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Q&A: John Waters On Kink Freaks, James Franco, His Collection Of A**hole Art & Why He May Retire From Film

Chris Azzopardi

Photo: Greg Gorman


John Waters has taken many deviant turns during his influential career as a cult icon who's constructed a legacy out of the poop-eating, mom-murdering outrageousness of his filmography.
But he hasn't stopped there.
Even in conversation one recent afternoon from his Baltimore home, before bringing "This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier" to Detroit's world-renowned Dirty Show on Feb. 12, Waters is appropriately inappropriate as he considers a smorgasbord of provocative topics: his disdain for adult babies, the resurrection of Brad Renfro, how James Franco is too good looking to look at, and why, at 68, he may never make another film. And yet, perhaps the biggest revelation came mid-chat, when it was revealed that Waters is such an avid collector of butthole art, he can't keep it all straight.

Your Detroit engagement is an adaptation of your 2006 one-man show, "This Filthy World."
It'll be completely different from that. I mean, it's completely updated – that was 10 years ago.

I distinctly remember that bit about blossoms. I mean, how could anyone forget?
A version of that is still in there. That's one I can't take out for the Dirty Show in case people don't know the blossom story. Now it's crossed over to straight porn and it's called something else. I forget the term that straight people use, but there's now straight porn that features blossoms – which shocked me even!

I can't imagine much shocks you, but these days, does anything?
The things that I don't like that I don't wanna be shocked by. $40-million gross-out Hollywood movies. Really ugly porn – like rape porn. Stuff I don't wanna look at. I mean, we have to put up with that for the freedoms of free speech, but also, some romantic comedies I can't take. I talk about my limits in this (show) – and about the ones that I have overcome too.

What's the biggest limit that you've overcome?
Maybe sploshers. You know, people who are sexually attracted to food. And I still have problems with feeders. I have real problems with adult babies. Lock those fuckers up.

How do you feel about the plushies movement?
I think it's bullshit. I think Vanity Fair made that up (with a 2001 story called "Pleasures of the Fur"), and then once they did the article people became them. I'm not sure I believe that's true even.

And grown men obsessed with My Little Ponies – "bronies"?
They're trying too hard to be kinky. Plushie sex holds no interest for me. If people are into it, I don't wanna know more about their life, really. Do it in private. Or – as that expression that I hate goes – "get a room." I think I feel that way about plushies and people that wanna fuck people in unicorn costumes.

When it comes to erotic art, where do your interests lie?
Some erotic art is horrible and some of it is brilliant, and it just depends, like all art. If it does something new, if it uses wit, if it makes you see something a different way – that's what art is supposed to do. Art's supposed to wreck what came before and at the same time make you look at things in a different way. I mean, erotic is not enough. I've always said gay is not enough – it's a good start, but then you have to do something with it. You have to transform it or rip it apart or deconstruct it. Do something to it! So I think erotic can be anything depending on what turns you on.

How prominently is erotic art showcased in your homes?
Oh, I'm trying to think. Lemme go around. I wish I could remember the guy's name; I can look it up for you. Hold on one minute. Both my assistants are around. There is one I have that definitely would be in (Dirty Show) and it's a Spanish photographer and it's two porn stars. One is a guy just sitting there in his socks with his wife or girlfriend completely nude with her legs wrapped around her head and she has the perfect asshole, really. I'm trying to think… I should have known you were going to ask me this. You know, I gotta get one of them on the phone. Hold on. (Waters gets his assistant, Susan, on the call.)

Waters: Who's the guy – oh god, we might need Trish (Waters' other assistant) for this. The guy that did the very faint drawing of the asshole?
Susan: Ah, which one?
Azzopardi: (Laughs) "Which one."
Susan and Waters: (Laughs)
Waters: It's in New York. Ask Trish.
Susan: Hold on. Trish, who's the artist that did the very faint drawing of the asshole?
Waters: She can get back to us. I'm going around my apartment looking at what could be in the Dirty Show.
Susan: (Trish) says she needs a little time.
Waters: I'm going around my apartment in San Francisco. I have … what's her name? All the Liz Taylor ones with dirty words.
Susan: Kathe Burkhart.
Waters: And she has all Elizabeth Taylor paintings with dirty words on them. I have something called "Pink Thing" by Brett Reichman, and even though it's not really dirty, it kind of is. That could fit in the show; he's a beautiful painter.
Susan: "Pink Thing"? Another asshole?
Waters: Something under a pink cloth that suggests something sexual. I'm going around my New York apartment trying to think. I have an asshole (piece) by Warhol with a little sun and beams around the hole – like the sun from a child's drawing. I have the Nan Goldin one here that caused all sorts of censorship problems: "Edda and Klara Belly Dancing." That one, Elton John's collection got busted for. But it's very innocent; it's two children playing naked. Some could think it's not innocent even though it is. Let me go around my house. Susan, do you remember the one upstairs with the girl with her legs around her head?
Susan: Two people's names: "Nacho y Michelle," and it's by a Spanish photographer: Alberto Garcia-Alix.
Waters: I'm going upstairs. I have "I Peed in My Pants" by Tony Tasset. I got that one at Sotheby's or Christie's; it was the Enron auction – they actually had that in their corporate office, which I find amazing. I'm trying to look around my apartment in San Francisco. I have a Tom of Finland – great shot right here! A police man rimming somebody.
Susan: (Laughs)
Waters: I have Jess von der Ahe. She paints with her menstrual blood, so I guess you could include – oh wait, I'm not saying menstrual blood is dirty… I'm a feminist! God, I have a lot (of erotic art). I didn't realize!
Susan: That's just scratching the surface.

So, John, fans adore you – I adore you – because you've always been the voice of the voiceless. As a youngster coming into himself, I remember you introducing me to so much more than morning cartoons did.
(Laughs) Morning cartoons are a good start, though! There's always insane puppeteers and fairy tales. You know, when I was young I loved Slovenly Peter. That was a great one. I loved him. I still have that up by my bed. And Chicken Little – liked that one too!

Today we're getting shock-value films like "The Human Centipede" and the 2013 German drama "Wetlands," which features vegetable masturbation – did you see it?
I did see "Wetlands." I enjoyed it! It was the only movie I've ever seen about hemorrhoids. It started its own genre.

And then we have J. Lo's "The Boy Next Door."
Which I'm dying to see. That's the only movie I wanna see! The reviews made it sound like it could be as good as "Mahogany" or something. I am gonna go to a theater because I'm so tired of my Oscar duties of seeing all these self-important serious movies. I need to see that movie!

With these movies in mind, how would you describe the trash being made these days in comparison to your own version of "trash"?
They try too hard. And they spend too much money! I think "The Hangover" was great. I loved "The Hangover," and I liked "Bridesmaids" – and I like, even more, that other "Bridesmaids" movie that was called something different! But then there are 50 other ones that are imitations that cost way too much money just to gross out and, to me, I don't hate 'em but they're not funny, they're not witty.
Oh – Jeff Ono was the guy that did the asshole and, naturally, it's called "Untitled." (Laughs)
So, trash today – it's hard because the best trash, like "Showgirls" – no matter what (director Paul Verhoeven) says, he didn't make that to be funny. He tries to say that he did now. He didn't. So there are certain movies like that. I don't think J. Lo tried to be funny in this movie, and I haven't seen it yet so I don't know if it succeeds, but it's really hard to find those kinds of movies anymore because they all are in on it. The best are the ones that aren't in on it, movies like "Two Moon Junction." They don't make them like they used to.

And also, aren't audiences desensitized nowadays? Like, what haven't we seen?
Well, that was the case with "Pink Flamingos." That's why we did "Pink Flamingos," because "Deep Throat" had just come out, so it was, "What was left to do?" And that was the joke, really. But I'm not looking for something I haven't really seen. I'm not looking for some new gross-out thing that I haven't seen; I'm not searching for that. I don't know that audiences are either. I'm searching for something that can alarm me, that can astonish me, that can make me think of something in a different way and surprise me, and that sometimes is shock. I think ("Spring Breakers" director) Harmony Korine does it well. I think mostly the European directors do. (Argentine director) Gaspar Noe does it beautifully. There's a new movie, "Map to the Stars," by David Cronenberg, and it's brilliant. So my 10 best list in Artforum (International Magazine) every year – they're always movies that do that for me, and they're usually foreign.

You've mentioned the difficulties of getting film financed these days –
No! I didn't mention it. You did. (Laughs)

Oh, I've read enough interviews to know you've said that.
Oh, past interviews? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I might've made my last movie, but I haven't made my last film thing. I'm very much involved in developing a TV show that I can't talk about, so I don't care how I tell stories – it could be in a movie theater, it could be on television, it could be on your cell phone, it can be in a spoken-word show. My last book was a best seller, so that worked! I keep switching to whatever world will have me, and that usually means the last thing you did that made money.

Why do you say you might not make any more films?
Because the world of independent film as I know it is over. There is no such thing, really, as a $6, $7 million independent film anymore. And I have no desire to be a faux revolutionary at 68 years old. To be an underground filmmaker – I have absolutely no desire to try to repeat that. (Laughs)

No interest in the whole Kickstarter campaign then?
No! I own three homes; I can't publicly beg! (Laughs) When I own three homes, I feel like it's a little hypocritical. I mean, if I wanted to make a movie that bad, I'd sell one of my houses. I did enough spare-changing when I was a hippie. I actually never did that too much either, but I did hitchhike around the country (for the 2013 book "Carsick"). That's panhandling, isn't it? That was Kickstarting in a way – asking for rides! So I'm not against public begging, but generally, yes, I could technically sell one of my houses and probably make a movie that costs under a million dollars, but unless I do that, I don't feel that I can go out and Kickstart. But I'm totally fine with other people doing it. Good for you! I'm just too old to beg.

You've always been known for working with a specific troupe of actors. When you look out now at the actor pool, who would you like to work with? How about James Franco? You're both so uninhibited.
I've known James forever. One time I said he's so handsome I can't even look at him. So I've known him forever. And good for him! You can't say he's not working. He sure ain't in the unemployment line!

Any talk of you guys working together?
Oh, he always used to say, "I'd love to work with you," but the last movie I was trying to make was a children's movie, so I really was looking for kids.
And a new star? Brad Renfro. Bring him back from the dead; that's who I want! Someone raise him from the dead, because I'd love to star him in a movie.

You've broken a lot of taboos over the last 40-some years –
Not that one! Not necrophilia! (Laughs)

Not yet. When you look back at your career, what accomplishment of yours makes you most proud?
Having real movie stars suddenly make movies with me, which, I guess, Tab Hunter was the first. Liz Renay was a star too, but she was more of a burlesque star. Tab Hunter coming and making that movie with us changed everything, and it made "Polyester" a hit and, certainly, he was very brave to do that because I hadn't made "Hairspray"; I was not socially acceptable. What movies are you gonna go watch to decide if you wanna take a chance? "Pink Flamingos"? (Laughs) And he did see it and was like, "Oh my god! You have to cut parts of that out!" He was hilarious about it. But people that took chances with me (meant a lot), and all the movie stars did, really, but Tab was first.

Are you in touch with many of these actors?
Yes! I'm in contact with lots of them. I am in contact with Tab. I just talked to Johnny Depp. I'm still close with Johnny Knoxville. I see Kathleen Turner a lot. Certainly I see Stephen Dorff some. I'm trying to think of the ones that I see the most that are alive…

Ricki Lake?
Ricki Lake – of course! I mean, I see Ricki Lake probably more than any of them. Traci Lords I see. I see lots of them.

Of all your films, which do you look at most fondly and least fondly?
I don't look at any of them, to be honest. I guess, weirdly, of my Divine movies, I'd pick "Female Trouble." My mother always said "Serial Mom" was the best movie I ever made – maybe she's right. My mom said, "I am serial mom; I hate it when people chew gum!" And I still hate it when people chew gum too. I've turned into my mother!

What comes to mind when you think of the craziest mail you've ever gotten?
Since where I get my mail at Atomic Books (in Baltimore) is fairly publicized – so much so that it was even a clue on "Jeopardy!" recently – I get amazing stuff. People send me great gifts, great books, weird paintings. I have a whole wall of fan paintings of me – some are great, some are hideous, and I love all of them. I don't get hideous stuff – well, yes: Somebody did just send me a dildo recently that I didn't even open; I just threw it out. One guy just sent me a thing (saying) that after he read "Carsick" he raised money for cancer by hitchhiking around the country and that was lovely. I thought, "I inspired other people to hitchhike for charity?!" I did it for a book advance! (Laughs)

I recall you lamenting the mainstreaming of gay culture –
Well, not completely. I've traveled with Gov. O'Malley in Maryland to get gay marriage legal and we got it, so I'm for it; I just don't think I'll ever do it.

But I'm referring to your 2011 interview with Slate, during which you seemed somewhat bummed regarding the mainstreaming of gay culture.
Well, it was more special being an outlaw, but you know what, still, it's a lot better today than it was.

As a gay man yourself, how do you feel your place in the gay community has changed?
I always appealed to gay people that couldn't even fit into the gay world, and I still do. But the gay world's always been supportive of me; it's never certainly been my whole audience. People forget: When "Pink Flamingos" first came out, yes, it was gay people, but it was bikers too. My crowd has always been minorities. My core crowd is minorities that can't fit in with their own minorities.
And now, I don't make anybody mad. Even with my "Filthy World" show, my sister said, "How do you get away with saying that stuff?" I do because I'm not mean, I don't think, and they know that when they come to see a show called "This Filthy World," it's not gonna be about healthy eating!

Right. By this point don't people know what to expect from John Waters?
They do, but they don't get mad even when I always test people's limit – because I always make fun of my audience's tastes. I'm not trying to win them over; they're already over into my world, usually, so I like to kid them just as I kid myself about our own taste, questioning everything. That, to me, is what humor's about.

What's left for you to do, John? What's on the bucket list?
Well, I haven't written a novel ever, so I think I might try to do that one day. I've never had a TV show before! That might happen. Oh! I did have a TV show! "'til Death Do Us Part." So, I had a TV show, but I was in it. I didn't write it.

Are you saying you're writing this show?
Yes. And directing. We'll see, we'll see. "In development" as they say. I have many projects in development. Many folders on the "in development" table.

You always do.
I always do! Next! (Laughs)

When people go through your things after you kick the bucket, what are you most worried they'll find?
Already my friend knows where to get rid of the porno stash. Every man has one thing somewhere – one little pile – you wanna get rid of, and my friend already knows where that is. So I'm not worried about anything. Everything else goes to Wesleyan Film Archives – all my personal stuff. I don't hide much!

Lucky friend, though. Gets to inherit your entire porn collection!
No, they don't get to inherit it. The porn collection – that's cataloged! That'll go to Wesleyan. That's part of my library! (Laughs)

Regarding your own films, what was and continues to be your motivation in pushing boundaries?
The only boundary that I might have pushed recently was I did a children's version of "Pink Flamingos" that's in my art show up in New York right now. The only thing left to do, now that everybody tries to be shocking, is to do the opposite, really, (laughs) and take my most shocking movie and rewrite it for children. Then the audience feels dirty because they know the real movie that children don't.

How do you feel about all the boundary-pushing going on nowadays? Does it frustrate you that everybody tries to shock?
Very little frustrates me these days. No – that doesn't bother me. I'm secure, you know? (Laughs) I don't feel that. I don't worry about challenges. I'm not in a contest in who can be the most hideous. I think I've been lucky. My career has been understood. I saw somebody I hadn't seen in 50 years at a funeral yesterday and they said, "John, it's amazing – your dreams came true!" And I said, "Yeah, they did. It's a wonderful thing." Because yeah, they really did.

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