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Filmmaker John Waters on 'Making Trouble,' the NEA, and bad reviews

John Waters' new book is called
John Waters' new book is called "Make Trouble."
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Filmmaker John Waters has been called a lot of names in his long career — “The Prince of Puke,” “The People’s Pervert,” “The Pope of Trash" — and he’s embraced them all. 

From his controversial early films like “Pink Flamingos” and “Desperate Living,” to more mainstream movies like “Hairspray” and “Crybaby,” Waters is known as a trouble-maker.

In a commencement address Waters gave in 2015 at the Rhode Island School of Design, his advice to the graduates was to go out into the world and make trouble from the inside:

That speech has been turned into a new illustrated book called "Make Trouble." Waters spoke about it with The Frame's John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On how his early education set him on a rebellious path:

My interests were discouraged in school. In sixth grade, I went to a very good private school, and I did learn there. I learned how to read and write. If I had quit school in sixth grade, I would know as much as I know today and would have made one more movie. By the time I got to college, I was so bored and angry. I did get thrown out for marijuana —  one of the first busts ever. But it wasn't the college's fault. I don't think any college then would have let me make "Pink Flamingos." I think today they most certainly would. I think times have completely changed. There are schools for weird children now. There wasn't when I was young. 

On getting interested in contemporary art:

My parents were very supportive, but my parents very much believed in good taste. So I learned those rules. And I always said, You can't break the rules if you don't know them. But I grew up in the '50s, and the '50s was a terrible time. I was rebelling from the conformity of everywhere. I didn't really think about things and was not interested in things that other people my age were. That didn't really bother me. I remember when I first went to the Baltimore Museum of Art and I bought this little Moreau print in the gift shop. I took it home, and I was like 12-years-old or something. All the other kids were like, Ew, that's ugly! I thought, Wow, contemporary art has this great power! I was interested always in the wrong thing as far as authority was concerned.

On preparing for his 2015 speech at RISD:

I listened to one or two [commencement speeches] for one reason: to see how long they should be, because I had no idea. Whatever everybody else did, cut it [by] five minutes because graduation speeches a lot of times are boring and too long and too well-meaning without any humor. They didn't ask you to be Gandhi, they asked you to inspire the students. So I tried to be very practical in my speech to give inspiration to students — maybe the ones that had the hardest time graduating. The ones that took six years instead of four, or were in rehab for one of those years, or got thrown out and came back in, or had to switch colleges, or barely passed. There's all kinds of graduates and the damaged ones were who I was speaking to

On his advice to young artists to wreck what came before:

I mean that in a very positive way. By wrecking something, it's always reinventing. All modern movements in art and music wrecked what came before, in a way — and surprised the cooler generation that was one step ahead. That's how you get ahead. Don't get on your parents nerves. Get on the kids two years older then you in school that are the coolest ones. Make them nervous and that way you come up with something new and funny and you become the new leader.

On dealing with bad reviews:

I built a career on negative reviews. That was at a time when that was possible. Today, all film critics are too hip to give you that ammunition. There are no more Rex Reeds, the ones that come out and give you terrible reviews that are hilarious, that you embrace and that all your fans love because they can't stand his reviews in the first place. Today, when you're young and you get a bad review, you're just glad somebody noticed. You've never been reviewed before. Bad reviews hurt much more later in your career. That's when you've already done stuff and you've been working for years and it's much harder to accept. You should never react to a negative review, because as soon as you write a letter to the editor, the original critic gets to answer that. They always get the last word. So if you don't like the heat, get your head out of the oven — or whatever that expression is — because you're always going to get negative reviews. That's part of show business, a life of praise and rejection, and you can't control it.

On the petition to make him head of the National Endowment for the Arts and his views on government funding for the arts:

Well I'm certainly for it. I always wonder when I'm in Europe, How do all these great feel-bad art movies get made? How could they possibly get financed? They lose money. The reason is because the government pays for them. Can you imagine the government of America supporting a Todd Solondz movie or a Harmony Korine movie? But they should! So I would have free movie stamps, I would give budgets to the most obscure independent films that need the help. Somehow I don’t think Donald Trump’s gonna ask me, but I have lots of political advice I could give.

To hear the full interview with John Waters, click the blue player above.

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