“I used to play car accident as a child,” Waters once stated. He fantasized about car crashes as a young boy, and destroyed all the toy cars he played with. His mother took him to see real wrecked vehicles in a junkyard, where he saw blood on the seats. It fueled his obsession with violence.
As a young boy, Waters used binoculars to watch B-rated films (and sometimes X-rated movies) at his local drive-in.
At seven years old, Waters felt inspired by the 1953 movie Lili and became interested in puppets. He would stage violent versions of Punch and Judy at birthday parties.
Waters staged a puppet show based on William Castle’s 1959 horror film The Tingler. He had his brother and a friend crawl underneath the seats to grab the legs of audience members, imitating the director’s gimmicky screenings.
His grandmother gave him his first 8mm camera on his 17th birthday.
The Wizard of Oz was one of the first films Waters ever saw. “I was always looking for something that other people didn’t like, or people were frightened of, or didn’t care for,” he told Today. “I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue. . . . When they throw the water on the witch, she says, ‘Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?’ That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep, like a prayer.'”
During his youth, Waters was close friends with neighborhood kid Harris Glenn Milstead. They both felt aligned with the counterculture and shared an affinity for all things underground. Other like-minded people were drawn to them. Eventually, Waters nicknamed his group of friends “the Dreamlanders.” He also dubbed Harris “Divine,” named after a character in Jean Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers.
Waters left NYU’s film school after one class. “NYU…I was there for about five minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking about,” he once stated. “I went to one class and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see Olga’s House of Shame. That was what I was more into.”
Although Waters was a rule-breaker, when the cameras were rolling he was all business. “You were expected to show up on time, camera ready, knowing your lines, prepared to do what you needed to do. We had a good time, we had a lot of laughs, but when the camera was rolling, we were working,” friend and collaborator Mink Stole stated in 2013. “Look at Pink Flamingos: it’s all done in master shots. The scenes are long with no cutaways. If you do a five-minute long scene, and someone blows their line four-and-a-half minutes in, the scene had to be started over. We were all aware of the budget we had—film was expensive—so none of us wanted to make John mad. John ran a very tight ship.”
Waters hates the look of his first films: “My early films look terrible! I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned when I was doing it. I never went to film school. I didn’t learn from porn or anything; I just learned how to turn on the camera. [That] was hard enough. But if you like those [early] films, you said they were ‘primitive.’ If you hated them, you [said they] were ‘amateurish.’ It is the same word.”
Waters had to borrow $2,000 from his father to make the 1969 film Mondo Trasho. Waters and his crew were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to commit indecent exposure” after filming a scene with a naked hitchhiker on the campus of Johns Hopkins University without permission.
Waters grew his famous mustache to honor one of his favorite singers, Little Richard. “I just grew it when I was 19 because I was just trying to look like a hippy pimp at the time and I loved Little Richard,” he told A-Sides. “Not many white men I knew had that look so I grew it in honor of Little Richard. I don’t even realize I have it to tell you the truth. I trim it. I use a mini razor. I do it from the top every day then trim it with cuticle scissors like maybe twice a week or if I [spot] a little gray – I put a little pencil on it [he uses Maybelline]. It takes two seconds a day. I could shave it off and go underground, right?”
He taught film and writing classes to prisoners in rehabilitation programs. Waters has also advocated for former Manson girl Leslie Van Houten’s parole and has received letters from ’90s club kid Michael Alig (recently released from prison).
When he dies, Waters hopes to be buried in a cemetery. “I love the idea of graveyards. I like people visiting. I used to go in graveyards when I was young and [drag performer] Divine would steal flowers for parties and I’d bring a couple beers,” he told NPR. “I love the atmosphere. I like ‘the worms go in, the worms go out.’ Maybe I believe in the Resurrection, the only thing I’ve been ever taught that sounds like a good idea. But then I panic about real estate prices and what are we supposed to wear, and are we nude?”
Waters was a big fan of the ’90s police procedural series Homicide: Life on the Street, set in his home city of Baltimore. He had a cameo role as a bartender in the season one episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Waters hitchhiked cross-country from his home in Baltimore to his co-op apartment in San Francisco and wrote a book about it. He held a cardboard sign that said “I’m Not Psycho.”
“I was not a book fanatic until I was fifteen and discovered Genet and Burroughs and all these Grove Press books and thought, thank God, I’m not that abnormal,” he once said of his love for books. “That opened up a whole new world to me. Those were my friends. Tennessee Williams was a huge influence on me. I thought, I don’t have to worry about all these creeps. There are other people more interesting.” His favorite novel is Two Serious Ladies Possessed, and he lives for biographies of “women on the edge.” Waters has a strong dislike for paperbacks and used to steal hardcovers when he couldn’t afford them. He subscribes to 80 magazines monthly.
His heroes are Cy Twombly, Martin Scorsese, Glenn Gould.
Journalist and former First Lady of California Maria Shriver (then married to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) is Waters’ sixth cousin once removed.
His favorite cigarettes were king-size Kools. He has since quit smoking, but at one point he made this hilarious “no smoking” PSA.