Interview | John Waters on ‘Multiple Maniacs’ and Lobster Sex

In 1970, John Waters and a very, very small crew took to the streets of Baltimore to shoot, sans permits or permission, the entirety of his underground film Multiple Maniacs. In it, Divine plays the ringleader/tyrant of a band of freaks and weirdos who put on twisted public sex shows, and then rob and murder their audience. Over the course of the film, Divine’s character is betrayed, mugged, her friends are killed, she becomes a lesbian, has a religious revelation, murders people, is raped by a giant lobster, and is then gunned down in the streets by the national guard. 

Janus Films and The Criterion Collection have sagely assembled to restore and re-release Multiple Maniacs for a limited theatrical run, and an eventual Blu-ray release. Waters couldn’t be happier, as this is likely the best his dirty little film has ever looked; it has previously only been seen on 16mm film, and on out-of-print VHS tapes. 

Check Out: The Filthiest Filmmaker Alive

Waters, the director of such cult hits as Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble, as well as more recent comedies like A Dirty Shame and Pecker, premiered this new version of Multiple Maniacs in New York at beginning of the month. It is currently playing in Los Angeles. To celebrate, the 70-year-old Waters sat down with us to talk about guerrilla filmmaking, his musical tastes, and to finally reveal – after 46 years – what the heck Lobstora means. 


John Waters: How are you?

CraveOnline: I’m great. I get to talk to John Waters today.

[Laughs.]

I apologize if I’m a little starstruck.

Don’t worry. That’s alright. I’m starstruck by people too.

Oh yeah? Like whom?

Who have I been starstruck by in real life? One of the weirdest ones was, when we were making Cry-Baby, David Nelson from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. I couldn’t believe he was sitting in my living room. Certainly Patricia Hearst. Tab Hunter. A lot of the stars I’ve worked with, when I first got them. I remember when I was first casting movies, it was amazing some of them would even come in! Like Carol Channing came in to read for Cry-Baby, and I think “What?!” Yeah, I can be starstruck easily.

I’m certain that, over the course of the interview, I’m going to make a total ass of myself. I’m going to lose my cool entirely. Surely that’s never happened to you.

Well… One time for my book… Crackpot, I think… when I was interviewing Pia Zadora, the tape didn’t turn out, and I had to do it all again. That was mortifying. I’ve met journalists where that’s happened to me, and I forgave them with a pissed off attitude. But, yes. When else have I made an asshole of myself? I think that was the time it was embarrassing, but I don’t think you would consider it “asshole.”

Janus Films

Janus Films

Congratulations on Multiple Maniacs. How did this come together? Did Janus Films approach you declaring it canonized?

It had been out of circulation for a long time for lots of different issues, and I was hoping always to find the right one. Then The Lincoln Center gave me a big tribute about two years ago, and they showed all the movies. And they showed Multiple Maniacs – this was in “historical context,” they called it – and that was the last 16mm of the film. And it was burning up in the projector. It was falling apart. And I think the people from Criterion had come, and they approached me, and I knew it had to be done, and I was very eager to do it.

I couldn’t have been happier. Because Janus Film was the distributor of all the first art movies I saw when I was in high school. The fact that they were going to release Multiple Maniacs was pretty great – and hilarious.

The people that did the restoration, when they did the new credits, they imitated the exact credits in the movie that were just done one shelving paper with someone pulling the roll. You can see where I spelled something wrong, and corrected it with a piece of tape. Well, they did their credits – today – like that too. Which really meant they were restoring it in the exact, right, proper way. That is: with a sense of humor.

It looks terrific. It’s evocative of a lot of underground movies from the time. Which leads me to ask: When was the first time you saw a Kenneth Anger film? This was very Anger-y to me.

Oh, I love Kenneth Anger. I saw him, certainly probably, in 1964. Kenneth, yes. Especially with music. He interviewed Scorsese. I mean, Kenneth Anger did pop music in films before anybody.

When you’re making Multiple Maniacs, back in 1970, did you have Anger in mind? Were you thinking “I’m the next Kuchar?” What was the thinking behind it?

Underground movies, Ingmar Bergman, and Herschell Gordon Lewis (because of Two Thousand Maniacs!). All together. Also, I can’t say I wasn’t thinking of Buñuel. I can’t say I wasn’t thinking of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Or Viridiana. These are all movies that had religion, and flirted with sacrilegious. Maybe Mother Joan of the Angels. I don’t remember when that one came out [Ed. It was 1961], but that was another one that always baited religion.

I always knew that was one exploitation angle that there were no laws against. So I tried to just put it together: What would be a sexual, blasphemous act? Although no one, to this day, has given a rosary job. But maybe they will after this movie. It’s safe! You can’t get pregnant. You can’t get AIDS from a rosary job.

Although I have seen such items for sale in shops, however.

There are ben wa balls.

I mean rosaries that have been constructed specifically for sexual purposes.

I haven’t seen that. I know there are dildos that have Mary’s head on them, and stuff like that. I have a few; that’s something people gave me. But I was afraid to throw them out because I thought someone might find them in my trash and think they were mine.

Janus Films

Janus Films

The pop music selections in Multiple Maniacs – indeed in all of your films – are excellent. John Waters soundtrack records are all pretty excellent.

They were just my music collection. They still are. Even A Dirty Shame. Every one of those songs I already had, or at least had access to.

Do you hire a music supervisor to comb your collection?

I think when we had original songs, we had supervisors who hired all the singers who got involved. But I pick all the music for all of them. Usually the soundtrack goes with the script. There’s a playlist before we even make it. The scores, I always have someone else do the scores, but the actual source music, I turn that in with the script. That’s known even before.

But those records are mine. I bought them all just through my whole life. Those early records I shoplifted, and I never felt bad about it because I had to pay $25,000 each later to put them in a movie! They got their money. I also have a friend named Larry Benicewicz in Baltimore who owns every record in the world, and I’ve worked with him on a lot of them. Like, if I’m trying to find A Dirty Shame song about bears, he’ll give me all the songs. He had great novelty records and stuff like that. So I do have some sources too.

But the music to me, when I’m writing, I pick the music. Because that really is the narrator in my films. The music is narrating. Telling the story.

Has there been a song or artist you couldn’t include in a movie for one reason or another?

There were two I finally got in. One was “The Joker.” I got that into the credits for my Here TV show called John Waters Presents Movies that Will Shock You. The other was “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Right Myself a Letter,” which was by Billy Williams. Which I got in Pecker. When they’re in the bar, and little Chrissy’s in there, it’s playing on the jukebox. So yeah, there are songs I’m always trying to get in, and I finally end up doing.

Janus Films

Janus Films

Will we ever get any more ancillary records? Will there be a soundtrack to your book Carsick?

No, I don’t think so. I just gave a playlist to you, and you can go listen to it. You can make your own. I gave you the names, and you can just find them all online. You can make your own soundtrack! Would that be fun to find all the rights to make a record? No. Believe me. Putting out compilation records, buying the right to music is incredibly complicated. You have to find the writer of the song, and the publisher of the song – not the singer – and make two separate deals. And the songs I pick are often obscure and old, and even finding the people is endless work. And getting them to agree. Sometimes they hate each other. And it’s quite complicated. And for that, I have used amazing music supervisors to find and make those deals. That’s a real art.

In the opening of Multiple Maniacs, David Lochary gives his intro to The Cavalcade of Perversion, which contains “shocking” things like two men kissing. In 2016, a lot of the perversions seem so tame.

It is! Like licking a bicycle seat. And they say “Two actual queers kissing!” That was really shocking to show that. I agree. It’s very, very tame compared to even what we see on reality television today.

It’s great that audiences are comfortable with men kissing, but it seems like there’s little left that can really honestly shock people in the same way.

That’s the problem. Now Hollywood makes $100,000,000 movies, and they try too hard, and it’s not funny. But you don’t have to be anymore! That’s why I made Kiddie Flamingos at my last art show. I re-shot Pink Flamingos as a children’s movie, as a table read. Because then there were rules to break. There aren’t really, anymore. So to break the rules for no reason, you’re trying too hard. This was a way to satirize censorship, to satirize what the limits were.

Every year, the limits fell in exploitation movies. Every year, right on up to Deep Throat. And that film changed everything. And that’s when Pink Flamingos came out. And that’s why I had eating shit. And [Multiple Maniacs] was the trainer wheels to Pink Flamingos. Certainly. This was the preparation to Pink Flamingos.

Janus Films

Janus Films

Fair enough, although I think you outdid Pink Flamingos with Female Trouble, which is handily your best movie.

Thank you. That’s my favorite of the Divine movies, definitely yes. Although when it came out it did not do nearly as well as Pink Flamingos.

Can one satirize anything in an atmosphere where so much is permitted? What can we still stick a nail into?

I think Todd Solondz does that very well. He still makes people nervous [laughs]. I think Harmony Korine does. There’s a lot of filmmakers that do. Most of them are European, though, and they always have been. Always European art cinema has been the most threatening and the grimmest and the most transgressive, I think. I love Gaspar Noé too.

So, uh, Lobstora. Out of nowhere, Divine is raped by a giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, and I haven’t, for the life of me, been able to determine why.

I guess it was because Divine pushed himself over into being completely insane, and began having hallucinations. Once that happened, he was over the edge. It was maybe his schizophrenic hallucinations. We took a lot of acid then, and I live in Provincetown, where there’s lots of lobsters – still! – on every tablecloth, postcard, everything. So I think it certainly came from taking LSD in Provincetown. The audience never questions it [laughs]. Of all the problems… You’re right! It comes out of nowhere, like “Huh? Why did you just get raped by a lobster?” To me, it made perfect sense in the movie. If you’re going crazy and you’re becoming a monster, and you’re going to go out in the streets and get shot by the national guard, you need one last moment of insanity. And maybe that was it.

The structure of Multiple Maniacs – i.e. one really bad day – seems almost classical. Someone wakes up in a good place, and by the end of the day, their life is ruined. In using that structure, was there something you were emulating?

I don’t know. All my movies are kind of like that. That one day starts and then hideousness comes out of it. [Laughs.] Yeah, a lot did happen to her in one day. There was no night in that, huh. Woke up in the morning, did the show, and then at night was killed by the national guard. We’ve all had bad days, but this was a really bad one.

But for Divine’s character, Lady Divine, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good one. He wanted to be Godzilla. And the monster always has to be killed. That way, it’s socially redeeming, as the supreme court would say, and I can get away with a rosary job. [Laughs.]

Janus Films

Janus Films

Was there a version of the movie where Divine’s character lived?

I don’t think there will be a sequel. It wasn’t that big a hit. No, that was always the end. Killed by the national guard.

Those guys were great. The national guard as played by “some guys in hats.”

It was. Those are some people I know, all in short-haired wigs that they had, because they had to go to court on pot busts. The costumes were rented from the same place where I rented all the biblical costumes for the Stations of the Cross portion. Joe’s Costumers. They’re still there. They’re a great place in Baltimore. That was where the budget went. That and the ten rentals.

When you completed the film, was it how you wanted it?

Well, everything I didn’t have the budget for. And I didn’t know was I was doing. And I was learning. And I had no crew. I had one Teamster who had the equipment, which he probably took from who knows. He likely never asked the TV station where it came from if we could use it. So probably nothing turned out the way I wanted it. But then maybe that’s why it’s playing. Because it’s raw. It’s something you make when you’re very young. And when you didn’t really care about anything like that. You didn’t know there were rules. Really, I couldn’t have made that film in film school in 1970. Film schools would never have allowed you to make that kind of movie. They would today, but they certainly would not have been then.

No one said it was good, really, when it came out. No one said it was good. Except for one review we got in the L.A. Weekly. But the critics who reviewed it were horrified. My parents would have to read that in the paper, and they’d be mortified. [Laughs.]

When it comes to making films in 2016, could a film like this still be made guerrilla style? Would you want to take to the streets again?

I wouldn’t want to! I did that. I’m not going to be a faux underground filmmaker at 70. People say to me “Why don’t you do Kickstarter?” Well, I own three homes. That’s like being a hypocrite. I don’t know what to make next, really. I had a few development deals. One was for [my Christmas movie] Fruitcake with a Hollywood studio, which didn’t happen. One was for NBC to do Hairspray as a series, which didn’t happen. Then HBO, with [a] sequel to Hairspray, which didn’t happen. But it’s still money. Each one paid me well. Hollywood treats me very fairly.

Janus Films

Janus Films

What your favorite cuss word?

Someone recently asked me that, and I told them “muvva.” But after that, what would I say? “Cocksucker.” Because I’ve heard people say “What’s the matter with that?” It’s not politically correct to say that anymore. Which really makes me laugh.

What’s your favorite candy?

I wrote a whole chapter on that in Carsick, and in there, I said Jujyfruits. But my real favorite is an English candy called winegums. They’re Jujyfruits supreme. They’re in the same family, only better.

What’s the first record you bought with your own money?

I’m trying to remember. The first record I got, I think I stole. I was with my mother, she turned her back, and I slipped it in my coat. And I think it was “Cry Baby” by The Bonnie Sisters. That or “Lucille” by Little Richard. And I’m not sure which. It might have been “Tonight You Belong to Me” by Patience and Prudence, which I probably didn’t steal. I think it was “Cry Baby.” Which I re-recorded for my movie. I didn’t use that particular version of the song. But it’s a good one. [Singing] “Shooby-dooby-wah, doo wop do wobby-wobby.” I think that was it.

Top Image: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.