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Arts + CultureMusicHalloween Meltdown host John Waters talks trash

Halloween Meltdown host John Waters talks trash

In a wide-ranging Q&A, the People's Pervert dishes on punk, his San Francisco haunts, Patty Hearst, Johnny Depp, and modern-day censorship.

The Pope of Trash, The Duke of Dirt, The Prince of Puke, The Ayatollah of Assholes, The Anal Ambassador, The Sultan of Sleaze, The Baron of Bad Taste, The People’s Pervert. These are not the aliases of a social pariah—they are nicknames that have been endearingly given to famed writer, director, and actor John Waters over his nearly 60-year film career. They reflect the life’s work of a rebellious filmmaker going against the grain, fighting for the underrepresented, and tackling the taboo subjects whose mere mention makes Motion Picture Association censors crawl out of their collective skin.

Sexual fetishism, the beauty of crime, and bodily fluids are just a few of the elements common among Waters’ filmography, which is placed firmly in The Cinema of Transgression. The filmmaker published a manifesto for the genre in the sociopolitically pivotal year of 1985, the last paragraph of which perfectly sums up Waters’ filmmaking intent:

“We violate the command and law that we bore audiences to death in rituals of circumlocution and propose to break all the taboos of our age by sinning as much as possible. There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined. None shall emerge unscathed. Since there is no afterlife, the only hell is the hell of praying, obeying laws, and debasing yourself before authority figures, the only heaven is the heaven of sin, being rebellious, having fun, fucking, learning new things and breaking as many rules as you can. This act of courage is known as transgression. We propose transformation through transgression—to convert, transfigure and transmute into a higher plane of existence in order to approach freedom in a world full of unknowing slaves.”

If one were to translate this filmmaking ideology into musical terms—and, for that matter, a way of living—it would most certainly be punk, a term that Waters believes encompasses much more than mere moshing, pogo dancing, and aggressive vocals. In the auteur’s eyes, punk is an ever-growing community, one in which he takes comfort. It’s not a surprise then, that of the many events Waters hosts such as Orville Peck concerts and Camp John Waters, Halloween Meltdown (once known as Burger Boogaloo until allegations of sexual misconduct sunk the Burger Records label formerly associated with the event) is one of Waters’ fondest. The Oakland punk festival, which takes place regularly in Mosswood Park, states on the flyer that it is overseen by “Your diabolical host, John Waters – ‘The Pope of Trash.’”

“William Burroughs called me that,” Waters recently told 48hills regarding of that particular moniker. “That’s my top one. But I’ve been called many since. The People’s Pervert—I liked that one. And all of them have been said favorably. They were never meant to be mean. The Duke of Dirt—all those ones were said in the press in a humorous way, on my side. So I’m proud of all my titles.”

One of his nicknames might as well be The Guardian of the Bay Area Punk Scene. Marc Ribak and Amy Carver of Total Trash Productions have put on the Mosswood Park festival since 2009, with Waters serving as its unabashedly enthusiastic ambassador since 2015. Noteworthy bands at the annual show have included Iggy Pop (a collaborator in Waters’ filmography) and Devo. This year the lineup includes artists such as Osees, The Mummies, The Gories, Seth Bogart, and more, with a costume contest hosted by the famed music industry locals Shannon Shaw and Brontez Purnell.

With Halloween Meltdown right around the corner—it takes place October 16 and 17—I spoke with Waters about the event, his love of punk, its wide-ranging definition, his favorite spots to frequent in San Francisco, the Manson Family, Patty Hearst, Johnny Depp, his artwork, fighting the Motion Picture Association, and more.

48HILLS You’ve always had an immense amount of creative control over music in your films, even casting a lot of musicians.

JOHN WATERS I had a lot of control, but I really had to learn about it, because in my early movies the first person, people, directors, that ever used music as a narrator almost was Kenneth Anger, certainly, and Martin Scorsese too. And I used music to tell the story. Whenever you have a narrator in a movie, you pretty much know that the test screening didn’t work and you have to make things clearer and you don’t have the footage. But with music, you can sneak it in, and you can use music to tell a story and set the tone. I’ve always liked every kind of music. There’s no kind of music I don’t like. But I didn’t like punk music from when The Beatles came onto punk, and that’s a long period. And I’m still kind of ignorant on that one because when punk came back, it made me listen to contemporary music again. But the problem I learned in my early movies was that I didn’t pay for the musical rights. And to be honest, when I made Eat Your Makeup and those early movies, I didn’t even really know you had to. I didn’t even know anything about it. I found out that painfully later when I did pay for the later ones. And then I learned that lesson and paid for them all. But it’s still incredibly expensive to put any kind of music into films. So I did learn from that. But as far as musicians, I’m trying to think. The first musician I ever cast was probably Stiv Bator—he was Stiv Bators then, not Bator—in Polyester. And he was a punk rocker. Later, I certainly did Iggy (Pop.) I did Debbie Harry. I did Pia Zadora, Ric Ocasek. I’m trying to think what other singers I’ve had in my movies. Ruth Brown.

48HILLS Right. Sonny Bono.

JOHN WATERS Yeah. Chris Isaak. They know how to act. Most singers can act because they’ve been playing their persona for a long, long time, and they understand what I’m trying to get from them. So I’ve had good experience with working with musicians.

48HILLS They’re performers, so it’s an easier transition.

JOHN WATERS Well, it’s not as easy. Models don’t usually work very well and I’ve never cast a mime, but I think maybe that would be problematic.

48HILLS Good point. Is it an easy transition, then, for you, from being a director to becoming a host at these types of events?

JOHN WATERS Yeah. Even before I did what used to be called Burger Boogaloo, I hosted the Spirit Awards many years. I’ve done a stand-up show in colleges for years. This year, I hosted the Orville Peck Show at Red Rock. I’ve hosted the Adult Video Gay Porno Awards even. I’ve hosted many, many things. And the only big problem with that is every time somebody dies, before I can cry, I get the call that I have to be the speaker because they always know I can do it and I can write something. So hosting the punk rock festival seemed like a natural to me. I only was hired for the first year one time, and then Marc and Amy, who I love very much, who run it—I guess I bonded with them and they liked how it went, so I’ve been doing it every year since. It’s great for me. That is my community. The punk rock world I always felt safe in, weirdly enough, because everybody said they hated everybody except each other, and that worked fine with me. And they do have a sense of humor. And it’s the kind of women I like who are in it—kick your ass when you give them any shit. And there’s a lot of down-low gay in the punk world too, which I find kind of hilarious and great.

48HILLS They’ve used one of your nicknames, The Pope of Trash, on the advertisement for the Halloween Meltdown.

JOHN WATERS William Burroughs called me that. That’s my top one. But I’ve been called many since. The People’s Pervert—I liked that one. And all of them have been said favorably. They were never meant to be mean. The Duke of Dirt—all those ones were all said in the press in a humorous way on my side. So I’m proud of all my titles.

48HILLS As you should be. I love them.

JOHN WATERS And William Burroughs, I mean, what more of a punk is there than him? And I opened for him once. And William, at the end, was very, very smart. He reinvented himself in the punk world and toured in the punk world and played punk clubs and stuff and read poetry.

48HILLS That’s quite an honor.

JOHN WATERS If he was alive, we’d have him at Burger Boogaloo.

48HILLS That would be exciting. Osees, The Mummies, The Gories, Seth Bogart—are you fans of these bands?

JOHN WATERS Oh, I’ve gotten to know a lot, certainly The Mummies. They’ve been there many, many years. Seth Bogart is my friend. Yes. We’ve done photoshoots together. And some of them, I meet each year. Amyl & The Sniffers, I didn’t know them. I didn’t know Shannon in the beginning. I didn’t know any of them in the beginning. But it’s such a community there that I have stayed friends with a lot of them, and so it’s a great crossover in a way. And it’s like a crazy high school reunion every year when I go to see everybody again. And then there’s new people every year too.

48HILLS What are some of your favorite hangouts or establishments or neighborhoods in San Francisco when you come here?

JOHN WATERS Well, it’s been a while since I went to bars before the pandemic. I mean, when I was young there in my wild years, I remember the Deaf Club was the first punk place I ever went to in my life. I hung out in the original Stud, which was the first gay radical hippie bar, not the one that just closed, the second one, but this was when it was on Folsom Street in the original location. Those were the two bars. And later I went to Delirium up in the Mission. I used to always go there. So those were the bars. Mostly, when I was younger in my wild years there, we didn’t go to bars because we didn’t drink. We took drugs, really. But we went to the Deaf Club. That’s the first punk club I really remember. And Mahubay Gardens. But the Deaf Club is the one that I first remember. And it really was a punk rock club and a place for deaf people because they could hear the beat. So it would be punks dancing with real deaf people that could really still hear the beat. That was probably all they could hear in loud punk rock. So it was a really great crossover.

48HILLS That’s incredible. How has it changed from back in the day to today?

JOHN WATERS Everywhere’s changed. I still have an apartment in San Francisco, so I still think of it as home. Actually, when I was there recently, it was like it used to be. There were people shooting up on my corner. There were people taking a shit on the street. It was kind of going back to what it was in the grungiest, craziest years of the Tenderloin when there was a bar called The Trap that I used to go to because I loved the name. It was the scariest bar I ever went to in my life, but it’s not there anymore. It closed even maybe the first two years I got there. But those kind of places, they might be back. It looks like they’re on the way.

48HILLS No kidding. I spoke with Terence Smith, who is the man behind the persona Joan Jett Blakk, and he was saying the same thing. It’s sort of a combination of the old and new.

JOHN WATERS Yeah. At the festival this year—we had a year off, obviously, and a lot of stuff happened, and we’re beyond all that—but it’s exciting to see people coming back together. When I did that Orville Peck concert, it was the first time I walked on stage in a year. I just came from the John Waters Camp, which is in the fourth annual year, which is absolutely amazing. It’s in Kent, Connecticut. People live as my characters for four days, and I’m there. And this year, the counselors were [stars of Waters’ 1994 film Serial Mom] Patricia Hearst and Kathleen Turner. So it was a really special year for people that braved the second outbreak of the pandemic and came. So I’m their own booster shot.

48HILLS That sounds like a blast. Speaking of Patricia Hearst, how did you form a relationship with her, and how did you convince her to have an acting career? [Editor’s note: Daughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Patricia or “Patty,” hit the mainstream popular consciousness when she was allegedly kidnapped in 1974 by radical leftist group Symbionese Liberation Army. Though she later said the group brainwashed her, Hearst spent 21 months in jail for her participation in an SLA armed robbery.]

JOHN WATERS Well, I asked about her case like many people were, and she said, “Oh, great. People like you is why I went to prison.” We became friends because I met her at the Cannes Film Festival when she was there for the Paul Schrader movie called Patty, which is when he bought her book, telling it from her side, which is the correct side and the true side. And that’s why she’s alive today, because she did what she had to do. And we just became friends. And running off with us to make some movies was a good way to say “fuck you” to being known as a victim. Who wants to be known as that? She was home doing her homework. She didn’t do anything wrong. So basically, though, she said, “I’ve never signed an autograph or done anything like that.” She came with us. Hey, she was doing something. She made fun of her whole image by doing it because people were horrified that she did it. And I think it was just saying “fuck you” to that and starting another identity, which she did. That happened 40 years ago, and people still ask her. So it was the final way to take back her name. And if you make fun of something that people use against you, then you can own it again. Traci Lords did that with me. Johnny Depp did that with me.

48HILLS Speaking of Johnny Depp, Cry-Baby has a special place in my heart.

JOHN WATERS That’s going to come out—a new 4K edition from Kino Lorber. They’re just starting to film all the extras. So I’m excited.

48HILLS Me too. I’m definitely going to get that. What was it like working with Johnny? I think it was a breakout role along with Edward Scissorhands.

JOHN WATERS Yeah. Great. We got on with him great. And all I can say is I did drugs and got drunk with him and I never saw him be disrespectful to women ever. [Last year, a UK court found that 14 allegations of assault made against Depp by ex-wife Amber Heard were “substantially true.” A US judge refused to dismiss Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Heard in August.] That’s all I can say.

48HILLS Yeah. I’ve heard the same thing from several people close to him. Would you work with him again on a future film?

JOHN WATERS Sure! Oh god, he’s too big for me, though.

48HILLS I don’t think so. You’re pretty big. “Crime is beauty.” It’s a theme not only in Female Trouble, but also throughout many of your films. And very few people have had such a close relationship with the incarcerated members of the Manson Family, including Tex Watson.

JOHN WATERS I haven’t seen him in many, many, many years. And when I was a journalist, I have written about Leslie Van Houten, but I don’t think she’s a punk. I don’t think she thinks it’s funny. But I think it’s wrong, and I think that she has served her sentence. Seven years to life was her final sentence she got, not life without parole. So to me, she’s my friend, and I root for her. But that’s something I don’t talk about because I even apologized for doing that in my last book because I did with it a flippant attitude and everything. Since I teach in prison, if you ever go to jail, I’ll visit you. My friend Amy Locane’s in jail now, the star of Cry-Baby, from being in a terrible DUI accident where someone was killed. And she went to jail for three to four years, served her time, and then they took her back and gave her five more years. I don’t know how that’s possible. I think that’s wrong too. I speak out against that.

48HILLS What did you think of Tarantino’s interpretation of the Manson family?

JOHN WATERS I loved the movie. I wish it had happened—that that ending had happened. Obviously, that night would have never happened.

48HILLS Your many nicknames are also a testament to your ongoing battle with the oppressive Hays Code, which has morphed into the MPA [Motion Picture Association.] One of its goals was to eliminate sex as well as the presence of the queer community on film.

JOHN WATERS And to me, in all my films, the difference is in censorship. And I talk a lot about this in my Christmas show, so I’m not going to go into this all and give away all my new material, but because this is different, what I’m talking about, mostly, is that the censors I’ve fought my entire life were stupid, uneducated people. Today, the censors that I fear are young, rich, liberals that don’t believe in free speech, which is what I fought for in the Bay Area when I was out there.

48HILLS Wow. So it used to be conservative government heads, and now it’s young liberals.

JOHN WATERS Now it’s the righteous politically correct.

48HILLS Oh, that is fascinating.

JOHN WATERS And I believe I am politically correct, but I think I can still laugh about things. And yes, racism isn’t funny, and transphobia isn’t funny. But what I’m talking about is we used to use humor as a weapon, and it brought joy to people, not judgment.

48HILLS Right. Do you think that an NC-17 rating can be a good thing for what you’re trying to accomplish?

JOHN WATERS No, it’s not. I promise you. It is the worst thing that can happen to your film. It means it will not play most places. It means people think it’s porno. It doesn’t work. It is a brand like Unsafe at Any Speed. What was that car that Ralph Nader took back? It’s like that. It should be withdrawn and recalled and redone because they always say, “Well, it’s really all 17. People can go. It’s not that—” then they should have a campaign to make people believe that because it doesn’t mean anything anymore except dirty. And I am dirty but with humor. So I think that can be fine. Yes. I’ve written a lot about that in my books. But yes, the NC-17 today is probably even worse because people aren’t going to theaters at all, much less to see that. Who wants to go to a movie theater in a virus where people might jerk off?

48HILLS I figured it could have a second life with a cult following.

JOHN WATERS Cult following is the worst term you can ever say in Los Angeles. It means eight smart people liked it and it lost all its money.

48HILLS That’s a good way to look at it. Coming from an outsider, that makes a lot of sense. And speaking of dirty subject matter, I think sexual fetishism is still a societal taboo.

JOHN WATERS I’m going to talk about sex even this year at Mosswood. Actually, I’m writing everything I’m going to say this week, so I’m in the middle of writing it all.

48HILLS Oh, that’s great.

JOHN WATERS So yeah, I talk about punk sex.

48HILLS Awesome. And it’s not often explored in film.

JOHN WATERS Well, being radical today is saying you still like sex.

48HILLS Right. And from a young age, I love that you read Marquis de Sade in Catholic school. In a way, that was the impetus of this exploration of sex in film for you.

JOHN WATERS Yeah. I was educated, but just in a different way. I was self-educated in a different way than I would have ever been encouraged to be.

48HILLS So why have you wanted to deconstruct this subject matter?

JOHN WATERS Somebody said, “Everybody’s sex life in the world is funny but your own.” So I agree with that. And sex, sometimes I think, “Why do we have to do this? Who thought this up? Why?” It’s like you don’t have a choice, really. I’m against instinct. I’m mad I have to have a bowel movement every day. I think it’s disgusting. And sex is surreal when you think about, “Why do I do this? Why?” But I’m fascinated by it because we didn’t think it up. And anything I don’t get to think up troubles me.

48 Hills Sex really is an odd thing, when you think about it mechanically. And I love your art. In my opinion, it’s a combination of found objects from the Dada era, abstract expressionism, and modernism by way of Andy Warhol.

JOHN WATERS Well, thank you. That’s a very nice description of it.

48HILLS And I love art history. Have you studied artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray?

JOHN WATERS No. I was educated, all of it, on my own. I was obsessed by it, and I know a lot about it. I’m on the board of the Baltimore Museum now, and I used to be on the Accessions Committee. But no, I didn’t. Any kind of art I would have liked in school, they would have discouraged that too. And, in the way, the punk rock world is an art world. They invented a fashion that has never changed or gone out of style, really, and is instantly recognizable and identifies a community almost as much as race.

48HILLS Did you ever find that there was a post-punk era in the ’90s where they embraced the image but not so much the values of it?

JOHN WATERS Oh, sure. I mean, the Met had a punk exhibition. How unpunk is that, really? But they did respect the fashions of it and everything. So I’m not sure. You can still be a 60-year-old punk. You’re just too heavy usually to stage dive. But still, I think it is a movement. You don’t have to call yourself a punk to be one today. The new angry kids with a sense of humor that don’t fit in their own minority always end up as some kind of punk. And punk before that just meant you got fucked in the ass in prison or you were a delinquent. And both of them are okay in the long run too.

48HILLS Sure. It’s a larger encompassing term than many people think.

JOHN WATERS Now it just means, to me, angry and funny.

48HILLS Divine was kind of punk-adjacent.

JOHN WATERS Divine wasn’t really punk. Look, in Female Trouble, that mohawk shot of Divine was uncredited and on the t-shirts of SEX, the shop Vivienne Westwood had with the Sex Pistols.

48HILLS That’s a great connection. How did Divine influence both you and the Dreamlanders?

JOHN WATERS Well, Divine was our star. And Divine wasn’t trans. Divine didn’t want to be a woman. I always said he wanted to be Godzilla. He was our star and a political weapon.

48HILLS Wow. That’s excellent way to look at it and a great way to honor him. Speaking of politics, I love your library, which often explores the darker side of sociopolitical historical events. In particular, I’m intrigued by the artwork that you’ve collected in it. Do you still have the John Wayne Gacy painting?

JOHN WATERS No. That one, I don’t have hanging because he was a rotten closet queen that was uptight that he was gay, and that’s why he killed people. I don’t like him, and his art’s really terrible. But it is extreme outsider art that I do have, and Mike Kelley used one of his paintings in another painting to emphasize the craziness of some art. But I am not a fan of John Wayne Gacy.

48HILLS What are some of the other artworks that you have hanging in your library?

JOHN WATERS Oh my god, I have so many in my whole house. I just gave the whole collection to the Baltimore Museum. The one I have right across from my bed is a Mike Kelley piece, and it says, “Thay You Love Thatan.” In other words, “Say You Love Satan,” if you had a lisp, which it would be hard to be too threatening of a satanic monster if you had a lisp. And that’s nothing against people that have lisps. It’s just something I never thought about before, and that’s what art can be. Can you be an effective Satanist if you have a lisp? That’s a new cause.

HALLOWEEN MELTDOWN October 16 and 17, $39-139. Mosswood Park, Oakland. More info and tickets here.

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