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John Waters on ‘Multiple Maniacs,’ His Favorite Filmmakers & Why He Hasn’t Directed in More Than a Decade

There's still one movie he'd love to make.

John Waters

John Waters

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

John Waters has made 16 films over the course of his nearly 50-year career, one of which has remained elusive to audiences: 1970’s legendarily depraved “Multiple Maniacs.” Janus Films recently restored the cult icon’s second feature, and Waters spoke to us about the film’s re-release, American indie film culture, and some surprising film and TV development deals that fizzled out.

There’s a funny coincidence because our TV team is at the TCAs. NBC is promoting “Hairspray Live” as part of their upfronts. It’s like Must See TV for the Whole Family. Meanwhile, your “Multiple Maniacs” restoration is going to promote rosary jobs for a whole new generation. Is this your idea of a balanced life?

It is, because I felt the same thing. I did a thing in June with the Baltimore Symphony, where they do “Hairspray,” and I’m sort of like Victor Borge and I come on stage and I narrate it. All the people there were people that go to the symphony — a very different audience than a midnight movie. They were all, “Oh, isn’t this great, what he is doing with racial situation in Baltimore and everything?” I thought, this is great, but wait until they think, “Oh, we never saw that movie. What’s this ‘Multiple Maniacs?'” and how horrified they would be. That will happen.

Absolutely.

Which is kind of delicious. I wanted to force the Motion Picture Association of America to watch it, because we did that with “Pink Flamingos” when it came out on the 25th anniversary. We said, “We know it’s going to get an NC-17. Just do that.” They said, “We can’t. We have to watch it.” I’ve had enough battles with them that, basically, I wanted to force them to watch it, but I think we’re going with No Rating, because there is really no rating for that movie. Who would go see a movie called “Multiple Maniacs” by me if they thought it was for the whole family? Even though it is a monster movie.

This is true, with Lobstora.

At the end, it’s very Godzilla, getting killed by the National Guard. It’s a very American movie.

This isn’t your first film to get the Criterion treatment.

I’m so proud. When I was 16 years old and saw the first Bergman movies, they were always Janus. I always loved Janus films. They personified what an art film was to me. That’s the first time. I would go downtown to the Playhouse, 5 West or 7 East, the three art cinemas in Baltimore. They served espresso. They always did that. They made you feel so European, so beatnik. It would always be Janus movies. Then, the Rex Theater there that I always went to, the guy who ran it would get Bergman movies, like “[Summer With] Monika,” and just cut out all of the plot and leave the tits in and it would be the “Sins of Monika.” I saw Bergman as porn when I first saw it.

Perfect. This explains so much.

Yeah, and I actually do think that Bergman was a huge, huge, influence on me still. I am probably the only person that ever saw Bergman movies on LSD.

What is the restoration process like? First of all, how did it happen, and then, what is the process of having a film brought up to Criterion/Janus standards?

It was amazing. They came to see it the last time the print was ever shown, which was just shown for historical reasons, I guess you could say, at the Lincoln Center tribute to me. It was an old beat-up print that the splices broke, you could see it melting on the screen, and they asked me about it. I had been wanting to do this for a really long time. There was a few music rights we had to deal with, a few things.

Then, what they can do — they showed me digitally. It’s so amazing. At first, they said, “Well, do you want to keep it? Do you want to celebrate what it was like?” I said, “No. I never made it look bad on purpose. I just didn’t know any better.” I don’t want the splice marks to show. It was spliced with a hot splicer, so you could see every splice. I don’t want the dirt on there.

It’s going to be 1:66 ratio now. That’s why I said in the press release as a joke, “It finally looks like a bad John Cassavetes movie,” but, it does! To me, “No, we’re releasing again, let’s make it new.” I saw it once with an audience so far, it did seem new. I’m not saying you have to like it, but it did seem new. You can hear things and you can see things that I never knew were in this movie, and I made it.

This one was, I just was so proud, because I’ve been trying to get this one rehabilitated and out of prison for so long. It’s been out of release, really, for … It never had a theatrical release, really. I got bookings for it around the country. Even new, after “Pink Flamingos” became a hit at the Elgin in New York, I think New Line got it booked maybe for two weekends there or something, and played it or something. They didn’t release it. Nobody ever released this movie, ever. It’s opening in 20 cities this summer. That is, by far, the biggest release that it’s ever had.

I mean, that’s amazing in its own right. 

It is amazing, truly, to me, too, and to the living people that are in it that are very excited about it, except nervous about it. Even Mink, I see Mink Stole all the time. She was in my last movie. She’s been in every one of them, practically. She now lives in Baltimore. She has, I’m certain, friends in her neighborhood her age that have no idea. They might have seen “Hairspray.” When they see her giving a rosary job, they might be a little nervous when they see her up at the supermarket.

You mentioned the hot splicing of the film. What were your other technical limitations? The was your first film with sync sound, wasn’t it?

The first one with sound. It was filmed with an Arcon 0627 camera, which is like an old, big, those double Mouseketeer things on the top, you know what I mean?

Yep, yep.

It was filmed with reversal black and white film with a magnetic stripe on the film. The sound you recorded right on the film when you shot it. The sound was 24 frames ahead of the picture, so when you ran it through the projector, it would do that. That meant you could never have A/B editing back and forth. You couldn’t cover a scene that way, because every time you cut, you had to overlap 24 frames of film from the shot before. That’s why there are so many long, long, takes in it. There was no negative. It was reversal film.

Oh, my God.

You recorded the film even … A lot of it was shot with my old Bell Howell wind-up silent camera. Whenever there wasn’t dialogue, like the whole rosary job, or in different scenes, the Stations of the Cross, then I added the sound up in my attic. I just recorded Mink and Divine, read the stuff I wrote, and played religious music, and recorded that right on the projector. Every time you wanted to look at a cut, you had to run it through the projector.

That’s insane.

I’m amazed that it’s in as good a shape as it is, really.

When you made “Multiple Maniacs,” you were in something of a vacuum. You were in Baltimore. There really wasn’t an indie film culture to draw from. Nowadays, that’s very much not the case. Do you feel like your situation was at an advantage, or would you say today’s filmmakers are?

Well, the difference is that New York was the last place I played. The New York underground film scene was incredibly chauvinistic. I said I was from Baltimore, they didn’t even want to look at it. I remember I screened earlier movies at the Gate Cinema. I used to go to the Bridge, the Gate. The only person that would help me was Jonas Mekas, who really is my patron saint. I’m who I am today because of him. I used to read his column in the Village Voice. I just think he’s an absolutely amazing man. It gave me hope to do it. The Filmmakers Distribution Center did distribute “Mondo Trasho.” It was like a library, though. You could come in and get it.

There was Variety, because I really learned about distribution from reading Variety. In the old days, Variety, in my opinion, covered alternative cinema much better than it does today. They had every gross in each city. I know which theaters that could possibly play it at midnight. They reviewed porn up until a certain point.

To me, I didn’t go to film school. Then, film school would never have allowed me to make “Multiple Maniacs.” Today, they of course certainly would. Technically, I didn’t know how to do anything, which you can tell. That’s the thing. I was learning by doing it.

I had a zoom lens for the first time. It was zoom lens abuse. In the same way, it looks like a zoom movie. That’s why I stole the whole line from the trailer from the movie “Snuff,” the exploitation movie that’s filmed in South America where the life is cheap. Mine says “Filmed in Baltimore where life is cheap-er,” which takes the teeth out of it.

What are some of the films and filmmakers that you currently admire?

Currently, well, my 10 best list is in Artforum every year. You can look it up and you’ll see everyone. Certainly, in America, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, I certainly like Harmony, Harmony Korine. I like all the feel-bad French ones. I like the ones from Vienna, all the feel-bad ones. Gaspar Noé, I’m a huge fan of, what’s his name, necra…, you know?

What? Lars von Trier?

Lars von Trier. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s it. Lars von Trier. I mean, I like the ones that still make me nervous. What’s so amazing, I think, “How do they get all these movies made?” The reason is, their governments give them the money to make those movies. Can you imagine the government giving a filmmaker money to make “Irreversible”? It’s pretty great. That is something Michael Moore has never included in his documentaries, showing other countries. I think that’s a very important point. Even David Cronenberg gets money from Canada to make his movies, even when they’re fairly commercially hits.

You haven’t made a film since “A Dirty Shame,” but you’re very busy with your books and art showings.

Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve had three development deals that didn’t happen. I got paid by Hollywood three separate times. Once to write “Fruitcake,” I pitched it. I had an old development deal. That was with Picturehouse and New Line. Then, they all changed, Bob Shaye went in there, and that whole thing changed. I got paid by NBC-TV to write “Hairspray” as a TV series. They treated me very well, but it didn’t happen. I was recently paid by HBO to do the sequel to “Hairspray,” which didn’t happen. I’m not complaining. Hollywood has treated me very fairly.

Do you ever miss making movies? You’re doing so many other things. It’s not like you don’t have other outlets, but I wonder if you miss actually making movies.

That’s a good question. Do I miss sitting in that dirty trailer at 4 a.m. with people asking me 100 questions? Not particularly. It’s not like I haven’t spoken. I have 16 movies out. They’re all easily available. My last movie was not a success at the box office, and my last two books were bestsellers. I signed a two-book deal. You go where they like you best. I think my enemy is not Hollywood, my enemy is China. That’s why there are no independent films any more.

Actually, talk a little bit about that. Do you feel pessimistic about the state of indie films because of things like the fact that China’s this massive behemoth that, we’re not even sure what the impact’s going to be.

I feel pessimistic about American independent films, not European ones. I feel a little bit pessimistic about young American audiences that are going back to what my square parents’ generation would say, “I don’t like to see films with subtitles.” What are you, kidding? Can’t you read? Well, go to college.

Controversy does not always work anymore. It used to be, even if it was terrible, if it got banned, or controversial, people would flock to it. Jackie Kennedy went to see “I Am Curious (Yellow).” At the same time, reviews. It used to be, if you got a rave review for an art film in the New York Times, it was a big hit. Today, it is not necessarily a big hit, but if you get a bad review, it fails.

The rules have changed, but I never whine about that. Of course, they’re going to change. Everything’s different. It’s what you can pull off, how you get away with them. You should always have backup careers.

I tell stories. Luckily, I can have art shows and film, I can have movies, I can have books. I can write journalism. I do speaking tours. I’m not hungry for an outlet. I go to the one that enables me to make a living, and to be able to tell the story in the quickest, best way, so I don’t have to go through years of development hell.

All of your films seem like they’re genre satires of one kind or another. Do you think there’s any genres that are particularly ripe for that treatment now?

The only one I haven’t done was “Fruitcake,” which was a children’s movie. That was a satire on a children’s movie. I still hope to make that one day.

Every one of them, certainly. “Mondo Trasho” was a mondo movie. It’s parody, which, by the way, Anthology Film Archives is having an absolutely brilliant series of obscure mondo movies right now, in August. “Multiple Maniacs” was really a gore movie parody. “Female Trouble” was a true crime one. “Desperate Living” was kind of a political fairy tale, my “Battle of Algiers.” “Polyester” was obviously a William Castle thing. “Hairspray” was a dance movie. “Cry-Baby” was a musical. “Serial Mom” was a true crime TV movie. “A Dirty Shame” was a sexploitation movie.

I have parodied every genre except the children’s movie. Maybe if “Fruitcake” ever gets made, it will be. I doubt it ever will be. Movies get old quickly. I’ve pitched it to every possible place. It’s fine. A children’s movie, in the year 2017, is not so feasible. I recognize that, especially when the last two movies I made didn’t make money. That’s all that counts. That’s the reason. If the last two movies had maybe made money, I’d be making that movie.

You seem like a remarkably well-adjusted human, to say nothing of a filmmaker.

Well, I think it’s taken me 70 years, but maybe I’ve worked a few things out, yes.

You made “Multiple Maniacs” when you were what, 22?

Well, let’s see. It was made in the fall of ’69. I was born in ’46. How old was I? I was born April ’46.

I think it’s 22. You recently turned 70. Is there any advice that you know, from your current perspective, that you might have given to your younger self?

Well, I think I’ve said it before, and I’m writing some of this in my new book which is called “Mr. Know-It-All,” which is advice about everything. Certainly, a “no” is free. That is the most important thing to learn, that it doesn’t cost to ask for something. Get over fearing rejection, because life in show business is life of rejection, by the money people, by the critics, by the audiences. Every once in a while, you’re lucky enough to have a hit. That’s all you need. All my movies, I just thanked everybody for liking one of them. You don’t have to like all of them, but maybe there’s one of them you like.

That’s the thing, to have a body of work, which, even if you hate everything I do, I do have a body of work. It seems to stay there, like kind of what they call a bookstore backlist. My movies are not hard to see. They’re on TV. Who would have ever thought they’d be on TV? They got made into musicals. I don’t know. I think I’m proud of the fact, I’ve seen “Multiple Maniacs” with young people, it didn’t get old-hat. It isn’t suddenly, “Oh, we’ve seen that.” It’s maybe worse, which I take a little pride in to be able to think up something that, for almost 50 years, is still unacceptable.

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