We were recently joined by the fascinating cult director, John Waters. Best known for Hairspray, Cry Baby (with a young Johnny Depp) and Serial Mom (with a fantastic performance from Kathleen Turner) and the work that he did in the 70s with drag queen, Divine, Waters has traversed the underground and Hollywood for over 40 years. His 1970 film, Multiple Maniacs recently received a beautiful restoration and a Blu-ray release on the Criterion Collection (in stores now).
Front Row Reviews: Firstly, congratulations on the re-release of Multiple Maniacs and on the Criterion Release.
John Waters: Yes! Finally, finally, the film is out of jail and on parole.
FRR: And so deservingly – I was crying with laughter for the pretty much the whole thing. Except for the last 20 minutes, when I was really just staring at the screen in awe of what I was seeing.
JW: The censor woman in Maryland, when she saw it, she was crying but not in enjoyment. Just crying! I think it still works all these years later and I am still doing the same thing in a way and so it’s a really great thing to look back on. Really it’s like going to your high school reunion because I never went to mine! I didn’t finish high school really, so they wouldn’t let me graduate and this is what we were doing instead. I think in the long run this was better to.
FRR: It would be great to chat about the Dreamlanders [John’s creative team of cast and crew that he worked with]. How was it being an outsider – in the industry, in your community and in the cultural movements?
JW: Well the people that I made the films with were a combination, I grew up in a combination of upper middle class suburbia, and these were the kids that were mostly heterosexual but they were rebels and smoked pot and took acid and we all went downtown and wanted to be beatniks and hippies and met a gay crowd and maybe a black crowd and we all hung out together, which horrified everybody because even the black cops used to stop us and say, “You can’t do that! This isn’t Greenwich Village.” So that is how we formed the sense of humour – this was the bond we had. And I am still friendly with some of the people that are living that were in Multiple Maniacs so that is how it all started.
FRR: I want to talk about Divine. It is amazing to be talking to you about this relationship. As I mentioned those last 20 minutes of the film when there is very little dialogue but you clearly loved to film Divine and Divine looked so amazing.
JW: I did! I do remember that Divine wanted that mink coat for real life so I gave it him for Christmas but he had to wear it for the movie. It was a double edged present! Divine loved being a movie star, you could see Divine wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor. This was our version of Elizabeth Taylor. Way, way later in life after Divine was dead, I met Elizabeth Taylor and she looked like Divine! I don’t mean that in a bad way – they did kind of lookalike. That hairdo was very much Suddenly Last Summer and Divine loved Elizabeth Taylor. He even smoked Salems because she did.
He was my demented Elizabeth Taylor. Mostly Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos were vehicles for Divine, they were written for Divine. So in those days, I made movies for my friends and I had in mind who would play who. Especially Multiple Manics. When Divine first came out, he was billed as Lady Divine [the character name in MM] not Divine but we shortened it to Divine for Female Trouble but he was known as Lady Divine for a while. That was our English influence, I guess.
FRR: Your career as a whole – from the 60s and then Multiple Maniacs and the films of the 70s, all the way to A Dirty Shame, which I watched the other week and have to say it’s probably one of my favourite films I’ve ever seen.
JW: Thank you. It’s not many people’s favourite film of all time.
FRR: I just think it’s hilarious, the most wonderful and everyone is so perfect in it.
JW: I don’t really know how I ever got that film [A Dirty Shame] financed in a way through the Hollywood system because ultimately it ends in a facial for the audience.
FRR: It’s so frank and there is very little like it.
JW: Well that movie in a way was, I don’t know. Often I look back on my movies and I wonder what was I thinking about then. But for Multiple Maniacs, that was certainly a film that was made to make fun of hippie peace and love because it was right at the peak of when the love generation collapsed and maybe this was a small part of the collapse.
FRR: Over those decades, how have you found your career and the film industry has changed?
JW: Oh, it’s completely different because today Hollywood is looking for the next kid to make a weird little movie in Baltimore with his cell phone. When I was doing it, no one was looking for it including the New York underground. Today it would open in an art theatre and play at Sundance and then who knows what would happen. It could disappear in a week because today if something doesn’t make money the Friday it opens, then it is gone. When I was young and even before videos, basically films played in theatres for years. It would be more easy to get a distributor to look at it today than it was then. Kids are still making movies today that startle people and they always will. That is the youth’s duty, to see what came before and do something that surprises – that’s how you succeed in being a rebel – surprising that cool group of people. You don’t need to horrify your parents, it’s horrifying that coolest kids in school.
FRR: I shall keep that in mind and try to apply it to my own work!
JW: Do but don’t try too hard because Hollywood is making $100 million gross out movies that aren’t funny. When we made Multiple Maniacs, Hollywood wouldn’t have touched anything that was in this movie. Today, in many gross out comedies, everything that is in this movie would be possible – except maybe a rosary job. I can picture Johnny Knoxville [star of A Dirty Shame] doing a rosary job but he is the only one.
FRR: I have written here, talk to John about sex.
JW: About what? Oh, sex! Sex in all my movies is ludicrous. I don’t think anyone has ever jerked off to one of my movies. If they had they would be in trouble. Although you know when we made A Dirty Shame and Selma’s [Blair] fake tits that were made of plastic and cost a lot of money to put on everyday – when they were taken off, they were stolen by a teamster and who knows what he was going to do with them.
FRR: The rosary scene with Mink and Divine, it stays with you long after you finish the film. How did you go about choreographing or filming that?
JW: A person I knew, knew the Priest but I didn’t ask any questions – he had some kind of relationship with the Priest. The Priest was politically active as many were in the 60s and he knew we wanted to make a movie but he was not in the room when we were shooting and he had no idea what we were shooting. My other friend, who was a left wing radical kept him in the other room talking politics whilst we shot the scene. We were in there for hours but that didn’t take two minutes to shoot but he never saw what we shot. I felt bad for him because he came to the opening and was so horrified when he saw it. I said, “I’d never tell.” And still to this day I’ve never told anyone where the church is and to be honest I don’t even think I know. I guess if you went to that church you might recognise it but I don’t think many people who went to church saw Multiple Maniacs.
FRR: No, I don’t think there is a great crossover audience there.
JW: But I never heard anything later about the church finding out or being upset. There was never any fallback that I was aware off. In another church, the church where Divine got married in Female Trouble – the Priest let us film but later in life, the wife of the Priest sued him in their divorce and she tried to drag us to court saying that he let us shoot a porn movie in the church. And I said, it was not a porn movie, we were on the cover of Film Comment and we’d be happy to testify. Needless to say, I never heard from her again.
FRR: There are so many films today that are clearly homages to your work or inspired by what you have done.
JW: A lot of the ones that they say, “It’s a John Waters style movie,” I really can’t stand them. They just use that for anything that has a drag queen in it or anything that has blood. I don’t think there is any one film director that has copied me, really I don’t. I think there are a lot of filmmakers that I really love but I don’t think they try to be like me. I think maybe my films gave some freedom to do things that they may not have done before but I don’t think there is any one person that has copied me.
FRR: What is it about cinema today that excites you – what have you loved?
JW: I want to be surprised and startled and amazed. I loved the documentary Tickled because I was surprised by it. I just saw Get Out and liked it because it was a smart script. I love foreign feel bad movies, foreign French feel bad movies are my favourite.
FRR: One that I see you’ve written about was Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
JW: Oh, it was great. I interviewed Isabelle [Huppert] on stage at the Lincoln Centre and she was great. I will tell you a movie that I saw and loved called I, Olga about a serial killer, a true story about a Yugoslavian serial killer and it was really good. I think it probably played for five minutes.
FRR: What is next for you?
JW: I am writing a book called Mr Know-it-all, which is about avoiding respectability at 70. That is the big book I am writing. I have another little book called Make Trouble, which is coming out in the UK and USA, it is how to get through those next steps after you graduate from college. Mostly I am writing my book but I am also touring the world constantly, I did a Christmas show and another tour this year.
FRR: Do you think we’ll get another film?
JW: Who knows? I’ve been paid several times by Hollywood to write – there has been three different Hairspray television shows and sequels. Who knows? I keep writing them and they keep paying me so we will see.
FRR: Thank you so much for your time today John.
JW: Sure, and I am glad you got a kick out of Multiple Maniacs. Were you born when it was made?
FRR: It [Multiple Maniacs] was made in 1969 and I was born 22 years later.
JW: [Laughs] That is great! That is what I like to hear, you can’t buy a younger audience.
Multiple Maniacs is out now on Blu-ray on The Criterion Collection UK | @Criterion | #CriterionUK