Arts » Culture

John Waters Sincerely Loves Christmas

Cult director brings red and green flamingos to Boise Friday, Dec. 7



Forty years ago, film director John Waters put Boise on notice.

"Boise, Idaho, get ready, you are about receive into your community the filthiest people alive," he wrote in Pink Flamingos.

"And finally, 40 years later, it will happen," he told Boise Weekly in a phone interview.

After all those years of longing, Waters will make his way to the Knitting Factory Friday, Dec. 7, but not to show the sort of smutty film that made him famous. He will be there to take up a topic even the most vanilla Boiseans can get on board with: Christmas.

A John Waters Christmas is a frill-free presentation, just Waters on stage for 70 minutes discussing his sincere obsession with Christmas as a scripted one-man show.

"When I say I love Christmas, there's no irony in that," he said. "But I understand why others don't. So I try to help those people and also satisfy the people that really do like it."

How much does Waters love Christmas? He has sent out more than 2,000 personally designed, hand-signed Christmas cards each year for the past 46 years. He has been trying to make a Christmas movie called Fruitcake for five years. And he put together the aforementioned spoken-word show that he'll perform at Knitting Factory.

Though that all might seem excessive, Waters said, chuckling, "Things that are excessive are what I do for a living."

Waters said his show is partially about how to survive Christmas.

"Things can go wrong," he said. "It's an emotional upheaval time."

That was something Waters learned at a young age when a Christmas tree fell on his grandmother.

"And from then on, Christmas was always melodramatic because you knew something like that might happen," he said.

But what you shouldn't expect at A John Waters Christmas is to see or hear much about his canon of films--other than how he might reshoot them as Christmas movies.

While his more populist films like Cry-baby, Hairspray or Serial Mom might seem easy enough to throw a few Christmas themes or snowy outdoor shots into, his early work presents more of a challenge.

Films like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Mondo Trasho are celebrations of obscenity, delving into Water's fascinations with sex and violence. The movies were cast from his circle of decidedly non-Hollywood friends, including the wildly flamboyant drag queen Divine. Many of the films couldn't be shown in theaters when first made.

"We used to travel around the country with prints in the trunk of my car playing at universities," he said.

Waters called that his "Vaudeville act."

"Divine would come out on stage with the telephone book in hand [to tear in half] and I would throw dead fish at the audience and I would yell about nudist camp movies. No one did that stuff," Waters said. "We had a stolen police uniform and we'd get a hippie in each town and put a short wig on him and he'd come out and pretend to arrest us for obscenity ... and Divine would strangle him and then the movie would start."

Between performing the live shows and writing books, Waters hasn't made a movie since 2004. He has projects lined up for the next three and a half years, but he said the primary reason is no one wants to pay for a John Waters movie right now, especially since his last film, A Dirty Shame, didn't make money.

"The movie business has radically changed," he said. "They want independent movies to cost $500,000 to $1 million, and my movies cost $5 million."

Though Waters got his start making microbudget cinema, he said doing that now would be a step backwards.

"I was 18 then," he said. "Now I'm 66. I have four people that work for me. I have mortgages. I did that. I don't go back. I'm not going to be a faux revolutionary at 66."

But that doesn't mean he's discounting the impact his films have made.

"Now the studios are looking for the John Waters that made Female Trouble," he said. "They want a film that you made for $50,000 that's at Sundance. They buy it for $200,000, they add $300,000 of bad pop music, $500,000 to make it look worse technically than you had it before, then release it as a found-footage movie and make $70 million. They're looking for it. It's the best time ever to be a young person making movies."

One of the reasons Waters felt his last film didn't make money was that it got an NC-17 rating--meaning it was cut from major theater chains and advertising venues, something he discussed in the documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated. And though A Dirty Shame wasn't the first of his films to get an NC-17 rating, his earlier films were rated after the fact, so it didn't hurt distribution. While Waters thinks the ratings board has largely been fair with his films, he still takes issue.

"The MPAA says, 'Well, anybody over 17 can see it,'" he said. "But what I'm saying is that they don't back up their brand. They don't go out and lobby so that newspapers will carry ads and theaters will carry it. So they have a lemon, they have an Edsel of rating, and they don't do anything about it."

And the shadow cast by that lemon may be what's keeping him from making Fruitcake, the PG-13 Christmas film he so strongly desires.

But he also said it might have to do with the discovery that his Blackberry has been auto-correcting his initials, JW, to say "Jew."

"[It] is quite embarrassing: 'Thank you for meeting me, Jew.' It horrified me when I realized it and I thought that might be why I'm not getting the film made," he said.

But film or no film, Waters and his love of Christmas will soldier on.

"I want very much to make this movie but really, I just want to tell stories," he said.

As for the story of how he'd turn Pink Flamingos and its infamous dog shit-eating scene into a Christmas film: "You'll have to come to the show to hear that," he said.


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