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By Lawrence Ferber
It’s been a prolific springtime for John Waters. Although it’s been about 13 years since the Baltimore-born, openly gay cult-movie icon unleashed a new feature film, Waters’ 1994 classic Serial Mom—about a suburban housewife (Kathleen Turner) who murders people that offend her sensibilities—recently received a spiffy, extras-loaded Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory. In April, he popped up on FX’s Feud, playing one of his own personal icons, B-movie showman maestro William Castle, opposite Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford. That same month, Algonquin Books released Make Trouble, a compact, illustrated tome based on a commencement speech Waters delivered at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Still saucy and razor-sharp witty at 71, Waters discussed his recent projects, the Trumps, his reluctance to crowd-fund a new movie, and more via telephone.
Lawrence Ferber: What makes Serial Mom timely today, John?
John Waters: It’s up to others to say if it’s special or not, but [I think it’s] the very fact it keeps playing and gets a new, young audience that wasn’t even born when I made it. When it came out, people thought it was [based on something] true. Maybe because [of the line] “Serial mom refused to cooperate with the making of this film,” people thought it possibly was real. With the news today, it could have been true. Isn’t a serial mom just one step after a trigger warning?
Can you see Melania Trump as a serial mom?
No. I see [her] more as a “Night of the Living Fashion Model Dead,” or a drag queen from beyond the grave, doing all the other first ladies and trying to exploit their products, like Jackie O sunglasses. That I could imagine.
Kathleen Turner played the Catholic mother of a lesbian in the 2011 movie The Perfect Family, and the mother of a lesbian who becomes a transgender man in the 2015 play she also directed, Would You Still Love Me If…. What sort of role would you love to see her play today in one of your projects?
Well, she always plays strong women. She even played a transgender woman on the TV show Friends. I think she could play any part. She’s such a major actress, especially on stage. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff she’s done over the past 10 years on stage. I don’t know [if she would fit in] the last movie I wrote. Fruitcake was mostly starring children, and I think that would be pushing it, playing an 8-year-old. But she could probably pull it off!
You say in the Serial Mom DVD extras that you could see it rebooted as a TV series. It could be like Dexter.
Nowadays on TV, every single channel has true-crime [programming]. Even the ones that used to be classy now scrape the bottom of the barrel by doing Patty Hearst or [Charles] Manson over and over without one single new bit of information. Why not? Serial Mom parodied that before it even happened.
One of Serial Mom’s funniest running gags is when Turner’s character tortures Mink Stole’s character with a series of prank calls. Is there anyone you would like to prank call?
I wouldn’t call them for a prank. I hate prank calls. I’m not sitting around thinking about making prank calls. But I guess I’d call Eminem, because I want to meet him and I know he doesn’t want to meet me.
Some of your older films are getting re-released in new editions, like Criterion’s Female Trouble. How about Desperate Living?
No, Desperate Living hasn’t gotten it yet. That one did the worst when it came out, too, and it’s the only one of my movies where I didn’t get a TV deal from it. A lesbian fairy tale about mental anguish—it seemed like a hit to me.
America under Trump is a bit like Mortville. We’re almost at the point of Backwards Day, and people being injected with rabies.
Have you seen that online picture of Queen Carlotta with Trump’s face? Someone sent it to me the other day.
You got to play your idol William Castle in Feud. How was that experience, and how did it come about?
I had to keep it secret because Ryan Murphy said we couldn’t tell, so I was amazed none of the extras talked, because that was filmed months ago. They just asked me. At first I said, “Well, I don’t look like William Castle, and I’m not going to wear a fat suit.” They said, “No, we just like it conceptually,” because I had written and talked about Castle for years. So it was great fun to do it. I had never met Jessica Lange before, and I said to her, “I’m still scared of you from Frances,” which I was, kind of. She was great, and really nice to spend the day with, but she was dressed as Joan Crawford. I hate when people say, “It was surreal.” It’s the most overused adjective, but this really was surreal because she’s not a method actress. She didn’t sit around drinking Pepsi all day, but she was lovely and funny—and looked like Joan Crawford. My William Castle costume wasn’t that far off from how I usually look, so it was bizarre. But it was a lovely day—I’m glad Ryan included me.
Did you egg Jessica on to say, “Barbara, please!”?
No. The weird thing about Feud is, Joan wasn’t that humiliated to work with William Castle in real life, because she went back and made another movie with him called I Saw What You Did way later. Her last movie, Trog, I’m glad they put that in. Last year I had a big retrospective at the British Film Institute [BFI] where I got to pick my favorite British films, and I picked Trog. The guy who ran the BFI actually found the actor who played Trog in a retirement community. He came on stage and he looked like David Lochary at 80. He had gold teeth, bleached hair, and he was so great, and nobody had ever seen what he actually looked like since he was in a monkey suit [in the movie]. He talked about how he was a wrestler, and that’s how he got the part. He said, “Joan was very nice, she always sent me Christmas cards.” Also, I did the commentary for the British DVD of Mommie Dearest last year—and William Castle and Trog all came together.
Do you have any thoughts on Feud co-star Susan Sarandon, with her “Bernie Bro” politics and anti-Hillary stance?
Well, I wasn’t for Bernie Sanders because I feel even Cuba doesn’t want to be socialist anymore, so why should we? But Susan has always been vocally political, so good. I like her politics better than being for Trump. I was a Hillary supporter. I had no problem with Hillary and I’m sorry she didn’t win.
Susan hated Hillary! She hated her!
But I bet she doesn’t hate her that much. I think she would hate Trump more. You can ask her that. She certainly has very strong opinions about politics. These are the people that should vote twice.
In a February interview for The Guardian, you said you are averse to crowd-funding a movie despite the fact you haven’t been able to get one made since 2004’s A Dirty Shame. Have you reconsidered crowd-funding since then?
I’m not going to be that much of a hypocrite and say, “Help me get some money.” I own three homes! I can sell my houses and make a movie if I want to. What am I gonna say? “I’ve never made a movie, can you work for nothing?” That’s ridiculous.
It’s basically like letting your audience decide if they want you to make a film, or acting like their own National Endowment for the Arts. I suspect you would get funded in a heartbeat.
I think I could have done that in the early days. I think I’m not going to beg for money. If I have to do that, I don’t need to make a movie. First of all, my books are doing great. By writing books I get to tell even more stories. Every part of my career—whether it’s my spoken-word shows, movies, or books—it’s all the same to me. I’m just telling you a story. I jump from one to another. Whichever one is going to happen, I’ll be there.
Would you ever give someone permission to do Flamingos Forever, the Pink Flamingos sequel that you wrote but never filmed?
[And let] someone else direct that script? Sure. It’ll never get made because it would get an NC-17 and it would be expensive, because it has a lot of special effects and they all want stars to play everything. I tried to get that movie made for a long time—too long. I doubt that’s going to happen, someone coming along to make a John Waters movie. I don’t know.
How do you feel about same-sex marriage?
Of course I’m for it. Why anybody would be threatened by [two people] loving each other is amazing to me. I personally don’t want to do it, because there’s gay divorce and gay alimony.
What do you feel it takes to be subversive today?
“Subversive” is coming up with a new way to surprise young people. I think that is youth’s duty, and my book Making Trouble gives you all the advice on how to do that. You’ve got to get on the inside now and screw it up in a beautiful way. Basically, Making Trouble is the perfect book to give to someone graduating, but they don’t have to have gone to school. They could be [getting out] on parole, getting out of a bad marriage, or just deciding to change their life. “Graduating” just means you’re going on to something new and good, and the book encourages you to take big risks and have a next chapter in your life, no matter where you are in it.
This article appears in the July 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.