John Waters is a gentleman. It sounds like a strange thing to say about a filmmaker whose work boasts cinema's most notorious gross-out joke—Divine, his drag leading lady, eating a real-life dog turd—but, no kidding, he is. He has real class in person: composure, intellect, and polished self-awareness. He's a guy who knows who should play him if a movie is ever made of his life (Steve Buscemi, by the way).
Waters was in town recently for a SIFF tribute to his Female Trouble, a showing of his typically idiosyncratic photography at Greg Kucera's gallery, and, of all things, previews of a world premiere musical based on his most commercial film effort. Hairspray officially opens this week at the 5th Avenue, and you wouldn't be alone if the whole idea struck you as a little dubious: John Waters for the masses who couldn't get into Mamma Mia?
"I'm not a big Broadway fan, you know," he admits. "I don't go see every Broadway play. I think I was turned off to theater when I was younger, because I knew so many actors who I had to go see in bad plays and then [I had to go] backstage and commit what was called green room perjury: 'That was fabulous!'"
Not that theater is foreign to him; he says it's been an influence on his work from the very beginning.
"The Theater of the Absurd was like a huge influence on my early films," he explains. "Nobody ever thinks of that, because people don't talk about [Theater of the Absurd]. Young people don't even know what that is anymore. Ionesco, and really early Edward Albee—I always saw every play Edward Albee did."
But, surely, the idea of one of his films musicalized for the Great White Way must have come as a shock, if not a worry. . . .
"Well, it had been optioned before," he says. "At one time, it was going to be a TV pilot. So at first I thought, 'Oh, here we go again.' But once I knew they got [composer and co-lyricist] Marc Shaiman, I was not at all worried because I had seen South Park—The Movie [for which Shaiman co-wrote the score] and just completely loved it so much. But, you know, I'm writing this one now about sex addicts, and my friend said to me, 'Don't have to worry about that one being turned into a musical.' But you know what? You never know."
Should we expect anything on the level of that infamous feces feast?
"I've never tried to top it," he swears, then adds with a grin, "I walked away with dignity."