John Waters’ Filthy World: An Interview With John Waters

John Waters, the subversive auteur from Baltimore who brought us bad taste cinema like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, along with the endearing retro musicals Hairspray and Cry-Baby, is also an actor, author, and the star of his perennially evolving one-man show This Filthy World: Filthier and More Horrible!, an epic monologue through which he riffs on his lifelong misadventures and unique world view. He will be performing it this Saturday, April 1, at the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival in Edison at 8 PM.

Waters is a true American original, the transgressive Pope of Trash searching through the underbelly of the country to expose our foibles, fetishes, and desires. In essence, the crazy things that make us tick. He has a special horror-oriented version of This Filthy World that he will be performing, and it should be just as entertaining as the decade-old version which you can stream on Netflix. One thing is for sure: Whether Waters is exploring moral hypocrisy, discussing unusual sexual proclivities, or profiling oddball characters, he expresses universal truths that we can relate to and laugh at, even if we get a little uncomfortable.

You’ve done This Filthy World at a number of horror conventions, including this one in New Jersey.

I definitely have a whole different horror version. It’s all about horror—the references and the jokes. It depends which kind of show I’m doing. So there is a horror version, and that’s what’s going to happen in New Jersey, and then I’m doing it at another convention next week.

You grew up in the ’50s and ’60s…

Yeah, I think that was the best time for horror, before it became ironic.

And also pre-Exorcist.

I never loved The Exorcist. To me, that was a Hollywood thing. The horror movies I liked were Herschell Gordon Lewis and the gore movies and The Blob. I felt really bad the director of The Blob died [recently], but he was 98. That’s my favorite theme song for a horror movie, “The Blob”.

Arrow Video put out a huge Herschell Gordon Lewis box set recently. 2000 Maniacs aside, I never thought he was a great filmmaker…

He was a showman. I interviewed him in my book Shock Value, and I stayed in touch with him. I had dinner with maybe two months before he died. He died with no gore, tastefully in his sleep.

In past shows you’ve talked about pushing limits, which is something you’ve always done. Obviously Lewis pushed limits back in the ’60s with all the blood on screen. While he is a cult legend now, what were the effects of those films like back then?

They were hits. Blood Feast was a huge hit in drive-ins. He thought it up the same way we thought up eating shit in Pink Flamingos because there wasn’t a law yet that you couldn’t do it. Sex had gone as far as it could go before hardcore. That’s why he thought up gore and we thought up eating shit. Just a joke on what could you do that they hadn’t thought up a law against yet? And without Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast you would not have Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Some people think that without John Waters and Pink Flamingos you wouldn’t have reality television.

That’s odd because I loathe reality television, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched one [show]. I disagree because I think reality television asks you to feel superior and makes fun of the people in it, and I don’t think I do that.

That’s a good distinction.

I think that’s a big distinction.

I feel that the central theme of American life is power. People want to feel empowered in one way or the other and, like you’re saying, to feel superior. Look at the ridiculous political discourse on Facebook last year. Even my fellow liberals were driving me up a wall.

Liberals can be the worst fascists of all. I am a liberal, but certainly I talk a lot about that at my show. They never imagine that anyone could disagree with them.

I’m wondering how things are going to get fixed at this point.

I think for the first time I’m going to have some Trump supporters at a horror convention in my audience, which I generally do not, so I’m looking forward to it.

To deal with heckling?

No, people don’t heckle me. No, I’m open to everybody. I try to make everybody laugh. That’s how you change people’s opinions.

From Pink Flamingos to Serial Mom, you’ve been very influenced by the ’50s sense of black-and-white morality. I joke that a lot of Republicans want to take us back to the Father Knows Best ’50s that only existed on television.

Well, the whole thing is I came out of that, but it is certainly not something I remember well. The ’50s were a horrible time of mass conformity. I hated the ’50s. They certainly had good cars and I made musical about the ’50s, but I don’t want to go back there. God, it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen.

I don’t know why people romanticize that era so much. I think some people who do it never lived then. I feel that way about the ’60s too. There was some important social change that happened then, but there were some bad things that we learned about our government too.

The reality of the ’60s is that we lost. We didn’t win. The revolution didn’t happen. I made fun of the ’60s. Multiple Maniacs, which was just rereleased and restored, was completely making fun of hippie culture even though it was a movie made for hippies.

Criterion just reissued Multiple Maniacs.

Multiple Maniacs had been out of release for decades, so they restored it and Janus Films released it in movie theaters, which is so hilarious because they did early Goddard and Bergman and Truffaut.

And now Waters. Are there any good extras on the Blu-ray?

We did new commentaries and interviews. There’s plenty of new stuff on it.

You have mentioned your parents in a past incarnation of This Filthy World, but I don’t recall too much detail about them.

In one of my books [Shock Value] I have a whole chapter called “Do You Have Parents?” about my parents. They were very supportive. They were horrified. They were very conservative, but they were supportive of my work. My father lent me the money to make the early movies, and I paid him back with interest which he was horrified by because he had to keep doing it. They were proud, but they were still scared of me. I think they never completely understood. I think when Hairspray won the Tony Award, that was the height [of their pride]. My mother always said Serial Mom was my best movie, and I think she may be right.

Kathleen Turner is great in that.

That’s coming out again too. It has a brand-new release in May.

You started making films in the ’60s, but people really got to know you in the ’70s. You did some stuff that was shocking back then and is still considered so today, but in the era of the Internet it seems like very little is shocking anymore. How do you think an artist or filmmaker can be truly subversive now?

You can’t try too hard. You don’t try to be shocking anymore because Hollywood now makes $100 million gross out movies that aren’t funny. If you want to shock somebody, maybe make something without violence and sex in it. I don’t know. To me, there are certainly new ways to surprise people. Todd Solondz’s movies. Gaspar Noé’s movies. Lars von Trier. There are certainly many movies that are startling and shocking and great. But if you’re just trying to be shocking, it doesn’t work. You’re trying too hard. I don’t want to name some, but there are some. To me, that’s youth’s responsibility, to think of a new way to wreck things, to come up with something new to horrify the cool generation right before them. Not their parents. That’s the key to success.

You’ve talked about the value of having bad role models growing up. For you, one of them was the evil little girl in the ’50s horror movie The Bad Seed. Are there people today who you think would be good bad role models for young people?

I would have to think about that. I guess probably all the famous hackers are the big role models for juvenile delinquents today because that’s what you do if you’re a juvenile delinquent.

I look at my generation today, which I call the divorce generation. After seeing the failures of their parents, many people are less likely to settle down and there are more single people. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

It just depends. To be out in bars horny at 70 is kind of embarrassing. But now nobody goes to bars for sex anyway. They’re online. I even got a job offer from Grindr. I think they want to do real content now. It’s changed. I have a straight woman friend who’s a lawyer with mostly gay male clientele, and she said, “I don’t know what to do anymore. The fags don’t get in trouble. They don’t go to peep shows. They don’t drink or get drunken driving. They don’t have sex in public places. I don’t have any jobs left.” All the stuff that she had to defend [them] for they don’t do anymore. Because they’re on Grindr. There’s no reason to have gay bars if there’s progress. It’s like having a black bar.

You worked with Traci Lords before, and she’s going to be at New Jersey Horror Con.

Yes. I did a punk rock convention with her last year where we were both the host. It was great. Me and Traci Lords doing a meet and greet. I thought that could be trouble, but it was all girls! She said, “I’ll sign breasts. Dicks I don’t sign.”

So she has more female fans?

Yes. All great girls with Bettie Page bangs and tattoos. I would say most of her fans now are women. She doesn’t sign porno. If they bring it, she doesn’t sign any of that stuff. She did that for what, two years? She’s in her forties now. She’s made as many horror films as she has porn.

Why do you think so many young women like her?

Because she’s ballsy and she survived and she’s got a great look.

You attract a lot of young people to your shows.

Completely. I used to say that many of the people weren’t born when I made my most famous movies. Now they weren’t born when I made my last movie almost. It’s the only thing that you can’t buy. The great honor to me is getting audiences that remain younger each year because that means it still works.

Why do you think people still gravitate towards your work?

Because I never say, “Oh, we had more fun than you did.” I don’t think we did. They’re having as much fun, it’s just in a different way. I have youth spies that tell me things so I know what’s going on, and I reward them with poppers.


John Waters will be performing this Saturday, April 1, at the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival in Edison at 8 PM. For more information, go to