Last Wednesday, Xpress promised to give you a little more from Ken “Cranky” Hanke’s one-on-one interview with director John Waters. For those of you who just can’t get enough from this master of artsy, trashy cinema, the (mostly) complete text of the interview is below.
John Waters: I’m glad I’m coming [to Asheville] — everyone in Provincetown talks about Asheville. I actually know people in Provincetown who say they want to leave Provincetown and come live there, and I have a very good friend, Chan Wilroy, who’s been in all my movies and always talks about how much he likes it there, so I’m really looking forward to coming.
Ken Hanke: You know, we were going to ask you to come to Asheville for the Asheville Film Festival — or Don Mancini was. Don’s been here the past two years and is coming back this year.
JW: Great! I love Don. He’s great. I had so much fun being in his movie (Seed of Chucky).
KH: Oh, Don is wonderful. We hooked up originally because I gave a good review to Seed of Chucky.
JW: As you should have!
KH: As anybody should have.
JW: But you know, the best line in any of the Chucky movies is in the one before (Bride of Chucky) where Jennifer (Tilly) says, “Did you use a rubber?” and he says, “I am rubber.” There is no better line.
KH: Now I’ve simply gotta ask you — I don’t know if you’re aware of the fact that the UNCA series you’re coming for is called their “Distinguished Speaker Series.”
JW: Well, I understand that. I’m distinguished in filth.
KH: That’s one way of looking at it, but when you started out did you ever think you’d be part of a “Distinguished Speaker Series?”
JW: Weirdly enough, I learned a long time ago a dirty little secret — my movies did the best in the best educated and the richest neighborhoods and the worst in real exploitation theaters.
KH: You know, that doesn’t surprise me.
JW: Well, it’s because it involves irony, and people that were the real audiences for exploitation, sexploitation, blacksploitation didn’t think they were funny. And I thought they were great. I respected them, but I was at the same time seeing Ingmar Bergman movies, which are exploitive in their own way.
KH: In their own right, yes. I think the first time I encountered anything of yours was at a porno house that was having a midnight show of Ken Russell’s The Devils — and they had a trailer for Female Trouble.
JW: Well, I got my first break in national distribution with Mondo Trasho and Multple Maniacs with something called the Art Theatre Guild, which was a porn chain, but they had something called “Underground Cinema 12” that was run by a guy named Mike Getz, and every Saturday at midnight in a lot of mid-America towns they had an underground movie show to — I guess — make them respectable, and they were packed. It paid a dollar a minute so I got $90 a week which then was a lot.
KH: No, that wasn’t bad money for then.
JW: No. It saved my life. I mean that’s how I paid back my father for those movies really. I’ve always been a friend of porn, I guess, even though to watch it these days, heterosexual porn is really a snuff movie because they don’t use protection. To me it’s like making a snuff movie. I’m against that.
KH: Did you have anything to do with the selection of movies for the retrospective that they’re doing to lead up to your apperance?
JW: Tell me what they are.
KH: Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom.
JW: No, but I like it. To me, you can pick any one of my movies — I don’t care if it’s Hairspray orA Dirty Shame — and in a way, they’re the same. They have the same sense of humor. Some are a little more extreme, but Hairspray is the most devious movie I ever made.
KH: Oh, yes.
JW: And America didn’t get what I was up to.
KH: Oh, I know, it’s a PG-rated movie and it’s just absolutely as subversive as you can get. It’s probably — oddly enough for someone who considers himself pretty hardcore about these things — my favorite of your films.
JW: Thank you. To me, my favorite is — well, the joke is that they’re all children of mine, but they have learning disabilities. I think Gus van Sant and I talked about this, that you always pick the one that didn’t do so well. You feel like it’s a neglected child. Although to me they’re all the same. They’re John Waters movies. It’s a different time in my life, it’s a different time of what I thought was funny. Each one of them is a genre of film that I satirize. I’m working on a children’s movie now that I’m trying do because I’ve never made a children’s movie. I’ve done a musical, I’ve done a dance movie, I’ve done a crime biopic, I’ve done a showbiz biopic, I’ve done a fairy tale, I’ve done a sexploitation movie — each time it has to be a genre, because that’s the kind of filmmaking I like. I was glad to be in the Chucky movie and I wanna be in Final Destination 4.
KH: Is there going to be a Final Destination 4?
JW: I hope!
KH: This keeps raising the question how many Final destinations can there be?
JW: Well, there can be many. I sometimes like very last sequel — like when every bit of originality has been beaten out of it — like I think the last Airport movie was my favorite — the one where Charo said, “You misconscrue me.” That was a wonderful line that people have forgotten. They had dialogue then.
KH: I was a little disappointed — and a lot of people have been — “There having a John Waters festival and they’re not showing Pink Flamingos?”
JW: Everyone’s seen that!
KH: I know, but I kinda wanted Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble, I think in part because I wanted to see if I could get “I blew Richard Speck” past my editor.
JW: Did you see Richard Speck at the end when he was in jail? He got a sex operation in jail! Didn’t you ever see that footage of him with full Russ Meyer tits? And they were real! Somehow he got hormones. No one though Richard Speck was even gay — maybe he wasn’t gay, but he had big breasts. He was snorting cocaine. Didn’t you ever see that footage? It was on all the news. It caused quite some trouble before he died in prison. And that rant — particularly when Divine says that about Juan Corona — many people have forgotten that — and the one they really forget is Leslie Bacon, who was mistakenly accused of conspiring to blow up the Capitol. And she really didn’t do it and they let her off, but I heard she was really mad when she heard that she was mentioned, but that when she saw the movie she laughed. I don’t know if that’s true. People really don’t remember Leslie Bacon and I’d like to know where she is. But I think Divine says, “I framed Leslie Bacon.” And she says, “I bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace,” and Bremer’s getting out of jail this week. Thirty years ago he was sentenced and he served all his time — and he is getting out. And he invented the genre — he wrote The Assassin’s Diary — which was the first book ever of that genre of writing a journal when you’re a mad man, and for some reason he had…why do they all have Catcher in the Rye? I don’t understand that. They all have that book and it’s not about an assassin. I don’t get it.
KH: I don’t get it at all.
JW: I read it. It didn’t make me want to shoot an official. Catholic school made me want to shoot an official.
KH: That’s more understandable, I think.
JW: But I never understood what the link was with Catcher in the Rye and lone gunmen.
KH: Everybody does seem to have this book.
JW: Lee Harvey Oswald. I think the guy who shot John Lennon had it.
KH: Yeah. Mark David Chapman. There’s something in this book that you and I aren’t getting, which is probably a good thing.
JW: Yeah, yeah it is.
KH: I gotta also ask you, how do you feel about the Adam Shankman film of the musical Hairspray.
JW: I think he did a great job. They kept my spirit in it. They made a big budget Hollywood movie that reinvented my movie and the musical, and they had to do that to make it work. Some of the other musicals that didn’t do that, didn’t work. You couldn’t just shoot the play. And they had little things in there like the pregnant women drinking and smoking, and little kids with their seatbelts unfastened — little touches that I felt were really honoring me, so I had fun. And I got to be the only dirty thing in a PG movie.
KH: The thing that kind of threw me was that at 117 minutes it definitely goes way beyond your dictate that a movie should be no more than 90 minutes long.
JW: Well, it didn’t seem long to me.
KH: No, it didn’t seem long.
JW: But you know, they had lots of money. But then I had lots of money on that movie, too. I had $2.7 million. The most I’d ever had before was $300,000, so to me when we made Hairspray, it was a huge budget. People say it was so cheap, but it wasn’t cheap. It was a lot for us then — especially for an independent film.
KH: How do you feel about yourself as a filmmaker these days? I remember you once referred to one of your earlier movies as “too arty and too f***ed up.” I get the sense that you like your movies in a kind of rough-edged state, but they’ve gotten slicker over the years.
JW: Well, they have to to get made. I don’t want to have faux primitive, you know. People say, “But don’t you miss the days of having no money?” God, no! I did that. Do I want to have to go to the bathroom in the woods and not eat? No! I like having a trailer and all that. But at the same time all my movies cost under like $7 million. That is tiny compared to what an average Hollywood film costs. And I have a whole unit and I have movie stars in them. It’s not like we’re jumping in the car and running like we used to. I don’t want to do that. I did that and I think that’s going backwards. I think you reinvent yourself. You keep going and you make it so young people will come to see it — and that is still the only crossover that I am interested in. If I was still trying to make Pink Flamingos and top that, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be working.
KH: Oh, I understand that, but really there are some great things in these slicker films. The “Please, Mr. Jailer” number in Cry-Baby, that’s just a magnificent piece of filmmaking.
JW: Thank you. That’s because, well, I taught in prison. I was in prison a lot and I still have friends in prison. I like visiting prison. I taught in prison. I miss that. So I understand why prison is such an intense, weird thing because some people when they’re on the outside they’re really evil and can’t do it, but when they’re inside in this state of control, they can be very good friends. They can be funny and smart — they’re just dangerous. And I find that intriguing in a way. I was afraid of the guards, not the prisoners. I’m not saying all prison guards are bad, some of them are good. But if you have a long sentence and you try to make some kind of life for yourself in jail, you can do some things — you can paint, you can write. You can have relationships with people as friends. You can have support groups. The problem is that when you get out that it’s almost impossible for you to fit in anymore. There’s no place for you to go. There’s no real entry place to go. People say that they’re there to be punished, but they’re going to get out and they’re going to rob you, so basically why wouldn’t it be better to have some tax money so we educate them or do something in jail so they don’t rob us when they get out?
KH: You know, a lot of modern filmmakers — and I know you’ve been around for 30-odd years, but I still consider you a modern filmmaker …
JW: Thank you.
KH: … are pretty obvious as concerns films and specific things that you can see quotations of things that have influenced them. I don’t really get that with your movies. Is there a filmmaker or a movie in particular that’s influenced you? Am I just missing something?
JW: Well, that was the weird thing. I grew up wanting to be a Walt Disney villain, then at the same time I was taking LSD and going to Bergman movies, and then going out with a bunch of kids and going to the drive-in and seeing Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, and then being very excited and sneaking to New York and seeing underground movies. I think I put all them together and they were very different influuences and tried to turn it a sense of humor from the whole thing.
KH: Do you have any favorite films of filmmakers?
JW: Well, today I certainly like Todd Haynes, like Todd Solondz really a lot. I like Francois Ozon. I had a TV show called John Waters presents Movies that Will Corrupt You where I showed movies I couldn’t believe I was allowed to show on television. I usually like the real arty stuff. I’m not big on the big Hollywwood movies. I mean I like some of them, but my passion is always with the little weird movie. I loved David Lynch’s last movie.
KH: I think that makes you, me and not too many other people.
JW: I know, but I liked it. I liked Grindhouse. I think it’s my favorite movie of the year and I think it’s a terrible shame that it didn’t work.
KH: I don’t know why it didn’t work either.
JW: Because kids don’t know what double features are. I liked Brand Upon the Brain, which was Guy Maddin’s opera. I liked Crazy Love, that documentary about the guy who threw acid in his face. I’m a big fan of Jeff Garlin’s new movie that I saw at Sundance, but it’s coming out this week, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. It’s really good. It’s really funny. I liked Longford, that Showtime movie about Myra Hanley. The Simpsons Movie, I liked.
KH: That was kinda my next question, which was what do you go to see these days when you go to see movies.
JW: I go to see a lot. I don’t watch videos. I never watch DVDs. I see ‘em in the movies or I never see ‘em. I mean I watch some things on TV, because I’m in the Academy and they send me stuff that way. What’s great about DVDs and Netflix now is you can live anywhere in the world and see every art movie you could possibly want to see. When I grew up you had to move.
KH: Oh, I know. I remember driving 60 or 70 miles to see a movie. It was common then.
JW: Oh, yeah, yeah it was. We used to have to go to Washington or drive to New York because it wasn’t playing anywhere nearer, but nowadays you can live anywhere in the world and Netflix will deliver it to your door eventually. It’s made it much more democratic.
KH: But remember the excitement of getting the Friday morning paper and seeing if something really neat was playing at a rep house or a college — and that’s gone.
JW: Well, the reason is they can’t get prints anymore. There’s no 16mm.
KH: You should look in my basement! My collecting days go back that far, But seriously, we’ve run into a problem with the film festival here of not being able to get 35mm prints of older titles. A couple years ago we wanted 35s of the Ken Russell pictures we were showing and while we could find them…
JW: They can’t be shown on platters.
KH: Exactly. And no one is set up for any other kind of projection.
JW: It’s true. We have great prints of every one of my movies, but the distributors won’t let them show on platters — and that’s all there is, and pretty soon there won’t be platters!
KH: Yeah, I know. Last year we were luckier and were able to get the Jennifer Tilly films on 35mm. Of course, Seed of Chucky was easy.
JW: Well, it’s not that old, but you know what they do now — say with the new Hairspray where there are 3,000 prints, when it’s over they burn ‘em all, except for about four. All of them do that because it costs a fortune to put ‘em somewhere. I understand it, but it’s hard enough to find a theater, much less a theater that has the equipment for an archival print.
KH: This year we’ve got Tess Harper and we’re really hoping to find a 35mm 3-D print of Amityville 3-D, but that’s 20-odd years old.
JW: Go online and you can find anything. It could be a pirate print.
KH: Oh, I know and I know people who are good at turning up prints when distributors say they don’t have one.
JW: Exactly. That’s what you need — a good pirate! And the studios don’t do anything because sometimes they’re amazed there’s a print, too — and they need them for DVD sales. Sometimes they can’t make the DVD till they find that print.
KH: Oh, I know. I remember back in the laserdisc days when I was involved with the special edition of Crimes of Passion and they searched all over the place to find the original elements and they finally found them at Orion — and Orion had never had anything to do with the film!
JW: It’s the same with my films. They get sold. If the company goes out of business, then somebody else buys them and it gets complicated, because they’re in vaults.
KH: And if you do find it, you don’t know what shape it’s going to be in and you end up having to go with a DVD anyway, but DVD projection’s getting better all the time.
JW: At least if it’s on DVD, it’s pretty much there.
KH: You’re right, and you can get just about anything. Now, the problem is getting people to watch them!
JW: Well, when I was young anything that caused controversy, people ran to. Now they stay away!
KH: Yeah, I don’t understand that, but …
JW: Well, it’s a very different thing. Pretty soon the moviegoing experience is going to be online. The next underground sensation is somehow going to be online.
KH: As it stands now, we’ve got one theater in town where everything is digital. The movies come in on hard-drives.
JW: How does it look?
KH: Oh, it looks great — as long as everything’s working — and of course the great thing is that the movies look just as good the day they leave as the day they arrive. They don’t pick up dirt or scratches.
JW: Didn’t you love in Grindhouse all the fake scratches and everything?
KH: Oh, yeah, it was wonderful.
JW: I do think that’s the best movie of the year — at least for me. I think it was a great art movie and that was a problem.
KH: That confused people. And I don’t think they’ve decided yet if they’re going to bring it out on DVD as one movie or two movies or …
JW: It just worked so well to me. It seemed the perfect high-concept piece. But you had to be of a certain age to get it.
KH: You had to be in the whole mindset. I think a lot of people were baffled by it and put off by the running time.
JW: When I saw it half the audience left at the trailers — they thought they were real trailers!
KH: I’m surprised that people thought those trailers were real, but then I’m frequently surprised by what people think is real.
JW: But they were great. I wish they were. I wanna see Thanksgiving.
KH: Do you have a film of yours that you think is underrated?
JW: I would never say that, because, as I said, to me they’re all kind of the same. You can watch any of them. I had a lot of trouble with Dirty Shame because of the rating. That was something I never thought could really hurt me, but it did.
KH: Well, it hurt in more ways than you might think, because it was the attached trailer with Harold and Kumar and in some cases it was cut off because the theater chain has a policy against advertising NC-17.
JW: It was a green band trailer — first time that’s ever happened with an NC-17! Technically that could be shown with a G-rated movie. The worst is not in the movie theaters. The worst is because of Netflix — and I like Netflix. There are no more, or very few independent video shops. It’s all these chains — and the chains won’t carry unrated or NC-17 films! Even in the neighborhood where we shot A Dirty Shame, no one could get the version. That’s where it really hurt at the box office.
KH: That’s one area where Asheville has an edge. We have two independent stores — actually three, I guess.
JW: You’re lucky! Support ‘em! And go to whatever movies you plan to see the night it opens! That’s important, too, because by Saturday they’ve already figured out mathematically how much it’s going to gross over the whole world.
KH: I know, which I think is very stupid.
JW: What’s scary is that they’re right!
KH: I know they’re right, but I think they bring it on themselves when they they do this because it becomes, “Oh, that didn’t do well, I’m not bothering to see it.”
JW: Well, now what happens is everybody in every country in the world looks and sees and then they don’t even release it in their country. It used to be you could have a hit in Japan that wasn’t a hit here, but not anymore.
KH: I know. I think in some ways we know too much.
JW: Well, it comes faster and faster and no one is ever off work — including me.
KH: I know that one!
JW: Are you going to come to my appearance? If you come, say hi.
KH: I am planning on coming. And don’t be surprised, I’m probably going to have Don Mancini try to convince you to be a guest at next year’s film festival.
JW: Well, I will certainly listen.
John Waters speaks at UNCA Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 general admission/$10 for students. Advance tickets highly recommended due to high demand. Info: 232-5000.