show business and rock and roll and the religious world. Sometimes that is problematic.

G: You haven't run into him since?

JW: No! Where would I run into Little Richard? I don't think Little Richard participates in real life.

G: Are there any role models whom you haven't met, or who won't meet with you?

JW: Most are dead. But I've certainly met a lot of them, and I talk about many of them in the book. ... They're usually effete homosexuals (laughs). Let's see; I've met (porn star) Jeff Stryker. There aren't any new porn stars I want to meet. I'm friends with Jeff. And my favorite go-go boy in the entire world is in New Orleans, named Chris, at the Corner Pocket. He's also known as Bulldog. And he's the best one in the whole world, so I always like to see him.

G: One of the phrases from your movies — "teabagging" — has entered the political lexicon. I hear it on CNN, and I just read today that in the new biography of Barack Obama he actually uses that word.

JW: Did you know Rachel Maddow on MSNBC showed the entire scene from Pecker, and said "Republicans: This is teabagging" — and it even showed Martha Plimpton saying "No balls on foreheads!" And they cut back to the set and you could hear the entire crew laughing in the background. She showed it in prime time!

G: Are you proud of that?

JW: Yes! Certainly! It crossed over! But now the Republicans don't say that word any more. They changed it, because they know now.

G: What do you think of the Tea Party movement?

JW: Well, the day after the health care bill passed and Republicans were rioting and breaking windows, I thought, "That's what we should've been doing." I have to give them credit that they would get that mad because a poor person can now afford an operation! That's startling to me. Yet at the same time, they hate Obama exactly the same way we hated Bush.

G: Yes, except when Bush was elected, we said, "Well, we've got to accept this" —

JW: I never said that! I was the one who wanted to be out there settin' fires! I'm older, but I still like a riot! I used to go to riots like kids go to raves.

G: Last I read, you were trying to get a movie called Fruitcake off the ground, to no success.

JW: Yeah, and I don't think anyone I know in the film business can get a midpriced Hollywood movie off the ground any more. They either want you to make a movie for $500,000 or make a movie for $100 million that's going to have 12 sequels. I'm not whining — independent filmmaking goes through a lot of cycles — but right now, I think, is the worst cycle for independent films since I started. They liked Fruitcake; they paid me to write it, and I had a development deal. But New Line's gone, and there's about three companies now you can pitch to instead of 15 or 20.

G: Has the movie industry ruined itself in some ways? I don't really want to go to a mall and watch a really loud movie where people are texting and talking.

JW: It isn't to me, but I promise you, it is to most people. Go to an art theater — have you ever seen anybody under 50 in there? (laughs) Kids would rather watch movies on their iPhone. It's never gonna go back. So I don't whine about it — it's not better or worse — but it is changing so rapidly nobody can figure out how to make money with the new media, except the people who think up the technology. I've said what I want to invest in: Avatar-quality 3-D for home porn. That person will be rich.

G: Is America largely unshockable now?

JW: I'm shocked every day — shocked by the terrible movies, and the stupidity and the racism, but I haven't tried to shock anybody since the end of Pink Flamingos. If anybody tries to shock today, it's old hat, or people try too hard. I'm trying to surprise you with wit, and that's hard to do, but if I even do that once in a while then my goal has been done. What is shocking any more? I don't know. You can go online to these websites and see the most hideous people naked ... and it could be your aunt and uncle. It's hard to imagine Lenny Bruce once went to jail for saying f— when I was a teenager, and now you could look on Craigslist and see your next-door neighbor f—ing — for free! Pink Flamingos plays on television! On Sundance (Channel). Uncut!

G: For our younger readers: can you suggest some role models for the youth of today? Who should they be reading or studying?

JW: Oh, boy. If you really want to start a trend, you should horrify the people who are three years older than you. Not your parents. The people who are 21 when you're 15. That's the ones you should work to unglue their values. The music industry is where kids first do rebel — and I rebelled — but I just have youth spies to tell me about them. I give 'em poppers to pay 'em (laughs).

G: Coming full circle: Today, would you be flattered or pissed if a kid lifted a copy of Role Models from the library?

JW: Well, I hate to say it, because when someone shoplifts your book, you still get the money; the store doesn't. But it's true that if your book is one of the top shoplifted ones, they won't reorder it. It's not worth it. Shoplift the Bible. That's still the biggest shoplifted book, you know. So keep stealing the Bible, not mine — I worked for four years on it!

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