On perhaps the coldest morning of January, I met with filmmaker and visual artist John Waters in his Manhattan apartment to discuss irony, Abstract Expressionism, Paul McCarthy, and John Waters: Change of Life, his upcoming retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Opening February 7th, the exhibition will include his recent photo-based works and mixed media pieces, as well as three early short films made between 1964 - 68 in his hometown of Baltimore. Walking to Waters’s apartment that morning, I hadn’t yet made up my mind whether I would open the interview by telling him that I had considered bringing him a gift of dogshit, or by telling him how I acquired the nickname "Pinky Dick" for a month in fifth grade.
Nick Stillman (Rail): I was talking with a friend of mine about this interview and she asked what time of day it would happen and I told her, "Around breakfast, I guess."
John Waters: After breakfast for me. I start at 6am every day.
Rail: Hm. I don’t.
Waters: I know! But as the day goes along I get dumber, so if I have to write anything it always has to be before the phone rings, before it starts—the onslaught of my day.
Rail: When’s the point where you feel yourself getting dumber?
Waters: After lunch. But it depends on what stage of my life I’m in. Let’s say I’m writing a movie or let’s say I’m working on photography, everybody knows never to call me until after 12pm. But, now I’m doing other things in the editing room, so if I’m in the editing room from, let’s say 10 - 6, then there’s the rest of my life I have to do at some time during that day, so it starts really early. My day starts by me thinking up fucked up things, and that’s in the morning—that’s my job. In the afternoon my job is to somehow turn that into money. So my job is to think up fucked up things and in the afternoon I’m practical and try to figure out a way to sell them.
Rail: Anyway, when I told my friend it would be quasi-breakfast-time for our interview she suggested that I bring you a big bag of dogshit. Would I be the first?
Waters: [Laughs.] No. That hasn’t happened in 20 years. When Pink Flamingos first came out I got many dogshit presents. Divine got weary of it, actually, because he would get flowers with dogshit on them. Oh, I got so many dogshit items!
Rail: I’m glad I didn’t do it then!
Waters: That’s when Pink Flamingos first kind of was the rage and caught on as a midnight hit. That hasn’t happened in a long time. Now I sometimes get really good presents from fans. If there’s anything I’m weary of getting it would be any item with a pink flamingo on it.
Rail: Well, it’s so obvious.
Waters: It’s also becoming a yuppie thing almost, you know? I’m against yuppies having pink flamingos in their front yards. I’m for elderly, rural white people that have them because they think they’re pretty. I’m against yuppies having them because—and this has been really politically correct about Pink Flamingos, which I like to be—basically it’s classist and making fun of the people that have them, and when I made that movie I wasn’t really making fun of the people that have them. Divine was living in that trailer with complete dignity, trying to write her memoirs.
Rail: This is something that I didn’t really want to get into until later, but what the hell. I was reading an interview with you and either you or your interviewer were talking about the force of irony in the late 20th century and the early 21st century and how it’s——
Rail: Elitist, and that it’s decreased the currency of grotesque or intentionally disgusting art.
Waters: That’s what Pecker was about, basically. And at the end of the movie, Pecker toasts the end of irony. I remember after 9/11, all the papers said, "This is the end of irony," and I said, "Wait a minute, I had that line before 9/11!" [Laughs]. Although I’m completely guilty. I mean, I’d say what I sell is irony. That is my business—irony. Including most of the pieces at the New Museum show involve irony in some way. Irony is what contemporary art is based on almost.
Rail: Right now it is. And has been for a while.
Rail: I guess since Abstract Expressionism you could make that case.
Waters: Yeah. And including Abstract Expressionism, because that made people mad when they couldn’t see a picture. From old masters on, it was about fucking it up. Fucking it up forever, thinking up new ways to do it, then fucking up whatever was before you. So, that involves irony because everything is wit. But what I was saying in Pecker is that it’s impossible to have irony if you’re starving. I mean, is there irony in Albania? After an earthquake happens in your country, irony is meaningless. Nothing’s so bad it’s good.
Rail: It really takes a first-world mindset to think that way.
Waters: And it takes money!
Rail: I agree. Shifting gears, your photos feel different than the movies. The same, but different.
Waters: They should be different.
Rail: They seem updated, but still feel like—and this is something you pursued in your movies—bad jokes. Kind of one-liners.
Waters: Sometimes they are. And sometimes it’s just detail, and sometimes by "bad joke" you mean—what? I don’t know if that’s a negative review or——
Rail: Not at all! I’m certainly not above a bad joke.
Waters: By "bad joke" I’m picturing "Seven Marys," and I don’t even know if that’s in this show. It’s a picture of Virgin Marys from six Christ movies and the last one is Paul Lynde, who was a famous queen on television, and Mary is an old fashion term for homosexuals, right? All right—that is a joke, but to me it’s about language. I love my German art dealer who said, "We say ‘Peggy’ in Germany." [Laughs]. I think most of the work is about writing and editing, not about photography. Anybody can take pictures off the TV screen, it’s what you do with them that matters. And the order you read them. They’re like storyboards in movies, which I use a lot. You read it left to right like you’re reading something and it’s a new narrative, a new story I’m telling with images that were probably not meant to be shown that way. So yes, humor is certainly part of my work.
Rail: To me it’s commendable that humor is part of the work because I think something that’s so different about the film world, from what I see from the outside, from the art world is that humor in the art world isn’t forbidden but also isn’t totally welcome. I think in the art world, one’s reputation is partly dependent on the myth you surround yourself with, and when you use humor, it can really act as a demystification of the seriousness of the whole endeavor of art.
Waters: I disagree in certain instances. I think Mike Kelley uses humor in a great way, as do Paul McCarthy and even John Currin in a way. When you first saw Currin’s paintings, there’s certainly wit in them. And people get offended when I say something’s funny in the art world. I don’t mean funny like a laugh track-funny. I mean when it’s used in a way that I love the audacity of. I love the nerve. Meaning, they have balls to basically take something that can be very artless in a way and isolate it. The big difference, and I say this in the catalog, is in the film world we have to pretend. I have to pretend that everyone’s going to love my movie—it’s the only way I can get money. In the art world if everyone loves it, it’s terrible. So, it’s the exact opposite thing.
Rail: Since you mentioned Paul McCarthy—I was going to bring him up, because when I was thinking about this interview, the only other artist I could think of who even seemed remotely on the same track for a large number of years—and vice versa—is McCarthy. Have you seen the most recent Artforum with his essay on his own work?
Rail: There’s a great quote by him on his Picadilly Circus piece in London. He’s talking about the piece, which is a video with an Osama bin Laden character and a George Bush character and the British Queen Mother character, and he’s playing George Bush. He descends a staircase wearing this huge George Bush head and spontaneously takes off his clothes and starts painting naked, which he calls "So unpresidential." His quote, which I think is resonant with your movies is, "It’s about maleness and sexual repression leading to forms of fascism."
Waters: I think that’s a very good way to put his work. There are three words you’re really talking about—maleness, repression, and fascism. As far as my work goes, the maleness in my work is certainly feminist. Because I’m almost like a radical feminist. [Laughs]. I love the original feminists. My favorite feminist was the one that got busted for murder that ran NOW and then she had to quit. That’s the kind of feminist I was for! What was the next word? I remember the last one is fascism.
Rail: "It’s about maleness and sexual repression leading to forms of fascism."
Waters: Sexual repression, certainly. You know, I was raised Catholic, so as I’ve always said, sex will always be better because it will always be dirty. And sex should be a little dirty, I think. To me, when I was young, art meant ‘dirty.’ [Laughs.] "Art films" meant dirty. When I was really growing up, "art films" meant they showed tit. [Laughs]. They still do. "Art film" means you’re gonna have some sex in it. Or out of focus. Or subtitles. However, "art" when I was young meant racy in a way. Like art films, which they even used to call skin flicks. Not porno, way before porno, you know, they’d say "art flick." That meant [laughs] "Oooh, you got to see something!" And fascist—in a way all my work makes fun of power. The movie business is about power. The art world is about power. In the art world, the power of it is such a tiny group of people—that’s what I find so fascinating compared to the movie business. So to me, I’m making fun I think of the business of the art world and sometimes I have a frame that goes around a wall, that’s too big for one wall because I’m coming from the movie business where it’s about showmanship. I have one photo where you have curtains you can close on it because it’s such a rude piece, and if your parents are coming——
Rail: That’s "Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot," right?
Waters: Yeah. I have another one that’s called "7734" and if you spin it upside down like a game show host it spells ‘Hell,’ which is the first dirty thing I learned in Catholic school, when people would say, "Hey, write the number 7734. Turn it upside down!" The whole fame spins around, like a Vanna White. You know, you can do it in your house. So, you can keep it in your house depending on which way your day’s going. All these kind of things are in fun parodying the art world and parodying collectors. I have a piece that’s not in the show called "Rat Drive-In" and it’s like a drive-in for rats but you can really catch rats in it. That’s for the collector that has rats and maybe they don’t want to tell people and put out ugly glue traps.
Rail: [Laughs.] So you put out your John Waters—and cure your rat problem!
Waters: [Laughs.] Right, it’s an art piece where you can catch a rat at the same time. It’s functional. So, that’s all about power and fascism. About getting away with something and getting behind the rules and making fun of the rules and embracing the rules because everything that I love I make fun of in my movies. I never hate what I make in my work. My movies are never mean, even the most fucked up ones. They’re not mean-spirited. And that’s because I only make fun of things I like. And I think that’s a good way to be.
Rail: But there’s also a real ominous chord your movies strike. Like a lot of the time there are people just berating someone else.
Waters: In the early ones there’s a lot of screaming, yeah. I think the later ones don’t have that. I got weary of that. Yes, but those people are always punished in a humorous way where they were embarrassed before they were murdered. [Laughs]. Which is, you know the really most evil thing in film where you’re going to kill somebody, but first embarrass them socially, and then kill them. [Laughs]. That’s real revenge in my movies, in my early movies, certainly.
Rail: Speaking of, I want to talk about the early films that you’re showing at the New Museum show. First of all, does it annoy you that it’s possible the press and the audience in general will focus on those early films more than the photos?
Waters: Well, I don’t know that they will. I think it is a hook, and well, the museum talked me into showing them. I had never shown them since they came out when I was a teenager. Here’s when they’ve ever been shown: Hag in a Black Leather Jacket was shown once in 1964 in a beatnik coffee house. It was never shown again. Roman Candles, the second one, which was originally three 8mm movies shown side by side, was shown once or twice at the Flower Mart, this thing in Baltimore that was a daytime event. We showed it in a church. A premiere, we had a premiere! Eat Your Makeup was shown maybe once or twice in Baltimore. It’s 40 minutes long, sort of a feature. Roman Candles is 8mm, not even super-8. Same with Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. Tape splices—you know? There was never even a print made. I think in an art context, in a room like where video art is shown today—not with chairs, like we have to sit down and watch the whole movie—it’s fine, because it’s source material in a way. Really why I think it works in this aspect is because like in Roman Candles, there are shots from other movies that I put in. Which is what I’m doing now. It is——
Waters: Yeah, it’s sampling. And you’ll see Divine at 16. You’ll see the same things I have in my artwork still today. You have religious stuff. Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. The pope. The same kind of eye make-up, the same kind of music. You know, I lived in my parents’ house when I made these movies. They’re made in my bedroom at my parents’ house. I didn’t even know what I was doing. With Hag in a Black Leather Jacket I thought it was like a Dogme movie. I didn’t know there was editing, I thought what came out of the camera was the movie.
Rail: You were 17?
Waters: Yeah, 17. So basically, these films shown in this context—I hope will work, because I’ve used some of my older films in the artwork. Just to see the rawness and the mistakes—I love mistakes in the art world. I’m so crazy about mistakes, technically, in movies. Unless you planned them. [Laughs]. So I think it’s a different world, where it works better, actually. And seeing them there you’ll see that I did the same thing. In the old days you could buy movies to show at children’s birthday parties, and they’d be like "The Pope’s Visit!" They didn’t have video then, so you could get old horror movies, so I bought them and took scenes in them and put them inside scenes in my own movies, like Roman Candles, which is my friends smoking pot and shooting up. Completely influenced by The Chelsea Girls. I was trying to be depraved, but you know, The Chelsea Girls was in New York and the Lower East Side and I’m in Lutherville, Maryland, so it’s a little harder to be depraved when you’re 16. So seeing them as source material, I think they will work. What was that beeping?
Rail: My watch.
Waters: Oh, okay. Roman Candles— Mink Stole’s in it and that’s Divine’s first one. But my star then was not Divine. Maelcum Soul is my first star. She’s in that movie and Eat Your Makeup. Maelcum was a bohemian, the most famous beatnik in Baltimore. Really ahead of her time, way before hippies, especially before punk, she had maroon hair. She wore white chalk make-up, 20 pairs of eyelashes every day of her life. People ran from her on the street. People were terrified. We were scared of her. I loved her so much. Divine was scared of Maelcum. [Laughs]. But we loved Maelcum. She was the barmaid at this beatnik bar that I was too young to get into. I hung in the alley outside so I could see her. And she was great. She was mostly known as a painter’s model. All the painters painted her all the time. She lived in New York some, too. Supposedly she fucked Dave van Ronk, the folk singer, in the buffalo pits of the Baltimore Zoo, a story I want to be true. [Laughs]. Eat Your Makeup is too long and boring. I hadn’t learned to edit.
Rail: Boring? People capturing models, chaining them up in the woods and forcing them to eat makeup doesn’t sound boring.
Waters: Well, that’s why I didn’t show them. Andy Warhol used to say his movies were better to think about than see. Well, this is true here too. In Eat Your Makeup there’s a scene that’s important where we do the entire Kennedy assassination, where Divine plays Jackie. Two years after it happened we shot it and people were really pissed off about it.
Rail: Just like after 9/11, you couldn’t do anything that related to it in content without being "respectful of the tragedy" or else you’re suddenly a national traitor and "unpatriotic."
Waters: Yup. And that’s what I’m saying, it was almost like that. Oh Andy [Warhol] would have. Andy would have done a beautiful painting of that—I think he would have. The rest of Eat Your Makeup is all right. It has some good stuff in it, but it’s a 40 minute film that should have been 15 minutes. I learned that as I went along. Now they can’t stop me from cutting. My movies now would be 10 minutes long if they didn’t stop me in the editing room. Just the good parts! That’s what this photo work is. Sometimes the good part is 1/24 of a frame. That’s really cutting it down. [Laughs].
Rail: From what you’re saying about the early films, you have kind of an incredible consistency in terms of iconography and signs and the things that interest you seemingly now is the stuff that’s always interested you.
Waters: Yes. However, I’ve always tried to reinvent it and change. I’ve been doing this for a long time. The proudest thing I can say is that when I go to a video shop now or have a signing, the average age is 20. Do you know how hard that is to do? [Laughs] To keep going to the next generation, basically? But faux rawness or faux low-budget is ridiculous to me. I always want my movies to look as good as possible, I just didn’t know how to do it when I started. But I didn’t purposefully ever make them look bad. People said after Pink Flamingos, "Oh, we miss the rawness." That was the most commercial movie I had ever made then! Basically, yes, what I’ve been saying has always been the same, but I’ve tried to go different ways. After Pink Flamingos I didn’t try to say, "What’s more shocking than eating shit?"