John Waters filming Pink Flamingos in 1972
Photo: Steve Yeager

If you utter the name Andy Warhol, chances are you’ll think of a Campbell’s soup can. Say ‘John Waters’ and an image of a fat drag queen eating dog shit springs to mind. Both are images about serial consumption and waste. Where Warhol’s soup can is emptied out and repetitious, a banal and oversimplified graphic form, Waters’s fame-grabbing scene of Divine’s shit-eating stunt in Pink Flamingos 1972 refers to the stench-riddled end point of consumption. Waters’s most famous cinematic moment sticks out as a metaphor for our morbid fascination with carnage and trash, while Warhol drained the horrors of such imagery to the point where only a narcotised numbness remains. If Campbell’s is the entrée, dog shit is for dessert. The main course? Amphetamines, of course.

John Waters was a Baltimore teenager in the early 1960s, obsessed with the underground glitz of Andy’s Manhattan. A voracious reader of Jonas Mekas’s Village Voice column on underground cinema (the first serious print commentary on Warhol’s movies), Waters ran away on weekends to New York City on a Greyhound bus to see Warhol movies like Couch 1964 and **** (Four Stars) 1966. ‘[Those] were the speed years’, says Waters when I ask him about these times.

'We took speed too and basically it was fun to go see these movies where these people were talking, talking, talking. I loved that Andy had the brilliant idea of finally having drugs and homosexuality together at last.'

Drawn to the low-grade glamour that Warhol placed centre stage in both art and life, Waters started making his own underground movies. It was 1964 when Waters made his first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, casting friends who would form his repertory company, Dreamland Studios. If Warhol’s Factory inverted the Hollywood star system with its deadpan panache, Waters copied the model, emphasising the ‘gore’ in gorgeous. ‘Warhol created superstars from beautiful people with blemishes’, writes Gary Indiana. ‘Waters focused on the blemishes, insisting that we see them as beautiful.’1 Where underground exclusivity reigns supreme in Warhol’s universe, Waters exploded the codes of underground cachet, inserting exploitation and art-house influences alongside the lurid colour and campy melodrama of 1950s Hollywood director Douglas Sirk. Historically speaking, it’s significant that Waters began making movies in 1964 because Susan Sontag penned her famous essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ that same year.2 While Waters was too much of an emerging talent to be referenced in Sontag’s seminal text, looking back it is undeniable that Waters was responsible for ushering in a camp aesthetic that still resonates today.

That Waters’s camp trash creations inspire cult-like devotion today is testament to a five-decade career built on consistent verve and discipline. Indeed, Waters’s career trajectory can be likened in some ways to Warhol’s. On a first-name basis with the world, ‘Andy’ became the very celebrity figure his work worshipped right from the beginning. If what he did was underground or avant-garde in the 1960s, it was mainstream by the time he died. Everyone wanted a piece of him, even if he’d already taken a piece out of everyone else first. ‘John’ firmed his reputation with his trash epics Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble 1974, Desperate Living 1977 and Polyester 1981. Perhaps by the time the fever caught on globally, Waters was already doing his wicked thing with Hollywood stars straight out of a system he’d never tired of satirising. Later films Hairspray 1988, Cry-Baby 1990, Serial Mom 1994 and Pecker 1998 are every bit the spit and polish of Hollywood, but at the same time subversive in their extension on his eternal themes of crime, celebrity, sex and death. When your work has been turned into a smash-hit Broadway musical, as it was for Waters when Hairspray was adapted for the stage in 2002 (and subsequently re-made as a big-screen musical in 2007), you know the dominant culture has been infected once and for all.

John Waters and Divine at the world premiere of Hairspray, Baltimore Theatre, February 1988
Photo: Amy Davis

Can you tell me about times when you met Warhol and visited the Factory?

I never met Andy until after he was shot. You have to remember that New York was the last place where my movies caught on. It wasn’t until Pink Flamingos opened in the Elgin Theater in ’73. Andy had already been shot by then and the last thing he needed was to meet a new group of lunatics. Finally Glenn O’Brien, then editor of Interview magazine, invited us to the Factory — the first Factory on Union Square. I went with my stable of stars. Everyone thought Divine and Candy Darling would hate each other but they got along great. People said they weren’t competing for the same parts. Andy watched Pink Flamingos [while] hiding in the closet and when it was over he said, ‘You should make this exact same movie again exactly the same way, it was really great’. He asked me what I was doing next. When I told him I was trying to make this movie called Female Trouble, he said, ‘I’ll pay for it’. I said no, because I guess I realised it would later become Andy Warhol’s Female Trouble. Andy later took [Frederico] Fellini to see Pink Flamingos; that was a huge thing for me. He put Divine on the cover of Interview. He would later ask me stuff like, ‘Did you blow Tab Hunter?’.3 ‘I didn’t but I wouldn’t tell you if I did’, I answered. I was shocked that he asked me that. I would see Andy at parties and he would invite me places, but did I know him? No, I never had his personal phone number. And I never put any of his stars in my movies until after he died and then it was in tribute to him. I had Joe Dallesandro in one and Brigid Berlin in two of them. To me it was just saluting. In my early movies I was trying to imitate him. The difference was I think that my movies were fully scripted from beginning to end, except for one short film called The Diane Linkletter Story 1969. All the rest of them were completely written and rehearsed. I made this movie called Mondo Trasho 1969 and I was heartbroken when I read in Interview that [Warhol and director Paul Morrissey] had made a movie called Trash 1970. We both made those movies at the same time without ever knowing that we were doing it.

You also made Roman Candles 1966 in response to Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls of the same year. 

If there was anything I copied, Roman Candles was it. He had two screens in his movie, so I had three. The difference was I was trying to be depraved but I lived with my parents in Lutherville, Maryland, so it was a little hard. I think Eat Your Makeup 1967 was my first movie that had a narrative and that one was really influenced by the Theatre of the Ridiculous, which people forget about.4 The difference was Andy was in New York where it was always chic, no matter what. There were rich people and there was always the press who praised it. I lived in Baltimore where the rich people were Republican horse people, you know what I mean — they hated my movies. I celebrated the low side of Baltimore where Andy still appealed to the chic. We were both praising weird things about the city but mine was a little more Southern, with no press to notice.

Warhol’s films were very much entrenched in the underground cinema tradition, whereas you were very much influenced by exploitation cinema as well.

Yes, as I’ve said before, I was a carnie. I think Baltimore had way more exploitation films and early Russ Meyer movies than New York did.5 At the same time I was seeing [Robert] Bresson and [Ingmar] Bergman and the artiest movies and I still see them. I think I was putting the two of them together. Now Andy and Paul [Morrissey] were really doing Dogme 95 before anybody else in a way.6 They were incredibly arty and those first movies that Andy made — Empire 1964 and Kiss 1963 — were like video art before anyone did that. Andy did a lot first and really deserved credit. He might have let other people do his stuff, but he produced it and he had to say yes.

Interview Magazine, February 1988
Divine photographed by Eammon J McCabe
Cover designed and painted by Richard Bernstein

Divine was a drag terrorist, his drag style being ahead of his time. How different was Divine to the drag aesthetic of Warhol’s stars?

I think the difference was Divine was fat! Candy was beautiful, actually, and Jackie [Curtis] played with that — sometimes she’d be beautiful and sometimes not. But I guess Brigid was the one that was most Divine-like. Divine was a real character [but he] was not like that in real life, whereas I think many of the Warhol stars were. Divine was a man and he never went out in drag, he was shy actually. So that character that we created for those movies was anything but what he was like in real life and that is probably the big difference.

Sex is depicted as a fairly grotesque act in your work.

I didn’t think they were grotesque, I thought they were really sexy. For me it’s always comedy — as long as it’s not your sex life! I don’t think my films are erotic; Andy’s were. Joe Dallesandro was certainly filmed erotically to me. Did anyone masturbate to my movies? I don’t know. People did masturbate to Trash and Flesh 1968.

Speaking of masturbation, you curated a show at The Andy Warhol Museum called ‘Andy’s “Porn”’.7

What other museum would ever allow you to do that? The Warhol Museum let me look through anything in any department that could conceivably be thought of as porn. So I got Andy’s personal porn — his whack stack. It was ’70s porn — mullet hairdos and hard-ons — it looked like [American filmmaker and photographer] Larry Clark’s art works. We had peep shows and put glory holes in them and cleanser and paper towels to mop up in each booth. One booth had porn that Andy collected and the other booth had porn Andy shot and believe me, he did shoot some. Like Couch and stuff where people are having hardcore sex. It was great — you couldn’t tell which was which. I found all of Andy’s porn letters that people wrote him. I displayed anything that I thought was obscene. We had the polaroids Andy took of Divine and me behind the counter with dirty plastic across them, kind of like they have in bookshops when people don’t pay their bills or give them bad cheques. You know, displayed for humiliation. It went great and a lot of people came to see it, but boy we couldn’t get it to travel. There was one mean letter in the paper, but mostly it was well received.

Fame and celebrity are big themes for you and Warhol. Do you think our obsession with celebrity owes something to Warhol’s idea of people being famous for 15 minutes?

Andy’s certainly been famous for 15 centuries. Andy invented this celebrity worship. Criminal celebrity was more up my alley. I didn’t ever want to hang around with Nancy Reagan and that’s the only time I think Andy went wrong. There were only two things I don’t like that he did: the Reagan years and the toy paintings — I hate them. Everything else he did was just great.

Would you agree that Warhol was fascinated with surfaces, while your work pierces the surface, getting under the skin of American social mores?

Well, I’m interested very much in human behaviour and drawn to behaviour that I can’t actually understand and probably wouldn’t do. I’m always looking for underneath the skin of the lowest common denominator and trying to figure out how to dignify that. The people who win in my movies are always the ones who lose in real life. I think that’s what I’ve always done, but Andy did that too. Certainly all of Paul Morrissey’s movies with Warhol were like that.

Was there a deliberate Warholian gesture going on when you started making art photos by using existing screen images as re-photographed and re-edited readymades?

From the beginning I was trying to get stills from my own movies that I didn’t have, that were never taken. So when I figured out how to do that I started becoming like a publicist for movies that I remembered and loved and nobody else seemed to. I just wanted to reduce them to the high concept, the way you would do when pitching a movie in Hollywood. I guess it was Warholian in some way, though it’s more [American artist] Richard Prince in a way because it’s re-photographed. But it became writing because I took images and put them in storyboards to create new narratives. I’ve always been a writer before anything else. 

The catalogue for your exhibition ‘Change of Life’ gives an insight into your collection of pop culture ephemera and reminds me a bit of Warhol’s time capsules.8

I’ve seen the time capsules, they’re amazing. It is like that in a way. When I went to The Andy Warhol Museum to see them I was really astounded to see that in one of them was a postcard from me. I never even knew that he had the time capsules until way, way later. 

Are there filmmakers or artists working today who qualify as modern-day Warhols? 

I think every one of them. Every artist, every filmmaker has been influenced by him. You see his influence in the press, in music. It’s amazing how much he never goes away –

he’d love that. You’d be stunned at how wide the marketing department of the Warhol Foundation is; they even had a prophylactic with Andy’s art on it. 

Will there be a John Waters Foundation one day?

No, I’ll run a reform school; I’ve been offered that for real.  

Seduced by the cover's grotesque caricatures of Divine and Edith Massey and the sensational warning, 'This movie is gross', Daniel Mudie Cunningham rented a battered VHS copy of John Waters's Female Trouble as a 13 year old in late 1980s suburban Sydney.
  1. Gary Indiana, ‘Waterworks’, in John Waters: Change of Life [exhibition catalogue], New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 2004, p.54.
  2. Sontag’s essay was originally published in Partisan Review, Fall, 1964, pp.515–30.
  3. Tab Hunter (1931—2018) was a star of 1950s-era Hollywood, appearing in more than 40 major feature films. His career was revived in the 1980s when he starred opposite Divine in John Waters’s Polyester 1981.
  4. The style of ‘extreme theatre’ known as the Theatre of the Ridiculous was pioneered by director John Vaccaro, writer Ronald Tavel and actor Charles Ludlam in the 1960s. It was characterised by ‘witty wordplay, sexual double entendre, theatrical flamboyance, sexual ambiguity, and bad taste’. See Don B Wilmeth and Tice L Miller (eds), Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p.397, 462.
  5. American film producer and director Russ Meyer’s (1922–2004) cult titles include Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965, Vixen! 1968 and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 1970.
  6. ‘The Vow of Chastity’ — the manifesto of the film movement Dogme 95 established by Danish film directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in 1995 — sets out ten rules for filmmakers wishing to ‘counter the film of illusion’ and make a Dogme 95 film. The manifesto states that the ‘supreme goal’ of the Dogme 95 filmmaker is to: force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations
  7. ‘John Waters Curates Andy’s “Porn”’ was held at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, from 21 May to 28 August 2005 and included paintings, photographs, videos, films and archival material drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection.
  8. See John Waters: Change of Life. The exhibition of the same name was curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips and held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, from 8 February to 18 April 2004. The exhibition also travelled to The Andy Warhol Museum (2005) and the Orange County Museum of Art, California (2006).

Essay for book monograph published on the occasion of Warhol at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 8 December 2007 – 13 April 2008.

Published by QAGOMA in 2007.