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John Waters:
The gay film director on serial killer art, the Unabomber
and the horror of hammering

Interview by Mark Salisbury.

Your new film is called Pecker. Was God taking the piss when he designed male genitalia?

No.I don't think they're ugly. Certainly, out of context, penises are... undignified.

But it just kind of hangs there.

Well it doesn't always just hang there.

What's your favourite term for the penis?

"Favourite" means you've really thought about it. "Cock" is what I would say. I put a term in Pecker, not for cock but for vagina. I thought it was the rudest ever: beef curtain. I heard a punk girl say it. "She kicked me in my beef curtain."

Do you have a name for yours?

If I did, I certainly wouldn't tell a journalist. But I don't. I swear on the Bible I do not.

When you were growing up, didn't you want to be either a terrorist or a film director?

I wanted to be the Alphabet Bomber, who bombed in alphabetical order. Airport. Barber shop. I put that in Cry-Baby for a joke. I imagined him going "A... B... C... D... E... F.. G...Whooomm!"

So is the Alphabet Bomber, like, your favourite?

Yeah. I like him more than the Unabomber. But the one I remember most, who was the most evil, was a guy who put a bomb on an airplane in the early Fifties in America. He blew everybody up to get the insurance for his wife. I'm interested in lunatics. I think they're all impotent.

You're gay. We're doing a feature this month called 'FHM Comes Out": is it better to be gay?

I don't think it's better to be gay or straight. I've always thought the privilege of being gay was that you didn't have to get married or go in the army - although now we have to fight for that privilege. I'm totally against gay liberation saying we're like everybody else. Who wants to be?

As a child, did your parents tell you to stand up straight or people would think you were a poof?

I heard my parents say, "He's just an odd duck," and maybe that's what they meant. When I first knew I was gay? Maybe Elvis Presley. My parents loathed him. Oh my God, when I saw that album cover with the guitar - that first shot of him. I didn't know it then, but in hindsight that's when I realised I wasn't like the other boys in my class.

So your dad never caught you masturbating over pictures of the Marlboro man?

No! My parents found worse. Hypodermics, drugs, things like that. They'd say, "What's this?" And I'd say, "Oh, that was for the movie." I could get away with anything that way.

What was your first gay experience?

Oh, I'm not telling you that! Are you kidding? If anybody makes money off that, I will, not you.

What's the biggest kvetch about gay men?

I guess that they are always good-looking. "He's too goodlooking to be straight." I don't find that to be true at all. It's just that the grass looks greener on the other side. Sexual confusion is sexy to me. That and terrorism.

Did you ever display pyrotechnic tendencies?

No, because I'm mechanically challenged. I can't screw in a light bulb, truly. In fact, that is when I knew I was gay, in the second grade. I had to hammer in a nail and I had a nervous breakdown. My parents took me to the basement, handed me a hammer and, with great difficulty, I hammered a nail. But it didn't make me think: "Now I can do it." I was more like: "I did it once, I'm never going to do it again." And I never have.

Wasn't one of the Village People a handyman?

It's not that I find people who can hammer nails unappealing. I didn't say that.

You escaped the Vietnam draft - how did you manage to do that?

I said that I was gay, wet my bed and was a drug addict. But in the physical, I was a pound too skinny, so I would have been sent home anyway.

How often do you trim your moustache?

I shave it every day from the top, and cut it from the bottom maybe twice a week. Sometimes I pluck the grey hairs. When it turns completely grey I'll have to decide whether to make it blue or not, like old ladies. But then I think: "Can I put my parents through this final thing?"

What's the strangest substance you've ever seen anybody eat in front of you?

Chalk. I knew a woman that ate boxes of chalk. I assume she had a calcium deficiency. She would just eat sticks of it. It would be oozing in her mouth. It was really unpleasant to watch.

Not Divine eating dogshit in Pink Flamingos?

That never seemed so shocking - it was like saying a word so many times that it doesn't mean much anymore. But the scene where Divine eats the turd, I told him the night before just to shit in a box and gift wrap it. That makes me realise what a good sport he was.

Did you ever want to have sex with Divine?

No. We were friends. That was never an issue.

You're a Reverend, aren't you?

Yes I am, in the Universal Life Church. I've done four weddings and one baptism.

Didn't you conduct Traci Lords' wedding?

No, I baptised her. Traci married my best friend's son at a very straight High Episcopal wedding. I heard the priest say to her, "Have you been baptised?" She said "Yes", and I thought "You liar". Pat, my friend, asked me to baptise her because she knew I had the power. I have a tabernacle someone stole from a church in my attic. I've got black tulips and this record by castrated altar boys. It's a big load of original sin.

Didn't you become a Reverend by mail order?

Johnny Depp's lawyers did it all. They had me ordained because at one time Johnny was going to marry Winona (Ryder), and they wanted me to marry them. I talked them both out of it because they were definitely too young.

You used to teach film studies in jail. What was the prisoners' taste in movies like?

They hated A Streetcar Named Desire more than any movie. It really crushed me. Their favourite was The Champ. The remake. I remember showing them Even Dwarves Started Small, about midgets taking over a mental institution: that shocked them. I showed them Pink Flamingos, and when Divine ate shit, all the black people ran out of class and never came back.

Have you ever spent the night in jail?

Oh sure. I got out both times. I never spent the whole night. I was arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure when making Mondo Thasho. It was Divine in a red Cadillac wearing a gold lame pant suit with a nude man that did it.

Is it true that you visit mass murderers in jail, including one of the Manson women?

For about 15 years I've visited one of the Manson women, Leslie Van Houten, who I believe is rehabilitated. So do a lot of people. She should get out. She's been in jail 30 years and looks back on it in horror. She wasn't a serial killer. She was involved with a madman in a cult.

How often do you visit her?

Whenever I'm in LA. Everyone says she's better, but who's got the nerve to sign the papers? Even Myra Hindley, I don't think she would commit a crime again. She might make someone a very bad wife. She's in jail for those roots. If she'd got them done before going to the moors that day, she'd be a free woman. It's that picture.

I read that you have a painting at home by the now executed serial killer, John Wayne Gacy...

Yeah, I do. It was a gift. It's in a guest room. I don't see it much. My friend Dennis gave it to me. It cost $80. Recently some right-wing preacher bought a lot of his work and burned it. Which is great, as it means mine's probably worth $200 now. It's a bad tracing of a Walt Disney drawing - the Witch in Snow White. The only weird thing in it is the window: the one thing he added was this little extra brick, which is very scary because he had boys in his basement. I'm against capital punishment, but I don't think there's too many people missing Gacy.

Do you get the chance to hang out at murder trials as often as you used to?

I don't, because I get recognised now. I always feel if that happens, then somehow I could hurt the defendant. I don't usually know the defendants. I used to be areal trial hag, but OJ ruined it. Everybody wanted to go after that.