Monday, December 5, 2011

Mark Griffin interviews John Waters on How to Get Through Christmas

'The Pope of Trash' Comes Clean: Director John Waters on Portland, Pink Flamingos and How To Get Through Christmas
by Mark Griffin

First comes the good news: John Waters, who is without a doubt one of the most intriguing individuals in our solar system, agrees to an interview. I am beyond elated. The world is suddenly full of wonderful things like bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Then comes the bad news: due to an overloaded work schedule, 'The Bard of Bad Taste' has only ten minutes to spare.

Ten minutes? Can one truly interview "The Pope of Trash" in less time than it takes for the average ATM transaction? After all, this is the director of some of the most noteworthy and notorious cult classics of all time including the landmark Pink Flamingos ("one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made," raved Variety), Hairspray (which spawned a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2002) and Serial Mom (in which homicidal homemaker Kathleen Turner does an especially obnoxious neighbor in with a leg of lamb).

Ten minutes seems scarcely enough time to discuss Waters's unique contributions to cinema, let alone his holiday-themed stage show, A John Waters Christmas, which will be the hottest ticket in town when it hits Portland's State Theatre on December 11th. And ten teeny minutes leaves us next to no time to cover Waters's superlative collection Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a highly addictive page turner in which 'The Sultan of Sleaze' pays tribute to his idols - everyone from Tennessee Williams to Little Richard to Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West. I appeal to Ian Brennan, Waters's promoter, for additional interview time. Alright, truth be told, I subjected Ian to a supreme diva tirade and demanded at least an hour. The unflappable Ian has apparently dealt with relentless, conniving journalists before: "John speaks very rapidly...You'll get everything that you need," he assures me. Ten minutes it is.

With one eye on the clock, I ask the first question. In a culture dominated by the likes of Casey Anthony and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, does the John Waters vision still have the capacity to shock? "My audience gets younger as I get older and Pink Flamingos still works. I promise you. It didn't get nicer," says Waters. "I go to colleges all the time and Pink Flamingos still gets eighteen year-old kids who think they've seen everything. It still makes their jaws drop and I'm very proud of that."

With nary a nanosecond to spare, we dash off to the next question. If Waters is capable of putting Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords and Troy Donahue all into the same movie (as he did with 1990's Cry-Baby), what on earth will he do to our most sacred holiday in A John Waters Christmas? "I actually love Christmas in a non-ironic way," says Waters. "But I understand that there are people in Portland, Maine - as in everywhere - that hate Christmas. I'm sure there are people in Portland, Maine who do not agree with it religiously. They go their families' houses and they are tortured. And they hate the enormous financial burden of Christmas. So, with this show, I try to speak to everybody. It's a self-help group. How To Get Through for Christmas. No matter if you're a convict, a thief or a fashion casualty, this show has something for you. It's all about mental health at Christmas."

We're seven minutes in and I've only asked two questions. With no time to lose, we rip into the next topic. Which of the thoroughly original role models profiled in Role Models had the greatest impact on Waters's own life? Was it Baltimore's infamous "angry stripper" Lady Zorro? Or maybe it was velvety-voiced pop legend Johnny Mathis? Never one to play it safe, Waters opts for the most controversial candidate in the book. "I would say Leslie Van Houten, because the one thing I would like to do is help her get out of prison before I die," Waters says.

In 1969, Van Houten was a 19 year-old follower of the infamous ex-con Charles Manson. Along with other Manson 'Family' members, Van Houten participated in the gruesome murders of a Los Angeles couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Waters believes that Van Houten, now 62, is a completely rehabilitated woman - one light years removed from the cult-indoctrinated 'trippie' who killed while under the influence of LSD and Manson's brainwashing. "Her case is probably the only thing I've ever written about that was serious,' Waters says. "There are no jokes in there. I also know that there is no fair answer to the question that her chapter in the book asks...What happens when you've done something so terrible when you're young? How can you ever begin to make up for something like that? So, that is a subject that will continue to interest me forever."

Twenty minutes have flown by but who's counting? While no one's looking, I sneak in another question. When can we expect the next John Waters extravaganza at the neighborhood cineplex? "You know, I started out making underground movies and then midnight movies and then I guess what was called independent movies...and now I can't get a movie made," says Waters. "In the forty years that I've been involved with it, I would say that independent film is having the toughest time right now. They want you to make a movie for $500,000 or $100 million now. Years ago, there used to be ten distribution companies that I could pitch to and there's only about two now. But I've got a development deal for this children's Christmas movie that I'm trying to make called Fruitcake. So, I'm still trying but in the meantime, I write books. I'm on stage. I tell stories. Luckily for me, there are many different ways to tell stories."

In recent months, Waters has been touring the world with his acclaimed one man show. "I actually just came back from doing seven or eight cities in New Zealand and Australia," Waters says. They couldn't get enough of him in Perth and Waters's demented brand of humor went over remarkably well 'down under.' So what accounts for his success in even the remotest parts of the globe? The answer, like the rest of our interview, comes quickly: "Bad taste - I promise you - is international."

[Mark Griffin is the author of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli]

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