He’s curated Andy Warhol’s porn collection, been arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure, and has a back catalogue of films that have won over the twisted hearts of four generations. The filmmaker behind cult classics including Cry Baby, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos and Polyester, John Waters’ impact on cinema has been prolific. The 65-year-old now brings his unique sense of humour and tales of his misdeeds to the stage as part of his ‘deviously funny’ one-man show, This Filthy World.
Besides being obsessed with being Captain Hook, my childhood dream … was to be on the 1950s television show, the Howdy Doody Show. My parents took me to be on it – I don’t know how they got me on there. I was also obsessed by the movies the nuns would tell us we’d go to hell for if we saw them. I kept a scrapbook as a kid and pretended that I owned a dirty movie theatre and imagined the horror it would cause my community.
The first film I saw was … Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Every time the stepmother and stepsisters came on, I was happy, because Disney villains were always the best. My first camera … was given to me by my grandmother. It was a little Brownie movie camera that I made my first movie on – called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.
My grandmother would have been horrified … if she saw that film. But she was always encouraging me. She was a world traveller and she was divorced, which back then was quite shocking if you were a Catholic woman. I think in our family she kind of liked me because, when I was growing up, other people weren’t always on my side. Even though she was very conservative, I think she identified with me.
It took me a long time to realise … how supportive my parents really were. Nobody ever said that my movies were good and my parents were humiliated by the reaction in the press. But they did respect that I was obsessed by doing it.
My father … had a company that he started, very much like I started my company – he sold fire protection equipment and I sold shock value. I borrowed money from him and, when I paid him back, he was so amazed to get it back. I think he respected that at least I had a work ethic, even though I was in a world that horrified their values completely. They, I think wisely, let me know that I didn’t have to leave or run. I’m not saying that there weren’t times when it was rough or that I didn’t put them through hell. But as we got older, they lived long enough that we could work out all those issues.
I still have challenges … I can’t even get the money to make the movie that I want to make right now. But I think you have to learn that a ‘no’ is free and that you have to ask people. In show business, you set yourself up for a life of rejection and you’re always going to be paranoid that it’s not going to last. And it doesn’t last – that’s why I have so many careers because I always knew that, if I couldn’t depend on a film, I could write a book or do a photography show or a speaking tour.
Human behaviour is … amazing. One of the next films I want to make is called Liar Mouth, which is about a woman who steals suitcases at airports. I actually know someone who did that and she also used to steal the flight attendants’ purses on the plane. It’s amazing what people do – anything you could ever imagine, somebody’s done it.
No matter what you look like … you’re cute when you’re young.
I’m inspired by … Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett, who had one hit record his whole life – ‘The Monster Mash’ – which he sang over and over. Imagine what that was like. But in a way it must have been freedom because he didn’t have to think up anything new!
My dreams … have come true. My greatest achievement is that my career has lasted this long and has been totally understood by so many people. I find peace … through friends. I’ve had many friends for 40 years. If people have friends for that long, I think that’s a very good sign about their character.
The reason my movies have appealed to four generations is … because it’s joyous humour. I’m celebrating lifestyles that most people are against. I’m never judging people, looking down on them or laughing at them, which is what reality TV does.
I never want to … retire. I want to keep doing what I’m doing. My dream now is to try to grow old gracefully and I think I already have. I’m 65, and a San Francisco newspaper ran a headline that said ‘John Waters is officially a dirty old man’, which really made me laugh.
If the audience could leave This Filthy World thinking one thing … it would be that they felt better about themselves. And that some of the things they might have tried to hide about themselves would be a lot less possible to keep a secret. If you can laugh at the things about yourself that you feel uptight about, you can win. It’s a great feeling to be un-blackmailable