John Waters doesn’t plan on making a new movie anytime soon, even if it’s been 15 years since his last feature, 2004’s A Dirty Shame. If the stories the 73-year-old cult filmmaker recounts in his latest book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, are to be believed, Waters was fine with giving up negotiations with studios and producers.
While the back half of Waters’s memoir imparts that promised “tarnished wisdom” (music recommendations, how to deal with air travel and public speaking, drugs, etc.), the early chapters describe time spent making movies within the Hollywood system—after he scored a modest hit in 1988 with the surprisingly adaptable Hairspray—and watching his last three directorial efforts die at the box office. It’s dishy fun with plenty of behind-the-camera gossip and tales of screen legends like Tab Hunter, Traci Lords, Patricia Hearst, and Sam Waterston.
Waters has zero regrets. He’s made the campy, trashy films he wanted to make. He now makes a tidy living from his regular one-man shows. The biggest success on that front is his annual A John Waters Christmas, where he offers acerbic and naughty commentary on the holiday season.
In advance of his upcoming appearance at the Neptune Theatre on Thursday, December 5, Waters spoke with me about his tour, his new book, and staying influential into your 70s.
You’ve been doing this show for more than two decades. How has it changed?
Well, I write stuff for it every year. I’m in the middle of doing that today. A lot of the audiences come every year, so I always want to have a new show for them. Has it changed? Every year it reflects the political climate. I think this will be an angry Christmas for a lot of people. So I think I’ll use that. I’ve always made fun of the pressure of Christmas and how it affects everybody, no matter what your politics.
What do you get out of doing these shows? Connecting with your audience? A nice check?
It is a nice check. I make my living doing this show. And it forces me to come up with new material. I stay in touch with my audience and what people want to talk about. I have signings afterward, so I meet all the people. I do the pictures. Touring is incredibly important. As I say in my new book, Elton John once told me, “As you soon as you stop touring, it’s over.”
Mr. Know-It-All feels like a rough guide to life, with fun tips about air travel and food.
Sure! With my book Role Models, I wrote about the people that gave me the freedom, when I was young, to believe I could do what I wanted to do and succeed. Now I’m sharing what I learned in my 50 years of getting away with it: How to negotiate your way through the shark-filled waters of Hollywood [and] the art world. How to continue doing what you want to do without ever having to get a real job.
Your chapter on music is especially great because it’s an example of how to get older without losing touch.
Today, you just have to say the name of a song into your phone and it’ll play it! Truly amazing.
Why do you think people get to a point in their lives where they stop paying attention to new music and new art?
It happens as soon as you think they don’t make music like they used to. Or they’re not having fun like we used to. As soon as you stop being interested in new stuff, your influence is over.
Reading your annual film lists on Artforum, it’s heartening to see that the stuff that excites you is still extremely challenging and sometimes extreme art.
I don’t understand people that say, “I want to go to a movie that makes me feel good.” I already feel good. I don’t want a book that’s easy to read. I like hard books that make you smarter. I like things that challenge you.
You’ve been open that you don’t really miss making movies. But what if one of the streaming services came knocking on your door with a blank check and complete creative control?
Sure! I’ve been paid three times to write Hollywood sequels to Hairspray, including an HBO one two years ago. I’m still in that business. They pay me. They just don’t make them, which is fine. I know how it works. I don’t have any complaints. Hollywood treated me fairly.
You surround yourself with supportive people who’ve stuck with you, even through the lean years when your films weren’t doing well commercially.
I think that’s very important—to thank and name the people that helped. The ones I fought and had trouble with, I don’t name them because they were doing their job. Their job is to make money, not to make art. And some of my movies did lose money, so they were right. The only thing I would argue is that I made the exact movie they approved. They should’ve made that decision before they paid me.
I didn’t realize you had to send your movies through the gauntlet of a test audience.
There’s no way to make a movie with a Hollywood studio where they don’t do that. They call it “the fuck off group,” not the focus group. It’s always a nightmare. Even the head of [the National Research Group] said to me, “What norm do we test you against?” That’s part of playing the game. They’re not going to give you those big salaries if you don’t do that. That’s just basic math.
At least you got something out of the process with A Dirty Shame, when the producers agreed it needed a bigger ending and you were able to have that final, crazy scene.
Imagine that meeting, and imagine how many producers wouldn’t say yes to that. That’s why I wanted to give [Hairspray producer] Bob Shaye credit for being the kind of producer that would take that risk.
Do you think any of your other movies benefited from the process of testing and reshooting?
With test screenings, you can tell if there’s something they don’t understand, and all you need to do is put in one little shot or something. That’s really helpful. You can also tell when something is too long. When you’re young, you don’t want to cut anything, but if you ever think something is too long, it is. My humor is extreme, so you can’t pitch it to middle-America, really. Although I’ve gotten further than I ever expected or imagined. All over the world!
What are your plans for the rest of the year and beyond?
I’m going to Greece with my other show, This Filthy World. Then to Manchester, London. Four cities in Australia. I’m on the road constantly. Then I do 16 cities for the Christmas show. I’m in the middle of writing a novel. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.