He has mixed feelings about gay culture becoming mainstream: “I miss it … I’m for gay marriage. I don’t want to do it, but I certainly think people should be allowed to, and I wouldn’t vote for anybody that would be against it. But at the same time, why do we have to be good now? Why can’t we be villains in movies?” He says it’s good that more people are able to come out of the closet, but adds: “I wish some gay people would go back in. We have enough.”
The subjects he explores in his films, including homosexuality, racism and rebellious youth, have not always been recipes for uncomplicated happiness, but Waters describes himself as “a happy neurotic”. He adds, though, that he will never retire, because “then I’d have time to be nuts”.
He took a one-man show, This Filthy World, to Australia and New Zealand in October, and in recent months he has served as guest curator at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, worked on a book, exhibited in New Orleans, taken part in events from the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee to the Venice Biennale, and provided a Vincent Price-like cameo for the video of “The Creep”, a comedy hip hop song featuring Nicki Minaj. Still, he says (a little defensively): “Friday night I went out, wildly had a party until five in the morning with a bunch of friends, so it’s not like I’m a workaholic.”
“I have a lot of plan B, C, D, E, and F in effect,” he adds. What’s plan A, I ask? “Plan A is to make movies. The one thing I can’t do right now.”
He finds himself in a cinematic no-man’s land. Hollywood studios look only for blockbusters, while the demise of art-house cinemas makes investors reluctant to finance independent films. The last half-dozen films he made cost between $4m and $8m, he says. “Nowadays, [backers] want it to cost $500,000 to $1m. I can’t do that because I have four employees. I can’t work for nothing for two years. I’ve done that. I can’t be faux underground.”
A planned Christmas film, Fruitcake, was shelved in 2009 when the production company folded. Waters still hopes to make the film. The plot – boy runs away when he’s caught shoplifting, meets runaway girl raised by gay men who’s searching for her birth mother – “would be incredibly commercial”, he says, straight-faced.
US censors gave A Dirty Shame, Waters’ last film, an NC-17 rating in 2004, classing it with adult films and severely limiting its commercial prospects. Waters is still fuming: “Dumbbell censors are easy. You use their quotes in the ad. Liberal censors are much harder to fight,” he says.
Television now offers more creative freedom than film, Waters argues. “There’s certainly worse taste on television than I ever did. People have seen everything today … At the same time, I think young people are still having fun. I never think my time was better. I think they’re having the same amount of fun because it’s something new to them. They’re down at the Stop the Wall Street thing, which is, to me, hilarious.”
Long before Occupy Wall Street, Waters was fond of protesting. “Riots are fun. I hate to say that, but in the Sixties I went to all of them. I was a Yippie. I was a Weathermen hag.” One of his youthful protests was a “Burn the Bank of America” rally, but now he banks with his former target. “I recognise the irony of it,” he admits.
He now believes in capitalism, he says, “because the more success I have, the more people I have to hire,” and he is embarrassed to think that he marched against the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco (“Now when I look at it, it’s the most gorgeous architecture”). Will the counterculture win, I ask? “Counterculture won some things a long time ago. Counterculture’s in control. I’m the insider. I’m the establishment. I’m not struggling,” he replies.
For Waters, culture has always been tied up with music, and I ask what he is listening to these days. He puts on a pair of black-framed glasses and goes to his desk, handing me CDs from one of several large stacks: Beach House, a Baltimore indie band; Die Antwoord, a self-described “futuristic rap-rave crew” from South Africa; and Duffy, the soulful Welsh singer-songwriter. Waters himself has released an eclectic compilation of Christmas songs as well as a Valentine’s collection called A Date with John Waters, but says another album looks unlikely as there are few record stores left in which to promote it. He still prefers to go to record shops and cinemas rather than streaming music and films at home. “I’m an old person,” he shrugs.
If he were starting out now, would he make YouTube videos? “No, because I don’t want to run an ad agency,” he replies. The video for “The Creep”, seen more than 45 million times, “was good for my street cred” but made him little money, “and if you make something on YouTube that becomes a huge hit, you get offered a job at an advertising agency, not to be a film director.”
Television, however, appeals to the man who describes The Wire as the best thing on TV since Pee-wee’s Playhouse (which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1990). A TV Christmas special remains an ambition for Waters: “It would be funny, but it would pay tribute to [the genre] and do it in a new way, like Lil Wayne singing ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’,” he muses. “I could make it au courant, and at the same way, respect the traditions.”
It is time for the photographers to do their work, but Waters has not finished his show. “I just got some art through,” he says, gleefully handing me a limited edition glass ashtray with the words “Walden Pond” at the bottom. Next comes a crucifix-shaped lighter, then he takes us upstairs to see a new acquisition. He points down, near the skirting board, and I see that what I thought was an electrical socket is a miniature trompe l’oeil painting by Douglas Padgett. Back downstairs, as he poses in front of a faux-marble bust he “found in the trash”, he draws my attention to a collection of pewter architectural models called Buildings of Disaster, including the tunnel where Princess Diana crashed, the motel where Martin Luther King was shot and the Twin Towers.
As we prepare to leave, Waters says the Polaroid that he took of us will be archived with his films when he dies, in the same place as the works of Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. It sounds a little like the communists who arranged to be buried near Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery, I remark. “Oh, I’ve already bought my grave plot. It’s in the same graveyard as Divine. We all bought them there. Mink [Stole, the actress who appears in all his feature films], Dennis Dermody [the film critic], Pat Moran [his best friend in casting]. It’s like Disgraceland.”
Will it be a lavish headstone? “No. I like Pasolini’s; he had just his name and the date. He’s my mentor in gravestones,” Waters laughs. Tasteful, then? “Yes, I think gravestones should be quite simple.” Some jokes, he adds, just don’t age well.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.