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A conversation with John Waters

The cult-favorite filmmaker discusses Andy Warhol's films and more.

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John Waters, who made his name as a ground-breaking filmmaker, hasn't released a new feature since 2004. But he's hardly slowed down. With TV guest spots, books and speaking engagements — plus the continued success of the stage-musical version of his 1988 film Hairspray — the man who gave us cult classics like Pink Flamingos and Polyester remains a comic raconteur beloved of freaks and misfits everywhere. Last year, when Waters appeared on Australian chat show Q & A, a fan tweeted on screen, "This is like a vision of the Virgin Mary in rural Ireland."

In Pittsburgh this week, Waters has two gigs. On Jan. 31, he follows up his role as the voice of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's audio guide for Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years by personally leading a tour through this major traveling exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum. On Feb. 1, at Carnegie Music Hall, Waters gives a new version of his popular monologue This Filthy World — basically a rundown of his influences and obsessions, last presented here in 2005.

Waters, 66, still lives in his hometown of Baltimore, though he spoke with CP by phone from his San Francisco flat — "the apartment that Hairspray: The Musical bought me." He was especially keen to discuss Warhol's films, which ranged from experiments like the six-hour Sleep to outrageous works like Vinyl.

How did you get the Met gig?

They just asked me. I do voiceover work all the time: Last week I played the Richest Fish Stick in the Sea on a Disney show called Fishhooks, the children's show. And I did know Andy and I was on the board of The Warhol Foundation for a long time. ... It was an acting job!

You call Warhol the most influential artist of the past 50 years. How so?

Andy did so many great things. The movies to me are the only things that have not yet reached their top peak of success and influence. ... I am convinced someday they will be considered as valuable and as important as the artwork. Because it was so radical to slow down movies, and make movies of really cute people on amphetamine talking fast ... in slow motion.

That breaks every single rule of what commercial movies are. That's why they're so important and so witty, and so clever. And brilliant, yet almost impossible to watch. And that is what makes them true contemporary art. 

The impossible-to-watch part?

Yes. Movies that don't move. A lot of them are slowed down on purpose. Not the talky ones. But then people talking where they could never stop talking about subjects that were interesting to no one because they were on amphetamine. I find that incredibly smart and incredibly ahead of its time.

Did that affect your films?

That was a huge influence on me. He also put gay people and drugs together for the first time! That was really important. He made it cool to be gay. Before, gay people were kind of square, in the '50s. They got in drag as Miss America. Andy brought along Mario Montez, the great Mario Montez. And even [Warhol's] women were female impersonators. They were just female female impersonators, in a way. 

What about his visual art?

That soup can put the abstract expressionists out of business over night. And I've said this before, just like The Beatles ended Motown in one night.

Pop was the ultimate slap in the face to macho — you know, [critic] Donald Judd made fun of Andy. I think we should have wrestling matches at the Warhol Museum, after this event. We should have Viva and Taylor Mead challenge humorless Donald Judd scholars who have made him the infallible reverend of minimalism he is today to wrestling matches. 

Do you own any Warhols?

I have a silver "Jackie" print in my dining room that — it was this long ago — my girlfriend gave to me in high school, and it was a hundred dollars. And a hundred dollars was a lot then. ... And I have a Warhol asshole painting, which was really fun to buy, because you went into the Foundation and they have it on an easel. It's almost like in a movie, where they drape it. I got to write "asshole" on the check for memo.

How different is your new This Filthy World?

It is, I would say, 90 percent completely new because I'm constantly updating it and changing it. it's always been a work in progress. But it's totally written. Every word it written. I hope it sounds like it's just me up there telling you stories, and I am, but they've been rehearsed and written.

Your Christmas tour even took you to Boise, Idaho.

It was great to go there, because I finally got to say, "Boise Idaho, get ready. You are about to receive in your community the filthiest people alive," which was the last line Divine says in Pink Flamingos. It took me 40 years to get there but I did, and believe me, they were appreciative.

Can you give a little preview for Pittsburgh?

No! Then nobody will come see it! Let's just say that I talk about all the new careers that I need to get since movies are so hard to make today. Everybody from being the dogcatcher to opening an amusement park, to becoming a comic terrorist, that only uses terrorism for humor, to opening my own movie theater. ... I think it's really telling the people that you always have to have a plan B, C, D and E. 

The only thing insulting a reporter has ever asked me is, "Do you have a hobby?" They should all be equally important to you, all your careers. You can never depend on one of them. I've been doing what I do for really, almost 50 years. I have lasted, and I'm thrilled about that. I certainly haven't been misunderstood.

You haven't been misunderstood?

No. Even though I didn't get a good review for 10 years. But I built a career on that in the beginning. That would be impossible today. So did Andy, in a way. I learned that from Andy. How to use negative publicity. In the beginning, they would ask him very serious questions about who was his favorite art crtiic, and he and Bridget [Berlin] would say "Suzy," who was the gossip columnist, just to outrage the people who were so humorless in the art world. 

Why haven't you made a film in a while?

It's hard to get the budget. I routinely made movies that cost about $5 million, which was thought of as a moderately priced independent movie. Now a moderately priced independent movie is a million dollars. I can't do that with unions and movie stars and everything.

And I don't want to do it. I did it. I've made 16 movies. I'm not going to be a faux revolutionary at 66. I have a movie I've been trying to made, called Fruitcake, for five years. I got  a very good development deal from New Line [Cinema]. And then the recession happened and the New Line I know is no longer there, and things radically changed. And I'm fine with that. I still have meetings. I still want to make this movie. But I have many ways to tell stories.

It's not just me. ... It's the best time, if you're a young kid making movies, to be discovered, because that's what they're looking for. But they want you to make it for $50,000. Which I did, but I can't do it now. I don't want to do it now. I don't feel like taking a shit in the woods ... on location. 

Your exhibit tour at the Warhol is 30 minutes for 30 people. Tickets are $150 and it's billed as "an intimate talk."

That means I give a lap dance. Get ready.

I'm writing it down.

Let's see how big the tips are.

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