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John Waters talks Liarmouth (The FH Interview)

9 min read


“Filth elder” has a new out,
Liarmouth. With a show coming up on 10 June in London at the Barbican and the long-awaited UK uncut home video release of Pink Flamingos coming on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection, FilmHounds Writer Ian Schultz gave Waters a call at home in Baltimore. The conversation ended up taking up everything from writing during to his opinions on the Depp-Heard case to the recent cult oddity Butt Boy.

How does it feel to have your debut novel out at the same time as Werner Herzog's first – who you have a past history with?

I know, I saw that the other day—I have to get his novel, it sounds good! I haven't seen Werner in a long time, but I knew him when we were younger because New Line Cinema distributed both our early movies. I saw that hysterical tape where he supposedly found out I was gay and seemed surprised! It's amazing I could surprise Werner Herzog with anything. I'm in good company for that.

Did Covid finally give you the time to write your novel? It seemed like a long time coming for you to write some fiction.

Yeah, but it still took three years. Mr. Know-It-All took that basically with all the drafts, thinking it up and everything. But no, Covid made it the same, because I stay home and write every morning anyway no matter where I am, it doesn't make that much difference. Many writers I know used it as an excuse that finally didn't have an excuse not to write, which is even worse. To me, it was the same—I just went in there Monday to Friday and wrote like I always did. Life was stranger, because I lost 50 speaking engagements.

With the book, do you hope to corrupt some young minds—if any of them are reading books, that is?

I don't think I corrupt anybody, I think I make them feel good about themselves, make them more tolerant of other people and not rush to judge. By “corrupting,” I guess that you could use the word the same way I use word “filth,” “trash” or ”filth elder” or anything like that. I wish a book could corrupt me, I would be really excited by that because it would awfully powerful!

I've always said I've learned all my morals from your films and The Simpsons!

Good! You turned out alright! I learned everything from Grove Press growing up, that was my school like all the writers that were banned, like Jean Genet, William Burroughs and all that kind of stuff. Life magazine is what really corrupted me, because I read about beatniks there first, then Jackson Pollock, then hippies, Carol and John in Needle Park. Life magazine, although it was a family thing that every family in America got, is what really led me to corruption because I leaned about things I escaped to outside of the world I was growing up in.

I'm named around Burroughs, my middle name is William, so I was doomed from the beginning.

Oh wow, you have transgressive parents. I had the opposite kind, my parents were loving but they weren't transgressive at all. They were horrified by my movies but still encouraged that I did them. That's especially loving, I think!

There is this huge spread of recent books being banned in Red states. Do you hope your Liarmouth joins the club?

Of course, to me banning any book is the best publicity you can get. I don't think these days that the books that are being banned are… yes, some are right-wing but more so is the left-wing who the new censors rearing their heads. If anybody was going to go after this book, I would fear them more, but I've never been a victim of that because I'm making fun of rules within the society that the politically correct do live in, and I do think I am politically correct, I'm just not self-righteous. I do make some fun of that—even the most radical movements made fun of themselves, and that's the one thing that is missing.

How does it feel to finally have Pink Flamingos legally available in the UK with this coming Criterion Blu-Ray?

I know, it's finally here! You know the whole history on that, you put in the asshole scene, you could have this, the chicken fuck and everything. It was debated, and now finally the censors have been beaten into submission by intellectuals. I couldn't be prouder—we are no longer nasty!

You even got away with the scenes involving killing chickens, which is very hard to get pass the in the UK.

Well, the chickens… I agree, today that's the one thing I wouldn't do, even though I eat chicken and of my cast, at least two of them ate that chicken. It didn't really get fucked, and we made it famous. And it was advertised at the Lexington market as a freshly killed chicken, so you went in there and they killed the chicken and you took it home and cooked it. It had the same life, just got to be in a movie!


Have you seen the BBFC case study of every time they've tried to have it released on home video?

That's the one I've seen—it's amazing, because every time they would say “because of public opinion,” and this and that, it was great. But you know, that's at least intelligent censors, they were realising they may have been wrong, or that the time is different now. I was impressed, the censors in Baltimore would've never had that, the censors in America were always stupid. Your censors were even harder to fight. I remember them once saying “we don't know how to deal with intentional bad taste,” and were right up front about it. So that's even scarier—smart censors!

Did you know Desperate Living is still censored in the UK?

I can imagine, that's probably the most politically incorrect movie. I wish Criterion would do that one next. I heard they showed it at a very hip New York theatre, and it was all young trans people laughing and cheering the stuff that might piss off the older ones. What's banned in that part?

I looked but it didn't seem to go into any detail.

Well, that's unfortunately like when A Dirty Shame came out. When I asked the MPAA after they gave me a NC-17, “What can I cut?” and they said “we stopped taking notes,” which is the worst possible thing. My blood turned to ice when I heard that. God, I forgot Desperate Living was a “nasty” too, hopefully we can overcome that one next, that's the next barrier.

Do you have a favourite special feature on the new Blu-Ray of Pink Flamingos?

Well, yes, because we go to the actual places where we filmed, and go in the houses and tell the people that live there what happened and get their reaction—I do something in the marble house that I think Divine would be proud of. You'll see!

With the advent of streaming, did you see that as a possible opportunity to get some of your unmade projects off the ground, or have you found dealing with the streamers as difficult or more difficult than the studios?

To me, it wouldn't matter, I've pitched different movies to Netflix. It's just more places to pitch, I think that's fine. I'm not against any of that distribution. I still go to the movies, but I think it's a harder time for art cinema, definitely, because it seems like the young people might only go see big commercial movies. Exhibition has always gone through traumas, whether it be television, 3D, all the different ones. I've always tried to parody that with Odorama and different ideas. I guess writing a novel was just putting out a movie that never happened but could still happen in reverse.

David Cronenberg said he found them very conservative, does that match your experience?

No, because the first thing Netflix put out was the filmed version of my show at the time, This Filthy World, directed by Jeff Garlin. It was the very first thing they ever put out. So I always liked Ted (Sarandos), he was always good to me. So I had a good experience there, but that was when it first came out. I know Ryan Murphy, who is a little bit of a friend, and they were certainly good to him! I don't know, I think it's another place that puts out some really good stuff.

Do you have any thoughts on the -Amber Heard trial?

You know it's something I said would never talk about, because I'm loyal to Johnny and friendly, but because I've been doing a press tour every single person asked me about it. I do give the same answer: pretty much all I can say is I knew him with three women. They broke up and he was never horrible to them, and to this day they do not say bad things about him, so that's all I can say. I said in the L.A. Times in an interview that came out today, “I've tried to get people out of prison that murdered people,” so I can forgive almost the unforgivable. I've been in bad relationships, I don't know the answer.

How do you feel about these comedians who have been punched on stage recently?

I'm just glad they didn't punch Liza! I think Will Smith and Chris Rock might come out at next year's Oscars and give out Best Picture. Have you seen the Guy Maddin film Sissy Boy Slap Party? Just go look it up on Youtube, and the whole audience could break out into that and it would be the best choreographed number ever at the Oscars. I don't think they are going to ask me about my idea, although I am a member. I wish they could let me produce it, and that's what I would do.

I wish you would produce it—and it would probably be shorter!

I don't mind the length, I think they should put all the categories back in. I don't think I should have the right to vote for Best Sound Editing, because I don't know what they had to work with, what should win is the lowest budget movie! What wins usually is just the loudest movie!

Speaking of low-budget films, you've been a champion of the film Butt Boy. How did you discover it?

I read a review of it in the New York Times that was favourable! I had never heard of it, and since then he has been to my house, we've became friends and I'm hoping to see his next movie.

Are there any new films you've liked recently?

Sure, let's see…. I've really liked François Ozon's two new movies. One is about dying [Everything Went Fine] and the other is a remake of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but with men, called Peter von Kant.

Any books you've been reading recently?

I just finished Ottessa Moshfegh's new book [Lapvona] which I've really, really liked. It's coming out in the fall, and it's a really a good one. I'm a big fan of hers.

Is there any news about Cecil B. Demented coming out again?

I hope so, that's one of my favourites of my later movies. It still gives me a thrill when I'm walking down the street and somebody passes me and just says “Demented forever,” which does happen every once in a while. That makes me laugh, and catches me off guard.

I think for about a decade my family would say Maggie Gyllenhaal's line, “I'm Raven, I'm a Satanist and I'll be doing your make-up” to my sister, who's a hairdresser.

My favourite line in it is a very obscure one, when Fidget just says to Melanie Griffith “We're beyond the critics' reach!”—not like that would matter if you were a terrorist. That's a personal favourite of mine, so thank you for bringing that one up.

It needs a new disc— it's about 20 years old at this point.

Who knows, Cry-Baby is coming out again in a 4K version, Pink Flamingos just came out again, so they keep getting reborn. So that's a good sign.

John Waters will be performing his all new, monologue False Negative at the Barbican on Friday, June 10th. This is his first London appearance since 2014. His new book, Liarmouth, is available to buy now. Pink Flamingos is out on Criterion Collection Blu-ray 25th July.