John Waters Stays True To His Roots

US cult film director John Waters poses during a photocall for the film directed by US film director Jeff Garlin "This Filthy World" at the 57th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin 13 February 2007. GETTY

It's no secret that John Waters loves his hometown, Baltimore, Md. He sets and shoots all his films here around places he really hangs out.

"I don't ever want to leave here," Waters told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver. "I come home to be inspired, because I come here and there are certain neighborhoods I go to and I get ideas from."

It should be no surprise that "Hairspray," the new musical film based on the original movie Waters wrote and directed 20 years ago, had gala premieres not only in L.A. and New York, but also back at his old stomping grounds. Waters' whole family turned out to celebrate.

Set in the early '60s, "Hairspray" is the story of a chubby teenage girl with big hair named Tracy Turnblad, who somehow gets a spot on a television dance show.

"There was a show in Baltimore, called 'The Buddy Dean Show' that was our version of 'American Bandstand,' where the girls had higher hair," Waters said. "The boys wore tighter pants."

Waters has a cameo role in the new film; he plays a flasher. But John Waters did not direct the new version of "Hairspray."

"No, I would have no desire to direct it myself," Waters said. "It would be going backwards."

> Photos: "Hairspray" In New York
One thing that is very important about "Hairspray" is that Tracy must be fat, he said.

"Well, I didn't want it to chicken out," Waters said. "They have to be fat or it doesn't work, and the problem is once you hire a fat girl and they're doing dance rehearsal and working, they start to lose weight! So there's a fat continuity problem, when they come around a corner three weeks later. So you have to feed them in-between takes. Cut! Give them a Dove Bar."

Nikki Blonksy is Tracy in the new version, a role Rikki Lake originated in the earlier film. Tracy's mom Edna Turnblad was played by Divine, the over-the-top drag queen featured in many early Waters films. Her real name is Harris Glen Milstead.

"He lived up the street from my parents," Waters said. "'Girl next door' is the joke that's overtold. But he was not a transvestite. He wasn't in drag except when we were making movies. It was a character we sort of created to use my lunacy and his anger. What everyone forgets though, when this movie came out, it was a hit and it got good reviews. And Divine died a week after it was over. So I don't remember. It's a hole in my memory. It was terrible."

Then came "Hairspray," the Broadway musical. It won a slew of Tony Awards in 2003, with Divine's part played by Harvey Fierstein, an actor also known for drag roles. In this new movie version, John Travolta plays Edna.

"He's made it his own," Waters said. "Though the difference is, I think the way John Travolta plays the part is that Edna was, when she was young very voluptuous and got fat when she gets older — which look at Playboy bunnies, 40 years later, they're fat!"

Waters lives to shock and offend. Even his house in Baltimore is filled with weird and wondrous objects like the fake baby he calls Bill.

"I have all sorts of little things, like these fronts, you know the kind of teeth the rappers wear. I have to be amused up here," he said.

Waters' show business career started when he was just a kid. At 12 he began putting on children's puppet shows.

"Then I got embarrassed," Waters said. "I was too cool at 14 to want to be doing Cinderella. So I like put blood in the puppet shows and then parents started to freak! And then my grandmother gave me this little camera. And I knew nothing about it, I never went to film school."

Waters went on to write and direct 16 films. Unlike "Hairspray," many of them are X-rated and filled with raunchy humor. But the one that really put him on the map was the 1972 release "Pink Flamingos" which earned him nicknames like "the Sultan of Sleaze."

"Pink Flamingos" is about a contest as to who is the Most Disgusting Person in the World.

"But filth is a word I use as a great compliment," he said. "It wasn't just gross. It was humorous. People laughed."

Waters has capitalized on his notoriety, cultivating an image of a slightly subversive, counterculture character. He's written several books and appeared in numerous film and TV roles, including a stint playing himself as an openly gay cartoon character on "The Simpsons."

At age 61 John Waters has no intention of slowing down.

"I work every day. In the morning I think up weird things," Waters said. "In the afternoon I sell them — Monday to Friday. Every Friday night I go out like a coal miner with a paycheck, have a couple of drinks whatever city I'm in."

In fact, we caught up with him in one of his favorite cities, San Francisco.

"When I first came here, I lived in my car and it was fun," Waters said. "You learn to hang towels in the windows so when you're sleeping people aren't looking in."

Today of course he's a celebrated star in that city. Just a week ago there was a midnight tribute to him. There was also an opening of a show of his art work, like his photo montage of President Clinton and his mother, or his rubber snake called "Slimy," or this installation called Faux Video Room, selling for $8,000.

"So this is for the collector that wants a video room, but they don't really like video art, because there is no room, you just bang into it," he said.

He's already sold two of his works of art. But his time is not strictly devoted to art. Waters is now working on a children's movie and another one of his films, "Cry Baby," a musical which originally starred Johnny Depp, is headed for Broadway. But it is probable that "Hairspray" will go down as his most famous work.

"If one thing lasts, I'm thrilled," Waters said. "I always say to my audiences, I've made like 16 movies, right? If you like one of them, I mean that's all you get sometimes. Like most people don't get one thing that they're ever remembered by. That's why people have children. I made films."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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