Q&A: John Waters on films including Pink Flamingoes, Hairspray and Cry Baby

WHERE: BFI

WHEN: 18/9

Writer/director John Waters is proud to be here while the BFI is staging a retrospective of all his films in September and October: ‘It’s like eavesdropping at my funeral.’

He tells us that he’s never been to film school (‘Technique is nothing more than failed style’) and how supportive his parents have been of his chosen career despite a lack of early critical appreciation.

‘My parents were horrified by my films. My father paid for Pink Flamingoes and never saw it. After seeing A Dirty Shame he said: ‘It was funny but I hope I never see it again.’ For 10 years no-one said anything good about my movies,’ he remembers.

I was shocked that happened

Referring to the infamous scene in 1971’s Pink Flamingoes where drag queen Divine eats dog shit, Waters says: ‘There was no law against it then but there is now.’ He recalls how Divine called the hospital afterwards with friends present high on marijuana to ask whether she would be ill and was told she might suffer from the ‘white worm’. ‘When we were told, everyone howled,’ says Waters.

Waters’ muse Divine died shortly after the release of the film Hairspray (1988) in which she starred and would later become a Broadway smash. ‘Divine died a week after Hairspray came out. I was shocked that happened. I’m still shocked.’ The film was Waters’ most successful grossing 8 million dollars. ‘I didn’t try to make a more commercial film.’

He remembers Divine was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Later on I was to meet Elizabeth Taylor when she was a little overweight and did look a little like Divine.’ Originally he’d wanted Divine to play both the mother and daughter characters in Hairspray (she would eventually play only the mother) but studio New Line wouldn’t let him.

Girls offered to buy sewage

Film Cry-Baby (1990) followed starring young teen heartthrob Johnny Depp. Waters had no plans to cast a drag queen to replace Divine: ‘Depp came to us. Teenage girls were running in packs after him crying. He hated that. We said: ‘Stick with us.’ Waters even remembers that those girls offered to buy the sewage from Depp’s trailer.

Serial Mom starring Kathleen Turner followed in 1994 and Waters thinks it his best film. He fought with the studio after it screen-tested badly but Turner enlisted a gossip columnist to help its release as Waters envisaged.

Waters hasn’t has a film released since 2004’s A Dirty Shame but he did get a development deal for what he describes as a children’s Christmas movie called Fruitcake which is slated to star Jackass‘s Johnny Knoxville. ‘The Jackass movies are closest in spirit to Pink Flamingoes. If Divine hadn’t eaten dog shit, Johnny Knoxville would’ve.’

Waters mentions the late Brad Renfro as someone he would have liked to work with along with Meryl Streep. ‘I’ve always loved her but no agents have pushed for a meeting.’

He’s keen to make another film but not on the low budgets he used to. ‘I’ll be 70 next year. I don’t want to be a Cecil B. De Senior underground filmmaker.’

  • The BFI is showing all Waters’ films in September and October and he is also introducing a selection of his favourite films. Details here.
  • The BFI regularly holds Q&As with writer/directors. Details here.

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