"Role Models": Filth king John Waters dishes the dirt

The film legend and memoirist on his fight for a Manson family member and why reality TV is the worst kind of bad

Published June 6, 2010 5:01PM (EDT)

Maybe the most disorienting thing about meeting John Waters in person is realizing what an old-school gentleman he is. The kind who gives your hand a courtly shake, fetches tea for you, and never lets on that this is his gajillionth interview of the day. By now, the self-proclaimed king of puke has earned the right to be a book-tour paragon. Which makes it fitting that his new essay collection, "Role Models," celebrates some of the paragons in his own life.

As you might expect from the director who brought us Odorama and Divine eating dog shit, these role models are a raffish lot: lesbian stripper moms, foul-mouthed barmaids, pornographers, perverts. Not to mention the occasional cult celebrity (including "Monster Mash" singer Bobby "Boris" Pickett and former child actress Patty McCormack, star of "The Bad Seed"). Loitering as always on the edges, Waters finds inspiration where others see squalor and makes provocative points about art and morality and the good life — without losing an ounce of his ironical cheer.

Salon spoke with Waters in Washington, D.C.

Here's a problem I hope you'll resolve. Your name does not lend itself to an adjective. With other directors, it's Spielbergian, Wellesian, Hitchcockian … but the only thing I can come up with in your case is Watersesque. Which sounds like a perfume.

You're right. That doesn't work. Watersian? Watersish? Waters-like?

It must be a sign you've arrived, I guess, when you have your own adjective.

No, you know you've arrived when they name a sex act after you. Like the Marquis de Sade. That's arriving. And that guy Sacher-Masoch, who gave us "masochist." St. Catherine of Siena helped cause the Reformation — that's famous.

"Role Models" introduces us to people who have been, for lack of a better word, your ethical compasses. I did a comparative analysis with William Bennett's "Book of Virtues," and I find no overlap between your books.

No, but I think my book is very moral in its way. I picked the people for moral reasons — the basic goodness of people, which I do believe in.

One of those people is former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. What attracted you to her story?

I didn't talk about Leslie for 25 years, and now I'm talking about her all day, every day. And I so much wish she could talk, because no one defends her better than she does. Not "defends" — that's not the word — she takes responsibility for every single action that happened in the [LaBianca] house, even though she did not participate in all of it. She doesn't blame it on drugs. She doesn't even blame it on Manson. She says, "It's my fault for being in a cult. He wouldn't have been a leader if he didn't have followers." She hasn't had any contact with Manson in 30-something years. She won't give him the power even to hate him. I think the family members that have survived him, almost every one of them looks back on that time with great horror and shame.

I was really struck by the fact that the Manson killers have been in prison longer than Nazi war criminals.

They've been in prison longer than William Calley, longer than the Baader-Meinhof Gang. And the Baader-Meinhof Gang didn't even say they were sorry! Leslie has been saying she's sorry for decades — and eloquently and with great believability. No one thinks she's a danger to any community. She's a 60-year-old woman who has spent 40 years in therapy, N.A., A.A., every possible thing to better herself. You think she's going to go out there and hook up with a cult? If anything, she could help people not be in cults. But she doesn't even want to do that. She wants to have a quiet, humble life away from everything. Somebody once said to me, "Is she going to be in your movies?" And I said, "You really don't understand the whole thing. That's not even an issue that would ever come up."

Maybe they were thinking of Patty Hearst, who's appeared in five of your movies.

But Patty Hearst is a very different story. I mean, she was brainwashed, too, but she was kidnapped. There are some similarities, though. They both did what they did to stay alive. The people who join cults, they all think they're doing something right, which is almost mind-boggling to imagine. The Manson family believed they were elves, the Beatles were talking to them, it was the end of the world. It was insanity: a hippie nightmare dreamt up by a madman.

Do you believe Leslie will ever be paroled?

I have to believe she will. Bruce Davis, another member of the Manson family who was just as involved as Leslie was, he just got a parole day. All I can do is try to write her out of prison. Every year I write a letter to the parole board. I don't know if they read it. But I've told her, if she gets out, she doesn't ever have to see me again. I think that's the best gift I could give her.

You've said in the past that your movies have no redeeming social or moral value, but the Van Houten chapter is a really nuanced example of moral reasoning. You give all due honor to the feelings of the LaBianca family.

As much as I can. I don't know that anyone can completely. And I understand why certain people think Leslie should never get out. If you don't believe in rehabilitation, if it was your family … I can't criticize that. Who am I to say what they should believe?

You're a well-documented cultural figure, but your book still manages to spring some surprises. I wouldn't have guessed you were a fan of Johnny Mathis.

I remember, when I was 11, I went to a party across the street, and they were playing Johnny Mathis music, and all the older kids were making out to it. He makes everybody in the world want to make out, even 80-year-olds, and that's kind of hilarious to me. He doesn't participate in the fame game, and he's still incredibly famous. Do you ever see him at a premiere? Or on a talk show? I went to his Christmas show, and it was completely sold out. And there was no interview with Johnny Mathis in the local paper.

I asked him, "Don't you get sick of singing the same songs?" He said, "No, you pretend you're the audience every night, and you haven't heard it." So I respect him, and I still like to hear him sing.

What kinds of things do you read?

I used to get 150 magazines. I get everything from Death Penalty News to the New York Review of Books to Butt, which is actually a fairly intellectual gay magazine.

You've embraced honorifics like the Pope of Sleaze, you've declared "a war on taste," you've instructed readers to have faith in their own bad taste. In "Role Models," there's a lot of good taste on display.

Oh, there's no bad taste.

There's some fairly graphic stuff...

But I write about it in a refined way. I'm trying to give it grace — a word I would never normally say. I also hate the word "journey." And "craft" and "rigorous." And "openly gay," which always makes me laugh. Do they say, "Openly heterosexual So-and-So is appearing tonight"?

And that phrase "practicing homosexual." Like, if he keeps practicing, he'll get it right...

They used that with Little Richard. Also "flamboyant" and "outrageous."

To judge from this book, your artistic role models are a sharply opposed group. You wax just as enthusiastic about Bobby Garcia, who filmed himself giving blow jobs to Marines, as you do about author Ivy Compton-Burnett and artist Cy Twombly. Clearly, you embrace both high and low.

Yeah, the middle is where I've always had trouble.

So it's an aesthetic of extremes?

And a joy in that extreme. And a style that makes you think about the extreme in a new way. Bobby Garcia has no choice but to make his movies. If no one noticed them, he'd still be doing them.

If you had to define your sensibility as an artist, would it be queer or gay?

Neither. First of all, I never call myself an artist. History decides if you're an artist. I certainly think I'm equally right for gay and straight people. I don't have a gay agenda, although I vote gay. If someone said they were against gay marriage, I wouldn't vote for them. But I have no desire to mimic something Larry King does eight times, and I like Larry King. Good for him! He's helping us. I hope he gets married 10 more times. I think I should be allowed to marry your tape recorder right now. Just don't make me do what you want to do.

Do you consider yourself a role model?

Yeah, a filth elder. It's funny, I get older and my audience gets younger. I do these book signings, and there are kids there who weren't born when I made my later films. And I like kids. I mean, who else is going to take care of me when I'm sick?

Speaking of kids and role models … you mention in your book that your film "Pecker" inspired a hazing incident where a 15-year-old boy was tea-bagged by some upperclassmen. How does that make you feel?

Well, it's bullying, which I'm very against, but being tea-bagged is not the worst thing. I mean, he was trying out for a fraternity. What do you expect? Assholes are in fraternities!

What do you think of other shock artists? Sacha Baron Cohen? Sarah Silverman?

I'm a fan of both. I liked "Bruno" even better than "Borat." I like Todd Solondz a lot. There's a new movie coming out called "Dogtooth" that I loved. A Greek movie, really strange.

Have you seen "Glee"?

Yes. I'm happy for its success. "Glee" and "The Wire" and "Treme" are the only TV shows I've seen in the last 30 years, since "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

In the pantheon of bad taste, where does reality television fit?

I don't like it, because it's real bad taste. It makes the viewer feel superior to the people in it. It's naked pathology, and it doesn't work. And I think no matter how big the shows are, do people ask them for autographs? I'd like to see a show about the balloon boy. He puked on the "Today" show, and they just kept talking. I wish his family had gotten a reality show — I mean, that's why they did it. I guess that means I like reality shows that are not picked up.

Living in Baltimore … every house is a reality show, and I don't think I'm better than any of those people. Most reality shows on TV now, you're laughing at them. Even those shows where people lose weight. Wouldn't you be terrified if you were that fat and outside was Richard Simmons with a crane to get you out? Oh, my God, is there anything more frightening?

Your movie "Pink Flamingos" is about two families vying to be the filthiest people alive. If that competition were happening today…

I don't know if it would work. I did a radio show in New York, one of these shock jocks, and they offered $500 to anybody would come down and eat a dog turd. And no one came. I said, "What's the matter with junkies? One turd for $500?" When I made that movie, 30 people would have been lined up.

It's just a higher class of junkie now.

They wouldn't do it. And Johnny Knoxville has done it all. He's doing "Jackass" in 3-D, and they're going up Steve-O's butt. And what's great about it is, these are all straight boys who are the most gay-friendly people. They have things about their ass and nudity, and straight men and their fathers watch and laugh, and it works!

So they're subverting from within?

And so beautifully because the people who would probably be the most uptight about this are cheering and laughing when they shove things up their ass. Or cook their puke and eat it. It's amazing to me. I think it's a great, great series. It's the Three Stooges, and I love them.

You like the Stooges more than Chaplin.

They're more fun, and they have a better fashion sense. I hate people who wear top hats, they look like assholes, but Moe with his bangs? He inspired the shoe-bomber fashion. The shoe bomber looked exactly like him. Imagine if you got on the plane, and he sat down next to you with Moe Howard's haircut and shoes with big fuses sticking out of them and dynamite. Trying to light the match and it wouldn't go off.

At the risk of using another hated word, is there a "message" you'd want people to take away from this book?

Be interested in other people's behavior and try to figure out why they did it. That's what's so interesting to me, and it's not quite so obvious, and everybody has horror stories, everybody has secrets, everybody has things they've done that they're still trying to explain why they did. So if you can understand why other people did it, then maybe you'll be better with yourself and you can be a happy neurotic, which is what I'm trying to be.

There's one quote I particularly loved: "True success is figuring out your life and career so that you never have to be around jerks." Does that include journalists?

I haven't had jerk journalists for really a long time. I've had dumb ones, like the one who asked if I had hobbies. How dare you ask me that question? Do you think I'm sitting around collecting Pez machines? Stamps? I hate people with hobbies. You should have a passion for whatever interests you and try to make it your life's work — not dabble!

Can you tell us what's coming next?

I have one big project that's in development. I guess it's like straight people trying to get pregnant: You don't tell people until you are. I'm still trying to make "Fruitcake: The Movie." I have another one that's called "Liar Mouth." I don't know if that one's going to get made, either.

Is it easier or harder to get film projects off the ground now?

Much harder for me, but I think it's much harder for everybody in independent film right now. I think it's the worst it's ever been since I started. It's a great time if you're a kid and making your first movie for $100,000, and it's an amazing time for Hollywood movies. It's like the '30s: They're all making billions of dollars and doing well. It's medium-priced independent films that are very bad right now. But I've been doing this for a long time. Who knows? You throw enough shit on the walls, something sticks. A "no" is free, that's what I tell kids. Keep asking.

By Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

MORE FROM Louis Bayard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books John Waters Memoirs Our Picks