Filmmaker John Waters On How To 'Make Trouble'
JOHN WATERS: I should say right off that I am really qualified to be your commencement speaker. I was suspended from high school, then kicked out of college in the first marijuana scandal ever on the university campus. I've been arrested several times. I've been known to dress in ludicrous fashions. I've also built a career out of negative reviews. And I've been recently called the prince of puke by the press and another title I'm really proud of - the people's pervert.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
With those words, filmmaker John Waters began his commencement address to the class of 2015 at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. John Waters has always been a troublemaker from his outrageous early movies "Mondo Trasho," "Multiple Maniacs" and "Pink Flamingos" through his more acceptable work like, "Cry-Baby" and "Hairspray." The filmmaker, author and actor has proudly worn those monikers you just heard - prince of puke, the people's pervert. His sage advice to RISD students has now been published with some great graphics in the new book "Make Trouble."
John Waters joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome to our program.
WATERS: Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: I guess if a school is going to invite John Waters to give its commencement address, it would be a place full of artists like RISD. Did you seek anyone's advice on what to tell these kids, or did you just tell them what you wish someone had told you?
WATERS: Well, I think - I didn't ask a lot of people's advice. I wanted to know how long it should be because I've never graduated from anywhere. I got kicked out of practically every school I ever went to, so I didn't know what they were. I'd never heard a graduation speech. So I found out how long it should be, and I did read it to a friend. He said, oh, I don't know. You'd better check that with somebody else.
WATERS: But that usually goes with anything I write. It can go either way. You could hate it or like it.
WERTHEIMER: This is the end of your juvenile delinquency, you say in this talk, and the beginning of your adult disobedience. And later on, you say contemporary art's job is to wreck what came before.
WATERS: Well, it certainly is. Yeah. I mean, think of it. I mean, didn't pop art end abstract expressionism overnight? Didn't the Beatles end Motown overnight?
WERTHEIMER: So you encouraged these fine young people...
WATERS: ...To come up with something that can horrify me...
WATERS: ...That can astonish me. I would say...
WERTHEIMER: That would be a high bar.
WATERS: Yeah. No, don't try to get on your parent's nerves. Get on the coolest people in your school that are one year ahead of you's (ph) nerves, and that's the way you make a mark.
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, now, as you must know, many people in America agree with you.
WERTHEIMER: They voted for a president who is a card-carrying disruptor, and that's what they like about him.
WATERS: Yes, and what I also say in the book is that it's time to stop wanting to be an outsider, no matter who you're for. I believe that both Obama and Trump would describe themselves as outsiders. And so when I was young, outsider was a word that nobody wanted to be. Now everybody wants to be an outsider. So it's time to be an insider. It's time to sneak in and change things from the inside.
And before I wrote this book, Trump was not elected. So I think, in a weird way, it became even more of an activist book because I do believe we should make trouble. One Women's March is not enough. We should be out there every day. I go to colleges a lot and speak, and I tell them stop studying. You know...
WATERS: This is - don't you know? It's your time to go out there and cause some trouble.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that these kids - I mean, when you were looking at them, and they were - they were sitting in front of you in their robes, were they paying attention, do you think?
WATERS: Oh, they definitely were. Yes. And the parents liked me, too, because I addressed them. A lot of times the parents aren't addressed. I said, these entitled brats - do they think you're made of money? And you can't order your kids up. So if your kid comes home from school and they have their whole face tattooed, well, maybe encourage them to open a really fancy tattoo parlor in Paris.
WATERS: You got to work with what you got.
WERTHEIMER: You said that your parents actually made you feel safe.
WATERS: They did. That's the hardest thing. And you can be a serial killer and be a good parent if you make your own children feel safe. I'm not saying my life wasn't - my parents - everything that I made - these movies - they were horrified by. Nobody said they were good in the beginning. They - their friends would send them mean reviews anonymously in the mail. I don't know what kind of friend would do that. But my mother told me then way later when all their kids started getting in trouble, they would call her for advice.
WERTHEIMER: I like the part where you say that you should go out into the world and design clothes so hideously they can't be worn ironically.
WATERS: Well, that's true. I mean, that's a new way to astonish people. Being shocking isn't any more - like, Hollywood makes hundred-million gross-out movies that aren't funny. You have to think of a new way to make something new. And the biggest sin - you can never try too hard. You can never look like you're just trying to shock people 'cause that's simple. But making people laugh is the hard part. And if you want to change anybody's mind - I'm an opposite of a separatist. I don't believe that we should never not talk to people we don't agree with politically. If you can make that person laugh, it's the first step to getting him to listen to change their mind.
WERTHEIMER: John Waters, filmmaker, writer, artist and commencement speaker, thank you very much.
WATERS: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Are you in demand now as a commencement speaker?
WATERS: You know, that's funny. I never got one other offer...
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.