Despite his best efforts, John Waters is a cultural institution. Five decades into his reign as the Pope Of Trash, Waters’ films have screened in museums around the world, received reverential restorations from companies like the Criterion Collection, and even been adapted into Broadway musicals—and one of those, in turn, into touring productions and live musicals and a John Travolta-starring remake. Meanwhile, Waters himself has become something of a cottage industry, touring, giving lectures, and publishing books advising generations of followers on how to stay filthy in a world where—well, in a world where even John Waters has become mainstream.
The newest one of his works to get the deluxe reissue treatment is Serial Mom, which is heading to Blu-ray for the first time in North America thanks to the reissue specialists at Shout! Factory. We spoke to Waters over the phone about the film and Waters’ obsessions with true crime and classic exploitation cinema, with a few detours into gentrification, daytime talk-show advertising, and the modern sin of wearing leggings on planes.
The A.V. Club: With Serial Mom coming out on Blu-ray for Mother’s Day, I wanted to ask: What was your own mom like? Was she anything like Beverly?
John Waters: Oh, she thought Serial Mom was my best movie. Some of it, yes. My mother hated chewing gum, and so do I. I am very right-wing on the white shoes thing, too. I’d even go further—you’re not allowed to wear velvet before November, and you’re not allowed to wear patent leather before Easter. There’s all sorts of rules that just show you were well brought up. I know that nowadays, even Vogue shows white [after Labor Day], but that’s winter white. Winter white is all right, but summer white in the winter is no good. And everyone on airplanes and everything! There was that woman that got busted for leggings on an airplane, and there’s worse than that. I mean, they’re leggings, at least she’s covered! I hate it when people sit next to me nude in their pajamas on the airplane. I don’t want to brush up against their hairy, scabby leg.
AVC: It does seem to be acceptable to go out in pajamas now.
JW: If people are getting on an airplane, I think there should be some sort of dress code. They ought to be dragging them off the plane like that United flight. That’s what I’m going to start doing with bad outfits.
AVC: So Kathleen Turner was a big star at the time you were making the movie. Did you have to talk her into taking the role?
JW: She’s a big star now! You know, she constantly works. I don’t think Kathleen goes two weeks without a project. She’s an incredible stage actress. She still makes movies, too, but I think she does a lot of stage work. So she read the script, she kept putting it down going, “Oh my god,” and as soon as she said she was interested, I jumped on the train, ran up there, and went to her house and talked her into it. And then it wasn’t hard. We got along great. I adore Kathleen. I think she’s smart, funny, she doesn’t suffer fools, but she’s a pro. God, is she a pro. And she expects you to act like a pro, too.
AVC: Was there anybody that you really wanted to have in one of your movies that you just couldn’t get?
JW: There were people that said “no,” but it was usually because of scheduling issues. They were making a movie, that kind of thing. I’ve had real good luck with getting to work with all the people that I wanted to. I never actually asked Meryl Streep—I knew her agent and I met her and she was lovely, but she didn’t say, “Oh god, I’d love to work with you,” and nobody suggested we had a get-together meeting. But I still wish I could have worked with her. But mostly, no, everybody I wanted I got. It’s been great!
AVC: The movie was shot in the neighborhood in Baltimore where you grew up, right?
JW: Yes, pretty close. That school where we shot the killing of the teacher was where Divine was bullied every day. Unfortunately, bullying went on at every school, but the worst part of the bullying at that school was that it wasn’t always the students, it was the teachers. Divine was not like his Divine character—he was more like the character from A Confederacy Of Dunces, kind of an overweight, feminine person that really kept his mouth shut, because he could make people crazy doing absolutely nothing. He wasn’t doing anything! So that rage that was seething in him, it was used later to create the Divine character. But in real life, he wasn’t like that at all. He wasn’t transgender, he didn’t want to be a woman. He wanted to be Godzilla, and in Multiple Maniacs, he was Godzilla.
AVC: What are your favorite places in Baltimore now? Has it changed much?
JW: In a good way. It’s better than it’s ever been, to me. I live a couple places, but Baltimore’s my home. I think it’s better than ever, because it’s the only city left that’s cheap enough to have a bohemia. There’s an amazing music scene here. I went the other night to the unveiling of the new Future Islands album in a club called Ottobar, which is a very cool, small club. It was just a great Baltimore night. I’m saying this, the most unlikely, amazing rock star of anybody today. So I still just really like living here. I have a lot of friends that aren’t just in show business, so it’s not like we always have to talk about show business.
AVC: That must get tiring.
JW: It does. In L.A., you can’t even get someone to wait on your table without them pitching you a script, and I’m just as bad. When I was in L.A. once, I was in a car accident—it was my fault, I rear-ended somebody—it was a producer who recognized me, and I pitched him a movie while we were waiting for the police to come for the accident report.
AVC: Did he call you?
JW: He passed.
AVC: So where’s all the weird, if it’s not in the cities anymore? Is it in the suburbs?
JW: To me, no. Suburbia was the first thing I ever wanted to get out of. I was in Brooklyn last night, and it was like suburbia! It was like a mall. I ran from suburbia my whole life—except when I was hitchhiking across the country, and then I met lots of people that were so-called mid-Americans and they couldn’t have been more open-minded and great. But maybe that’s the kind of people that pick up hitchhikers.
In Europe, suburbia is the slums. That’s where the most danger is, especially in Italy. The cities are too fancy. It might end up like that—eventually, you won’t be rich enough to live in even the slums of the city, because they will be fixed up and made so gay people and yuppies want to move in, which is always the best thing for your neighborhood but maybe isn’t so good if you’ve lived there your whole life. Unless you cash out, but then, where do you move?
AVC: Yeah, that’s what’s happening in Chicago right now. People are moving in from the suburbs to the city and turning the city into the suburbs, so all the artists can’t afford to live in the city anymore.
JW: New York is like that. People bring lawn chairs to Times Square, the tourists. What the hell is that about? They want to come to New York and have it be like they’re at home. I thought the whole point of going to New York is to go the opposite of where you live.
AVC: Right, exactly.
JW: Chicago is the most beautiful city. You have the most beautiful architecture that’s, so far, not being ruined like Manhattan’s is. They’re building these hideous skyscrapers. I love skyscrapers, but not ugly new ones. And they all look like they should be in—I don’t want to say Cleveland. Cleveland’s fine, I like Cleveland. But Manhattan shouldn’t look like Cleveland. Cleveland should look like Cleveland.
AVC: Yeah, exactly. So Serial Mom—the movie satirizes serial-killer culture and true-crime groupies, and I think you were ahead of the curve on that. For example, you have the O.J. trial the next year.
JW: I know. We thought it was exactly like O.J. And nowadays, all the one-time classy cable stations like History Channel and Discovery now have, like, I Met Nancy’s Mother Once. They have one possible moment of information in them and the rest is just cut-and-paste hack jobs. It’s amazing to me. Every crime—if you ever got a parking ticket, you’re in danger of a miniseries being made about you.
AVC: Had Ricki Lake started her talk show when you were filming the movie?
JW: Was she doing her talk show then? I know that Joan Rivers had a talk show, she actually did, like, “Serial hags: women who love men who mutilate.” I honestly can’t remember.
AVC: I think it was around the same time.
JW: Ricki always told me she wanted to be a TV star. I said, “No, you want to be a movie star,” and she said, “No, I want to be a TV star.” And she ended up being one. A big one.
AVC: That was kind of the golden age of talk shows, the mid- to late-’90s.
JW: Well, she kind of invented that whole format—a little confrontational, a little exploitive, but very multi-racial. I remember when Ricki and I would be in the airport together, every African-American recognized her, and every steward recognized me.
AVC: This is off-topic, but my first job out of school was working on The Jerry Springer Show. I was a guest wrangler for that.
JW: I know a lot of people that were guests on the show that were completely phony that made up the whole thing.
AVC: Yeah, when you didn’t have a good story lined up, you would just call up your friend who did improv.
JW: I never saw the Jerry Springer musical that Tracey Ullman’s husband produced. I heard it was really good.
AVC: Yeah, that was around the same time when I was working there.
JW: Is he still on?
AVC: Yeah, that show’s still on. I don’t know how they get guests now.
JW: That’s amazing.
AVC: I know.
JW: Wow. Who advertises on there? There’s that story about department-store managers telling the New York Post, “Your readers are our shoplifters,” so I can’t even imagine Jerry Springer viewers… what do they buy?
AVC: I think it’s a lot of diabetes testing supplies and that sort of stuff.
JW: All the shows I watch, it’s all medicine they advertise for old people. And they say it’s going to have 20,000 side effects. “Your ears will fall off, your dick will fall off, and you’ll die, but otherwise, it’s good for your heart.”
AVC: Yeah, exactly. Risk of death, but your leg won’t twitch.
JW: I love how fast they talk when they have to say it, legally, and they talk like Alvin And The Chipmunks. They’re one step away from Alvin, and if it was one bit faster, they’d be a human chipmunk without having to speed it up.
AVC: You also had the Court TV show, ’Til Death Do Us Part…
JW: Then we had to quit because it became TruTV and TruTV couldn’t have re-enactments, and ’Til Death Do Us Part was completely re-enacted.
AVC: I actually watched every episode of that show.
JW: I had fun doing it, you know. I liked it. It was kind of low-budget, I mean, when you slammed the door, the whole set would shake. We shot it in Toronto. People still come up to me, usually on the subway, and still recognize me from that or the Chucky movie.
AVC: Do you still keep up with the true-crime kind of stuff?
JW: Well, I don’t think there’s been so much lately. Yes, I do, but I don’t go to trials or anything, and I think the true-crime genre has really not been so good lately. It’s just cheap paperbacks. There hasn’t been a really well-written hardback true-crime book that I can name recently, and I still look for them. I think there certainly have been some big trials, but they’re usually terrorist trials. Or you know, the Boston bomber was a big trial. They’re usually, unfortunately, terrorists, and I’m very interested in their lawyers, who figure that they win if they get their client life without parole and not the death penalty. That’s usually the case in the big trials today.
AVC: Are there any recent stories that struck a chord with you?
JW: Oh, I like Casey Anthony. She finally gave a new interview and said she didn’t give a shit what people thought and she identified with O.J. Simpson, so of course, the blurb the next week was that when he gets out, they’re going to get married. Which I hope is true. They’d make a good couple. O.J. got off on the crime he committed and then got a lot of time for a crime that was very minor.
AVC: Yeah, that seemed to be sort of a retroactive punishment.
JW: How mad must he have been to see two giant projects about him, and have one win the Oscar, and one win the Emmy? I don’t really feel sorry for O.J. in any way. Some people I know really think he didn’t do it, which is so amazing to me.
AVC: It’s such an interesting case, because everybody sees it differently.
AVC: Serial Mom is also a tribute to the great exploitation directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman…
JW: We even had a scene from Strait-Jacket in the movie! I just played William Castle on Feud, and I forgot all about that. I mean, I knew that it was in there, but then when I was promoting Serial Mom, people asked me about it, and I was like, “That’s right, the whole scene in Strait-Jacket is in Serial Mom!”
AVC: There’s also a Trog poster in the video store, I noticed.
JW: And the thing people forget when they’re watching Feud is that Joan Crawford wasn’t that embarrassed to make that movie, because she went back and made another one with [William Castle] called I Saw What You Did. She didn’t deny doing it, because the movies were hip. She just wanted a hit.
I think it was very touching—I don’t know if you saw it—when Castle’s daughter came out and said really lovely things about the show, and got out pictures when she was a little girl with Joan Crawford looking scared. It was great.
AVC: How’d you get involved with Feud? Because I know you’ve talked about William Castle quite a bit over the years.
JW: I’ve talked about William Castle a lot. I’ve met Ryan Murphy, and they just asked me to do it and I said, “Are you kidding? Yes, I’d love to play him. Dream come true.” To do that kind of cameo was special, even though I said, “I don’t look like him.” They said it was conceptual casting.
AVC: I heard you collect William Castle memorabilia. Is that true?
JW: I do. I even have the William Castle lucky card that you could win in a contest. I have, of course, the Ghost Viewer, I have a lot of stuff. Even the candy from Zotz!, the movies that no one’s ever heard of.
AVC: I actually don’t know that one.
JW: Few do. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kind of TV do you watch these days?
JW: I don’t really turn on the TV. I have trouble. It’s so hard to turn it on. I don’t pay attention any more, it’s so complicated. You have to have 23 remotes to turn it on, or to switch over to DVD. I start crying whenever I try to turn on the TV, so I just read a lot. I want rabbit ears back.
AVC: You miss the days of three channels?
JW: Yeah. Are there three good ones even now?
AVC: Would you consider making a TV series, that being said?
JW: Oh, of course! With Hairspray, I was even working on getting it on TV for a while. TV is actually in way better shape than independent movies are these days, are you kidding? Yeah, sure.
AVC: A streaming service or something like that does seem to be a better route than making an independent film.
JW: Well, more people see TV, and these days you can pretty much have freedom to do what you want on TV. So sure, I’m not against TV at all. I wrote a sequel for Hairspray for HBO that never ended up getting made, but having something on TV would be way more likely than getting an independent film made today.
AVC: I was watching This Filthy World recently—
JW: That’s an old one. That’s completely different from the version I do today if you watch the Netflix one. That was 10 years ago, but it’s very much updated now.
AVC: In that one, you say something about how you’re the only director who would want to colorize your old movies.
JW: Does anyone do that any more?
AVC: Colorize? I don’t think so.
JW: I don’t know if they still put color in them. Now they get face-lifts, they give you face-lifts in movies, they do everything. But do they colorize black-and-white movies still a lot on television?
AVC: I don’t think so, no.
JW: If you don’t remember, that caused a great uproar when they first started to do that.
AVC: I don’t know if they show black-and-white movies on television much anymore, to be honest.
JW: Well, they might on Turner Classics.
AVC: True. Well, with Multiple Maniacs is coming out on Criterion Collection, did you fiddle with it for the re-release? Or did you leave it as is?
JW: Sure, we made it look the best we could. They restored the whole thing. It’s amazing what they can do. You don’t see the dirt anymore, you can’t see the splice marks, you can hear it. Oh, they did a beautiful job!
AVC: How did that happen? They approached you, I assume.
JW: Yeah, they did. I really wanted to get Multiple Maniacs back in print, and then they showed me what they could do with it, which was just amazing. I mean, it still looks bad, don’t worry.
AVC: [Laughs.] I think I saw it on a dubbed VHS back when I worked at a video store.
JW: I saw it last night in Brooklyn at the Alamo Drafthouse. There were all these kids that weren’t even born when I made the movie, but they still seemed kind of appalled by it, which is a good sign.
AVC: It does seem that each successive generation gets into your movies anew. It’s never a nostalgia act.
JW: That’s great. That’s the one thing you can’t buy or advertise, is an audience that keeps getting younger as you keep getting older. That’s the ultimate compliment.
AVC: Do you think the Trump women are good fodder for drag queens, like Patricia Nixon or Nancy Reagan?
JW: I saw these zombie drag queens, like from Night Of The Living Dead, and they came from beyond the grave, modeled and fashioned like other first ladies trying to cash in, like Jackie with the sunglasses on or Betty Ford guzzling down non-alcoholic beer. Yeah, beyond-the-grave drag-queen zombies. That could be Ivanka and Melanie, or whatever her name is.
AVC: If you were just starting out today, what do you think you would be doing? Would you be making movies and putting them on YouTube?
JW: No, no movies get noticed on YouTube, they’re just getting job offers from advertising agencies. YouTube’s good for the consumer, but I don’t think it’s good for movies. I would try to probably enter film festivals and get picked up by a weird arthouse distributor. There are so many movies now that if you don’t watch it on that Friday night, it’s gone. That’s the problem. When I was young and you had midnight movies, they’d have time to last, and you could play for one week, two weeks, you know. But that was before video and everything. Now, it’s very difficult, the theatrical window, but it can still work. I think very few movies have made their name like, oh, what’s that one with the ass to mouth? The Human Centipede. That’s the only one, really, I think that has become a new midnight classic.
AVC: The third one played here, that one was disgusting.
JW: I didn’t see the third one, but I’m happy there were sequels.
AVC: On that same note, there are so many different ways to make and release things on the internet, but it’s so much harder to get noticed.
JW: That’s the problem. It’s so easy to make a movie now, you just get your cell phone. When I did it, you had to go rent a heavy, 16mm camera that they used to make the movies. But that’s all right, it all works out. The good ones come out. It’s just harder. You’ve got more competition. Everybody wants to be a film director. If it was easy, every human in the United States would be a film director. You get paid well, you get to boss people around, you get to see people naked. Why wouldn’t you be a film director?
AVC: Well, on that note, with the culture being split up the way it is now, there’s not as much of a conformist ideal as there used to be. How do you rebel in that kind of fractured cultural landscape?
JW: Oh, that’s my whole new book, Mr. Know It All. How to avoid respectability at 70, that’s the whole book.