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How John Waters Makes Outrageously Brilliant Movies

The transgressive genius opens up to RealClearLife about his long film career and what's next.

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In fifty years, if our abused planet survives, cultural historians may look back and view director John Waters as his era’s William Shakespeare. Or we could all be immigrants on Mars – karma’s a bitch.

But in this fraught moment of late-stage capitalism, the transgressive genius of Waters’ newly restored 1973 outsider classic Female Trouble is a salve and balm. With Waters’ muse Divine in the lead, this perverse saga follows one Baltimore unwed mother’s struggle for self-determination on a path that leads from the schoolroom to the electric chair.

Now available for home consumption – and interior design inspiration — on Blue-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection, the black comedy played Friday night at the Provincetown Film Festival where I saw it with the 72-year-old director in attendance.

The next day, we sat down on the veranda of the Land’s End Inn to shoot the sh-t:

How was it watching Female Trouble nearly 45 years later surrounded by friends who were involved in the movie’s making?

John Waters: God to see it again. I mean to me it’s weird ’cause everyone’s dead in it. More than any of my movies it seems like that one is filled. But, I think I was born — what year, how old was I when I made that movie?  It was filmed in the fall of ’73 and I was born in ’46. How old was I?  27, yeah. And when it came out, it didn’t come out as a midnight movie.

It followed your cult midnight movie Pink Flamingos?

JW: It followed Pink Flamingos so it didn’t live up to some expectations that people wanted me to make something worse, you know what I mean?  And I knew then that if I did that I wouldn’t be here today. If I tried to top Pink Flamingos in, you know, just a hideous way. Although I did want Divine to puke and swim across the river and have sex with himself and do trampoline lessons. But that’s just stunts.

My favorite gross-out moment is the visible skid mark in the Divine-on-Divine sex scene early in the movie when high-school harridan Dawn Davenport hitchhikes in her green baby-doll pajamas on Christmas Day in a rage against her square parents for not buying her the black cha-cha heels she demanded. A dirty old man – also played by Divine – picks her up on the side of the road.

JW: Oh yeah. That’s the one thing that made his mother so mad when she finally saw the movie. And I can see. What mother would like Female Trouble, really?

You made Divine go f-ck himself, which not many people can say.

JW: No, and the woman that was the double was the one in the beauty parlor [scene] that kind of looked like Elizabeth Taylor. And so we shot Divine first as a man. The very first shot of the whole movie was that love scene when he was a man ’cause then he had to shave it all off, the eyebrows and everything, to be-. So, that’s how we did it. Everybody looks back and says what were you all thinking? It was just so normal to him. This is what the movie is, you know. Nobody seemed to question it.

I love that title — Female Trouble.

JW: My mother always used to tell me: never ask a girl in the summer if she doesn’t wanna go swimming, why. And I said ‘why?’  And she said well that, she has female trouble. That’s how we were told politely to talk about periods. You said female trouble.

Your mother was so right.

JW: Well, and the worst story about that is in Provincetown, Cookie [Mueller] once had some urinary tract infection and they’re all gay doctors. She went to the doctor and he said ‘oh, I don’t look at vaginas.’ He actually said that to her which is certainly against every law that any doctor ever signs when he does his oath. And she told him that she had female trouble. She used that term too.

There’s so much female sexuality in this movie but it’s the male actors doing full frontal.

JW: Right, yeah. And it was like it’s so politically incorrect, like Bob Adams playing a really offensive stereotype of a gay man trying to pick up Gater, you know, and Gater says “take a walk, f-cker.” [laughs]

Where did you find Michael Potter who plays Gater, the hairdresser who marries Divine’s Davenport?

JW: We just saw him walking down the street ’cause I wanted Danny Mills who played Crackers to play it and he wouldn’t. But always kept thinking I was going to talk him into it. So, he wouldn’t, so Michael was just walking down the street. He wasn’t an actor. He didn’t do anything. I think he was coming to cop pot that day. That’s what he was there for. And we just took him in. And, you know, he had to do all that [full frontal]. And marry Divine and I mean he went along with us and then I never, ever saw him again.

Until?

JW: Well, I still didn’t see him. I talked to him. He came once when we were making Hairspray. He came on the set for a minute and just visited unannounced and he looked very different. He was fine. And then I never heard from him again ever and I tracked him down through paying a detective to find him. Well, an internet thing where you pay. And, he lived in a trailer in a southern town that he inherited from his grandmother. He said he had, you know, a great life.

Did you want him to be interviewed for the Blu-Ray extras?

JW: I said no one will see it if you don’t do the interview. He said, “Oh I’m not embarrassed I did it. I don’t care about that. I just look very different.” So, who knows what that means but he just didn’t feel comfortable, which I understood. But, it was nice talking to him.

What inspired this movie’s, um, unconventional worldview?

JW: We were doing a joke on [being] hippily incorrect, for [an audience of] hippies, which is the same as today. And I’ve always said I am politically correct. All my movies are politically correct and I can argue that point.

So argue that point.

JW: In Pink Flamingos, Divine was living by herself on her mantle of filth and was challenged by selfish, judgmental people. She did not fight back until she was attacked and she just wanted to be left alone. In Female Trouble, Divine was not equipped for motherhood really. It’s pro-abortion and anti-capital punishment.

Last night, I watched it with my 19-year-old daughter who’d never seen your movies before – and she laughed the whole time.

JW: Well my brothers and sisters always said I’m not sitting with Mom when you show that. So I always hated it when my mother would come and then she’d be like “Oh.” And then my friend, this other woman Rhea in Baltimore who’s a newscaster would always sit next to her to make it easier.

Did she see Female Trouble?

JW: Yes. And, she actually said “Gater, is that the kind of man you find attractive?” And I lied and said no. [laughter]

Parents tell you to tell the truth, right?

JW: Well, then they tell you about Santa Claus and God. So, you know, when the kids take heroin, don’t be surprised because you lied to them right in the beginning.

You started out collaborating with a family of people in Baltimore and you still have that circle of friends.

JW: I still have it. But all kids start, every kid that made a cell phone film here made them with his friends. Everybody makes them with their friends. My friends maybe were a little more extreme and it was a very mixed group. But, we sucked together, yeah. I mean I don’t understand people that don’t have old friends because if you don’t have ‘em you don’t have a life really. You know, that’s your reference point for everything.

And, so, when people say what’s your personal life like I say that’s for my old friends to know. You know, I have friends. I always see people that confide in the press their most deep, romantic-. Well don’t you have any friends to tell it to, you know?  It just means they don’t have friends. It’s important to have that and they’re still in my movies. Mink [Stole] is still in my movies. You know, many of them went on to success. Pat Moran did, Vincent Peranio did, Mink’s worked a lot. And then some never choose to ever do anything like that again.

Mary Vivian Pearce, she did a couple movies but she didn’t ever really want to do it. And then other ones had tragic ends. You know, David Lochary had a bad run of drugs. Cookie died of AIDS. You know, a lot of, so many people in Female Trouble died. Divine died of a heart attack ’cause he was too fat. That’s what he died of, you know. He had narcolepsy.

But what a glow and charisma Divine had on film – he was a star!

JW: I know. And he did look like Elizabeth Taylor in the beginning before all the scars and stuff. And it was pre-punk. Punk hadn’t come out yet in 1973. But that image of Divine with that last hairdo was on the cover. Vivienne Westwood used that in that shot. Without saying Female Trouble she just appropriated that image and used it on t-shirts. And she was a punk.

You were very prescient in this movie about how Divine spins out on her celebrity.

JW: Well yeah, and this one was definitely about that, about fame. And it was all before that was kind of a thing about people that were famous for no reason to be famous. But it was really influenced by court room trials. Like one that everybody’s forgotten, Alice Crimmins.

The American mother tried for killing her two young kids, Eddie and Missy, in 1965?

JW: Yes. And that is what she would scream in the court:  “Liar!”  And all that stuff that Divine did, that was from that. And the Manson girls, you know, when I went to the Mason trial there was all that screaming out in court and attacking the jury. But that was all from that, from going to trials.

So, as far out as Female Trouble seems, you were working from reality.

JW: Well, my reality, yeah, which was, I don’t know what that was. It’s always just what would make us laugh at the time. And it was after hippies were over but funk hadn’t happened. So, it was kind of like in between rock and roll and in between Elvis and Motown, you know.

And the Sex Pistols?

JW: They started in about ’76, really when it first started. Well, when we first saw Punk, Divine said “I feel like Plain Jane,” when we first saw some of the girls. But I liked it right away. I always felt at home in the Punk world. I still host Burger Boogaloo , the big punk rock festival. I’m doing it in two weeks in Oakland. This is the fourth year in a row. This year closing night is Devo and The Damned. Last year it was Iggy Pop.

You’re amazingly prolific – you have your annual travelling Christmas show, Farrar Straus Giroux publishes your novels and nonfiction, in the fall there’s going to be a major visual art exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. You’ve had retrospectives at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and been honored by the British Film Institute. And just last month in Manhattan, the French named you an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters. That’s quite the valedictory!

JW: It’s like my funeral. Usually those things happen after you’re dead so it’s nice. So I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I am, you know. But, I don’t make movies anymore. But that’s all right. They keep coming out. I made 17 of them. It’s not like I didn’t speak, [laughs] you know. They keep showing them. Female Trouble just came out and Criterion’s doing Polyester next year. Warner Brothers called me yesterday. They’re doing Pink Flamingos again. And who would’ve ever thought that Warner Brothers would distribute Pink Flamingos?

So, what’s left? What haven’t you done yet?

JW: Be in the next Final Destination. ‘Cause I said I wanted to be in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and I was in it. [laughter] It’s the only thing left. I wanna be in the last Final Destination.