TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1982

JOHN WATERS' DIVINE COMEDY

A LARGE PART OF ME resists writing about John Waters; it seems a bit like paying attention to a demanding, bratty, suburban kid who’s already had as much attention as anyone ought to have. And in a period when the forces of repression seem to be closing in, Waters’ open defiance of humane canons of sensitivity and responsibility seems calculated to give Moral Majority types confidence in their attack on the arts as a pernicious influence. Still, I find Waters’ accomplishments as a filmmaker—especially in four features, Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977)—not only remarkable as entertainment, but salutary as well.

While Waters correctly predicted that by developing a reputation as the “Master of Sleaze” he could catch the attention of a substantial portion of the movie-going public—especially the big city midnight crowds and college audiences—tastelessness is only part of the appeal of his films. Its most important function is to catalyze other, more far-reaching experiences, the most interesting of which may be the undermining of viewers’ willingness and ability to accept wimpy Hollywood fabrications at face value. Along with the films of the Kuchar brothers (to whom Waters admits an important debt), Waters’ films are some of the most powerful send-ups of conventional film forms and expectations since Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. His plots, which seem like genetic malformations of traditional Hollywood plots, involve attacks on conventions and also on the traditional audience relationship to film. Waters’ audiences can’t willingly suspend their disbelief or allow themselves to be carried away by reassuring fantasies; they have to remain alert, waiting for Waters to surprise them by confronting yet another taboo they may not have known they brought with them to the movies. Though I do not consider myself religious, I both laughed and was appalled when I first saw the scene in Multiple Maniacs in which Waters incarnates the Infant of Prague to lead Divine to the church where she gets a “rosary job” from Mink Stole while contemplating the Stations of the Cross. Later I realized that the unexpected horror those scenes provoked was a symptom of the subtle power religion has maintained over me. Waters’ films bring to the fore many social assumptions we’ve unwittingly internalized and remind us that despite talk of the preponderance of sex and violence in the media, most films are relatively benign.

Actually, Waters’ films are not all that sleazy: most pornography I’ve seen is much sleazier, and Otto Muhl’s Sodoma makes Divine’s performance with poodle shit look like child’s play. The tastelessness of certain moments sets us up for the anarchic elegance of others: witness, for example, the elegance of the opening image of Divine driving a Cadillac convertible (in Mondo Trasho, 1969) while Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” plays on the soundtrack. Similarly, technical tackiness makes way for the surprising skill of other sequences, such as the series of vignettes in Female Trouble dramatizing Dawn Davenport’s high school experiences and her attempts to make a life for herself in the late ’60s, which are as insightful about that period as anything I’ve seen. Waters has consistently cast actors (Divine, Edith Massey, Jean Hill, Danny Mills, for example) whose physical appearance and way of talking would be anathema in Hollywood, except perhaps as fodder for cheap shots; the result has been new and interesting kinds of movie performances that effect a healthy extension of the movie-goer’s ability to accept people for themselves. At first, one may only laugh at the idea of Divine (in Female Trouble) as “the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” but by the end of the film the courage, commitment, and skill of the actor have rendered him beautiful and allow us to be comfortable with a definition of physical beauty that centers on imagination and distinctiveness, rather than on adherence to a simply, industry-promoted standard. No contemporary actress is more stunning than Divine at the end of Pink Flamingos and in many scenes in Female Trouble.

Whatever one feels about Waters, whatever reservations one may have about the political implications of his films or of his charming, troubling new book Shock Value (New York: Delta, 1981), Waters’ career has been a lesson in courage and persistence. He has become a mass-audience filmmaker without remaking himself into the industry’s image of a director, and without suppressing his hostility toward more conventional film and television content. In his attempt to invigorate the experience of movie-going with a new form of comedy, he has been willing to take the chance of offending nearly everyone. But, in the long run, what seeps through his films (and the experience of talking with him) is his dedication to his work and to his co-workers, his energy, his organization, and an unpretentiousness reminiscent of the Mack Sennett studio, and of early Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle.

Waters has proved he and his collaborators can and will do amazing things with very few resources. Whether they can do equally amazing things with plenty of resources remains to be seen. Though Waters had by far his biggest budget in making Polyester (1981), it is his least exciting film since Mondo Trasho. There are interesting aspects to it, as there are in that first feature, not least of which is Waters’ desire to “infect” larger and larger audiences. But we’ll have to wait to see whether Polyester is a new beginning or the beginning of the end.

Scott MacDonald: I suppose the place to start is how you started.

John Waters: I went to the movies constantly as a kid. The Wizard of Oz was one I went to over and over and over. I always rooted for the witch; I used to identify with the witch. I always liked the villains in movies; they were the only ones I was interested in. They were the best parts, the ones that everybody remembered. I used to run to see the films that they told us in Catholic school we’d go to hell if we saw. So really the nuns got me interested in making movies. Especially Baby Doll—if you saw that one you’d go straight to hell. I saw it a lot of times. When I was about 12, I started getting Variety and I used to make up lurid advertising campaigns for films that I would think up. I was also a puppeteer for kids’ birthday parties. I got hired to put on shows, but the shows started getting so weird that the parents stopped hiring me. I started putting fake blood in, and that ended my birthday party circuit.

I used to sneak to this hill near a drive-in and watch films like The Mole People and I Spit on Your Grave with binoculars. As soon as I could drive a car, I started going to drive-ins all the time. At the drive-in I saw films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Gore Gore Girls, Color Me Blood Red, and early Russ Meyer stuff like Lorna, Mud Honey, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Those films were my Citizen Kane. I even got arrested in a drive-in, which I fondly remember. I think everybody should be arrested before they’re 20, or something’s the matter with them, and their parents should worry. I think it’s part of growing up. I was obsessed by William Castle’s movies. Odorama in Polyester is an homage to him.

SM: I don’t know William Castle at all.

JW: He did The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill. He had all these gimmicks: skeletons came out, buzzers went off under your seat, there was “Chicken’s Corner” where you followed a yellow line to a cardboard booth set up in a corner with a nurse in it—if you chickened out, you could get your money back. In 13 Ghosts there were glasses—if you looked through the red, you could see the ghosts but if you looked through the blue, you couldn’t.

I also went to see Fellini, Bergman, that kind of stuff, but I liked the exploitation movies best. They were real low budget so they had to do something that nobody else could do, in order to get people to come see the film. I wound up making exploitation films for art theaters.

SM: I was going to ask about Bergman because the village in Desperate Living reminds me of scenes from The Seventh Seal.

JW: I think it’s more like Oz. The end is like, “Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead.”

I was very influenced by the Kuchar brothers, very much, and early Warhol films, and Kenneth Anger. Really, George and Mike Kuchar influenced me more than anybody. Then all these movies came along that I really don’t like, like Stan Brakhage and films with colors jumping around. I think that killed the underground movement. Everybody thought, oh, there’s underground films, let’s go see; and when they just saw colors jumping around, after thinking they were going to see something risqué, they stopped going and went back to the safety of regular movie theaters.

When I was about 16, I made this black and white movie called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. I knew nothing about how to make a movie. I was getting in a lot of trouble with the police—nothing serious; I wasn’t a murderer, but you know, underage drinking, car wrecks, stuff like that. My grandmother always knew I was a show-off, so she gave me a movie camera. It was just a Brownie. I knew a girl who worked at a camera store, and she stole all the film. The first movie cost $80, and it grossed $100. A success! Instead of putting it in my closet the way a lot of people do, I opened it in this coffee house. It looked just terrible to me. There was no editing; the film went right out of the camera onto the screen. It was about a Ku Klux Klan guy marrying a white girl and a black guy. We filmed on the roof of my parents’ house. It was very much Pop influenced: the girls wore American flags and tin foil, that kind of stuff. It was terrible. But I felt like doing it.

After that I went to New York University, very briefly. I got kicked out in 1966—marijuana, which was a big scandal then. I don’t even take drugs now, but then, Big Deal. It was in the Daily News. I never went to classes anyway. The first film class I went to I had to watch the Odessa Steps sequence [from Sergei Eissenstein’s Potemkin] over and over. I just went there to go to New York. I went to movies every day on 42nd Street.

SM: Do you think film should be studied at all, and if so, what should be studied, and how?

JW: I think films should be studied, but in a movie theater, not in a classroom. That first day at NYU, I realized that their sense of values about film was going to be so academic that I would be completely bored sitting through the course.

SM: So it was more the course than the film that turned you off?

JW: I’m not crazy about the movie. I’d much rather see Mud Honey. I’d rather see a new turkey than an old classic. I had absolutely no interest in Potemkin. I lived by stealing textbooks and selling them back to the bookstore. When I got kicked out, I went home. NYU recommended extensive psychiatric treatment and all this ridiculous stuff. I hung around with Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole. We had grown up together.

SM: This was in Baltimore?

JW: Yeah, in the suburbs of Baltimore, but we all went downtown and hung around. We thought we were beatniks. I used to wear sandals that laced up to my knees and Levis with bleach and paint on them. I actually owned bongos. So we made this film, a home movie called The Roman Candles, [1966]. It was heavily influenced by [Andy Warhol’s] Chelsea Girls, which was two films shown at once, so we showed three. It was mostly about a lot of drugs, Divine in drag, all the girls I knew modeling clothes they stole from boutiques. We opened in a church and got a lot of media attention because they thought, oh, underground films, some forbidden thing. We put the Kenneth Anger film Eaux d’Artifice with it so people would come—we exploited Anger’s name. It went over well, and we showed it a couple more times at different underground theaters in Baltimore. By that time we were all going to Provincetown in the summer.

I borrowed some money from my father—he said, “Don’t ever tell anybody I lent it to you”—to make this movie called Eat Your Make-up, which was the first film I did in 16mm. It was black and white, silent with taped rock and roll. To this day I’m the only one who can show the movie. It’s so closely synchronized that I have to use my own tape recorder. It almost drove me crazy. That film had a plot, and we built sets. The best part in it—it’s not that good—is when Divine is Jackie Kennedy and we do the whole Kennedy assassination. Divine had on Jackie Kennedy’s exact outfit, and we had a Cadillac and a motorcycle with police. I filmed on the street where my parents lived, and since the assassination had happened just a year earlier, the neighbors didn’t think it was too funny. We opened that one in a church, too, with a world premiere and everything. I entered it in a film festival. In the middle the judges started screaming, “Get this shit off!” They didn’t even watch it all the way through, and they called the church and said, “Don’t let him show this movie because it’s pernicious.” I remember that word; I had to look it up. But the reverend said go ahead and show it, so they called the IRS. The IRS came and wouldn’t let me charge admission, so we had to ask for donations at the end. I think we showed it one more time, in Provincetown—at another church. I wanted to do it in the actual church part, where the audience would be in pews, but they wouldn’t let me.

SM: Was it clear to you when you were making these short films that you wanted to make longer films?

JW: Yes, but I was just learning how. I didn’t know anything about making films. This man at the Quality Film Lab in Baltimore knew I didn’t have money, and he would give me pointers. I used my friends, whom I was trying to build into some kind of stars. After that we made Mondo Trasho which was silent, except for music, and a few lines we put on at the end. It was my first feature-length film. Now that I look back, I can see that it should be about half as long, but there’s no point going back and changing it. We got arrested making the movie—the whole cast—for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure.

SM: Where in the film . . .

JW: Where the guy’s hitchhiking nude, and Divine pulls up in the Cadillac. We filmed on the Johns Hopkins campus without asking permission. We just pulled up. Some campus policeman saw the guy nude, raced down, called the police. With Divine in drag, a nude guy, the rest of the cast, and the camera equipment we sped off in the Cadillac Eldorado convertible trying to escape. He had gotten the license plate, and the police saw us driving away and pulled us over. They arrested the actor, and the next day they came and arrested all of us, which was ludicrous. We were all in a paddy wagon, and looking back on it, it was fun, but at the time . . . The Civil Liberties Union handled our case, and it turned out all right, making Playboy and the front page of Variety, and therefore creating a lot of interest in the film. We opened in the church where we always opened, and did very well, and we showed it in Provincetown. Then the Film-Maker’s Distribution Center, which was part of the Film-Makers Cooperative at the time, got it shown in L.A. and Variety and Show, which was at the time a pretty good magazine, gave good reviews. We showed it at the Cinematheque 16, which showed underground films. I made enough money to pay my father back.

SM: How much did Mondo Trasho cost?

JW: $2,500, for a feature-length film. I still get rentals for it today.

SM: One thing that struck me when I saw the film is that you tend to make virtues of necessities. In a lot of places you use the same people more than once—you do that in Multiple Maniacs, too—but instead of trying to disguise the fact, you let it be so it becomes a joke, rather than a weakness.

JW: Right. We had no money. I don’t remember if anybody worked at the time. Those were drug days, not that anyone was a drug addict, but it was the ’60s. We lived in this place that had a plumbing school underneath it. To get to our apartment, you had to walk right through the plumbing place. Divine would walk through in full drag—a gold lamé toreador outfit—while these student plumbers would be working on their pipes. We called it a gutter film because it really was filmed in gutters, alleys, and laundromats. We’d go to the laundromats because they had neon lighting so we wouldn’t need lights. After we got arrested, we were always looking over our shoulders. We were so paranoid, we’d jump out of the car, film the scene, and leave.

SM: Even people who have seen later films are shocked by the scene at the very beginning where the guy kills the chicken.

JW: I’m shocked when I look at it now, especially because he keeps missing! I’ve only killed chickens twice. On the other hand, I eat chickens—how do you think they get to your plate? They don’t have heart attacks.

SM: I assume the idea of the scene was to wake the audience up.

JW: Well, no. It was a joke on the Mondo Cane movies, which always had things like that. We bought the chickens at a place called “Freshly Killed Chicken.” You go in there, they kill the chicken, and you go home and eat it. The same thing happened to this chicken, but it got to be in a movie. The beginning is a little much; the ASPCA wasn’t around.

That was the first film where Divine was really Divine, trashy and with tight clothes. Divine and I both idolized Jayne Mansfield. Mary Vivian Pearce, the blond, looked like that at all times—that wasn’t a costume. I loved how she looked. Everywhere she went was like a riot. Bonnie—her real name is Mary Vivian Pearce, but no one’s ever called her that, except in the credits of my films—had absolutely no desire to be an actress. She sort of dreaded doing the films. She’s in Polyester for a minute as one of the nuns. She lives on a very fancy horse farm and exercises race horses. We used her to promote Eat Your Make-up. I had gotten the idea for Eat Your Make-up from those candy lipsticks—the make-up you eat up, they said. I used to hand people a flyer; she’d hand ’em a candy lipstick and say, “Eat it, read it, and come.” People thought we were giving them acid and would say, “No, no, get away from us!” but it was good promotion, and we didn’t have any money for advertising.

SM: At the very end of Mondo Trasho there’s a sequence where she’s standing on the sidewalk that seems a reaction against stereotyping, and movement politics.

JW: Well, I never took politics too seriously. I went to all the riots and stuff, but just to meet good people. It wasn’t like I had any deep political convictions.

SM: The amateurishness of The Diane Linkletter Story appears to be a comment on all the media moralizing about that event.

JW: The only reason The Diane Linkletter Story happened is that right before we were going to do Multiple Maniacs I had to test the camera. I read the morning papers, and she’d jumped out the window, so we just did it. It was the only movie I ever improvised.

SM: You made it that day?

JW: That day; talk about bad taste. It’s a film I don’t really talk about a lot, for obvious reasons. It’s really not even a film; it was a joke between ourselves, and talk about me being in bad taste. That record Linkletter put out was in worse taste than anything I could ever think of.

SM: Multiple Maniacs seems to be the first of your films that’s full strength.

JW: I look back on the film that way. It still plays. It only cost $5000, and it’s technically terrible, but I like the movie. I like the nastiness of it. Divine threatens Reagan’s life, which really gets a laugh now. I was obsessed by the Manson case. I still am. At the beginning of the movie Divine claims she did it, because Manson hadn’t been caught yet when we were filming. Then at the end David Lochary finds this newspaper headline. That’s because Manson had been caught that same day and we had to work this in. Nobody could upstage Charlie Manson.

SM: There are unbelievable sequences in Multiple Maniacs. The “rosary job” is probably more outrageous now than it was then.

JW: I think I finally worked Catholicism out of my system with the “rosary job.” We went to this church. Somebody knew a guy there, who used to let Black Panthers have meetings; I figured he might go for it. We didn’t tell them what the scene was, but he didn’t seem to care. I mean he saw Divine. A friend of mine took him into the other room and had this political discussion with him while we filmed the scene. I haven’t seen him since, but a friend did recently—he said to this day the guy prays that nobody connects the scene with that church. We opened the film in another church, and the reverend was in hysterics. There are a lot of off-the-wall priests.

SM: Watching the film, you realize it’s shot in a real place, which changes the whole effect of that scene.

JW: It looks as though we snuck in there.

SM: Like guerilla moviemaking. That sequence is almost unbelievably abrasive—it’s the first thing of yours I’ve ever hesitated to show—. . .

JW: The censor board in Baltimore just busted it last year. We went to court, and the judge said his eyes were insulted for 90 minutes, but that it wasn’t obscene.

SM: Ironically, the Stations of the Cross sequence actually comes across pretty powerfully.

JW: Yeah, I think that works. We filmed it on an old dirt road in the country; we rented all the costumes and just went over and did it.

SM: I assume the Carnival of Perversions sequence was done that way, too.

JW: That was on my parents’ front lawn. The neighbors were watching through binoculars.

SM: When you were making Multiple Maniacs, were you thinking of confusing the audience’s usual way of identifying with film characters? There’s a wonderful device near the beginning where you show the perverts, then you show the incredible reactions of the other people, and their reactions are so much more obnoxious than the perversions that the audience tends to be on the side of the perverts.

JW: I always try to confuse the audience, by making them laugh at things that they feel unsafe laughing at. Also, I don’t know if you recognize them, but the people that are supposed to be the straight people in the beginning are Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce, who also play the perverts, but in wigs and different clothes.

SM: I didn’t recognize them.

JW: The “perversions” were all the standard, cliché things suburbanites were uptight about—drugs, homosexuality, all things I figured you could laugh at. It’s hardly threatening.

SM: Did you have an audience in Baltimore right away?

JW: We had an audience, yes, but they didn’t always like the films. I also had an audience in Provincetown. Then Multiple Maniacs got picked up by this guy Mike Getz at Underground Cinema-12, which had a number of theaters across the country. It showed on that circuit at midnight shows. He paid well. I went to Los Angeles for the L.A. opening, and we got a good review. I went there because the Manson trial was opening at the same time. The first two good reasons to go to California.

Then I moved to San Francisco. Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs played a lot at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where the Cockettes started out with their shows. They flew Divine out and they had about 500 people at the airport to greet him. It was the first time Divine became Divine in his other life. He was a hairdresser and he hated it, so it was a real escape for him. His whole life changed. He realized he wanted to do this for a living. He doesn’t walk around as Divine usually—those are his work clothes.

We kept trying to make the films look a little better so people could watch them and get through them. We just hoped there was an audience for them, which I always suspected there was. I had always had a reaction against hippies; I was never a love child. I knew that violence was the one sacrilege, so I wanted to play violence for laughs. Multiple Maniacs was made to offend hippies.

SM: When did you start being able to pay actors and other people?

JW: With Pink Flamingos. They all had percentages, and the main people still get money. I ran a bookstore in Provincetown every summer and then got unemployment every winter, so I had something to live on while I made movies. I used to, well, sell amphetamines, too—we all have different ways.

SM: Did you have the characters use their real names because it was easy and you figured nobody would know who they were?

JW: I thought that the best way to make them famous was to use their real names, not just in the credits, but in the movie, so you’d remember them.

SM: The killing of the cop is a good example of a certain kind of violence that exists in the films—the act is violent, but it is not at all visceral.

JW: It’s so fake that you can’t take it seriously.

SM: The effect on me is that it frees me to laugh at something in which the violence, if realistically portrayed, would be much more questionable in its impact. Were you trying to make things as violent as you had the means to do, or were you consciously trying to make the violent acts not look really violent so that they’d have this kind of double effect?

JW: It was just badly done.

SM: Did you rehearse a lot?

JW: Yes, I always do. I rehearse for at least a month or two before starting. It’s hard to believe, I know, watching Multiple Maniacs, because a lot of people forget their lines—but, on these tiny budgets you have to rehearse.

SM: So the actors aren’t improvising.

JW: No, the action is blocked and everything. The films have always been made fairly conventionally. We do a couple of takes.

SM: Have you been responsible for all the writing?

JW: I’ve done all the writing for all of them. I guess that’s why I still like Multiple Maniacs so much: it was the first film in which we could talk. That’s also the first film that Vince Peranio did. He’s done all my sets since then. He made the giant lobster and he’s in it—you can see his feet sticking out. I got the idea for the lobster from these postcards of a giant lobster they sell in Provincetown.

SM: That film seems full of all sorts of allusions to other movies, particularly to monster movies.

JW: At the end when the National Guard kill Divine, it’s like Gorgo—only it’s Divine. In that last scene there’s a blind man you see every time they come around the corner. That’s cause he was a ham, and I couldn’t get him out of there.

SM: From what you’ve been saying, I assume that you always wanted to move in the direction of more polished, slick films.

JW: We always tried to make them look as good as we possibly could. I never thought, “let’s make it look technically fucked up.” I did the best I could do at the time. Each time we got a little more money. Multiple Maniacs cost $5000, Pink Flamingos cost about $10,000. We had one light with an extension cord that ran a mile from the house to the trailer. The trailer cost $100, we got it in a junkyard. Vince painted it and redid it, bought the furniture in junk shops. We had to walk through mud for a mile to get up to where it was hidden on this friend of mine’s farm. I had no work print for that film. I edited the original. When I look back, I can’t believe it. Every time I had to watch a cut, I put it through the projector; and it’s not scratched. How that’s possible, I don’t know. It was filmed single-system sound, with a newsreel camera borrowed from a TV station.

SM: It seems like the most Baltimore of the films.

JW: All of them have allusions to Baltimore.

SM: How does Baltimore feel about you?

JW: They’ve been very good to me. The mayor tells me to keep making movies. When we made Polyester, they gave us cops, buses, everything. They really stood behind it. I really love Baltimore. There’s a great tolerance for eccentrics there. I think they figure that they’re for anything that comes out of there. I think they like the fact I’ve stayed. They have a good sense of humor about the whole thing. That time we got arrested was just a fluke, it wasn’t an organized effort against me or anything. I’ve really had no trouble there, except with the censor board.

SM: Which films have had censorship trouble there?

JW: All of them except Polyester.

SM: I assume that you’ve consistently had censorship problems.

JW: No, not really. Pink Flamingos was busted in Hicksville, New York, and found obscene. We had a $5000 fine. But that’s the only other place in the United States we’ve had trouble. We had a lot of problems in Europe. Pink Flamingos was banned in France. In Italy Desperate Living was heavily cut. I’ve had censorship problems with Pink Flamingos everywhere in Europe, and in England and Australia. This is the freest country.

SM: Do you feel any of that freedom threatened these days?

JW: You mean by the Moral Majority or something? No. I’d love it if they picked me as a target; it would help the movies. That’s the reason Russ Meyer hired pickets. I’m sure the Moral Majority never goes to the movies. I’ve never met a person that I had any respect for whom they could influence in any way. Let them stick to television; that’s more their speed. No, I don’t feel threatened. Polyester is a pro-abortion movie.

SM: Is Pink Flamingos the first film that Van Smith did make up and costumes for?

JW: Yes. David Lochary did Divine for Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. Van came in with Pink Flamingos.

SM: Did they have training?

JW: No. David was a beauty school dropout.

SM: How about Peranio?

JW: He went to the Maryland Institute College of Art, but not for set design. He was a painter. He does lots of movies. He did Linda Blair’s movie, The Private Eyes.

SM: For a long time you called your company “Dreamland Productions.” Does that relate to surrealism?

JW: No, I don’t know how that name came about. I made it up when we did Roman Candles, the same day I made up Divine’s name, and Mink Stole’s, except Stole is her real last name. People called her Mink, so we just used that.

SM: Who is the man/woman who exposes him/herself to the David Lochary character in Pink Flamingos?

JW: She’s a woman now. She’s married and runs an all-male construction crew. She’s real happy. She was the first sex-change in Maryland that welfare paid for. She had to buy her own breasts, but they paid for the rest.

SM: Pink Flamingos was the first film Edith Massey had a big role in.

JW: She was the barmaid in Multiple Maniacs. That’s where I discovered her. She worked in a wino bar that we used to hang out in because drinks were 10¢. I thought, “God, she looks so good!”

SM: Somebody told me she runs a second-hand clothing store?

JW: Yes, it’s in Baltimore—“Edith’s Shopping Bag.”

SM: How much direction do you give Vince Peranio about designing sets? I’m thinking of the scene in Pink Flamingos where Mink Stole and David Lochary are in bed making love to each other’s feet and there’s this red and blue color coordination.

JW: Oh that was just Mink’s bedroom. The furniture was moved around, but it was all just Mink’s stuff. Vince didn’t do anything in the Marbles’ house. It was just where we lived. You can see the same movie posters on the wall in Multiple Maniacs.

SM: Female Trouble is dedicated “For Charles Watson.”

JW: He was in the Manson family. I visited him in prison. He made the helicopter in the credits. I told him I thought crime is beauty. He certainly didn’t believe that; he thought I was nuts. I used to see the celebrity criminals in the visiting room. Timothy Leary was there at the time. I just exaggerated all that to think up Female Trouble, and that’s why I dedicated it to Watson. It was hardly a commercial thing to do.

SM: I became interested in your films because when I saw them, it wasn’t a matter of liking or disliking them, it was just that something happened. I’ve gotten so used to paying $3.50 or $5.00 to be bored to death and to forget the movie within an hour.

JW: I make films to make people laugh. I hope with my sense of humor that I can get other people to respond to them. That’s the total reason. You know you can read a lot into a film, but I’m really not trying to say anything. Well, obviously I am or I wouldn’t make movies; but I have no great message, and I’m not trying to change anything. The films are my vision of what I see that makes me laugh.

SM: Do you feel your films are art films?

JW: That’s a word that really makes me uncomfortable. It’s a word I don’t use, except as Mr. Linkletter’s first name. I hate to hear filmmakers say, “My art should mean this and that.”

SM: Your statements about Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer are not just that you like them or that you laugh at their films; you see something in their work that you make a value judgment about—you talk about them being great filmmakers.

JW: They are, because they do make me laugh and because what they did was completely outside of the mainstream: they made something original. You can look at a Russ Meyer film today and you instantly know it’s a Russ Meyer film.

SM: How do you feel about Mel Brooks?

JW: I don’t think he’s very funny. He’s too involved with Jewish humor, too ethnic. I wouldn’t like a whole movie that just made jokes about Catholicism.

SM: Woody Allen?

JW: I like some of Woody Allen. I wish he wasn’t in the movies though. I liked Interiors the best. If it had come out without his name on it, Interiors would have been a big art hit.

SM: Of all the films, Female Trouble seems the closest to making a definite statement.

JW: It’s exaggerated so much, though—everything I do is. When it first came out, a lot of people didn’t like it. Pink Flamingos was a tough act to follow. People expected that I was going to try to top myself, but how could you after that? I didn’t want to try to do that; I figured it would be a dead-end street to keep trying to make things more gross. In Pink Flamingos the shit-eating thing was really a publicity stunt. I had to get people’s attention some way. I figured if I did that, no one would ever be able to forget it, and that it would be a first and last in film history. It was the first idea I had for the whole movie. I had $10,000 and I knew I had to compete with regular movies. You have to go way out on a limb and give ’em something that the studios would never want to give them. With Female Trouble I tried to make the ideas a little weirder than the action. As I told you, ever since I was a child I’ve been a fan of villains, so I’m also attracted to murder trials, which I go to all the time. Female Trouble was a reaction to going to a lot of murder trials.

SM: You seem to be posing a definition of beauty that works off the standard definition. In this culture being “beautiful” is looking like whoever happens to be in style. In Female Trouble being beautiful is looking the most unusual or distinctive.

JW: To me, beauty is when I’m walking down the street and I see somebody and I think, “Oh my God, look at that person!” That’s beauty to me, because I notice it. I certainly don’t want to make movies that star people who look like everyday people. To me the people in my films look glamorous. Also, it’s good to hire fat people because they take up more room on the screen—you don’t have to spend money on sets. All my films are based on reversals—good is bad; ugly is beautiful. I always try to cast heterosexual people as homosexuals and homosexuals as heterosexuals to further confuse people, because I think confusion is humorous.

I like Female Trouble very much. I guess if I ever made a personal film that’s it. When I went to high school, the girls were like they are in the film, and I loved to watch them with their beehives. They used to stab each other with rattail combs. And my Christmas tree really did fall over on my grandmother. Nobody pushed it, but I remember her pinned under it. Many of the images in that film are based on real things, except they’re exaggerated. I used to play car accident as a kid, but not the way Taffy does!

SM: How did you finance Female Trouble?

JW: Well, Pink Flamingos made a lot of money, and I put all the money that I made from it into the new film and borrowed some money from a man who ran a cinematheque at the University of Maryland, and from another friend who was rich. Female Trouble cost $27,000. It was really hard to get that money, but it’s never easy to get the budgets. You’ve just got to keep working. It took three years to raise the money for Polyester. That’s the worst part of filmmaking, the part I hate. It’s the most depressing part: you feel like a used car salesman, and you go around with your synopsis and talk to people, some of whom you don’t even know—they’re just rich. Polyester was financed by New Line Cinema, which distributed all my other films. Michael White, who did The Rocky Horror Picture Show, liked the script, and I raised $50,000 from friends. The hard part is all the lawyers and the contracts. It was easier in the old days. The more money you have, the harder it is to make a movie, because you’re trying to make it better and you’re trying to do more things and there are more people involved, more equipment, more everything.

SM: You talk about the films as comedies, which obviously they are. Are there comedians you particularly like?

JW: I think Fran Lebowitz is funny, and I think the movie Modern Romance was funny. I think a lot of things are funny, but the things I find the funniest are the ones that aren’t supposed to be funny, like The Other Side of Midnight and Mahogany.

SM: Are you conscious of trying to visualize standard clichés?

JW: I love clichés. They’re in every one of my movies. Clichés obviously have something or they wouldn’t have become clichés. I especially love a cliché with something wrong with it: that makes a joke. Tab Hunter and Divine in Polyester running through the fields in slow motion is a cliché, but not exactly, because it’s a 300-pound drag queen and Tab Hunter.

SM: With the way the camera is set up, at the end of Female Trouble, the viewing audience is, in a sense, part of Divine’s audience; so she’s attacking us, too.

JW: I think if you were in a movie audience you would love it if somebody in the audience got shot by one of the performers. You’d still be talking about it. As long as it wasn’t you.

SM: In that scene Divine is a lot like you as a filmmaker. People come “to be shot at” by you.

JW: I agree with that.

SM: Or to shoot at themselves. In Polyester the number two comes on and we know the smell, but we scratch and sniff the card we’ve been given anyway.

JW: It’s like that with the skunk, too. You see the skunk and then the number comes on and you think, “Oh, no!” But, it’s like you paid to get in, so you go ahead and scratch. At least you know you have the choice: you don’t have to scratch.

SM: Why Divine in that box of fish? That part of her performance seems strange.

JW: You know, I don’t know. I think part of that was influenced by Russ Meyer. Vixen does a dance with fish in Vixen. And there’s the negative cliché about whores smelling like fish.

SM: Carolee Schneemann did a performance in the late ’60s called Meat Joy, which involved rolling around with fish.

JW: I remember that. Fish are just so weird looking. Divine and I used to do shows in California, and everytime we used to make a personal appearance, Divine would throw mackerels at the audience. Whenever we had a job, we said, “Just make sure there are three fresh mackerels in the dressing room.” That was our star demand.

SM: Did you perform?

JW: No, I would come out and talk. Then I’d introduce Divine, and she’d come running out. It always worked for some reason.

SM: In most of the films, and in Female Trouble and Desperate Living especially, women, or men enacting women, are the center of attention.

JW: That’s why some women say my films are a put-down of women, which I totally disagree with. I like aggressive women. I have a lot of friends who are aggressive women, and I get along with women very well. Dave Lochary died after we made Female Trouble, and I didn’t know who I could replace him with, so I figured I’d make a movie, with women, about lesbians. Gay papers really came down on me, and I thought, there are so many lesbians working on the movie!

SM: Were you worried about making a film without Divine?

JW: Well, in a way it was a challenge. Divine was going to do it. It wasn’t like we had some big fight or something, which everybody thought. Divine was doing this play and had a contract. So, no, I wasn’t nervous about that. I was nervous because that was the first movie we made with an outsider—Liz Renay. I didn’t know how she would fit in; the same with Tab Hunter, though I wasn’t that nervous about Tab because I’d done it once before and it had worked out fine.

SM: How did you come across Liz Renay?

JW: I read her book, My Face for the World to See, and I just couldn’t believe it; it’s hysterical.

SM: In Desperate Living, and in the other films, did you tell people to exaggerate their acting?

JW: Oh, I always encourage hamism. A lot of people complained that there was so much screeching in that movie, but that’s how desperate people talk.

SM: In the early films—Multiple Maniacs, for instance—the gross stuff is horrendous; in Desperate Living it tends to be much more simple. The effect is weird; it’s like being grossed out by very ordinary things because they’re in a context where you’d never expect them. In Desperate Living, when I saw Mole walk out and clear her nostril, I was really shaken. Somehow that’s really absurd.

JW: Well, I got that idea from seeing people do that on the street. It offends me, too—I can’t believe people have the nerve to do that.

SM: I’ve wondered whether you’re offended by those things or whether you’re . . .

JW: I’m not for snot liberation, if that’s what you mean. When I do college lectures, the students that pick me up always say, “Oh, we’ve got this sleazy terrible place.” I don’t want to go to those places. Take me to the Ritz! These things are my fantasies for films, but they’re not my fantasies for my life!

Also, a lot of people assume that all the people in my films are like the characters. They’re nothing like them. They lead fairly normal lives. In a film something can be funny when in real life it isn’t. I think a perfect example is in Polyester, when the trick-or-treaters come and kill somebody because they don’t have an apple. I think people will laugh at that; I’ve seen them laugh at it. But in real life you wouldn’t laugh at it, not if somebody did it to you. I like to see violence in movies, but I have no desire to see a snuff film. Why is something funny in a movie, but horrible in real life? I’m not sure I know.

SM: You’re very open about the processes involved in making the films but even after reading Shock Value, I know relatively little about you as a person.

JW: Right. I have to keep something private. I would never reveal the private lives of people I work with. Everybody in the book read the book, and I told them, “If there’s anything you object to, I’ll take it out.” Who wants to dig up the dirt about their friends to make money off it? When I read Shelley Winters’ book, I was so embarrassed for her. Do you know what I mean? I respect the people I work with and my own privacy.

SM: Often you seem to admire people who do the opposite of that.

JW: Right. I admire murderers, but I’m not a murderer. Because I admire something doesn’t mean I have to emulate it. I don’t think there’s any shock value in our personal lives, anyway: they’d be boring to read about.

SM: What about your interest in the personal lives of people you go to trials to see?

JW: Well, they have become public figures. If I was arrested for murder, I guess everything would have to come out.

SM: You are a public figure.

JW: I’m not a public figure about my personal life. Generally when people ask me personal questions—they don’t very often—I say I’ve tried everything but necrophilia and coprophagia, and I like kissing best.

SM: Most Hollywood films seem to aim for one very simple, very specific reaction. In your films the viewer laughs, is revolted, and gags, simultaneously. Because of that I think it’s more complicated to talk about your films than about most narrative films.

JW: I love shock value, but when I’m walking down the street, I’m not thinking, “Boy, I hope I see a wreck!” It’s just that if something out of the ordinary happens, it gives me something to talk about with my friends. That’s why when I hear assassination news, I have very mixed feelings. I call everybody and there’s an adrenaline rush, you know. I’m not glad the person was shot, but I have no control over it, so I might as well be a ghoul. I think everybody is, but nobody admits it. They wouldn’t show Reagan ducking, over and over, in slow motion, and from every angle, unless people liked watching it. I mean, if they’d sold tickets to Jonestown, they could have sold it out. I hate television. I can’t stand watching it. The only time it’s fun to watch is when the pope’s shot or something. I mean that’s what it’s for—national emergencies. If I could have a good time watching television, I would, but I sit and frown when I’m watching it. TV never makes me laugh. I’m against free entertainment; I think you should have to go out to see something. That’s part of the ritual of it. I think video itself is ugly. If you’re home you should read.

SM: But you say your goal is simply to make people laugh. TV seems to make people laugh.

JW: Not the kind of people I care about! And I want to make them laugh in a theater, not in their houses. It’s just too easy to turn on the television. You don’t ever think with it on. If you watch TV all the time, you might as well be a heroin addict; it’s the same thing. You make an effort to go see a movie. In the theater you have to watch the movie to know what’s happening; with television you can talk on the phone, you can eat, you can read, you can do anything. Another thing I have against television is what it does to people’s behavior in movie theaters. Now when I go to a movie, people just sit there and talk like they’re watching in their living rooms.

SM: I found Polyester weaker in terms of its impact than the four films that preceded it.

JW: Right.

SM: There’s much less gross humor. The Divine character is a whiner and a wimp.

JW: I didn’t want to make the same movie again. I was getting bored, and I figured if I was, the audiences were certainly going to be. And I wanted to be able to reach a wider audience, not because I want to make a million dollars, but because I want to infect them. I saw Polyester with a much wider audience in Baltimore, where it did incredibly well with people who had never come to my films before. They’re as appalled as people were with Pink Flamingos. I think it’s reverse snobbism to keep making films for the same audience. But I hardly think it was that safe a bet—making a movie with Tab Hunter and a 300-pound drag queen and Odorama and trying to make it go with a mass market. Originally it was not the idea to open it at 50 theaters, but the theater chains saw it and they all wanted it, so we figured, why not take the gamble? The reason I’m trying to reach more people is because I want to keep making movies, and I want them to look better. Some people say, “I miss that it’s technically bad.” Well, I think that’s ludicrous.

I suppose the only way I have left to really shock anybody is to make a kids’ movie. Which I might do.

SM: Was Odorama part of the original idea?

JW: Yeah. It’s just another joke. I knew it from the two Smell-o-vision movies, The Scent of Mystery and another one. It never worked: they had to send these big machines around to the theaters, and they couldn’t get the smells out of the air conditioning. But I liked the idea. Odorama is the same gimmick to get people, as eating shit was to get midnight people. People remember it; they take the card with them. I think the movie would play fine without it, but the first time I saw an audience of 500 people doing it, I couldn’t believe it. I was like the doctor in the movie: “It works! It actually works!” I’m always trying to think of ways to get people to come see my movies. I don’t care whether they like them or not, but I want them to come.

SM: How did Divine feel about playing this kind of role?

JW: I think it would’ve been a real mistake for Divine to play the same role again. He’ll end up as Charo if he does the same thing over and over. At first he was nervous because he depended so much on that shock kind of thing, he was so used to that, knew how to do that. But I think once he got into it he liked it because it was a challenge. I think he’s real good; he’s gotten good reviews. Many people who have not seen the other films have no idea it’s a man. When it was over, we told the man who mixed the movie, and he said, “I am stunned.”

I had no idea how critics would react to this film, and all the critics in Baltimore who always hated my films liked it. Time liked it. Newsweek liked it. People liked it! The house record for an opening week at the theater in Baltimore was $9000; we did $18,000. The second week we did $20,000, which means that it got great word of mouth. There were families. There were old people, black people, a totally different kind of audience for me. But I want to reach those people. Nobody made me do this movie. It wasn’t like a producer said, “You can’t have this”; it’s the movie I wanted to make from the beginning. I felt that with Desperate Living and when I wrote my book, I closed one chapter in my life. I love that chapter, but I want to do something different.

SM: How did you come across Tab Hunter?

JW: Oh, I always liked him. He was my idea of the perfect movie star. I called him up and I said, “I have this script.” I sent it to him and he said he loved it. He said, “Let me wear burgundy polyester.” I said, “I’ve got to tell you, your leading lady’s a man,” and he said “So what!” He was real nice to work with and just laughed about the whole thing. He got along very well with Divine and I was thrilled. I thought it was kind of a coup to get him.

SM: The man who plays the husband is very good, too.

JW: The last thing that he had done was Dr. Dolittle in a dinner theater. He’s nothing like that character in real life, but he had fun playing a pig.

SM: Are you working on a new film?

JW: I’ve been traveling with Polyester for three months. I’m going to start writing soon. I want to do it with Divine as triplets. You know, have scenes where they talk and everything. My production manager said he’s going to quit if I do that.

SM: You did some of that in Female Trouble.

JW: Yeah, but not a whole movie. The germ for the new plot is just festering right now. The disease hasn’t struck.

Scott MacDonald is professor of film at Utica College and writes frequently on contemporary film.