Entertainment & Arts

John Waters: 'I wanted to be the filthiest person alive'

John Waters
Image caption William Burroughs called John Waters "the pope of trash"

When John Waters was a little boy in Baltimore growing up amidst the strict moral values of 1950s America, he fantasised about growing up to run a porn film theatre: "I knew what I wanted to be - the filthiest person alive."

But the cult director and writer, who set out to shock with subversive, darkly comic films such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Pecker, says he is now struck by the scale of "obscene" content on screen - particularly the treatment of women in films and porn.

He noted with interest a recent interview with Tom Hanks, who said he was "amazed" by how "filthy" mainstream comedy had become.

The Guardian asked Hanks whether it would be impossible to remake his 1988 film Big - about a 12-year-old boy who wishes himself into an adult body - because the protagonist has sex with an older woman.

Actually, the star said, an update would be far "raunchier".

Waters sympathises: "Hollywood now does do bad taste," he tells BBC Radio 3 ahead of his appearance at Liverpool's Homotopia festival, "and mostly they do it badly".

"I liked The Hangover. I liked Bridesmaids. It's something they do great. But what do you think of as American humour now? Mostly you think of a big, Hollywood gross-out movie. And they aren't funny, they're just gross.

"It's easy to do that. It's simple to do that. But to have wit and to have you [the viewer] change how you think about something - which I always try to do... I'm not saying I was successful but Pink Flamingos, it still plays. It's still successful. It didn't get politically correct."

Image caption Pink Flamingos, with its depictions of castration and characters eating dog excrement, was described by one critic as an "all-out assault on good taste"

The low-budget director - whose soubriquets include 'pope of trash" and "prince of puke" - also finds modern internet porn depressing and unsettling.

That may come as a surprise. After all, Waters chose a gay "outsider" pornographer as one of the Role Models in his 2010 book of the same name.

But he acknowledges there is a huge gulf between the innocent 10-year-old boy who knew the titles of dirty books and sneaked them from under the counter at the library, and the unfiltered internet porn that children can stumble across today.

"I agree that some porn is obscene today," he says. "Someone said 'it's not making love, it's making hate'. Especially heterosexual porn.

"I think in the gay porn you can tell they're both in on it. In some of the hetero porn [with] the [treatment of] women you cannot tell. But that is the limits of free speech we have to put up with."

'Stupid people'

In most of Waters' films, there's as much male as female nudity and the unrealistic sex is played for laughs.

Even though the likes of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living (his rather charming attempt at a lesbian Disney fairytale) feature cannibalism, rape, child abuse and castration, good always triumphs and a wild revenge is wreaked with the chopping off of homemade rubber body parts amidst huge splatters of fake blood.

"In Female Trouble there's a scene where Divine has sex with himself. But you know Divine's playing both roles… it's always so ludicrous. Sexual abuse is always punished."

There is a striking contrast, he says, between Pink Flamingos' good natured attempt to shock, and the forensically detailed, realistic violence of so-called 'torture porn' films like Saw and equally mainstream fare as The Killer Inside Me (2010) - a film rated R despite its depiction of what the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) called "disturbing brutal violence, aberrant sexual content and some graphic nudity".

If anything makes Waters angry it's "stupid people" and that includes some of the film censors he's had to deal with: "In the early days censors made my career. I made my career on negative reviews. Though the scariest was the censor board here in the UK. They said [of Pink Flamingos] 'We don't know how to deal with intentional bad taste.'"

Image caption Hairspray - Waters' venture into PG-rated filmmaking - spawned a hit musical

But for Cry Baby (1990) - his big Hollywood commission after the success of Hairspray! - Waters was obligated to bring it in with a PG 13 rating to ensure Johnny Depp's young fans could see it. That meant lots of cuts.

After the success of R-rated Serial Mom (1994) - "a satirical presentation of strong violence, vulgar language, and sexual episodes" - and 1998's Pecker - "sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use" - Waters put up a fight over the rating given to A Dirty Shame (2003) starring Johnny Knoxville and Tracy Ullman.

The comedy about sex addicts which contained no actual sex and no violence was not well received critically, but most importantly it was rated NC-17 - an adult certificate that is commercial death in the US.

"Your film is really ruined by that because there are theatres that won't play it."

He thinks the film's reception was affected by the concurrent outrage over the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos.

"I think Iraq had something to do with it. People really didn't think that weird sex stuff was funny then in America.

"I appealed [the rating] and I lost the case.

"I'm not saying it would have been a success with an R rating, but it did hurt it. And it's amazing to me how in America it's still very uptight about sex and pro-violence and in Europe it's usually the other way round."

Waters has just finished a book about hitchhiking across America on his own (due out next June) which he said proved a heartwarming experience, apart from the occasional 10-hour waits.

Most of his lifts came he said from "straight men who'd been through something bad in their lives like drugs but come through it and now loved their wives." What did he learn? "The basic goodness of people which I've always believe in. I'm an optimist. Yes, terrible things can happen. It didn't happen to me."

Waters has been fascinated by high profile criminal cases since the Manson Family murders. He says he and his mother are following the hacking trial involving former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks with great interest. And he now regards himself as a "filth elder" - and spends much of his year touring universities giving talks about his career to students.

So what does he make of Miley Cyrus - surely a girl just trying to shock and get away from her 'clean teen' past, like many of the heroines in his films?

It's a rare moment when Waters looks unimpressed.

"I'm not interested in her. I don't dislike her. I don't care about her. She's certainly not scandalising me.

"I still think you can be a rock star and act bad, but it has to be in a new way."

John Waters is still fighting the war on taste. But he has standards, you know.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a full interview with John Waters at 22:00 GMT on Wednesday, 6 November as part of the Free Thinking season.

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