John Waters on his new book, Pink Flamingos and his TV cameos

Ahead of the UK release of his latest book, we talk to 'The Pope of Trash' about his filmmaking legacy... which apparently involves him being recognised more for Chucky and Alvin and the Chipmunks movies than for his transgressive directorial efforts

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 02 Sep 2019
  • John Waters

“I never wanted to do cult,” John Waters says in reference to his filmography in light of the question of whether genuine cult films are still possible in the current age of new distribution strategies. “People liked it and it lost money. A few smart people liked it, the [financiers] want thousands of dumb people to like it!”

Speaking of thousands of people, if not necessarily all dumb, we’re speaking to Baltimore’s self-described ‘Pope of Trash’ a day ahead of him receiving an award at the Piazza Grande of Locarno, Switzerland, which hosts open air screenings for 8000 people each night as part of the Locarno Film Festival. For its 72nd edition, which took place in August, the festival honoured Waters with the Pardo d’onore Manor award for career achievement. Recipients of the Pardo d’onore at previous festivals have included Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Loach, William Friedkin, Jia Zhang-ke, Werner Herzog, Agnès Varda and Todd Haynes.

Waters tells us he’s very grateful for the recognition from the long-running film festival, which also ran a mini-retrospective of five of his movies. As such, although he has a new book – Mr. Know-It-All, a mix of memoir and advice for finding one’s way in life – rolling out across the world, including a UK release in September, Waters is happy to talk about his films more than anything else he has going on right now, even though he hasn’t written or directed a feature since A Dirty Shame in 2004. He mentions this has partly been down to financiers backing out at the last minute, or production companies closing.

And, for better or worse, his films have become more relevant and relatable in many ways. But is the Western world starting to resemble a John Waters movie a great sign for cinema or a bad sign for the world?

"Nothing can be 'so bad it's good' after [Trump]"

“Well, it's good for me,” he says. “It's too bad for the distributors because they don't care if it works ten years later. They want it to work and make money when it comes out. And some of them like Female Trouble [1974], when that first came out it was not a success at all. Cry-Baby [1990] wasn't either. And now, probably more people, where they have seen any of my movies, have seen Cry-Baby because of television all over the world and Johnny Depp. But [the distributors] don't want it later, they want it now. And I’ve said that Trump has even ruined camp. Nothing can be so bad it's good after him.

“So, I think it's good,” he continues. “I think that humour everywhere is better because people can laugh at themselves and what's going wrong, and if you want to win an argument, you make the other side laugh first and they might listen. I think it's healthy."

Although most of his directorial efforts have passionate fanbases, Waters has said in the past that Pink Flamingos (1972), featuring frequent collaborator Divine with a literal shit-eating grin, will likely be the film to feature in the opening statements of his obituary. “My intention was to have a hit, and Pink Flamingos was a hit for that genre, certainly," he says. "The first time I saw the end with an audience, I knew, because people didn't know how to react. They couldn't not tell somebody about it. It was forced word of mouth. Divine eating dog shit, which was a surreal moment that was just influenced by surrealism and was a publicity stunt, basically. That worked better than I ever imagined.

"Divine ended up hating it because people constantly asked him about that. And he was a good actor to do that. Talk about method acting. That's doing your own stunt work. That's not special effects. And the only person that ever would have done that is Johnny Knoxville [who starred in Waters’ A Dirty Shame]. He would have eaten shit if we hadn’t had. He, with those Jackass movies, was the most similar in spirit to my early movies with what they did.”

Despite their often-distressing material, a lot of Waters’ films actually seem quite hopeful for humanity. He sees value in all sorts of lifestyles. “I’m an optimist,” he tells us.

Does he think that optimism is present in all of his films? “I think it's in all of them, except maybe Desperate Living (1977). I think that's why Desperate Living did the worst at the box office, because it was depressing. Yet, at the end of Pink Flamingos, they're moving to Boise, Idaho. At the end of Female Trouble (1974), she wanted to get the electric chair; it was like getting the Oscar. They all have happy endings, but they aren't the traditional happy endings. The wrong person wins usually. Although the wrong person is the morally correct one in the movies and the heroes of other movies are usually the villains.”

John Waters on his Simpsons and Alvin and the Chipmunks cameos

Although he’s not directed a feature in 15 years, Waters keeps busy with his interests in other art forms, including the aforementioned writing of books. Film and TV-wise, you’re more likely to have encountered him – or possibly even been introduced to him in the first place – through memorable cameos or supporting parts as an actor.

“I do that just to do things people wouldn't expect,” he says. “I never do independent movies for scale; I do big Hollywood movies. Like I was in Alvin and the Chipmunks [specifically The Road Chip], I was in Seed of Chucky. I was in the TV show The Blacklist, My Name Is Earl. I like to do those kinds of things where people wouldn't expect you would be in it, just for something new to do. And when I'm in New York on the subway, I only get recognised for being in the Chucky movie. They don’t know I made those other movies. And it's weird, children come over to me in airports because of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and ask me to pick them up. 'I can’t pick you up, I’d look like a child molester!' I can't pick up a strange child in an airport, are you kidding? But they do.”

As one of those pesky millennials you hear about on the news, our own introduction to Waters came through Homer’s Phobia, the 1997 episode of The Simpsons in which he guested on as a shop owner, also called John. It remains a fan favourite, has won various awards and was the show’s first episode to revolve entirely around gay themes.

“It just came to me,” Waters says of the collaboration. “I was honoured that they asked me to do it. I didn't write it, I had nothing to do with the plot. And it became a huge Simpsons episode. It became one where still people recognise it; I guess it was the first gay rights one. I didn't know it was going to end up like that.

“When I did the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie,” he loops back, “I do a scene where I'm on a plane with Alvin and I'm complaining about his table manners. I went to see it and they totally took out everything he [originally] said and put in Alvin saying, ‘Don't judge me, I saw Pink Flamingos.’ And I couldn't believe they put that in a children’s movie. I guess it was for the parents, but still I couldn't believe they put that in. It was even better. Alvin talking about Pink Flamingos.”

Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder is released by Corsair, 5 Sep
Polyester is released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment UK, 14 Oct