After decades of notoriety, can anyone be shocked by John Waters anymore? Probably not: This year has been very good to the one-time underground filmmaker who has seen his 1988 movie Hairspray turned into a Broadway smash, and in turn, a hit mainstream Hollywood film.
This Friday, Sept. 21, Waters will give a free talk on the Duke campus, just two days before the school hosts the traveling stage production of Hairspray. Will the Baltimore-based filmmaker stick around for the show? No, but according to Waters, "I could do the entire show. Maybe I should do that before it comes."
Waters is justly proud of the multiple versions of Hairspray. And yet, the man who made his cinematic reputation with a scene involving the consumption of dog excrement in 1972's Pink Flamingos doesn't see the difference between the family-friendly tale and his more ... esoteric films.
"They're all the same!" Waters protests. "Hairspray and Desperate Living are the same. A Dirty Shame and Pecker are the same. When I made Hairspray, I never thought, 'Wow, this one's going to be a commercial movie!' I was shocked when it got a PG rating, and I was shocked when A Dirty Shame got an NC-17 rating. I just try to make the next movie."
Waters also rejects the notion that Hairspray has brought his films to a younger audience. "When I go to signings for DVDs of my movies, the audience has always been young," Waters points out. "Now, when I have old people coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, I love your movies,' I tell them, 'Uh, you loved Hairspray, I don't think you'd love Female Trouble.' I think there is an audience that only knows me through Hairspray, and then they go and find my other movies, and then they call the police."
While the over-the-top camp of Waters' films still holds up, the writer-director admits that the "mainstreaming" of gay culture in recent years has made it harder to be shocking. "I had more fun when it was illegal to be gay," says Waters, who adds that he's also "anti-separatist." "I don't want to get married and I don't want to go into the army and all that stuff, though I understand people's right to want that. I am for gay trouble. I like gay troublemakers. I am most gay when I am in a voting booth."
He does have a solution for those who still practice racism and homophobia. "If you're traveling, you can't be racist," Waters says. "You can't be homophobic. I think the only way you can be racist or homophobic is if you never leave the neighborhood you were born in, and you hang around with stupid people. So I've always thought that someone who was really racist should be sentenced to travel, but that's not very practical."
Aside from their outrageous, campy and filthy humor, Waters' films are also characterized by offbeat casting choices ranging from Sonny Bono to Patty Hearst. "Here's what they do," Waters says. "If they work for me, they can get rid of their image. Johnny Depp did it—he didn't want to be a teen idol. Traci Lords didn't want to be a porn star, Patty Hearst didn't want to be a kidnap victim.
"They wanted to make fun of those exact images and they came to me.... [When you make fun of yourself] they can't use it against you any more. Because I make fun of myself—I was calling my work Mondo Trasho from the very beginning. If you make fun of your film first, it's hard for anyone else to!"
So would he work with such modern-day tabloid figures as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan? "I wouldn't, actually, though I think they're very different," Waters says. "I think Lindsay Lohan is a good actress—she was even good in Georgia Rule!—and she will probably survive."
He's less forgiving to Spears, whose ex-husband Kevin Federline he mock-proposed to earlier this year. "I saw her opening act [for the MTV Video Music Awards], and I thought it was the opening act for the adult video awards they have in Las Vegas," Waters says. "She didn't look fat—I think every heterosexual male would fuck her. I think it's insane to say she looked fat. Did she look talentless? Yes! I could lip-synch that number better than she did."
Waters' next film will be "a very wonderful children's Christmas movie entitled Fruitcake," though he's cautious about discussing it before it receives the green light from the studio. "I would say it's for tweens and adults," Waters says. "It's not for 6-year-olds. Well, when I was 6 years old, I would have liked it."
He also has a number of other projects in the works, including This Filthy World, a one-man show directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin that will appear as a Netflix-exclusive offering in late October. He's also visible in everything from TV shows like The Simpsons and CourtTV's 'Til Death Do Us Part to documentaries like This Film is Not Yet Rated to even the special edition DVD of The Little Mermaid, discussing how Divine influenced the look of Ursula the Sea Witch. Sadly, he never got a chance to appear in HBO's Baltimore-based The Wire, though he calls it "the best show on television."
With all this on his plate, what will Waters talk about at Duke? "It can be anything fun—from my movies to movies I like, to crime, to fashion, to show business, to movie stars, to Baltimore, to projects I wish I could do, but they won't let me," Waters says. "And I'm always adding new material. To be honest, I'll probably still be putting things together the afternoon I show up."
John Waters will appear at Page Auditorium at Duke University on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.dukeperformances.org.