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John Waters on 'Multiple Maniacs' and that time he enraged Elizabeth Taylor

The legendary filmmaker talks about the restoration of one of his most shocking films.
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    Divine and Mink Stole play murderers in John Waters' 1970 shocker "Multiple Maniac|Janus Films

John Waters is in a great mood. Once his 1970 shocker “Multiple Maniacs” was a scourge: an underground grinder that played less than 20 cities and enraged the critical establishment. Now it’s been lovingly, beautifully restored — by Criterion, no less — and, on top of that, is getting glowing reviews. On the day of its re-release in theaters, Waters has taken a break from his usual long summer stint in Provincetown — where he’s vacationed for 52 years — to come to New York and reminisce about the time he made a movie in which Divine plays a thief-turned-murderer who goes too far, in a film that goes too far itself. Indeed, this is the one where the actor is raped by a lobster.

The budget for this came from a loan from your dad. How long did it take to pay it back?
Up to when we made “Pink Flamingos.” I think he was shocked when I paid him back, because they thought this [one film] would be it. “Go get a job!” But I paid it back, even though they were horrified, because nobody said it was good. And we had already been arrested while making “Mondo Trasho,” on the campus of where my father went to college. They were not thrilled. They never saw this one. I think it’s the only one they never saw. I’m glad they never saw it.

Well, the opening was shot on their front lawn.
You can see my childhood bedroom! I saw it today and for a second you can see the senior citizens home where my grandfather died. I never saw that. The restoration made me see that!

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What kinds of things did you wind up spending the budget on?
I’ll tell you what we spent it on: Tent rental, costumes for the soldiers and the National Guard at the end, and the police uniform, which we didn’t take back. We stole it and used it on the road. We would make appearances and have a fake cop bust us. And then [we spent money on] the film. It wasn’t digital; you had to take every shot, get it developed, come back.

The giant lobster, aka “Lobstora,” looks sort of pricey.
The lobster didn’t cost that much. Vincent Peraino made it. He had just graduated from art school and went on to a very distinguished career in showbiz. [Ed. His stints include production design for both “Homicide” and “The Wire.”] You can see the chicken wire. When the lobster pulls away it leaves a couple legs lying on the couch. They just fell off.

You said no critic liked it then, but right now it has 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s amazing and the reviews have been amazing, because they’ve been really intellectual. I got one good review when it came out. It was in the L.A. Free Press. Baltimore Sun was really horrible. But he always hated us, the critic they had at the time. Not later in my career, but in the beginning. Variety never reviewed it. The New York Times reviewed it for the very first time today. It never played in New York. It did play at the Elgin after “Pink Flamingos” became a hit, but only for one or two midnights. Somebody said it played at the Bleecker Street Cinemas, which is probably true.

Some of it is still shocking. The rosary sex scene crossed with a makeshift retelling of Jesus’ life made my jaw drop in particular.
I watched it with young people who’d never seen it. Even I was shocked about some of the scenes. Ah, youth. I think maybe it’s worse than it was. When we were making it the revolution was happening. There were hippie riots. Now it’s in a time capsule and you think, ‘Good lord, what were they like?’ But we weren’t really like that. In some ways we were. Our sense of humor was like that, definitely.

This was also coming after a period where there was both low-budget exploitation movies and avant-garde. It’s like a mix of both.
Yeah, but the avant-garde was always dull. They were the movies I didn’t like then but I like now. All those colors jumping around, experimental movies. We hated them. Now I like them, and Jonas Mekas was right. The ones I liked were Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers and Warhol. I was seeing Ingmar Bergman and Fellini and Swedish movies, like “I, a Woman.” There was “Night Games.” That was the film that caused Shirley Temple to walk off the jury at the San Francisco Film Festival in protest. But I named a character in “Mondo Trasho” Lizzy Temple Black, because her name was Shirley Temple Black once she was an adult and a republican.But no one remembers “Night Games.” Mai Zetterling directed it. It was kind of a Bergman ripoff, but even weirder and darker. It's great — I think! [Laughs] I haven’t seen it in a very long time. It's really hard to find. Maybe I should just keep my memories.

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This was your first feature-length film with synch sound. It’s your first talkie! It seems that must have been a strange transition for your stable of actors.
That’s why they yell so much, because I never thought we had good enough sound equipment. I’m like, “Nobody will hear it!” And I finally got to write dialogue. There were pages of it. They had to memorize a lot of dialogue, and do it in one take. If they screwed up one thing we had to start it over. But it was fun. We finally got to talk! That was the most exciting part. Some of the dialogue we still say to each other, as a joke, as code words.

There’s a funny-tasteless bit where they take claim for the Sharon Tate murders.
Because we didn’t know who did it! When we made the movie they hadn’t caught them. They caught them when we were almost finished. But we didn’t know it was going to be people who would be notorious in history. We said, “Who are these people?”

Because you shot some of it in your apartment, you can see all your posters on the walls. I appreciated that you had one for the notorious Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie “Boom!” I like “Boom!”
Me, too. I’ve presented it at many film festivals. I finally met Elizabeth Taylor and told her I loved it. She almost threw me out of her house, because she thought I was being rude. She was like, “That’s a TERRIBLE movie!” It’s loved by some people. Fashion people go for it. And that set, [Taylor and Burton] tried to buy it because they were drunk. There was no roof. They were like, “You can’t buy this place! It’s a set! Remember we’re making a movie?” “Another Bloody Mary, please!”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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