John Cameron Mitchell caused a sensation by co-writing and starring in the gender-bending Hedwig and the Angry Inch, off-Broadway and in a feature film adaptation he directed. Five years later, Mitchell has written and directed his sophomore feature, Shortbus. Mitchell drives the ensemble comedy-drama with a series of provocative, unsimulated sex scenes (including a male threesome during which "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung into an anus). In doing so, Mitchell invites audiences to reconsider the multifarious roles of sex in American life. While promoting Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig and then Shortbus, Mitchell spoke to me first at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, and again by phone on September 20.
Groucho: There's always a contingent in modern America ready to judge a project like this, sight unseen. What would you like people to know about the film before they, hopefully, go see it?
John Cameron Mitchell: Well, you know, I can talk till I'm blue in the face about how this film is gonna bring up a lot of emotions—[it is,] in fact, not sexy at all, I don't think. Most people aren't aroused by the film. The sex is mostly unsuccessful and ridiculous and kind of hilarious. But to most Americans, any kind of explicit sex on film is called porn. Which is a pretty limited way of thinking about sex. You know, because porn is for arousal, and sex has a lot of other aspects. If they would just look at their own life, and think of a very powerful sexual moment with someone, that was much more going on than just sex, and you made a film that was as multifaceted as the experience, would you call that porn? You know, I don't really think so. So they're just going to have to see it! And some people will come and expect to be titillated and come out with a tear in their eye. Everyone who I've spoken to who has seen the film say that by the end of the film, the sex is the last thing they're thinking about. It's just like at the end of a long relationship. This film isn't a one-night stand; it's a relationship.
G: The sex scenes in Shortbus function like musical numbers in a musical: they're designed to move the story along by illuminating character and emotion.
JCM: That's right. When I showed the film to friends, they would say, "[The sex] wasn't what I expected—it was funny and sad and wonderful and all those things." I mean it's just odd that it's not in films. 'Cause in other countries, it's more common. Granted, a lot of the European films lately have been quite grim and negative, but there's an understanding that it's part of life. Even in advertising, let's say, in Europe. So it seemed, why not just use all the connections that sex has—you know, sex is certainly the spinal cord that connects to all these different organs in our life—to take advantage of that wonderful cinematic language?
G: Actors always talk about needing to trust their directors, and I would think never more so than in a film with unsimulated sex. How did you earn your actors' trust?
JCM: Well, first of all, they were there because they liked "Hedwig." And some of them had worked with me on Hedwig. The guy who played Jamie, and the one who played Sofia had tiny parts in it. So they knew how I worked and were friends, by that point. Jamie and James were old friends, and they were and are in a relationship. The other people, they—you know, it's just like: sit down with someone, you begin a relationship as artists. And we worked for two and a half years. I mean, if you don't know if you can work with someone after two and a half years, I don't know what, you know?—But they're still nervous. I mean, we were nervous shooting, and whenever someone was nervous, I asked them to bring it up right away, so we could deal with it and not let it fester, and not sort of try to be a "suck it up" kind of person because this is a much more supportive environment than most films. "If there's a problem, bring it up. If you're nervous about working with a certain actor, let's talk about it." So there was tons of that over two and a half years. But we're also really good friends—
G: As the host of the Shortbus salon, is Justin Bond playing himself, or a version of himself?
JCM: He's playing himself. He's better known in sort of the underground queer theatre environment as Kiki of the duo Kiki and Herb. They really are underground legends in San Francisco, New York, and London now, where he lives. And he just finished a Broadway run—I couldn't believe it, to see him on Broadway. Of course, all of his tropes come from the sort of underbelly of Broadway. Kiki is sort of this old chanteuse. But he is brilliant. He really uses all these different languages of drag and underground music, satire, politics, deep emotion to create something brand new. You know, he's lived in the milieu that I live in in New York, and I've always admired him, and wrote this part for him. And he added his own stuff to it, as all the actors did. And I just want people to know more about him, because he's as iconic as Dylan is for other people, at a certain age.
G: How was your own experience growing up gay?
JCM: Well, I grew up in the seventies in Catholic schools and military bases and there wasn't really anything—there were no gay role models. At all. You know, there were a couple underground books and things like that, that were available at the army thrift shop, but, uh— Where I was the janitor. But it was all kind of covert. And it was like John Rechy. There was a book called "The Happy Hustler," I remember. "The Best Little Boy in the World." So it was all these very underground things. And I thought, "Oh God, it's going to be an underground life." And so for me coming out was a big deal. 'Cause I came out the year that AIDS hit. '84. So it was now life or death. But at the same time I had this youthful optimism with which to face it. As opposed to an older—you know—"the promise of my youth is now crushed." And so I was safe from the moment of coming out, and people just a year older were dying. You know? So it was a weird time to come out. And again there were very few role models—there were people just being outed because they were dying. So it was people like Larry Kramer and later Tony Kushner, and certain actors that were out were my heroes at first. And, you know, it seems a little late when Ellen and all these people were coming out. It's like—it didn't seem like it deserved an award. But ultimately it has a huge effect: every public person just making less of a big deal out of it by just saying, "Whatever." That does have a huge effect. So for me, that's one thing I'm always—the more people come out, the better things will be. It's just very easy. There's other things that are more complicated; this one's an easy one—
G: What's your take on the latest attempt at the marriage amendment?
JCM: It'll be pulled out once in a while to throw red meat to the conservatives, but you don't hear much about Massachusetts. There was a certain amount of panic there, and it's like, "No. The sky hasn't fallen." They're not going to outlaw it in Massachusetts. It's the fact that they had to keep it for three years before they could, which is perfect, because people realize that it's not a big deal—Even in the last two years, [attitudes have] changed—since the last election, it's changed. And it's just a matter of time.
More to come...
[For Groucho's review of Shortbus, click here.]