Film and TV

Q&A With John Waters: How Hairspray Secretly Corrupted a Generation

Q&A With John Waters: How Hairspray Secretly Corrupted a Generation
Greg Gorman

click to enlarge John Waters is coming to Phoenix. - GREG GORMAN
John Waters is coming to Phoenix.
Greg Gorman

John Waters became notorious for his hilarious and trashy midnight masterpieces like 1972's Pink Flamingos. Decades later, the world has finally met the filmmaker at his level, improving both his infamy and reputation. This is partly the result of the 1988 comedy Hairspray becoming a Broadway musical. It's now played in high schools across the nation and was the basis of the 2007 hit film starring John Travolta and Christopher Walken.

Waters has also authored several best-selling books. His latest work is Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, which chronicles his rise to respectability. He also dishes on what happened behind the scenes on his films, many which starred drag queen Divine, and doles out advice to those looking for a way to stand out.

“It’s a self-help book for crazy people to make them feel even better about themselves than they already do,” he says.

The director is bringing an updated version of This Filthy World, his one-man show, to the Celebrity Theatre on Sunday, June 30.

“I talk about fashion, movies, and crime, so it’s always changing,” Waters says.

The man behind Polyester took a few moments before his booking signing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to talk to the Phoenix New Times about his book, getting the support of his parents, and how Hairspray secretly corrupted a generation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New Times: I wish I had Mr. Know-It-All when I was in film school, because it has such great advice. Did you wish someone had written a book like this when you started?

Waters: I never went to any schools because I was thrown out everywhere I went. I already knew what I wanted to do, and they wouldn’t let me. I was thrown out of film school on the first marijuana bust ever on a college campus.

I went home and made my first movie. It was technically terrible, but it’s still playing. I did something right. If you’re driven, ambitious, and have a crazy thing you want to show the world, sometimes being raw helps. It shows your passion.

I’m not against schools at all. I have two honorary degrees. I’m really honored when I’ve received them, but I also feel like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when they handed him a brain and a diploma. It’s exciting and funny at the same time. If you do it long enough and they can’t get rid of you, then they honor you.

I love how you talk about everyone on your movies like they’re family, especially Divine …

That chapter where Divine dies is sad. They were my family. We’re all going to be buried together in the same graveyard, which is kind of a radical concept. Do you know anybody who gets buried with their friends? We like our families, but we’re going to be buried with our friends.

I don’t say anything mean about anybody, even the studio executives that I’ve fought with in Hollywood. I don’t name them because I’ve cashed the check. They were right, because some of them didn’t make money from their point of view. I think I was treated fairly in Hollywood the whole time. Nothing bad ever happened to me because I became famous. I never understand why people complain about it.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you how I discovered your work because you talk a lot at the beginning of the book about becoming a “filth elder” and being respectable. I was raised Mormon and discovered the original Hairspray on cable …

Were you in Salt Lake City? I love it there. There’s one theater that I play in all the time.

I actually grew up in Detroit, which made me the only Mormon in my school. I loved Cry-Baby and Hairspray, so when I turned 18 and was discovering movies on my own, I explored your other works.

I lured you in! It’s like how drug dealers get people hooked.

When you hear stories like mine, does it make you feel less respectable?

It makes me happy! People come up to me all the time to tell me I helped them save their life because they were feeling alone. They saw a movie where the crazy people won and the fat girl gets the guy — things they had never seen before. I felt like that growing up when I first read about Tennessee Williams. There’s a whole other world I can go to.

I’ve always said Hairspray is the most devious movie I ever made because it snuck in. It plays in schools and drag queens get the part. I say even racists love Hairspray.

But I feel like the world has caught up with you. There’s no line to cross anymore.

There sure is, but the things that are shocking today aren’t funny. I hate them because they try too hard. We tried to shock you to pay attention to something different, but tried to make you laugh at the same time. That’s how you change people’s opinions. We still have to do that. I’m not a separatist. We have to talk to everybody, even those we don’t agree with. Humor is the way to bridge that gap.

What would shock you now?

The things that shock me now are dumb things like bad romantic comedies and sequels to movies that I never wanted to see in the first place that cost $100 million that don’t even have people in it, just explosions and special effects. I hate it when you see the trailer of a movie and it’s the entire movie. Why would you go see it? There’s a lot of things that shock me, but not in a good way.

There are some filmmakers that really startle me. Gaspar Noé just made a movie that I really loved called Climax. I like feel-bad movies. I want to go be horrified, but I loved the Aretha Franklin documentary that just came out (editor’s note: it’s called Amazing Grace). I liked Elton John’s movie Rocketman, so I like commercial movies, too.

Did your parents take you to the movies a lot when you were a kid?

They did. My mother said the first time she ever saw me really rebel was when we were in the Catholic church. We had to stand up and take the Pledge of the Legion of Decency and [pledge that we] wouldn’t see condemned movies. I refused to do it. She got uptight because I wanted to see all the movies that were condemned. I would memorize each title, cut out the ads, and imagine what the movies were like.

Were you rebelling against religion when you were starting out as a filmmaker?

Right in the beginning.

You didn’t seem to be rebelling against your parents. In the book, it seemed like they supported you.

They did. They supported me emotionally and financially. They paid for some of those movies and I paid them back. They taught me how to be a businessman. They were also horrified by the movies but amazed that they started to get attention around the world. They respected my drive.

Have you ever imagined yourself in an office job?

I do go to the office every day. It’s in the places where I live. I punch my own clock. I’m worse than having a boss, because I feel bad if I don’t get up on time and do my work. I can wear my underpants.

John Waters – This Filthy World. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 30, at Celebrity Theatre, 440 North 32nd Street; Tickets are $30 to $65 via Ticketforce.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil