A conversation with the legendary John Waters

Previously only issued on VHS, the 4K restoration of Multiple Maniacs (by The Criterion Collection) will see a whole new audience delve deep into the mind of the Pope of Trash, John Waters. Now almost crystal clear, viewers can now witness the perverse pleasure of Divine and Co in almost a little too much detail.

Waters’ second feature length film see’s Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, and a whole host of regulars smoke, steal, kill, and kidnap their way through life. When Divine hears her boyfriend Mr David is cheating on her, she and her new girlfriend Mink set out to find him and exact revenge. Hilarious and bizarre, this is a snapshot of counterculture at its filthiest.

Made for a mere $5000, this is a triumph for underground film, and even if it isn’t your style, you have to admire the dedication of the director and the cast members. You can tell how much work has been put into the film, through costume, location, even the acting (however campy it seems).

Containing what I consider to be the most outrageous scene in film (I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves some rosary beads), Multiple Maniacs, like most of Waters’ films, isn’t for the easily offended or faint-hearted, but remains oddly beautiful nonetheless. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.

The new Blu-Ray edition includes: 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Waters, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new audio commentary featuring Waters; new interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, and George Figgs; new video essay by scholar Gary Needham; trailer; and an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

I was lucky enough to interview the man himself – find out what John Waters thinks about Melania Trump, his childhood stint as a puppeteer, and why he doesn’t think he’ll be making any more films…


First things first, how are you after your stay in hospital over Christmas?

That was the most overblown story! First of all, not one person would have known about it if it hadn’t have happened the night of my party, which 200 people came to my house and I wasn’t there. I was only in the hospital for one night, I had a kidney stone, it hurt, it’s gone. It was so ridiculously blown up, my agent heard that I had died!

The internet is a crazy place, it seems everything gets blown out of proportion these days, or is entirely made up, which isn’t helpful to anyone!

Who knows what’s going on in this world today – they’re all Multiple Maniacs, we have a multiple maniac as President. I think Divine would have probably threatened him in the movie too, I think Divine threatened Reagan in the movie, which shocked people because he was only Governor then. Divine was never political – did he vote? I don’t know if he ever did or not, but Divine would have been political today. I remember during the ’60s with all the riots, we would go to all the left wing stuff and his father used to say “You should go join them, be with ’em!”, but Divine couldn’t run, he wasn’t going to any riots.

I’m obsessed with the Melania Trump memes, where she turns up places with her Tiffanies boxes with cakes that have “Help Me” written on them, I would have loved to see Divine tackle that.

Oh god, I think they should have a drag queen fashion show with Melania and Ivanka, and all the other first ladies could come in, it’s all Jackie sunglasses and Betty Ford non-alcoholic beer, and then they could all cash in.

So, away from politics and onto movies, what was it that made you want to take the leap from film lover to filmmaker?

Well, I read Jonas Mekas who was the underground film columnist for The Village Voice, and I thought it was kind of my key to escape suburban Baltimore when I read about underground movies. It just so happened that [underground movies] came out when I was in high school, you didn’t have to go to Hollywood, you didn’t have to do any of that which I never considered to be possible. I would go to New York, and sneak away on buses and go and see these movies and I was just inspired to do it with my friends. But I already had a career as a puppeteer for children’s birthday parties from when I was about 11 to 14, and I would have fake blood at the end!

I wrote stories that I would read at camp and would horrify the other campers, and their parents would call and complain – I’ve always been doing this. I guess I was just lucky enough to be driven at a young age, and my parents were supportive – they hated the product, but they respected my ambition. They were torn in a kind of way, they were publicly humiliated, no one ever said those movies were good at the time, they just got very negative reviews – we got arrested for making them! My father would lend me the money and I would pay him back, and he was shocked that he got the money back – I think he would have preferred that I didn’t pay him back! It was the opposite of how it is now, nowadays you have to go in a pitch a movie, my father didn’t want to know what they were about. If I had told him what Multiple Maniacs was about he would have definitely not given me the money.

My parents didn’t see it, and I look back and think, “if I had a kid, I couldn’t not go and see their movie” but then I thought, what parent would have been happy if their child made that? No parent really. They did see some of my movies, and they were always horrified, even til the end they came to the screenings, just not Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos. They certainly knew about Pink Flamingos from reading so much about it – I remember the New York Times said it was proof that I had ‘faulty toilet training’, and my Mother said, “LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!”.

So would you say they were more proud of your more mainstream films like Hairspray?

Oh yes, they were thrilled about Hairspray, they were thrilled about Polyester, they didn’t like Cecil B. Demented, Crybaby they were fine with, A Dirty Shame – they hated, they didn’t say, but you could tell. They were nearly 80 years old, what 80-year-old would go and see A Dirty Shame? My mother liked Serial Mom best.

So do you feel more pride towards your earlier films or the more mainstream ones?

I’m proud of them all, they’re a body of work, you know? They’re all the same to me, I don’t know why one’s a hit and one isn’t because they all have the same message, which is “Don’t judge other people and mind your own business.” I guess Hairspray snuck in, and the others didn’t.

So you oversaw the restoration of Multiple Maniacs into 4K. When going into that did you want to keep some of the lo-fi authenticity or were you willing to fully transform it?

At first they asked me “Do you want us to keep in every splice mark?”, because it was hot spliced, they weren’t even A/B edited, you couldn’t use that because we shot on a single system camera with a magnetic stripe for the sound, so the sound had to be 24 frames ahead of the picture when it went through the projector. You had to overlap the sound every time there was a cut. They asked if I wanted to keep the dirt and scratches on the film, and I said no! I never wanted them, I just didn’t know any better, it was the best I could do at the time.

This is gonna be a new movie that’s getting re-released, where most of the people going to see it have never seen it, let’s make it look as good as it can possibly look. That’s why I joke that now it looks like a bad John Cassavetes film. It’s on 16mm so it’s square, not the widescreen ratio used now – I almost want to put subtitles on it to make it look like a foreign film. It’s definitely foreign to some!

Are you tempted to restore your other films too?

No, the ones before [Multiple Maniacs] are very problematic, some of them have music rights issues. Multiple Maniacs is the one that I’d been really trying to get restored for a long time. Pink Flamingos has kind of already been done, it came out on 35mm and all that stuff, so I think Maniacs is the one that I wanted to get done whilst I was still alive. If I’d have died, and this restoration hadn’t come out, it probably never would get done.

Are you interested to see the reactions from a new audience?

It came out in America last summer, and I’ve seen all the reviews that have come out recently from the UK, which have been staggeringly nice. The only review we got when it first came out was from the local critic, who said “it wasn’t my first talkie, it was my first sickie” and that it was “more repugnant than The Conqueror Worm” – that was our ad campaign.

So you recently said that you might not make another film, is that because you want to pursue other things?

I probably won’t. It’s okay, I’ve made so many. I’ve had 3 or 4 in development, but they all want you to make something for a million bucks now, and I can’t make them for that, I don’t want to. So I write books and I do speaking tours, I have so many ways to tell stories. I wrote a big sequel for Hairspray for HBO that almost happened recently, so it’s not like I’m not in the business. I still pitch, but the movies never end up getting made because they want you to do it for no money. I can’t do that, I’m not going to go backwards. I don’t have any pillows with needlepoint slogans on them, but if I did they would say “Don’t Go Backwards.”

So does that make you ant to go more towards writing now?

I’ve always been a writer, I wrote every movie, I’ve never made a movie I didn’t write and I never would. I’ve done 6/7 books, spoken word, that kind of thing – I’m a writer more than a Director.

I’ve also heard that you collect newspapers – what are some of your favourite headlines you’ve seen?

I do! In London you have so many newspapers, it takes the whole morning for me to get out of my hotel room because there’s so many to read. I get 6 delivered every morning, but in airports, I always leave them, and no one ever takes them! They cost like $4! I always say the best headline was when Ike Turner died and the title was “Ike beats Tina to Death”. I collect headlines whenever a terrorist dies because they always say “he’s in hell” or “he’s on his way to hell”, like how do they know? Who gave you that scoop? Did St. Peter send you a press release? What’s the source?

Finally, who are some of your favourite filmmakers at the moment?

Certainly Todd Solondz, I really like Todd Phillips, Gaspar Noe, Bruno Dumont, Harmony Korine, there’s so many great ones out there that are still surprising me, and that’s what I want. I recently watched Get Out, it’s a really fine script, that’s all I want, is to keep being surprised. The world just seems to horrify me these days, rather than surprise – but we’re living in a horror movie, so be it; let’s see what happens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s