The pope of trash, the duke of dirt, the prince of puke. As cinema’s darling purveyor of filth, John Waters, at 76, has heard and seen it all, and he isn’t slowing down. In fact, he turns 76 on this very day, April 22, and is readying to premiere his new one-man, spoken-word special, “False Negative,” in New York and then Atlantic City this weekend. He’s also got a debut novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” coming out from Macmillan May 3. There may even be a new film project in the works, though Waters is loath to spill his secrets. His breakout feature, the gleefully demonic, camp-exploitation classic “Pink Flamingos,” also celebrates a birthday this year, five decades after its release in 1972.
Waters, in a phone interview from his Baltimore stomping grounds, is chuffed at the hilarity of the film landing in the National Film Registry this year. At the time, the perverse Divine vehicle was reviled for its scatological sensibilities, its cigarette-in-the-eye of moviemaking conventions and American decorum. It’s perhaps filthier than ever now, and it’s a movie he’ll be discussing in “False Negative,” which is a complete reinvention of his 2006 special “This Filthy World,” now re-written for the post-COVID age. The special sets out to lampoon political correctness on all sides of the aisle in the spirit of Waters’ championing of free speech even at its most lunatic and outrageous.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
IndieWire: “False Negative” is an entirely new version of your “This Filthy World,” which you re-imagined for a post-COVID world. The ground has shifted for a lot of people in the last few years, which has surely given you more fodder. What’re you touching on this time around?
John Waters: Certainly political correctness, and what is funny about that. Certainly reinventing yourself, and reinventing everything. That’s a big part of this speech. Certainly including the movie business, the way it is today, and how you can last. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. How the most insane things can change. “Pink Flamingos” got named to the National Film Registry this year, which is pretty hilarious and great. So here’s a movie that actually today is more offensive than it was when it came out, probably, with all the new touchiness, but at the same time, it still brings joy to people no matter what their politics are, in a way. That’s what I’m so happy to be celebrating. I’m trying to talk about how always we use humor to win, not self-righteousness, not telling people they’re stupid, not lecturing people. You have to make fun of yourself first, which I always did, and then you can make fun of others. But I’ve made a career of making fun of the rules in the outsider society that I live in and love, so I usually make fun of things I love.
You don’t mention Trump anymore even though he figured heavily in the last version. People are tired of hearing about him.
When it was “This Filthy World,” I did a long thing about what it would be like to have sex with him in the most graphic detail of every act. I live in a country where it’s free enough where I didn’t get the firing squad. That makes me feel patriotic.
“Pink Flamingos” is funnier and fouler today than it was 50 years ago. Why do you think it’s endured?
Because of all the stuff you can’t say today, which makes them kind of funnier, because maybe they get away with it because they know it’s “historic.” It’s not of today. It’s in a time capsule of lunacy from somewhere. That’s why I never mentioned politics in the movies because it dates them. You want your movies to be timeless. Most of my movies didn’t do well when they came out, but they’re still playing now, and eventually made money. But it took a long time. That’s not why studios put movies out. They want to make all the money in the first two weeks.
Courtesy Everett Collection
“Pink Flamingos” is also getting a Criterion release in June. That will certainly help engender a new generation of John Waters appreciators.
They can do Bresson and they can do “Pink Flamingoes.” It’s the same thing, and I kept trying to tell them [that like when New Line released] “Polyester” [in Odorama], they should do all their films in Odorama. What does Bresson smell like? What does Bergman’s suicide smell like? “Seventh Seal” they could sniff and you can jump off a cliff. You could do lots of good advertising if you just let me go in there.
It’s hard to imagine a movie as offensive as “Pink Flamingos” getting made now.
When I say offensive, I mean joyously offensive. It’s easy to be offensive. Often, when critics today call it a “John Waters type movie,” I hate those movies because they’re just gross or they have a drag queen in them. They do something that we did years ago. I always try to make you laugh at your ability to be surprised by something. I’ve said that forever, but I’m still doing that. The American audience’s sense of humor has gotten darker. It’s changed. It’s really way more like what I started out doing. RuPaul’s on television. Look at how great that is, that drag queens are in middle America. Things have changed for the better at least with people’s sense of humor. But as soon as you start lecturing them, they shut up and we have to pick our battles.
I do a whole thing in there about battles that we pick that really make people vote for the other side. We want to pick battles that we can win. Pick the three most important ones. Not the most obscure ones. PETA came out and said you can’t call your animal a pet, that that’s degrading, in the same way calling a woman a chick is. I think that’s funny, but that makes people go crazy. I love extreme politics, even when I completely do not agree with it. People have the right to say anything. I’m for freedom of speech. Many don’t seem to be these days.
©New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection
Do you feel like it’s harder or easier to be funny now, and to wield your particular brand of humor?
The edge that you’re walking on is harder, and I try to stay right on the side where you’re almost falling off. My new book — if I can get away with this one, we’ll see. I do make fun of the rules that I live in and the society that I’m living in now. I’m certainly a bleeding heart liberal, but I rebel against those rules, too, which I think is healthy.
You have a book coming out in a few weeks, “Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance.” You’ve written a number of essay collections but this is your first novel. Did this come as easily to you as making a movie?
It took me three years to write. It’s pretty crazy. It’s about a woman who steals suitcases in airports, and she’s a very disagreeable character. You will like her because she’s so unlikeable. I didn’t have to worry about budget. I didn’t have to worry about casting. I didn’t have to worry about the children, and how they have to only work four hours a day and have a schoolteacher. All that kind of stuff I don’t have to worry about, so I could really be free to explore this insane universe that I set up in the book. That’s the only thing you have to stay true to. No matter how crazy the plot or how much fun you make of narrative and everything, it still has to be true to the world that you set up in the book.
John Waters performs “False Negative” on Friday, April 22, at Sony Hall in New York City, and Saturday, April 23, at the Anchor Rock Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey.