At first glance, John Waters‘ New York apartment is almost shockingly normal: comfortably worn sofa, overflowing bookshelves. Apart from what appears to be a small taxidermied terrier “napping” in the unused fireplace, it could be the home of any well-read West Village bohemian. But a conversation with the filmmaker, author, and enduring cult hero quickly proves that at 73, his restless mind is still as sharp (and inky black) as his legendary mustache.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new book is called Mr. Know It All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. What is a filth elder, exactly?
JOHN WATERS: Well, I think it’s someone who is still curious about the newest radical movement, even if it might be against you yourself. You can never think that only the music of your generation was good, or “Oh, I had more fun than they did when they were young.” A true filth elder knows that today’s juvenile delinquent is having just as much fun shutting down Baltimore with a hacking thing as we did stealing hubcaps in the ‘50s.
The book is mostly memoir, but there’s definitely an element of advice. How would you feel about it being filed under self-help?
That would be terrible, because people wouldn’t find it! The worst place ever to be on a bookshelf is in the humor section, then you’re next to Peanuts books. And I always say I don’t want mine only in the gay section either, because that’s usually next to true crime by the bathroom in the back. I want it up front!
It a self-help book, yes. But it’s also essays about subjects that obsess me like Brutalism, opening a hideous foodie restaurant, and taking LSD, which I did as a dare that I gave myself in some ways.
You write about planning your acid trip very carefully. You didn’t want to maybe go for something easier to manage, like MDMA?
See, I always hated that drug. Loving everybody is my idea of hell. Sitting around with a pacifier sucking my thumb in pajamas with a bunch of strangers who want to hug me? Oh my God, that sounds like the most horrible experience I could ever imagine. [Laughs]
It’s been 15 years since your last movie, A Dirty Shame, which was sort of sunk by its NC-17 rating. Do you think you’re done with filmmaking?
Dirty Shame should have been rated No One Over 17, it’s so juvenile, the sex jokes… But no, I was paid maybe two years ago to write the sequel to Hairspray on HBO, and it didn’t happen but that doesn’t mean it won’t. This year I also had another spark of making Fruitcake, a children’s Christmas movie. So I don’t know that I’m through. If I am though, I’m absolutely fine with that.
People say to me “Oh I bet you had so much fun making movies!” Fun? Twenty hours days with no money? I have great memories, I’m proud when I look back on them. But fun is when I’m off work. Fun is having a martini with a friend in Provincetown on a beautiful night.
Of all your movies, you’ve called Hairspray the gift that keeps on giving.
Yes! They made it a big, brassy Hollywood musical [on Broadway in 2002, and in a 2007 screen remake], and it worked that way. And now they have it in every high school, not just in America but everywhere. And I think that’s amazing, because it’s still two men singing a love song to each other, and no one ever seems bothered… Because of political correctness they can’t cast by race or anything, so I’ve seen it with a skinny black girl playing Tracy [Turnblad].
Kids don’t care! That’s what’s so great. So eventually when they redo Hairspray on Broadway, it should be every sex and race playing the opposite and still have the same script, and it will be theater of the absurd, which is what I started with in the first place. [Laughs]
You also talk about casting Johnny Depp in Cry Baby in 1989, when he was desperate to get away from his 21 Jump Street fame.
He hated being a teen idol. I always said to him, “Are you crazy? The point of being in show business is to become so famous that you can’t go out!” But Johnny at the time wanted to be taken more seriously, and he did it the right way. I think he’s lovely in it, and more people have probably seen that movie than any of my other ones, because he’s in it and it can play on television.
[Though] I think in a weird way that’s the reason it didn’t work, really — because the girls that were screaming for him suddenly realized that we were making fun of them. In a good way, because I make fun of things I love! But they always smell a rat, and that rat is me. [Laughs]
Is it true that Brad Pitt also came in and gave a great reading, but you didn’t cast him?
At that time I don’t think even Thelma and Louise had come out yet, and he walked in and it was just like, My God! Not only was he good, he just looked like such a movie star. He just couldn’t play the sidekick to Johnny Depp — he had to be quirky looking. But I like Brad, I think he’s smart and I’m a fan of his forever. He picks good projects and he handles being a celebrity well, too. He’s the type I think who drives around in an old rental car because no one will bother him. Don’t go out with 40 bodyguards, get a s—ty rental!
From your perspective, is indie film is generally in a better or worse place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
Oh, worse. They still want all movie stars in it, they want music and all that… It’s just tricky because in the early days there were rules to break, there were taboos. There aren’t any anymore, so you have to be even more original or else you’re trying too hard. When I read reviews that call a movie John Waters-esque, I usually hate it. I think, “That’s just because it’s gross or it has drag queens!”
I always say that the closest in spirit to my early movies was Johnny Knoxville because of his Jackass movies. He would have eaten dog s—, he said he would! I’ve talked to him about it.
What about a movie of your own life? Your friend Matthew Gray Gubler has said he’d like to play you.
A biopic? I want to be dead when that happens, because I know I’ll object to it. For the older parts though, Steve Buscemi should play me because people always think I’m him. And Matthew, yes — he’s way more handsome than I was when I was young, but I’ve seen him dressed as me, he could do it.
I’ve heard that you turned down Dancing With The Stars twice?
I know you’re probably thinking, “Why not, you do everything else!” But I’m a bad dancer, that’s why. And my mother for some reason said, “You do that, I’ll disown you,” and I thought, “You’re kidding! You watch it and you love it.” When Ricki [Lake] was on I did a “surprise” visit to her — yeah, we did three takes — still, I always watched it, and I liked when Chazz [Bono] was on. And I was never gladder than when Nancy Grace lost, just because she’s the enemy of prisoner rights.
At the recent Met Gala, a lot of the guests seemed maybe not quite clear what do with the “Camp” theme. What does that word mean to you?
It’s a complicated thing, because camp was about not knowing how great you were, because you were terrible. And you can’t do that when you’re wearing $100,000 in fashion, really. I’m not saying it’s over, but everyone’s too aware now. It was a gay thing that straight people didn’t know about, and so it was a secret, an innocence celebrated by non-innocents. But I love the Met, are you kidding? They own a couple of my pieces, and that’s almost camp to me.
To pivot a little bit, you have some very strong words for the current pope, who most liberals generally seem to love.
Anita Bryant did more for gay rights because she got people pissed, and they joined up. He’s like the pat on the back, “Good little queer.” And he says “Who am I to judge?” Who are you? You’re the f—in’ pope! You’re infallible! What do you mean “Who am I?” You have the power to change everything! I’m sorry, the [Church] are my enemy. They have been for centuries — a global, knowledgeable group of pedophiles that knew it, joined it, and knew they could get away with it.
So you prefer a more openly villainous pope?
Well, I always said if anyone ever steals my head when I die, don’t take it to some goth sitting in a basement watching horror movies. Slip it under the pope’s bedsheets so when he puts his feet down, “Ahhhhh..,”
What role do you think art should play in the political landscape we’re in now?
I think putting Trump in contemporary art dates you. I would advise against it. I don’t mention Trump in my book because at the moment all my books are still in print, I want them to stay in print. The pope I’m fine with [writing about] — that’s a lifetime appointment. [Laughs]
You’ve said that Elvis helped you realize you were gay. Fans must always be telling you you did the same for them.
People do all the time, but yet I never came out! I never had, like, a gay bar mitzvah. It wasn’t easy, my parents were not so comfortable. My father always said, “Just don’t say it in USA Today,” I think because all his friends read it, which I thought was fair. I mean, he backed Pink Flamingos!
People do thank me and it’s moving to me, I’m happy about that. But I was no brave person. the reason I was in all the gay magazines first is because they were the only people that asked me. I didn’t have anywhere else to sell my movies, really. [Laughs]
Having been on both sides now, would you say it’s better to be underground, or in the mainstream?
Everybody thinks they’re an outsider now, nobody wants to be an insider. I do! Because once you’re in there, it’s even more ironic that you have the power to change anything or get the ear of people who can. So I was over being an outsider a long time ago. It’s much more challenging to be an insider and be deviant and change things.