When cinephiles think of writer-director John Waters, images of jingle bells, holly and trips to Grandma’s don’t tend to come to mind. His name is more likely to evoke overweight drag diva Divine being raped by a giant lobster, sexual acts involving chickens, ’60s race riots … and, of course, the warm pile of dog doo Divine devours in 1972’s Pink Flamingos.
In recent years, though, Waters’ work hasn’t been quite as outré as the pioneering, ultra-low-budget indie films he shot decades ago in his native Baltimore. This year, in fact, he’s all about holiday cheer ... with a twist. Waters will offer his own brand of glee in a monologue, “A John Waters Christmas,” next week at the Flynn.
A childhood Christmastime visit to his maternal grandmother Stella launched Waters’ obsession with all things ho, ho, ho. The family arrived to find Grandma pinned under her fallen tree — and, right then, young Waters began to see how the holiday could fit into his budding aesthetic. “It wasn’t like she was rushed away in an ambulance with stars sticking in her eyeballs or anything,” he says now. “It wasn’t that good.”
A 1985 piece entitled “Why I Love Christmas” — first published in National Lampoon and later in his book of essays, Crackpot — brought Waters out of the closet as a Christmas queen. His first holiday show was at San Francisco’s Castro Theater “a really long time ago,” he says.
In 2004, Waters released an album of yuletide tunes — also called A John Waters Christmas — featuring the likes of “Happy Birthday, Jesus” by Little Cindy. His forthcoming film (still seeking a backer) is also X-mas themed — and it’s for children. Fruitcake follows the travails of a kid of that name who runs away from home after his parents are arrested for stealing meat. “I’m not cynical about Christmas,” insists Waters, who promises the movie will not be, either.
Known for years by epithets such as the Prince of Puke and the Pope of Trash, Waters may acquire a new one — “the Santa of Sick” — before long. Seven Days chatted with him by phone in advance of his Burlington show.
Seven Days: What do you know about Vermont?
John Waters: Well, it sounds like my kind of town. You always hear about it. You know, it’s one of these places where … if I was running from being tear-gassed, people there would hide me, so I have a very good feeling about it. And I’ll try not to do anything illegal while I’m there, which is a short time. So, for 24 hours, I plan to commit no crimes except verbal Christmas crimes.
SD: There’s a local celebrity drag group called the House of Lemay who have been casually stalking you and blogging about it.
JW: Uh-oh. What are they saying?
SD: They’ve been blogging about trying to get to know you in Provincetown before the show here.
JW: Wow. No, I haven’t seen that one. Well, I hope they’re friendly.
SD: They’re very sweet.
JW: Well, good. If they go to Provincetown, they see me on my bicycle all the time, just like Miss Gulch riding through town.
SD: I imagine they’re not on bikes.
JW: Well, you never know; I see drag queens on bikes a lot. There’s one that drives through town all the time on a little scooter. In Provincetown, almost everybody rides bikes. I guess it is hard to ride a bike in drag, because your outfit will get caught in the spokes. You get used to seeing pretty much anything in Provincetown.
SD: In Crackpot, you talk about wishing there were a “never-too-thin, never-too-rich Kris Kringle.” Your description brought to mind a sometime Vermont resident, Karl Lagerfeld.
JW: But has he ever been in a Santa outfit?
SD: He has his chic black Hedi Slimane Santa outfit with a fan.
JW: His diet book is the funniest diet book ever. The Karl Lagerfeld Diet; it’s so great — I talk about it in my new book. I met Karl Lagerfeld at an event, and he’s really funny and smart. I wasn’t sure I would like him before I met him, you know what I mean? But the best thing he told me — my favorite failed art film ever is a movie called Boom!, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the costumes are credited to Tiziani of Rome — Karl Lagerfeld told me he was Tiziani’s assistant on that movie. So I’m all for Karl Lagerfeld; he’d be the perfect Santa.
SD: How long did you continue to believe in Santa?
JW: I remember my mother told me that I would say, “You know, I know about Santa. I know the guardian angel and Santa Claus are the same person.” So I would get confused. I thought that he had two jobs, ’cause I wondered, What do they do the rest of the year? But when I stopped believing in it — I don’t remember, really, and I don’t remember it being a trauma.
SD: It sounds like, either way, it was a religious thing for you.
JW: I was raised part Catholic, so, always, anything good comes with guilt. So, basically, Santa was used against you, like, if you weren’t good, he wouldn’t come. I always tell the story of my Aunt Kate, who was Stella’s sister — who, as a child, her parents really did give her coal. Have you ever heard of a parent doing that? But they did, and she flipped out and everything. So that I always thought of and was obsessed by that, too. She really got sticks and stones and coal. Really, that’s child abuse.
SD: Have you made your Christmas card for the year yet?
JW: I certainly have, and I’ve signed all 1800 of them. My assistant has different piles: ones that say, “John Waters,” ones that say, “Love, John,” ones that say, “Love, John Waters,” and the ones that say, “Uncle John,” and we go through the list. It is a major production every year.
SD: What’s on it this year?
JW: Oh, I’m never telling before people get them. I’m not gonna tell until I mail them and people get them around. People sell them online, and then they never get one if I find out who it is. They’re cut off.
One year my card was a good one; it was me in a “Wanted” thing — you know, when you get in front of the numbers and everything — and I’m holding the numbers in a Santa hat. And I went down, and the real police helped me do it. They don’t do that anymore. It’s all on the computer now, but they got out the old ones and did it.
SD: What’s on your Christmas list this year?
JW: I like the Buildings of Disaster, and they have a new one coming out soon. Do you know them? I just gave a design award to the people that do them. Boym is the name of the company. They’re all the same size: 4 inches high, nickel-plated replicas of buildings where terrible things happened. I have Waco, I have Oklahoma, I have the Unabomber’s cabin, I have the OJ highway, Princess Di’s tunnel. They’re kind of great. I always ask my mom to give me the new one for Christmas. And I always have books.
The best presents, it’s not about spending money; it’s about something so perfect that you never even knew [it] was there in the first place. That’s the very best present you can get. And it could cost a nickel; it has nothing to do with what it costs. The worst present: fruit gift baskets. I can buy a fucking pear! You open it and there are six pears! That outrages me.
SD: Does Fruitcake appear to be any closer to … fruition?
JW: Well, today, it’s not an abortion, but getting in line. I personally do not know of any $5 million American independent films that are shooting right now. It’s the worst it’s ever been in my life in the film business.
It’s a tough time. I’m also in the third act of thinking up a whole new one, too. I don’t know why, because they all like the screenplay. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the script; it was just, these days, a film has to cost under a million or $100 million. I’ll get it made somehow. I wrote a book, and I’ve been working on that for 2.5 years. It comes out in June [and is] called Role Models. So I’m always busy; I’ve always got projects, thank God.
JW: Not really, and that’s why I made Fruitcake, which is a Christmas movie, so I don’t know. They’re hard to make, good Christmas movies — really hard, I think. And even ones that are so bad, they don’t make them anymore; they’re more like a ’50s kind of thing.
I’ll tell ya my favorite one — I forgot — which I saw last year was Alvin and the Chipmunks, who I’m obsessed with. On Christmas Eve day, I sat there alone [in the theater], and parents were making their children move away ’cause I looked like a child molester.
And I will be the first one paying to see the Chipettes this year, which is the female girl chipmunks, so that’s the Christmas movie this year. I’m a big fan of the Chipmunks. I am turned on by them, yes. Somebody sent me a cel that the original animators did of Alvin masturbating with Theodore and the other one watching and filming it, and it’s right in my house. It’s a prized possession.
SD: Have obsessions like that diminished as you’ve matured?
JW: No. I’m always interested in the newest thing, you know … Is Levi [Johnston, former boyfriend of Bristol Palin] gonna show a hard-on, soft or Hollywood loaf? What is the answer, ’cause they don’t say in all the articles about his new nudity that he’s doing. So, yeah, there’s always something that I’m following heavily.
SD: Who do you think could be a ripped-from-the-headlines John Waters star?
JW: Levi. Levi in a minute. And today I read in the paper that, if he’s a gay icon, he said, “So be it,” which is kind of amazing.
I’m waiting for him to do porn. Pulling Levi’s Lever — that’s gonna be the movie that I wanna direct. I think Levi would be the one in the news this minute. And I don’t really do that anymore. Most of the people who are famous for being in the newspaper I don’t like that much.