-by Ken Plume
Surely, you know who John Waters is.
If you don’t, let me mention just a few of the film he’s written and directed - Pink Flamingos, Cry Baby, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray.
As a certifiable pop culture icon, he’s guested on everything from The Simpsons to My Name Is Early.
He’s also the host of TruTV’s Till Death Do Us Part - where he acts as the macabre “Groom Reaper”, who presents true life tales of marital betrayal and murder. Think of him as the true crime Crypt Keeper, with similar sarcastic asides and morbidly acerbic commentary.
The first season of Till Death is now hitting DVD, and we got a chance to chat with John. In fact, here it is…
KP: Well, let me say, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you…
WATERS: Thank you.
KP: I guess the first question - which I’m sure you’ve been asked a few dozen times already - is what was it about doing Till Death that appealed to you?
WATERS: The biggest appeal was that I didn’t have to think it up. I didn’t have to direct it. I didn’t have to write it. I had to show up and look like I was half dead. (laughing)
KP: Would you say that that was the challenge?
WATERS: No, it wasn’t a challenge! Just I was always glad I never got Botox, because I wouldn’t have been cast.
KP: Do you regret that there was no challenge?
WATERS: (laughing) No, it’s fine. I always wanted to look like the Wicked Witch of the West, so it’s coming through. I actually thought it was funny. I thought the part was funny. It reminded me when I was young and I used to watch Boris Karloff on this show called Thriller. It reminded me of that. I think the idea of Court TV - which is no longer but Court TV - and John Waters together is a good marriage. I even tried to get them to help us when we made Serial Mom, but they had just started, so they thought that might be a little early to get hooked up with me. It took a while.
KP: They should have been forward thinking…
WATERS: Yeah. I always wanted to be a commentator on Court TV, since my real life was Court TV before, because I used to go to trials all the time. So I was Court TV, only just in my personal life.
KP: So, really, Court TV was the answer to a dream for you.
WATERS: Oh, it was - but then they even stopped really doing courtroom stuff because there aren’t enough famous trials that people will watch. Once OJ happened, there was never one that was that big. Even when they had the Phil Specter one, I don’t think a lot of people watched it, and I think that was when they changed to truTV - which is fine with me. I love truTV, too, but it’s… the days of watching courtrooms, I think, has peaked.
KP: Do you think that the sensational aspect of it is lost on audiences today?
WATERS: No, I just think there’s so much more media. And before, it was exciting when you… there was only 10 seats open to a trial. So Court TV made it much more ordinary to watch. To see a famous trial - if you could get in, as a person - was almost impossible, and when you did, you… it was like this amazing theater production, in a way. But Court TV made everybody a court hag. It made everybody want to watch courtrooms. So then once that happened, I mean, you can go down to any courthouse now and you’ll see people every day that hang around and just watch trials. They’re groupies. You’ll see them all the time. They just watch tickets, anything… You know, the lowest level court is always… it just was reality TV before there was such a thing. And on truTV, now, isn’t there a show about people getting traffic tickets?
KP: Yeah, I think there is some kind of traffic court…
WATERS: I love that! It’s like, yeah…
KP: Now you’re watching small claims…
WATERS: Yeah, exactly. Well, small claims court is kind of interesting if you go to see it. It’s always a battle. There are always two sides. There’s always a gray area, which is what all good drama is.
KP: Well, that essentially was what People’s Court was…
WATERS: Yeah, yeah….
KP: What was the first trial you ever saw, and what was the impetus to go down to the courthouse and see it?
WATERS: First trial I ever saw was probably the Manson trial, because it was obviously - at that point - an incredibly famous trial that was very much influencing the work I was doing at the time. The frightening hippies and that whole thing. That’s a very different thing, when I look back on it now, but it was one of the first trials that was a media sensation. And certainly Serial Mom, a movie I made, was about that. It sort of came true, Serial Mom. Serial Mom was at least not very far before the OJ trial did happen, and then it came true.
KP: Was it your years of viewing trials that made you think those events could conceivably could come to pass?
WATERS: Serial Mom, and even Female Trouble, came from that, because that was a fictitious biography of somebody that wanted to get the electric chair because - to them - it was like receiving the Oscar if you were a criminal. So I would say Female Trouble and Serial Mom are both my movies that came from my interest in true crime and attending trials. I don’t go to trials anymore. I can’t because they recognize me, and it’s a whole different ball game now.
KP: What was the last one you attended?
WATERS: Oh, it’s been a long time. The last famous one?
KP: No, just the last one in general…
WATERS: I think a friend of mine. That was different. (laughing)
KP: What was the last one that you weren’t personally connected to?
WATERS: That I wasn’t personally connected… I don’t know, let me think. It’s been quite a while, because now they recognize me. And the press thinks I’m there making a movie about it, which I’m not, and I always feel bad for the defendants that somehow they all get more time if I like them. If the jury hates my movies and sees me there… and then jury duty is, like, ludicrous because they know that I go to trials, and they never pick me. I’ve never been picked to be on a jury. Never been picked.
KP: What’s the closest you’ve come?
WATERS: Well, I don’t know, because they just don’t pick me…
KP: Well, did you ever get past at least one of the lawyers?
WATERS: Yeah, and then I tell them I taught in prison, and as soon as I say that…
KP: So, at this point, you’re pretty well known to the legal community…
WATERS: I am known in the legal community, yes. And I have helped people get out of jail, yes.
KP: Is there any trial that you regretted going to?
WATERS: No, but I wish I’d gone to Johnny Walker Lindh’s. The first lie the government told us about Iraq. He got 20 years. He didn’t do anything. He learned how to speak a foreign language and met a leader. I think his parents should reward him. Talk about well traveled!
KP: That’s the problem with America today; we’re not rewarding initiative…
WATERS: Yeah! I mean, it’s not easy to get through the desert and meet Bin Laden. This was before anybody knew who Bin Laden was. All he did was meet him once. I went to the Reagan White House once too.
KP: We’re still going to get you for that…
WATERS: I know! I went because Lee Atwater was my fan, and I went when no one was there but me, and he gave me the personal tour. It was like being over to someone’s house when they were babysitting. Which was so odd because I certainly didn’t believe in his pol… well, he didn’t have politics. He just worked for either side as dirty tricks. And he was a huge movie fan. So when I was there, all we talked about was exploitation films - and he knew everything about every one of them.
KP: What was his favorite?
WATERS: God, I don’t remember. Probably Herschell Gordon Lewis or The Worm Eaters. We talked about all that kind of stuff and he didn’t ever not know what I was talking about. He also loved rhythm & blues music, too. So it was odd - we never talked about politics. The only president that’s ever invited me… I have, like, cufflinks from the White House. So, oddly enough, the only administration that ever somehow I got in the White House was Reagan, which was probably fairly ludicrous.
KP: Did you get your jar of Jelly Bellies when you went?
WATERS: No, I didn’t get them, I just got the cufflinks. But I got to see the button next to the toilet where Nixon - where you could push it if you were having a heart attack or something.
KP: His panic button?
WATERS: There is one.
KP: Well, it’s good to know that there’s a quick response no matter where you are in the White House.
WATERS: Yeah. Next to the toilet there’s one.
KP: So, what would you say has been the oddest fan experience you’ve ever had?
WATERS: Well, I tell about this filthy woman that you’re never going to be able… well, the girl that came up to me and said would I sign anything, and took her Tampax right out and splatted it on the counter.
KP: Did you sign it?
WATERS: Yeah, I did. She bought the book. But people mostly give me great presents. They’re very nice.
KP: What’s been the present that’s impressed you the most?
WATERS: The best was one I talk about in my college lecture, about how Alvin the Chipmunk turns me on erotically, and someone that worked for Disney in the old days, that did the show, did a cell of Alvin jerking off and sent it to me.
KP: So, Simon and Theodore do nothing for you…
WATERS: No they’re in the back filming him. In the cell drawing. Talk about a good fan present.
KP: Where is that hanging proudly right now?
WATERS: In my guest bedroom in Baltimore.
KP: Is this the same guest bedroom that has the Gacy painting?
WATERS: Actually, now that I think about it, it’s in the bathroom. It’s right around the corner, yeah.
KP: So, really, the guest experience at the Waters house is one to remember…
WATERS: I don’t encourage guests to stay too long.
KP: What’s the longest you’ve ever had a guest stay in those environs?
WATERS: Oh, a week? They don’t stay long. I’m not looking for a roommate.
KP: So you have a set expiration date where they pretty much feel it’s time to move on…
WATERS: Yeah. My mother always told me when I was young, “After three days, guests and fish smell.”
KP: I noticed that, starting in the late 90s, it seemed like there was a massive increase in you stepping in front of the camera. Is there anything that happened in that period specifically, or it was just a momentum that built up?
WATERS: No, it’s just kinda… I don’t know. I became a cartoon character. I don’t know, maybe from The Simpsons. I don’t know how that happened. I always said yes as long as it was something that I liked doing. It was either a director I really liked - or I wanted to be in the Chucky movie, and Woody Allen asked me to be in his movie. Every once in a while, I know just my mustache gets me the part.
KP: Did you feel that - moving beyond just the movies having an influence - that you yourself would become a part of pop culture?
WATERS: Well, I’d be happy to. I guess that’s what I always wanted to be when I was a kid. I think, yeah… subtle. It has been astonishing, certainly, what has happened, but I was always kind of ambitious. I had a career as a puppeteer when I was 12 years old at children’s birthday parties. I sent out ads in the mail. I did like two or three shows a week sometimes, and I think - at the peak - I got $25 a show, which was really a lot in 1954. So I think anything’s possible. But I also have to always reinvent myself and try different things and not… if I was still making underground movies, if I was still trying to top Pink Flamingos I wouldn’t be here.
KP: Is there anything that you wouldn’t do at this point?
WATERS: Sure, lots of stuff. I wouldn’t try to repeat myself. I would try to surprise the next group of 20-year-olds, because that’s what it’s about, is getting the next generation of young people, and so far I’ve been able to do that.
KP: How would you describe the direction you’re moving in with Fruitcake?
WATERS: Well, it’s a parody of a children’s movie. I mean, last time I parodied a sexploitation movie, so I can’t think of the other opposite end - but think of the Little Rascals on LSD. It’s not about LSD, but you know what I mean. The characters are very John Waters-esque characters, but they’re all children.
KP: Sort of Willy Wonka-esque?
WATERS: Oh, I love Willy Wonka, but I wouldn’t put it quite that way. It takes place in Baltimore. They’re not that rich. (laughing)
KP: Is this a period piece or modern?
WATERS: No, it’s modern.
KP: And still looking at shooting in the fall?
WATERS: I hope so. Yes, November.
KP: Any plans for another book?
WATERS: I’m in the middle of writing it. It’s called Role Models. It’s a self-portrait told through people that have inspired me. Everybody from Tennessee Williams to Bobby ‘Boris’ Picket.
KP: Is that this year…
WATERS: Well, it depends if I make the movie. It’s supposed to be end of ‘09, but it could be the next year because of my contract, depending on if I make the movie or not. I can’t write a book and make a movie at the same time. That’s one thing I can’t do.
KP: Have you tried?
KP: You never know until you try.
WATERS: Yeah, but I know the hours. (laughing) I mean, I work every morning, now, doing it. I couldn’t get up and go on a set and do it.
KP: So, I guess the final question would be - is there any project or thing you’ve had in mind that you have always wanted to get to but just keeps getting pushed back?
WATERS: No. I think every script I ever did actually ended up getting made except the sequel to Pink Flamingos, and that came out as a book. I try not to be frustrated. All show business is frustration. Impatience is my biggest fault. But you have to just keep trying. So if I don’t make a movie, I write a book…If I don’t make a movie, I do this. And so you always have to have alternate plans in show business, because it never seems to work right when you want it.
KP: Is there one thing that you’ve always wanted to be asked to do, but had no control over?
WATERS: Oh, I don’t know if I ever wanted… I always wanted to be in Final Destination 2, or the new Final Destination movie, and I asked so many times that they finally did ask me to be in it, but then I couldn’t because of the scheduling. That was frustrating.
KP: But now, in some ways, you’ve got that with Till Death…
WATERS: Yeah, we do. No, I’m a very satisfied man. I’ve had a great career. I’ve been understood right from the beginning. I don’t have… I always want to keep working. Tomorrow is always more interesting than yesterday to me. I have great memories, but I don’t think those were better days. I think, “Hopefully tomorrow will be the best day.” So I’m an insane optimist that believes in the basic goodness of people, and not much else.
KP: And you’ve got a legacy, and you’re a pop culture icon… So, you can’t get much better than that.
WATERS: Well, thank you.
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