It all started with a transvestite eating a pile of dog shit. At least that's when people started to take notice.
When John Waters—the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke—wrote and directed 1972's Pink Flamingos, with its film-closing scene of the cross-dressing Divine eating a still-steaming pile of canine crap, people not only began paying attention; they fell into one of two camps: those who thought Waters was merely a crass provocateur, and those who found him to be something of a lowbrow genius.
Waters, born in 1946 in his beloved Baltimore—where all his films are set—has come a long way since then. He's an author of several books, a visual artist, an actor and a bona fide cultural icon. His early life in Maryland prepared him for what he would become.
"I was ambitious," he says. "I read Variety when I was a teenager; I had a puppet-show career when I was 12 years old at children's birthday parties; I wrote a horror novel that I read to the campers at summer camp, and they all flipped out and got nightmares, and the parents called my parents ... and complained. So I was always, in a way, in the arts. ... I wish I had quit school in sixth-grade, because I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the Pope of Trash; I just didn't know anybody would ever call me that."
Another of Waters' pursuits has been his spoken-word tours ("my vaudeville act, basically"), which fall under one of two themes: This Filthy World, in which he recounts how he became the world's most-famous and most-respected trash filmmaker, and A John Waters Christmas, which shares its title with an album of twisted Christmas tunes he compiled and released in 2004. In addition to being well-paid for these tours, he says he truly enjoys them.
"I just did nine dates in Australia and New Zealand, and I just got back from three in America this week, and that ended the This Filthy World tour, and now I've got the Christmas one. I don't do 52 weeks a year, but once I get into that rhythm of touring, I kind of like it. I get to see my fans; I test material that ends up in my books and movies; and I've seen the world. God knows, I'm singin' for my supper."
Regarding his fascination with Christmas ("I do like it, without irony, but I understand why some people hate it," he says) ... well, this is a guy who loves to attend living nativity scenes, because they're "so scary, in a Diane Arbus way." He watches from his car so people won't think he's "a pervert."
"I always think: What parent would allow their child to be baby Jesus when there's ... straw and candles equals fire! And those donkeys could kick them in the head! Ohhh, it's so frightening."
As for the ground covered in A John Waters Christmas, he describes it thusly: "It's all about Christmas. It's about fashion, Christmas crime, Christmas music, Christmas movies, how to deal with insane families at Christmas, how to buy cheap presents, expensive presents, what you should give, what you should get me."
While Waters' films Hairspray and Cry-Baby have been turned into Broadway productions—the former was a smash hit that ran for more than six years, won eight Tony Awards and is currently "playing in every public high school in America," according to Waters, while the latter was nominated for four Tonys but failed at the box office—he's kept busy writing books, the most recent of which is last year's Role Models. But it's been seven years since his last film, 2004's A Dirty Shame. He's finding it more difficult these days to get films made, though not for lack of trying.
"Well, it's not my choice," Waters says. "I developed a movie called Fruitcake, a children's Christmas movie. It was optioned; I got a development deal, was paid well, wrote it, turned it in; they liked it; they were going to make it, and then the picture house, New Line, went out of business, and the recession happened, and the rules of independent film completely changed. Now, all the movies that cost $5 million, they want to cost $500,000.
"So I'm still trying to get it made, but it's difficult. That's why I write books. I have many different ways to tell my stories. As long as I've got a way to tell my stories, I'm fine. I had a meeting today about my movie, so I'm still trying to do it, but I don't sit around and wait."