John Waters Talks About Censorship, Bad Taste, The Simpsons, and San Francisco
John Waters' reputation precedes him -- and we bet that gives him no end of glee. The Baltimore native featured the plentiful drag queen Divine in many of his early features, and he took on topics such as baby farms, an adult who lives in a playpen, and a competition between two people to be the most disgusting human on the planet. Waters makes San Francisco his home -- at least part time. He calls his residence in the city "the apartment that Hairspray bought me," referring to one of his biggest commercial successes.
Waters appears tonight (Wednesday, April 25) at the California College of the Arts, screening his 2004 film A Dirty Shame and answering audience questions afterward. We spoke with him several days ago about censorship, bad taste, and what he likes about San Francisco.
Why did you choose to screen A Dirty Shame?
It's my most recent film, and not everybody saw it because it got an NC-17 rating. Even in San Francisco, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, where my films usually play, that's a Landmark theater, and the Landmark theaters do play NC-17 movies but they can't there because of something in their lease. It's this kind of horrible censorship that's so terrible about the [Motion Picture Association of America].
We understand you made two versions of this film.
I had to do this horrible version, which I call "the neuter version." It's the only time if you want to have a birthday party for a 6-year-old and show them a movie about sex addicts, this would be appropriate. ... The only places left to rent movies if you don't have Netflix are Wal-Mart and all those kinds of places, and they carry only the neuter version. That made me crazy that people actually thought that was the movie. People said "I saw it," and I though "Well, which version?" and they didn't even know there were two versions. ... So I wanted to be sure that people see it the right way.
We heard the MPAA told you the film would have to be shortened to about 10 minutes if you wanted an R rating because that's how much material you'd have to cut. Is that accurate?
When the MPAA first called me and said it got an NC-17, I was fully prepared to make a few cuts. And I said "Well, what should I cut?" and they just said "We stopped taking notes." And I appealed it, and ended up making the neuter version.
I never like to tell anybody this, but many times when you're making a film and you have a completion bond [a form of insurance filmmakers sometimes get] even when it might be an R rating they make you shoot one take of not saying "fuck" or anything -- it's really for airline [screenings]. I'd never had to use that ever in my life with any movie I'd ever made. Because you don't care about it, you just have to do it, so even if the acting's bad, if the sound's bad, you just get it. ... So we had all of them, and course I never wanted to use any of them, but we just took everything out and it's so ridiculous. Johnny Knoxville goes down on Tracey Ullman [a woman who has become a sex addict after suffering a blow to the head], and he comes up with a shoe.
Why make a neuter version at all?
That was kind of the deal I made with New Line [Cinema]... in my contract it said A Dirty Shame had to be an R rating -- and I was shocked, I thought I'd made an R-rated movie. But [New Line was] really good ... and it all worked out. They said "You have to give me this version as a safe-keeping," which I did. Still, I don't think even the neuter version is showing on too many airlines this week. [laughs] It really goes to show how ridiculous the MPAA is. Like this whole thing they did with Bully. When I saw that this week at a theater in San Francisco, I wanted to yell out "Fuck!" the three times they cut it to get a PG-13 rating, so the children in the audience could have the real impact of the proper version of Bully.
So many rules!
That's what's so ridiculous. You're allowed to say "fuck" once in a PG movie in a nonsexual way. You can never say "I want to fuck" but you can say "Oh, fuck" -- but you can't say "Oh, fuck" twice. So think about Bully. Bullies do say "fuck." They're allowed [in the film] to say "You rotten faggot?" That's okay? But you can't say "fuck?" They should have been able to say all those things, because that's what bullies do. One of the things I hear the MPAA is trying to do, to make any movie where someone smokes a cigarette get an R. Look, I don't smoke, I used to smoke five packs a day. It's the only thing the government ever told you that was true -- smoking is bad for you. However, we can't have someone smoke in a movie? Even in that Spielberg movie -- I always think it's Shaving Ryan's Privates [laughs]
[laughs] You must mean Saving Private Ryan.
Yes. Well that's a war movie, about the second world war, and no one smoked. That's wrong, historically. Everybody smoked in the second world war. ... Pretty soon you won't be able to take drugs in a movie, you won't be able to show disrespect for religion. ... There's too many "ifs." I think they should say "recommended for adults" maybe. I have many kids who come up to me and say "I saw Pink Flamingos at 15, and it changed my life, made me feel good about who I am." So it doesn't always hurt people to see weird movies. In made me inspired when I saw them. Even the ones with nudity.
Just who is the MPAA? A small group of old guys who decide what the whole nation can and cannot see?
No, it's mostly women. And you'd be surprised -- watch that movie This Film Is Not Yet Rated and find out who they really are. They're liberals. ... And the woman who runs it, she's been there too long, you know? Retire! She's got too much power. And she's nice -- that's the horrible thing. I mean, I didn't have trouble with her on other movies. And when you argue with her, she's nice. The worst kind of censor is a liberal censor, and that's what she is. I've dealt my whole life with crazy censors who said ridiculous things and were easy to make fun of and make look ridiculous. But a liberal censor, ... they're the most lethal.
They say "Our job is to say what most parents would think." Well most parents might believe that segregation is proper. Does that mean you would have it? A lot of times most people don't always think correctly, and in a movie, no one's forcing anyone to go in. I've always said about A Dirty Shame there should be an opposite version -- that no one over 18 can see it. It's so juvenile about sex. It's a joke about sex addiction.
Joking about sex addiction remind us of the repeating joke about full nudity in Pecker -- "Pubic hair causes crime."
And they were okay with Pecker! Pecker got an R-rating. Pecker had frontal nudity too, but comic. Before it even came out, though, when we registered the title they said no, and I went out there, and I was my own lawyer, and I made a speech -- and I won. I said "What child has ever angrily carved the word 'pecker' into a school desk? What sexist man has ever said 'Suck my pecker' to a woman?" They were so shocked. I said "If we can't have Pecker, then what about Free Willy? What about Shaft?" I listed all these titles, and they didn't fight me at all.
What are you going to talk about after the screening?
I'm going to answer questions. This is an extended question-and-answer session. Peaches Christ, who I love and who's a brilliant drag performer and I think one of the best producers you have in the whole city, will introduce me. Peaches is also from Baltimore, by the way. Then I'm going to show the movie and come out and answer questions and talk about whatever the audience wants to talk about. I'm going to introduce the movie too, so I'll try and think of some anecdotes I've never told before about A Dirty Shame.
Some of the more outlandish things that you're known for, from the 1970s, they've almost reached a level of "normal" in film today --
Oh, I don't know if I agree with you. Pink Flamingos? It still works. For 20-year-old kids, it totally works. How many other movies have you seen with chicken-fucking and shit-eating? I think [movies] have gotten ruder in a way. ... But I know what you're saying, the stuff that's on television now -- bad taste is what American humor is now. It's not just me. And that's fine. I think Johnny Knoxville is the best as far as those Jackass movies. They're in the same spirit as Pink Flamingos more than any other movie today. But at the same time, his make $150 million. And I'm so happy for him. Mine never crossed over to that giant, wide appeal that his do. And I find that wonderful -- and still amazing, to be honest with you.
You were featured on an episode of The Simpsons. What are your thoughts on the idea that a generation of kids knows you from that rather than as a filmmaker?
I'm very proud of [being on The Simpsons]. Children come up to me and ask me about that. TV Guide picked that as best Simpsons episode ever. And there are people who know me from all different things. Children come up to me and say I was in The Simpsons, and they don't know anything else. I'm on the subway in New York, and I get recognized for being in the Chuckie movie, or the TV show 'Til Death Do Us Part, they don't know I make movies. I try to cover all bases.
Your birthday is April 22?
It is, yes. I think of something Melanie Griffith once told me: "If you ever want to lie about your age, you have to start when you're 8." But no one does at 8 because you want to be older. And as soon as you hit 21 you want to be younger. But I'm happy. [I'm] 66, I'm fine. I'm amazed to say out loud that I'm 66. ... I still jump out of bed every morning thinking tomorrow's going to be better.
Your birthday is also Earth Day.
[laughs] I know -- at least it's a dayafter Hitler's birthday. Earth Day of all things -- when I was young there was no such thing as Earth Day. When did Earth Day start?
1970, I think.
1970, yeah, I was making Multiple Maniacs [a film featuring a sideshow called Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversions] -- I was hardly earthy then!
So you have a place in the city now?
I do, it's lovely. It really is the apartment that Hairspray bought me. ... I lived here when I was young, I've always come here, I've always had great audiences here. You've got good movies, good book shops, good restaurants, good buses -- everything I like. And every time I come here I think, "Oh, whose apartment is this? -- It's yours!" I'm still shocked that I have it, and I've been here, like, three years now.
What's your favorite clothing store in the city?
MAC! It's the best clothing store for me. I just bought the most ludicrous suit there the other day by Martin Margiela. They always have great stuff there.
What about bookstores?
Kayo Books -- I've talked about them forever, that's my favorite book shop in the whole world. I think City Lights is better than it's ever been. And there's that new book shop on Market Street -- Green Arcade. Another bookstore is Bolerium. ... They specialize in American social movements, radical history, African-American studies, and gay studies. ... How could there ever be a store like this? I go there all the time. They save me the best stuff. They have every flier from every demonstration that ever happened, cataloged in cardboard and plastic. You can go in and say, "I was at a riot at the corner of this-and-that in 1968" and they have the flier. ... These kinds of places are so rarefied, they're curated in such a brilliant way. This is a city that has that way more than most cities.
John Waters appears at 7 p.m. at California College of the Arts' Timken Lecture Hall, 1111 Eighth St. (at Wisconsin), S.F. Admission is free. Organizers say seating is limited and they expect lots of people, so show up early.