'Filth Elder' John Waters Says There Are Still 'Plenty Of Rules' Left To Break

May 20, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 9:44 am

Cult filmmaker and self-described "filth elder" John Waters, 73, has plenty of ideas about what older people should and shouldn't do.

The worst thing, he says, is to get a convertible: "Because believe me, old age and windswept do not go hand in hand. It's really a bad look! You can't be trying too hard to rebel [when] you're older."

Waters knows about being a rebel. He became famous for his 1972 film Pink Flamingos, in which the characters compete for the title of filthiest person alive. That film became a midnight movie classic and led to other films, including Female Trouble and Hairspray.

Along the way, Waters became accepted in the mainstream more than he ever expected. Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical, and he has also given a commencement address and had museum retrospectives.

Though he jokes that he can't be anarchist — "I have three homes!" — he adds, "There's plenty of rules that you can still break. ... I think you have to use humor and you can't be so angry about it."

Waters looks back on his unlikely path to respectability in his new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.


Interview highlights

On growing up in Baltimore and being inspired by "bad kids"

It was the opposite of me, and I still like to be around people that are the opposites of me. ... We didn't have juvenile delinquents in my school, in my preppy grade school. ... But I always was kind of just amazed to see these supposedly "bad kids" hanging out. I went to the Elvis movies, Jerry Lee Lewis — all that stuff. So I knew about juvenile delinquency.

I was always corrupted by Life magazine because we got it every week and it always covered beatniks, drug addicts. Everything that I was interested in I would read every word of it. And then my parents got the encyclopedia — the World Book Encyclopedia, I think — and that had everything in it! I would look up everything in there that you weren't supposed to. So I was corrupted by the things that my parents brought in for educational reasons in our house — but not for the educational reasons they had in mind. ... Everything about trouble in the arts I looked up.

On whether his parents' death changed him

I don't think I've ever changed, Terry. I think I'm the same as when I first started. I mean, my first film was called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and it was about a black man and a white woman being married by a Ku Klux Klan preacher on the roof of my parents' house. And the last film I made was A Dirty Shame, which was this sexploitation movie that got an NC-17 rating. ...

The only thing I could think about my parents dying [was] thank God my mother doesn't have to read [my book]. ... But my parents had a happy marriage for 70 years. They both lived to be about 90. I'm wondering why I'm kind of as nuts as I am, really, because I had ... pretty good role models from them.

On how his parents reacted to his being an eccentric child

I was obsessed by car accidents, and I "played" car accidents. My mother would take me to junkyards and walk around with me and I'd be like, "There's been a terrible one over here! Look at this!" And I think [now], what did the junkyard or junk man think? What is this little ghoul? ... I don't know [what my mother thought]. That wasn't in the Dr. Spock book of "What to Do if Your Kid is Obsessed By Car Accidents."

... what parent would be happy their child made 'Pink Flamingos'? Really, none. - John Waters

[My parents] didn't know what to do, really, but they didn't freak out too much. They were confused by it. And what parent would be happy their child made Pink Flamingos? Really, none. ...

Some of the people that I would bring home, my friends, [my mother] would be horrified, but she was polite. I remember when we made Multiple Maniacs [a 1970 film about psychotic killers who perform in a traveling sideshow] at my parents' house and filmed the "Cavalcade of Perversion" [the sideshow act] on the front lawn. Divine came in afterwards in a bloody one-piece white woman's bathing suit carrying an ax, and my mother served us tea, as if Princess Di had come over!

On getting paid for work that doesn't get made

I have been paid three times to write sequels to Hairspray — real Hollywood money. I was paid to do a children's movie called Fruitcake that I never got made, but I was paid to write it. So I keep getting paid to do them, but they don't get made — which I feel fine about.

I've made 17 movies. It's not like I haven't spoken. ... And at the same time, the books do better than the movies and I just need a way to tell stories. ... But mostly with independent movies, a movie that routinely used to cost $7 million now they want you to do it for $2 million or $1 million. And I can't go backwards! I don't want to be an underground filmmaker at 73. I did that. I went through all that. And Hollywood treated me fairly. I don't have any real complaints.

On collecting unusual contemporary art

I bought a painting — if you could call it that — by Karin Sander, a German artist I like, and what she did, she has never touched this painting or seen it. She gave her American art dealer a blank canvas, and told him to leave it outside in the Hamptons until it got mold all over it. And then the mold dried in kind of a beautiful way. It looks like a Robert Ryman white painting. But then the dealer said, "I can't bring it in the gallery. And if you want to buy it, I have to get it treated." So he got it treated, and then for me to buy it, which I did, I thought, "Isn't this great? If I don't have it treated it could wreck my house. It could make me sick. It could maybe kill my guests. It might disappear one day. It's ugly, and it's really expensive. And this is perfect! This is the perfect contemporary art!" ... It hasn't spread. None of my guests have been rushed to the hospital from it. But I liked the idea that it's a dangerous painting.

On his plans to be buried in Baltimore, in the same cemetery as his friends

It's a small little graveyard. They handled Divine's funeral very well. ... Mink [Stole] is going to get buried there, Pat Moran ... all my friends, so we call it "Disgraceland," and really I like the idea of being buried with your friends. Most people do not do that.

Vincent Peranio, who does all the set designs for my movies, I said, "Maybe you could design [a tombstone] for me that looks old. That has moss on it or something," but I don't want any jokes on it, no. I just want the day I was born and the day I died and my name. I don't want like, "That's all, folks!" or anything like that.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke, the Duke of Duty - are just some of the honorifics that have been bestowed on my guest, John Waters. But in his new book, he asks, how did I become respectable? He writes, "I used to be despised, but now I'm asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges, attend career retrospectives at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the British Film Institute, and I even got a medal from the French government for furthering the arts in France. Suddenly, the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me - I am accepted," unquote.

Waters is now 73, and he's given himself a new nickname of filth elder. Waters became famous for his 1972 film "Pink Flamingos," in which the characters competed for the title The Filthiest Person Alive and did many revolting things in their attempts to win. That film became a midnight movie classic. His other best-known work, which is also his most mainstream, is "Hairspray." The original film, which he wrote and directed, was released in 1988. That was adapted into a Broadway musical. The Broadway musical was adapted into another film, using the music from the show. NBC broadcast a live version of the musical in 2016. John Waters has a new book called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder."

John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR (laughter).

JOHN WATERS: Thank you. Thank you. I'm glad you had me back.

GROSS: Always a pleasure to have you back. So you are now describing yourself as a filth elder. And you write, "Aging gracefully is the toughest thing for a rebel." Why is it so hard?

WATERS: Well, because you can't be trying too hard to rebel as you're older. You can't have a midlife crisis. You know, I can't be an anarchist. I have three homes.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: I mean, it's kind - and you can't - I don't want to be a underground filmmaker at 73, you know. So you have to decide - kind of the worst thing you can - there's many things you can ever do is - the worst thing is ever to get a convertible because, believe me, old age and wind-swept do not go hand in hand.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: It's really a bad look.

GROSS: Well, so much about being rebellious - we know - when you're young, is about defying the older people who've created the rules, and when you're the older person yourself, who are you defying?

WATERS: Well...

GROSS: I mean, there's still plenty of people to defy but - plenty of rules to defy.

WATERS: Well, there's plenty of rules that you can still break, but I think you have to use humor, and you can't be so angry about it. And you can't blame your parents. That's - by now, you should have worked it out, some - in some way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So - but I like angry people. But I think everything I make fun of in my career has been about things that I love. I mean, in this book, I make fun of the art world, I make fun of lots of different things - fancy restaurants - but I like all those things. So I think that that is the difference in tone. As you get older, you can still be angry about social issues, but you can't be bitter. Bitter and old age really is a depressing moment. And when you're 23, you can be angry, you can be a drug addict, a drunk, and you can be sexy. But at 73, it doesn't look so good.

GROSS: (Laughter) So do you worry about things like wrinkles and how you look?

WATERS: Of course. Every time, you know, I just - whenever any magazine says, what photographer do you want to shoot you? I always just say, the one that has the biggest retouch budget.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I mean, Greg Gorman does all my headshots, and he has for years and years and years, and he really can take a beautiful picture where you look good. But you know, every time I get - I don't want a contemporary photographer to ever take my picture. I like Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin's work, but I don't want to be in it.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: Although, Nan Goldin did take the picture of me and my fake son Bill, and the pictures came out very nice.

GROSS: Oh, your doll. Your kind of doll - that's your fake son?

WATERS: Well, my son.

GROSS: Your son...

WATERS: He is not a doll. Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you had on your Christmas card a few years ago. And I thought, what? (Laughter).

WATERS: One year, I did, and people...

GROSS: Looked like a real baby at first (laughter).

WATERS: People believed it was real. People thought it was real and wrote me these letters about how a child was going to change my life and everything.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: And then there were kind of embarrassed when they realized that it was actually - what they're called - a reborn baby.

GROSS: What does that mean?

WATERS: That means that you have to order them. It took eight months to get Bill, my son. And I asked for an angry baby with bad hair.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And they make it - they put the skin on, eyeballs, they put - and it had a penis. I only looked once because I'm not a pedophile.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: But I said, is it circumcised? And they said, well, it's not. And I said, well, could it be? And she said, oh, I don't know. Then she called back real seriously and said, the operation was a success.

GROSS: Oh, God, that's hilarious.

WATERS: She used Clay. Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm going to give you some advice. If you ever worry about wrinkles on your face - and I'm not saying you should.

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: But if you ever do, think about that your jackets are loud enough to distract attention.

WATERS: Well, that's a different thing. Now, I believe that if - I do have to watch what I - ever since I quit smoking, which was 10, 15 years ago, I gained weight. So you have to watch that. I'm so mad that Cooking Light magazine went out of business because I made every meal out of that. So the thing is that if I gain five pounds, makes a big difference on me, and it goes right to my stomach. So that's why I have a weird thing over my lip and weird shoes - no one looks in the middle.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: It's the same thing. Yeah. And the wrinkles - you know, Mink Stole told me, never smile in photographs; it always gives you wrinkles. And that is true.

GROSS: You write, "No matter how hard you try, as you get older, you turn into a twisted version of your mom and dad." So what's your twisted version of them? Yeah.

WATERS: Well, it's odd. I see pictures of myself, and now I think, oh, my God, you look exactly like your father. And recently, The Baltimore Sun called me, and they said, we have given you - to the Baltimore Business Hall of Fame. And I thought, you're kidding. My father would be so amazed at that. Both my parents lived to be 90 years old. They were proud of me at the end, but they were horrified, basically, by my career and my whole life. But they were also very supportive and made me feel safe. But I thought, isn't that weird?

In a way, I did learn, from my father, business, and I think in "Mr. Know-It-All," I do talk about Hollywood and everything I learned about negotiation and how you get through the business and how you raise money and all that kind of thing. So I probably did learn that from my father. It was a very, very different business. He sold fire protection equipment, and then my brother took over, and now my niece runs the company. But it's the same thing - you have to be organized, you have to plan. And I have an office. I have people that work for me, so I think I did learn from him.

GROSS: Did you change after they died?

WATERS: Well, did I change? I don't think I've ever changed, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I think I'm the same as when I first started.

GROSS: Really?

WATERS: Yeah. I mean, my first film was called "Hag In A Black Leather Jacket," and it was about a black man and a white woman being married by a Ku Klux Klan preacher on the roof of my parents' house.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And the last film I made was "A Dirty Shame," which was this sexploitation movie that got an NC-17 rating. This book certainly has - the only thing I could think about my parents dying - thank God my mother doesn't have to read it. (Laughter) You know, that's the only thing I can think. But my parents had a happy marriage for 70 years. They both lived to be about 90. So I really had - I'm wondering why I'm kind of as nuts as I am, really, because I had a pretty good role models to - from them.

GROSS: Well, speaking of as nuts as you are, you write that you were born six weeks premature, quote, "a little boy slightly miswired, already not following the rules. All I know is I was born with a screw loose." So when you wrote that you were born slightly miswired, I didn't know how literally to take that, like, if you think you're...

WATERS: Well, I think I was.

GROSS: ...Cognitively different, you know?

WATERS: Well, I think right from the beginning, I didn't want to be like anybody else. And I think I was overly baptized because, in the Catholic Church, they keep baptizing you, and you know, I needed a little original sin, and they wiped it all away.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So I think that that was the problem. I was a teacup baby that was over-baptized.

GROSS: But did you - yeah.

WATERS: You know, the one thing - like that great ad campaign for - there's one thing wrong with a Waters baby, it's alive. And kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: And kind of, I think I was a little like that.

GROSS: But there's a difference between not wanting to be like everybody else and being incapable of being like other people.

WATERS: Well, I'm both. I couldn't - you know?

GROSS: OK.

WATERS: I - no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't play football very well. And I am so gay that tools...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Even the sight of a hammer made me cry as a child. That's the one thing...

GROSS: Made you cry?

WATERS: ...I cannot do. Yeah. The - we had to hammer the next day in school. And I remember waking up screaming in the middle of the night of this horror that I had to hammer. And I still can't hammer. And my father would take me down and show me. It's easy. This is what you have to do. And I know he was mortified that I was that panicked. That's about the gayest thing I ever did.

GROSS: This fits into something else you write, which is, I realize now how hard it must've been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. So in addition to your terror at seeing hammers, what were some of your eccentricities when you were really young?

WATERS: Well, I was obsessed by car accidents. And I played car accidents. And my mother would take me to junkyards and walk around with me. And I'd be like, oh, there's been a terrible one over here. Look at this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And I think, what did the junk man think? Well, what is this little ghoul? So that kind of thing.

GROSS: What did your mother think?

WATERS: I don't know. That wasn't in the Dr. Spock book of what to do if your kid is obsessed by car accidents. And my parents were very straight. And what straight used to mean was not gay or straight. Straight used to mean you didn't smoke pot or you were not following the rules in the '60s. But my parents were very, very conservative in a way. My mother was liberal later in life. But still, I don't know what - they didn't know what to do, really. But they didn't freak out too much. They were confused by it, as - and what parent would be happy their child made "Pink Flamingos"? Really, none.

GROSS: Yeah, I - yes (laughter).

WATERS: At the time, really.

GROSS: At the time, absolutely not.

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So in your acknowledgments in your new book, you write, and finally, great gratitude to my late parents, John and Patricia Waters, for giving me the foundation of good taste to rebel against. So what...

WATERS: That's completely true.

GROSS: What was that foundation? What was the good taste that they had?

WATERS: Well, the foundation is - my mother would always say - my favorite thing is, who is that creature? - she used to say about friends that I gathered she didn't approve of. Or when I would hang rockabilly male singers like Eddie Cochran and Elvis and everything on my wall, my mother would always say, who is that creature? And some of the people that came home, that I would bring home - my friends - she would just be horrified. But she was polite. I remember when we made "Multiple Maniacs" at my parents' house and filmed the Cavalcade of Perversion on the front lawn. Divine came in afterwards in a bloody, one-piece, white women's bathing suit, carrying an axe. And my mother served us tea...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...As if Princess Di had come over, really.

GROSS: (Laughter). So your father had a very successful business. And your name was mentioned in an article about the Baltimore Blue Book. And I'm not familiar with the Blue Book. But the Blue Book was described in this article as a directory for the city's upper class. And one paragraph says in this article - this is like the Baltimore paper - since its founding in 1888, the Blue Book has documented the whereabouts and lineages of many blue bloods of the area, who have included sons of Francis Scott Key, relatives of Edgar Allan Poe and the family of John Waters (laughter).

WATERS: Oh, God. Well...

GROSS: Francis Scott Key and John Waters.

WATERS: Well, you know, it has Madalyn Murray in there. There's a lot of other people that came from Baltimore. She was the most famous one I like - that ended prayer in the public schools. She was the Satanic Temple, really, before they started. My parents even made fun of the Blue Book a little bit. I think they still have it, to be honest. How you get in it I don't know. But at the same time, it was a thing that my parents had. They didn't act like, oh, you can't hang around with people that aren't in the Blue Book. I totally forgot about that until you just brought it up. But I think I used to rebel heavily at the very idea of it and make fun of it. Even then - even as a child, I made fun of it.

GROSS: We should take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more.

WATERS: OK.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Waters. And he has a new book called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD FISHMAN'S "DIRTY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker and author and one-man show-person (laughter), John Waters. And his new book is called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." So we were talking about your parents and your family and how differently wired you were and how you rebelled against, like, your family's good taste.

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: So you write that you were raised to be preppy. You were sent to private school. But you yearned to meet the underclass. And you write, I first saw real working-class men when my dad took me downtown to see his new company building. My parents once took me to a bowling alley. They didn't at first realize it was also part pool hall. Here, I saw juvenile delinquents for the first time - boys with their shirt collars turned up, pompadours freshly greased, girls with tight, black, long skirts, ballet slippers and head scarves tied around their Debra Paget hairdos. How I longed to be with them. Talk more about the influence of, like, working-class teen culture on you.

WATERS: Well, I was so - it was the opposite of me. And I still like to be around people that are the opposites of me. I'm attracted to people that are the opposites of me. And so to go to that neighborhood and see - well, to see these kids together. They were like Elvis. They were like juvenile delinquents that I would read about all the time. We didn't have juvenile delinquents in my school, in my preppy grade school. But we did have one that lived across the street. And I made friends with the family. And really, he had a car and looked just like Cry-Baby. I basically based the character I wrote, Cry-Baby, on this person that lived across the street. And of course, my mother would say - who is that creature? - the same thing. But I always was kind of just amazed to see these bad - supposedly bad - kids hanging out.

And you know, I went to the Elvis movies, Jerry Lee Lewis, all that stuff. So I knew about juvenile delinquency. I was always corrupted by Life magazine because we got it every week. And it always covered beatniks, drug addicts, everything that I was interested in. I would read every word of it. And then my parents got the encyclopedia - the World Book Encyclopedia, I think. And that had everything in it. I would look up everything in there that you weren't supposed to. So I was corrupted by the things that my parents brought in for educational reasons in our house but not for the educational reasons they had in mind.

GROSS: What are some of the things you looked up in the World Book Encyclopedia?

WATERS: I used to look up - was it the Wolfenden report that was the United Kingdom's study on homosexuality? I used to look up drug addicts. I used to look up always Tennessee Williams, always beatniks, always bohemia, Leroy Jones, as he was known at the time. Everything about trouble and the arts I looked up.

GROSS: So you loved rockabilly. You loved Elvis Presley. And you write that Elvis made you realize you're gay.

WATERS: Yeah, he did. When I saw him twitching and acting like a space person, singing those first early songs, that's when I realized. And then later, I was confused by it because then I loved Clarence Frogman Henry too. I remember he sang, I ain't got no home. And he would sing like a man. And then he would sing like a girl, which seemed kind of gay. And then he started singing like a frog. But I was so young, I thought, is there trisexuality?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Are people are attracted to frogs? That hadn't happened to me yet. But I was open-minded to it if it was coming. Mercifully, it didn't.

GROSS: So you probably weren't the only boy with that reaction to Elvis Presley. Do you ever wonder if Elvis knew that gay boys were attracted to him and what he would have made of it?

WATERS: I think Elvis was a great entertainer, so he would be happy if everybody in the world was attracted to him. I don't think there's any real entertainer that is uptight if gay men think they look good. I mean, that's kind of amazing to me. I went recently, though, when I was on a TV show when Justin Bieber was on. And it was really amazing for me to see in the audience, when the girls were screaming, some gay boys were with them screaming. That would've never happened with Elvis.

GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting. So I want to play a song that you write about - and this isn't going to be Elvis...

WATERS: All right.

GROSS: ...'Cause you write, I never wanted to be a drag queen, but if I had to lip-sync...

WATERS: Oh, God.

GROSS: If I had to lip-sync to a woman's song, even today, it wouldn't be Judy, Liza or Cher. It would be Eileen Rodgers, a nightclub singer and one-time understudy for Ethel Merman. So...

WATERS: Had you ever heard of her?

GROSS: No, I had not.

WATERS: OK. Yeah.

GROSS: No, I had not. But this is what YouTube is for (laughter). So I went on. I found the record that you write about, which is called "The Treasure Of Your Love." Let's listen to it, and then we will talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREASURE OF YOUR LOVE")

EILEEN RODGERS: (Singing) If I could have a mountain of gold and diamonds like the stars above, the treasure I would most be longing for would be the treasure of your love. If I could have a silver ship to sail and all the pearls within the sea, oh, I would gladly give them all away if you would give your love to me. The one thing I want no riches can buy, a love that is true...

WATERS: Oh, God.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: She was a drama queen.

GROSS: Yes, yes, yes.

WATERS: I'm trying to picture her - I bet she was dressed kind of, like, Kate Smith-ish, wouldn't you think? I don't think she was any kind of sex bomb. But she was the understudy for Ethel Merman. So think of that. She could belt it out.

GROSS: So why is that the song you'd lip-sync to if you did a drag...

WATERS: I don't know. I just remember hearing it as a child. And I had the record, and I played it over and over. But I was obsessed by - in my bedroom, I had a stage. My parents built me a stage, almost like Divine has in "Female Trouble" when the Dashers say, oh, a little stage. I had a stage at the top of the steps with curtains and everything...

GROSS: Wow.

WATERS: ...And a costume box. And I would put on self-indulgent plays for my one poor aunt who would put up with it - and I can't imagine what she thought - where I would tape-record all the top 10 off the radio and then perform all the numbers and stuff like a crazy person. And so - but I was allowed to do that. So I got all that stuff out of my system early.

GROSS: My guest is John Waters. His new book is called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." After we take a short break, we'll talk about making his movies and why he's not going to make any more of them. And Maureen Corrigan will review Tony Horwitz's new book "Spying On The South: An Odyssey Across The American Divide." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT NO HOME")

CLARENCE HENRY: (Singing) I ain't got a mother. I ain't got a father. I ain't got a sister, not even a brother. I'm a lonely frog. I ain't got a home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with John Waters, who wrote and directed the films "Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray," "Polyester" and "Serial Mom." His movies earned him the titles the pope of trash, the prince of puke and the duke of dirty. In the past few years. He's had career retrospectives of his films and museum shows of his art. Now at the age of 73, he's calling himself a filth elder. In his new book, he asks, how did I become respectable?

So your new book, "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder" - a lot of that book is about the process of making your movies. And you do a kind of movie-by-movie thing and talk about some of the most fun and most frustrating things that happened to you in the process of making those movies. But you also said that you don't think you'll make more movies. Why not?

WATERS: I've been paid by Hollywood since "A Dirty Shame," my last movie did not do well at the box office - I have been paid three times to write sequels to "Hairspray" - real Hollywood money. I was paid to do a children's movie called "Fruitcake" that I never got made, but I was paid to write it. So I keep getting paid to do them, but they don't get made. And the independent film world that I - which I feel fine about. I've made 17 movies. It's not like I haven't spoken. What am I going to say? Would you work for nothing? I'm just starting out here.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I can't do that. And they - (laughter) and at the same time, you know, the books do better than the movies. And I just need a way to tell stories. And it's now - to write a book is just - I have to go - this took three years to write, but I went in there every morning and did it and researched it and did it. And I was still - we were trying to make one of the movies. They were going to make it into animation. I'm game. You know, there's - but mostly with independent movies, they want a movie that routinely used to cost $7 million now - they want you to do it for $2 million or $1 million. And I can't go backwards. I don't want to be an underground filmmaker at 73. I did that. I went through all that. And Hollywood treated me fairly. I don't have any real complaints. I don't name any of the people that did supposedly negative things to me in Hollywood. I was treated well. It's a algebra question. The more money they give you, the more hassle there's going to be. That's it. You don't like it - don't cash the check. Make a movie on your cell phone.

GROSS: You've made how many movies? - 17 did you say?

WATERS: I don't know - 16, 17, yeah.

GROSS: So - but you write you actually hate the making of a film, even if it goes well. Why?

WATERS: I kind of do hate it because the pressure and everyday - if you - the minute you wake up to the minute you go to sleep, you're at work. And I remember Melanie Griffith said to me on "Cecil B. Demented" - she said I only feel safe on a movie set. I thought, God, I feel the opposite. I feel the opposite of safe when I'm on a movie set because everything can go wrong. I'm not going to get the shot. The weather's not going to work. The actor's not going to do it. I screwed up and didn't match the shot. So there's always something that can go wrong. There's always pressure. You got - you never get as many shots as you want. The day's over. You're over budget. So it's never a relaxing thing to me.

Now, I look back on it and feel great satisfaction. But people say, did you have fun making them? Fun? Fun is having a martini with my friend on Friday night when I'm not working. But it's not fun to be there when the studio's saying, OK, you got to get this shot now. It's part of it. And I look back on it fondly. And I certainly think probably the happiest movies I made was the set of "Hairspray" and "A Dirty Shame." I think both those two went very, very smoothly in a weird way.

GROSS: So you had an art retrospective, like, recently, like - a couple years ago, was it?

WATERS: No. It was last year.

GROSS: Was it last year?

WATERS: It was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And then it went to the Wexner Center in Ohio. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And so...

WATERS: And I had one maybe 10 years ago at the New Museum in New York.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. So the one from the Baltimore Museum of Art has a nice, like, hardcover catalog...

WATERS: Yeah, they did a beautiful job.

GROSS: ...Of the work from the show. And so I want to discuss a couple of pieces...

WATERS: OK.

GROSS: ...From the show. One of them is your, like, imaginary tabloid covers. And so one of them is called, like, National Brainiac. And the headlines are, Joan Didion hits 250 pounds. Philip Roth dates 70-year-old woman. It's about time, readers say. M.F.K. Fisher has cellulite. Help, I've got writer's block, Joyce Carol Oates sobs. I mean, I think that's, like, hilarious, the idea of this...

WATERS: I would love to have that magazine for real.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, I know.

WATERS: And I would love to be - you'd be - after you. Terry Gross swimwear pictures.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: I mean, you'd be hiding outside of intellectuals' doors, trying to get - they didn't have to die. You know, and I still do get the tabloids, although the Enquirer is nothing like it used to be. It used to be fun. Ever since it went on the Trump thing, now it's the same pictures that are in the Globe. It's not as much fun, except the meanest one they have every year is, who will die next? And it has the celebrities are and the odds. Who's it going to be? - which must be nice when you're just in the grocery store and see yourself on the cover. But I do think a tabloid like that would be fascinating. And I could do a good one. I wish I could really do that tabloid for real.

GROSS: So when did you start being interested in tabloids?

WATERS: Oh, always. I think I've had a subscription to the Enquirer and the Globe for 30 years. And I remember the midnight used to be the one even before about that that I think I wrote about in one of my books. I forget. But I still get six newspapers delivered every day. I still - I used to get a hundred and some magazines a month. But as you know, that is really dwindling. But I still get lots of them. I was really sad when Jet went out of business. I got that for 30 years. There was a lot of magazines that I got that I felt that I had a peek into a world that I would never know about or never be there. So I still get a lot of magazines. And - but the tabloids aren't as good. I mean, the New York Post is still pretty hilarious. I mean, the covers - was it today (laughter) about the mayor running for president and had everybody looking at television, laughing meanly. It was such a great New York Post cover.

GROSS: Have you ever been in a tabloid?

WATERS: Not like - 'cause what do I not admit to?

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: What are they going to use against me?

GROSS: John Waters has a filthy mind.

WATERS: John Waters saw a romantic comedy this weekend.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So getting back to your museum show - and there's a catalog of it. One of your series that was in the show was still photographs of things that can go wrong in movies, like hair in the gate. And that's when you see...

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, one hair on the image.

WATERS: Well, the thing is that's a ritual that you do. Whenever you're shooting a movie, and let's say you've done three takes. You've got the take. You're moving on to the fourth. Before you move on, the AD always says, check for a hair in the gate. So they (blowing) blow it and check. Well, I never in my life found a hair in the gate. So I tried to imagine what it would be like if they didn't find one in the biggest, most expensive scenes of the biggest epic. So basically, the Red Sea parting in "The Ten Commandments" with a big hair in it...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...Or Clark Gable in the middle of "Gone With The Wind," embracing her and it's the hair in it. So I just tried to imagine all the things that would go wrong.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here, so then we'll be right back. My guest is John Waters, and his new book is called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." Back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME (FT. ROBBEN FORD & BILL FRISELL & J. ANTHONY GRANELLI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker and writer John Waters. And his new book is called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." So I'm going to quote you again. You write, "I don't mind violence in movies. I hate violence in real life. I can't look at real violence. When they show ISIS killing people, I turn my head."

So why do you celebrate it in movies? And you're obsessed with serial killers and electric chairs - what - when you really just hate violence?

WATERS: Well, I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with serial killers.

GROSS: OK.

WATERS: But still, because in a movie - even the stupidest person, when they see "Chainsaw Massacre," doesn't think it's real. So we know it's fake. But - it's people acting. And it's experiencing just, like, everything that's in movies. It's all fake. But in real life, when they show, like, sometimes, you know, that newscaster killed herself, I don't want to see that shot. I don't want to see real violence at all. That's not entertaining to me. Fake violence is because it is not true. And it's used in a fictional way to make you think in a different way, too.

GROSS: So one of the chapters in your book is devoted to taking acid - LSD - when you were 70, which was about three years ago.

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: Why did you do it? Did it have anything to do with wanting to write about the experience?

WATERS: Well, it - not decades - half a century ago, I took it. And I always liked it when I was young. I took LSD maybe for every weekend for two years or so. I never had a bad experience. I never had a bad trip. It gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be. And my mother always said, don't tell young people about it. So I'm not telling young people about it.

In a way, yes, it was a stunt, the same way I hitchhiked across America. I dared myself. I was 66 or something when I hitchhiked across America. Can you do it? And I did do it. And the same thing about tripping - I thought, what would it be like? I mean, I remember it from so long ago. And then I thought, well, who could I do it with? And the only person that said yes, originally, was Mink Stole, who I have known for 50 years, and we had great experiences then. And then I had another friend, Frankie Rice, who was a younger guy who we both knew in Provincetown. And he is a really close friend of mine. And so we took it together.

And if I had known how strong it was, I would have really been nervous about it. But I spent about eight months really getting the provenance, so we had really good acid. And I didn't want it to be too weak. I didn't want these microdoses like they take in the Silicon Valley. I wanted to trip. But this was 12 hours of hallucinating. I mean, it was - whoa. When you're young, you go, wow. When you're old, you go, whoa.

But it was great. I had a wonderful experience. I don't have to ever do it again, really. I don't think I need to. But it was - in a way, it wiped out the cobwebs a little bit. And I felt good. I thought, damn, my street cred just went up again. I don't know. It was something that I dared myself to do and was happy I did it. But otherwise, for young people today, I don't think they need to take LSD. I think they've moved on to different kind of experiments that they do. So I'm not telling young people to do it.

GROSS: I also want to point out, you prepared a long time to do it. You had contacts. You knew you were getting a very pure drug.

WATERS: I did. I did, yes. I spent a lot of time getting it.

GROSS: You are a very unusual mix of public and private because your life seems to be out there. You've written...

WATERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, so many memoirs, and you have your one-man show. And so much of your sensibility is so outrageous. And you know, you've put that out there. At the same time, there's parts of your private life that I think are very private. And as an example, I'll offer your dedication in your new book, which is - he knows, dot, dot, dot (laughter). So you're not...

WATERS: He does. He does.

GROSS: You're not mentioning who he is. So...

WATERS: No, because every boyfriend I've ever had - and I haven't had that many. I've had a lot of auditions. But let's...

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: But let's say - and I've written about every one of them in every one of my books. But I'm never attracted to somebody that wants to walk the red carpet with me. They're not fans. They're not. And I think - there are two things that you should keep private - your love life and your health life.

And I think - I still - I say in the book that I do have a personal life. Half of my restaurant receipts are not tax-deductible. And when I see celebrities in magazines telling everything about their relationships, I thought, don't you have friends? I just think that you have to keep something to yourself. And the people that I'm involved with don't want to be in the public eye, so I respect that.

GROSS: So two things that - are you private about. One is your love life, which you explained, and the other is health.

WATERS: Yeah, health. Yeah. I think when you're going to die, you should be secret about it. Nora Ephron and David Bowie - I approve of what they did. And I say in the book - because I have memories of even my parents or my brother or other people during the AIDS crisis, when I would visit them at the end. And I cannot get that image out of my mind, how horrible it was. That's now - that's not how I want to remember my family and friends.

When I'm like that, I don't want people to see me like that. You can call me, maybe. Remember the last time I made you laugh. But that image is so burned in your skull that it's hard to get rid of. And that's not how I want to remember people I love.

GROSS: Well, you're public about where you intend to be buried because you reprint the deed to your burial plot, which is in a Baltimore cemetery.

WATERS: Where Divine was buried, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

WATERS: And so all my friend - like, Mink's going to get buried there, Pat Moran, Dennis - all my friends. So we call it Disgraceland. And we really...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I like the idea of being buried with your friends. Most people do not do that.

GROSS: And how come you're not getting buried where your parents are?

WATERS: Well, my parents are in one place. And then my sister's going to be somewhere else 'cause of where she got married in the South. So it's not like every person is going to be there. But I went to that graveyard to look at it 'cause there was a family plot with one left, and there were all these rules. You couldn't do this. I mean - and then the woman - the saleswoman basically thought she saw moneybags coming, so she showed me things that Rudolph Valentino would have been embarrassed to be buried in, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And with these prices - are you kidding me? So I just hated it, you know? And I thought, I'm going to go back to this lovely graveyard that I used to go to when I - you know, I've tried to get out of Lutherville, Md., my whole life, but I'm going back there to be buried. I did get away from there, but at the same time, I like to go back where you came from. And it's a small, little graveyard. They handled Divine's funeral very well.

I just think I like it there, and I like the idea. And all our parents - they weren't upset either. I thought maybe our parents would say, well, that's rude; you're not going to get buried with the family. Well, maybe they just don't want my fans coming to their graves. But they were very supportive about it. They think it's a great idea.

GROSS: Do you want a headstone that makes a statement or one that's funny?

WATERS: No, I don't. I want - I've already decided. You know, Vincent Peranio, who does all the set designs for my movie - I said, maybe you could design one for me that looks old, you know, that has moss on it or something.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: But I don't want any jokes on it, no. I just want the day I was born, the day I died and my name. I don't want, like, that's all folks or anything like that, no - no jokes, no jokes because jokes - you know, they age. You know, humor, you know, can get old quick if you tell the same joke every day for a hundred years.

GROSS: You were asked if you would consider retirement, and you answered, no, are you kidding? Then I would have time to be insane.

WATERS: Well, it's a little bit true. People say, why do you keep doing all this stuff? Haven't you done enough? That's what - Wolfgang Tillmans said that to me. Haven't we done enough? Why do we keep doing all this stuff - because I like work. I like getting up every day. I like what I'm doing. Never do I work and think, oh, God, I hate my life. I mean, sometimes I do when I'm tired and stuff. But no, I like what I'm doing, and I want to keep going. It keeps me alive. I'm afraid if I did stop, I might drop dead. Who knows?

GROSS: But you didn't say if you stopped working, you drop dead. You write, I would have time to be insane. So what are the...

WATERS: Well...

GROSS: What are the thoughts you're worried you'd be having or obsessing on if you didn't have work?

WATERS: Well, if you're bored, you, I think, begin to give in to your worst neuroses. And I don't - my worst neuroses at 73 - my God, I think I've probably tamed or dealt with or made peace with most of the neuroses I had, so do I need to discover a new one where I sit around my house doing nothing, being - feeling bad about something? No, I don't do that. I'm not going to do that.

GROSS: All right, well, it was wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

WATERS: Thank you very much, Terry. All right.

GROSS: Until next time.

WATERS: All righty, thank you.

GROSS: Thank you.

John Waters' new book is called "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new book "Spying On The South: An Odyssey Across The American Divide" by Toni Horwitz. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.