John Cameron Mitchell: "A viewer can look at the Da Vinci Code and be aroused."

John Cameron Mitchell explores sex and relationships in post-9/11 New York in Shortbus.
Cannes, May 2006

Briefly, what impact did your last film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, have on your career? Did you get offers from Hollywood as a result?

“I did get offers from Hollywood and stuff and they all felt weird. I know how people get fucked up in Hollywood, and I was old enough not to get seduced by the money or anything. I have my rent-controlled apartment in New York and I don’t have to pay a mortgage, so I decided to wait it out and work on stuff that was more personal.”

Some of the bigger distributors were initially considering picking up Shortbus. Did that surprise you, and do you think people want to make a statement with the film?

"I think there are people in all companies that aren’t necessarily happy with Rupert Murdoch or whoever’s in charge, and they try to stick it in. But it’s kind of fantastic that some of the larger ones were considering it, because it would be nice to actually get a little dialogue going in the press and stuff about the nature of sex in film and how it differs from pornography. I want to be a little bit provocative with this, obviously.”

How does sex in film differ from pronography?

“Pornography, to me, is pretty much defined as something whose priority is to arouse. You could define it by the intent of the maker or the intent of the viewer. A viewer can look at the Da Vinci Code and be aroused! Anyone can be aroused by that bottle there. But, in our view, we weren’t necessarily making anything erotic – and I haven’t heard of anybody who’s got a hard-on from watching this film. Therefore I wouldn’t say it had any pornographic value.”

I think one of the differences is like what one of your characters says, they “own” the experience, whereas in pornography it’s the viewer who owns it.

"There’s a lot of projection from the viewer, yeah. I actually like porn, once in a while. I think the porn business is weirdly polarised the way that interesting, smaller films are from Hollywood, like rich and poor. There’s huge blockbusters that feel like they want to be Oscar-nominated movies and then there’s a lot of small movies that are really individual, and there isn’t really very much in between. Porn is the same way. There’s like the factory, formula porn, where everyone has sex in the same order in the same video in the same bodies with the same music, and then there’s this very amateur stuff that comes out too. So it’s interesting how economically porn parallels Hollywood. There’s not much difference in Hollywood to porn.”

In the press kit you say that watching two actors having sex tells us a lot about their childhood and what they ate during the day. Can you develop this idea?

“I think that sex is kind of like reading your palm, it tells you something about your life. For example, for some reason a lot of people in charge, like politicians and stuff, like to be very submissive in sex. So I might make some extrapolations about someone from having sex. If I see two people who are very much having a conversation in sex, I can maybe tell there’s a certain sensitivity going on and maybe there was a certain healthy childhood. If there’s something a little more violent, maybe there was something violent in their childhood. I feel like it’s a metaphoric language that can be used more comprehensively than it has been. Certainly a lot of films have been using sex lately and they’ve tended to be very harsh, in my view, and a little kind of negative. I just think it’s pretty funny.

“I love, for example, some of Catherine Breillat’s films. They’re dark. Fat Girl is terrifying. It’s fantastic! 9 Songs has its own structure, it’s very different from Brown Bunny or Ken Park or Battle in Heaven. Not that our sex is really good sex. Everyone is trying really hard, but it’s maybe more ridiculous. It’s like people are trying too hard. But they’re also having fun sometimes, too, like in the national anthem scene. So there are other aspects to sex that I hope people will take of advantage of, because it’s just as varied as something like music. It really is a language that can be used in all kinds of ways.”

Can you develop a sort of psychological profile out of it?

“I don’t know. You tell me. The exposition of my characters is in that opening sequence, in the way that they have sex. The couple is acrobatic, running from one thing to another, ADD. They’re trying too hard. Something’s wrong. They’re jumping all over the place and it seems very strenuous. Is there something wrong in their relationship? Some people might intuit that. The other guy’s trying to get his dick in his mouth. It seems like too much hard work. I mean he’s trying so hard. Meanwhile, someone is talking about the orgasm being the most lonely place and that’s a wonderful thing. She’s saying I want procreate in the dark like a worm and we cut to him trying to get his dick in his mouth. He’s trying to self-fertilise or something. I don’t know. To me it’s like sex can be interpreted different ways character-wise, theme-wise. Another character’s whipping and not being very happy being a dominatrix. We’re getting to know her through the sex. That’s what I mean when I say it can be used in different ways.”

What was your mandate when you were casting? Obviously there are no “well known” stars in the film.

“Well try getting Jennifer Aniston to give a blow job! I don’t know if you would have any success. You know, I get really distracted, often, with certain kinds of stories when stars are in them. You can’t get past them. It’s like ‘Look, he’s doing a working-class guy. Isn’t he good at that?’ rather than just buying into the story right away. It feels like a stunt sometimes. Someone like Cassavetes, who would use a lot of the same people, and certainly Gena Rowlands was a star of a certain indie magnitude in the 70s, managed to get past that. You weren’t aware of, ‘Oh look, there’s Gena Rowlands. Isn’t it amazing she’s so different?’ You’re in the story. So we avoided stars. And, of course, sexually, American stars would have nothing to do with this. We also avoided professional actors, because they’re worried about getting a sitcom when they’re 45 and can’t do indie films anymore, or whatever their career goals are. So we had an open call. We just let people find out about us. We did a lot of articles in papers and had a website. People sent in audition tapes.”

So people knew from the beginning what was required?

“Oh yeah. And I knew that they should be co-creators. If they’re going to be this exposed, they should create their characters, they should name their characters, they should discuss what their characters’ goals are and have input in all sides. I would have the final say but I would never ask them to do something they didn’t want to do. For example, Paul [Dawson, who plays James], in our conversation, was like, ‘When I was a kid, I used to be able to suck my own dick.’ I was like, ‘That’s great. You know that’s kind of a fascinating image of a sort of feedback loop of somebody. It’s kind of funny, too.’ So we would think of it in those terms. I said, ‘How would you feel about introducing the character like that?’ and he was like ‘Wow, I guess I should practice to see if I can still do that.’ So that was how a scene would come about. So we cast the actors first and then came up with the stories through improv.”

Was there anything that you wanted somebody to do that they particularly wouldn’t?

“I really asked what their limits were as we went along. Like there was safety concerns and condoms, and this and that, testing, and everybody discussing all that kind of stuff. The women were a little more nervous about the sex beforehand. I think guys can approach sex and separate it from feelings a lot easier. It’s funny because when we finally got to the days of shooting, that’s when the guys freaked out, when they realised they had to keep it up. So our friend Viagra was on the craft service table. Sometimes they took it too early and it wore off, and they were flushed for the wrong scene.”

Did you want to make a comment about New York, the city being much more interesting and free 10 years ago and now it’s so clean, 42nd Street is not there anymore?

“Ten years ago, I guess it was before Giuliani, no-one really knows when they’re in a golden age, right till later. I’m sure right now people will look back on their youth and go, ‘2006 was fucking amazing!’ It’s what you’re experiencing at that time. Yes, New York is way more expensive than it used to be, though under Bloomberg it’s less repressive than under Giuliani, the nightlife is better. But this idea of the salon being in New York, it’s an ancient European tradition of welcoming people into your house, offering art, food. The salon in the film was based on some places I had been, and there was a place called Cinesalon that was similar; it was more on the queer side than the Shortbus salon. But these places exist, and maybe the film will inspire more people to do that instead of gathering in a bar or some place that is less conducive to sociability.”

How much is this coloured by post-9/11 trauma and the question of how one lives in New York alongside Ground Zero?

“It’s very much in the shadow of 9/11. Many of us in the cast experienced it and experienced the blackout that was not too long afterwards, where they thought they were dead, and then realised, you know, it’s just a blackout. There really was no violence, it was a beautiful, beautiful experience where you’re walking down your street and didn’t know if you were on your street, so you had to deal with the person that was right in front of you and meet the people in your building and have a party on the stoop. I was with some of these actors that night and remember going to a bar with no air conditioning, so everyone took their clothes off. Someone was deejaying on an iPod with a transistor radio. You know, it was fantastic. So it’s definitely a love letter to New York in the shadow of 9/11, in the shadow of Bush. Because, you know, it’s probably the place where he’s least popular in the whole country, even though he pretended to defend our honour. You know, coming to New York. Who asked ya? He’s fucked up in so many ways. If we could secede from the Union we would. It’s also a difficult place to come to now because it’s economically difficult for young people. There’s a line in the film, ‘Why do people keep coming to New York after 9/11, it’s so expensive?’ and someone says, ‘Well, I’ve actually heard it’s because 9/11 was the first real thing that ever happened to some people. The first unedited thing they could experience in real time.’”

Do you think that 9/11 has had the same effect as AIDS in the 80s? They’ve both created an atmosphere of collective fear.

“Well, I don’t know whether you remember right after 9/11, people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said, ‘Well it’s because of homosexuality and foreigners, that’s why 9/11 happened.’ At least they’re honest. At least they’re speaking the certainty that they’re feeling. Because somehow the other - terrorists, the immigrant, the homosexual, whatever - they’re all the same thing for many people in their minds.”

Why do America stars find it so difficult to portray sex on camera?

“They used to say that all those sex stars of the 30s and 40s and 50s had terrible sex lives - you know, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and everything – and that’s why they needed the camera, to fill up something they couldn’t experience. They don’t in front of the camera because they tend to be the international stars and in the States as opposed to Europe, once their career founders they’re probably going to have to go on television and the networks are not going to want Jennifer Aniston having sex because the sitcom might then be threatened. It’s a career-oriented thing for American stars whereas in Europe it seems like it’s much more about the project.”

Now you have people like Paris Hilton having sex.

“Well she doesn’t really have any talent, so she has to use what she has.”

Do you think that sex sometimes correlates with loneliness? Sometimes when you see it as a single person in movies, it’s a flipside of loneliness, where they’re trying to get out of their head.

“Yeah, thank God for sex drive because a lot of people would never leave the apartment. At base it’s an appetite, like any other appetite. You know, for some people food is connected to love as well, but sex has all these tendrils and synapses that connect to other parts of our lives. Sometimes love and sex intersect and it’s very powerful, and dangerous to the heart. But yeah, the language of sex is kind of the language when we’re talking about connection. For me the film is really about the question that we all have to answer: are we going to be alone or not alone? James, for example, tries to be alone and ultimately alone by ending it [suicide]. You can’t get more lonely than that. He can’t feel past his skin because whatever has happened to him, he hasn’t been able to let anything penetrate his mind and body and soul. I think we all have to make that decision at some point and in a way it’s the most important decision that anyone can make, because it involves politics and it involves sex and it involves love. For the last few years, we Americans have been alone. We don’t want immigrants. We don’t want anyone. And it doesn’t work. Americans now are realising the mistakes that have been made lately based on these kinds of fears.”

The final song in the film talks about embracing your demons because they’re actually your friends – and it’s I guess what all the characters learn to do in the end – and I wondered what your demons are/were?

“You know, certainly I wanted this to be useful to other people but it’s been very useful to me. I grew up in a very repressed Catholic/military environment and sex was very scary to me. Growing up gay and in the closet and all that, it was like the chimera that was there all the time, because who you were attracted to was taboo. The distillation of this was the sex act itself, which was a symbol for all these things, and that was reduced. You know, like in the Catholic Church, for example, that act has to be a certain way, it has to have a function, be procreative, and it has to be within marriage. It’s so frightening to so many people that it has to be bottled. And, of course, we see the result of trying to bottle and crush something that basic. You can’t do it. It’s impossible to crush and destroy it. So I’m learning about that, too. I find sex much less scary having done this film. And I think it was the same for some of the actors, they wanted to confront some demons.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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