“You’re about the furthest you can come. Maybe the top of Maine might be further.”
John Waters chides us for our long-distance journey from Los Angeles to Provincetown, Massachusets, located on the tip of Cape Cod. We meet one another on a sunny afternoon in the garden of a local mansion, celebrity-studded party in full swing, courtesy of the Provincetown Film Festival.
Waters, of course, transcended his rebellious beginnings as the guerilla filmmaker of scandalous movies like Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble and Polyester to become a mainstream success with films like Hairspray and Cry-Baby–as well as a reliable queer wit on the political stage. In Provincetown, the citizens treat him like royalty, particularly for his support of the Provincetown Film Festival over the years.
This year, he also released a self-help book, Mr. Know-It-All: Wisdom of a Filth Elder at the local bookstore over Festival weekend.
Waters’ blue eyes peek out over the rims of his dark sunglasses, his pencil mustache curling upward in a grin as I sit down across from him. Queerty managed to score a few minutes with the Pope of Trash just after his book signing.
I wrote a film school term paper on higher level criticism on your films.
Did you graduate?
I got an A.
Must have been a good teacher.
So how long have you been coming to the festival, to Ptown?
I’ve been coming here for 55 years. And I’ve been at all 21 festivals.
What’s the appeal?
I came here when I was 16, 17. Somebody was like It’s a weird place, you’ll like it. So I hitchhiked here. It was. And I did. I worked for Molly Malone and Mary Oliver, who became a giant poet. Then I ran the Provincetown bookshop for many years as a young man. Turned the windows into this place. My first movie premiered at the church up on Shank Painter Road. I hate hot weather. I can’t do Baltimore; it’s too hot. So I just come here. I write here. I have a chapter in my book about it: it’s called “No Vacation.” I’m not really on vacation. I work every day like I’m at home. But, you know, I can pretend I’m in Spain and go to the beach.
Spain has the best beaches in the world.
They don’t have that thing anymore that they used to take off three hours in the middle of the day.
They had it, but it’s like everywhere. Everyone works in the city but they don’t live there, so the workers can’t get home to go to sleep.
Tell me about for favorite spots here in town. Do you have a favorite restaurant?
Yeah. Strangers & Saints. When I was young here, the hippest, coolest restaurant was called Front Street. Now it’s still here, and I’m not saying it isn’t [cool anymore], but it’s not the hip scene that it was. It was all coked up. So Strangers & Saints is like Front Street without the cocaine.
That’s the old Front Street. It’s not like that now, and I’m not insulting the one that’s there. It’s still a good restaurant. But it used to be a real scene there. And everyone used cocaine.
Cocaine and eating don’t go together in my mind.
I know. So I would say Strangers & Saints is the cool, hipster place. I like very much Jimmy’s Hideaway. It reminds me of Boys in the Band. I like The Muse. But I’m on the road so much I don’t get to go there much.
I’m sure you put the miles on.
But at the festival, I go see lots of movies. I ride my bike everywhere. I have the same old beat up bike I’ve had forever.
I always think someone is going to steal it. When I was young I always stole a bike.
That was the first thing you did. The first night you got here…
You’re admitting to this!?
The statute of limitations is up. The first night you got here, you’d steal a bike and go paint it. Everyone did that!
You’d take it home and paint it? And you’d get away with it?
Yeah. I got away with it every time. I did it every year for 10 years at least.
Wow, ok. Do you have a favorite dive bar?
I haven’t been this year, but I like The Underground. I like straight bars because that’s where the minority goes. I used to go to the Bradford Basement, which was a townie bar. But this year I haven’t scoped them out to see, because it changes every year. If I’m going to go to a bar…Colony, I used to go to. I haven’t been out long enough this year.
What about Atlantic House?
The A-house used to always be disco. I hated disco. And now everybody dances looking at their phones. I hate that.
But that’s everywhere though.
I know. I have a soft spot for the A-house. I always walk by. That’s where Tennessee Williams met his boyfriend. I saw Judy Garland there sitting in there drunk. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday played there. So the little bar in the A-house is really where I bow my head as I walk by.
That’s where I was last night. I had no idea, everybody’s been there.
That’s where I saw Judy Garland dead drunk. She wouldn’t mind that I’m telling you this…
The leather bar, did you go to that one?
That to me…men look silly at the beach in leather.
Leather pants if you’re over 21—not easy to pull off. But I like going in there. Once a summer I always go in there just because there’s a lot of action in there. So I’m for that. I can be for things I don’t go to. But it’s extreme in there. So if I had to pick a gay bar that’s the one I’d go to. Then this other bar, The Monkey Bar…but I can’t go in there. I have bonding on my teeth. What are those lights called?
What, the blacklight?
Yes. Oh my God, I’d light up. So I can never go in there. I said I would never go in there. It’s nothing against the place. But until they change the lighting up…
You could wear a veil.
You know, Edith Sitwell’s mother veiled her for school because she didn’t want other children to hassle her. That’s really mean.
Sounds like something my mother would have done.
Well yeah. There were moments. Might have helped me get a date. But speaking of biographical material, queer biopics are all the rage.
I really liked Rocketman. I really enjoyed the Queen one too.
Bohemian Rhapsody? I liked them both. People were really gunning for Bohemian Rhapsody, and I’m not sure why.
I voted for it for the Oscar.
Oh yeah. And the guy that came in to finish that did Rocketman.
Dexter Fletcher, yes. Do you ever think about doing one of yourself?
Oh yes, they’ve been optioned. A couple times. I really hope they do it after I’m dead because I’ll just hate it.
Like in the Elton movie, he didn’t sing that song at the Troubadour.
It was written years later.
And I know they’ll do that. I don’t want to hear it from all my friends who are alive: Why did you?! Although I’ve said it in other interviews, Steve Buscemi should play me at this age, and Matthew Gray Gubler could play me young. Though he’s much better looking than I was.
They both would be great. I was thinking of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Yeah, I like him. But I don’t know if it will happen or not.
We need it. We need to know about Dreamland.
But it’s a long story. Spanning where to where? I don’t know. I hope it ends…I don’t know.
The night Hairspray opens?
That’s 25 years. There’s a lot there.
It could be done.
Well, I don’t want to write it, direct it, or maybe even see it.
Well watching a biopic of yourself has to be weird anyway.
I don’t know. I live my life in public so much. I have a private life too. I always say you can tell I have a real private life because half my restaurant receipts I can’t deduct. That’s how you can tell if you have a really good personal life.
So you’ve just authored a self-help book. What inspires you to write a self-help book, of all things?
Bishop Fulton Sheen. He wrote one.
Look him up. The ridiculous ones from the 50s, it’s sort of a parody on that, just to have a way to tell all my stories. I think my advice is good. I’ve been doing what I want. I never had to get a real job. I didn’t really change. I’m still doing the same thing. I think that’s negotiation, planning, and organization. So I try to explain how to do that: how to fail upwards.
It worked for George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
So here we are. What one piece of advice would you give to young, queer filmmakers?
Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
Where does that put us?
A young gay filmmaker should just be a filmmaker, not a gay filmmaker. In other words, don’t be a separatist. Everyone should hang…gay, straight. I think gay people should be able to go in [like coming out] too. People should be able to change and sometimes when they do, they get grief. There are real bisexual people. They are real. So I’m just thinking for a young filmmaker, don’t limit yourself. I don’t want my book in the gay section with true crime back by the bathroom, next to humor. That’s the only thing worse than the gay section: the humor section.
You mean you don’t want to be back with Art Linson back in the humor?
Or next to a Peanuts cartoon book. Which I like! And it’s ok to be in the gay section, but in a way, I’m against separatism because everybody should be inside. Get right in there if you’re a good filmmaker. And straight people can make gay movies. It doesn’t matter. Look at the guy who did Rocketman. He’s straight as far as I know.
Or how about when gay actors play straight people? Nobody ever says “Oh, how brave!”
No, and Billy Porter’s been railing against this, saying “I’m sick of straight actors getting applauded for playing gay characters.”
I don’t mind when straight people play gay people. It’s just who’s right for the role. When gay actors play straight people, they never say, “Weren’t they brave to take that role?”
And that’s the problem. Cast gay actors as straight characters. Or better yet, how about we just don’t concentrate on who anybody f*cks in real life?
But then if you’re a gay person playing a straight person they say, “You’re a closet queen.” Look at Kevin Spacey.
Well, he didn’t help us on that point…or much of anything else.
And what happened to him wasn’t about his roles.
No. And everybody in Hollywood knew he was gay. We all knew that. But he wouldn’t come out until we found out he was scamming a 14-year-old. So what have you seen at the festival that you’ve really liked?
I liked Circus of Books about the porn shop in LA. I think I’ve had sex in that bookstore, but that was 40 years ago.
I’ve gone popper shopping with friends there.
I liked the Pauline Kael one a lot [the documentary What She Said]
And I’m still seeing more. I’m seeing the Montgomery Clift one next [Making Montgomery Clift].
I didn’t like the Kael one. They toned her down and glossed over every controversy. They cut all the homophobic stuff.
She liked me. She reviewed Hairspray, gave Divine a great review. He died a week later. So he was really thrilled about that. I loved her. She was a huge influence on me. And they show her smoking and drinking.
She looked like a buzzard. Something avian.
That kind of a power of a critic will never happen again.
Not after Roger Ebert. Not in the internet age.
I liked him the least.
God, I love arguing with you!
Waters’ new self-help book, Mr. Know-It-All: Wisdom of a Filth Elder, is available at fine retailers.