John Waters brings back Multiple Maniacs: ‘Of course I went a little too far’

The shock auteur is back in US cinemas with his second and arguably most extreme film. He shares his thoughts on Trump, Spring Breakers and fake vomit

Hi, John! Where are you?

Im in Provincetown. This is my 52nd summer Ive been here. (1)

Youre about to rerelease a restored version of your second film, Multiple Maniacs, into cinemas to shock a whole new generation. It stars Divine as the crazed impresario of a depraved freak show. How do you feel it plays now 46 years after it originally opened? (2)

Maybe it works better now than it did then. I dont know! Well see. Ive seen it with one audience and it seemed to play pretty well. People seemed startled by it, and it was an audience that had seen everything.

This was my trainer wheels for Pink Flamingos (3). This was when I finally got my voice even though it was too loud and too long. Its making fun of hippie rules of the era, the same way that I make fun of political or gayly correct rules today. I think its exactly like what all my work has been like from the very beginning, really.

How did hippies react to your gonzo vision back in the day?

They liked it! Who came were bikers though. And crazy gay people. And speed freaks. People on LSD. They were all radical within their own community and they responded to it very well.

This was in the peak of peace and love, but it was also at the peak when everything fell apart like crazy. There was such a war going on then between the hippies and the straight world; and straight didnt mean heterosexual it meant you didnt smoke pot or you didnt think the revolution was going to happen.

I read the original negative of the film was kept in your closet before being moved to your attic. Had you even wanted to rerelease it and have it restored?

Ive been trying to get this released for a long time. Basically when the Lincoln Center had a big retrospective of my work and they showed the last 60mm print, the people from Criterion were there and they called (4). I had no idea what they could do with restorations what they could make it look like.

They asked if I wanted to keep it exactly as is, with every mistake in there. I said,
Are you kidding me? I never purposely had mistakes in there! I dont want the splice marks to show, I dont want the dirt in the lens! Make it look good! Now it looks like a bad John Cassavetes movie.

What do you make of Multiple Maniacs returning during the Trump-era?

Lets hope that its not the era of Trump. That would mean he wins.

OK an era during which a reality star can get this far in the race to become president.

Oh, I lived through Nixon. I lived through Reagan. They were all horrible. [Laughs] Would Trump be offended by Multiple Maniacs? Probably not.

Multiple Maniacs. Photograph: Janus Films

Whys that? Its gleefully blasphemous, and would likely inflame his voting base.

Believe me I am certainly for Hillary [Clinton] 100%, and always was. But what Im saying is he doesnt mean it, the shit he says. At least hes met a gay person! The other Republicans never even met a gay person.

Do you know if Trump has ever seen a movie of yours?

I dont care. Ive never met him and I hope I never do. I always said as a joke that Bill [Clinton] probably did see Pink Flamingos and Hillary probably did not. At the time, Bill seemed a little bit more adventuresome, maybe on wanting to see weird stuff. I could be wrong!

Divine chows down on raw flesh in the films climax, before [spoiler alert] being raped by a giant lobster. What did you make her eat?

It was a cows heart that I got from the butcher. It was two-days old, refrigerated. It was pretty rancid. You could see Divine gag there. But that was the trainer wheels for eating shit [at the notorious conclusion of Pink Flamingos]. It organically grew from there.

And all the vomit in the film was that real?

Alka-Seltzer! You just put some in your mouth, swish it around, and youll foam.

Multiple Maniacs. Photograph: Janus Films

How did you film the explicit lesbian scene in the church?

Churches in the 60s had demonstrations. It was very common for churches to have leftwing activity anti-war things. So it was not so odd. Our movies premiered in churches. Maniacs premiered in Baltimore in the Unitarian church.

But someone knew the priest and asked if we could film there we didnt tell him what. My friend who was a hippie and a political activist, he went in there and talked to the priest about Vietnam and stuff, while we shot the scene.

The priest then he came to the premiere. I felt really bad for him because he was almost crying. To this day I have never told where that church is. Im not so sure I completely remember any more.

Watching Multiple Maniacs today, are there bits where you go: maybe I did go too far?

Of course I went a little too far! What I should have done was cut some things. Does Divine have to break every window in the car?

I did look at that rosary sex scene, at the people around me, and I could see the young audience in disbelief. At the same time, I did startle myself. I think, how did I get away with this? How did any of this happen?

Part of it was a time capsule. A very accurate picture of what my sense of humor, and what my friends were like at the time, which might scare some people. And in some ways, they should actually be scared of us.

What shocks you now?

What shocks me now is stupidity and racism, and all the things that are not funny.

And in film?

I felt Spring Breakers (5) shocked me in a great way.

Multiple Maniacs. Photograph: Janus Films

Your parents fully funded Multiple Manics. Did you let them watch it?

No! I paid them back. Im glad they didnt see it. I think its the only one my mother didnt see. They never wanted to see any of them! They were usually horrified. The only time I could say they werent was when Hairspray (6) opened on Broadway.

Even with A Dirty Shame (7) my father said after, It was funny but I hope as hell I never see it again! Thats a pretty good quote!

You havent made a movie since A Dirty Shame. What gives?

Ive had three development deals for movies that never happened. The last two movies I made didnt make money. Its always been like that plain and simple, 100%. I accept that. Hollywood was completely fair to me.

Is revisiting Multiple Maniacs bittersweet, with Divine no longer with us? (8)

It certainly is. The creative community is always hit, the whole history, by sexual diseases, suicide, drugs. My world is no different, but it is certainly sad. I have lots of old friends. I have many friends Ive known for 50 years now and that is the key to whatever mental health I have now. I think that if you dont have old friends, youre probably unhappy.


(1) Waters owns a studio attic apartment overlooking the beach in Provincetown, a gay-friendly New England town located at the extreme tip of Cape Cod.

(2) First released in 1970, Multiple Maniacs heralded the arrival of the Baltimore-based film-maker, who had yet to make his defining cult classic, Pink Flamingos. Long out of print, the film, about a traveling freak show fronted by Waters muse, the drag queen Divine, is now receiving a rerelease courtesy of Janus Films.

(3) Pink Flamingos (1972), reunited Waters with Divine for a fabulously grotesque comedy about a sleazy married couples attempts humiliate the drag icon, jealous of her reputation. Its part of what Waters has labeled his Trash Trilogy, which also includes Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). Like Multiple Maniacs, it features a series of profane scenes, culminating in Divine eating freshly laid dog faeces, proving, as the narrator states, that she is not only the filthiest person in the world, but is also the worlds filthiest actress.

(4) The Criterion Collection, the celebrated home video distribution company that licenses and sells classic films, supervised the restoration of Multiple Maniacs. New Yorks Film Society of Lincoln Center, hosted a Waters retrospective in 2014, titled Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?

(5) Waters voted Spring Breakers, Harmony Korines neon-hued, girls-gone-wild caper, his favorite film of 2013. Waters once said of Korine: Hes the only director that ever made me leer after naked female Disney stars.

(6) Hairspray, the stage musical based on Waters 1988 film, won eight Tony awards in 2003, including one for best musical. Its since been adapted into a second film, starring John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer, released in 2007.

(7) A Dirty Shame (2004), Waters most recent directorial effort, stars British comic Tracey Ullman as a repressed housewife, who after getting smacked in the head by a passing car, becomes a ravenous sex addict.

(8) Divine (real name: Harris Glenn Milstead) died in his sleep in 1988 of an enlarged heart aged 42.

  • Multiple Manics opens in New York on 5 August at the IFC Center before opening in select cinemas nationwide.

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