Out film icon subverts the holidays

Courtesy of John Waters

Out cult filmmaking icon, author and all-around guru John Waters is coming to town once again for what has become an annual filthy Christmas tradition. The man who brought the world cinematic classics like “Pink Flamingos,” “Hairspray” and “Serial Mom,” as well as penning books like “Carsick,” “Make Trouble,” and the most recent, “Mr. Know It All,” is coming to town for “A John Waters Christmas: Filthier & Merrier.” In the holiday special, Waters regales the naughty and the nice with stories and sage wisdom about the yuletide season.  

PGN talked to the legendary artist about his new book, the show and his journey from midnight movies to the bright lights of stages and screens around the world.

In your book, “Mr. Know It All,” you seem surprised to have been embraced by the mainstream. Was that not the way you envisioned it?

Maybe it was. I always wanted to be commercial. People look back and say things like “You made such un-commercial movies like ‘Pink Flamingos.’ Are you kidding?” It played in one theater for 10 years at midnight at least one day a week. That sounds pretty commercial to me for a movie that cost $10,000. So I was always commercial, but I tried to think up new genres which were really exploitation films for art theater, which mine were. There weren’t any then. Did I ever think that I was going to win awards? No. But I didn’t not think it either. I wasn’t naïve. Did I change? No. The Christmas show is more irreverent than it has ever been. I write a new one every year. So I’ve been having to think up Christmas jokes for 15 years.

Is it a challenge to come up with something new every year?

It is. I’m 90 percent finished writing it. The problem — then I have to learn it. That’s the hard part…. My Christmas show in a way touches on current events. It touches on other things. In the guise of talking about Christmas, I can use it in a context of may other things: fashion, politics, crime. And all that because what you want and get for Christmas is political in a weird way.

Do you transform Christmas or does Christmas transform you?

Neither. I’ve always loved Christmas. I wrote a chapter in my book “Crackpot” called “Why I love Christmas.” It started with that. I do love it even though sometimes for many it’s for all the wrong reasons. I don’t like Christmas specials much on television, and I don’t like many Christmas movies either. I like “Bad Santa” and “Christmas Evil” and maybe “Black Christmas” because people went crazy that there was a horror movie about Christmas. I still take the traditional Christmas and twist it in a way that my audience, some of them who love Christmas and some of them who hate it, appreciate. This year is an angry Christmas because of politics. People are afraid to go home because they don’t know what the politics are of some of their relatives, so I thought a lot about how to handle that.

Do you think your success on Broadway attracted an audience to your other, lesser-known, more irreverent and eccentric works?

I think that certainly happens some, when people would say, oh, let’s rent another John Waters movie and they get “Female Trouble,” but they don’t always dislike that fact. I think they know that even “Hairspray” was irreverent. “Hairspray” now plays in high schools all over the world. That’s my Trojan horse. It snuck in. The only devious movie ever made was “Hairspray” because people didn’t realize that it was spouting the same politics as all my other movies. So I didn’t purposely make a commercial movie. It happened to become one and turned into a lot of other things and continues to turn into things. It never ends, which I am happy about. I didn’t plan it that way. I thought they should all be hits. I was amazed when they weren’t and most of them weren’t. I failed upwards.

And somehow along the way, you became somewhat of a life coach to your fans.

I think when I wrote the book, “Role Models,” it was about all the people that, when I was young, gave me an example that I could follow — that I believed something that they did was important or courageous. Those are the people that gave me the freedom to want to be myself. After 50 years of doing this, obviously some good things happened, and I’m still doing it, so I managed to have a career where I never had to get a real job even though the hours independently are longer than a real job. I think I have some advice that I can pass on.

One of the chapters in your most recent book that stood out was the one about “Cry Baby” being made where Johnny Depp and Traci Lords, two people on opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum, saw the film as a way to alter the course of their careers. Did it surprise you that those two saw your film as an artistic lifeboat?

I knew they wanted to do it. I’d add Patricia Hearst to that also. All three did the same thing. Johnny Depp was a teen idol, and he hated it. He was like Justin Bieber at the time. He wanted to kill it. I knew how to kill it. Then he made “Edward Scissorhands.” Tim Burton saw the dailies from “Cry Baby” and cast him in that. Traci Lords had just escaped the pornography world. The mob was trying to get her. It was a nightmare. She made fun of being a bad girl by playing one.  Patricia Hearst was so sick of being a famous victim that she made a movie just as a f–k you to the whole thing. She didn’t ask to be famous. She was kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car. I think she was sick of talking about it. But she couldn’t get rid of her notoriety. She was better. She was out. She served her time. She did all the things she shouldn’t have had to do in the first place. So wasn’t it the ultimate f–k you to have fun in a funny way by being in a movie. So I knew that about all of them. I wasn’t surprised they wanted to do that. I used that in the pitch with them.        

Have you ever said no to the knocking on your door from mainstream?

Only in the fact that I don’t read scripts that other people have written to direct. My agents have always wanted me to do that. I probably could have made big salaries doing that at some points in my career, but I don’t want somebody else’s script. To me, that’s a used idea. To me, the whole point is thinking it out. That’s the most fun. I have done things that thought would surprise people that were very mainstream like being in “The Simpsons.” I’m in a new Nike ad. Who would have ever thought I’d be a Nike spokesman? So, yes, I do those mainstream things, but only because they surprise people.  That anyone would ask me, I was surprised. That I would do it shouldn’t surprise anybody.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the middle of writing a novel. So I’ll be right back working on that. Every morning I have to think up something. That’s my job. And every afternoon I sell it. That’s my other job. 

John Waters performs “A John Waters Christmas: Filthier & Merrier” 8:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. For more information or tickets, call 215-232-2100.

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