The Hedwig alum opens up—real wide
If you think John Cameron Mitchell turned heads—or was it wigs?—earlier this decade with the film version of his stage hit, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, you really haven’t seen anything yet. In Shortbus, a hypnotic, visual, soul-stirring, gem, the writer-director takes audiences inside the lives of fractured twentysomethings desperate to find deep connection. Most try to find it via sex. But the allure proves futile. In one of the artists’ most daring feats, he boldly illuminates what haunts us beyond the sheets. Listen and learn:
GT: I love your movie. Congratulations. Why and how this all came to be. What was it about the concept and theme that made you want to bring it to the screen.
JCM: It started out purely as a formal exercise as how I could use sex in a different ways in a film. And all the other things—the style, the content—came to be during the next two and a half years as we developed with the actors. The actors were beating away in creating the characters. I was just guiding them. Working with fears and metaphors that related to all the characters. And all the characters are really trying to answer the question of whether they want to be alone or not alone, which is really what Hedwig was about, too, and is kind of what everything is about. This just happens to be working it out in a sexual realm.
GT: I see it as a piece of art.
JCM: That’s all I want to make. To some it’s more popular entertainment and to others, mostly those who don’t see it, call it porn, because it’s exclusive. Though I don’t find anything arousing about it. I think the definition of porn is made with the purpose of arousal, but most of the sex [here] is pretty unsuccessful and ridiculous.
GT: How did you develop this with the actors? There’s a great deal of unihibitedness with them. Obviously I would imagine they didn’t have a problem with the things they would be filmed doing—actually having sex. How was that process?
JCM: Specifically sexual. Well, none of them are really exhibitionists. They really believed in the misison of the film, which was to defuse fear and examine these characters’ need to connect. And they realize the necissity of this explicitness, in this very form, was sort of trying to view fear and normalize sex as something natuiral and quite interesting in its colors. It’s like people think, well, could you have done this film without the explicit sex and, well, nobody asked me if I could have done Hedwig without the songs. It’s just a way of telling the story, which is unusual… but we call came from certain backgrounds that were sexually repressed and so we really thought that was a destructive way to raise kids so we believed that this film challenges that sort of sex phoib attitude. Because the more scared you are of it, the more it pops up in negative ways. Just look at Mark Foleym who, you can’t imagine as having a healthy relationship with sex, ever in his life. And I am sure a part of that is the way he was raised. Homophobic and sex phobic environment. Perhaps if he hadn’t been abused his authority and freaked some kids out. So, we believe in this the posisble of love in this easthetic way. The actors—you know, there was nothing comfortable in the sex. As I sadi, none of them were thrill seekers here. It was rough shooting the sex, in different ways, as it is to shoot a fight scene, or a crying scene. Any one of them requires their own sensitivities. Reduced sets or closed set. Everyone had different needs. Some of them were more comfortable than others.
GT: Why do you think there is so much sex phobia out there.
JCM: Well, we were a country founded by puritans and missionaries. The sword and the gun were far more natural to us than any gender clarity or sexual respect. You know, sex is one of the origins of the fear of sex. Because women were put in a position of power because they had power over straight men. There were put ninto acage, so to speak, because this sort of irrational power over men. That’s sort of the most obvious example of that is female circumcision. There’s no phobia against gay men without masoginy, too. They’re all interconnected. When people are feeling their power is beiung usurped by, say, the sexual power of a woman, or the meotional power of another man, people lash out. You have prescriptions against rights, you have prescriptions against pleasure. You try to control what you can’t control. All fascists sociteies and in fact, warlike societies have problems with sex. All of them. They are the countries that invade other coutnries. IF there is a sex life, it is based on power. You know, from Roman times on. You know, the salves were raped. Shortbus isn’t saying promiscuity can save us, but it is saying that good sex and how we can find that might help us. Good sex meaning respectful sex; in balance with the rest of your life. Connected to emotion; connected to fun. Connected to humor. Theese things are important to us 9in the film.) and we wanted to challenge the status quo in the filmmaking world as well as the film viewing world to be reminded that a little sex is a many splendid thing. It’s like a musical can be all kinds of things—sex can be all kinds of things, too.
GT: Best thing you’re hearing about the film?
JCM: That people go in expecting to be titilated and they come out wanting to hug people, with tears in their eyes; they come out wanting to create something with their imagination. Or they just feel better living in new yorkl or the u.s. You know, you don’t many gleams of hope in popular culture. And hollywood now, is owning up to its repsonsibility now in criticsizing the status quo in saying there also is not a lot of hope out there, or it’s just false hope, the fake hollywood ending. We create fake unending happy. They say, fuck hollywood, I’m going to have a great unhappy ending, but you’re still manipulating it; yu’re not letting it be; you’re not letting it flow from the characters. It’s a forced unhappy ending.
GT: What’s the most suprising criticism?
JCM: There’s nothing surprising about it.
GT: Is it the sexualness of it.
JCM: Yeah, and a lot critics don’t admit that they have a problem with sex so they seek out other problems. There’s this weird disdain thing with somebody who pretends they are cool with sex when they are not. Or, there are some people may not like the film because it’s kind of ‘warm and fuzzy’… you know, it’s kind of dare I say, sentimental at times. Some people just don’t like that kind of softness in films. They are looking for a harder stance. And I admire that. Some people —that’s their style. I admire filmmakers who can do that with complexity. Fat Girls is an example, which has a darker view of the world than I have. But completely, beautifully made. But there’s so much chilling out there in the news. I understand why people shy away from it in the movies that they see. It’s so easy to be crushed by reality, that once in a while when you see a film that hopefully, honestly has some hope, with some heroic characters that are trying to figure it out by conneccting with each other… I need to make films that area useful to other people instead of just calling attention to the horror, which is so easy to see everywhere. Some people will call that Hollywood but Shortbus is like a Hollywood film from an alternate universe. In many ways, it’s very traditional and neat.
GT: Are you challenged in taking the responsibility for your work as artist… is it hard easy to own up to?
JCM: No, everyting I do is art in some way. But I try to use tried and true artistic staregies but they come fromt raditional enterating. I come from Broadway. I’ve done sitcoms and art films. I’ve done all kinds of stuff and I have learned from all of them. You know, interesting character reversal in the second act—it can work. You can can do it in a new way, too.
GT: What do you find most challenging about relationships?
JCM (Groans): Oh God. Well, you know on paper, being alone seems so rational. No compromise, Freedom. You don’t have to worry about the place is decorated. You can breathe. Yo can leave the cap off the toothpaste. In reality, being alone is worse than being with somebody else. And the natural conclusion of being truly alone is sort of sprirtual and ohysical death, if you are really going to take it all the way. So, I kind of realize that being alone is kind of impossible and it’s not going to save us as socitery and personal human beings. So you figure out what that means to be with someone; you hopefully figure out your own rules and don’t settle on some societal view of how to be with someone lese. You work it out between yourselves. You know, a magical relationship can be monogomy if it works.Or soemthing else work. Maybe you’ve been together 20 years. Sex has changed. Is there a way that being sexual satisfied outside of the relationship in a safe way is not threatenting. Does it mean getting married or not getting married. You use your intution. But you have to remain creative while you are in the relationship otherswise you put too much pressure on relationship to do that you’re work should be doing for it. Keep things in balance. I am always learning. You know, they always say you never know what to do, you just know what to avoid.
GT: Are you with somebody?
JCM: I am not.
GT: What was the most inpsiring relationship while growing up?
JCM: It think it was probably my firend Brenda in Kansas. I moved every two years. So I wasn’t able to keep friendships like you were supposed to. And we hung out for a couple of years about when puberty hit. And we both hung out with the woman that inspired Hedwig, who was a babysitter and also a prositute in her trailer park and that was … a good time. But I didn’t have my strongest realtionship until I was out of college and I knew what it meant to keep a friend for a long time… and now I have the strongest relationships I’ve ever had in my life. And literally, in the last five years.
GT: So, what’s some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?
JCM: That the process is just as, or more important than the result.
GT: Love it.
JCM: Yeah … well how many artists think you have to be miserable and there has to be conflict? And of course they learn that from their childhood. But you have to have a good time when you are doing it. You know, I had the best time writing things that will never see the light of day, for a film. And I don’t regret it one bit. The making of it was wonderful but .. always work with people with you like, if you can help it … when making art, higher people that you enjoy. Especially because you are going to be spending a lot of time with them. And to figure out if you are truly being creative. Because I believe being creative is as important as sex or eating or anything else that has an appetitie. Because without a little bit that you can point to in a week where you can make something with your imagination—whether it’s a meal or something you are writing or gardening, that requires some imagination—you might be filling that hole up with something else that is not quite as healhty. Eating, drinking, smoking, facelifts …
GT: What makes you laugh.
JCM: Borat makes me laugh.
GT: What makes you cry?
JCM: Jena Rowlands.
JCM: Well, she’s the greatest film actress of our time.
GT: What inspires you the most?
JCM: I am really inspired by people who go to the darkest depths of try to make a difference. You know, I would never have the courage to go back to a conservative hometown and teach in a school thtere with the scary powers that be and try to make a difference. Or somebody who goes to antoher coutnry to fight disease or famine. I am so in awe of people that try to make the world a better place against the odds. Because what I do is very easy for me… Some people are like, oh, you are really breaking boundaries and I am like … I am having a blast!
GT: Thoughts on the year? The world we’re living in?
JCM: Well, I would like that Bush to be scene for the true charlitan that he is… that will take care of itself, but the democratic legislature … I don’t know how much difference that will make, but it will be great. I’d like to see some relief in crisis. People sturgle in the Middle East … and I would like to travel the world and meet new people and spread the Shortbus gospel.
GT: What’s up next for you?
JCM: Don’t know. I have to flog this film. But there’s a children’s film, that’s sort of fairy tale but for adults. I’d also like to take a big break and work on a novel and make some money … not sure how to do that yet.
GT: What could Hollywood use more of?
JCM: Don’t know. I don’t think about it too much. The last film that I truly came out that I liked was Eternal Sunshine, but I can’t think of another.
GT: what’s the most interesting thing that you have learned about yourself lately?
JCM: That I hate press! I don’t hate you …
GT: Thank you.
JCM: It’s like, I am so exahusted … you’ve heared it before,.but it’s hard to hear your own voice over and over and over again …