It's been more than 30 years since writer-director John Waters and his friends first terrorized the streets and makeshift screening rooms of Baltimore with their underground assaults on decency and good taste. After pushing the boundaries of no-brow comedy with such crude early efforts as 1969's Mondo Trasho and 1970's Multiple Maniacs, Waters caused a sensation on the midnight circuit with 1972's Pink Flamingos, a triumph of gross-out one-upmanship. Ending with Divine's infamous topper, the film confirmed its eternal power to shock when it was reissued to theaters 25 years later. After Flamingos, Waters' cult status continued to swell with 1975's Female Trouble, 1977's Desperate Living, and 1981's Odorama-enhanced Polyester, but he would surprise audiences again with 1988's PG-rated hit Hairspray, a bright nostalgia piece about TV's early-'60s teen dance programs. During this period, he also found time to write his essential autobiography, Shock Value, and publish a collection of humorous essays titled Crackpot: The Obsessions Of John Waters. With Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, and Pecker, the '90s found a more sweet-natured (if still subversive) Waters making a smooth transition into major and minor studio projects, still thriving even as his brand of comedy was seeping into the mainstream. His latest, Cecil B. Demented, is a pointed satire about independent filmmaking that also serves as a heartfelt throwback to his own underground days. Melanie Griffith stars as a pampered Hollywood actress who is kidnapped by maniacal director Stephen Dorff and his ragtag crew and forced to play the lead role in a low-budget production intended to bring down the establishment. Waters recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about irony, filth, subversion, and censors.
The Onion: In some ways, Cecil B. Demented seems as close to autobiography as you've gotten yet.
John Waters: But that's what people said about Pecker. That's what they say about every movie, so I don't really agree with that statement. I get why you think that. Some of the things that happen in Cecil happened to us: We ran from the police, I didn't know how to ask permission to do anything, and I've used regular people on the street as extras and they didn't know it. But I didn't kill people, so that's certainly exaggerated. And Cecil is much more handsome than I was. Also, I had a much better sense of humor. Because he's a fascist, a real cult director—but like Waco, that kind of cult. [Laughs.]
O: But the film does hark back to your earlier work. What was your relationship to the underground during that period?
JW: I had no relationship, I just made the movies. In those days, early films like Mondo Trasho were never shown in New York, and that's really the only place underground films were at the time. It was totally a New York chauvinist thing. They didn't even look at my movies, because I was from Baltimore. Outside of Baltimore, the films played in San Francisco and Los Angeles way before New York. Nothing played there until Pink Flamingos became a hit. Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs had toured all over the United States before that. They didn't play widely, but there was a midnight underground circuit then. In those days, I didn't know any directors. And no one said my films were any good, either, except the hippie audience that were really punks and didn't know it yet. My audience was about a third gay, a third angry hippies, and a third bikers. Bikers loved my movies. They used to come to my sets and try to eat shit—after Pink Flamingos was made. We didn't even want them there! So it was an angry audience that hated peace and love and were sick of it. That was my core audience in the beginning, but no one said [my films] were good except for Fran Lebowitz in an interview, and she was a cab driver. The only other good review we got was from New York magazine, which called Pink Flamingos "beyond pornography." [Laughs.] So nobody was saying they were good, and they never played in real movie theaters, but the audience was rabid. Every person was on drugs in the audience, every person was on drugs in the movies themselves, and I was on drugs when I thought them up. And [the exhibitors] would put down sawdust on the floor because of all the puking.
O: I remember you saying that if a person throws up at one of your movies, it's akin to a standing ovation.
JW: Oh, sure, I would take credit for it. But they weren't puking because of the movie; they were puking because they were drunk.
O: Your films received a mixed reception in prison, didn't they?
JW: Yeah. Later, when I showed them in a class I taught at prison during the '80s, the reaction was racially divided. Oddly enough, when I showed Pink Flamingos to my class—and I had a good class, because the warden gave me the smartest and the worst, the smartest people who had done the worst crimes—and every black person left when Divine ate dog shit. They never came back, dropped the course. And every white person stayed. It was so weird.
O: Do you have any theories about that?
JW: I don't know to this day. "Fuckin' white people are crazy," that's all I can think of. [Laughs.] That's what they must have said. Later, when I taught in prison another time, I walked in and my class was all black Muslim, with the hat and everything. I didn't show Pink Flamingos, but we got along anyway. At first, it was tense, but then I made them do improv and pretend like they were on a plane that was crashing. After that, we got along all right.
O: How do you feel about your sort of low-brow humor crossing over into the mainstream?
JW: I don't feel any connection to it. I'm not against it—I like those movies—but I don't feel like I'm part of it. I get asked that question all the time, and I get why people ask it, but it's only made it easier to get my films made. It hasn't hurt me in any way. But I did those films so long ago, and I don't really do them anymore. I mean, I might include [low-brow humor], but that's not the reason I make the movies. I'm not in this contest, this Battle Of Filth. I won! [Laughs.] Now, they're all in the Battle Of Filth and they're duking it out. I've retired. I'm a filth elder. I'm the Henry Cabot Lodge of filth. I've long since retired, and had I tried to top myself, I would not be working and I wouldn't have for a long time. I don't think that many directors who started out making weird films in the '60s are still working, because you have to change. There are still kids who see my movies for the first time who want me to make Pink Flamingos over and over, but if I did, it wouldn't work. It would be too calculated. Pink Flamingos was made as a crime, almost. Nobody sent me head shots to make that movie. The guy with the singing asshole just came over and showed me. Incidentally, he went to the re-release 25 years later—he's like 50 years old—and he sat in the theater. When his scene came on, he would look over at the person next to him and whisper, "That's me." And people were shocked. It was like Candid Camera: It was terrorism all over again. People would be really uptight, because what could you say when you're sitting there in the theater and the guy with the sphincter is right next to you? Movie manners. [Laughs.] And he just did it on his own, which I thought was really a good star appearance.
O: Considering the extreme material that people are willing to accept as mainstream entertainment, what surprised me about the Pink Flamingos re-release is that it still has the power to repulse people.
JW: Yeah, it does, because it's real. The chicken got fucked and we ate it. Divine really eats dog shit. I mean, no one really shot a load into Cameron Diaz's hair. That's different, plain and simple.
O: Did you enjoy carting it out again for critics and the ratings board to revisit?
JW: Well, no, because I was afraid they would take it out on me with Cecil B. Demented. [Laughs.] I enjoyed the fact that it was the number-two best-selling video in the country. Number one was Jerry Maguire and number three was The Rock. How could that be? Blockbuster won't even carry it, so I don't know how that happened. In L.A., in certain neighborhoods, it was in supermarket checkout lines. I loved that. So I'm proud of the fact that when it came out again, a new audience showed up that hadn't been exposed to it before. And it didn't mellow. It got worse in a way, because of political correctness. It scared people, because it was so badly made that it looks like a documentary. It looks like Blair Witch. I think Rex Reed said it best, about Female Trouble, when he said, "Who are these people? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn't there a law or something?" People thought that was real. They thought we were those characters. I mean, we were pretty scary, I suppose, but not harmful. Eating the shit was nothing, really. It was worse when Divine had to shit in a box, gift-wrap it, and bring it to the set the next day. When I think back on it, that's much weirder. "Hey, could you shit in a box for me?" was said about as casually as, "Learn your lines." [Laughs.]
O: What were your experiences with the Maryland Censor Board like?
JW: We had a lot of trouble with the woman from the censor board. She hates us to this day. I mean, she was my best press agent, but I hated her. She would actually hand me a pair of scissors, which is something I can laugh about now, but it wasn't funny to me at the time. She couldn't cut the dialogue, but she would make suggestions like "rear entry." And I put that in [Cecil B. Demented]; that's the name of Alicia Witt's porno movie. Rear entry? I had never heard it said that way in my life. [Laughs.] And she would also say, "Don't tell me about sex. I was married to an Italian!" I mean, what do you say to that? She said, "You can't show that vagina!" and I'd say, "That's a man." And she really wanted to cut that dog doo-doo. It made her so mad, because there were no laws. She couldn't find a law that said you couldn't eat shit. There's still no law, though people have horrified me over the years by coming up to me and saying, "Man, your movie turned me on." [Laughs.] I wasn't counting on that.
O: Do you get frightened of your fans sometimes? I remember a story about you having to sign a used tampon.
JW: Oh, yeah. I've signed tampons. I signed a colostomy bag. This girl tattooed my autograph on her, which is how I got the idea to put them in this movie. [The crew members in Cecil B. Demented each have tattoos of notable directors. —ed.] But, no, I'm not really scared of them. They're great, my fans. They're really loyal and they send me great presents. Every year, I have to do an article about things I want for Christmas, and I always get them. Things that aren't expensive but are hard to find, like collectible things you can find in a thrift shop. Really good stuff.
O: Other than the Odorama cards [scratch-and-sniff cards for strange odors in Polyester], have you been able to pull off any large-scale William Castle gimmicks?
JW: Well, eating shit is a gimmick. I think Tab Hunter, in a way, is a gimmick, to have him with Divine [in Polyester]. Stars are gimmicks, aren't they? Odorama was a joke that worked, but I don't think I'd do anything like it again. They were expensive, too. And then it got politically correct: They wouldn't let me do "sniffing glue," so they reprinted them. And nobody paid us for them, either. Imagine collecting on your Odorama bill. It's hard enough to get rentals from independent theaters. "Hmm… What should I pay, my gas bill or my Odorama bill?" What am I going to say? "You'll never get Odorama again!" There was absolutely nothing we could do about it.
O: What have you seen lately?
JW: I don't go to a lot of these movies during the summer, and I haven't been to New York lately, which is where they have most of what I'd want to see. I like the art movies. It's one of my guilty pleasures.
O: There seems to be a perception that your tastes are exclusively cultish, which isn't necessarily true.
JW: No. I liked Magnolia, which was my favorite movie of last year. Happiness and Magnolia are two from the last couple years that I really, really liked. I liked Rosetta a lot. Something about an ugly girl who lives in a trailer with her alcoholic mother and can't get a job… That's my kind of movie! [Laughs.] I love a feel-bad movie. That's what I like best. A minimalist, foreign, low-budget, feel-bad movie.
O: What was your experience on The Simpsons like?
JW: It was great. You do a table reading with the whole cast and then you're all behind microphones, sort of like The Fred Waring Show. You do a page or two at a time, in order. It took a day and I loved it. And The Simpsons is a great, radical show. That there could be a show for the whole family, at that hour, about that… This never could have happened when I was in grade school. It's a subversive show in the best sense, because parents don't realize what their kids are watching. It's like a sneak attack.
O: Was it strange for you to climb up the Palais steps [at the Cannes Film Festival] this year?
JW: I've actually walked up those steps many times now, with the photographers all heckling you to turn in their direction. But my favorite thing about this year is that Melanie [Griffith] had this new tattoo that said "Antonio," so she kept turning around and showing her ass with this thing. And I kept saying, "Turn around. Every time you show your ass, they get my bald head, so could you please do frontal shots only?" That's what I remember. Cannes has always been wonderful for me. When Polyester showed, the crowds broke down the door and shattered glass to get in and see it. Two of my films, Polyester and Hairspray, were financed there. Pecker was financed there on a napkin. A lot of good things have happened to me there.
O: You seemed very amused to be on the stage giving out an award at the closing ceremonies.
JW: Oh, yeah, it's hilarious! It's a long way from Baltimore to giving the Best Director Award at the French Oscars. How can I not have fun doing that? What do I have to complain about? It was a great moment, without any irony. I was honored to be there.
O: In Pecker, there's a key point in which a character calls for the death of irony. Do you have any struggles with it?
JW: Not really, because that's my trade. I'm an irony dealer. I mean, that was an ironic statement. Irony is what I deal in from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. I am weary of it, though. To me, irony is snobbery in a way. There's no irony in Bangladesh. What so-bad-it's-good if you're hungry? [Laughs.] But Baltimore is very unironic, and they're not impressed with anything. People who like irony are impressed. People who don't could give a shit. They don't care if you like them, and they're not "with it"… With what? They think you're an asshole! I like to be around people like that sometimes. I don't want to be around witty people all the time. I know enough of them.
O: So, this ends up being the New York vs. Baltimore problem?
JW: Yes. I live in both for that exact reason. I'll ask myself, "What do I feel like doing this weekend? Do I feel like going to a redneck biker bar in Baltimore that I love, that totally accepts me, and where anyone else who went there would get beat up? Or do I want to go to an art opening in New York?" I love doing that, too. It's just a train ride. And I never go in the middle. That's my success, because I never have to be in the middle. I never have to be around assholes. The middle is people who want to be just like everyone else, and I've never understood that, even when I was three years old. I was never interested in what the other kids were doing, but I never felt bad about it, either. It wasn't until I started reading and found books they wouldn't let us read in school that I discovered you could be insane and happy and have a good life without being like everybody else. I don't begrudge people who are "normal" like that. I like my family. I like kids. I like my nieces and nephew, though I have no desire to have a kid myself. I have no desire to be married or join the Army or anything like that. I'm not one bit like everybody else. And proud of it! [Laughs.]
O: Were you disappointed with the way Randall Kleiser's career turned out? [Waters wrote about Kleiser, director of Grease and The Blue Lagoon, in his book Crackpot: The Obsessions Of John Waters. —ed.]
JW: No, not at all. He told me recently that he was going to do another movie along the lines of Summer Lovers or The Blue Lagoon. He's doing nude teenagers again, which makes me happy.
O: The problem now is that there are plenty of teenage movies…
JW: But they're not nude. They should be nude. What's the point? Why would you want to see teenagers unless they're nude? And stupid. I like stupid, nude teenagers. Randall likes rich, stupid, nude teenagers. I like them poor. There's this new show on The WB called The Young Americans, which is very Randall Kleiser-ish. Only they should be nuder.
O: For a while, it didn't look like Cecil B. Demented would ever get made.
JW: No, it got developed for a French company, and it fell through because they wanted a different cast that wasn't available at the time. Ultimately, it didn't work out. So I struck a deal for Pecker and got that made right away. Then I went back to Cecil and it happened quickly with a different French company and a new cast.
O: Was Melanie Griffith a good sport about everything?
JW: Certainly she was. Did you see the Larry Clark film she made before this one [Another Day In Paradise, in which Griffith plays a heroin addict]? I saw that, and I thought she might do it. She was an A-list star, but in that film, she allowed herself to be very different from the usual ingenue. Plus, she did shoot up in her vagina. It wasn't hers, I guess, but they did have an insert shot of it. And they also had a scene with her shooting up a vein in her neck. [Laughs.] And in the middle of doing [Cecil], she had to go do Revlon shoots, looking hardly like the Revlon girl.
O: What's next for you?
JW: I'm writing this movie about sex addicts, because I haven't had one with any sexual themes in a long time. I like it, because all sex looks surreal. Anyway, it's about sex addicts in blue-collar America called A Dirty Shame, which is something people's parents say a lot in Baltimore. If they hear about something bad, they'll mutter, "Well, that's a dirty shame." And I like that expression, because it's really old-fashioned. People would say, like, "Do you know so-and-so? It's a dirty shame." "She's a whore." [Laughs.]