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Down and Dirty with John Waters

“Hairspray” director performs at BU on April 10

“Bad influence is the first thing a director is when he’s young,” says filmmaker John Waters. Photo by Greg Gorman

American film director and icon John Waters, once dubbed “the Pope of Trash,” was launched into the public eye because of his controversial and often filthy films. Beginning in the 1960s with short, low-budget movies, he went on to create cult favorites like Pink Flamingos, Polyester, and Hairspray, soon to be released in a remake starring John Travolta.

Waters will bring his one-man act, This Filthy World, to Boston University on Tuesday, April 10, at the Tsai Performance Center.

In addition to making films, Waters has acted in a number of television shows. He is the “Groom Reaper” on Court TV’s ’Til Death Do Us Part and has appeared as himself on The Simpsons. “You have to keep reinventing yourself,” he says.

BU Today talked to Waters about his 40-year career as a filmmaker, an author, an actor, and a photographer.

BU Today: Your performance is called This Filthy World. What kinds of things do you find filthy in the world?
I talk about politics, I talk about all my movies, I talk about movie stars, I talk about fashion, I talk about crime, I talk about perversion, and I talk about films that the nuns told us we’d go to hell if we saw. It’s really about all my obsessions since I was a child.

What sparked your career?
I was on the Howdy Doody Show when I was six, and I saw that it was all fake. I saw behind the scenes — the cameras and the lights — and I knew I wanted to be in on this great magic trick. So I had a career as a puppeteer at children’s birthday parties when I was about 10 to about 13. I sent out ads and everything and made, like, $25 a show, which was really a lot then. And then I switched over to underground movies.

What was it about underground films that attracted you?
It was better than jail, and that was about the choice when I was 16. It was just that I was lucky I knew what I wanted to do. I was always the bad influence. And all people like that become directors. Bad influence is the first thing a director is when he’s young.

Do you have a favorite project?
I always sort of like the last one the best because you’re not as sick of it.

What was it like being transformed into a Simpsons character?

It was great. More people have probably seen that than my movies. It’s good because now people come up to me, kids come up to me, and they know me only from The Simpsons. I’m always trying to get new people somehow. You get some people from being an actor, some people by being a director, some people by being an artist. Eventually, if you go to every level of audience on all sides, maybe you can finally get everybody to know your work in some way.

And that’s something you’re striving toward?

Sure. Everybody in show business is. It’s called cross over. I like to cross under.

What does that mean exactly?
I’ve already crossed over, so I want to reach an audience that hasn’t seen me before. Maybe cross up or cross down.

Are you working on any projects currently?

I have my next movie, which is a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure called Fruitcake. I have another art show that opens in New York in fall 2008. Cry-Baby’s coming to Broadway. Hairspray, that big movie, is coming out this summer. So, I’m busy.

What do you think about how mainstream Hairspray has become?
It was always a mainstream movie. I accidentally made one. I mean, when the movie came out, it was a PG movie. I think it’s actually the strangest movie I ever made, because families sit there and watch it, and here’s a movie that encourages interracial dating and two men sing a love song to each other. But they seem to accept it right across the board as a family film, which I think is probably the most perverse thing I’ve ever done.

Is there anything that common decency just won’t allow you to do?

I think all of my films are weirdly politically correct and decent. I think I make fun of things that people might be nervous about or don’t want to talk about, but that’s what makes humor political. If you can make somebody laugh, they’ll listen to you, and maybe you can change their mind. If you’re preaching and being so serious, nobody wants to hear you.

Just one last question — what’s the deal with your moustache? It seems to be sort of iconic for you.

I wanted to be Little Richard when I was 19, I think. I’ve had it for so long, I could probably shave it and trim it in my sleep. And if I ever commit crimes and have to go underground, I’ll shave it off. But I bet when I shaved it off there would be a white space there because I’ve had it so long. Where the sun don’t shine also means my moustache.

John Waters will perform
This Filthy World on Tuesday, April 10, at 7 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a Q&A session and book signing. The event, sponsored by BU’s National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professorship, the College of Communication, and the Cinematheque film series, is free but advance tickets are necessary. Tickets are limited to two per person, and are available at Barnes & Noble at Boston University, Kenmore Square.

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.