A Dirty Shame: John Waters Interviewed

On the occasion of Criterion re-releasing 'Multiple Maniacs' Ian Schultz chats to John Waters about reissues, the US elections, reading and the future of satire

How do you introduce John Waters? He’s one of the most important independent filmmakers of all time, the counterculture icon who made ultra-low-budget features on a few borrowed bucks (which he always paid back), and eventually parlayed his underground success into a Hollywood career. He’s the author of five books, with another coming out shortly that’s based on his Rhode Island School of Design graduation speech. He’s a practitioner of the spoken word, selling out major venues–his voice is probably as famous as his moustache. And he’s been on one of the best and most iconic The Simpsons episodes ever, sending an anti-homophobia message out on the major networks way back in 1997.

Following Mondo Trasho, which has been out of circulation since the VHS era because of music licensing issues, Multiple Maniacs was technically his second film, although Waters has said it’s really his first full feature. Made for $5000, it features Divine at his most Godzilla-esque, Edith Massey, and all the usual Waters suspects, now known as the Dreamlanders. The title references his friend and influence Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 2000 Maniacs. Suffice it to say that Multiple Maniacs was ‘punk’ before punk was cool, and a better film than the more notorious Pink Flamingos. Luckily, the movie has earned more on its recent US re-release than it cost to produce.

Multiple Maniacs was followed by more, of course, including Pink Flamingos, Cry-baby and Hairspray, which has been adapted for the stage and a big budget Hollywood musical. And while he hasn’t made a film since A Dirty Shame he’s still a busy guy.

With the release of a restored version of Multiple Maniacs on Criterion and a theatrical release in arthouse cinemas, Waters has finally achieved respectability. The restoration has been cleaned up in terms of appearance but not content – in fact, this will be the first chance for UK viewers to see it uncut, making it a great time to catch up with the director.

How does it feel to be in the Criterion Collection on DVD after such a long delay?

I’m excited! They distributed some of my other films before on laserdisc. They did, I think, Pink Flamingos and Polyester. So, I’ve always been a fan. But to have them team up also with Janus Films… When it was released theatrically, it said at first, ‘Janus Films Presents…’, which kind of was the most shocking thing in all of Multiple Maniacs, because in America in the early to mid-’60s, Janus was the premier art distributor – they did Bergman, Truffaut, Godard and everything – so you know what I’m saying, it was great. And they were really great, both Criterion and Janus, to understand what they were dealing with, and to restore a movie that God knows needed it.

At first they said, "Well, do you want us to keep every bit of dirt, do you want every splice mark that was done with a hot splicer?" and I said, "NO! I didn’t know any better, that’s the best I could make it look then. I wanna make it look the best I can make it look now." I have no nostalgia for bad VHS copies of movies.

Yeah, I have one that was cut by five minutes – the old UK version.

Oh, that was something during ‘the nasties’ thin. Remember when they had that whole thing in the ’80s? Yes, what did they cut out? Probably the rosary job?

Yes, that was trimmed considerably, I think

And probably eating the heart too…

So what was the restoration like? What was the biggest surprise?

It was amazing what they could do! They took me in there the first day and showed me. First of all, they made it a different ratio. You know, it was shot square, it was 16mm, so they made it 1.33. Adding that, it looks like an art movie, especially as it’s in black and white. I said, "Finally, it looks like a bad Cassavetes movie." But, at the same time you can still see the mistakes, and they understood it so much that in the tail credits, which is new, because the original front credits are just shelving paper being unrolled with press type on it, and you can see where I made a couple of spelling mistakes and had to correct it, and you can really see it. So, when they re-created that style as best they could, with the new tail credits that the people who did the restoration gave to it, they did the same thing – they cut out the mistakes. When I saw that, I knew that they really understood what they were doing.

Do you find it amusing that the restoration obviously cost a lot more money than the entire film?

Well, y’know, it cost $5000 at the time, in 1968, so what would that be today? You could look on the computer and figure that out. I’d say about $20,000. To me, it was a lot of money. It wasn’t cheap – it was the biggest budget I’d ever had. Mondo Trasho cost $2500, and I’d just finished paying off my dad, who’d lent me the money to do a movie that he was completed mortified by, because we were arrested on Johns Hopkins campus for shooting male nudity, and that’s where he went to college, so he was mortified… but he was impressed that somehow I went around the country with a film and got the money to pay him back. I think he almost was hoping that I wouldn’t, so that it would end. But I did it, so then I said, "could I borrow half as much?," and he did that. He never saw Multiple Maniacs. When I went to the premiere at the film festival, I thought, "Thank God my parents didn’t see this." What parent would be glad their child made Multiple Maniacs?

Which additions on the disc are you most excited about? Do you even know what’s on it yet?

Well, I do know, but I haven’t seen it all. I’ve seen the visual essay and it’s great. I think I’ve seen everything that is on there except me talking. I never listen to my own commentary. I always joke and say the only director who does that is Barbra Streisand. But to listen to your own commentary is really torture, I think. I’m sure I did it OK. I have no idea what I said, I don’t remember. But it seemed new, the whole movie. It was thrilling to see it open up around the country again, and travel. Opening at the British Film Institute, who would have ever have thought that!

What do you think about having 100% on Rotten Tomatoes?

I think that is ludicrous! No one gave it a bad review, I find that astounding. Because, when it came out it would be 0%. It got maybe three reviews, and they were all negative. I remember one said that not only was it my first talkie, it was also my first "sickie". My favourite review, I sent it to Ontario, Canada ‘cos I had a booking there, maybe… and it didn’t come back, and I waited and then the Ontario Censor Board sent me a little receipt that said "Destroyed". That was, I guess, the meanest review I ever got. But it’s also the best blurb, in a way. Not only did they not let it in, they just burned it! Well, I didn’t know what to say. Are you even allowed to do that? A 16mm print, people forget today when they make films on their phones that it’s all free every time you shoot something. But a 16mm print with an optical track made from the magnetic was, for me at the time, a great expense.

So, obviously, you’ve just had an election, and do you…

I thought you just said "Obviously, you’ve just had an erection…"

Well, you might have had an erection as well…

No, not talking about Multiple Maniacs , but go ahead…

So, do you think Trump is the first "bad taste" president we’ve had?

He’s the first ‘hair hopper’ president. And a ‘hair hopper’ is a Baltimore slang word for someone who spends too much time on their hair without earning, and tries to act rich even if they’re not. I’m not so sure he is poor, because he won’t show his taxes. I think he’s deeply in debt.

What do you think the state of satire will be under the Trump/Pence administration?

I think he’s such an easy target. But, at the same time, he’s the perfect cover, because he can’t not react. A good politician is thick-skinned – Obama was great at it, actually. I think eventually, it will be his undoing, because he cannot respond to negative criticism. He’s like in high school, with a ‘slam book’ – that was a thing that girls passed around and at the top of each page was a question like "Who’s the ugliest girl in class?," and you’d fill it in, but you’d be nameless. Well, his presidency so far is like a slam book.

So, what have you got in the works at the moment?

So many jobs. I’m employed ’til even six months after I’m dead, and then my employers will have a long time to work all of it out… and I don’t plan on dying for a long time. The next thing I’m doing is a Valentine’s Day tour of This Filthy World in three cities. Then, I have a book called Make Trouble, which is basically a gift book. It’s this commencement speech I gave at RISD which went viral, and now it’s now an illustrated book for bad graduates. Then I’m writing two other books that I have a long-term deal for, so I’m working on those every day. I’m having a big art retrospective in 2018 at the Baltimore Museum that’s going to travel to three places… but I can’t tell you where yet. I’m hosting the Burger Boogaloo punk rock festival for the third year in a row in Oakland, which is a really great festival. So, I’m busy.

Is there a possibility of any more Criterions coming out?

Well, if there is, I’m not really allowed to talk about it. You ask if there’s a possibility – well, the answer to that would always be yes. Because… anything’s possible (laughs) So, I will say "yes" is the answer to that. With no other comment.

The boom in long-form television and greater acceptance of edgy material seems like a great opportunity for you. Have you been tempted to pitch something, or had offers?

Oh, certainly. I had a big development deal with HBO for a sequel to Hairspray called Hairspray: Separate But Equal that didn’t get made – yet – but who knows if it will? I had a deal with NBC to try to do a weekly TV show that I spent eight months on. So I’m still involved with Hollywood all the time, and I still get deals, but they just don’t get made. The independent film world as I knew it is no longer. And I’m fine with that. Hollywood has treated me fairly. I’ve made sixteen movies or something. It isn’t like I haven’t spoken. My books do better these days, so I write books.

On to books–what have you been reading recently? I know you’re an avid reader.

Well, I am. Let’s see… I read a life of [Bernard] Buffet, the French painter that everyone hates but used to like, and who only Andy Warhol liked at the end. I think Andy was probably right. I read the biography of Eric Rohmer. I read Joy Williams’ 99 Stories About God, she’s a writer I like very much. I’m a big fan of Rachel Cusk. I love Otessa Moshfegh. She wrote a great novel called Eileen. She’s got another one called Homesick For Another World. I liked Moby’s biography (laughs) – I thought that was good. Looking at the books here on my table… Bresson On Bresson, I read that. Oh, here’s one – G.I Hustlers Of World War II, but anyway…

Have you seen any changes to audience reactions and questions during your speaking tours?

My speaking tours, nobody ever gets mad, no matter what I say, and I say some pretty ludicrous stuff. I think because when they come to see me and a show called This Filthy World that’s what they want, to be surprised. They want to go into a different world that they might not feel comfortable in, but with me as a guide they’re OK. My audiences are very cool and very smart. I don’t try to explain my jokes. The fans dress up for me, they look good. They’re not pretentious, and they’re all ages, all sexual tastes – so I think I’ve got the best fans in the world.

What is the freakiest film you ever saw on acid?

The Bergman movie, Hour Of the Wolf, when the woman rips her face off, that’s when Divine said "that’s it, we’re going to Elizabeth Taylor movies". He hated Bergman movies. We didn’t see every movie on acid. The ones we did see were mostly Juliet Of The Spirits. The Fellini movies were the ones we saw on acid the most. But I think I did see Hour Of The Wolf with Divine, on acid. It wasn’t every Bergman movie we dropped acid to see. I don’t remember how that happened. We used to go to the drive-in a lot, but not so much tripping. We didn’t watch movies all that much on acid. Except Juliet Of The Spirits , which was our favourite LSD movie.

What do you think the future of youth culture is at the moment?

Oh, I think it’s really great. We have a whole new activism, a whole new anarchy and a whole new way to rebel. Anything could happen. So I think it’s going to be an exciting time for youth culture. Unless they’re just sitting home studying all the time – which is what I fear.

Multiple Maniacs will be available from Criterion on Blu-Ray on the 20th of March

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