John Waters has had underwhelming meals in overpriced restaurants – so you don’t have to.
He’s been caught in long airport security lines. He’s taken the BoltBus to New York City and been delayed while the driver took a dump in the on-board restroom. He’s had to sit in a doctor’s waiting room with an embarrassing ailment and been barraged with questions from other patients who recognize him and demand to know what he’s got.
Now the Baltimore-based filmmaker and writer, who just turned 73, has put all of those experiences and more into a book of opinions and advice, presumably so people won’t have to endure what he has. Called “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder,” it’s his ninth book, and it came out this week. He’s described it as “my opinion on everything” and “how to avoid respectability at 70 years old.”
Readers will discover that “Mr. Know-It-All” isn’t just a book about coping with life’s indignities and humiliations, even though there’s plenty of guidance about that. It’s also part memoir, part celebrity tell-all, and part movie industry guidebook with separate chapters about each of his last seven films, all filmed in Baltimore (“Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” “Cecil B. Demented” and “A Dirty Shame.”)
The book is filled with anecdotes about many of the actors he’s worked with, including Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and, of course, Divine. There’s the time Waters turned down Brad Pitt at an audition for “Cry-Baby” because Pitt was too handsome to be cast as Depp’s sidekick – a decision that he thinks makes him perhaps “the only director who ever said no to Brad Pitt.” He remembers that Rikki Lake lost her virginity halfway through “Cry-Baby;” how he called Tab Hunter out of the blue to star in “Polyester,” and how he battled with motion picture censors to let him use the word “Pecker” as a movie title.
Other readers may be drawn to his essays about non-cinematic subjects, which range from art collecting and Brutalist architecture to Yippie protests, Andy Warhol, and taking LSD at 70. In one chapter, he names the one female he has adored since childhood. In another, he imagines returning to the apartment he lived in during the 1960s – a sign that, in some cases, you can go home again (especially when you still live in the town where you grew up.)
“Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life,” he writes early in the book. “I’m never wrong.”
Though the title says it’s a book of wisdom, this is not a rehashed litany of someone else’s platitudes. All the advice he offers grows out of his own experiences. As a result, readers gain insights into the maker of “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” by learning what he’s gone through and how he dealt with it.
One of those insights is that Waters can be quite frugal and down to earth. He not only takes the inexpensive BoltBus to New York but also goes to a Laundromat when he spends the summers in Provincetown. (And of course, he hitchhiked across the country and wrote about it in his bestseller, “Carsick.”)
In many of his stories, Waters reveals a knack for handling even the most humiliating situations with humor and aplomb. He also says he licks important packages before he puts them in the mail – “to remove any ‘curse’ of show business rejection” – and instructs his staff to do the same. In the LSD chapter, he mentions texting “my boyfriend,” whom he never names.
Waters in on a national tour to launch his book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. West Coast stops include ticketed events at The Green Arcade at the McRoskey Mattress Loft, 1687 Market Street in San Francisco on May 30 at 7 p.m., and Book Soup at The Renberg Theatre (Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village), 1125 N, McCadden Place in Los Angeles on June 1 at 7 p.m.
Waters recently sat down at his home for an interview with the Blade to talk about his book and his life as a filth elder. The interview has been condensed.
BLADE: A good alternative title for your book would be “The Influencer,” don’t you think? How To Win Friends and Influence People 2?
JOHN WATERS: I’m Norman Vincent Peale, you’re saying?
BLADE: You do give a lot of advice: Come up with a gimmick. Have backup plans. Get at least one other person to believe in you. Sound advice, with a John Waters twist.
WATERS: I agree with that totally.
BLADE: Why an advice book?
WATERS: Well, I always kind of parody things, so I thought an advice book coming from me would be kind of a parody in the first place. I needed that kind of genre to be able to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about.
In some ways it’s like “Shock Value” because “Shock Value” ended right before we made “Polyester,” so this has the rest of the movies in it. But I also wrote it from a viewpoint of how to tell young filmmakers how to deal with Hollywood and what happens and all that kind of stuff, and how you fail upward. And then the other subjects I had to put in — about love, about fashion, about art, about death, about every possible thing. But to talk about them all, you need a theme that runs through the whole thing, so that’s how I came up with [giving] advice.
Do I expect every person to follow my advice? No, but I believe that I gave good advice. It’s not really told ironically. I believe everything I say in it. But I hoped to write a humorous book at the same time.
BLADE: Who are you giving advice to?
WATERS: I’m giving advice, first of all, to the people that like my work, because they’re hopefully the first people that buy the book. Secondly, even if you don’t know anything about me, I’m giving advice to younger people about how to handle what’s coming, failure and success, in your life if you’ve chosen to be in the arts in any way. So I think I’m trying to give advice to anybody probably younger than me, because older than me are dead, you know. And I tell you how to beat that too.
BLADE: You’re not writing just for the hardcore fans?
WATERS: No, not at all. If you’re never seen any of my movies, you can still read the book.
BLADE: A lot of your fans may be the ‘others’ in society, those who don’t fit in or conform, the people in “Desperate Living” and other movies.
WATERS: The people that used to be the ‘others’ in society are often now the leaders. Everybody wants to be the ‘other’ now. They didn’t used to. Even Trump would probably want to be an outsider. Obama thought he was an outsider. Everybody wants to be an outsider, and I want to be an insider. I said that in “Make Trouble,” that it’s more fun to cause trouble from within. Which is what “Hairspray” did.
BLADE: But a lot of the others aren’t the ones who would typically be disposed to take advice.
WATERS: Maybe from me they might.
BLADE: Why should someone follow your advice?
WATERS: You don’t have to. I think you could read the book and not follow one bit of it and still enjoy the book. You don’t have to. I don’t expect anybody to, really.
BLADE: Your advice grows out of your experiences. It’s not warmed-over Norman Vincent Peale. And because it comes from within, your advice in turn provides insights into you.
WATERS: I always thought that is a joke, that book, which I probably never read. But my parents had it and it was such a thing then that it became a joke in a way. That same title could apply to this book.
BLADE: The other thing about your advice is, you chronicle all the ways you’ve suffered indignities. You’ve had bad dinners at good restaurants. You’ve had bad seats on international flights. You’ve been harassed at the doctor’s office.
WATERS: I’m also saying all the wonderful things that happened to me. So basically, there are different kinds of problems. It is a high-class problem to worry about being recognized in a doctor’s office. It’s the one time that it’s really bad to be seen. Although, if you weren’t [famous], you wouldn’t have gotten the appointment. So in the long run, it isn’t bad.
BLADE: Do bad things happen to you more than most, like Joe Btfsplk in “Li’l Abner?”
WATERS: No. I say in the book, not one bad thing has ever happened to me from being famous, in any way. It really hasn’t. I mean, high-class problems, some of the things I talk about. But, generally, I can bitch about flying all the time. Bitch about first class, which is really bold. But I get to fly all the time, and I don’t pay for it. But I’m working, you know? So I’m trying to tell people that when bad things happen to them, they can use it and how they can appreciate it and how they can look back on it and it doesn’t mean really anything terrible.
BLADE: You bring up all these universal things that anybody can identify with, and you’ve come out on the other side, none the worse for wear from the indignities you’ve suffered.
WATERS: Everybody has indignities.
BLADE: Are you more sensitive to things than others?
WATERS: No, I don’t think so. I think I notice them more and it’s more, like, ludicrous, some of the problems that you get from being known.
BLADE: And then you use it for comic relief.
WATERS: Yeah, comic relief. In my own life, even.
BLADE: Is there one disappointment that tops them all?
WATERS: I only regret one thing, smoking cigarettes. It’s the only thing I regret in life. Because I’ll probably die from it. I mean, I don’t have cancer, but I’m just saying that, both my parents died from some form of cancer. They were 90 though. They had a long, good life. So, yes, I regret smoking cigarettes.
BLADE: You lived through all these indignities, and that’s a sign that others can too.
WATERS: The other day in New York somebody yelled at me, a homeless person, ‘You’re still alive?’ Which really made me laugh. I thought, ‘Well, yes I am, are you?’
BLADE: You and the Queen of England ought to compare notes.
WATERS: She probably has some really good ones.
BLADE: Is this book political?
WATERS: Sure it is. All humor is political. And this book, definitely. I have a whole chapter, ACT BAD, which is really [suggesting ways] to go further than ACT UP did. I think comedy is political, trying to get you to laugh at things. I think every chapter in this book is political.
But the worst way you can be political [is to] rant. If you get people to laugh, they’ll listen. If you lecture, in a strident tone, like Elizabeth Warren, no one will pay attention. Even though I totally agree with her politics, I hate to hear her talk. She’s never said a funny thing in her life. So the thing is, it’s important, if you want to change people’s minds, to make them laugh. It’s the first way to get their attention.
BLADE: Does your book have any bombshells in it? Landing Tab Hunter for “Polyester?” Not casting Brad Pitt when he auditioned?
WATERS: That’s not up to me to say. The only thing I could think in there, maybe, is the [taking] LSD thing, in a way. That’s the stunt of the book. That’s something that I did that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think if there’s a sentimental chapter in the book about friendship, then maybe that is that. If I had known how strong the LSD was that I took, I probably would have been uptight. But I didn’t and it was great. I spent eight months getting the right acid from the purest source I could find, practically from Timothy Leary’s asshole. The Blade can print that. But the provenance of it was high and it was great. I don’t have to ever do it again. Just like I don’t have to ever hitchhike across the country again. Why would I? I did it. I don’t know if that’s newsworthy, but that would be, maybe.
BLADE: You had a big build-up about it in the book: We don’t know what this is going to do to us. And then you stopped hallucinating and it was OK and the sun rose…
WATERS: It was more than OK. It was great. I never had a bad experience when I was young, or I probably would have never done it. What I wanted to see is, what is it like to do it now, when I’m 70 years old? I certainly would never imagine that many 70-year-olds try to take acid. Especially if you haven’t done it since you were young.
BLADE: Do people still take LSD?
WATERS: Oh yeah. All the young people now do micro-doses. All the people that work in Google. All the tech kids take teeny doses of it. But not many 70-year-olds take it. People I know don’t take it.
BLADE: You write that you tried to get transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in a movie. That’s something probably a lot of people don’t know. You’ve sprinkled in all kinds of things that are going to be part of your lore.
WATERS: There are lots of things that people don’t know. But I don’t know that that means it’s Stop the Press. Most everything in the book is probably new information to most people.
BLADE: Who do you wish had been in one of your movies but never was?
WATERS: Always Meryl Streep. But I would have had to stop her from doing a Baltimore accent. And she would have done it brilliantly.
BLADE: Did you have a part for her?
WATERS: You know, at times, any of those movies she could have been in, yeah. We’ve met before, maybe a couple of times, at parties. She’s lovely. But she didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve been dying to work with you.’
BLADE: Roseanne Barr has come up.
WATERS: Well, Roseanne, when I dealt with her, she was a liberal. Completely. Yes, she came up a couple of times. I was friendly with her.
BLADE: For “Serial Mom?”
WATERS: Yeah. “And A Dirty Shame.” She was possible for that at one point. So, I was always friends with a liberal. I did her show and everything. Traci Lords was on her show. Who knows? I don’t know. I guess she’s just on the Internet too much.
BLADE: Who was the greatest delight to work with?
WATERS: They all were a delightful, in a way. I mean, making movies is horrible. I say that in the book. Basically, it’s not fun, because there’s so much pressure and you have to do something every day and we’re not going to get this shot and it’s going to be over budget. But they all were team players. That’s what I can say they were.
Somebody said about my mother after she died: She was game. And they were game. They had to be game, to come with us, come to Baltimore, especially joining a group of people that had known each other for 30 years, a lot of them. I didn’t have any trouble with any of them. They were pros. But we were pros to them. I think I was prepared. I knew what to do. It wasn’t like we mistreated them. And they sort of got into the spirit of it.
BLADE: Would you do a word association? Kathleen Turner.
WATERS: A pro. Still see her. Great actress. Stage. Screen. Movies. She could play men, women, anybody with great conviction.
BLADE: Johnny Depp from “Cry-Baby.”
WATERS: I’m on his new album, I hear. I’m not sure how. I remember I talked to him on the phone with Alice Cooper recently and he said: Say this. I don’t remember what I said, so I guess they put it in the album like when I did in The Creep [a song with Nicki Minaj]. Johnny Depp was always a pro with me.
BLADE: Tab Hunter.
WATERS: Well, he voted for Reagan, you know. He used to shock me. He was for Trump, too. He used to laugh when he told me, because he knew how crazy it made me. I love Tab. You know, that’s the thing. He was from a different era. Completely from a different era.
BLADE: Was he like Rock Hudson?
WATERS: Rock Hudson, I don’t know if he was a Republican. Tab, I think was always a Republican. Oh yeah, he was in the closet forever. He had to be. It was illegal. You know. He was loved by every woman in America. It would have ruined his career. And he wrote about all that in his book.
BLADE: Did he write about you?
WATERS: Yeah. He was lovely. I stayed friends with him right up until the end. I just talked to his husband recently. Tab was great. He was a team player too. Lovely to Divine. Matter of fact, he liked the experience so much he went and made a movie with Divine afterwards, called “Lust in the Dust.”
BLADE: Andy Warhol?
WATERS: I remember him at the Baltimore Museum of Art meeting Edith [Massey] and saying, where did you find her? And he was very supportive. He took Fellini to see “Pink Flamingos.” He put Divine on the cover of Interview. He was always supportive.
BLADE: Mink Stole. You named her?
WATERS: Her real name is Nancy Stoll. S-t-o-l-l. I knew her forever. I met her in Provincetown. She was early in my films. She was a character actress, always. She usually played Divine’s enemy. We’ve been friends forever and ever. And I think she’s a really good actor. She still works all the time.
BLADE: Any way to sum up Divine, 31 years after his death?
WATERS: He gets more and more famous as the years go by. And he’d still rather be here. He’d be pissed he’s dead. I’m still shocked he’s dead. I still am. That’s still a shock. But, it’s kind of amazing. Well, we’re all being buried in the same graveyard where he is, you know, all my friends. Obviously, he is still with us.
BLADE: You’ve been good to the guys who commissioned the Divine mural in Baltimore, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams.
WATERS: They were lovely. Why wouldn’t I be?
BLADE: Your book has only one chapter that’s named after a female.
BLADE: The finger-painting chimp from the Baltimore zoo. You reveal this life-long love affair that you’ve kept secret until now.
WATERS: Well, I didn’t have sex with Betsy. I want to make sure that people understand that.
BLADE: You wrote a chapter about her appearances on TV and about The Golden Age of Monkey Art, which she inspired.
WATERS: I just remembered her in that dress and getting national attention and being all over the country. She was on Garry Moore, who was from Baltimore, too.
BLADE: In the last chapter, you write about death and dying, specifically about your death. You try to imagine what happens after you die, and you go back and visit your first apartment at 315 E. 25th Street in Baltimore. Why so morbid?
WATERS: Is it morbid? I don’t think it’s morbid. I think, who at 70-some years old doesn’t think about that?
BLADE: Why such a potential downer?
WATERS: You think it’s a downer? I don’t think it’s a downer… I think everybody at 73 [thinks about death], and I think my friends think about it more than I do. I don’t think about it that much. But you can’t help it when you go to funerals and you think, I am 73, you know, something is going to get you. So I tried to just imagine beating it, how I could be such a control freak that I would refuse to die. And I do always dream about that apartment, so it is just a fantasy of what happens after you die.
But it was to me dealing with the one subject that you’re really not supposed to joke about or kind of focus on. To think about it was sort of liberating in a way, to go through the whole thing. Except that I want to be sure that just because I write something here to be funny, it doesn’t mean that I want my heirs to follow every single thing. Like I say in there, I don’t want something funny on my tombstone. So, I don’t know. I thought it was optimistic. I beat death in it in a way, spiritually at least. That’s optimistic.
BLADE: How is your health?
WATERS: My health is fine.
BLADE: You didn’t write the book to fight death?
WATERS: Well, you write all books to fight death. I mean, I’ve never been as busy as I am. I have more projects than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
BLADE: You don’t name in the book any kind of significant other or life partner.
WATERS: And I never would. Because every person I’ve ever been involved with…doesn’t want to be public. I wouldn’t want somebody that would want to do the red carpet with me. I don’t want a groupie. I don’t want a fan. I want somebody that has their own life.
BLADE: Do you have a partner?
WATERS: Yes, I do.
BLADE: Is that in the book?
BLADE: You don’t want to say who it is?
WATERS: If you don’t keep some things private, you don’t have a personal life. It’s the same thing I say, I have some restaurant receipts that are not tax-deductible. That means I have a personal life. When I read celebrities are telling everything, I think, don’t you have any friends?
BLADE: Your book is so wide ranging it makes one wonder what you’re saving for the next one. After “Mr. Know-It-All,” what is there to write about?
WATERS: Do I have any stories left? Well, I’m writing a novel. I’m on page 64. So, yes, there’s stuff to write about.
BLADE: Is that why your next book is fiction, because you’ve exhausted the autobiography?
WATERS: I’ve written 17 movies. They‘re fiction. The first part of “Carsick” was fiction, too, except that I was in it. That makes it a lot easier. I had never written a novel, so I wanted to try it.
BLADE: Are you ever going to slow down?
WATERS: I hope not. I don’t need to slow down. I like what I’m doing. I don’t know. I guess when I drop dead, I’ll have to.