In his 1985 memoir, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, John Waters explains how he used to fantasize about “the beginning of the Hate Generation” in response to sitting in the mud and listening to Joan Baez at Woodstock. It’s easy to see from Multiple Maniacs, Waters’s second feature film, why the concert represented a lame sort of progressivism; its misfit band of scheming and hostile thieves and weirdos wouldn’t be caught dead swaying to music that represented “love and peace.” Instead, they, like Waters himself, seek a radical means for stunning onlookers, whether through sexually irreverent acts involving a rosary or devouring human body parts to prove it’s no big deal. Yet there’s also a prodding political awareness to Multiple Maniacs, which is no better articulated than in an early scene when Lady Divine (Divine) smokes “grass” with her topless daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), and her boyfriend, Steve (Paul Swift). He’s a “weatherman,” and the pair met when some tear gas went off at a protest. As Cookie tells it, “We ran to the bushes, smeared Vaseline all over their faces, and put wet handkerchiefs in their mouths. Then we just laid there and made love.” Steve quickly chimes in: “And fucked.”
I spoke with Waters about shifting political climates during the 1970s, navigating the terrain separating the arthouse from the grindhouse, and the peculiar particulars of having Divine be raped by a lobster.
What was your mindset like when you began making Multiple Maniacs?
[laughs] That’s a good question. My mindset was political, like hippie-political. That was when the most radical left-wing politics was going on. I made fun of hippies, even though lived in that world, so I was a closet punk, even though we didn’t know what “punk” was. I was very interested in what could still be legal and surprising to my audience, because all of the censorship boundaries were collapsing daily. And the next thing [after Multiple Maniacs] was porn was legal, which is why we made Pink Flamingos. This one was trying to say, “What’s the temper of the violence?,” with eating hearts and all that. And then Pink Flamingos was eating shit, because that was the only thing left. It was all done for humor and for political actions against the tyranny of good taste. But I don’t know that we ever had that meeting to plot it [laughs]. There was no conspiracy, it just happens internally.
But you did consciously think of Multiple Maniacs as a political statement of your own perceptions at that time, right?
I think that’s more in hindsight that I see that. But certainly at the time, I remember what was going on. There were riots everywhere, there were bombings, there were assassinations. It was a very volatile time and we were in the middle of it. We went to riots. So, to me, it was reflecting our sense of humor and our excitement at the radical change that was happening in society at the time.
And you made this film, along with Mondo Trasho, at such a young age, in your early 20s.
Oh yeah, and I’d made movies even before that! I had done the Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie [Kennedy] a few years before that, in ’66. So yeah, these were early, and sometimes I think, “How did I ever do that? How did I get these made?” Because we certainly never had permission to shoot any of it. There was no location manager. I didn’t ask the city [of Baltimore] if we could shoot or anything. We would just show up one morning and do it. And run! It was kind of like Cecil B. DeMented in that way. It was definitely guerilla filmmaking—but it’s the same thing kids do today on their cellphones, though different. My camera was a lot heavier!
Is it possible for you, though, to trace that passion that drove you to make not just shorts, but features on your own? Because now, though digital makes filmmaking an easier task, most anyone making a feature goes to film school, spends years paying their dues, and wouldn’t even think about the possibility of a feature until they’re in their late 20s or early 30s.
Here’s the thing: If I had gone to film school, my films probably would’ve looked technically better, but at the same time, no film school at that time would ever have allowed me to make Multiple Maniacs. Now, and I think I’m partially responsible for this, you can make a snuff film at NYU and you would get an A.
What was your relationship with cinema like in the late ’60s? Were you seeing all sorts of stuff or homing in on a certain kind of filmmaking?
I always saw all exploitation movies. From nudist camp movies on. But mostly, foreign movies. Ingmar Bergman was a huge influence. All those movies like 491 and Night Games. All the Swedish shockers, I, a Woman, all that kind of stuff was a huge influence. But at the same time, we went to the drive-in and saw Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, and all that. So I was trying to make exploitation films for art theaters. That’s what they were. I think Harmony Korine has made exploitation films for art theaters. But there aren’t that many. Still.
It’s always struck me that your films are about navigating that space between the arthouse and the grindhouse and showing that the two aren’t actually far apart. Do you think there has been a greater recognition on the part of distributors and exhibitors of this over the years?
Can there be any more proof of that than Janus Films, the distribution company? That is the ultimate validation of my theory that the worlds could meet. When I went to see what’s probably my favorite Bergman movie, the first one I ever saw, Brink of Life, it featured three women in a maternity ward. I’m sure Janus Films brought that to me.
But that wasn’t the way it was from ’68 to ’70, so I’m struck by the posters for Cul-de-sac and Teorema in Cookie’s room. Did these posters—
Well, that was my house.
It was. That was the upstairs bedroom of my apartment. It looked exactly like that. That’s why I keep saying now with the restoration: “I have that ashtray still!”
So these are your posters that stayed on the wall for the shoot?
Yeah, that was my house, that was how it looked, and those are all the posters. But yes, they were influences, definitely.