John Waters is prolific, filthy, and better read than most of us — and he recently took time out after returning from his 55th summer in Provincetown, RI., 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.
“People always 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 if he believes there’s always some truth in a lie, and he said no.“There are 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 the 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 theaters that won in a way. People always said they wouldn’t survive – just like bookstores. They thought indie bookstores wouldn’t survive, but look what’s 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 integral role in keeping people in a town.“People need a good movie theater and a good bar,” Waters said; a sentiment he shared with former Maryland Governor Mike O’malley. “Without them, people would 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 their 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 for 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.
“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.”
Since Richmond is basically a college town, I asked Waters 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 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 doing since he was a teenager and received his first 8mm camera.
“I knew what I wanted to be, and no school would let me. No one who’s ever given me a penny ever 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. Today, there’s probably a few that would. There’s probably colleges so liberal they’d let you make a snuff movie.”
He did express his discontent with fraternities 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. He made sure to let them know that 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 Waters, a famed book enthusiast, what was on his reading list this summer:
His reading list includes:
A Hand Reached Down to Guide me – David Gates
Several books by Rachel Cusk
The works of Elena Ferrante
Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (which Waters called this his “most shocking book of the summer.)
Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art
The Sun by Phillip Myer (his personal favorite)
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.