He’s the pencil-thin mustached film director from Baltimore who shocked midnight movie audiences with his grungy 1972 cult comedy Pink Flamingos (in which his portly, cross-dressing actor Divine dines on a dog dropping), before realizing prime-time, mainstream acceptance with Hairspray (later turned into Broadway musical gold) and Cry-Baby (which introduced Johnny Depp to celluloid). John Waters has achieved iconic status for turning outrageous humor into hot commodity, filth into lucre. Waters talks with CULTURE about his upcoming book Carsick, his scandalous love affair with cannabis and why his depraved mind still values great storytelling.
I’ve read that you’re not much of a cannabis smoker these days.
I smoke marijuana once in a while at the beach when I have nothing to do. And I have it in all my homes for guests. But I’m not a “pothead” anymore.
I used to be. When I was young, I smoked pot every day, probably from 1963 to 1971. In 1966, I was involved in the first marijuana scandal at a college—ever, in America, at NYU. There’s even a book called One In Seven: Drugs On Campus with a chapter about my incident.
I think we all just smoked pot, and were tripping, and someone snitched. The police weren’t involved. They just took us from the dorm and said we had to leave the dorm, and called our parents. And they said we couldn’t tell people. So I called the Daily News and broke the story!
I remember the head of the dorm said to my parents, “I’m like him: I like opera.” Which I didn’t know what he meant then. I guess he meant gay—but I was on LSD, so he wasn’t [exactly] like me.
I’ve been back there to lecture twice, but the students brought me, not the University. They certainly haven’t offered me any degrees. But it wasn’t their fault, because I never went to class. I just smoked pot and went to the movies on 42nd Street every day. And I got my film education: It just wasn’t the one that NYU was offering.
Where would a young man like you purchase cannabis back then?
I’d bring it from Baltimore. In Baltimore we always had hash first. Gold hash from the Merchant Marines. I always got pot from merchant marines, who always seemed to be old beatniks in a way.
What was your lead actor Divine’s relationship with cannabis?
Divine was a pothead up to the end of his life, almost. He had the munchies at all times, because he was stoned all the time.
But we never smoked i while we were making the movies. It’s too hard to make a movie—without being stoned.
I wrote Pink Flamingos on marijuana, I promise you. And the whole audience that made it a success was on marijuana. I don’t write with [cannabis] anymore, but I used to in the early days, certainly.
Do you have a favorite cannabis scene from any movie?
Hmmm. There’s one scene where Meryl Streep smokes pot and she gets really stoned. Which movie is that? [Ed.: It’s Complicated.] I think she did it great! It’s really a funny scene.
I think I’ve always had drugs as humor in my movies. The drugs the characters took were hopefully, a gag in the movie. In Female Trouble, Divine’s character shoots up eyeliner. That’s what I mean: Not many people shoot up liquid eyeliner!
Do you ever feel like Baltimore, the city itself, is a character within your movies?
Of course it is! It’s not only a location, it is a character in my movies. One of the first things I do when I write a movie is write the locations and figure out where the people live and what neighborhood it’s going to take place in. That’s part of the whole character of when I’m making a movie.
If you ever came to Baltimore you’d see that movies aren’t that far from reality. They’re exaggerated truth. People in Baltimore are very much like my movies. It’s almost like I make documentaries.
What do you make of the recent comparisons between gay marriage and cannabis legalization, as far as evolving issues go?
For years they’ve been always saying, “Oh, pot’s going to get legalized!” It never did. Recently, it looks like it might. Gay marriage happened fairly quickly—all of a sudden—and I think now they’re saying most of the public is for legalized pot. So maybe it’s going to happen.
Colorado recently legalized. People over the age of 21 can now walk into a store and purchase cannabis.
I’m all for that. Of course I’m for it! Why wouldn’t I be for it?! If I had a child I would much rather they smoke marijuana than they be a drunk. I think marijuana can make you stupid, but I’ve never heard of it making you violent.
I guess people still illegally deal marijuana. Yeah, they do. There probably won’t be as many of them once it becomes legal. Will it put them out of business? I don’t know. Will there be price wars? I’m sure there will be.
You’ve got a new book coming out in June, Carsick.
I hitchhiked across America by myself. Of the people who picked me up hitchhiking, I would say one carload smoked marijuana the whole time. I didn’t smoke with them because I was too afraid of hitchhiking stoned, because it was scary enough. Not scary—but unknown enough. But they were great. I didn’t care if they smoked pot. They were good drivers and stuff.
What else is on the horizon for this year? Are you doing a lecture tour?
I’m doing a leg of my “This Filthy World” tour in Australia and Germany. And I’m having a photo show in Berlin. Carsick, the book, comes out June 3, so I’m doing a book tour. So I’m going to be busy.
No movie project, though?
No, I’ve had an insane children’s movie, Fruitcake, that I’ve been trying to make for years, but I don’t know if I’m ever going to make it. They want all the movies to go back and cost what they did when I did them when I was in my 20s. I can’t be a faux underground filmmaker at this point. I don’t want to. I did that. I still have meetings about it, but who knows if it’s going to get made? That’s why I write books. There’s plenty of ways to tell stories.
What’s your favorite part of being a storyteller?
The most fun is when you think it up. When you first get the idea and nobody knows it but you. And it’s your secret. And you give birth to it and you keep rewriting and working on it. That’s the fun of it: Getting an idea that you realize you’re going to live with for the next two years, and developing it and working on it every day. It’s like an affair. An affair that sometimes works.