Would you pick him up if you realized he was John Waters?
Two springs ago, Baltimore's most unrepentant degenerate set out on a mission of discovery. Beginning on Charles Street, not far from his home, Waters would hitchhike all the way to his San Francisco condo, following Interstate 70 most of way. There would be little in the way of advance planning; he'd be relying totally on his thumb and the kindness of strangers.
(OK, he did take along a GPS tracking device — a sop to his desperately worried family and friends, who seemed convinced they'd never see him again.)
The reading public is about to be let in on all that happened, and more. Waters' seventh book, "Carsick," to be released June 3 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, comes in thirds. In the first third, Waters imagines the best rides he could possibly have gotten, including one from a drug dealer who agrees to finance his next movie, no questions asked, and another that gives his body welcome (if perhaps somewhat disreputable) superpowers. The second third details the worst things that could have happened, a handful of nightmare scenarios, many of which cannot be described in a family newspaper, that lead to a gruesome end for our hero.
And then there's what really happened, a cross-country voyage with a cast of characters that includes an animal rescuer, police officers, a small-town mayor, a New York-based indie rock band and a 21-year-old GOP town councilman from Western Maryland — dubbed The Corvette Kid — who picks him up twice, and ends up playing the savior in Waters' little tale.
Riding in the passenger seat of Waters' car, heading toward I-95 on a predetermined route through East Baltimore, we spoke with Waters about what makes a successful film director, author and raconteur take up hitchhiking, what insights into the human spirit his trip offered and when — if ever — we'll see another John Waters film. He hasn't made one since 2004's "A Dirty Shame."
It doesn't read like you met a single jerk on the entire trip.
I did not. They were all very nice. Of course, in the worst fantasies, they were all monsters and jerks, kind of the most horrible people ever. I even felt guilty because one of the worst I imagined was an insane pet rescuer. And then really a nice one picked me up. I told her, "I besmirched you already in a chapter without realizing it." But she was great.
And even — I'm scared of pets. I got in the car, and a three-legged poodle jumped in my lap and kissed me. But when you're hitchhiking, your value system changes. I kissed the poodle right back.
You must have hitchhiked a lot when you were growing up?
I did. The farthest I ever went was probably San Francisco to L.A. and Baltimore to Provincetown.
So we're talking, like, the '70s, '80s?
How different was it?
Well, the difference was that the main places where you could hitchhike, the few ramps where the police wouldn't bust you, there would be a hundred hitchhikers. It was the hippie years, so everyone hitchhiked.
I was 16, 18, which is a lot more sexual than at 66. [He's now 68.] I got hit on a lot more at 16, let's put it that way. Anybody that says they've hitchhiked and have never been hit on is such a liar. But big deal, you say no.
Except — I feel bad, there were prostitutes, just regular hitchhikers, who were murdered. But as I said in the book, serial killers don't usually target 66-year-old film directors. That's why, when I did write my death, I did imagine someone for whom I would be the right type.
I meet a very gruesome death, and I actually wrote that death about three days before I left the house for real. I had just finished writing the best and the worst, and thank God, because I never would have been able to write those chapters if I had already done this.
You did write both of those sections before you started?
Well, the first drafts. You had to, because that was your fantasy of what was the best and the worst that could happen. Once you hitchhiked for real, all those fantasies go away. The drudgery of it, the daily shock of waking up in those hotel rooms and thinking, "I'm really doing this — this is no longer a book pitch, this is no longer an abstract, funny, high-concept pitch, which is what it was. This is reality, and I have to do it every day."
Now that it's over, I look back on it as a great adventure in my life. But the tedium of it during the day. … Every time I got in a car, I was desperate, I was so excited, I loved every person. The minute I got let out, the frightening tedium of it started again.
Not frightened of people, or that I was going to get murdered. I was going to spend the night in the woods one night, I almost stayed with a trucker in his cab one night. That wasn't scary to me; I figured that would make the book even better.
But … four or five hours of waiting. One day, it was 10 hours, standing there over and over and over. I'd keep saying, "It only takes once car." Which is true, it only takes one car. And then one stopped, it was [the rock band] Here We Go Magic — a great ride. And the Kansas couple that took me so far.
What's the longest you ever waited for a ride back in the day?
Not 10 hours. Although … there were times, trying to hitchhike in and around New York City. I remember standing near the Holland Tunnel. What was I thinking? No one, even at the height of hippiedom, would pick you up standing there.
Even the cops stood there. … I'm amazed they allowed it. But no one had ever seen that, really. I don't think, even then, anyone hitchhiked right there by the Holland Tunnel.
I don't think it gives away too much to say that, all your fears about run-ins with the cops? Nothing happened.
Not in real life. They stopped me a couple times and checked to see if I had warrants, but [his assistant] Susan had prepared for me a "Fame Kit." My favorite thing was pulling out my Directors Guild of America card. Or, better yet, my Academy of Arts and Sciences card. "Look here, I vote for the Oscars! Will this get me out of prison?"
One cop gave me some trouble, but it was the end of the day, I could tell he just wanted to go home. I said, "I'm writing a book," and he just wasn't expecting that. He said, "All right, all right."
Then, the second one, I kept seeing while I was there stuck in Ohio. And finally, he pulled over, checked my warrants, did the whole thing. I gave him the "Fame Kit," … and he said, "Doesn't say anything on here about being a professional hitchhiker." And then I knew he was on my side. I said, "Could you give me a ride," and he said, "Get in."
He was great. He gave me grief for not getting a ride later, he said I wasn't shaking the sign enough. It was so embarrassing, to have a cop give you a bad review of how you were hitchhiking.
How long ago did this idea start gestating in your head?
About three years ago.
I got the idea a lot from hitchhiking in Provincetown, because there was a beach I went to. And I hitchhiked in Baltimore. I hitchhiked when I'd come to the train station in a blizzard and there was no cab. I'd hitchhike, and people would take me right to the house.
But that's different, because they'd recognize me.
I wanted an adventure. I said to everybody, it's a midlife crisis. My life, I know what I'm doing a year from today, it's in my calendar already. I wanted to give that up a little bit. … I wanted to test myself, not get too comfortable here. Things are going pretty well; let's go back to being a little frightened.
I just wanted to test myself, I wanted to see, could I do it? Dare myself.
And not a single person that you knew seemed to think it was a good idea?
Most everyone that works for me thought it was a terrible idea. My young assistant, Jill, I thought [she] thought it was a good idea — until the end, when she said, "Maybe somebody should follow you."
Some young people liked the idea. But even criminals I know, people that were in jail who are friends, were really uptight about me doing this. Even Leslie [Van Houten], my friend who used to be in the Manson family, thought it was a terrible idea.
I didn't realize how really scared my friends were until I got close to going, and then it started making me nervous. They were making me scared.
And when it was over, people's relief, it shocked me. Mink [Stole] was crying on the phone. To me, I was really flattered when people were that worried, but I was surprised by it. I wasn't that worried.
But you didn't tell your mom?
No. My mom was not in great health, and I was going to tell her the day I landed [in San Francisco]. But the story broke because Here We Go Magic, the rock group, picked me up and tweeted it.
Once it started spreading, it went like wildfire; soon after, Spin magazine did a piece. And then I told my sisters, "You'd better tell her." They did tell her, and she didn't react at all.
Because it was normal. When I went to Calvert Hall, I was supposed to hitchhike around. It wasn't thought of as dangerous. The same perverts were picking us up then, but it wasn't thought of, oddly enough, as … I know all the private school kids, Gilman, St. Paul, they all hitchhiked.
What was the high point, what was the most unexpected event of the trip?
The most unexpected event of the trip was when The Corvette Kid came back, actually drove 48 hours at 80 miles an hour to give me a second ride — from Myersville, Md., where he was going to go get his lunch after he dropped me off. He went home, thought about it, and then drove back in his car and caught up with me in Denver.
He was great. He was an adventurer. It was fun.
That was the most amazing thing, because when he said he was coming back, I was stuck, I was eating horrible food. I would be stuck in the worst place ever, which is Bonner Springs [Kansas] — I call it Boner Springs. I was stuck there forever.
Then he caught up with me, only because he went so fast. The whole time he said that he was coming, I didn't know really until the day before. I thought he could be making this up; you know, hackers sit in their room and do anything, having a good laugh.
But he did show up. And we had a little vacation.
It was funny — everybody else was stupefied by it, "What's with this kid?" His friends would say, "Oh great, you're with a gay man in a hotel in Reno? That's good; I thought you were going to go get your lunch at Subway."
And he's a Republican elected official at 19 in Myersville. I said, "Your opponent's gonna use me against you." But I thought, "Who wouldn't vote for somebody who took that kind of adventure?"
How about the lowest point?
The lowest point was when, in Bonner Springs, after standing for 10 hours, I had to walk all the way back, because I was out of water, to where the hotels were. That's when I told Susan, "I'm going to drink my own urine."
It was so hot, and I was living in gas station lavatories. I went into a Taco Bell, hoping that I would be recognized, that somebody would help me. Then I had to walk all the way back, through that construction site, with dogs barking. …There weren't any dogs, but I kept thinking there was going to be some junkyard dog chasing me. Then I finally got a ride.
Of all my rides, he's the only one I didn't completely bond with, but still. … He was fine, believe me. He got me out of there.
Every one of them was a savior.
Were you surprised at the dearth of other hitchhikers as you were going?
No. Well, I guess that I only saw one — yes. I think, from what I heard, off the highways in the West you see them more, certainly. Certainly in pot country, in Northern California, you see them.
People's minds have been so poisoned by horror movies — of course, they're great ones, too.
I didn't have a bad driver, either — that was the other thing I was so worried about. Or maybe I was just less of a backseat driver.
As you were writing up the best and worst, which did you think was going to be closer to what you would experience?
I prayed neither was. Because nothing that good would have happened. It was just like writing 15 movies. All of them reminded me of my old movies. The best and the worst reminded me of my old movies, I guess the real chapters reminded me of my later movies, because they were a little more moderate.
The villains were in my worst chapters. The best … it's a thin line between good and bad.
Just because I said it was the best doesn't mean I really want to do it. Do I really want to be in a blindfold in a freak show while a knife guy is throwing hatchets at me while I'm spinning on a wheel? Kind of; I'd like to be that daring. But in real life, I'd probably chicken out.
Reading the worst parts, I'm thinking these sound like discarded script ideas.
Let's hope they're new film ideas that won't be discarded.
"Freaks" was a big influence on me. And I do like freak shows. But the real influence there was the Timonium fair, where they used to have a freak show until it got too politically incorrect. They had the best ones, and I went every year, always, as a kid.
There was the Octopus Man, and then I'd see him just having coffee later.
And we learn that you have a fear of goiters, apparently.
Well, I kinda do. That's sad, because I feel bad for people with goiters, and I know a few people who have goiters. There was one when I was a child, at the Polyette store where we used to go get penny candy. I'm still influenced by the Polyette store.
But at the Polyette, there was a man who lived across the street that had a goiter in his crotch, and he had this huge crotch. I remember being so horrified and my parents would always say, "Come on, come on. Don't stare."
Was there anything about the trip that really shocked you?
I believe in the goodness of people, so that didn't shock me. But everybody was great.
The kind of people who pick up hitchhikers are the kind of people who have been through things, have recovered. So many people are down on their luck — that's what people thought I was. A man my age hitchhiking, something bad happened to him.
What's tougher, writing a book or doing a movie?
They're kind of the same. When you're writing a book, you don't have to think how much it's going to cost to do a scene. Whereas a movie, unfortunately, more than ever, you do.
I think they're the same. Especially this book, because this book — one thing, I did a huge amount of research for this book. Every one of those — like when I get on a Jujyfruits truck, everything I say about Jujyfruits, where they really make them, all of that is true. Everything about the route, where we stop and so on, definitely could have happened. They do have a jail in Bunker Hill, sodomy is still illegal there, even for straight people.
Everything that's there is real.
Any chance that this might become a film?
Would you like to do it?
[Not] direct it. I would write it. The real movie would be me hitchhiking, and while I'm waiting, I imagine the good and the bad. That would be the framework.
Is there any hope for "Fruitcake" [a children's movie Waters has been trying to make for several years]?
I can't tell you about this project, but I just came back from L.A., from pitching a project that could happen. But it's not "Fruitcake," it's something else.
But, yes, I had a meeting about "Fruitcake" in New York, about two weeks ago. It's not fully dead. The film business as I know it is no longer.
What's the difference?
There is no such thing as a $5 million independent movie. They want me to go make it like I used to, but I have no desire to do that. I did that. I have 17 movies, they're all playing everywhere in the world, more than ever. I've spoken.
I can't afford to make a movie the way they want me to do it. I make way more writing these books.
The main thing is, when DVDs overnight died, that ended the safety net. That was profit. All foreign deals fell through. Nobody wants any movie that can't play in China. Nobody wants any movie that has to have any subtitles. They just want explosions. They want $100 million movies that are tentpole movies.
The worst thing they want … is a comedy based on wit. And if I was doing something, that's what I'd try to do.
Thank God I have five other careers.