The unedited transcript, presented in Q&A form, of an interview for Inpress Magazine with John Waters conducted for the release of A Dirty Shame from 2005:
A Chat with John Waters
August 2005, on the blower
So John, you’re in Cape Cod working on a movie script and TV series called John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You, right? What’s that all about?
“Well, basically, I come out and do a seven-minute monologue in my house and show really weird movies and then do a three minute human trailer for the next week.”
Can you tell us about the movie you’re working on?
“No, my little friends are in my head and in this little box I’m looking at right now. I have a black leather box that’s got all my handwritten notes – different pages for different characters. But I never talk about it until I do it because, if you talk about it now, then it evaporates and makes it not real. As you know, you’ve got to talk about it for five years afterwards anyway. I thought I’d given the last interviews for A Dirty Shame but now – we’re in Australia!”
I’ve heard you call A Dirty Shame a “sex education movie”…
“Yes, it’s also a vocabulary lesson… The best review I got was from my poor 86 year-old father. I thought, ‘Does he really need to know what an adult baby is?’. But, after watching it, he said, ‘That was really funny and I hope I never have to see it again’.”
Your parents have been great supporters of your career though…
“Let’s just say they’ve been through a lot. They’re proud. They still wish I made a different kind of movie but… I tell you the one night they didn’t have to lie when they said they had a good time was when Hairspray opened on Broadway. They were so happy that night.”
They weren’t into Polyester? I’m proud to say I own a copy on laserdisc with the accompanying Odorama scratch ‘n’ sniff card.
“Oh wow… Odorama… The original ones from the movie in 1980 I had to put in my garage because they still stink. Political correctness hit Odorama when we re-released it on DVD. The company that did the smells would not make the smells of glue because we cannot have young people snorting glue! I said it was never glue anyway, so we just put some other smell, which doesn’t matter because the joke’s still the same. And when the movie first came out, we had to prove to the insurance company that you could eat an Odorama card and I said ‘You’re kidding! Who would eat one?’ and they said ‘It doesn’t matter, we have to test this’. It’s just something I never knew existed – the urge to eat movie marketing.”
Back to A Dirty Shame… How did you research the film?
“Well, I think it’s a lifetime of research, actually, because some of the stuff I remember from sex clubs, like Hellfire Club in New York where I saw this man licking the floor. I read this book in school called The Erotic Minorities by Dr Lars Ullerstam. It was the first time I’d read about weird sexual fetishes. And I always just sort of collected them. I mean, when we were making Hairspray, in-between takes, the kids would play this game – ‘Do you know what felching is?’ – you know, every filthy word you can think of. So it came from a lifetime knowledge of filth.”
I noticed The Cleveland Steamer and Dirty Sanchez were not included…
“I tried to do ones that weren’t unsafe. The Dirty Sanchez is unsafe. I had to be responsible. You know, I am making a movie that’s on the side of the sex addicts so everything in there is safe. It’s not anti-women. It’s not mean to women, it doesn’t degrade women and it’s safe. You can’t get pregnant, you can’t get AIDS from any of the stuff in the movie.”
But is the Upper Decker really safe?
“Well, you don’t touch it, you just run in horror. Or you wear gloves. Turd harassment. That’s a new form of terrorism.”
I’ve heard you say you think the grossest shot in the movie is when the guy drinks a vase of dirty flower water…
“Everyone thinks when they empty a vase of flower water ‘Ewwwww, that’s disgusting’, but no one’s ever thought of drinking it… except for me.”
It’s reminiscent of the tear-drinking scene in Cry Baby…
“That’s a different type of masochism. When you drink tears, you’re longing for long lost love. When you drink flower water, I guess it’s self-humiliation. I think it’s different. You don’t need a partner to drink flower water. To drink your own tears, you need a partner to cry over. One is more narcissistic than the other.”
How did you pull together music in A Dirty Shame?
“I wrote the whole script listening to music. I always do that. The music in this movie – except for Let’s Go Sexing and the wonderful score that George S. Clinton did for us – they’re all real songs. These are really songs that came out. They were what they called ‘party records’. In the ‘50s, you couldn’t say anything. I mean, Lenny Bruce went to jail in American for saying ‘fuck’ so, basically, you bought records, LPs, that were dirty comedy records, and people had parties, drank, got drunk and – hahahahaha! (John makes guffawing sound) – listening to these dirty songs. The Pussycat Song is a pretty famous one, actually. I work with a great guy called Larry Benicewicz who really has this incredible knowledge of obscure redneck music and really early, what we would call, race music. Eager Beaver Baby… that’s a real song! Itchy Twitchy Spot… That is a real song! They didn’t get much radio play.”
“We had fun just finding the rights for these songs. Basically, Tracy McKnight (music supervisor) who works with Larry, had to find the writer of the music and the publisher of the music to get the rights for these songs. And talk about really going on a hunt. It took months and months… We found people in nursing homes! She also did my Christmas album. I had a Christmas album that came out called A John Waters’ Christmas. It featured the same kind of songs, except it’s about Christmas – like Santa Claus Is A Black Man.”
I notice a lot of the usual suspects are in A Dirty Shame, like Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Mary Vivian Pearce and Jean Hill. Do you write a film with a cast in mind?
“Not really. I don’t anymore. In the beginning, in my early films I did, because they were kind of like a repertory group. I know some of the people I will always put in. When I wrote it, I certainly hoped Tracey Ullman would be in it. The only other person I hoped would be in it – and who I had very early meetings with and who I knew very much wanted to do it – was Johnny Knoxville. And the whole reason the movie got made was because Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) agreed to star in it. He’s a big, big star in America. They always say you need a star attached and Johnny Knoxville could have got the movie made quicker than Katharine Hepburn if she came back from the dead. The studios only care, really, about someone ‘with heat’. What they mean is someone who’s had a hit in the last four months that young people know. That’s how movies get made – not on careers of brilliant film acting.”
What’s Tracey Ullman like?
“In real life, she’s really pretty and really sexy. But she’s willing to look like a real character in a movie. Name a Hollywood star over 40 that doesn’t look like a Picasso print – they’re all facelifts. They don’t look like someone who runs a convenience store. People in Baltimore don’t have facelifts, but in L.A., every person does. So you get used to it – you think it’s normal.”
Is it difficult for you to get actors to do what you want them to do? Or are you the Robert Altman of bad taste?
“I’d be flattered if someone said that. I love Altman. I know from my script what actors are going to be upset about, so I bring it up first and explain it to them. I’m not ever trying to make my actors uncomfortable. I want them to be comfortable. They know I’ve been making movies for a very long time with a lot of regular behind-the-scenes people, so it’s like coming into a family situation. They have to have a sense of humour about themselves. If they’re humour-impaired, I wouldn’t advise appearing in my films. People have said ‘no’ but, basically, the only ones who’ve said ‘no’ are the ones I’ve never met; I’ve never even had a meeting with, you know what I mean. You’d be surprised. If people don’t like the movie, I get blamed – not them (the actors). If there are bad reviews, I get ‘em – they don’t. And you get credit for taking a chance.”
Who’s said ‘no’ to you?
“They say it in a very polite way. Like I’d love Meryl Streep. She’s certainly heard me say that, but I’ve never had her agent call and say ‘Let’s set up a lunch meeting’. She’s a great actress, but she makes good movies. She never said ‘no’ to me because I never asked her. I’ve met her before. She’s lovely. You never know.”
How did you get David Hasselhoff to do what he did?
“We shot that when the rest of the film had been done. We shot it in L.A., which is the place where they have a studio where they shoot all aeroplane scenes. Every aeroplane movie is shot in this one studio – you can make the plane the way you want it. I also knew that it had to be an international star. It had to be someone who’d be recognised in every place the movie played. And I knew David Hasselhoff’s agent, Tony Gardner, who did Selma’s breasts (prosthetic) and did the Chucky movies. He’d worked with David Hasselhoff and he said, ‘I think he’s funny, I think he’s got a sense of humour’. So, I knew when I called the talent, whoever it was, I was going to have to shoot it straight away before someone talked them out of it. He said ‘Well, my life’s getting on planes and taking a dump’ so he said sure. And he was lovely and we did four takes and his wife and teenage kids were there on the set and he was a lovely guy. And then I found out something while we were shooting that I never knew – he’s from Baltimore. He grew up literally five minutes from my parent’s house. And I never even knew that.”
He lived in Baltimore and you never bumped into him?
“I’m older… He got out early. I wasn’t in the gym much… I’ve never been to the gym in my life. I’m the only gay man who’s never been to the gym.”
How did you perfect the nursing home hokey-pokey?
“That’s the biggest laugh in the movie. Any country, any language – the hokey-pokey always gets the biggest laugh. The image that’s stuck in my mind is, how that worked – and I don’t want to give away the whole thing but – Tracey had a magnet in her underpants and there was a magnet in the bottle. So, basically, when we were testing it with the prop guy outside the studio, two weeks before the movie started, trying to see how we could make it work. And she was doing it and we looked over and there was a gas station across the street with all the people that worked in the gas station with their mouths hanging open in shock looking over. We didn’t realise people were watching us. She’s doing the whole pick the bottle up… put the bottle down… pick it up… put the bottle down… pick it up… They were so stupefied. Her kids were there too, visiting on the set, which I thought was lovely.”
What’s your favourite scene?
“I think the hokey-pokey is one of my favourites but, to me, it’s always hard to pick a favourite scene. I think Big Ethel (Tracey Ullman’s mum) has some of the funniest dialogue in the film and I’m actually more on the side of Big Ethel than people know. The film does ask the question – can tolerance go too far? Do I really have to worry about the rights of adult babies? I mean, I guess they should be allowed to do it. I’m glad I’m not one of them. If I had a child, I would be uptight if they told me they were an adult baby.”
The adult baby must have attracted a lot of attention…
“The film was shot in 40 locations in six blocks. One night, we were shooting three blocks off the main street and the actors were just walking around in character. The adult baby at 3am in a blue collar neighbourhood was standing by himself on the street and someone walks by and said, ‘Are you in that movie?’ He said, ‘Well, I hope so.’ He couldn’t believe it. Imagine if he wasn’t in the movie? He was just standing at three in the morning alongside the road – a man in a full baby bonnet with a rattle.”
So you filmed in real locations?
“They were all real locations. Nothing was built. Every one of them was real.”
Do you ever get tired of Baltimore? Or, more appropriately, does Baltimore ever get tired of you?
“After 40 years of making movies there, they’re pretty aware of me. Me, Barry Levinson, the TV show Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire – all those things present a very radical picture of Baltimore. I think Baltimore is very supportive of me. Always. So I think Baltimore is a character in my films. Go anywhere in the world and someone will come up to me and say ‘Hey, I’m from Baltimore.’ They’re used to me. I mean, I live there. It’s not like I can’t go out or anything.”
I have to ask you about Divine…
“Divine was beautiful – a new radical, kind of extreme beauty that, sometimes, stupid people don’t understand. There’s a Divine impersonator in San Francisco. He always startles John because he looks exactly like Divine.”
Do people still ask you about Divine? Obviously, they do…
“Very much so and, now that he’s dead, people treat him like this great legend. But I wish he’d known some of that when he was alive. I’m very flattered that I wrote parts for him that would be remembered so strongly. People get tattoos with his name. People get tattoos of him in the red dress. You go to his grave today and there are gifts there. People have sex on his grave – you can tell. He wouldn’t mind – he’s looking down watchin’!”