If You’re Trying Too Hard, That’s the Ultimate Sin: John Waters on Multiple Maniacs

Puke Eaters, Lesbians, and Mental Patients — these are the main draw of the Cavalcade of Perversion freak show in the opening scenes of John Waters’ unrated 1970 film Multiple Maniacs, which Janus Films and the Criterion Collection have just restored. (It was probably not the easiest job. The 46-year-old film’s reversal original languished in Waters’ own closet for two decades before being exiled to an attic, where it was subjected to triple-digit temperatures.) And two screenings of it will screen at the Castro Theatre this Friday, Sept. 16, at 7 and 11 p.m.

SF Weekly chatted with Waters about cinematic sugar daddies, his status as a transgender-man hag, and what Elizabeth Taylor told Waters about his muse when he finally got to meet the famous actress. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for purposes of clarity.

I’m so excited that Multiple Maniacs is out in 4k.
At the Castro! My God, that’s like the opposite of where it first showed at midnight in San Francisco. I promise you, it’s never been projected this large ever in its meager life.

Where was it first screened?
At [North Beach’s] Palace Theater, with The Cockettes and later at the Secret Cinema. It might have even played at the Castro over the years, but I don’t think so. And in 16mm in places, but that was in 1970.

Is there any chance of Mondo Trasho or Roman Candles receiving the same treatment?
Too many music rights issues. So, no. That will not happen, no.

Literally never?
No, never ever. Because Mondo Trasho — basically, for a movie that cost $2,500, to renegotiate the music rights would be a million dollars, which I don’t think would be the best — I wouldn’t do that, so I don’t think it would be a good idea.

But you’d be open to a benefactor swooping in and handling that for you?
Certainly. If a crazy cinematic sugar daddy exists and decides that that’s what they’d like to do, I’d be so happy to do it.

We all know Divine was your muse, but of all the people you worked with in the Multiple Maniacs era who are now gone, is there anybody you miss working with more than the rest?
I miss all of them. They were my friends. Cookie and David Lochary were my friends; when we weren’t making movies those are the people I saw every day. I miss them all. I will say that many are alive and they’re going to all be together for the first time in Baltimore this week. (Some came to the New York screening.) The ones that are alive, like Rick Morrow, who’s Ricky, George Figgs, who’s Jesus Christ. So yes, I do see the ones who are alive and I will be seeing the dead ones — when the Resurrection happens, I guess I’ll see them again.

David Lochary always leaps out at me.
David was — when we made Multiple Maniacs, which was the last movie before Van Smith came aboard as the costume designer and makeup designer, and you can see that that’s when Divine in Pink Flamingos got the iconic look that really stuck with him. But David Lochary, I think he designed his own clothes and Divine’s outfits, too.

Divine always wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor. So in this movie — and in parts of Female Trouble, too — he does look like Elizabeth Taylor. And when I, finally, at the end of Elizabeth Taylor’s life, met Elizabeth Taylor at her house, she looked like Divine. I don’t meant that badly! There was a cookout, she had candy and hot dogs, and she acted like she said Divine would have.

I assume she was very courteous.
She was lovely, she was lovely. I went with Tab Hunter and Johnny Depp.

Was there a moment when you realized that the general culture was hurtling toward you and was going to meet you where you were?
No, that was gradual. That’s like a growth stock. It’s like you beat inflation. That generally happened over a long period of time slowly. It was organic, let’s put it that way.

There were many nights my life changed. The night that Pink Flamingos finally opened in New York, the first week nobody came but the second week there was a line around the block from the meager word-of-mouth. My life changed then, my life changed when Hairspray won the Tony, and my life changed when Role Models went on The New York Times Best Seller list. I think those three things, kind of in my different careers, were major, and when I had my retrospective at Lincoln Center last year and at the British Film Institute the year after, those were definately like being at your own funeral when you get to hear your own eulogy.

Did you ever have existential angst of any kind?

You mean like Jean-Paul Sartre? Nausea, at this moment? Being and Nothingness, no. Actually I read all that, but I was always a more cheerful kind of guy. I didn’t sit around moping in French coffeeshops.

I know that’s not your style, but the mainstream has moved so close to where you are. Are you just like, “Really? I can’t shock you people anymore.”

Oh, I don’t want to just shock people. I want to make you laugh. Hollywood makes all these $100 million shock comedies that aren’t funny, so that’s why I made Kiddie Flamingos for an art show, which was a G-rated version of Pink Flamingos, to go they other way. Everybody’s trying to be shocking. It’s kind of old hat. If you’re trying too hard, that’s the ultimate sin.

Looking back on your career, what’s the biggest disaster?
Oh, many of then were disasters. I think Desperate Living when it came out was the worst, and was received the worst, and did the worst at the box office. Yet today, for some of my extreme fans, that was best. Disasters? They were all disasters.

Oh, I don’t meant the films. I know you had an interview with Little Richard and that did not go well.
That wasn’t a total disaster, it was in Playboy and then it ended up being in Role Model, too. It may have been a disaster for him, but it wasn’t for me. Things that happened terribly in my life — you know, when Divine died was a disaster. It’s always a disaster when you open a movie and it bombs or doesn’t make money or it gets bad reviews. It feels like a disaster at the time. But I guess I know by now that those disasters can turn into something very different later, and Multiple Maniacs is a perfect example of that.

Since it’s been 12 years since your last feature, are you working on any film projects at the moment?
Well, I had three development deals. I had Fruitcake, that was a development deal from a Hollywood studio that never happened, but they paid me well. I had three different sequels to Hairspray, HBO, everything that ended up going into turnaround — but Hollywood’s treated me very fairly. Who knows? Who knows? I have a two-book deal right now, so I’ve got a job for five years.

Are there any current trends you find disheartening in the extreme?
Disheartening, no. I’m an optimist, I think kids are having just as much fun today as I had when I was 18 years old. I think they’re doing different things that involve computers, but they’re using their computers to cause trouble. I think kids are probably a lot more healthy than our generation was. I think gay bars closing is a positive sign in a way, because young gay people don’t want to be segregated. I’m against all separatism — that’s been the main thing I’ve always believed in. I like to be astonished by youth, I like to watch them. I think sometimes it’s amazing to me that when I was young if something was controversial, a lot of young people wanted to run to it, while today a lot of times they say, “Oh, I don’t really want to see that.”

Sometimes they come up with things like Silk Road — or the transgender community, that really got their rights pretty fast. They were fighting for them, but I would say the bathroom laws — it’s not important. Gun control is more important. Shit at home. I don’t think anybody should be taking a shit when they’re out, it’s disgusting.

On that topic, though…
On which subject, shitting?

No, transgender rights. Although I could talk about shitting with you until I’m blue in the face.
No, no, no, no, no. I’m already pushed in that corner too much.

The same Democratic politicians who, even four years ago, were afraid to say they were in favor of same-sex marriage are now getting front and center for trans rights.
I know! Which I find astonishing, but great. Actually think the transgendered men community in San Francisco is amazing and beautiful and I’m really for it — and they seem to like me, too. I’m a transgender-man hag.

When you’re here, do you have any favorite haunts?
Kayo Books. You know they’re closing?

Yeah, they’re going online- and appointment-only.
That’s closing. I love them, so I’m sad about them. I went there right before — they warned me. But I go to lots of restaurants.

Are you a big foodie?
No, I’m not too much of a foodie, cause some of them get on my nerves, I’m like, “Oh, please.” But yeah, I go out to restaurants, yeah, but I’m not a pretentious foodie. I like the Mymy Cafe, right down the street in my neighborhood. I like the name of it.

Will you be hitchhiking here?
I doubt it. I have once since I wrote the book, but I forget where I was going. No, I don’t hitchhike — but I take the bus everywhere, which is even more bizarre than hitchhiking in San Francisco, where every person is out of their mind and just decided to stop taking their medication.

Multiple Maniacs, Friday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St.

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