It would be an understatement to say John Waters’s reputation precedes him. The underground-turned-cult classic director of such films as Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs and Hairspray wears his pseudonyms (the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke) with pride. But his penchant for shock value is no indication of ill will. Actually, he “basically like(s)” people and – as a self-christened ‘Filth Elder’ – isn’t opposed to assuming a nurturing role. He gives very good advice, be it dating tips – “don’t sleep with people who don’t read” – or career insights – “You need two people to think your work is good”, as he states in new memoir, Mr Know-It-All. So ahead of his appearance at the Sydney Opera House this week we asked Waters to share a little more of that wisdom, and he kindly obliged.
John Waters on becoming a role model …
I wrote a book called Role Models – which was all about my idols when I was young, who gave me the permission to agree that I could maybe be what I wanted to be. To be myself. And so after 50 years I wanted to write a book in reverse [Mr Know-It-All] where I could pass down how I negotiated to get where I am today, which is a pretty good place!
I’ve never had to get a real job, and I’ve never had to change that much – I’m doing what I’ve always done. And I got away with it. And I’m not poor!
“Basically, I can negotiate how to do that … that you can f*ck up and triumph at the same time.”
On how to write a memoir …
Well, first of all, you have to be older … And if it’s a memoir you have to reveal some things but also you have to tell people how you got there or how you survived this how I scaled upwards, which I did in Hollywood. Like any book I do, I always have to make up the title first. How I always do it is then divide it into chapters and then when I get a deal I do 100 words on each chapter, like the treatment. Before I even try to get the book deal, I think out the whole book and that takes a long time. Even with a movie the hardest part is thinking it up before I pitch it.
I always like to challenge myself when I’m doing a memoir. I hitchhiked across the country when I was 67 years old and I took LSD again after 50 years when I was 70 so I like to do something for a book that’s a little bit of a stunt, a little bit of daring myself to do something, And even with this book, I mean, I knew I was going to take LSD again, and that was kind of a major stunt to do. And then the publisher said, ‘Well, be careful’. And I said, ‘Be careful? If I was being careful I wouldn’t take it would I?’
On how to source inspiration (and bridge divides in the process) …
I watch people. I eavesdrop on people. I look at people’s behaviour. I get 100 magazines a month and 600 newspapers a day … I basically like people and every day I wake up trying to understand people that I don’t understand, why they act. And that could be a criminal. That could be somebody who believes the opposite of me politically.
Do people catch me observing them? Well I guess I do ask a lot of questions of people when I talk to them. Maybe too many that maybe it’s not my business, but I think everyone’s behaviour is my business.
On the importance of owning one great outfit …
I think it’s important to have a look, because that makes people understand you and accept you if you have a look that maybe they don’t have the nerve to wear. I never understand in America, when you do your taxes you cannot deduct clothes. [I understand] if you can wear it on the real street, if you can wear it in real life, you can’t deduct it. But what I wear on stage is very specific. I’d like to see a taxman wear one of my jackets on the street … and then tell me I can’t deduct it.
“My job is to interrogate people – including myself first, because what always interests me is subjects I don’t know the answer to and I don’t understand.”
On knowing oneself …
I still am working on that one, you know? I believe in psychiatry … I went for maybe two years when I was young, and then I went for a touch up, I would say, a couple of years ago. I believe medication has certainly saved some people’s lives who had chemical depression – certainly I never did. I never had depression at all. But learning who you are and how to accept yourself is a lifetime job, and one I’m still working on.
What helps is having friends for a long time. And if you ever get stuck doing neurotic behaviour that you repeat – if you repeat it and you enjoy it, fine. If you repeat it and it holds you back, it’s time to talk to somebody about it. Somebody else.
On whether there’s anything he doesn’t want to be remembered for …
No, I’ve been understood completely. Hollywood’s been fair to me. All the things I wanted to happen came true. And I know you could puke from hearing that.
John Waters brings Make Trouble to Sydney Opera House on Tuesday, October 15, Brisbane Powerhouse on Wednesday October 16 and Hamer Hall Melbourne Arts Centre on Friday October 18. Mr Know-It-All is out now.