John Waters Talks About Filmmaking, Hairspray, Cannabis...and Christmas

John Waters is making his way from the North Pole of Baltimore to Boulder.
John Waters is making his way from the North Pole of Baltimore to Boulder.
Illustration by Kagan McCleod

Pervert, auteur, provocateur: Filmmaker John Waters has been called many things in his nearly fifty-year career, but “Christmas fan” might be the oddest. And the most accurate. The man who introduced his best friend, the late drag queen Divine, to the world by making her eat dog poop on camera has sweet and hilarious stories about what the holidays mean to him. And it all makes great fodder his one-man show, A John Waters Christmas, which he'll unpack at the Boulder Theater on December 7. What presents will Waters leave under our tree? More important, will they be cha-cha heels? We recently chatted with Waters about his holiday show, the magic of Christmas, and whatever other topics appeared under the mistletoe.

Westword: Tell us about your earliest Christmas memory.

John Waters: My earliest Christmas memory…every Christmas Eve we used to go down to the little neighborhood square where I lived in Lutherville, Maryland, and Santa would come for a visit — but when Santa came, I could blatantly see that it was the man who lived two doors to the right of us. I mean, yes, he had on a beard and everything, but I knew him well, and I thought, “That’s him, that’s not Santa Claus!” And so I think that's why children take heroin, because that’s the first lie their parents tell them — so later, when their parents tell them things they should listen to, they DON’T. I just knew it wasn’t Santa; even a moron could see it wasn't Santa! It was the man next door, and I knew his voice. I mean, it wasn’t especially traumatic or anything, but why was HE dressed like that? Why are they telling me this stuff? In the end it didn’t ruin my Christmas, because I didn’t care who brought the presents, as long as somebody did.

So you saw that veil being lifted very early on.

Well, yes! I mean, I was always kinda suspicious from the beginning, but I would get it all mixed up and sometimes wonder, “Did he know the Easter Bunny? Does he know the Guardian Angel? The Tooth Fairy?" Like all of these people, I thought, maybe they all lived together or something.

A young John Waters, dreaming of BB guns for Christmas.
A young John Waters, dreaming of BB guns for Christmas.
Dreamland News

So was there ever a present that you desperately wanted - like cha-cha heels - that you didn’t get for Christmas?

No, my parents did usually get me what I wanted: music that they hated, things like that. I always wanted a BB gun and they would never give me one — and they were correct, now that I look back on it, because I would’ve accidentally shot MYSELF with it, not others. I think I was pretty much within reason with my requests, and if I wasn’t, they’d just say, “Well, Santa ain’t gonna bring you that, I’ll tell you now.”

We always had a nice Christmas. I don’t remember it ever being traumatic in any way, but when I do my show, I realize that a lot of people in the audience DID have bad experiences at Christmas, so I always try to address everybody, no matter what their Christmas was like — even if they’re Jewish or Muslim or never really had a Christmas. I mean, I get why that gets on their nerves, because they’re force-fed it all the time. You can’t escape it, even if you don’t believe in it; it's impossible to escape Christmas. Which to me is why — and I’ve very much against church and state mixing together and all — I think the satanic temple is really funny, because they’re like the Yippies: They sue any state building with religious things in them, win and they get to erect devil statues and have devil bible school, which I think is actually really funny.

After all of this time, what does Christmas and the season mean to you?

I’m like a drag queen on Halloween: I’m working! I’m going to be in eighteen cities, so when I’m touring, I realize, “Oh! It really is Christmas! I should be buying blankets and stuff." It all becomes material for me, but then on the tour I realize that the holiday IS a thing that I do participate in, and then I end up having to buy a lot of presents, so I try to do that before I leave on tour. I always write the updates to my Christmas show in the summer when I’m in Provincetown, because the last thing I want to do at the last minute — and I’ve written it all, I just haven’t memorized it yet — is trying to come up with new material, so I do it way in advance. Maybe I’ll add a little bit of new stuff, because when I hit the tour, the election will be over, so who knows?

What can we look forward to in your show?

We’re going to talk about what I always talk about in my show: things I want YOU to give ME, and every year that changes! I want my own special bookstore, I recommend stocking stuffers that you can give — I’m very much against gift cards except for a few special ones, which I’ll tell you about — I’ll tell you how to very cheaply decorate your house for Christmas with decorations that are easy to do and appalling at the same time. so your relatives will be horrified. I will even tell you how to put a curse on relatives at your house who get on your nerves!

All fine Christmas fare!

Yes! And Christmas music is a very important topic, too. I go through it all. Christmas affects everybody. It affects travel, it affects the mail, and I'm very much for Christmas cards, because no one mails anything anymore, and I think that's terrible. I know someone who had sex with a mailman recently because they felt bad for him because he didn’t have any mail to deliver. And I was shocked about it! I asked him, “Why did you have sex with the mailman?” and he said, “It was just twice.” And he’s a straight guy, and when I pressed him on that, he said, “Well, I AM straight but I felt bad for the guy.” [Laughs.] I know! That’s sooo Baltimore.

My precious, gifted Waters ornament — complete with a roach — that I will never sell, John.
My precious, gifted Waters ornament — complete with a roach — that I will never sell, John.
Keith Garcia

Speaking of Christmas cards, I have a friend on your Christmas card list who once gifted me one of the beautiful ornaments that you gave out a few years ago.

Which one was it? Was it the roach ball?

Yeah, the clear ornament with the roach in it. What do these traditions like card lists and such mean to you?

Well, to be honest, my Christmas cards — and mine are already done and sitting in the envelopes ready to go — are just kind of my ads for the year. Just to remind me of friends and people that I do business with, because when I was young, my father had a business and used to send a calendar every year, so it’s along those lines. I do get mad, though, when I see people selling my cards and stuff on eBay, and I try to track down who it is, and then I send people to their house to burn it down. They ARE private so… [laughs], but I like doing them every year even though it's a challenge, because I feel like I have to top myself. This year my card is very conceptual — I'm not going to tell you what it is — but I always use the card as an advertisement for the Christmas show next year.  So my card last year was a Christmas tree falling over, and when you open the card a spring shoots out with me on it, falling — and I believe that illustration is what we’re using this year.

I imagine that everyone you work with ends up on your card list, but how many of your film family actually get an invite to come over for Christmas dinner?

The Christmas invitation is for everyone who was in my films that I’m still in touch with. It can be everyone from the guy with the singing anus — who comes with his wife every year — to big movie stars. It’s a very Baltimore-centric party, and many, many of the people in my films do come down, and sometimes it's the only time of the year I get to see some of them.

And what do you serve at Christmas dinner?

Oh, it’s catered by a woman named Sasha who has catered all of my parties for years; it’s quite elaborate. We have great food for about 200-and-some people, so it’s a big party — and it’s two days after my tour ends! So it's really the party my assistants give, and then I come in and come to it. By that time I am so exhausted after touring that having 200 people in your house makes me always think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this again.” At least this year it’s not my turn to cook dinner for the whole family.

John Waters, all grown up.
John Waters, all grown up.
Photo by Greg Gorman

I’m going to steer off of Christmas for a minute. I recently chatted with director Rachel Talalay, and she talked about going through your unofficial film school, working with you on Polyester and Hairspray. How does it feel to see a young mind you’ve nurtured work their way into the film world?

Oh, it’s great — are you kidding? That’s the best possible thing that can happen. I curate art shows sometimes where I pick young artists that I want people to see, and they end up getting picked up by new dealers and selling some of their stuff. It’s great; it’s curating in a way itself. I’m really happy to see people that I know have success, and you know, I don’t understand when some people don’t like it. I think it was Gore Vidal who said the worst thing ever is when your friend has success. That’s so English; they feel that way in Britain. I’m always thrilled, because it’s so hard for anyone to find success anymore, especially anyone who started out with me. My cousin started out with me in high school at the craft-service table on my movies, and he went on to produce the Eminem movie for Imagine Films. It’s great to give people a start. Somebody gave me my start, and that’s what counts.

And who was that person who gave you your start?

Well, my dad in the beginning, because he gave me the money to make the movies even though he was appalled by them, but I did pay him back, and I think he was SHOCKED that he got the money back. After that I would say Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema, who greenlit most of my movies, and so I have to give him great credit.

You are a great fan of indie and art-house film — and just film in general. What are three films this year that we need to see?

Oooooh, I just turned in my ten-best list for Art Forum, and I can’t reveal those! That comes out December 1, but I DO know what I can tell ya, some films that I didn’t see until after I turned my list in. Both films by Jim Jarmusch this year: Paterson, about the poet, and Gimmie Danger, his documentary about Iggy Pop. I liked both, but they were too late to include in my list, and I can say they are definitely worth seeing. Oh! And I just saw the movie Weiner, which is a really good documentary, and man, now that movie is just going to keep having relevance!

Is there anyone making film today that reminds you of you and your particular aesthetic?

Well, I wouldn’t say the films are the same, but I certainly think that Todd Solondz has a career that is in some ways similar to mine. He makes films that are not easy to like, and I think they’re very different than mine, but I’m a big fan of his. I don’t think anybody's trying to make films like I did, but certainly anybody who just writes and directs their own movie. I mean, to me the best director in the world is Pedro Almodovar.... I think Pedro makes the smartest, best movies. I don’t think he’s ever made a bad movie, and he started out certainly with films that I think people could say were a little like mine.

Are you working on any film projects right now we should get excited about?

Well, I did write a whole sequel to Hairspray for HBO that didn’t happen, so who knows — maybe if the whole NBC Hairspray thing is a hit, which I think it will be, we’ll see that sequel at some point. [NBC's Hairspray airs the same night John Waters will be in Boulder so set your DVRs.]

How does it feel to see this continued iteration of Hairspray make it from one of your films to Broadway and then all the way to a televised musical extravaganza for Christmas?

I wanted Hairspray in Space; that’s when I’ll finally give it up. I say that as a joke, but one time on a talk show I said that I wanted Hairspray on Ice, and producers of ice-rink shows called me and wanted to do it. So you really don’t know what’s going to happen anymore. ANYTHING is possible with Hairspray!

A couple of years ago, you came through Colorado on your hitchhiking journey. What was your most memorable takeaway about our state?

Things got easier as I went west, for sure. Colorado, as I remember, I never got stuck in — so it was definitely a high point. The worst was Ohio!

Why was Ohio so bad?

Because no one picked me up, and I had to stand there for ten hours! Kansas wasn’t good in the beginning, but then I got a great ride all the way through it, and it’s actually an amazing state to drive through because it’s so minimalist.

John Waters, making his way to I-70 during his hitchhiking tour in 2012.
John Waters, making his way to I-70 during his hitchhiking tour in 2012.
Photo by Shauta Marsh

I think when you came through Colorado, marijuana wasn’t legal yet…

You know, it's sad now, because marijuana just makes me nervous these days, but I wish that it had been legal when I was young, back when people’s lives were ruined and they were put in jail for just having and smoking a few joints. But I’m certainly for legalization: I mean, how many people smoke pot and get in fights? It just doesn’t relax me — it just makes me worry — but I know it relaxes others. And it CAN make you stupid, but you know, it’s better to be stupid than violent.

Wow, that should be embroidered on a pillow.

[Laughs.] YES! And on that note, I have to go and run to another interview right quick.

Well, thank you John, and Merry Christmas!

Same to you Keith — OH GOD, you’re the first person to say Merry Christmas to me this year. That’s scary!

And I'm sure I won’t be the last!

Unwrap A John Waters Christmas at 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 7, at the Boulder Theater, 2032  14th Street in Boulder. Tickets for the sixteen-and-up show start at $35. Snatch yours at bouldertheater.com.

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