Sex, Fear and Videotape

John Cameron Mitchell is on his way to the Loft to discuss 'Hedwig,' 'Tarnation' and the politics of fear

Writer/director John Cameron Mitchell will be introducing his film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Saturday night at the Loft Cinema. We spoke with him about this film and his upcoming work, Short Bus.

TW: I guess what you're best known for is the role of Kenny in The Stepford Children ...

JCM: Surely you don't remember that ...

TW: Of course I do. ... The Stepford Children is the best TV movie sequel to a theatrical film ever. Did you anticipate that Hedwig would become a midnight movie/cult film?

JCM: I didn't plan on it, but it makes sense in retrospect. It had an eclectic audience of freaks of all kinds. But they tended to be the friendly freaks, not the kind that would roll you for your lunch money.

TW: Not the freaks who are lining up to eliminate gay rights. ... It's taken the place of Rocky Horror Picture Show in a number of areas, with people dressing up and acting it out. Have you ever seen that done?

JCM: Not really. I've only been to one group that does that. It was in L.A., and I realized it wasn't really an acting-out thing as much. They made it more of a performance thing. And I'd encourage people to do their own stuff. They'd do pre-show bands and performances and contests. Certainly the songs, they can act out, but it's hard to act out the scenes, because unlike Rocky Horror, it's not so campy. People are finding their own way with it. And that's good. I don't think it's necessarily replacing Rocky Horror, but it's concurrent with it, same cities.

TW: Similar vibe.

JCM: Yeah, glammo.

TW: You've mentioned another film ... a grandmother who spoke through music?

JCM: That's changed into something else. ... It's the same characters but a different story. It's a children's story called Nigh, which is the name of a little boy who's never been told a bed-time story. ... It's kind of philosophical in its way. It's mostly animated, so it's very expensive, and it'll take a while to get to the screen. The things that are children's things that are made now are successful books or video games, or they have something easy to grasp onto, like a talking mouse or something. Ours really isn't like that.

TW: You could claim that it's about a Japanese anime character and get a little funding ...

JCM: Yeah. ... I know. But they might ... they're not dumb.

TW: I think they might be dumb!

JCM: Well, they can be dumb, but they're shrewd.

TW: What if someone did give you $100 million to make a movie?

JCM: I'd make that (Nigh), and I'd make Short Bus. We've been working with the actors for a year-and-a-half, and that's ready to go. There's another thing we've been working on, which is someone else's script, which I rewrote and I'm going to direct, which is sort of a Pee Wee Herman thing, but full of emotion and philosophy. That's another thing that could get made, because it's a lot cheaper and could actually have stars in it, which is what they want.

TW: What's that one called?

JCM: It's called Oskur Fishman.

TW: If you made Short Bus and the animated film, you'd have money left over from the $100 million.

JCM: Depends on how you animate. You could use it all! Pixar tends to do that. I think we'd probably do 2-D. And I'd probably buy a place to live. I've been living in my rent-stabilized apartment for 11 years. And then I'd help other people out. That's why Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette's documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother; Mitchell was an executive producer) has been so rewarding; it's just completely unique. And the more you help other people out, the more they'll help others out.

TW: I hope that's true. Do you think the current political climate will have an effect on filmmaking, for you or other filmmakers?

JCM: I think people of substance are going to look at what they're doing, and think, "Is this in some way contributing to the kind of fear and ignorance that drove the election?" I think people are going to think, "What can I do to be useful in this time?" This is a period of depression. For some people, it was a fad, for others, it's very energizing to have something to fight against that's so clearly dangerous.

TW: What would you want to bring forward now, politically?

JCM: The reason people ignored their instincts about the failed presidency of George W. Bush was fear, fear and ignorance. Twenty percent of gay people voted for Bush, which is unbelievable, after the most viciously homophobic campaign ever. You've got to be pathetic and scared and somewhat self-hating to do that. People want a daddy. They want to believe someone. And if they've chosen to do that with Bush, then it's hard to change their mind. There's that strange map that's going on, where all the states that voted for Bush were the states that permitted slavery.

TW: Except for Ohio, which was a free state ...

JCM: I think that mindset, "must have someone tell me what to do," which comes from fear, is the problem. And I think anything that can be done artistically, politically, socially, to dispel fear and get the truth out, and remind people that they have a voice and are not powerless, is going to be useful. And in some small way, sexually, I think Short Bus will be attacking fear about sex. Certainly in Ohio, where I was working for the election, I saw first-hand people's homophobia, and they say that turned the state. They called it values; they labeled what really is bigotry as "values."

TW: There is a climate now that's interesting. ... It's strongly tolerant of homosexuality in certain parts of the country, and extremely homophobic in other parts. The film you're making will include graphic sex scenes ...

JCM: Of all sexualities.

TW: Exactly. How do you think that will be received?

JCM: A lot of people are going to be scared off by the sex, and a lot of people are going to be scared off by the gay sex, but for those who aren't, I really want to address the erotophobia in our culture. I really believe sex is something to be scared of and to be celebrated, but it's not something that can be ignored, which is really what most of the country tries to do. I couch it in a comic world where absurdity is seen in the sex as much as it is in any other part of their life. Sex is terribly funny! And in America, it's very rare to explore sex in a non-pornographic way that allows sex to be a metaphor for something else. For example, you can't have sex in a film, so you have metaphors for sex. If you can show the sex without shying away from it, the sex itself can be a metaphor for other things in life. If you watch two people having sex, it's like a microcosm of their lives. You can tell things about them without even hearing them speak. Why ignore that as a language in film when it's so rich? It's like music: Music is as much a part of life as sex is. So theoretically, aesthetically, why ignore it? Can we use sex in a way that isn't pornographic and isn't French?

TW: What do you mean by "not French"?

JCM: Not just focusing on the grim. All these recent French films that have sex in them, they all end in dismemberment. They're all ennui. ... It's kind of becoming a joke.

TW: Like Baise-Moi or Romance?

JCM: The only one I liked, which also ended very grimly, but it's just an excellent film, is Fat Girl. But most of these European films are dullsville. I even include Brown Bunny and Ken Park, the American ones that have come out recently. I thought they were just dumb. I admire that they pushed it, but they just felt like, again, "sex is dirty." They connected only to the negative.

TW: I liked Brown Bunny until it got to the sex part. ... Traditionally, in American films, if someone was sexual, she was going to die.

JCM: Sex equals death.

TW: Eighties slasher films, any homosexual in a film, any girl who has sex in a film in the '50s or '60s ...

JCM: She's a goner. Whereas with Short Bus ... for example, there's a sex therapist who's never had an orgasm. She's been faking with her husband, and she desperately wants to get one to save her relationship. It sounds farcical, but the woman doing it is very heart-wrenching. The metaphor of the orgasm means a lot more ... someone who can't have an orgasm has a lot more going on. What is the orgasm for different people? Is it a place where you feel alone, and you love it? Or is it a place where you don't feel alone and you love it? Or a place where you feel god, or self-loathing, or obfuscation, or domination? ...What is the orgasm, and why not explore it as a metaphor, explicitly?

TW: How long until we see Short Bus?

JCM: I don't know. We have to get our money still, and it's been difficult getting the money for it, with no stars, and it's not conventionally marketable.

TW: What else will you be talking about at The Loft?

JCM: I'll be taking about Tarnation and whatever anyone else wants to talk about. I've never been to Tucson. Where is Tucson?

TW: In the south of Arizona, about an hour north of Mexico. ...

JCM: Below or above Phoenix?

TW: Below ... Phoenix is a couple hours north. ...

JCM: I thought it was above Phoenix.

TW: Nope.