One Night in Baltimore - John Waters and Bruce LaBruce

When we flew our favourite columnist and film-maker Bruce LaBruce to Baltimore to spend the evening with the Pope of Trash and all round God Head John Waters, we knew we were in for something special. Here, for all you GT subscribers, we present the unedited transcript of the interview Bruce conducted for us.

John Waters Interview

Bruce LaBruce: Just after we first met, I remember talking to you on the phone, and you were having trouble getting financing for Pecker. And it was so depressing because I thought, God, if John can’t get financing, what are the rest of us going to do! Was that a lull in your filmmaking career?

John Waters: No, the lull was between Polyester and Hairspray. It was seven years. That’s when I became a journalist. I wrote Crackpot, I did all sorts of things.
I was stupidly trying to make the sequel to Pink Flamingos and one thing I learned: if it doesn’t happen in two years, move on. It ain’t gonna happen.

B: But at a certain point, doesn’t it get easier?

J: Every time it’s difficult. It was only easy once, and that was after Hairspray, for Crybaby, when Hollywood wanted to do me. And they all wanted to do me. They were competing, they were sending me gifts, Dawn Steel was sending me leather jackets. But that only happened once. That was 1990.

B: Why do you think that was?

J: Because Hairspray came out and was a success d’estime. They though it was a hit. It wasn’t that big a hit because Divine died a week after it came out, which put a big damper on a comedy. They had shots of us touring the whole country and then they’d cut to the funeral. I don’t think it makes people run to a comedy.

B: Didn’t it increase awareness of the movie?

J: Bad awareness. It’s like porn stars who die. You don’t feel like watching them and jerking off. You don’t feel like seeing a comedy starring someone who just died. It hurts business. Maybe if you’re James Dean. But it was not a good time for Divine to die. Although he got great reviews, and it was the first time one of my movies got great reviews. Actually that’s not true. Polyester got good reviews too. But Hairspray opened much wider and moved me to a new level.

B: Why couldn’t you get the Pink Flamingos sequel made?

J: Have you read it? It’s more obscene than the first one. It just wasn’t the right time.

B: Wasn’t everybody dead from the first one?

J: No, Divine was still alive, but even he didn’t want to do it.

B: David Lochary was dead, Mary Vivian Pierce…

J: She’s still alive!

B: Oops!

J: She was in A Dirty Shame. She’s been in every one of my movies. Mink’s still alive.

B: Yes, I’ve met Mink. Who else died from that era?

J: Oh, a lot of them. Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Paul Swift.

B: What happened to David Lochary?

J: We never knew? Angel dust or something horrible.

B: So it was an overdose?

J: No, maybe murder? He either fell and hit his head on drugs or somebody beat him to death? We never knew what happened.

B: So it could have been foul play?

J: Yeah. No one knows, really. And no one ever will know.

B: He lived alone at the time?

J: Yes, David and were a little estranged at the end because of drugs. Everybody kind of ran from him. But it was a very short time, and I saw him just before he died and we were very friendly.

B: Were you planning on working with him again?

J: No, because of drugs. That’s why he wasn’t in Desperate Living, and he knew it.

B: For me Desperate Living is your redheaded stepchild.

J: It’s the worst of all my movies. And it’s the grimmest!

B: It’s also the most makeshift, in a way…

J: Well poor Vincent Peranio had to build a whole town out of garbage for no money.

B: It looks like those tent cities you see going up now for the homeless!

J: It does!

B: My least successful film, Super 8 _, is my favourite.

J: I still say that’s one of the best movie titles ever.

B: Thank-you.

J: I don’t have one that I like any more than the others. Sometimes you want to like the one that other people don’t like as much. I understand that. Gus Van Sant always tells me that his favourite movie of his is Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and he doesn’t understand why it even got a bad review. I feel the same way about some of mine. I get hating all of them! I don’t get how you can like one way more than the others.

B: Robert Altman said that he sees his movies as one big movie.

J: Well mine are too, in a way. I just do a different genre every time.

B: What’s been your biggest budget.

J: Serial Mom. That was twelve million. That was the only time I really had enough money to make a movie.

B: Was it easier?

J: It was a little easier, but not really because then it’s longer! More days are always what you need, but then you think, oh God, I’ve got to do it more days!

B: But when you make really low budget movies you just have to do so many more tasks.

J: Well with my old movies, I don’t even remember how many days we did. It certainly wasn’t six days in a row! It was one day a week, or when I could get the money. Sometimes we shot the whole day and none of it turned out. But yeah, I did everything. I was the teamster, I was the driver, I was the cameraman. I did everything.

B: Yeah and when it’s non-union, everyone does everything.

J: That’s how you start out. And that’s how you learn how to do it. That’s why people who grow up that way really respect other people on a movie set, because they know what everyone has to do. I think it makes a big difference.

B: How do you get along with the unions now?

J: I get along fine with them. I have John Waters Teamsters who always sign up for my movies. I really respect the rules because I was always so bad at it. Before I never knew what the rules were. Now I have a very good relationship with SAG. The head of the Teamsters of the movies in Baltimore, his wife was my girlfriend in sixth grade. We hadn’t seen each other in thirty years. We were the two kids in class who didn’t fit in. So it worked out kind of great.

B: Would you ever shoot a movie outside of Baltimore?

J: I hope not. I mean I could. It’s not like I wouldn’t cross the state line to match a shot. The whole amusement park scene in Hairspray was shot in Pennsylvania. I did reshoots for Crybaby in LA. When Johnny Depp rides his motorcycle, it’s Griffith Park. But Baltimore is the scene, and the very first thing I always do is locations, so I know where the characters live when I begin to write them. I do the location scout first when I write, so I write for a specific neighbourhood. If you turn right in my movies, you turn right in real life. Which makes some producers crazy.

B: Would you ever direct someone else’s material?

J: I hope not. You never say never. I never read scripts. My agents in the beginning tried to get me to. I could have done lots of horrible Hollywood comedies. They used to offer them to me. But now they know not to even bother. I wouldn’t know how to do it. It wouldn’t be worth going through that kind of agony for somebody else’s script.

B: What about a novel you really love. Like the Denton Welsh novel we were talking about earlier, In Youth Is Pleasure.

J: I just want to read his books. Books you love would be especially hard to make. With books I love I usually hate the movies!

B: I guess that’s what Gus Van Sant did with Cowgirls. Do you like his version of Psycho?

J: Yes, I really love the idea. It’s such an art idea. He told me that if it was a hit he was going to do Spanish Psycho, Lesbian Psycho, Japanese Psycho, all different versions of the same movie. It would have been great. I actually went to see it on its opening day in Baltimore, the first matinee, in the worst theatre in the city, a downtown black theatre, and the one place that it wouldn’t work, except there was about three people there looking for a gore movie. They didn’t know the first Psycho! So there was just the four of us, which made it even more of an art experience. Did I love it watching it. No. But thinking about it I have great respect for the idea, and that he got it made. Especially with Brian Grazer, who was my producer for Crybaby, who took a big chance on Psycho.

B: I guess it bombed.

J: I guess. But for history, the grosses, it doesn’t matter after three years, in terms of how good they are. At the beginning that’s what everyone talks about, and unfortunately whether or not you get your next movie made depends very much on how well it does at the box office. In three years I think all that goes away as far as whether your film is remembered or liked, by film buffs or critics especially. And sometimes if it does badly, people root for it a little more.

B: Boom! is a perfect example.

J: It was a giant failure when it came out. One of the all time biggest ones. Even when I met Elizabeth Taylor and I told her she liked it she got mad because she thought I was making fun of her.

B: She’s so good in it though! It’s one of her best performances.

J: I’m sure she doesn’t think so.

B: Well, people can’t be objective about their own roles. How could she not like it though?

J: Well she has moments in it.

B: She must have a camp sensibility.

J: I don’t think when they were making it that it was supposed to be that camp. Although Tennessee Williams liked it more than any other screen adaptation of his plays. I think they meant it to be taken a little more seriously. You’re in disbelief when you see that movie. I saw that movie on opening night, so I’ve been talking about that movie for a long time! It’s her screechiness in it, the yelling. We used to imitate it. And when she says “Boom?” I think it’s ADR that they put in after. They changed it from the original title, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And then when they released it in America, they added the exclamation mark in the ad campaigns. It’s not there in the titles of the movie. It was a last ditch effort to save it. Yeah, that’ll sell it! That’ll make money. Add an exclamation point!

B: The character I really love is Blackie, played by Joanna Shimkus. I love when she says the line, “I will always dare to say what I know to be true.” She’s this pure character who cuts through all the bullshit.

J: You know when it was a play in Baltimore it starred Tab Hunter and Tallulah Bankhead. It opened here and then it opened on Broadway.

B: Did you see it!?

J: No. I hold it against my parents. I said it’s child abuse. They knew about it and didn’t take me. That’s when I was 12, in the early sixties.

B: I mentioned to you on the phone that Joseph Losey made a remake of Fritz Lang’s M.

J: Yeah, I never saw it. My other favourite Losey picture is Eva with Jeanne Moreau. It’s a beautiful movie. They had a restored print recently at Filmforum that was just staggering.

B: They say the remake of M isn’t good, but it’s about a child molester and it’s directed by Joseph Losey. How could it not be good? Ok what’s the story about Kevin Federline?

J: Oh have you seen that? It’s been in all the papers. I gave an interview for a Canadian paper while I was in Toronto for the Court TV show I’ve been shooting there, Til Death Do Us Part, and they said they’d hold it until the show comes out, but of course they ignored everything they agreed to and they put the article out and it got picked up everywhere in the world. I’ve never gotten more hype than for this one interview. I basically said, and I stand by my words, I like him, and I said jokingly that I want to marry him, and I said that he should get the kids. One of the tabloids said, “Director proposes to Kevin Federline.” They really pushed it.

B: Gay marriage!

J: No, straight marriage! I said he deserves the kids. He’s not the one showing his shaved crotch to people while getting out of limousines, and he’s been a great gentleman. I do own the cd. I’ve never unwrapped it, but it’s upstairs. I look at it. So it got printed and exaggerated to the point of crazy, and last night my assistant, Lindsay, the one who picked you up at the train station, who says in the interview she refuses to go out and buy Kevin’s cd for me, she picked up the phone and it was his manager. She said, “You’re not going to believe who’s on line 2. It’s Kevin Federline.” So I picked up and said to his manager, first thing, “So, does he have a sense of humour?”, and he said yes, very much, he just wanted me to call and tell you he thought it was hilarious. He thought it was great.

B: Sometimes those things can take on a life of their own. He could end up in one of your movies.

J: They do, and I have things in mind. But if you read the papers today he’s doing a big Super Bowl ad for some product making fun of himself and it’s going to be huge. So obviously he is smart or has a really good manager, and he still looks good.

B: He would seem ideal for you.

J: Well, I stopped casting that way a long time ago. I stopped that after Crybaby. I use all actors who are considered good actors now. People were shocked when I cast Sam Waterston in Serial Mom.

B: You’ve said that Woody Allen’s dramatic movies are your favourites of his, and I’ve always said that too – Interiors is one of my all time favourite movies – but have you ever considered directing a drama?

J: Not not really, because people would start laughing!

B: But they said that about Woody Allen. It took a lot of chutzpah for him to make Interiors.

J: But that was his most successful drama. What about Another Woman? Or September! That’s the one that really tortured people who love Woody Allen. But see I love all Woody Allen’s movies. I think he has the best career of any director, and I’m the most jealous of his career. And I told him that. I was in one of his movies. I was in Sweet and Lowdown.

B: You know that he completely reshot September in its entirety.

J: Didn’t work!

B: You didn’t like it?

J: I liked it! But it was a huge flop! You talk about a movie that was badly reviewed.

B: One of my favourite all time lines is in September, when Elaine Stritch is sitting in front of the mirror, and she says, “And then one day you wake up and feel like something is missing. And then you realize it’s your future.”

J: Oh God!

B: She’s brilliant in that movie.

J: She is. I would never say never to doing a serious movie. I would never direct someone else’s script, but I might make a dramatic movie.

B: I would love to see you direct a drama!

J: I don’t know if I could resist cracking a joke. It’s hard to write comedy too. It’s no easier to write comedy than drama.

B: I’m not saying it’s harder or easier, I would just be so excited to see it.

J: It would be hard not to be pretentious.

B: Interiors is pretentious.

J: It is.

B: But it’s also genius. I remember seeing it when it came out on the first day, and people were saying, oh, it’s so derivative of Bergman, but I thought it actually did Bergman justice.

J: Well I love Bergman more than anything. That movie that Liv Ullmann directed, Saraband, that’s a fucking brilliant movie. I just went to see the Bergman documentary, Bergman Island. Have you seen it?

B: No. I love Bergman too.

J: I’m obsessed by it. I do a whole thing in my monologue about it. If I had to have sex with a dead celebrity, who would it be? It would be Bergman. He’s not dead yet, but he will be, and I’d like to go to that island and maybe Liv Ullmann would join us in a threesome! That would be the best necrophilia ever! But he’s there, and they show him just snapping his fingers, and the poor person in the projection room starts one of the movies that he watches all the time in his screening room alone. He lives on the island by himself and I want to go dressed in that outfit as Death with the sickle…

B: That’s very Cissy Goforth in Boom! You could be the Angel of Death, Angelo de la Morte!

J: I know! He has complete domain on that island!

B: Mrs. Goforth!!

J: Mr. Bergman!! I still love his movies and I’m still obsessed by him. And Saraband was great. I rushed to see it on the last day at the Filmforum because I knew it would never play anywhere again. I read Liv Ullmann’s collected letters recently. They were great.

B: So they were long time lovers and…

J: Well first of all they both left their husband and wife to be together. Then they were married and had children, then they broke up but continued to make movies together, and then she became him in a way. I mean she directed a Bergman movie! Saraband was exactly like a Bergman movie, and he wrote it. They morphed, like in Persona! I think she’s incredibly beautiful too. I’m a huge fan. I would love to work with her.

B: Well there you go. Although I guess it would be cooler to put her in a comedy.

J: Yeah. Well if I made a dramatic movie it wouldn’t be a Bergman movie.

B: What about a true crime story?

J: Well I’ve done that. Serial Mom and Female Trouble.

B: But you know what I mean. A true crime drama. Maybe a Film Noir?

J: Too many people have made bad faux Film Noirs.

B: You’re right. Like that awful new one, The German Shepherd? Is that what it’s called?

J: The Good German.

B: It would have been better if it was about a German Shepherd. So do you have any good Melanie Griffith stories?

J: I love Melanie. Let me tell you something. She was totally in on the movie. It’s hard to play a bad actress, let me tell you. And she did, and she was brave to play that part because you know Van Smith – you met him, my costume designer? He just died. Did you read the New York Times obituary? It was the most amazing obituary. I mean they called him an artist and a terrorist in the first line! There obviously is no life after death because he would have risen from the dead if he’d read that obituary! That line would have brought him back. He would have loved it. But I remember sitting right in this living room with Melanie when we were going over the costumes, and of course any star after looking at some of my old movies is a little nervous about meeting the costume and make-up people!

B: You already new each other, right? You were both in Something Wild.

J: We did one scene together on one day. I’d never seen her since except for one meeting about doing my movie. So Van said how about your signature look being each lip would be a different colour. I saw her thinking “I’ll kill you.” She just said, “No,” with finality. But I get why she said it, because people are always making fun of the lips. I tell you, it would have been a great look. But she was a trooper. Up on that roof at that drive-in in the cold, night shoots, seven nights in a row, she was up their jumping off the roof, doing her own stunts. She was fun. She had to keep leaving to do the Revlon campaign at the same time. We would wreck her. I thought she looked good as Cecil B. Demented’s muse, but that’s hardly what Revlon had in mind. So she kept having to switch looks.

B: Didn’t she collapse on the set?

J: Yes, well the movie was really hard to make.

B: They always use exhaustion as a euphemism, but it probably really was exhaustion, huh?

J: I don’t know what it was, but I was right there with her in bed one day when we had to shut down the movie. It was an insurance day. She had a big cut on her face because she hit her face when she fell in the trailer. It was before lunch.

B: I don’t know if you remember, but she yelled at me on the set. I was there writing about the shoot for index magazine, and when she was arriving at the theatre in one scene getting out of her limo, I was standing with the paparazzi with my little point and shoot camera…

J: Oh, you were with the fake paparazzi. You were playing a paparazzi.

B: Yeah, I was just there trying to blend in, but I was the only one with real film in my camera, and when she stepped out of the limo there was a big blinding flash of cameras, but she stopped the scene – somehow she could sense that I was taking real pictures - and she looked right at me and asked, in front of everybody, “Is that real film in your camera?” And I stammered, “Yeah, I’m a friend of John’s, I’m writing an article about the movie.” And she goes, “And that makes it okay?” And I was like the incredible shrinking man.

J: Well she was right.

B: No, she was absolutely right.

J: And I should have told her you were there doing an article. Then she wouldn’t have minded. But she knows what’s going on. When Antonio came to the set he was really supportive, because he started making movies with Pedro, and I know Pedro, so he was really for her making this movie. But she was a real sport.

B: Did her mother come?

J: She did. My mother was thrilled to meet Tippi Hedren. My mother came on the same day as Tippi did. She came the same day as they raided the Forrest Gump set. And then I saw her again last summer at a gay wedding in Provincetown. We were both on this little shuttle bus that took us to the wedding, and she saw me and said John! And I turned around and said Tippi! And my friend just rolled his eyes and said Jesus Christ!

B: How did she know your gay friends?

J: They live in Palm Springs, and she lives near there.

B: Do you like Palm Springs.

J: Not really. It’s too hot. It’s like living in a hair dryer.

B: But the lighting is good.

J: I’m an East Coast kind of guy. I like the cold.

B: You knew Sonny Bono. He was the Mayor of Palm Springs.

J: I cast him in Hairspray. I think he was cast even before I met him. Debbie Harry kept saying, oh come on, get him, get him. She said, “I’ll blow him,” as a joke, anything to get him. Debbie and I really wanted him to play the husband. And he was great. He was another team player. And what I knew about Sonny was that he worked for Specialty Records when he was really young, one of the only white artist on a really great, great black rhythm and blues label, so he knew everything about the subject matter of Hairspray. He grew up on that, before Cher and everything. I only met Cher much later, at the Vanity Fair party? She said, “I saw that documentary on you, the one where you made all those movies with your friends.” She was talking about Divine Trash. So I guess Cher watches a lot of TV.

B: She does! She called into that late night show on MSNBC and complained about the fact that the Bush Administration isn’t supplying enough body armour to their soldiers in Iraq. And then she donated a bunch of money to buy body armour for them.

J: Good for her.

B: Do you have Warhol fatigue at this point?

J: No.

B: I sort of do, in a way.

J: No. I mean, the late Warhol show that was at the Gagosian gallery was fabulous. I follow the auctions a lot. At the end of his career he would have shows where nothing sold, and now this stuff is going for giant money. I don’t have it at all, and more and more I want it. I think it’s great. But then again, I’m on the board of the Warhol Foundation, too…

B: Ah ha!

J: I love him. He was so far ahead in everything he did.

B: Oh, I agree. I guess I’m talking more about the ancillary stuff, like when other people try to interpret him or his world and get it really wrong, that’s what I mean by Warhol fatigue. Even I Shot Andy Warhol. They got the look of the Factory right, and some of the characterizations were good, but some of them were so off.

J: They got Valerie right!

B: Yes, they did. But Nico…

J: They always get Brigid wrong. And Ondine. Nico’s the easiest.

B: She should be, but did you see The Doors? He had some Penthouse model playing Nico. It was so disrespectful.

J: They got Jim Morrison right. The first thing I said to Val Kilmer when I met him was why do you always play guys with big dicks? Because he played John Holmes too. He just laughed. But they did get Brigid Berlin wrong in I Shot Andy Warhol, and Brigid is my favourite and I know Brigid. I cast her twice in just little cameos in my movies. And Ondine, who was so important, so important to the Warhol years. The whole book A is him talking into a microphone.

B: Yeah, I met Ondine. He was amazing.

J: And a great speed freak. The best Warhol stars were the opera queens, like Rotten Rita. Oh, Rotten Rita! Even Andy was scared of Rotten Rita. I have her real name written down upstairs. I asked Brigid for it and she gave it to me.

B: Ondine was an opera queen too.

J: And Brigid! Taking black beauties for four days and then talking about opera!

B: Did you read the Mary Woronov book?

J: Swimming Under Water? I think that’s the best Warhol book of all.

B: Yeah.

J: And she was a great beauty. Still is. And a really good writer. Her novel Snake is really good too.

B: I love Pie in the Sky, too, the Brigid Berlin documentary.

J: Yes, my friends Vince and Shelley Fremont made that. And Nico/Icon is great too.

B: I love it. I was in Berlin last year and I went with some friends to visit Nico’s grave. She’s buried way outside of Berlin in Grunewald Cemetery, so we made a little pilgrimage out there, and I had myself photographed lying on her grave. So I’ve written a scene inspired by that for my next movie, about two characters that do that. But I’m wondering about the legality of it.

J: Well, the dead have no rights. You might have to get permission from the owners of the cemetery.

B: But it’s in the middle of nowhere.

J: Well I never used to get permission at all, and ran. But could the owners of the graveyard do anything if they caught you? I don’t know.

B: I’ll have to get a lawyer to look into it.

J: They’d probably let you. Just ask them.

B: But in the script it’s a brother and sister making love on her grave.

J: Well just don’t give the owners of the graveyard “pages”, as they call it!

B: Right! But I don’t want to upset Nico’s family.

J: Well I go to Divine’s grave, and people fuck there all the time. You can tell.

B: Hot! When you were a kid, who were the stars that you loved?

J: Dagmar! You’re too young to remember her.

B: Well, I know about her from the Rough Trade song High School Confidential.

J: I tried to get her to play the mother in Polyester. She lived with this really ugly rich woman in Connecticut. I don’t think they were lesbians, I just think she lived there. I couldn’t talk her out of retirement. She looked good. A little Baby Jane-ish. She said things like, “You live in Provincetown? Oh, the fags love me!” But she said it in a great way. She was deeply retired.

B: Was she a B pin-up?

J: I think she was more of a Broadway babe, and then she was on TV shows like The Milton Berle Show as a foil. She was chesty and blond, a dame! Big and brassy and funny. She was the first one I remember as a kid. That’s even before I was in school. Then Elvis. When I first saw him twitching! When you first see him when he’s 19 on Louisiana Hayride. This was like a person speaking in tongues, or who could spontaneously combust or levitate! No one had ever seen anyone like that.

B: I recently saw his network comeback special. It’s amazing. The colours!

J: Well I was on LSD when I saw that on TV!

B: He wore the most beautiful leather jacket I’ve ever seen. It was so processed and well tailored. It looked like it came from heaven. He really was transcendental. He was so into gospel and Christianity that he became like Christ.

J: Well when he was young, he was the Devil! And then there was Little Richard, who inspired me to grow this moustache. Even though I think he was kind of a jerk.

B: You met him?

J: Oh yes. I interviewed him for Playboy. It was a disaster!

B: Isn’t he a queen?

J: He refuses to talk about it. He gets religious. Look, good for him. He’s alive and doing well and I give him respect for that. If you ever read his autobiography, it’s one of the most shocking ever. He mailed people turds! We’d already made Pink Flamingos before I read that, but he started turd terrorism! But you know turd terrorism was very big recently in the New Orleans riots. If you read the book The Great Deluge, which is a great book, in there they talk about the Big Dump, they called it. All the looters shit everywhere! They shit in people’s beds, they shit in the fryers in the fast-food restaurants! In Saks they shit on the sweaters and put them back on the shelves! How did they know where to shit? Everything was pitch black. People told me they came home and there were turds in their beds. It was pure anger and hate!

B: What?!

J: I’m not making this up! Read The Great Deluge. It’s all in the book. They cover it beautifully. It’s all about Hurricane Katrina.

B: Well, Ondine did say in A that hate is a great emotion; it’s like taking a good shit!

J: Oh fuck! It’s eight o’clock! We gotta get going! We have to go right now! We’re never going to make it to the Governor’s Ball!