Exclusive | John Waters on Divine, queer film and why he doesn't lament the closure of gay bars

The 'Pope of Trash' will be performing his one-man show at Birmingham's SHOUT Fest


Words: Steve Brown

Iconic filmmaker John Waters opens up about working with Divine, RuPaul and whether he is concerned about the closing of gay bars around the world.

Best known for creating and helming the likes of Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom and Hairspray, the ‘Pope of Trash’ isn’t afraid to call out political and religious leaders including Trump and the Pope, who he dubbed a hypocrite.

Waters will play at Birmingham's Hippodrome on Wednesday November 13, as part of the 10th anniversary edition of SHOUT Festival of Queer Arts and Culture and he hopes his audience will ‘laugh at things they never found humour in’, and to listen to different opinions.

The festival will nclude performances from Travis Alabanza, lesbian feminist icons Split Britches, and Birmingham’s first Vogue Ball. Tickets to all events can be purchased at www.shoutfestival.co.uk.

In our exclusive interview, the filmmaker opens up about working with the drag queen legend Divine and possible Hairspray sequels.

You're coming to Birmingham this November. What are your fans like?

My fans are amazing. A couple of weeks ago I was at John Waters Camp, that’s where people come for four days and almost live as characters in my movies, it’s really bizarre.

They are all ages, they are all sexual persuasion, all nationalities and they always didn’t fit in with their own minority.

They are a minority in their own kind. And they are the majority they wish they weren’t.

Your tour is called ‘This Filthy World’, have we seen the end of ‘filthy’ films?

Filthy to me was a word because I got tired of trash, camp and all those words. It seemed to me it was more of a punk word. And punk, is that over?

It’s something I talk a lot about because I host this big punk festival in California and we’ve had lots of big names but they are getting older.

You’re known as ‘The Pope of Trash’, do you agree with that title?

All those titles were said to me in good reviews. They were all meant positively. No one was insulting me with those. I embraced them. The People’s Pervert made me laugh the most.

You're best known for your seminal counter-cultural comedies, where do you get inspiration for your work?

My main inspiration was basically rebelling the good taste that was driven into me by my parents.

And at the same time, I thank them for giving me those rules of good taste that I could rebel against my whole life.

Because if I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t have the career that I did.

Would you call yourself a queer filmmaker?

I guess my career was queer but when Pink Flamingos first came out it wasn’t an all gay audience. There were bikers, there were criminals. It was all outsiders, that word when it really meant something.

Now everyone thinks they are an outsider. Trump thinks he is an outsider, so it’s lost it’s meaning. He even ruined the word bad.

But I think certainly gay people came but it was ‘gay’ people who didn’t fit in the gay world at the time.

Do you think that has changed now with these mainstream films?

Certainly, it has because people are lamenting the closing of gay bars around the world. But I’m not because that’s progress.

Why would you want to be separate? I don’t want my book in the gay section, I want it upfront with the best sellers.

I’ve always been upfront about being queer but at the same time I like to make fun of the gay rules too. I think it’s been great progress. I worked with the mayor and the governor of the state to get gay marriage passed.

I’m certainly for gay marriage even though I have no desire to be part of it because I know about gay alimony… Which many gay people forget!

Hollywood is constantly making reboots these days. Has originality died?

Go see Quentin Tarantino’s new movie which I really loved. It’s an original movie that came out. It can happen that original movies are hits, but it is rare. They don’t seem to trust the public to believe they can discover something new.

Hollywood were fair with me. The more money they give you, the more they are going to give you notes.

It’s an algebra problem you need to learn early on. Sometimes they paid me and didn’t even make a movie, that’s even easier.

That can be frustrating but if you know the rules of Hollywood, it’s about negotiating. I never put out a movie I didn’t want to put out the way it was.

How did you pitch Pink Flamingos?

I didn’t pitch that because my father paid. If I had told my father what it was about, he wouldn’t have given me the money so it’s the exact opposite of pitching. My father didn’t want to know what it was about.

I did pay him back and he got all his money back with interest and still never saw it. No parent would be happy if their child made Pink Flamingos. [Laughs]. Even today. Even gay parents would have been uptight.

Do you think a film like Pink Flamingos could be made today?

Sure it could! People could make it on their cell phones. I think it could be made and more chance of being seen but it might vanish quicker. When Pink Flamingos came out, we went to each city and nursed it along.

We would sell it for one night at midnight and then two nights. Nowadays it would open in one chain and after the first weekend it would be gone. Nothing opens at midnight anymore.

You’ve worked with Divine and now the world is obsessed with drag culture.

That’s RuPaul! Give him credit. God knows he crossed over. Who would ever thought that mid-America would love drag and they do.

You know what the key to his success is that every drag queen should learn, he has just as good a look outside of drag.

And most do not. You have to develop both if you want to cross over to become a star.

Is there anyone you’d love to work with nowadays?

I think David Lynch, he always has the cutest guys in his movies. If David Lynch was gay, and he’s not, I would go after his boyfriend.

He would have good taste in men, if he was gay. Now, if I was straight, God knows what taste I’d have in women. I guess I would go for Audrey Hepburn with a cleft palette.

You’ve always been associated with ‘freaks’. Do you still feel that now?

Freaks meant more to me like hippies. And we made fun of hippies even though we were hippies and Divine was brought up to scare hippies and did [laughs].

Today, if you call someone a freak, what does that mean? That usually means they are some kind of sex pervert but not in a good way. It’s some eccentric person who is also an asshole.

How do you feel about straight actors playing gay roles?

I find it funny they never say how brave it was for a gay actor to play a straight role. I’m for that anyone should be able to play any role.

I’m not offended if a straight person plays a gay person. These days, someone might be straight one week and gay the next.

People can now identify whatever they want.

I call people by whatever pronoun they want to be called. Whatever they want to identify with. No matter what is in between their legs, or how they identify with is how I will describe them.

I only ever called Divine a ‘she’ when she was in character because Divine was not trans. Divine did not want to be a woman. When we were filming, I would call Divine ‘she’ but in real life I didn’t.

Divine hated getting into his costume. It was too hot. Most fat people don’t like being in drag because it’s too hot.

What was the reasoning behind having Edna played by a man in Hairspray?

It adds a secret. Why is Peter Pan always played by a woman? It’s a secret that the audience likes to share with the cast. None of the characters in Hairspray think that Edna is a man or trans or anything.

I originally wanted Divine to play Tracy too, sort of like the Parent Trap. She was going to play the mother and the daughter, which probably wouldn’t have been received correctly.

It would have been funny; it could have worked but would it have gone as far as it did? I don’t know.

Did you ever think Hairspray would become this huge Broadway and West End show?

No, I never sat down and thought I am going to write something more commercial. I’ve been paid to write three sequels. There’s new stuff happening. But I always wanted them to be successful.

I was ambitious. If you asked me which I thought would be the most obvious to become a Broadway musical, I would have booked Hairspray. Although Cry Baby was the only real musical I made.

What are your thoughts of the political climate of today?

Well I think Trump shaves his asshole. And he is a bad James Brown impersonator. A white James Brown impersonator. And his enemy… the wind.

You have another lunatic in your country running it too. Then we bring over the North Korean one and it’s the Holy Trinity of Fascists with bad hair.

Trump is like a James Brown impersonator; North Korea is like Moe Howard form the Three Stooges and yours I guess is dead head beetles.

You recently called out Trump for his comments on Baltimore. You ask him to say that to you in person. I’m guessing he didn’t have the nerve?

He came back to Baltimore to give a speech to Republicans and never appeared in public. He never got out of the car except to give the speech which was not open to the public.

We used all those things as Baltimore always does that people use negatively, we parody it and make it our own.