This interview was done for MODERN CORRESPONDENCE MAGAZINE #6, which never saw print. This is its first publication.
We are pleased to present an interview with America's best-loved moviemaker. His stories of simple working people struggling to preserve their way of life against the cold, bitter ratrace of contemporary society have warmed the hearts of millions. Mr. Waters generously consented to speak with us after a screening of his most recent film, Desperate Living, on May 22, 1978 at New Haven's Educational Center for the Arts.
ALL JOHN WATERS PHOTOS ©1978 SANDY WALDRON
Tom: Great moustache, John. I'm not usually partial to facial hair.
John: Well, thank you, but it's not all facial hair. If you miss when you're shaving you have to draw it on...a little Maybelline thrown in. White people can't grow moustaches like this.
Tom: I had the good fortune to meet Edie Massey at that Sleaze Convention that was held in Wilmington, Delaware a couple of years ago. She must be about the nicest person in the world.
John: She's incredibly nice. Edie's a very sweet old lady. Nothing like some of the mean parts she's played in films.
Tom: Yeah. She said she hadn't liked the nasty aspect of her role (as Ida) in Female Trouble, and that in Desperate Living she was gonna play another mean one (Queen Carlotta). She told me that she doesn't walk at all in it, that she's carried by servants.
John: That's because she can't walk and do dialogue at the same time. As a matter of fact, when she's rehearsing the lines, sometimes she'll say, " 'I went across the street' ...(Edie picks up gun)...'and I....' " She'll memorize the stage directions in parentheses too, and just say the whole thing. So I figured it'd just be easier if she'd be carried in this one.
Tom: She was in the playpen in Pink Flamingos...
Tom: ...and the birdcage in Female Trouble.
John: In all the movies, but in the next one she's gonna have to walk, 'cause in the next one she's gonna play a debutante.
Tom: Is she gonna have a ball and everything?
John: Yeah, a party. She'll be sort of a mentally ill debutante with everything monogrammed and yarn in her hair and initialed pocketbooks and scarab bracelets.
Tom: So this is a youthful role she'll be playing?
John: No, it's not. She's just deluded to think she's like that.
Tom: Edie told me that Divine wasn't going to be in the movie, but made a point of saying there had been no falling out.
John: No, there wasn't, but that's what everyone thought. I talk to Divine all the time. I'm going to her party Thursday in New York. I see her a lot. I saw the plays she's been in in New York, Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman. I'm still in touch with her and she wants to do another movie, so we'll see what happens. When I wrote Desperate Living, I wrote it thinking Divine probably wouldn't be able to do it. Can you think of one part that was written for Divine? It wasn't Grizelda. If Divine played anything it was going to be the part of Mole.
Tom: I think it worked out pretty well to have a different leading lady for a change. Do you feel that the parts you have written for Divine have all been the same character?
John: In a way, more or less. But in Female Trouble she even got to play a man. She raped herself in that one. If we do another film with Divine, she's not going to be at all like that. She's going to play a person who's very straight. She's not going to look straight, but she's going to be morally uptight about things other people do. Which is almost the exact opposite from the other films, where she's the one who's born bad.
Tom: Wasn't there a character named Divine in one of Genet's books?
John: You know, there was, and I've read all of his books, but that's not why I named her that. I had forgotten that, and other people have told me, and I've looked it up and it is true. The way I got the name Divine was from a Catholic upbringing. I knew that Divine had to have a name, and I gave her that one while I was thinking up the credits for Roman Candles.
Tom: Is that the Jackie Kennedy movie?
John: No, that was Eat Your Makeup. This was even before that, in 1966. I went to Catholic school, and they were always saying this was divine and that was divine, and if you look it up in the dictionary it has a good definition.
Tom: The Infant of Prague was in...
John: ...was in Multiple Maniacs.
Tom: I've seen statues and pictures of the Infant of Prague, but I've never really known who he is.
John: Well, what it is is the baby Jesus in Czechoslovakia.
Tom: That's what they think he looked like?
John: Yeah. It's a little drag queen baby Jesus. He was the most flamboyant saint, I thought.
Tom: One of my favorite scenes in Pink Flamingos is where Divine is walking down the street, shopping, etc.
John: Right. Nobody knew it was a film, because I was in the car with a camera just driving along, and I said, "Okay, get out here," and she just started walking down the street, and the people's mouths were hanging open, they just couldn't believe it. First of all, it was freezing cold, and she was just in a cocktail dress. This one cop saw us just when she jumped back in the car, and he actually did a doubletake, like in a Laurel and Hardy movie. He didn't know what to say, just stood there.
Tom: They're not used to that kind of thing, even in Baltimore?
John: Well, maybe if she had a coat on. What's funny is that in Female Trouble, there's that same scene where she's walking down the street, and nobody reacts at all. We figured that was because she had scars on her face and they didn't want to be mean to a cripple.
Tom: Did you just come across the "Free Tex Watson" graffiti she walks by?
John: No, we had somebody spray paint it the night before.
Tom: I love the music in that scene. The Teenagers' "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent." "The Girl Can't Help It." Would you consider Little Richard a major influence?
John: I love Little Richard. I feel like my parents when I say the best music is from when I was a kid. I hate music. I don't ever listen to it. I listen to opera. I'm not in tune at all with pop music. I don't even know who these groups are. I've never heard of 'em. I know some of the punk ones because I enjoy the crowds that go to see 'em, but I would certainly never come home to my apartment alone and put on, you know, the Slits. You know what I mean? It doesn't relax me. I like muzak.
Tom: I like music that makes me get nervous.
John: Oh, I don't. I'm nervous enough.
Tom: Have you seen Edie Massey's punk band?
John: Oh, yeah. I've seen her a lot of times. She gets lots of bookings. She just came back from Canada this week. She's played in Washington, Provincetown, New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Philadelphia.... I think she should go country. That's what she's gotta do next, in a cowgirl outfit with fringe and holsters.
Tom: I heard that a book of Edie's poetry was going to be published.
John: Oh. That never came out.
Tom: I couldn't imagine what that would be like.
John: Well, have you ever read her poetry? I would say she's more talented in other areas.
Tom: Nicely put. Have you used professional actors more extensively in your recent films?
John: Well, when you say professional actors, I think actually a lot of the people who have worked with me have made six or seven movies now, so they are professional actors. I used to think everybody could act, but after working with a few people who I won't name, I was proven wrong. So now I try to get people who, unless they're incredibly unbelievable looking, have some experience. For instance, Jean Hill, the black woman in Desperate Living, has done millions of plays, and Liz Renay has been in 24 movies. I do try to get people who have had some experience, and I get a lot of resumes. The favorite one I ever got was from someone and the only credit they listed was that they played the Easter bunny in the high school play. I thought they really had balls for putting that down. I really wanted to give him a part. Then we found out he had only one leg. How great, we thought. We'll put on a fake leg and hack it off. How perfect. But he was too young and his parents wouldn't let him do it.
Tom: I heard you did screen tests for Desperate Living.
John: I screen tested a lot of the black women who tried out for the part of Grizelda. I had ads in the paper, and every night we'd have 10 or 15 of 'em come into my apartment and read the lines on videotape. They were all terrible until I found Jean.
Tom: Do you think you'll be working with her again?
John: I hope so.
Tom: I've just finished reading Liz Renay's autobiography, "My Face For the World to See", in which she mentions her poetry and paintings. Have you ever seen any of them?
John: I've seen pictures of her paintings, which are mind-boggling. They all look like her. Every character in them, if it's Cleopatra, they all have her face. And when she'd open 'em was always when she was busted or something, and she'd get all this publicity. The next day she'd have an art show, which I thought was real smart, to pay her bail bonds.
Tom: She once did something like twelve abstract paintings in ten hours.
John: Yeah. She did another thing which really impressed me. When anyone asks for her autograph, she takes out a deposit slip and signs it. She thinks maybe they'll get it home and deposit some money in her account. Which I thought was really a brilliant idea. She always has deposit slips with her, and she autographs them on the back.
Tom: That's great. How did you manage to get her in the film?
John: Well, I read her book, and then one day I was in Boston, and walked by a theater where she was playing. My God, I thought, because I loved the book. At that time I wasn't even thinking of her for a movie, and I went in and watched her strip with her daughter. They had a mother/daughter strip act. I went up and talked to her, and asked if she'd like to do a movie, and she said yes. I think she probably thought it was porno...I don't know what she thought. I saw her again performing in Hollywood, got in touch with her, and called her up, but I still wasn't sure if she remembered what it was about exactly. Then I sent her all the reviews and stuff, and then she was gung-ho, when she realized that I was, you know...
Tom: It was going to be a real movie.
John: Yeah. And so she called me, and I took her out to the Brown Derby and had the whole meeting. I told her what everything was about, and she said the only thing she didn't want to do was porno. So I said, "I don't want you to do porno," but I think she thought I did because the contract she made out had all these appendages saying, "I will not do...," you know. And I didn't want her to. I never sent her the script until she got there.
Tom: So the part had been written before you knew she was going to be playing it?
John: Yeah. Um-hmm. If I couldn't get her to do it I was going to get Candy Barr, but Liz is much better. Candy Barr is just a mean dyke.
Tom: Yeah, Liz really adds a lot of class to the movie, that's for sure. Most of the people who worked with you on your earlier films were people who were friends of yours, and probably familiar with your sense of humor and stuff. How did the people like Liz and Jean Hill, who hadn't worked with you before, react to your scripts, costumes, and stuff?
John: Well, it's all completely explained to them beforehand, and generally the ones who haven't seen my films think probably that it's worse than it is. They get there, and they meet everybody, and they sort of get along with everybody and they like doing it. Like, there's one scene where Liz Renay had to lie there with those roaches crawling on her ass. She just said, "Okay." I don't spring anything on anybody. Like, when I was testing the black women I said you have to be nude, and there was a stampede to the door. They didn't want to do it, which is fine. Let's get it settled right in the beginning. This is what the part is.
Tom: Have you ever used a casting couch?
John: No, I haven't. With who could I...well, I can think of a couple, but no, I haven't used it. You know, it's very curious...of all the people that have worked together with me, who've known each other for years, I don't think any of them have fucked any of the other ones. I can't think of any combination that ever has. That's probably why we're all still friends.
Tom: Do you think your films would go over well in Japan?
John: I don't know. My distributor tells me it's hard to get them into Japan. I've seen them with a French audience, an English audience, and with a German audience, but I don't know. Of course I would love for them to play there.
Tom: Are your films doing well in Europe?
John: Well, Pink Flamingos is doing well in England. Not so well in France because the censors cut so much of it. Desperate Living will be opening at a lot of places soon, and I saw it at a film festival with a French audience and it went over very, very well.
Jerry: When your films are shown in Europe do you have any say in what voices they dub in or do they just do it themselves? I'd love to hear Edie in Italian.
John: I have absolutely no control over it. To tell you the truth, I can't imagine it ever opening in Italy. What happens is you get an advance. You get the money up front. What happens to it afterwards you have no control over. How do you know if they're ripping you off? How do you know how many people go to a cinema in Italy? I think they sold the rights for $15,000 up front. Well, that's good for foreign rights for one little poor country where I think it'll never be allowed to be shown. There's the Communists and the Pope and all that's going on there. I can't imagine it ever opening, to tell you the truth.
Tom: But there's not too much anti-Catholic stuff in the new film.
John: No, but...believe me, America's the freest country. I talked to the people who were distributing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Germany, and they said the censors made them cut out every time she screamed. Well, the movie must be ten minutes long! Censorship is incredible except for here. Pink Flamingos got busted once here, in Hicksville, New York. Got a five thousand-dollar fine.
Tom: Wasn't there a scene in Female Trouble where Cookie was supposed to burst into the courtroom and try to free Dawn Davenport?
John: Yeah, but it didn't turn out right because the light pole showed and there were microphones shot. It just technically didn't work, and I thought it just wasn't really needed. I mean, there were huge long scenes that were cut out of Pink Flamingos when I finished editing it. The way it was written it was two and half-hours long. I cut out huge sub-plots. There was a whole part where the Marbles snuck into the trailer and broke raw eggs all over Edie,and hung a tire swing in Divine's room and said, "Here, baboon, swing on this." They ripped up all of Cotton's muscle pictures in her bedroom, and there was a whole lot of other stuff that eventually got cut out. But I learned from my mistake and edit the script now before I shoot it.
Tom: So I understand you like to go to trials.
Tom: Like, the Tate/LaBianca murders, and the ensuing trial and convictions, have captured the imagination of America.
John: Well, I've been obsessed by it for years. Did you know there's 19 books out?
Tom: God. And you have all of them?
John: Oh, yeah. That whole thing was reflected mostly in Female Trouble, I think, which was about trials and all that kind of stuff. I wrote that after I had been to the Manson trial, so I think that was basically my movie that was about trials and crime and everything. I still think everybody looks better under arrest.
Tom: Were you present at the Manson trial for any particularly dramatic incidents?
John: Oh, I was there for a lot of it. Yeah. When all the girls wore their hair exactly like Linda Kasabian, to mimic her, and when she'd walk down the aisle all the girls outside would yell, "Judas! Judas!" They stood up and put up their arms like they were on the cross and said, "Don't you know who we are, on the cross?" The best was when, I think it was Malibu Brenda was on the stand. They said, "Have you ever killed for Manson?" and she slowly looked over at the jury and said, "Not yet." The jury was all, like, women with barrel curls, you know. They were just appalled.
Tom: Were you there the day when they all shaved their heads?
John: I saw them with shaved heads at the end, but no, I didn't see the first day when they made their entrance.
Tom: So have you read Susan Atkins' and Tex Watkins' books?
John: Yeah. Um-hmm.
Tom: So is it a whitewash or what?
John: No, because they both admit everything. I think in a way they want to be forgiven, but the only way that's gonna happen is for them not to have publicity, for people to forget about it. I went to Leslie Van Houten's trial and she's free on bail. She's out, and she comes to court every day by herself and nobody pays any attention, but eight years ago there were lines. You had to get there about three in the morning if you wanted to get in. But, I don't know. I don't want to give the impression that I approve of what they did. However I think they had a lot of style about being bad, and I liked how they handled their fame.
Tom: Yeah, I really enjoyed the publicity that Squeaky was getting during her trial.
John: Yeah, but it was hard to follow. They didn't give her enough coverage, I don't think. I loved how they wore nun's outfits, and they said, "We're nuns now...." You know, I mean...
Tom: Like she bound and gagged herself, and hurled an apple at the prosecutor...
John: I don't think she even tried to kill Ford. Really. Those girls know how to use guns. I don't think she even tried to do it. It was a publicity stunt which she thought would get Manson a new trial.
Tom: That seems pretty naïve.
John: Yeah, but those girls are very naïve. I mean, they're like robots. When I went to the Hanafi Muslim trial it was the same thing. The women were very similar.
Tom: They're the ones who took over the building in Washington?
John: Yeah. Every day the women came to court in complete matching outfits. And, like, they would do anything too. It was very similar.
Tom: Have you ever heard people saying, "Oh, Manson's gonna get paroled soon, they're gonna let him out."
John: Oh, that's such bullshit. Manson will never get out, and I think that if any of the followers do it won't be for a long time. Some of them...Gypsy got out. A few of them are out that didn't murder people. I think if you let a lot of them out they wouldn't ever harm another person, but you can't tell that to anybody. I mean, it's very easy to say, but maybe if it was your mother they killed you might not feel that way. It's a tricky question, but I'm completely against capital punishment. I don't care what anybody does, I think there's a chance that someday they might be reformed. And I'm not a liberal, I mean, I voted for Ford. I liked his family better, and when Mrs. Carter said her idea of what she wanted to do was to bring square dancing back to the White House, well, that's when they lost my vote.
Tom: White trash in the White House...
John: That's the one place where we shouldn't have white trash. Billy, and Lillian...I hate the whole family. They really annoy me. I like the Ford kids. I like Betty Ford...
Tom: Yeah. Like they had Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol over. Who are these guys gonna have? The Allman Brothers? Lynyrd Skynyrd?
John: Yeah, or Bob Dylan. Ugh.
Tom: Well, John, I'd like to thank you on behalf of our readers for providing such consistently entertaining movies over the past several years.
John: Oh, thank you very much.
©1978 TOM HOSIER
Editor's Note: Mr. Waters asks us to note that he came to appreciate Jimmy Carter's presidency, especially for his commutation of Patty Hearst's sentence, and regrets any disparaging statements.