John Waters Interview: ‘It’s Easy To Be Offensive, It’s Much Harder To Be Surprising’

We discuss Pride, political correctness and talking penises with the iconic director and so-called 'Pope of Trash'.
HuffPost

There are people whose reputations precede them, and then there is legendary filmmaker legend John Waters.

Thanks to his transgressive, controversial and outrageous contributions to the world of cinema, Waters has been hailed as the Baron of Bad Taste, the Sultan of Sleaze, the Prince of Puke and the Pope of Trash by fans of his boundary-pushing work, which is colourfully peppered with scenes of graphic violence, taboo sex practises and various forms of gross-out humour.

In recent years, the esteemed director has branched out beyond film into non-fiction writing, visual art, presenting and even acting – and at 76, he’s still adding even more strings to his bow.

Last month saw the publication of his first novel, Liarmouth – dubbed “A Feel-Bad Romance” – which followers of Waters will be pleased to hear carries all of his hallmarks. Like all great John Waters stories, Liarmouth begins in Baltimore, Maryland, where the writer was born and still spends most of his time. Over the course of the story, there are brushes with tickle fetishists, canine cosmetic surgery, talking genitals and a celebratory public rimming festival.

“And that’s just the beginning!” Waters laughs when we recount some of his novel’s more… well… novel concepts.

The iconic director, artist and author John Waters
The iconic director, artist and author John Waters
GREG GORMAN

Despite his reputation for shock factor and pushing boundaries, Waters claims he didn’t feel any pressure to live up to his past work when he began the writing process.

He explains: “I just try to make people laugh. That’s the pressure for me. What could make me laugh at this stage of my life, right now in my career?

“It’s about the power of words. What can make a human people read something and burst out laughing? And that is the hardest thing to get right. And that’s my goal.”

John on stage at the Chicago Humanities Festival
John on stage at the Chicago Humanities Festival
Cindy Barrymore/Shutterstock

According to Waters, his more outrageous ideas, like those included in Liarmouth, “come naturally” to him during the creative process.

For me, it’s like giving birth,” he says. “It’s like creating people that I can play with in my mind, and then I have to try to imagine how they think. And then they’ve got to meet people, they’ve got to go through things, battles, and I have the delightful job of thinking up more characters.”

“Delightful” is definitely not a word anyone would use to describe the central character of Liarmouth, Marsha Sprinkle.

Despite her disarmingly charming name, Marsha is a deeply-unlikeable scam artist with an unfounded superiority complex and disdainful attitude towards everyone around her. As the story progresses, Marsha betrays everyone close to her and goes on the run, with her family teaming up to chase her down and have their revenge.

These would-be assailants include her daughter Poppy, a trampolinist and leader of a cultish group of bouncing-obsessed drag queens, and mum Adora, a plastic surgeon for pets whose own sole brush with cosmetic procedures is having her belly button flipped from an “innie” to an “outie”.

So far, so John Waters.

John Waters pictured in 2016
John Waters pictured in 2016
Astrid Stawiarz via Getty Images

“I liked being Marsha even though I wouldn’t like her in real life,” Waters says of his protagonist. “I liked reading about her, I liked creating her, and I liked daring the audience to like her.”

“She finds joy!” he continues, when it’s suggested Marsha could be described as a fairly “joyless” character. “Her idea of joy might be unfathomable to others, but she finds great joy in lying and being deceitful and being incredibly imperial for no apparent reason.

“She makes other people miserable. But I think she’s happy.”

Our other “hero” (a term we’re using extremely loosely) is Marsha’s one-time right-hand man Daryl, a character who quite literally thinks with his trousers. As part of an arrangement, Marsha allows Daryl to have sex with her one day a year in exchange for him helping her out with her schemes on the other 364.

“A talking penis isn’t that outrageous. But a heterosexual person who has a penis that turns gay without their approval…That’s a new kind of conflict.”

When she disappears, he embarks on his own personal mission to track her down, during which his penis is punched and later broken, only to become sentient and begin speaking for itself as its own character in the action. Eventually, the chatty penis comes out as gay, despite Daryl’s own exclusive heterosexuality.

Let me stop you there,” Waters interjects when we bring up this section of his novel. “A talking penis isn’t that outrageous. But a heterosexual person who has a penis that turns gay without their approval…Below the equator gay, above the equator straight. That’s a new kind of conflict.”

Of the book’s climax, he adds: “And the rimming festival, don’t be surprised if that happens in two or three years. We have every other type of celebration – we have gay pilots week, we have ‘baby dyke week’ [both real-life events in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the ending of Liarmouth takes place]. So that, I think, could happen for real.”

Waters is keen not to give away the final moments of Liarmouth, but let’s just say that, in keeping with many of his previous films, the ending is rather dark in tone.

Still, Waters prefers to focus on the lighter side of things. “Is it bleak?” he questions. “Maybe for that moment. But that doesn’t mean that she will not rise again.”

Does that mean he considers himself to be an optimist, despite the shades of darkness that run throughout his oeuvre?

“Completely,” he insists. “If there’s a third World War and it’s the end of the world, at least we won’t miss anything.”

John Waters at the Rome Film Festival in June 2020
John Waters at the Rome Film Festival in June 2020
Stefania M. D'Alessandro via Getty Images

Despite a few small differences (money apparently being one of them), Waters says that the difference between writing a novel and film were surprisingly few.

“In a movie you have to show [emotion], where in a novel you can write in great detail about the characters’ feeling, and I think that is the big difference,” he explains. “But going in that room with your notes every morning and sitting down and writing it is exactly the same.”

Still, one big change for Waters this time around was the inclusion of a sensitivity editor on his creative team (short-lived as it might have been).

“Those dreaded words, ‘sensitivity editor’,” he jokes. “I can barely say those words out loud, but we had one.”

“I think I always have been [politically correct], because I make fun of myself.”

Anyone familiar with Waters’ work would be forgiven for jumping to the assumption his sensitivity editors’ notes would be almost as long as his novel itself. Not so, apparently. In fact, Waters says, she “never called back”.

I don’t know, maybe she quit the job!” he laughs. “But I think I had many sensitivity editors – the women that work in my office are all different ages, my editor, my agent, all of the people that work at my publishing company. I think if they really didn’t know their stuff, we wouldn’t have published the book in the first place.”

Although it wasn’t at the insistence of a particular “sensitivity editor”, Waters did make one small change to a part of Liarmouth in light of the climate while he was writing.

“[It was] not funny considering the political climate,” he recalls. “At one point, the couple that get stuck in the tree [after a bus crash], were an Asian couple. But in the news there was all this anti-Asian violence.

“I don’t want people to think that I’m just doing something to be purposefully politically incorrect, if it’s not funny. But I actually think the book is politically correct. I think I always have been [politically correct], because I make fun of myself.”

"I think I've always been politically correct, because I make fun of myself."
"I think I've always been politically correct, because I make fun of myself."
Greg Gorman

And there it is, the idea of “political correctness”.

Anyone who’s spent any length of time online in the past few years is quite possibly sick to the back teeth of reading debates about so-called “cancel culture”, but with someone who’s broken as many taboos and pushed as many envelopes as John Waters, it’s a concept he’s probably more qualified to speak on than most.

So, having just published his first novel – which manages to be shocking and, indeed, hilarious, without resorting to cheap gags at the expense of minorities, –what would he say to modern-day creatives who frequently lament they “can’t say anything” in today’s climate?

“It’s easy to be offensive. It’s really easy. But it’s much harder to be surprising.”

“Well, you can’t say anything, if you do it stupidly,” Waters says. “But the whole point of humour is, ‘what can you say that others maybe couldn’t? How can you get away with it?’.”

That’s the big difference,” he continues. “It’s easy to be offensive. It’s really easy. But it’s much harder to be surprising – and [it] may be appalling to you, but also make you laugh and change how you judge other people on everything, really.”

Of his own work, Waters says: “Because I’m making a joke, you’re laughing with me. I’m not asking you to laugh at somebody. I think you laugh with the characters about their incredible, insane behaviour.”

Our interview with Waters falls around LGBTQ+ Pride month, and as a gay man who has now been in the public eye for more than 50 years, we end the conversation by asking if he has any advice for the next generation of queer youth.

After the briefest of pauses, a deadpan Waters offers: “Just blow as many people as possible.”

And with that, it’s comforting to know that even 50 years after his “exercise in bad taste” Female Trouble hit cinemas, the defiant and unapologetic John Waters will continue to be outrageous at every turn.

Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance by John Waters
Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance by John Waters
Hachette UK

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