John Waters on gay rights, LSD, and the importance of old movie theaters ahead of October show at the Byrd
John Waters is prolific, filthy, and better read than most of us – but he took time out after returning from his 55th summer in Provincetown, MA., to speak with GayRVA ahead of his mid-October appearance at the Byrd Theatre.
First off, he doesn’t remember much about Richmond. I was told a story about famed local-drag queen/hot mess Dirtwoman being sent up by limo to Baltimore for a John Waters screen test, only to do so poorly she was sent back on a Greyhound – a story Waters says he’s often reminded of, but doesn’t actually remember.
“Always people ask me about her… but the story might have been exaggerated,” he said. “I took a lot of LSD. I don’t know the truth in that story, but there’s probably some truth in it.”
I ask him if he believes there’s always some truth in a lie and he said no.
“There’s a lot of lies about me…”
The filmmaker, author, stand up comedian, and cult-classic guru, did have some nice things to say about RVA.
“Richmond has always been good to me,” he insisted, though he admits his first memory of our city is its “hard to fly into.” But he’s got family in Virginia – a sister in Alexandria and another in the Southwest part of the state where he spends Thanksgiving.
Throughout his travels, he said he does remember the Byrd Theatre and is excited to come to town to help support the famed movie palace.
“These are the kinds of theatre that won in a way, people always said they wouldn’t survive – just like book stores, they thought indie book stores wouldn’t survive – but look whats gone? Boarders is gone!” said Waters. He stressed it was support from communities that helped keep theaters like the Byrd alive, and how they play an intigral role in keeping people in a town as well.
“People need a good movie theatre and a good bar,” Waters said; a sentiment he said he shared with former Maryland Governor Mike O’malley. “With out them, people leave. They’d go to New York, all the smart people will leave. Get good bars and good movie theaters.”
It’s the little things in the Byrd – terrible seats and all – that make Waters such a fan of theaters from years past.
“I don’t understand stadium seating, maybe for a screening of Ben-Hur or something, but even the art theaters are putting in really expensive seats, like first class airlines,” he said. “But people go to sleep, you don’t want to be too comfortable. People don’t have sex in movie theaters anymore anyway.”
I told him he’s speaking at a fundraiser aiming to GET NEW SEATS for the Byrd and he laughed and threw out some suggestions for additional fundraisers:
“They ought to get celebrities to chew gum and have them put the gum under the theater seat,” he said.
“That would be a really good fundraiser – on each one, you know how they sell plaques? You could do a lower version and have celebrities chew gum and stick it under there and it’s varnished under there for ever. Have the name of the star scrawled in graffiti alongside the gum.”
I told him we’ve got lots of graffiti artists in town and he said “put them to work.”
Beyond his role as a famed filmmaker and classic theater enthusiast, Waters is also a proud and outspoken gay man. Stories recently floated around social media suggesting he never really came out as gay, a kind of weak extrapolation from facts from an interview with SiriusXM Progress.
He was on the cover of a gay newspaper in 1972 called GayNews and Waters said people called him brave, a claim he denies; “I wasn’t brave, no one else would put me on the cover!”
His movies never shied away from gay, queer, or gender-bent concepts, with men in dresses often being the least shocking part of his early films.
He said he’s always been a supporter of the fight LGBTQ equality, but he hasn’t been afraid to make fun of those who think themselves above ridicule. He managed to find himself at odds with some activists after making jokes about Caitlyn Jenner earlier this year.
“The Bruce Jenner/Caitlyn thing is kind of old hat to me. I had a transgender woman in Pink Flamingos. She had breasts and a penis. She got the operation that week. That was radical to me then,” he told The Spectator. “Caitlyn’s a Republican, she’s on a reality show, and she’s a Kardashian. We can’t make fun of him or her?”
While folks in the LGBTQ community wrestled over Waters’ remarks, he said it’s those divisions that he tries to avoid.
“I’m not a separatist,” he said in our interview. “I don’t like hanging out with people who have the same-sexual fantasies as you. I like to hear about everybody’s bad nights, and you can’t do that if you only hang out with people like you.”
He bemoaned the closing of gay bars around the country to some extent, but admitted he doesn’t frequent them like some might expect. “I go to all the hipster bars where the crowds mix – where they’re gay and straight.”
This pursuit of diversity is something Waters has always sought. He said he doesn’t just hang out with democrats, because he believes you’ve got to know how the smartest people you disagree with think.
“The only thing you can ever do is make your enemies laugh first,” he said. “Then they’ll consider changing their minds.”
And speaking of those he disagrees with, he had some advice for Kim Davis, the (at the time of the interview) incarcerated Kentucky Clerk refusing same-sex marriage licenses: “Have a lesbian affair – see if there’s any cute guards.”
He wasn’t surprised to hear about Davis’s story, saying he’s encountered Christian activists like that before.
“Jesus was on the cross, [radical Christians] like to suffer,” he joked.
But at the same time he almost respected her for sticking to her guns.
“I would support people who go to jail for what I believe in,” he said. “So, if you really are her, and you believe that, she has a right to do that in a weird way. But not if she works for the government and if the the Supreme Court rules on it, yea know? That’s why it went to the Supreme Court.”
Waters was more surprised the ACLU didn’t step up in her case. “[They] fight for the rights for Nazi’s to march, and I think that’s correct to do – I think it’s right they fight for the worst pornography against women (even thought I hate it) because we have to put up with the worst of it to keep free speech legal.”
But don’t be mistaken, Waters has little sympathy for Davis.
“How could anyone be threatened by someone falling in love,” he said. “Everyone, straight and gay, knows how hard it is to fall in love, how could anyone be against that? It’s astounding to me.”
Richmond is almost a college town so I asked him if he had any advice for students as they embark on the upcoming school year. He recently spoke at a commencement for the Rhode Island School of Design and said the ideas he expressed there are ones he hopes young folks take to heart.
“If you’re in school, use it – meet smart people,” he said. “You go to school to figure out what you want to be.”
Waters never finished school himself – he went to NYU for a bit, but dropped out and started making movies – something he’d been interested in since he was a teenager and received his first 8 mm camera.
“I knew what I wanted to be, and no school would let me,” he said. “In my life, no one that’s ever given me a penny has asked if I went to school. But good thing I’m not a brain surgeon.”
“When I was in school, there was no school that would let me make Pink Flamingos,” said the filmmaker about his breakout movie which continues to shock audiences to this day. “Today there probably is. There’s probably colleges so liberal they’d let you make a snuff movie.”
He did express his discontent for fraternity organizations though. Waters said he used to live next to a frat and he’d watch from the window as they’d parade brothers across the lawn nearly naked, chained together, with bags over their heads.
“I asked if I could come over and they got so uptight about it and never fucked with me,” he said before letting them know if they were into that kind of action “[they should] go down to the Eagle! they do that every night!”
As our 30 minute interview came to a close, I knew I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask the Waters, a famed book enthusiast, what was on his reading list this summer:
John Waters Summer 2015 reading list:
A Hand Reached Down to Guide me – David Gates
Several books by Rachel Cusk
the works of Elena Ferrante - (he’s doing a panel on her in NY later this year)
Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga – Waters called this his “most shocking book of the summer” – a black pigmi kidnapped in the 190′s and put on display in the Bronx zoo with a monkey
His favorite from the summer was The Sun by Phillip Myer
You can catch John Waters in person when he comes to The Byrd Theatre on Oct. 16th, presented by local businesses Chop Suey Books, Video Fan, and Bandito’s Burrito Lounge, as part of a fundraiser for both WRIR 97.3 LP-FM and The Byrd Theatre.
Top image via John Waters/Admire Entertainment
Live performance of ‘Phantom’ at the Byrd Theatre aims to highlight the famed movie palace’s original elegance
“I’ve always went there and watched movies, and I’ve just always looked around and thought it looks like the Paris Opera House…”September 29, 2016
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