John Waters is constantly looking for new ways to describe his work.
Take, for instance, his current one man show, “This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier,” which he’ll be performing at Sweet Briar College — the alma mater of his mother and two sisters — next month (see box for more information).
“By filth, I’ve always meant that as a punk rock word,” the legendary filmmaker said in a phone interview from his Baltimore home last week.
“All the other words are used up. Trashy, that doesn’t mean anything. Everybody tries to be trashy. ‘Desperate Housewives’ is trashy. It doesn’t have much of anything new to it.”
He’s tried others: camp, sleaze, even kitsch.
But filth, he said, “is the only one that kind of still has that edge that makes people nervous.”
Making people nervous has become just as much a hallmark of Waters’ career as his perfectly pencil-thin mustache. (How does he maintain it? “Every day, in the morning, I shave from the top down with a razor, and then you use scissors a couple times a week,” he said. “And if you miss, you draw it on. Maybelline Velvet Black — sharpened every time.”)
Waters said his entire career has been about limits.
“What are people’s limits? What can be funny? What is something that’s too much for you?
“Something in real life can be so, so terrible, and then, magically, on the screen can be funny,” he said. “That is what always interests me.”
Just take a look at some of his work, from his most recent directorial effort, 2004’s “A Dirty Shame,” about a woman who becomes addicted to sex after a car accident, all the way back to his most infamous, 1972’s “Pink Flamingos,” which follows two families competing for the title of “Filthiest People Alive.” (Yes, that’s the one that ends with Waters’ pal and frequent star, drag queen Divine, eating animal feces.)
Growing up in Baltimore, Waters, 62, began making movies with his friends in the 1960s, often with money borrowed from his father. His first film was a short called “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket” and, according to the Internet Movie Database, was made for only $30.
Looking back now, Waters said they were making do with what they had.
“We just didn’t have any other choice,” he said. “It wasn’t like show business. No one sent me headshots. These were my friends and we got together and we just made these things somehow.
“People say, ‘Was it fun?’ No. It was satisfying work. But it certainly wasn’t fun, in the freezing cold, sitting out there with no food and, you know, there were no trailers. Nothing. There was a trailer, but the movie took place in it.”
At a young age, he found inspiration in other directors who pushed the envelope, including gore-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis and Kroger Babb, who made exploitation films about controversial topics like religion and sex.
“(They) invented a new genre of movies when the regular Hollywood had gone as far as they could,” Waters said. “They had to come up with something new that wasn’t illegal. Yet.”
Waters’ first full-length film, “Mondo Trasho,” was released by New Line Cinemas in 1969. A quick succession of similarly bizarre films, like “Multiple Maniacs,” “Female Trouble” and “Desperate Living,” followed over the next 10 years.
His later work, especially 1988’s “Hairspray,” did reach wider audiences. But even as he found some mainstream success, Waters still reveled in the absurd, like 1994’s “Serial Mom,” which starred Kathleen Turner as a cheery housewife who moonlights as a serial killer.
“Hairspray” was Waters’ first and, so far, only PG rating, and it’s really gone on to have a life of its own. In 2002, it began a hugely successful, Tony-winning run as a Broadway musical, and John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer recently starred in the big-budget movie remake.
He followed up “Hairspray” with 1990’s “Cry Baby,” which featured a “21 Jump Street”-era Johnny Depp. It has also been adapted for the Broadway stage.
Waters said he can’t see any rhyme or reason as to why one is more successful or commercial than another.
“To me, they’re all the same,” he said. “I never plan about that. I never sat down and thought, ‘This one’s gonna be the commercial one.’ I’m just as mystified why (2000’s) ‘Cecil B. Demented’ isn’t a Broadway musical.”
Waters hasn’t helmed a film since 2004, but has been working on a kids’ Christmas movie, now stalled by the economy, for quite some time.
A John Waters’ Christmas movie — sounds like an oxymoron, right? But Waters thinks it can work.
“It would be a really hard PG-13,” he said, laughing. “I’m pushing the limits of PG-13 for the whole family.”
For the time being, though, he’s focused on his one-man show, which includes his thoughts on everything from true crime to fashion to “how to be a happy neurotic,” he said. “How to make friends with your neuroses.”
The show is constantly changing, but is completely written and rehearsed beforehand.
He said he rewrote the entire thing last week, but “if something happens in the news tomorrow, it would be in it.”
The last time Waters spoke at Sweet Briar was in 1991, and he said he’s thrilled to be coming back.
“It makes my mother so happy every time that I go there. She said, ‘Please don’t be too rude,’” he said. “But I will be. I said to my mother, ‘It’s my job to be rude. That’s why they hired me.’ Not rude to people, but rudely funny.”
It all depends, he said, on how it’s framed.
“As long as you are looking up to your subject matter and not down, you get away with it. To me, mean-spirited is funny for 10 minutes, not 70.
“My specialty is praising things that other people hate. If I ever say bad things, it’s about something that everybody else but me loves. That’s my politics.”
IF YOU’RE GOING
WHAT: John Waters’ ‘This Filthy World: Filthier and Trashier’
WHEN: 8 p.m. April 22
WHERE: Sweet Briar College’s Murchison Lane Auditorium
TICKETS: Free, but seats must be reserved in advance, starting April 1. To reserve your spot, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
INFO: (434) 381-6120