The occasion for the chat is his visit here Friday at Carnegie Music Hall to perform a new version of his one-man show, "This Filthy World," in which his topics will range "from his early negative artistic influences and his fascination with true crime, to exploitation films, fashion lunacy, and the extremes of the contemporary art world."
Mr. Waters knows a thing or two about extremes, having turned the indie movie world upside down -- with his gross-out drag queen Divine and perverse range of subjects -- in such late '60s/early '70s midnight cult classics as "Mondo Trasho," "Pink Flamingos" and "Polyester."
Twenty-plus years into his career, in 1988, something happened that was almost as bizarre as Cookie and Cotton rolling around with that chicken -- John Waters went Hollywood with the PG-rated but nonetheless offbeat musical "Hairspray," about a plump teenager, played by Ricki Lake, who becomes a dance-show sensation and champion for racial integration in 1960s Baltimore.
"Hairspray" then took on a life of its own, with a hit Broadway musical, a 2007 adaptation of the musical and even a concert version presented last week by the Baltimore Symphony that featured Mr. Waters as narrator and Monkee Micky Dolenz as one of the singers.
"Hairspray" put Mr. Waters on a roll that continued through the '90s with young Johnny Depp as a teen rebel in "Cry-Baby" (1990); Kathleen Turner as a murderous suburban housewife in "Serial Mom" (1994); and Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci paired up in the bittersweet "Pecker" (1998).
Mr. Waters hit the brakes as a director after 2004's NC-17 comedy "A Dirty Shame," but he's stayed busy as an installation artist, an actor, a monologuist and a writer. His work in progress is a book called "Carsick" that documents his May 2012 adventure hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco.
Some people recognized him, others didn't. One of the things we know about it, via a tweet, is that rock band Here We Go Magic picked him up in Ohio. He was wearing a hat that said "Scum of the Earth."
I talked to you 18 years ago at the opening of The Warhol Museum, and I've never forgotten what you said. You said you were glad that the museum was in Pittsburgh, and you said, "I think everyone should stay in the town where he was from. Think of how much more interesting America would be."
And it's become more like that, because of the Internet and everything. I think that's come true that people don't have to leave where they live to see cool movies or to see everything, because I travel all over the world all the time doing this show, and the kids in Paris look the same as they do in Boise, Idaho. I think the world has gotten smaller in some ways.
I guess Warhol could have done what he did from Pittsburgh if he were alive now.
Well, I think Andy liked that social life more [laughs]. Still, even though I live in Baltimore, not one check I think I've ever gotten has come from Baltimore. My movies, the artwork, it's always from somewhere else, like New York. I'm not saying I don't book to speak in Baltimore, but they don't pay me here, they pay the agent. So, that's true to a point, but you have to be noticed outside of where you live. You don't have to move to get noticed, but once you're noticed you can live anywhere.
You're coming as part of the Warhol series. What type of a connection did you have with Warhol and what type of influence did he have on you?
Well, certainly, I have downstairs in my dining room a silver Jackie [O] print that I got in 1964 that was so long ago my girlfriend gave it to me. It was a hundred dollars, and I remember that was really a lot of money.
I've always been hugely influenced by Warhol. I think everyone in the world, no matter what job you have, the trickle-down effect of Andy Warhol is amazing. His films are very important to me. His films still have not been appreciated on the level of his art, and that will come. He violated every rule of what a motion picture was. I think those films are truly amazing, and I think they will be celebrated even more later.
The artwork, of course ... he ended abstract expressionism in one night with that soup can. It was like, I've said it before, but the Beatles put Motown out of business in one night. He changed the world forever. He put drugs and homosexuality together -- finally, at last. He made the art world cool in a whole new way, and I think Andy would be so thrilled to be alive today and see what happened, because when he died his career was at one of the lowest points, and I think he would be so thrilled to see these auction prices. I was on the board of the Warhol Foundation for a long time, and it was so great because we got to give Andy's money away to people who cause trouble. A perfect job!
On that note, when you were making your early films did you feel like you were moving the trash culture in a big way, or just inching along what other people had done?
Well, little did I know when I was making "Mondo Trasho," Andy was making "Trash." And we didn't know about it. We were making the same thing. Earlier, I had a movie called "Eat Your Makeup," where Divine played Jackie Kennedy in the assassination. And only recently did a film [emerge] that Andy made called "Still," which was the Kennedy assassination also. It never came out and wasn't even screened till a few years ago, so we were accidentally doing the exact same things at the same time without knowing the other one was doing it.
I knew Andy's movies, but I didn't know he was making one called "Trash," and I never met Andy until after "Pink Flamingos," even though Interview wrote about "Mondo Trasho" and "Multiple Maniacs." I met Andy after "Pink Flamingos" had come out and became a hit, but he had been shot recently, and the last thing he needed was to meet a bunch of new lunatics. But Fran Lebowitz and Danny Fields and Glenn O'Brien sort of hooked up this screening of "Pink Flamingos" at The Factory, and I brought my gang and Candy Darling was there, and that's when Divine met Candy, and they got along great, and I've told this story a million times, but it's true:
Andy watched it sort of hiding it in the closet, and then when it was over he went in the back with me and said, "Why don't you make the exact same movie over again?" And then he said he would back my next movie, which shocked me because no one was saying that, but I think I wisely said no, because it would have been "Andy Warhol's Female Trouble." What a great thing he offered to do that, and he was supportive after that. He put Divine on the cover of Interview and he recommended "Pink Flamingos" to Fellini in the paper. Andy was always supportive and incredibly influential to me and everyone I know.
Did you think it was possible after "Pink Flamingos" that you would ever have a mainstream success?
No, at the same time I wasn't Pecker. I wasn't this naive kid. I read Variety. I was ambitious. I wanted them all to be successful. In the beginning, I wanted to make the most successful underground movie I could make, and then I wanted to make the most successful midnight movie I could make, which "Pink Flamingos" still is one of the most successful midnight movies. And then after that I called them independent films and then I made a couple Hollywood movies. And then I went back. I think my last film, "Dirty Shame," was a Hollywood underground movie. So I think I've been full circle through all the genres of what you could call the films I make.
And now there's a concert version of "Hairspray."
Yes, I'm doing it tonight. Last night was opening night. I'm Victor Borge now, I have a crossover career in classical music.
Are you surprised by the mileage you've gotten out of it?
I'm thrilled. I always say, " 'Hairspray' is the gift that keeps on giving." I also wrote a sequel to it that never happened called "White Lipstick," I wrote a TV series that never happened, but they all could happen, and I always joke that it will never die unless we do "Hairspray on Ice." That will be the final thing that I am rooting for.
I saw your comment recently about a skinny girl being cast [as Tracy] in a high school production ...
Because of political correctness, they can't say you have to be fat. You can't be a drag queen. They can't say it has to be a man or a race or anything, so I have actually seen productions where a skinny black girl plays Tracy -- which I'm all for because it's so bizarre in a way, it really makes it like a post-modern exercise, 'cause the plot is a little hard to follow, like "Why can't a fat girl get on the show?" or "Why aren't black people in the show?" when she's skinny and black. It's weird, but it's kind of hilarious.
I know in Texas they had a high school show where they didn't have any black people in it because they said "We couldn't find any." So that ended quickly. I think that show fell apart. It's interesting, in Korea once they had blackface, and they didn't know, you can't do that, but they didn't know. They said, "We don't have any black people." But the thing is, you could just do another minority.
It must be fun to see the lives that your projects take on.
It is. It's interesting to see the little problems that they can take on, being international and politically incorrect.
Jumping into something else, hitchhiking became a dying art. What compelled you to do that, and was it scary either for you or the motorists of America?
You're going to have to read the book to find out. I don't give many details away. I did it because I wanted an adventure. I had a book advance, but the book, I wrote two-thirds of it before I left because it's me imagining the best 15 rides that could happen, with sex and adventure, and then the very worst 15 rides that could happen, and I wrote my death the day before I left and did it for real, which was 21 rides in nine days.
I did it for adventure. I hitchhiked a lot when I was young. I wanted to give up control that I have in my life. I wanted to give up all my planning. I wanted to see how far fame would go, and what it was like, the big difference between hitchhiking when you're 17 and 66. I can say that I had a great time, and it will be an optimistic book. I would encourage everybody to try hitchhiking again.
What can people expect from the one-man show?
Well, it's completely different than the last time I did it there. "This Filthy World" is a spoken-word act that's completely written and rehearsed, but I think it sounds like I'm spontaneous. It is constantly updated and changed. It's about fashion, crime, movies, career, youth, music, insanity, sex. It's about everything people think about every day.
Are you going to be directing more movies?
Well, I hope. I mean, I've made 16, 17 of them. It's not like I haven't made them. Yeah, I've been trying to make this movie "Fruitcake" for a long time. It's a children's Christmas movie. I've had meetings about it recently. We'll see, we'll see ....
Um, did you know your Wikipedia page says you played linebacker for the Baltimore Colts?
[Laughs.] Wikipedia, as everyone knows, is very wrong. I most certainly did not play that. I did not play it ever -- in kindergarten, I didn't even play it.
To be honest, a lot of press has been calling here recently because of the Ravens, and I don't do any of the interviews, because I'm not against it, but I don't know even how to play football anymore. I hardly have any witty comments about the world of sports, except I'm glad people are happy here, because otherwise they're in sour moods all the time.
But I don't know why people ask a man on the street, "How 'bout the Ravens?" I don't say to a strange man on the bus, "Hey, who do you think is going to win best supporting actress at the Oscars?" It seems to me inappropriate. How do you know I'm interested in that?
Are you going to watch the Super Bowl?
Nooo! But I'm not against it. I'm happy that it's on and everything, but I don't expect everybody to watch the Oscars. I don't expect everyone to have my interest either, because I'm a man. That's the thing I don't understand.