John Waters Turns 70 (INTERVIEW)

The multi-hyphenate talks about his colorful career in the arts, his views on Hollywood, the extinction of trashy movies, and how he's going to celebrate becoming a septuagenarian.
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The multi-hyphenate talks about his colorful career in the arts, his views on Hollywood, the extinction of trashy movies, and how he's going to celebrate becoming a septuagenarian.

Fans of John Waters' movies like Pink Flamingos and Polyester may be saddened to learn that the Baltimore-born filmmaker is currently not working on any new film projects. That's the bad news.

John Waters Photo

John Waters. (Photo: Greg Gorman)

The good news is that he is still active in the arts and he will be producing more intellectual property for their perusal. It is just the format that will be different. Waters is currently authoring two books -- Mr. Know It All and Liar Mouth -- to follow up the success he had with Role Models and Carsick, both of which became New York Times best sellers.

But Waters is sanguine about the change, explaining he stays where he is doing the best. Right now, that's as an author. But it is also because Waters understands the film world is a different place than it was in the mid-'60s when he picked up a 16mm camera and began making movies.

Waters early films -- before the more mainstream Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom -- were considered exploitation and/or trash movies, and those just aren't being made today.

"Now Hollywood makes $70 million versions of them, and they're terrible, so I don't like trashy movies anymore, or what's thought of as a trashy movie," Waters, who has instead become a fan of obscure, feel-bad French movies, tells Bio. "What would be a trashy movie today? What's an exploitation film today? I don't know what one is. That's over. They're all now vintage. That genre is over. As soon as pornography became legal, there was no such thing as sexploitation anymore."

No immediate film in the works doesn't mean that Waters will never make a movie again. After all, on April 22nd, he will only be 70 years young, so there is plenty of time. Case in point? To celebrate, he is planning to fly the five people he talks to every day of his life to Paris.

John Waters Photo

John Waters. (Photo: Greg Gorman)

"Usually, I have a big party," he says. "On my 30th birthday, I had it in a punk rock club. My 40th birthday, I held in an old-age home. My 50th, I had at Pravda before it opened in New York. My 60th, I had at Pastis. For my 70th, I thought, 'I don't need to have a celebrity party this year. I'm going to go take my oldest, closest friends to Paris.'"

Before he got on the plane, Bio chatted with Waters, who, even though a septuagenarian, still possesses his wicked sense of humor as well as his trademark, pencil-thin moustache, about his life today, his early influences, the highlights of his life, and more.

What is a typical day in your life?

It's exactly the same no matter which city I'm in. My main residence is Baltimore. I have an apartment in New York, one in San Francisco, and I live in a rental in Provincetown in the summer. Monday to Friday, it's exactly the same. I get up at six a.m. I read all my newspapers, drink tea, and at 8 a.m., I start writing something or thinking up something until 11 or 12. Then I meet with the four or five people that work for me, and we plot the day. So in the morning I think it up, in the afternoon we sell it.

The evening, it depends. I like to cook for myself or others, so I cook. I always read at night. Sometimes I go to the movies. I don't go out wildly during the week. I still worry it's a school night, even at 70. Although when I was young and it was a school night, I violated it every time. Now, as an adult, I don't. Now I'm so organized, if I'm going to have a hangover it's been on my calendar for two months.

If I ever have a hangover, it's on Saturday. I weigh myself every Friday, because I'm the skinniest Friday morning and the fattest every Monday because I eat sensibly Monday to Friday, and not on weekends.

You mentioned there are people that you're in touch with every day, are they members of your group of Dreamlanders?

[Casting director] Pat Moran certainly is. She's gone on to have a great career. She's won three Emmys. She's cast me in some TV shows, and she's my dearest friend, she and her husband. Then my other friend Dennis Dermody is a film critic I've known forever, and another friend that you don't know, so that's it.

I was reading that the Wizard of Oz was the one film that influenced you as a child and set you on your path. Is that true?

Judy Garland Photo Gallery: The Wizard of Oz' officially launched Judy Garland's career as a musical film star in 1939. (Photo: Getty Images)

A photo still from 'The Wizard of Oz.' (Photo: Getty Images)

Sure, but it influenced everybody from my generation really. I didn't understand why Dorothy wanted to go home to that smelly, awful farm in black and white. I was mad at her at the end when she went back. Don't go you fool, there's better places than home. Stay in Oz with winged monkeys, and magic shoes, and gay lions.

When I was really young, I made a movie called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead. Well, I started it, but we never finished it because I didn't even know how to do it. The Wicked Witch. I've written about her, she was my real leader. She's still my leader. That's why I hated Wicked, because they took my childhood heroine/villain and made her an ingénue, the ultimate sin. They made Margaret Hamilton pretty.

Is there one mainstream movie that you secretly enjoy watching over and over again?

I don't watch any movies over and over, but a mainstream movie I watch over and over? Probably not. The few movies I can even think of that I watch over and over would be the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie Boom! (1968), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). I wouldn't call any of them mainstream. I was a huge supporter of Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought that was a big Hollywood movie that was great.

Is there something that you love about Hollywood, and is there something that you hate about Hollywood?

Well, Hollywood treated me very fairly. I was only there really for Cry-Baby and Serial Mom. The more money they give you, the more they're going to have their say. That's a simple math equation that should be taught in every film school. If you don't want anybody to tell you what to do, make a film like Tangerine on your cell phone, which was a great movie. So no, I was treated fairly in Hollywood. I learned how to negotiate. Let's put it that way.

You're known as a bibliophile, so what are you reading now that is inspiring you?

I just finished Augusten Burroughs' new book, Lust and Wonder, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did read the mother of the Columbine killer's book [A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold]. The last ones I read? The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman, which is about teaching literature in a men's prison, which I did too, so I identified with that. There's a new biography coming out on Boyd McDonald, who had Straight to Hell magazine, which is really good. I'm a big fan of Lydia Davis and so I always read her books. I'm a big fan of Joy Williams, and her last book, The Visiting Privilege, I loved.

A lot of really talented people have come out of Baltimore. What is it about Baltimore that breeds talent?

It's the only city left where you can afford to be a Bohemian on the East Coast. Plus it's near everything, and people aren't impressed here. They don't try to act rich ever, even if they are. Everyone has a good sense of humor. When I bought an apartment in New York and told people, somebody said to me, "Why?" It's so refreshing because most people think, "Oh, you're so lucky."

Also, in Baltimore you have a very mixed group of friends. In New York or L.A., everyone I know is in show business, or is a writer, or is always at work. I always say that I can tell I have a private life if I go out with you and I don't deduct it. I do have many dinners that are non-deductable, and that means I have a real private life.

You also have a place in San Francisco. That's not an industry town.

No. It's not. That's one of the reasons I like it there. I love San Francisco. I had my real, wild youth there. I lived in my car only three blocks from where I bought my beautiful apartment. I can live both ways in San Francisco, although today there's no poor parts left in San Francisco, I promise you. It's more expensive than New York, unfortunately.

What were your feelings when they took Hairspray and they put it on Broadway?

Are you kidding? I was excited. I mean, the very first time I went to hear the very, very beginning, the table read, I was really scared. I went by myself, but as soon as I heard, I was frightened. I thought, "This could be a huge hit." Everybody knew it could, but you couldn't say it out loud because it's such bad luck. It's one of the best experiences of my life, that whole thing, and I was involved from the very, very beginning.

You don't feel like they changed it too much from your film?

They should have changed it. That's why it worked. When they don't change it is why it doesn't work. That's why the John Travolta movie worked, too, because they changed it from the musical, and they changed it from my movie. It was a different version.

Biggest life lessons you've learned thus far?

Well, I don't know how I learned it. I always say a "no" is free. That's the most important thing to remember, and if you're in show business, realize it's a life of rejection, but it's like hitchhiking, you only need one person to say yes.

Do you have a moment that you consider the highlight of your career?

I think more of the highlight of my life than my career. Three times my life changed, and my career. The first week we ever showed Pink Flamingos at midnight in New York, and like 40 people came, and they said, "All right, you can have it one more time." From the word of mouth of those 40 people, there was a line around the block the next weekend. My life changed that night.

My life also changed when Hairspray won the Tony, and my life changed when both Role Models and then Carsick became New York Times bestsellers. Those three days are when my career changed. Tent poles, as they say, but I can give you many days when it was the bottom of the stock market of my career.