John Waters Doesn’t Need To Make Movies To Make Trouble

The famed filmmaker, artist, and writer has a new album, a global spoken-word tour, and a bunch of jobs that don’t involve making films.

John Waters Doesn’t Need To Make Movies To Make Trouble
[Photo: John Sciulli/WireImage]

Despite the fact that he has “never graduated from anything,” John Waters was invited by the Rhode Island School of Design to deliver its 2015 commencement address. In his speech, Waters urged the graduating class to cause trouble. “Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully,” he advised. “Design clothes so hideous they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. Make me nervous.”


Understandably, the speech went viral, or as Waters puts it, “it had a little trip.” In April of this year, the speech was turned into a book called, Make Trouble. Now, that book has been turned into a vinyl record of the same name, released by Jack White’s Third Man Records. Waters recorded the audio at his dining room table in his New York apartment in an afternoon. “But it took me three days to write it,” he says in mock defensiveness.

Waters, whose hitchhiking memoir Carsick was nominated for Best Audio Book at the 2015 Grammy Awards, spoke to us about making trouble, how he stays creative in the current political environment, and why he will never fundraise on Kickstarter.

Fast Company: We are here to talk about your album, which comes from a book, which comes from a speech. How many more formats do you think this could be in at this point?

John Waters: That’s a very good question! That’s exactly why I wanted to put out the record. It can be a souvenir or like a little art piece to leave on the table or something. I think you could buy it and never play it, to be honest. I like the idea of young people collecting vinyl now, certainly in America, so I thought it was a very modern idea to do it. I guess I can think of a new market—we could release it on cassette or wait until VHS comes back in style. But I always think that just like Hairspray became a musical, I’d like to always change my project into different formats. Get them all out there, working.

Since you originally delivered the speech a few years ago, do you think your message has changed at all?


While I think it’s the same, I think it’s more urgent now. The time is coming not to study–I mean, there are students that are studying now when they should be rioting. And never ask for a trigger warning. That’s the opposite of education, if you ask me. You should want them to bring up subject matter that makes you uncomfortable. That’s how you learn new things.

Do you think that the nation at large has gotten overly politically correct?

Of all the problems this country has, being overly politically correct would be 100th in line. It’s not that urgent. Political correctness is only for rich kid schools. I don’t think they have that in poor kid schools. That’s a class issue.

Are you rioting?

I’m rioting as much as I can at my age.  I did go to marches and stuff, but I didn’t break any windows. I am a proud member of GAG, You know, Gays Against Guns. They have bumper stickers that say “NRA sashay away.” I think gun control is very, very important.


In these trying times, do you find it hard to focus on being creative?  To focus on “making trouble” when it feels like the world is falling apart?

This book that I have right now is not really the top story of the day and I totally understand that. But the only thing you can do in this kind of situation is to be political in a way. Even humor can be used as terrorism and it’s the only terrorism I’m for.

Does your creativity get spurred on by current events?

My spoken word show changes daily because of the current events. With Trump you can make a new joke every day, a different one. I do believe that if you have an enemy, if you can make them laugh, they will listen. I do read editorials in right-wing papers like in the Wall Street Journal just to see how people I don’t agree with think.


Have you been invited to give other commencement addresses?

The oddest thing is since I’ve done it—and it certainly was discussed, it became a book and went viral—I thought I could get in this racket. I thought I’d be turning down three and four speeches a year. Not one other school has asked me to do it! I was just amazed. I thought that I would have a whole other career here doing them and, come May, I would be working for two weeks straight. But not a one asked me, not even a prison school.

Well, since that didn’t work out, what are you working on now?

I’m writing a new book called Mr. Know It All. I just did my spoken word in Vienna. I’m on my way to Spain. I have a Christmas tour that’s 18 cities and 21 countries that starts the day after Thanksgiving. I have a lot of jobs. I won’t be on unemployment this week.

You do! It kind of reminds me of the gig economy where everybody has a hustle and a side hustle.


Well, I always think you need fall-back careers. It’s a good thing I’m not relying on making movies. That’s the only one of the careers I have today that isn’t going so great. In the independent film world now, they want you to make it for $2 million and I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to be a faux anarchist underground filmmaker at 71 years old. People say, ‘Well, why don’t you raise money on Kickstarter?’ I own three homes. I’m not panhandling. So that’s fine because I have different ways to tell stories.

Do you miss filmmaking?

No. I mean, I do. I miss it, but not completely. I would make another movie in a minute, but I don’t know when I would make it. I am scheduled for the next year already! I made a lot of movies. It’s not like they’re hard to see. I know I would miss it if I didn’t write. I would miss it if I didn’t do spoken word. I would miss it if I didn’t have a photography career.  I’d be happy to make one, but if I don’t make another one, I’m fine with that too.

About the author

Melissa Locker is a writer and world renowned fish telepathist.