John Waters on writing

Filmmaker John Waters killed a guy once. In 1970 on an early Sunday afternoon, he and his frequent leading lady Mink Stole were driving in Baltimore when an elderly man stepped off the curb and directly into the path of Waters’ car.

“His body flipped up and landed on the hood with his face pressed toward mine through the driver-side windshield,” Waters writes in his new book Role Models (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), a collection of autobiographical essays. “This image so horrified me that I have used it over and over in my later films.”

Even though he has published two previous books (Shock Value and Crackpot), granted countless interviews and found great success on the speaking circuit, Waters had never revealed this story until now. The Miami Herald recently talked to Waters about the ghastly incident and other revelations he makes in his highly readable memoir that will make you laugh out loud.

Q. It kind of makes sense, in a weird way, that you actually killed someone.

A: It was an accident. Can we please make sure you put that down? No one ever tried to tell me it was my fault. Fortunately there was a cop who witnessed the entire thing, and I was never charged with anything. I had never told that story for obvious reasons. It’s not a laugh riot. It’s not something you do a one-liner on. I just felt this book was the only real context where it felt appropriate.

I’m still sorry it happened, but I remember my grandmother saying “I’m praying to God for you,” and I said, “Why don’t you ask Him why he picked my car to walk in front of?” I only felt sad and, as Naomi Campbell once said when she had to testify at a trial, “This is a great inconvenience.” It was a nightmare. I imagine when you’re reading the book, and you get to that sentence, it stops you for a moment. But you’re supposed to tell some secrets in a book.

Q. “Role Models” is a book about the people who influenced your life and work — Johnny Mathis, Little Richard, Tennessee Williams, designer Rei Kawakuro, pornographer Bobby Garcia — but it also doubles as an autobiography. We learn a lot about you we didn’t know before.

A: It was great to write an autobiography where every other word wasn’t “me” or “I.” All those people I write about are why I am who I am today. I think everybody in the world should write a book like this about their lives. It might surprise you. But when you say role models, people automatically think it has to be Gandhi or Martin Luther King. My role models were weak or had terrible things happen to them. It has to be somebody whose influence, good or bad, has lasted with you, and you look back and realize they enabled you to do something in your life because of them.

And yes, I do tell a lot about myself — but not really. Like I say in the book, I never trust any celebrity who reveals the most personal things. Whenever I see people pouring out too much information to journalists, I always think these people obviously have no friends.

Q: Your early films were often described as pornographic, even though they weren’t. But they almost felt pornographic in this strange way.

A: Porn films were huge influences on me for many reasons. First of all, we have to be friends with pornographers, because they’re the only people who can afford mafia lawyers to fight the cases and win so artists and filmmakers and painters can use the same subject matter and not be sued. They do it first.

My early films — I always said they were exploitation movies, but they did terribly in exploitation theaters. Whenever we booked them in a drive-in, they died. The richer and smarter the neighborhood, the better my films have always done, much to my humiliation and embarrassment. Exploitation audiences do not want irony. They don’t think they’re funny. They find it sexy or scary.

Pornography is designed to make you masturbate. If anyone ever masturbated in my movies, they’re in deep trouble. Even though I embraced the anarchy of porno and the breaking of laws of porn, I made movies where you would pray my characters wouldn’t take off their clothes. If one of my characters ever did a strip tease, people would yell “Put it back on!” I was always trying to subvert even the sexual stuff. Even in Hairspray, the most commercial thing I ever did, the fat girl got the guy. That’s the antithesis of a porn movie.

Q: You write in the book that when you discovered Tennessee Williams’ early plays as a teenager, you were yearning for a “bad influence.” What did you mean by that?

A: I was yearning for bohemia. I just didn’t know it existed. I was raised by loving parents. I went to a private school for fairly wealthy children where every single person in my class voted for Eisenhower. Then I went to Catholic school where they told us all these movies we wanted to see would send us straight to hell. The only thing I wanted as a child was the wrath of the Pope himself [laughs].

When I first read Tennessee Williams, I realized there was this whole other bohemia that existed, and he actually lived there. That’s the world I still live in and yearn for, which is mixed, gay and straight, all races. We don’t want to get married; we don’t want to be like everyone else. I guess I wanted to be a beatnik, and when I read his early stuff, I realized I could. There was this other world with the kind of people I wanted to meet, which was impossible to know about in suburban Baltimore in loser Maryland in the 1950s. It was a great freedom to read him.

Q: You’re a naturally funny storyteller and raconteur, but your book made me laugh out loud constantly, which is a really hard thing to do. Do you have to work at that?

A: Thank you! It’s much easier to laugh at a movie or a person, but when a book makes you laugh, there is something deeper and more personal about it. It’s harder to do, but when it happens it’s fantastic. When something is funny in a book, it’s funnier than anything.


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