Q&A: John Waters

Simon Button

As his 1981 film Polyester is released on Blu-ray, we catch up with the maverick moviemaker to talk about outraging audiences, political correctness and why he’s no longer an anarchist

RD: What are your memories of Polyester all these decades later?

I remember thinking how brave Tab Hunter was to do it. It seems weird now to think it would be even a little shocking for him to make a movie with Divine but at the time it was, because he was still a big Hollywood star and hadn’t yet come out. But he was a great sport and he helped make the film a hit. Also, everyone knew Divine as the scary monster from my previous movies but he played completely against type and got good reviews.

 

RD: What was the inspiration for releasing it in “Odorama”, where viewers were given cards to scratch and sniff when prompted?

Hustler magazine had come out with a scratch-and-sniff issue, which was lilac so it wasn’t anything rude but it gave me the idea. Also, one critic had said that if you saw my name on a marquee you should walk on the other side of the street and hold your nose. That gave me the idea to make a movie that really stunk!

 

RD: Your early films earned you the title Master of Trash. How do you feel about that moniker?

Well, I’d already been called The Prince Of Puke by the Baltimore Sun but it was in a pro article. All of my titles—like The Duke Of Dirt and The People’s Pervert—were given to me in respect. None of them were in bad reviews.

 

RD: Did you deliberately set out to cause outrage in those days?

Just the opposite, at least with Polyester. I was making a movie that could play in regular theatres because video had just come out and so-called Midnight Movies were over, prior to which I was seeking to create my own genre—exploitation films for art theatres.

 

RD: Do you think modern audiences are immune to outrage?

I’m outraged all the time when I see predictable plot points and bad romantic comedies, but it’s not good outrage. Hollywood does bad taste now but they spend $100 million to make a bad taste comedy and usually it’s not funny or witty, it’s just gross.

I did gross but at the same time I tried to make you laugh at your limits, what was and wasn’t acceptable and how far you could go. But I do think political correctness is only for rich people. Poor people in Baltimore aren’t worried about whether or not we can have plastic drinking straws. I think we have to pick our battles a little better.

 

RD: Were you surprised by the commercial success of the likes of Hairspray and Cry Baby?

I always thought of my films as commercial. Pink Flamingos played in one theatre in Los Angeles at least one night a week for ten years. That sounds pretty commercial to me! The films are still being shown and they keep putting ‘em out in different versions, they turn them into musicals… [Laughs] How much more commercial could I be?

 

RD: Likewise, are you surprised by how mainstream drag has become?

I give RuPaul credit for that and I also think Divine had something to do with it because when I was young in the 1950s drag queens were really square and no fun. He was one of the first to have an edge and I think all the drag queens on Drag Race are in some way influenced by him.

 

RD: Divine was your muse right up until his death in 1988. What was he like to work with?

Divine wasn’t trans in any way. He had no desire to be a woman and he didn’t dress as one when he wasn’t working. [Laughs] He was a fat guy and he’d go, “How do they stand it when the wigs are so hot?” He was a quiet, kind man. He smoked a lot of pot but he was a gentleman and a really good actor.

 

RD: Your new book is called Mr-Know-It-All. Why did you pick that title?

For 50 years I’ve been doing what I want to do and I’ve never had to get a real job so I do know something! I’m trying to pass on my negotiation skills to younger people when everyone tells them they’re crazy and they want to triumph in whatever it is they want to do.

 

RD: You spend a lot of time in London. What do you enjoy about your time here?

I come to London every year for a vacation and I like the people, the city, I have some great friends there, y’all do Christmas great… I dunno, I’m just a fan of London and I always have been. My mother was also a complete Anglophile and she’d always fly the British flag. If she were still alive she’d be gripped by Royal weddings and all that stuff.

 

RD: At 73 years old, are you still learning?

The only thing Mr-Know-It-All knows nothing about are sports and science-fiction, but I’m now sort of a spokesman for Nike in their ads so I guess I do know about sports. I don’t think I could make a science-fiction film, though, because I don’t know the rules and how to parody the genre.

 

RD: You haven’t directed a film since A Dirty Shame in 2004. Is that side of your career over?

a dirty shame

I’ve been paid to write different movies that never got made, but the books do better and now with independent cinema they want you to do them for no money. I can’t be an underground filmmaker at 73. You can’t be an anarchist when you own three homes.

 

RD: Have you ever shaved off your trademark moustache?

john waters

No and I’m convinced there’d be a scar if I did. I’ve had it since I was 17 and it’s always drawn on a little bit with Maybelline mascara. Sometimes I forget to put the mascara on and I feel like Superman without his powers. If I forget to put it on I feel weaker.

Polyester is out now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection


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