The year John Waters made his first film — 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket — Mary Poppins was the most popular movie in America. Although the Disney classic introduced moviegoers to a supernatural drifter who coaxed children into taking drugs using song and the occasional spoon full of sugar, Waters and his co-conspirators were ready to take film in a decidedly more deranged direction.
Shot on 8mm film stolen by one of Waters’ costars, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket was a 17-minute-long short that depicted the relationship between a black man who spends his time in a trash can and a white ballerina. The two are married on the rooftop of Waters’ family home by a Klansman as a drag queen bears witness. The film was made for around $30, and besides a screening in a Baltimore coffee shop and a few traveling exhibits, the short has never been released to the public. With this in mind, the heart aches wondering what Waters could have done with Mary Poppins and a willing Julie Andrews.
Since that auspicious debut, Waters has written and directed more than a dozen feature films. From Pink Flamingos, the master class in transgressive cinema that shows its cast of criminals vying for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive,” to 1988’s Hairspray, which was later adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, Waters’ career has focused on creating films for those who want to see a world where normalcy is challenged to no end. These are the movies that sticky-fingered cinephiles sneaked up to their rooms and watched with one hand on the remote.
Last month, Waters received the Writers Guild of America’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement. David Simon, creator of acclaimed series The Wire, had the privilege of presenting Waters with this prize for a career spent writing anything and everything he could and having the audacity to commit it to film. In his speech that evening, Simon took the time to point out a key principle at the heart of Waters’ writing: “This man knows not only who he is and what he has to say, but who we are, and why we need to hear it.”
Waters is quick to acknowledge that he developed his skills as a writer and filmmaker over time, but a look at his earliest works shows that his truly unique voice was always there — as was his willingness to try something as difficult as making challenging films and releasing them to an unsuspecting audience.
“It’s the same thing with a kid making a movie on their cell phone today. It is exactly what we were like only we had to get a 16mm camera that was so hugely heavy, but it’s the same spirit. You make things with your friends. You shouldn’t make them quickly. It took me a long time. It was quickly shot, but it took me years to get the right distributor, to get Pink Flamingos into New York. It took me two and a half years after it was made,” Waters says in an unmistakable purr. “I look back on that and I think, ‘We went out every night then and took drugs, everything. How did I get all of this together? How did I make all those movies?’ Because I was driven, and I loved the work. I never thought, ‘Well, you’ll never be able to do this’ even though I didn’t really go to school. Nobody was showing me how to do it, really.”
Borrowing money from his parents to fund his early projects, Waters says they were shocked that he was actually able to pay them back. As he learned the finer points of making a movie, Waters also followed the business side of filmmaking at a young age, flipping through the pages of Variety.
“My father started his own business too, so I’m like a weird, gay version of my father. I just started a business very different than what he had in mind for me,” says Waters.
More than 10 years since his last big-screen venture, Waters has recently focused his talents on live stand-up comedy tours that find him veering from the personal to the political. Not one to relax, Waters’ recent Christmas tour took him to 18 cities in just 21 days. Waters calls his current tour his “Alzheimer’s exercise” — a 70-minute, completely memorized set that keeps him on his toes. He likens the experience to being a politician or a peddler — two disturbingly similar trades — meeting fans, pressing flesh, and selling his wares.
“It’s exciting. I love to go on the road. I’ve been doing it my whole life, really. It’s like Vaudeville,” says Waters. “And I’m constantly rewriting it and adding new things, which you sort of have to do these days — or any days if you want to do repeat billings — but it’s pressure because every day the news changes. There’s so much news every day.”
A self-described news junkie, Waters has six newspapers delivered every morning. The news is, for Waters, his soap opera, the stories he watches every day. As a humor writer, keeping track of everything that’s happening in the world is essential, but Waters admits that current affairs in America have become a parody of a parody.
“As crazy as it is and as much as I like the excitement of new anarchy and new activism and everything, it is scary in a way because some of the things happening are like what the Nazis did — like saying no press and going into people’s homes and throwing them out of the country. I mean it’s not so funny,” says Waters.
When it comes to President Donald Trump, Waters is blunt about the current relationship between members of the press and the new administration. In Trump, Waters sees a man who doesn’t realize he’s not on a television show anymore. In Waters’ mind, making an enemy out of the press and the arts community is a losing battle for anyone in power — even if Trump has managed to deflect a large amount of the criticism lobbed against him.
“What I’m amazed about is he’s accusing the news media of lying when he’s the one that lies all the time and nothing happens. When I was young, presidents got impeached for lying. And now he tells them every day: ‘I’m going to release my taxes. I’m not.’ Thousands of things that are just wrong facts. I can understand not liking the news, and yes, the press does hate him. He’s right, but all people that read newspapers pretty much hate him,” says Waters. “I understand why the people voted for him. They felt left behind and powerless. Things weren’t changing. They thought they would, and they didn’t. But things are not going to change for them either, I’m afraid. At the same time, liberals, and I’m a liberal, are acting so shocked. He’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do. That’s why you were too lazy to go out and work for Hillary and not be enthusiastic enough, so she didn’t win. It’s late to be marching, but it’s better than not marching.”
No stranger to protests, Waters has described his idea of a fun date to be watching riots against Trump, saying in an interview with Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, “You know I love boys with tear gas.” According to Waters, if Trump would have lost the election, America would be seeing a decidedly different version of protests across the country.
“The other side, when they protest, they just beat up people. I think if Hillary would have won, they would have just beat people for a week and gone back to literally no action,” Waters jokes. “We did nothing for the first week because everybody was too stunned. And now they’re in such bad shape they don’t know what to do. We’ve got to get somebody that nobody even knows yet to come in. We’ve got to have young people. We’ve got to have youth. That’s what I’m looking for … The young people are the ones whose responsibility it is to come up with a new way to humiliate the enemy, a new kind of protest that works. And from the inside is always the best way to do it, or by surprise attack with humor. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
When it comes to young voices and provocateurs, Waters points to Milo Yiannopoulos as an example of what not to do when challenging the status quo. Yiannopoulos — an openly gay man who spoke out against gay rights, feminism, and anything else he could use to rile up public attention — recently experienced a meteoric rise and fall in his role as a public figure, stepping down from his position at Breitbart and losing a book deal after controversial remarks he made in defense of pedophilia were made public.
“You can go too far and ruin it like Milo. He self-destructed really and blew his whole career. He was the new Roy Cohn in my mind,” says Waters, comparing Yiannopoulos to Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel who later represented Trump in a federal housing lawsuit. Cohn, whose sexuality has long been the topic of debate, is also reported to have been heavily involved in the McCarthy Era targeting of homosexuals within government agencies.
“Milo is going to end up being [Westboro Baptist Church founder] Fred Phelps, somebody that just wanted to be hated,” says Waters. “And it’s not enough to just want to be hated. You have to say it in a funny way. I think he has the right to speak up. I’m never against that. I think you should be able to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater when there isn’t one. I like the extremes of free speech.”
Of course, no discussion of protests and free speech in Charleston is complete without touching on the recent demonstrations involving the Confederate flag throughout the city. Charleston became the focus of national attention after video spread of local Black Lives Matter organizer Muhiyidin d’Baha leaping across police tape to grab a Confederate flag from the hands of a member of the South Carolina Secessionist Party. For Waters, the thought of trying to revive the Stars and Bars comes across as a bit laughable.
“That seems like such a tired debate. The Confederate flag, it’s like the people who get crazy about burning a flag. Who would do that? It’s so retro,” Waters jokes. “I can see both sides, and it is a troubling time. I just can’t imagine a Confederate flag. There’s so many more things that they can use to try to piss people off. It just seems so old-fashioned.”
Although Waters believes it’s time for new, younger voices in American politics, he is willing to share his ideas for the country if he were to be elected to a high-ranking position. While he has already earned the esteemed title of the “Pope of Trash,” a John Waters presidency could hold a few fresh ideas to make America great again.
“Nobody mixes. Everybody stays with the people who are like them, their economic group, and everything. That’s the problem, and we’ve got to have some way to mix,” says Waters. “I do talk about that a lot in my show, my political ideas of what I would do if I was president. Those people with the Confederate flags, what I would do is sentence them to world travel because you can’t really be racist if you’ve been to every country in the world. But I know it’s a tough thing to do, to say, ‘You’ve committed a hate crime. You’re going to Paris.'”
For those looking for advice from Waters, he says you have to be the type of person who is curious, who wants to see as much of the world as possible and isn’t afraid to get their hands — and everything else — dirty. As someone who has made a career out of exposing the world to as many new ideas as possible and willfully obliterating any semblance of a comfort zone, Waters has never been afraid to entertain the extremes. And that career has proven to be extremely entertaining.
“The people who never leave exactly where they’re born and only want to elect people exactly like them are the ones who are not major thinkers. Basically you have to be curious about how people think that aren’t like you and how people live that are different than you,” says Waters. “I just can’t imagine not being curious. Every writer has to be curious about that, about how people feel.”
Recounting stories from his career and sharing his thoughts on current events, John Waters will be performing at the Charleston Music Hall on March 10 as a part of his spoken-word tour, “This Filthy World: Dirtier and Filthier.” Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $39.50 and can be purchased online at Charlestonmusichall.com or at the box office at 37 John St. The show is recommended for mature audiences.