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When James Met John 

James DiGiovanna and John Waters have a chat before Waters' Oct. 1 appearance at The Loft

Baltimore native John Waters, the mind behind Polyester, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos and Cecil B. Demented, is arguably America's most influential living filmmaker, and he's certainly the only art-film director in the United States to have a Broadway musical based on his work.

He'll be in Tucson at The Loft at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1, performing Shock Value, his live rant, which will be followed by a screening of A Dirty Shame, his latest movie, and then a Q&A.

This should be worth checking out, because Waters is probably the most engaging speaker to have ever made a film wherein a fat transvestite eats real dog poop.

Tucson Weekly: Do people in Baltimore worship you like a god?

John Waters: No, they don't. People say stuff to me more in New York. They're used to me in Baltimore. In New York, they yell to me, "Good luck on your film's opening." They're really sweet.

TW: New Yorkers are, of course, known for their sweet dispositions. But surely you're a huge celebrity in Baltimore?

JW: Yeah, but I can go to places in Baltimore where they don't care: places where they know me and don't care, places where they don't know me and don't care, and a lot of places where they think I'm (famed Baltimore film director) Barry Levinson. "Hey Barry!" they shout at me.

TW: What makes Baltimore work for you?

JW: It inspires me more than any other city, because it's regular people who are crazy, but think they're completely normal. They don't ever leave the city; they think it's stupid that you want to leave; and they stay within three blocks of their parents and never even go to another neighborhood. And you can't be trendy in Baltimore. You look like a real fool if you try to be. The white women still have Farrah Fawcett hairdos. Two out of four supermarket checkers have them, and at least one out of four has one with no trace of irony.

TW: Did that influence the trashy content of your films?

JW: Are they trashy? I don't even know what that means any more. Is this movie (A Dirty Shame) trashy? I don't know that that works any more. This is ludicrous. This is a sexploitation film. This is a sex-education movie. And it's a joke on that. I mean, there's rude stuff in it: It got rated NC-17. But trashy doesn't seem like the right word. I wouldn't be insulted if people say that, but it's a word that I've almost used up. When I started, I would say, "trash epic" and "celluloid atrocity," all these advertising names I thought up in the '60s and '70s. I don't know that you have to say that anymore, because now, "funny" is all you have to say.

TW: It struck me as a Disney art/sex/trash film, in that it's joyful and musical.

JW: Someone said it was a dirty movie the whole family could love. Of course, they can't go see it. My father said, "It was really funny, and I hope I never see it again." My poor parents had to sit through this movie, and I'm thinking, "Do they really need to know what an upper-decker is when they're 86?" But they never asked a follow-up question, and they never will.

TW: What did they think of your more disturbing films, like Desperate Living?

JW: They never saw that one! They paid for the early films, actually, and I paid them back with interest. They were really supportive. They had to see Female Trouble, because I had a tribute at the Baltimore Museum with the mayor, and they had to come to that. They saw Polyester, and they were fine. They loved Hairspray. And they've been supportive. And they look very conservative, so they're the perfect photo op at a John Waters premiere. In all the articles, my father is mentioned before me. Stop upstaging me, dad! And his name is John Waters, too. That's a lesson if you're thinking of naming your kids: Remember, your son could turn out to have a very different outlook on life than you do!

TW: Your father's politically conservative?

JW: Yes, although I have great hope; he said he was "undecided" on this election, which shocked me. Who could be undecided anymore? Just stop it! Get it over with! Now, that was a month ago; he might have completely changed his mind. But that to me ... he always voted Republican, so I thought that was a good sign.

TW: If you were president of the United States, would you be better at lying to the American public than Bush is?

JW: Every politician has to lie, because they have to appeal to everybody. It's like in the movie business, you have to lie when you pitch a film and say, "Everyone will like this movie." No, they won't! I wouldn't ever want to be president of the United States. I don't think we're ever going to have a president, not even one I'd vote for, who doesn't have to lie.

TW: Of all the presidents, though, Bush seems the most like a John Waters film.

JW: I'm anti-Bush, but I really hate Nixon. Some of the stuff that still comes out that you find out he did is really amazing to me. Clinton's my favorite president. I don't care about ... I mean, he should stay out of my sex life, and I'll stay out of his. Which he did, except for the Army thing. But I don't want to go to the Army. I'm glad they didn't take me when I was 18! Now, I have to fight for the right to go, but I'm torn!

TW: Were you drafted?

JW: Yeah. And I said I was gay, and a junkie and a bed-wetter. And the guy said, "Is this all true?" And I said "mmmmmmm-hmmmmmm."

TW: It is interesting that they care so much about your sex life in the Army.

JW: Well, it seems to me, where would we be without lesbians in the Army? We never would have won the second World War without lesbians! Eisenhower knew that and shut up about it. An army without lesbians? We'd lose! Personally, I'm glad I didn't have to go into the Army, but if they want to, they should let them.

TW: Let me ask you about sex in your films: Do you personally find sex disgusting?

JW: No, but it's ludicrous. I'm mad that I have to do it! I hate instinct! I'm mad about instinct. I don't like to do anything I'm told to do. When your own body and mind tells you that you have to do something? I resent eating, breathing, all the things you have to do.

I find sex surreal, basically. I went to sex clubs when I was young, and that's where the knowledge of this stuff comes from. And I was certainly surprised that somebody could get off from licking a floor. But if licking floors brings you nothing bad in your life, go ahead with it! I don't care! But don't make me do it! Would I march for the rights of floor lickers? I don't know: Do we have enough time in our busy schedules? That's what this movie asks, too: How liberal can we be? I am totally for the right of people to lick the floors in the privacy of their own homes, but still ... do I have to really go to a meeting or have a bumper sticker or go to a march for floor lickers? I think not.

TW: We've got kiddie pop stars doing deviant sex acts on stage now ...

JW: Well, it's like in A Dirty Shame, when they say that second base is now fellatio. When I went to high school, that was fifth base. So, I'm amazed ... but one thing they never say is: Do they swallow?

TW: They don't mention that in the surveys!

JW: The never say that! That is a very different thing! It's never been addressed! That's seventh base, swallowing!

TW: Of course, they say that kids today are all having oral sex, but I figure the pollster says to some kid, "Are you having oral sex?" and of course the kid says "yes," just to be cool.

JW: That's what Mink (Stole, one of Waters' regular troupe of actors) says in the movie, that a survey said the average couple has sex 100 times a month, and she says, "If that were true, they'd be rubbed raw!" That's a ludicrous reaction to that. But yeah, who would tell the real truth in a sex poll? I would never answer a sex poll!

TW: In your movie, you pit the sexual populace against the "neuters," people who are uncomfortable with sex ...

JW: You just have to pick sides, and if I had to pick sides, I'd pick the sex addicts, because they wouldn't be bad neighbors. And the neuters would be probably bad neighbors. The sex addicts might have parties all night and not keep the house up, but a neuter would be watching you and not minding their own business, and that's the ultimate sin in the world of John Waters' movies.

TW: So "mind your own business" would be your platform?

JW: Yeah! I don't care what you do; just don't make me do it, and don't expect anyone else to do what you do. Just try to understand everyone's behavior. To me, that's what mental health is. No matter what, there's some reason why we do this, and that's why I make movies, to try to figure out what is that reason.

TW: Do you think that your films will be looked at as important?

JW: I'm not going to be that much of a ... all I know is that they keep in print; they keep coming out (on video and DVD). That's encouraging to me. New generations keep discovering the old films, and that's a good sign, because the hardest thing is to get the kids, the new kids, to see the films, because otherwise, eventually, each generation stops going to the movies.

TW: What filmmakers do you look to, in the past and present, as inspirational?

JW: There are lots of filmmakers I like. I go to movies all the time. Last night, I saw The Brown Bunny, which I totally enjoyed. It reminded me of a Jonas Mekas film. The bug-spattered windshield was a brilliant idea! Really good, to see beautiful scenery through that. And certainly, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Claire Denis ... I still see movies all the time, and almost always, the ones I like involve a writer/director. I don't watch videos, and I don't watch DVDs; I see them at the movie theater. I have to for my job. I think it's responsible of me to do that. I don't even like screenings so much as paying to see a movie with people. Then you can see what they accept and what they don't accept.

TW: What's next for you? Are you going to make a movie about smelling bad or being unpatriotic?

JW: I already made a movie about smelling bad (Polyester). I always thought I should do a G-rated movie. I should make a children's movie, but it would never end up being G-rated. It would be about a child! That certainly wouldn't be G-rated!

TW: If you were given $100 million to make a movie, what would you make?

JW: I'd make 10 movies. But I'd hire more stars. Do I need that much longer a shooting schedule for my films? No. I don't need $100 million. Now, at the same time, I had $7 million this time. Would it have been nice to have $8 (million)? Sure. You always need a little more. James Cameron put up his own salary on Titanic! How much did he need? But I like stars, and I'd like to pay the actors in my movies more. They take a lower salary to work in independent films, and I feel bad about that. They deserve the salary.

TW: You like working with stars, but do you miss your old troupe?

JW: No, they're all in this! Mink's in this, Mary Vivian Pearce, Jean Hill, Channing Wilroy ... everyone that's alive. They're dead, the other ones! I'm a cult director; I can't do a Lazarus! I can't raise them from the dead! But maybe, with what they're doing with special effects, I'll be able to in 10 years.

TW: They just put Sir Laurence Olivier is in Sky Captain, so ... Is there anything particular you want to say to the Tucson audience?

JW: I'm looking forward to Tucson, but I have an illegal tumbleweed that I got last time I was there. You're not allowed to take them, but I did.

TW: You know, Tucson is often called "The Baltimore of the Southwest."

JW: I thought that was Albuquerque.

TW: No, it used to be Albuquerque, but now it's Tucson.

More by James DiGiovanna

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