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His filthy world: A Q&A with John Waters

On success, midnight movies and what's on his bookshelf.



Last week I called John Waters and found him at home in the tastefully decorated study of his house in Baltimore, complete with thick red curtains, stacks of books and a fake cat (I've seen photos). A legendary filmmaker and writer — an iconic American personality, really — Waters divides his time between New York, San Francisco and Baltimore, his hometown, where he shot most of his early films, including "Pink Flamingos," one of the most famous low-budget movies ever made.

Since his last film, 2004's "A Dirty Shame," Waters has largely turned to writing books, including the 2010 essay collection "Role Models," and last year's "Carsick," a fiction-nonfiction hybrid about his adventures — real and imagined — hitchhiking across the country. He's a headlining speaker at this year's Arkansas Literary Festival, and will present his one-man show, "This Filthy World" at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ron Robinson Theater.

Have you ever been to Arkansas? Are you at all worried about it?

I'm almost sure I have, because at one point in my life I went through the map and drove all five interstates across the country. But I don't think I've been to Little Rock. I don't ever have bad associations with any state, because I know from traveling so much that today my audience is always smart, always cool, and they always dress up for me. So I know my audience in Arkansas will look very similar to my audience in Paris or Fargo, North Dakota. Everybody's cool now.

I'm hoping I do see some local color actually — that's what's missing when I go to all these cities. I live in Baltimore, which is the South, too, no matter what they say. I have no prejudices, especially after hitchhiking across the country, against what people call Middle America. To me, the people were all incredibly open-minded and wonderful. I'm never around assholes. I'm sure there are assholes in Arkansas, but I won't meet them. That's success. Success is, you can buy any book without looking at the price, and also you're never around assholes. Those are the key things you have to work for, and I have succeeded.

Speaking of which, it seems like it's become common for celebrities to complain about their fame, but you've always made being famous seem very fun.

I don't have the kind of fame that Justin Bieber has, where you can't leave your house. I've seen that with Johnny Depp, where he basically can't go out. I don't have that, thank God. But to be honest, I used to say to Johnny, "That's the point. Work harder and then you can never leave your house."

I've always romanticized the "midnight movies" era of films like "El Topo," "Night of the Living Dead" and your own "Pink Flamingos" — the whole social-communal aspect of that '70s film culture. Am I wrong to do so?

Well, you know, you mention the term "film culture," which was also the name of Jonas Mekas' wonderful, amazing, brilliant magazine about "underground movies," which are what came before "midnight movies." I romanticize underground movies, back when [Jack Smith's 1963] "Flaming Creatures" was playing and the police would raid and take the audience away in paddy wagons. That's going to the movies. Later, they just busted the projectionist, which, what did he do?

But romanticizing midnight movies is valid. There was no video then, so you couldn't watch a movie at home, or even watch it again. So if it played every week at midnight, like "Pink Flamingos" did, you could go see it — it was the first time you could watch something over and over. And 100 percent of the audience was smoking marijuana. But it was a communal thing. It was like Mass, it was religious. People came in costumes and would yell out the dialogue and all that. It was a social event.

So it was romantic. But the problem was, everybody thought you could get rich from this, but it was only one show a week, and tickets were $2. Nobody was getting rich. And when you say "cult movie" — that's the one thing you pray they don't call you when you're pitching to get a Hollywood job. In Hollywood, "cult" means nobody came to see it except for three smart people.

Do you still love film? What's the last Hollywood movie you enjoyed?

Oh yes. I thought the best Hollywood film last year was "Gone Girl."

What are you reading these days?

Let's see here, I'll go deep. The two best books I've read recently are coming out this summer. One is by my editor, Jonathan Galassi, called "Muse." It's a smart cliffhanger about publishing — who could ever imagine it? And the other is by Bill Clegg, who is my agent. He has a new book called "Did You Ever Have a Family." It's really, really good. That sounds ridiculous that my two favorite recent books are by my editor and my agent, but whoever heard of editors and agents writing books?

I'm really anxious to read [Karl Ove Knausgaard's] "My Struggle, Vol. 4," which I just got. I, of course, like Anne Tyler's ["A Spool of Blue Thread]. I had dinner with her the other night and I'm so happy her book is doing really, really well. What else? "The Corvo Cult" [by Robert Scoble] is a book I'm enjoying. I'm reading everything by Rachel Cusk, since I read an article about her called "The Most Hated Woman in Literature." I loved her book about how much she hated having children. She really doesn't suffer fools.

Then I'll tell you what's coming up, since we're pushing a literary festival here: "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground" [by Bryan Burrough], "Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos" and "Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano" [by Dana Thomas].

Why did you decide to include both fictional and nonfictional episodes in "Carsick"?

Before I went, everybody was so afraid for me and telling me not to do it, but I thought, what's the worst that could happen? And then I thought, that might actually be good to imagine.

I realized once I did the trip that I never could have written those [fictional] chapters after doing it for real. I just thought it was a good idea to imagine the best and imagine the worst and then do it for real, to see the difference between fantasy and reality. And what really happened was, of course, not as extreme as the best and the worst, but the people could not have been sweeter and more encouraging, and were not a disappointment. So it was interesting to see what I had in my head and what happened in real life, but I ultimately liked both.

Although standing there at 66 years old in the middle of Kansas, hitchhiking by myself, was pretty extreme. I look back and can't even believe I did that.

Would you pick up yourself hitchhiking?

It depends. If I was alone, yes. If I was with somebody, no. No one really knew it was me, and even if they thought it was, they'd drive by and think, "Why would he be standing there?" When I see pictures of what I looked like, I'm amazed anybody picked me up.

How could someone become the next John Waters today?

Today, studios are looking for people like me when I was 18. They're looking for the next kid who's made a cellphone movie. Now, they want films that cost under $1 million or $100 million. But also, I've always said that if you could just think of a way to make people nervous with no sex or violence, you would have such a hit. You have to surprise people in a new way.

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