There are few truisms that nearly everyone in entertainment journalism can agree on, but here’s one of them: John Waters is a great interview. Candid, funny, dirty, and wise, the 70-year-old director of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Hairspray, and Cry-Baby has been around long enough to go from bad-boy provocateur to beloved raconteur.
That said, it’s still sort of shocking to see his gonzo 1970 classic Multiple Maniacs lovingly restored and re-released by Janus Films, the art-house mainstay and frequent theatrical partner of the Criterion Collection. His second feature (and first with synced dialogue), it concerns a gang of weirdos who perform in a traveling “Cavalcade of Perversion” for suburban squares, who they frequently rob or even murder. The barker/operator, Mr. David (David Lochary) and his lover, the star of the show (Divine) are on the outs; their attempts to split and/or murder each other result in a parade of bizarre situations, including references to the Manson murders, a rape by a giant lobster, and a dramatization of the Stations of the Cross intercut with lesbian ass-play.
Flavorwire: Throughout the film, there’s almost a feeling of kids playing dress-up – really fucked-up kids, but kids nonetheless. Was that the spirit you had on the set?
John Waters: It was, ‘Hey kids, let’s put on a movie,’ but we had made four or five other movies before; it was the first time we had sound though, sound sync, so it was the first time we could talk. So there were these long takes, so we had endless rehearsals, because they had to memorize so much — three whole pages of dialogue, and if they made one mistake we had to do the whole thing again. So the spirit was, for us it was The Big Time, because we had sound. So it was high-budget, not low; Mondo Trasho [his previous feature] cost $2500, this one cost $5000. So the spirit was group madness. I wouldn’t call it amateurish, because we had to shoot all these pages of dialogue, and then just run. Not say ‘cut,’ just run, like Cecil B. DeMented did only I had a sense of humor about it, I hope.
And they were nervous, because on Mondo Trasho we had been arrested for indecent exposure. So that’s why filmed the whole ‘Cavalcade of Perversion’ on my parents’ front lawn. Divine’s apartment [in the film] was my apartment —
With your movie posters, I assume.
Yeah. The church, we had permission And the Stations of the Cross were shot on an obscure street. I know where that street is, it still looks like that, the woods nearby there. I didn’t have any permission, so we shot the end really early on a Sunday morning, but I don’t think the cops came. But maybe the cops knew then that we got off last time!
You mentioned the Cavalcade- that scene was striking to me, because Mr. David is really the carnival barker, the guy outside the geek show, and the movie starts with him promising people that they’re going to see all these vile, repulsive acts. It’s a really wonderful way to open the movie with a description of itself.
Yes! And with a promise to the people who’ve paid to see it.
Yeah, and to speak directly to the audience, via the Cavalcade’s surrogate audience in the movie.
Well, we couldn’t find any “straight” people – straight people didn’t mean “not gay,” straight meant “didn’t take drugs.” We didn’t know any people who looked like that, so it’s Mink [Stole], Mary Vivian Pearce, it’s all the same people, just with wigs on, straight-hair wigs and stuff.
How aware were you of that construction when you were writing it?
I knew that basically that was the whole exploitation movement was. That, and it had to be “socially redeeming” at the end — that was the joke. “C’mon in, but you’re gonna be punished for liking to see this.” Which is what really they still say, in the codes of all these, that evil has to be punished in the end. Well this was just reversed, everything was reversed.
I think what I like most about that sequence is the way that audience all goes in, they’re repulsed by what they see, and then it’s “follow us to the second, special room,” and the audience is all, “Okay, here we go!”
Well, I used to go to the Maryland State Fair, where I grew up, and they had a freak show. I always went. At the end, the last attraction was you paid more and they’ll take you in here to see the worst of all. And that’s what that was, that is what they did at sideshows: they had a barker who would lure you in, and then you watched the stuff, and they had one more thing that wasn’t included, so you could see the most shocking thing… and it was never that good, y’know. But I always remembered that, and that’s what they did. Now they didn’t drop nets on you…
I had dropping nets in a lot of movies! In Mondo Trasho they drop a net on Mink; that was the cliché, that supposedly when the mental institution came, they threw a net. Did they ever do that? I don’t know. Do they still do that?
I hope not!
No, I hope they don’t drop a net on me at the premiere!
What was your style, as far as directing actors, around this time?
To scream it at the top of your lungs and do it overboard, because I didn’t know if the sound was working! We didn’t have that great of sound. ‘Make sure you can hear that!’
That’s fascinating, because that’s one of the things I noticed: that Divine always has that very tart, affected delivery – but David has it too, Mink has it –
“Make sure they can hear you!”
I want to talk a little bit about the Jesus section, because I find it really fascinating. You think it’s going to be a satire, and it starts with this hilarious dramatization of the loaves and fishes story, with hot dog buns and canned tuna. But then it becomes an almost earnest enactment of the Passion.
Well, it sort of is, in a way. I mean the influence on me then certainly was [Pasolini’s] Gospel According to St. Matthew, and I always remembered the Stations of the Cross, which I hated when I grew up in the Catholic Church, because it was hop, skip, mumble, pray, but it was very theatrical. So when we did it, yes, Jesus does puke on the cross — but he probably would’ve, and Mel Gibson’s Christ puked, didn’t he? I’m sure he did.
So when we shot that, did anybody walk by? I can’t remember. Somebody had that on their property, a little chapel. So we just jumped out of the car; early Sunday morning, that was always the time we shot, because no one was out. But yeah, when I watch it now, I think, ‘What was that?’
In addition to your usual jobs of writer, director, producer, you also did jobs you normally don’t, like editing and shooting. How would you describe your style as a cinematographer?
Terrible! Basically, total zoom abuse; it should be in film school programs. Although there are shots that look great in it. I think it’s overexposed in parts… It was heavy! It was a giant camera that had those big ears on it, y’know. And the sound went right on the film, it a magnetic strip on reversal film, there was no “A” and “B” editing. You couldn’t cover a scene that way – it was what they used to shoot the news on. So you were very limited in how you could shoot a scene, because the sound had to overlap 24 frames on every cut, the sound at the end. So that’s why there are all the long takes. And the stuff that didn’t have lip-sync was filmed on my old Bell & Howell, the kind you had to wind up. So you can see flickers,
I never went to film school. I didn’t know what I was doing. The guy at the film lab told me how to do stuff, and the Teamster-type guy who got us that camera, and who knows if they were legally taken from the TV station, I didn’t ask. But I look back and think, the guys who got them for us were very, very conservative. One of them, I remember, even had a sign in the window of his store, ‘Bomb Hanoi.’ But he was lovely to me! He’s still alive. They were great, they helped me, they taught me.
And they made me sign all these papers that if they got busted, I would take responsibility. Because I got busted that one time, so they all got nervous! They were people whose private lives were probably the exact opposite of ours, but they were my film school. They taught me what to do. And on each one, you learn, you learn by your mistakes, you learn when you have to shoot the whole scene over. That’s what all kids do today. So if I’d gone to film school… yes, it would’ve looked better. But they wouldn’t have let me make that movie, no way. Today…
Maybe. (Laughs) I always say if you like the movie, you call it raw; if you don’t like it, you call it amateurish. They both mean the same thing. So if you can get away with it, it’s raw. If you can’t, it’s amateurish.
I would never ask you to explain the lobster. [The bloodbath climax culminates with the sudden appearance of a giant lobster, who rapes Divine.] But I’d just love to know what brought that idea on – how you wound up at that bonkers turn in that scene.
Well it doesn’t really need explanation! Divine was going crazy, and it came about, probably because lobsters were always in surrealist movies, Salvador Dali and so on. But the main thing was that in Provincetown, where I lived in the summer and took acid, there were always these postcards of the beach, with a broiled lobster in over the top and in the sky, and it said, ‘Come to Cape Cod.’ So that’s where it came from. I’d see that and think, ‘Ah, the lobster’s coming.’ It was just a joke – theater of the absurd was very big to me when I was young, Ionesco, all that stuff that people have forgotten about. That was before underground movies and everything, so that was a huge influence on me, and I think it sort of came from that tradition – if we have to intellectualize it. But it does push him over into the final madness, where it finally says, ‘You’re Divine, you’re a maniac now,’ and then he becomes the monster, the monster passes on the monster. And then, as in all monster movies, you have to get killed by that National Guard at the end. You have to be punished.
Well that ending is part of how it plays now as a fascinating snapshot of the specific moment when you made it. There are all these Manson references —
Well, there were no real Manson references, because no one knew who did the murders. Divine was tricking her husband into thinking he was who did the murders. And then they caught Manson, so then we had to put something in, it didn’t make any sense! But even when they caught him, nobody realized that case was going to be what it is. Including me.
It happened that day! I said, ‘Just do it!’ That was the paper, the real one: ‘Arrest: weirdo in Tate murders.’ So we just shot it that day, when it had happened, because it didn’t make sense any more, this plot.
So you were reacting immediately to things that were happening.
Well, I made The Diane Linklater Story the day it happened! So, yes, it was using the news, I still do. But you’re right, you usually try not to because it dates it so much. But in this case… I mean, sometimes you get lucky with a joke. Like in Serial Mom now, there’s a joke that then, never got a laugh. When she’s in the video shop, before she gets murdered, she says, ‘I love Bill Cosby movies.’ Well now I get a free laugh because of his misery and guilt, sorry, “alleged” rape charges.
A sequence like the end, which looks as though A Hard Day’s Night gets invaded by Kent State: is that just everything that was swirling in your head at that moment, or were you conscious of making a political or social statement?
You know, at the time, I was into the Yippie Movement, Abbie Hoffman and all that, which was humor and politics. I still do that – you mortify your enemy, you make them look stupid, and people laugh, and that is a form of terrorism, a kind I’m for. And so this movie was political in that way, it was built in 1969, oh my God, there were bombs everywhere, it was Black Panthers, Weathermen, everything. But I’m making jokes on it, even then, because Divine says about the Weathermen, ‘Oh, you’re such brave people, for getting out there and helping other people.’ No one would say that then! So in other words, I’m still hopefully making fun of the political movement I was sympathetic to, although I never set off any bombs because I was smart enough to be in the fourth row. They didn’t hit me with the clubs. I would run! If there was tear gas, I wasn’t in the front.
My favorite thing about this restoration is how they try to replicate the opening credits at the end, for the new music and restoration credits – but it’s too smooth and computerized, whereas your opening credits are jerky, you can see where you’ve glued over names. But they tried, which is great.
They totally got it.
How nuts was it to see that painstaking restoration effort by an esteemed company for a movie that was low-budget, and homemade, and disreputable?
Day one, the first meeting was, “Okay, do you want us to preserve every little splice mark?” And I said no, and they were shocked — they thought maybe I would want that. I never wanted the mistakes; this is coming out as new, let’s make it look the way I wished it looked, I just didn’t know how to do it! Or have the equipment! That’s like 35mm, 1:66 [aspect ratio], like some European art movie. I said no, let’s make it look as good as we can. And so they did, and they did a great job.
But they still managed to maintain that homemade quality.
As you may know, the movie is currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. So obviously, people see it now and they get it.
Well, it’s amazing to me, how intellectual the reviews are. And I love them, the reviews have been astounding to me, and moving, and I forward them to Mink and everyone. And it is astounding, because no one liked this movie when it came out. Really, almost no one did. And now it is reviewed with such seriousness, it is delightful. They really can’t hurt it, even if it gets a terrible review. You can dismiss it, which I’m sure some people will. But already it’s been beyond what I could ask for, so I’m thrilled with it, it’s exciting to me.
When you made it, how did the release work, on an underground film like this?
I would premiere it in a church, and I could keep all the money. There was always one weekend, three shows a night: eight, ten, and midnight, three nights. And we always sold out. And I might’ve gotten $1500-$2000, which I gave to my father who’d loaned me the money, so that was starting to pay it back. Then I would go around and get bookings. And then I got in on this Underground Cinema 12, this guy Mike Getz who booked for the Art Theater Guild, which was basically… felt, like, Mafia-ish? And they showed porn, but at midnight, in theaters all around the country, they had underground movies to be socially redeeming. So I got booked on that, which was great for me. It played, I forget, like 15 cities, and it went twice, so you’d make a print, and you wouldn’t get it back for like two years.
But that was how it was distributed, and that was the widest it got. And then after Pink Flamingos became a hit at the Elgin, New Line booked it for a few places, briefly – it never got blown up to 35mm. It came out once on VHS, for a very, very short time. It was shown once, at Lincoln Center – an old print that almost burned up in the projector! So that was the death of the thing, but Criterion was at a screening, and came to me. And it was perfect, because I’ve been trying to do this for a long time.
We ran a piece about a year and a half ago about how many great filmmakers of a certain age have been sort of erased by this new norm in the industry, where everything is either mega- or micro-budget, there’s no middle anymore. And obviously, you were one of the filmmakers we mentioned. Since we ran that, a lot of the other filmmakers we wrote about have had new opportunities open up via these new streaming platforms that have money to spend and want name filmmakers. It’s been twelve years since you directed a movie; what would one of them have to offer to get you to do it again?
Oh, I’ve pitched every one of those people! I had three development deals that never happened, I had three deals with HBO, one with NBC, that didn’t happen… Each one, paid me very well, Hollywood money to do it. So it’s not like I haven’t been out there, that’s four projects. But at the same time, the books did great, my spoken word show is out there all time. Tomorrow night, I play at Fire Island, and then I have the Christmas tour, twenty cities. So luckily, I knew a long time ago, don’t always depend on one thing.
And if I wanted to make a movie for $3 million, I could do it tomorrow. But I have no desire to be a faux-underground filmmaker at 70. I know, I did that, I’m not going backwards. And if I don’t make another movie, I am fine. I have 15 movies, they’re out there, I’m understood, Hollywood treated me fair, everyone treated me fair. I’m not some tragic artist that people didn’t get. People got it from the beginning.
So I have no complaints, I really don’t. And if it happens, it will happen. But who knows if it will? I keep going with the projects that are happening. I signed a two-book deal, that’s five years right there, to write two books. I’m booked for the next two years now. So if somebody said to me today, ‘Here’s the money to make the movie,’ I don’t know when I’d make it. I would! But I don’t know how.
The only genre I didn’t ever satirize was a children’s movie, and that’s what [his last, unproduced script] Fruitcake was. It’s the only one I never satirized, and I actually do think it would be a hit.
I have a three-year-old, and I would kill to see your satire of children’s films.
Well, don’t kill. You don’t kill for movies.
The new restoration of Multiple Maniacs is playing now at New York’s IFC Center, with play dates in more cities throughout the coming months.