The Emotions Issue: John Waters

What better way to start The Emotions Issue than with a little sit down with John Waters? A man of many hats – artist, filmmaker, writer, general pervoid – Waters’ work never fails to tug on the heart strings. Whether the tugging’s pleasant or not, well, that depends on where you keep your heart.

If your hearts in your ear, you’ll certainly want to get your hands on Waters’ new musical compilation, A Date With John Waters, on which the so-called king of filth celebrates some of his favorite forgotten love songs. The collection’s closer to sublime than sleazy, offering the listener some lost aural wonders.

See what Waters has to say about this musical curation, how to tell when it’s really love, why he’s not for pill-popping and the last time he cried, after the jump.

John Waters: Hello?

Andrew Belonsky: Hello, Mr. Waters. It’s Andrew Belonsky. How are you?

JW: I’m fine, how are you?

AB: I’m well. Let’s talk about the CD for a minute. How did you select the songs?

JW: Just my obsession. These are songs that I really would play if you came over to my house. Certainly these are all from my record collection. I also work with a guy named Larry who has every record known to man and completely knows my taste and sometimes finds things for me that I haven’t heard, which is a great delight for me. I like oldies I’ve never heard before and I like to put [songs] in a different order, as a soundtrack, and use it as a narrative, even [for] all my soundtracks for all my movies. This is a soundtrack for my life, in a way.

AB: How did this come about? Was this you idea or did somebody approach you after the success of the Christmas album?


JW: No, it was my idea – basically, I signed a two deal – when I signed the Christmas one, we had a second one. It was a two-picture contract! A two-disc contract for A John Waters Christmas and A Date with John Waters. I was at a dinner party – New Line Records had just happened and I was sitting right next to the head of it and I said, “I’ve always had this idea – let me do a Christmas album” and she called the next day and said, “Done”. So, it pays to go to business dinners. To me it was really just [furthered a] thing that I did in real life. I would play people music, say, “Listen to this record”. Everybody does that, I think. I’m a curator now and I think in a way, that’s what this is. It’s about taste and I’m showing you songs that I really respect – every one of them. I don’t think any of them are really campy. I don’t think any of them were made to really be ironic.

AB: No?

JW: No. I like them all for real.

AB: I noticed, yes, they are love songs in a way, but there’s a lot of violence in there –

JW: Don’t you think love can be violent? Basically, anytime you’re in love, it’s the scariest risk in the world, I think. One always loves the other one more. There is anger and hurt and everything. So, a date with John Waters, you know, if it goes well, all those things are possible. Especially being “Bewildered”, the last song, I think it’s the perfect way to end it – sung by Shirley & Lee, even though she sings it in the most nasal way, it’s still incredibly – I get a chill when I hear that song, even though it’s a song most people know – if you know it all – from James Brown singing it. It was one of his early hits.

AB: Do you think that love’s an actual emotion or do you think love’s a concept: a cumulative emotion?
JW: Well, I’m not sure love isn’t trying to make up for everything you didn’t get before you were three years old. I think that maturity is that you will never get that and once you realize that, you can have a different kind of love that will be easier and less painful.

AB: If it’s less painful, is it as valid, you think?

JW: Well, yes. Probably real love isn’t melodramatic. It doesn’t inspire all those things, but that’s not as exciting as romances that are melodramatic and cause lots of trouble and bring anguish to one of the people. That always seems like love, but I think sometimes when it’s over and you look back on it, you realize that it wasn’t and it would never have lasted. It’s always takes two. Somebody always thinks when you break up it’s one person – if you get broken up [with], you always think that it’s their fault, but twenty years later you look back and realize it was both of your faults.

AB: Do you remember the first time you fell in love?

JW: Sure, but I don’t think I’m going to tell you about it. The people I fall in love with, they are basically not public figures and probably wouldn’t want me to talk about it. They have privacy. But certainly I’m friends with all of them and sometimes that took quite a while, but I’m friends with all my exes.

AB: That’s good.

JW: That’s hard. That’s really mature.

AB: Well, you know what? I think that’s something that happens a lot in gay communities, more so than in straight communities, that I know of…

JW: Who said I was gay? [Laughs] I love to say that. Um, you think so? I know a lot of gay couples that have been really violent and have had really melodramatic breakups, but you mean being friends later…I don’t know if I believe it, because in a lot of straight couples, when they had kids, they had to become friends later, because they had kids together. But now gay people have more kids than Catholics, so it’s confusing.

AB: I’m not sure if you’re aware that this is for “The Emotions Issue”…

JW: Oh, I’m always emotional, so that’s all right… But, by emotion, I mean that I’m always enthusiastic about my interests.

AB: Do you consider yourself a moody person?

JW: No. Thank god I don’t have chemical depression. I’m against most of the medication that’s given to people – some people, it saved their lives, but I think it’s wildly over prescribed and I think it’s appropriate to be depressed sometimes. If you’re an asshole, if you broke up with someone, somebody died… You’re supposed to be depressed.

AB: That’s what somebody else I interviewed recently said – you don’t really know you’re alive unless you experience those low lows and those high highs.

JW: Yeah! But it can’t manic. If it’s manic, then you need the medicine. But, to me, who wants to be even? I don’t ever want to be even.

AB: I can’t imagine you ever being even.

JW: Well, think about it, I make my living from being uneven.

AB: Right. What you were saying about being a curator [for] the CD – I’ve seen a number of your works, both film and I’ve listened to the CDs, but I also saw, you participated in the SITE Santa Fe show a few years back, I think the theme of the show was “The Grotesque” and then you had the New Museum show. I was wondering on the way over here, do you feel differently about these media or do you prefer –
JW: I keep it very separate. I have my own studio where I do my artwork – I usually don’t talk about that on art magazines. I had a big show this year called “Unwatchable” that was in the Marianne Boesky [in New York] and de Pury & Luxembourg in Switzerland. There’s a big catalogue of that out now. So, yeah, it’s a big part of my life, but I do the same thing I do in my movie business, in my art world, in the CD world – it’s very separate. I think of it separately, but it’s all using the same thing: I’m using humor, I’m using taste, I’m using inside knowledge and at the same time being delighted sometimes with everything that’s the matter with each one of those worlds.

AB: So you think we need negative qualities –

JW: Well, my specialty has always been praising what most people dislike. I don’t ever generally say negative things about people in the press, because then I wind up sitting next to them at a dinner party. It’s embarrassing. That isn’t me. I mean, sure, I can say I hated Forrest Gump, but what do they care? It won the Oscar and made $80 billion. My making fun off it – who cares? I wouldn’t. But, at the same time, my taste is I’m always trying to get you to like something, including my own movies, that are not thought of originally, in the conventional sense – the heroes in my movies are not the heroes in real life – a fat girl getting the boy, like in Hairspray, which obviously was a very commercial idea, although I certainly had no idea at the time. To me, I didn’t think any different when I sat down to write Hairspray or when I sat down to write A Dirty Shame – and they couldn’t have been any different. I had such problems with rating issues. The other one won the Tony and now is being remade as a $75 million movie. To me, they’re the same, so I can’t really sit down to write one that is more commercial or arty – I don’t do it that way. I wish I could.

AB: Are you impressed by your own success?

JW: I’m not impressed. Sometimes I think, “Wow.” Walking up the red carpet in Cannes with ten thousand photographers screaming your name is far away from Lutherville, Maryland. I’m happy – I wouldn’t say, “impressed”, I’m amazed at things that can happen. “Impressed” sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet. I try always to be humble and be amazed at things that happen. I certainly don’t have anything to complain about, I’ve had a nice career.

AB: Have you ever been to a therapist?

JW: Yes. I believe in it. And, you know, you can’t do it anymore – I had a friend who tried to get a psychiatrist and I called around and there aren’t any anymore and if [there are], they don’t take insurance. None take insurance and insurance won’t pay for them, anymore. They’ll pay for one visit and then they want you on pills! They’ll pay for pills. There’s no such thing anymore, almost – unless you’re rich and basically there’s not many [psychiatrists] anymore. They don’t have them. [But] I believe in the talking cure. I love to read Freud! I think he’s one of the most hilarious, best writers ever. And I believe he was right a lot.

AB: I suppose you could just go to a priest and confess.

JW: No, that’s different. [With] a priest, you’re guilty. You’re never guilty at a psychiatrist.

AB: But you’re only guilty if you let them say you’re guilty.

JW: Well, the Catholic Church – it’s based on you saying you’re guilty. I don’t care what religion people are – I personally don’t believe in it, but if they do, fine, just don’t make me do it. That’s the problem I have – it seems they always try to, whatever religion it is. I have a friend who [says] “Religion brings you solace and peace” – Good! I’m all for that, just don’t tell me about it. I personally don’t want to argue about it. I personally don’t believe it – I wish I could, it would make things easier. It seems like a pretty simple answer, but I don’t believe it’s a very true one. Or if there is something, I haven’t heard it yet. The ones I’ve heard, I don’t think they’re true.

AB: You could always start your own, I suppose.

JW: Well, I guess they say I’m a cult leader – I don’t think [making] cult films is exactly like I could put a subliminal message in one of my movies that says, “Send me a thousand dollars”.

AB: What’s one of your favorite career highlights?
JW: Certainly Cannes – that’s always been great to me. The French have always been great to me. Being chosen to be in the Cannes Film Festival is always very exciting. But then you remember the little things – I remember the first night I walked to the Elgin Theater, the second week Pink Flamingos played at the midnight show and there was a line around the block and I knew it was going to be a hit. That changed my life that night. I look back on those little successes that come along as you go along. Certainly being on the stage when Hairspray won the Tony was amazing to me. It’s all kind of amazing to me. I still feel that. I haven’t gotten used to it – I’m still happy when things go well.

AB: When was the last time you were really sad? Do you remember when you last cried?

JW: I was really sad recently because Van Smith died – the costumer for all my movies for 35 years. We just had a memorial for him Sunday. I was very sad then. I was very sad that Liz Renay died this week, who was the star of Desperate Living. They both got amazing obituaries in The Washington Post and The New York Times. I’m sad when my friends die, which seems appropriate. I don’t want a medicine that wouldn’t make me be sad for that.

AB: So, do you think that when people take those medicines – those mood enhancers – are those emotions real?

JW: I’m telling you – I know some people that it saved their lives. I’m glad they discovered that, because for people who have true chemical – you know, when they can’t get out of bed for three days and that kind of depression, I’ve never had that, but I know people who have and it changes their life and I’m happy for that. I don’t think that everybody needs to just never have any ups and downs. And it also seems like they always have trouble with sex when they’re on [those] drugs. I’d rather be depressed once in a while. I’m never that depressed.

AB: Are your parents still alive?

JW: Yes, they are – my father will be 90 [this month].

AB: How do they feel about your success? Do they see all your movies?

JW: Well, they haven’t seen all of them, but they’ve been very supportive and scared. [Laughs] They’ve been through lots, let’s put it that way. My father has the same name as me – I’m a junior – which I think he probably might have thought twice about that!

Watch Waters read from the A Date With John Waters liner notes. (And, of course, tune in to his new show, ‘Til Death Do Us Part, starting March 19, on Court TV.)