John Waters made a career out of creating subversive, witty, and hilarious underground films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, but he’s also created hits like Hairspray and Cry Baby, both of which were turned into Broadway musicals. Besides his films, he’s also an accomplished author with numerous books that discuss everything from hitchhiking across America to his friendship with “Manson girl” Leslie Van Houten. Now, Waters has a new book, Mr. Know-It-All, which explores his life and what he’s learned throughout his career as the “Prince of Puke”. This December, he’ll hit the road for a new version of his annual Christmas show, titled, A John Waters Christmas: Filthier and Merrier. I had the honor of speaking with the self-professed “Filth Elder” to chat about his new book, his upcoming show, and…Alvin and the Chipmunks.
By Keith Langston
I just finished your new book, Mr. Know-It-All, and loved your wonderfully hilarious chapter about creating your “dream house” which would be purposefully built in a brutalist style to be the ugliest house ever.
You know, it’s kind of sad now, because brutalism has become trendy. But it used to be the most hated architectural style in the whole world! And I have to admit, even for me, when I first saw brutalism I hated it. It took me a while to really get how beautiful the ugliness was.
What are some buildings that you think are ugly right now?
Oh, lord. That shopping mall they built at the end of the Hi-Line is just incredibly hideous! And personally, I’m not a big fan of the new World Trade Center either. I don’t think they were able to match the minimalist beauty of the original towers. But you know what, when the original World Trade Center towers were built, a lot of people didn’t like those either! It’s kind of like the Transamerica tower in San Francisco, the big pyramid building… You know, I actually used to go to demonstrations to protest the building of it. But now I look back and am like, what was I thinking? It’s truly one of the most beautiful buildings in all of San Francisco. So I guess the answer is, who knows! Tastes change.
The first few chapters of your book are all about the films you’ve made. My favorite of all your movies is A Dirty Shame.
(Laughs) Well I’ve got news for you, you’re in the minority! But thank you.
In that chapter you talk about your struggles with the MPAA, and how they gave A Dirty Shame an NC-17 rating.
Well, the only way I was able to get the film released was to create what I called “The Neuter Version,” which was a truly horrific R-rated cut of the film that the studio could send out to video stores. Because sadly, in our society, an NC-17 rating is basically the kiss of the death for a film.
I have to admit, the first version of the film I ever saw was the ‘Neuter Version’ and it inspired me to call my mom a ‘Neuter’ every time she did something prudish. I rented it from the public library in my hometown when I was 14.
They had my movie in a library? (laughs) Actually, that makes sense, Librarians are always sort of devious. I’ve spoken at tons of librarian conventions and they’re the total opposite of the nerdy, quiet cliché. They love stocking their libraries with banned books, they hate censorship, and love dissenting voices.
Yeah, I have to admit, my library never questioned the films I rented, even though I was only a teenager. My library even had The Dreamers!
Oh, God! But, you know, I used to go to libraries and purposefully look up Tennessee Williams, and gay things. I was corrupted by the libraries, and I thank them for that. I mean, my library even had an active men’s room! Even as a young person, I could just tell something was going on in there.
One thing that shocked me so much about A Dirty Shame was that just a month after its release, SAW came out and somehow got an R rating. A few years later, Hostel came out, and also got an R. What do you think made the MPAA go so hard on your movie?
Well, that’s typical. For the MPAA, violence is ok, but sex isn’t. The boundary for the MPAA is always sex. Ugh, like Joan…Thank God she retired from the MPAA, because there’s nothing worse than a liberal censor. She tried being nice about the rating and said to me, “We’re doing this for the average American family…” Which, I don’t think there is an average American family. This country isn’t just made up of people who are stuck in the 50’s.
But the biggest issue is that an NC-17 rating makes the movie fail, and the MPAA knows that! But they have these strong lobbyists who keep the system from changing. And we’re not the only country like that, take Australia for example…I was just there for a show. In Australia, Pink Flamingos is still technically illegal. And what’s really crazy is that before the NC-17 rating, there was the X rating. And films used to do just fine with it. I remember when Midnight Cowboy came out, they plastered giant X’s on the billboards for publicity. But then NC-17 replaced it, and it just ruined everything. An NC-17 rating has never helped a single film. It’s like Lars Von Trier’s films, where they made him edit his last few films to get an R rating. I mean, who wants to see an edited Lars Von Trier film?
For a really smooth transition, let’s go from talking about X films to talking about Christmas.
Well, we could transition with X-rated Christmas films, like Christmas with Stryker, where Jeff Stryker jerks off in a Santa costume for an hour!
(Trying to not burst out laughing) You’ll be touring this December with your new Christmas show, A John Waters Christmas: Filthier and Merrier. What makes this year’s show filthier and merrier?
Well, filthier, because Trump is president, so I say obscene and sexual things about him and Christmas. And Merrier, because I’m at a point in my life where I try to see the good in everything. So, I want to make fun of myself and make fun of politics. This country might be burning all around us, but we need to laugh ourselves through it. I think a lot of people are scared right now, so it’s an important time to have humor in our lives.
Alright, final question. You’re famously obsessed with Alvin and the Chipmunks, and they have a popular Christmas album. How often will you listen to their Christmas songs during the holiday season?
Well, for starters, I was in the last Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, which was a bucket list item for me, so that was spectacular! One of my last bucket list requests now is that I want to be in Final Destination.
And Alvin and the Chipmunks actually have a couple Christmas albums now. What I do these days is, I have a giant Christmas playlist with about 300 songs on it, and all the Chipmunks songs are in it. I just put it on shuffle and use it throughout the entire holiday season. One year though, I did have my assistant alter Eminem’s song ‘Puke’ to make it sound like the Chipmunks were singing it, and I used it as the music I walked on stage to.
Ok, I have to ask now… if you want to be in Final Destination, what’s your dream Final Destination death?
Well, I can’t say, or my union will punish me (laughs), you’ll just have to watch and find out!
You can find John Water’s new book Mr. Know-It-All here, and in bookstores around the country. And don’t miss his hilarious and raunchy annual Christmas show, A John Water’s Christmas: Filthier and Merrier which will tour the country starting December 2nd. Cities where he will be appearing include, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and more. For tickets and a full list of cities, visit Ticketmaster.