A director, screenwriter, author, actor, stand-up comedian, visual artist and journalist, John Waters is prolific in every sense of the word. In his 50+ year career, he has managed to appeal to both the underground and the mainstream with films like Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom and Cecil B. Demented. Meanwhile, two of his films — Hairspray and Cry-Baby — also hold the distinction of being adapted for Broadway; the former swept the Tony Awards in 2003.
Not one to rest on prior accomplishments, John is still hard at work on a variety of projects. On Dec. 6, he brings his recurring Christmas show — titled Holier & Dirtier this year — to City Winery; it hits Asbury Park’s House Of Independents the following night. Once that run of dates is over with, he will begin writing the first of two forthcoming books. I had the pleasure of talking to John by phone and was amazed by his candid nature.
However, I was further impressed by his “last words.” John is a rare original voice in the entertainment world, and he ought to serve as an inspiration to anyone looking to go the DIY route with their art.
How would you describe one of your Christmas shows to someone who’s never seen it?
John Waters: It’s called Holier & Dirtier. It’s all extremes of Christmas. It’s about religion, it’s about gifts, it’s about anguish, it’s about families, it’s about the anxiety that comes at Christmas. But I think I give you good advice, no matter how you feel about Christmas. So I think it’ll get you through the holidays, even if you’re terrorized by Christmas.
Do you remember where you did your first holiday show in New York City?
J: I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years. I have this other show called The Filthy World that I do all year. When Pink Flamingos came out, I would appear at theaters and talk for 15 minutes and interview Divine, so it kind of grew from that at the Elgin Cinema, The New Yorker, The Thalia, places like that when I did the college circuit. I did the first Christmas show at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
I know you went to NYU very briefly. Was that the first time you had been in New York City?
J: Oh god, no. I used to run away, come on the Trailways bus and hitchhike to New York so I could see all of the underground movies when I was in high school. I followed Jonas Negus’ column, I would see all the Film Makers Cooperative, all that kind of stuff. So no, I always came to New York. The first thing I ever wanted to be was a beatnik.
You’ve always been an East Coast guy, why is that?
J: [John initially corrects me, noting that he has a home in San Francisco, then I mention how everyone associates him with Baltimore.] I don’t know, yes, Baltimore is my home, but I’ve had an apartment in New York since 1990, and I’ve had an apartment in San Francisco for a long time. San Francisco was the first place where my movies caught on, way before New York. We all lived out there and Provincetown way before New York.
Speaking of movies, is there any chance that the movie Fruitcake [rumored to star Johnny Knoxville] may finally be happening?
J: No (laughs), there isn’t. I had a development deal for it, it fell through, and it never came back, and I don’t know that it ever will.
Do you have your eye on any movie projects at the moment?
J: I had one that just fell through, but I had a great development deal that paid me well. I hit the ground running after that, I just signed a two-book deal with a company to put out my next two books. So that’s my next couple of years.
I understand that one book will be non-fiction and one book will be fiction. When you have two books like that to work on, what is the creative process like?
J: They’re not going on at the same time. I write the non-fiction one first and then the fiction.
Is the release date for either book known yet?
J: No, I have a deadline, but this is the next four or five years. One book is due in two years, the one after that is two years, so basically, I have a very large homework assignment.
Has there been any interest in putting one of your movies into another theatrical setting? For example, Cecil B. DeMented hasn’t yet been adapted.
J: No, I haven’t had any offers. I think Cry-Baby, recently, even though it failed on Broadway, they just put out a soundtrack album. They finally got the cast recording out. I think there’s definitely a move to try and bring that back. I know they’ve said Serial Mom would make a good sit-com…so I think any of them, I’m happy for them to become TV shows. Maybe there’ll be Cecil B. DeMented On Ice, I don’t know. Try it every possible way. I rewrote Pink Flamingos as a kiddie film and had it in my last art show. I think they’re all begging to me remade and reinvented.
Being that you’ve so much success in so many different forms of media, do you look at anything in particular as your biggest accomplishment?
J: My biggest professional accomplishment is that I’ve had a 50-year career doing what I really wanted to do, and it was received well. I’m never around assholes, that is my biggest accomplishment, that I’ve been able to make my living doing what I love without ever having to get what most people think is a real job. My hours, I promise you, are longer than most people who have “real jobs,” longer than the hours they have.
A story that I’ve heard mentioned on podcasts is that you were penpals with a very young Fred Armisen. Is that true?
J: We were, yes. He wrote me and said, “How come you get sent to Europe and I get sent to school psychiatrist for doing the same thing?” I said, “Oh I used to get sent to the school psychiatrist and you will eventually get sent to Europe, too. Stick it out.” We’re still friends, he was at my Christmas party last year. We are friends, and it’s a great career he has, and he did write to me as a young boy.
When was it that you realized that penpal was the guy on Saturday Night Live?
J: I think even after he wrote to me, we would send each other cards. I always kind of knew where he was in his career. It wasn’t surprising like, “Oh, that’s that kid.” I kind of always knew, even before he was on Saturday Night Live, he was a good comic and I knew he was climbing in the best possible way.
So had you been to a concert of [Fred’s old band] Trenchmouth?
J: No I hadn’t. I’ve certainly since seen him in concert with his music, but I had not. I sort of knew about it, but it was always a thrill to see him and remember him…I wrote letters to people when I was young, I think I wrote Russ Meyer a letter when I was young and he answered. I do get a huge amount of fanmail and I answer a tiny bit of it. It has to really be a good letter, but if it’s good I sometimes do answer them.
So finally, John, any last words for the kids?
J: Just ask for what you want, a “no” is free, never worry about rejection, just ask the next person. It’s just like hitchhiking, all you need is one person to say yes, all you need is one person to back your movie. All you need is one person to buy your painting, one person to let you record an album, that’s all you need. Keep asking until you find the yes.
Wow, hopefully some of that sort of advice is going to be in your non-fiction book, being a collection of essays.
J: Well, we’ll see (laughs). I haven’t written it yet, I’ve written the treatment, I start that one Jan. 1.
-by Darren Paltrowitz