Legendary Filmmaker Brings "This Filthy World" to Edinboro
John Waters spills on the Erie Canal, fax machines,anger, death, hitchhiking, Kardashians, North Korea, and his upcoming performance at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
So the guy who doesn't watch more than five movies a year just got to interview one of the most important filmmakers of our time.
Sure, I'd never actually seen any of his films – but that doesn't mean I don't understand the cultural significance of Baltimore-born filmmaker, actor, artist, comedian, journalist, and writer John Waters, whose body of work spans a full half-century. It just means I had to find a qualified authority on his films before I interviewed him.
"John Waters and the Dreamlanders – the regulars he cast in his films in the '70s and '80s – just went out there and made the crazy, campy films they wanted to make," said John C. Lyons, my qualified authority on John Waters' films for the purposes of this story. Lyons' credentials include serving as the executive director of the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania, the founder of the Edinboro Film Series, and the curator of the Erie Reader-sponsored FILM at the Erie Art Museum. Oh yeah – he's also a filmmaker, known for his 99-minute, locally-shot, soon-to-be-released independent film, "There Are No Goodbyes."
"His influences are part highbrow – Fassbinder, Fellini, Bergman – and part sleazy exploitation films, which is obviously a unique combination," said Lyons, of Waters. "I love filmmakers who work independently and are able to find success while maintaining their voice in their films. They are an inspiration to me; filmmakers like John Waters paved the way for independent filmmaking today."
Now I don't know what any of that means, but luckily for me, John Waters is not just a "filmmaker." In addition to being best-known for directing more than 15 films since the 1960s including "Hairspray," "Multiple Maniacs," "Roman Candles," and, of course, "Pink Flamingos," Waters is really more of a phenomenon; as a pioneer in transgressive cult film – which, by definition is meant to poke fun at cultural mores by both shocking and amusing – he is often looked to for commentary on cultural issues outside the realm of both film and art in general.
That being said, I decided to approach the time I'd been given with him on the phone as more of a conversation than an interrogation. We'd just have a chat, this brilliant man and I, and if we talked about movies, my qualified authority on John Waters' films for the purposes of this story John C. Lyons had given me enough information to wing it.
On the other hand, if we talked of the Erie Canal, fax machines, anger, assholes, death, homo- and bi-sexuality, hitchhiking, the Kardashians, and North Korea, that would be just fine too. After all, John Waters' commentary on such diverse subject matter is the raison-de-etre of "This Filthy World," his touring performance that saunters in to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania April 4.
Although Waters' appearance in the area was unexpected by some, it happens to be the result of years of work by a disparate group of heroes and heroines who banded together against all odds to accomplish their dreams and overcome obstacles while learning about teamwork, persistence, dedication, and themselves in the process.
Almost sounds like a movie, doesn't it?
"A couple years ago, the FSNWPA Founder, Greg Ropp, and I had a conversation about how cool it would be to bring him here," Lyons said. "Coincidentally, some of my Edinboro Film Series student board members dropped his name last year, so the Edinboro Film Series set up the funding and booking. The EFS gets a budget from the Student Government at Edinboro University which helps a lot, but it came up short for a guest of this caliber."
That's right, this movie isn't one long "rolling up the sleeves" montage set to a peppy Loverboy track before ending in a pasture of rainbow glitter with happy puppies all licking each other with their cute little puppy tongues. This story – like most – does indeed feature some heartbreak and disappointment, and perhaps even some crippling self-doubt in that moment when all looks lost and candied-bacon dreams seem scattered upon the cruel, northwestern Pennsylvania winds.
"Came up short" is a nice way of saying "only had half the money."
"We were able to supply some of the funding for the event, but we knew we would need support," said Eric Fink, president of the Edinboro Film Society.
So the EFS put together a proposal to the EUP Student Government Association for more funding; after two presentations and a lot of lobbying, they got what they wanted.
"The SGA gave us close to what we asked for – which was great – but there was still a shortfall," Lyons said. "However, the university itself came through for us to make up the difference. The person who helped us with this final shortfall has asked to remain anonymous."
So, in that very moment of despondence and defeat, a shadowy figure of unknown identity emerged to save the day! That's how movies are supposed to work, right?
I don't know, really. But after learning about the effort it took to bring him to the area, I was even more inspired to make sure that the guy who doesn't watch more than five movies a year talked with John Waters the person, not just John Waters the filmmaker, actor, artist, comedian, journalist, or writer; I hope that after reading this Q & A, you, too are lying in a pasture of rainbow glitter with happy puppies all licking each other with their cute little puppy tongues.
Cory Vaillancourt: Hi, John; Cory Vaillancourt from the Erie Reader. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. We're all looking forward to your visit to Edinboro University here in Pennsylvania.
John Waters: I don't think I've been there. And I don't know why, I can't explain it, but I've always wanted to meet someone who says, "Hi, I'm from the Erie Canal area." And I never have.
CV: Well, they were the superhighways of the 1800s. People envisioned them one day spanning the nation, so you could get anywhere with a donkey and a barge. But it just didn't pan out.
JW: Well that just shows you how up-to-date I am on geography. So that would be even more bizarre. If someone said that, especially if it were a young person, then I would know that they are insane.
JW: That might end up in one of my scripts or a book someday. I don't know why; sometimes these obsessions come from nowhere, really. I just like how the word sounds.
CV: I'd have to agree – I wouldn't call it alliteration, but it does roll off the tongue. Ear-e-kan-AL.
JW: It kind of does. I have many characters, and I have to fight the urge to have every character's first and last name begin with the same letter.
CV: I have to admit, I don't know an awful lot about your characters or your work, but according to my research, I have to ask you a very serious question right now.
JW: Am I dead?
CV: What's it like to be dead?
JW: You know, actually, the few hours when people believed that, I was asleep. People in Europe found out first, because they're six hours ahead, and then emailed people in America that woke up to that. If I were going to do a hoax about me, or write an obituary, I could have written it much funnier. I didn't think it was that clever, to be honest; I think somebody wanted to make a name for themselves and I guess they did.
But it is kind of a pain, you know. I don't want to give it more credit than it deserves, really, or encourage others to do it, but now I can say well, I've been dead, too [laughs].
CV: It's weird, these things seem to pop up with little or no encouragement; it's like the prank du jour of the Internet age. I suppose it took place back in the fax machine days too…
CV: But nowadays…
JW: Nowadays, it's worldwide in minutes. The thing is, from what I saw online – and I don't know the person who did it, I'll never look at his website again, I don't really care, I don't hold it against him – but people mostly wrote really mean things about it. I don't think he'll replace The Onion. Let's put it that way. The Onion would have done it much funnier, and I would have been happy.
Let me tell you one thing though – you know who came to my defense? The first one was The National Enquirer. You can look it up on their website – that's one of the first Googles I got was saying "The National Enquirer says it isn't true."
CV: Strange days, my friend. Strange days.
JW: I'm happy that The National Enquirer stuck up for me.
CV: It's funny, last year I had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Ice. You know, Vanilla? And the same thing had just happened to him; he said the most mortifying thing was that, you know, you're in the public eye and you have to bear the "slings and arrows," but he was mostly worried about his mother finding out.
JW: Well, I did call my mother before she heard.
CV: Yeah, I guess you gotta call mom first.
JW: Actually I try to call her last, depending on what the news is [laughing]! But she's used to most anything now.
CV: What's the question reporters ask you that you hate the most?
JW: I don't hate any of 'em, you know? The obvious ones they're going to ask me – "When did you meet [frequent collaborator] Divine?" and "What's the difference between good and bad taste?" Those are probably the two top questions like that. And they're not bad questions – I just can't think of a new answer, though. I've been doing interviews for almost 50 years; every project that I do, like if I'm in concert, I do two to four interviews…I hear those every day, almost, because I do shows all over the world.
But I try to come up with different answers as much as I can, as a sort of test. And I think that if you ever had to go to "celebrity school," you'd have to give 10 interviews where they ask the same questions and you have to give different answers every time.
I tried to do that in Cannes, where you do a whole day of press. Each table has fiver reporters, and you have 10 minutes – they're called "round robins," and they're really ludicrous. But it's a game you can play with your co-promoters, like when you're there with the star of your movie, you say, "Okay, come on, let's make sure that we tell the truth and never give the same answer," which is hard to do. Like talking to you – I forget what I say to each person,[laughing] know what I mean? And as soon as it's over, it's kind of like, "I don't remember what I said." And sometimes that comes back to haunt me [laughing]. But not anymore; I'm media-wise enough – I hope.
The only time I'm nervous is when they don't have a tape recorder. And they say, "Oh, I can do it," and I say, "No you can't, I talk really fast, and paraphrasing is not quoting."
CV: And that's why you're being recorded right now.
CV: I probably should have said that at the outset.
JW: [laughs] Here's the thing – the only people that can do that are old people, because they know shorthand. No young people know shorthand.
CV: We have iPhones for that nowadays.
JW: It's the same way when I do book signings, you know? They buy the book and they want to have a picture with me, I would say, "Get the youngest person that works here!" No one over 20 knows how to work every new cell phone… so it's the same thing – only an old person knows shorthand, and only a young person knows how to operate every new phone.
CV: That's an interesting point – the engagement of young people with media nowadays. It's so omnipresent that young people are able to be exposed to your work far easier than, perhaps, a fax that was sent down the Erie Canal. Does that make it more fun for you?
JW: I was in Brussels this past weekend; it was completely sold out – 1,500 people. I'd say the average age was 25. That is the biggest thrill; that's the only thing that you can't buy with advertising, so yeah, it's still fun for me! I like my job. My dreams came true years ago. This is all gravy; this is all beyond anything I ever hoped for when I was a kid. I'm thankful; I've been doing this for 50 years! And I've always said the reeeeeeeeal mark of success is not the money, or the power – it's just never having to be around assholes.
JW: And I'm not. Ever.
CV: Well, I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.
JW: You've got to keep working on it and you will be. It's a great goal to look forward to [laughing].
CV: No more assholes.
JW: Never to have to be around assholes. And that is power [laughing].
CV: And you've been doing that an awful long time. Do you feel like audiences have become so accustomed to your work that their expectations are much higher than they were in the '70s?
JW: I don't know – a lot of people weren't even born when I was getting into it; some of them weren't even born when I made my last movie. In "This Filthy World," and in my last book, I don't think I even mentioned my movies. I'm writing a new book now that doesn't mention them much; it's about hitchhiking across America, which I did by myself last May.
So, the movies still show; they're available, they're in boxed sets, they even show them on TV now. So I think the movies – whether you like them or hate them – I don't think they look dated.
CV: And throughout the years, as you've grown in popularity, did you ever notice that affecting your creative process?
JW: Sure. The more money in the budget, the more people you gotta answer to – that's common sense. But there are great trade-offs, too. Do I want to go back and make a movie with the budget of my early movies?
Absolutely not. I did that. You do that when you're young, when you have that anger, and that energy, and that lunacy to make a movie.
You're going to have that raw anger, when you're young, and certainly if I had the anger I had when I made "Pink Flamingos" today at 66 years old, I would be a big fool. I mean, who wants to be around an angry old person?
CV: But isn't there still plenty to be angry about?
JW: Oh, there's plenty to be angry about! When you're young, you can be an alcoholic, you can be a junkie, and you're still sexy, because you're angry and crazy. But at 66 – if you haven't already figured it out by then – it isn't angry, it isn't sexy. It's kind of sad. Anger, when you're young, is sexy. When you're old it's bitterness. And bitterness is never, ever sexy.
CV: What is sexy?
JW: A sense of humor and a refusal to be categorized, sexually. I think people should be coming in [as opposed to coming out]. I think we have enough gay people. We have enough. Come in. Can't they audition now? I want to edit the coming out process. "No no no! We don't want you - we want you. You, you're not really gay, you're just saying it to be trendy. Go back in."
CV: So there should be a screening process?
JW: Yes. A board.
CV: A board. You have to appear before a board.
JW: And then you would get an official gay ID.
CV: And what offenses would constitute grounds for revocation thereof?
JW: Women who pretend they are lesbians to turn on straight men. Make men do it! It's called a bro job, by the way. But men would never do it to turn on women. That is heresy.
CV: I'm a straight white guy. Do these "lesbians" actually exist or are they just a figment of the porn industry's imagination?
JW: All straight men love the fantasy of two lesbians because they all think they'll get in and give them what they really need. That is the laaaaaaaaaast thing they really need, or they wouldn't be lesbians!
CV: It's really such a cruel fabrication.
JW: It's the conceit of heterosexual males. But believe me, there are heterosexual males that have sex with men. Just because somebody was gay once, doesn't mean they're gay forever. They might be experimenting; many people are bisexual. I wish I was; Woody Allen said the best thing about it is you double your chance for a date.
CV: Absolutely. Why would you not want to widen your scope of potential targets?
JW: But all the bisexuals I've ever met are miserable. If they're with men they want to be with women, if they're with women they want to be with men; they're never happy [laughs]. I guess the grass looks greener…
CV: The whole "king of trash" label and similar monikers, carrying them around with you for years…what still shocks you?
JW: Bad romantic comedies [laughs].
A lot of things shock me right now – that reviews don't matter anymore. You can get all terrible reviews and be the number one movie in America, which, I believe happened this week with that Oz movie. Good for them! I'm happy they know how to pull it off; I wish I knew how to pull it off [laughs].
But the things that shock me – it doesn't mean I like them. That's the difference – I wasn't trying to shock people, I was trying to make them laugh. But at the same time, now all the Hollywood movies try to shock you. I guess I tried to shock people when there were still taboos left that you couldn't do, and that's what my whole career was all about – making fun of those taboos. Today, Hollywood wants to do that. So I think it's kind of old hat, just to try to be shocking. And it's never funny – well, sometimes it is. "The Hangover" was funny; "Bridesmaids" was funny, that other bridesmaids movie was funny – what was that called? – that was funny too; there are two of them.
CV: But it's not just Hollywood, is it? Even down to the small screen, do you think reality television shows are somehow related to, or descended from your work?
JW: I think they are the exact opposite.
They ask you to feel superior to the people in them, to make fun of them, to look down on them; they're classist, whereas mine asked you to look up to the subject matter, be amazed at their taste. I'm secretly in awe of the people I make movies about; however, I always say to the ones who are watching reality TV, "the people who are in it get paid, and you're wasting your time, so who's the dumb one?"
I mean, I haven't seen it, but I like Honey Boo Boo better than the "Kadashians" or whatever their names are.
CV: It's tragic, like all the horror stories in the news on a daily basis that desensitize us to their tragedy. Do you think any of them are funny, like I do, or am I the only one?
JW: Today the New York Post's headline was – you know, the cannibal was convicted, the one that had all the fantasies…wait a minute, I have to ask Susan [his assistant]. The headline's really funny, hold on.
CV: I will.
[26 seconds pass]
JW: I can't find it. Hold on one minute. She's coming up the steps. It's a really funny headline about the cannibal. Hold on.
CV: All right.
[10 seconds pass]
JW: Yes, it's "Chopped Liver."
CV: Well done, Post, well done.
JW: Are they funny? They're horrible. But it's gallows humor, and the New York Post is the best place to read about them – just don't read their editorials.
CV: There was just a headline about that gang rape in India that referred to it as a "murder-cum-rape."
JW: Ohhhhhhhh no. The very best headline they ever did – which I'm not going to give away because it's in my show – I'll tell you the best one if you come to see my show. The second best one they had was when Justin Bieber had those people who wanted to castrate him and they caught them, and the headline was "Just Nuts."
CV: I love it. Speaking of nuts, I love North Korea. They almost seem like some sort of fantastical creation from one of your movies.
JW: Who's the dead one?
CV: Kim Jong Il.
JW: He loved American musicals. I bet he loved "Hairspray."
CV: I would imagine; his western tastes were well-known – whiskey, the Chicago Bulls…
JW: I always wanted him to be Wilbur and we could get an Edna over there and they could do "Timeless to Me." So yes, North Korea, they just had that Dennis…
CV: Yeah, Rodman.
JW: Yes, they just had him over there. I love reading about them; I'm just glad I don't live there.
CV: Rodman's supposed to be going on vacation with Kim Jong Un this summer.
JW: Oh God. That's like Gerard Depardieu moving to Russia; maybe they all deserve it.
CV: So tell us what we can expect from the show.
JW: You can expect fashion, true crime, celebrities, movies, theater, journalism, amusement parks, how to open your own theater – I think it's a self-help lecture for people – for minorities who don't even fit in their own minority but have a good sense of humor. I don't want to limit my audience, but that would be my core audience.
Today, parents bring me their f---ed-up kids, if you want to know the truth. And that's amazing to me. It's like, I'm their last-ditch effort to bond with them, and that's kind of touching.
CV: Hey, that's great, you know; it must be so much more meaningful to know that your work has an impact on peoples' lives like that.
JW: But when I was young, the parents called the cops on my work. So it's gotten better.
CV: Do you recall ever coming to this area before? You're going to be in Edinboro, but Erie is the "big city" around these parts.
JW: Yeah, I came in the '50s; my parents had friends who lived there. I've been doing these talks for 40 years; I might have been there, like at a college, but if I have, it hasn't been for a long time.
CV: This is kind of a big thing for us; we don't often get well-known, serious artists through here. Although this area is more progressive than most, we can still be a bit of a cultural backwater.
JW: What I've learned is, the people who come see me, there's cool people wherever you go, even if it's not a progressive place – because of the Internet. You don't have to leave home to be cool anymore. That's a radical concept. When I was young, if you didn't go to New York or L.A., you could never see movies – you couldn't see anything, really. Now, everybody sees everything in one second.
CV: No more fax machines.
JW: I have a fax machine still, and I'll tell you when it comes in handy – when the power goes out. It's the only line that works. Every once in a while I'll still use it.
CV: And when you come to Edinboro, will you be hitchhiking to the venue?
JW: No, I won't be. But if I had to, I always know I could.
John Waters will perform his "This Filthy World" show on Thursday, April 4 in the Louis C. Cole Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. The show is for mature audiences. The doors open at 7:30 p.m.; the performance begins at 8:30. Because tickets are free for Edinboro University of Pennsylvania students, this show will most certainly sell out; purchase yours for $10 at www.EdinboroTickets.com now, or risk being turned away the night of the show.