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Interview with John Cameron Mitchell on Shortbus

John Cameron Mitchell Interview
Has Shortbus changed your attitude to sex?

I don't know yet. I've been so busy that I haven't had any.

One thing that interests me about your career is that you're very grounded in the theatre. How important do you think this background has been to your work?

I think that the way that I work is based on the theatre education that I've had, certainly with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which was a play originally. I took a bit from rock 'n' roll, a bit from theatre; we developed like a band in the clubs doing gigs, I guess it was cabaret in a way. For this film we took a bit of the Royal Court method, a bit of the Mike Leigh way of working, which was creating through improvisation. We worked on and off for two and a half years before shooting with the actors. I borrowed some improv games from when I was a kid in theatre as well as some ideas of my own, we watched movies together, we played sports together. I read a book on Mike Leigh and we did a couple of his exercises, and some stuff I took from John Cassavetes - we take from where we come from.

It really comes across that you're like a family when you're together. And I wonder do you have plans to work as a troupe again, like an old style Hollywood director or even Mike Leigh with your cast of regulars who reappear every now and again?

Well you know I don't totally see myself working with these people again. I love to work in different ways - one of my next films is a children's film. In Shortbus we had a set script, but I told the actors I would fire them if they said the lines as written. They always had to paraphrase, which worked well for this film. When you work with highly trained virtuoso actors, you might not use the same techniques because they have more to draw on. And when you're doing something highly stylised, improv doesn't necessarily help. So some of these actors might be right for some of things I do and wrong for others. There's a few people who were in Hedwig that were also in Shortbus - Suk-Yin Lee had a small part as one of Hedwig's band members.

Shortbus was a hard slog to get made. Is there a lesson that you've learned in the process?

It took its own path and in the end I think it was the best possible way of working. Yes it takes longer to get the finance, but then you have more time to think about the script. Everything evens out in the end. The most important thing is something that I learned from Hedwig: always get in bed with the right people. If you're going to be making a film with someone, make sure you like them. So many directors cast people without having met them. They get in bed with financiers that they hate. They think 'this is what I have to do to get the film made'. But you don't have to cast an asshole - there are too many other interesting people out there. You may have to work with a financer that you don't want to share a drink with every night, but don't make a deal with someone who will make your life miserable later on. I'd rather not make a film, than make some sort of financial deal with someone who's going to make my life miserable. So make sure you like who you're working with. Some people say the result is more important than the process, but the process is always more important because that's the part that is your life.

Festivals have been very important in your career. You've had great success at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes. Can you take us back to that night in Cannes earlier this year when the closing credits were rolling?

We were all very nervous during the screening because we didn't hear anyone laughing at the jokes. The only people who seemed to be laughing were us. Which is not a good sign. I think it was probably because they were idiomatic jokes, there were a lot of French people in the audience and also the sound system is so overwhelming that you just can't hear anything but the film. At a certain point - it had started at 1am and I had been doing press all day - I fell asleep during my own screening! I had already seen it. I knew what was going to happen. And then I woke up to the final scene when the marching band comes in. And then it was followed by a ten minute standing ovation. It was so shocking as it went on that I just burst into tears, which is not unheard of at your very first premiere, after working so hard. But the fact that I was with all my actors, that we were all balling and all hugging each other, was completely wonderful. It was such a release of tension. I had a headache from doing four days of press - I hate doing press. And I was with all my kids. I think of them as my family. It was wonderful.

Do different countries react very differently to the film?

It's a little early to say. Each screening is unique. I think younger people are more vocal, naturally. We had one screening in Toronto that had the loudest laughs and then the second screening was really quiet. Some people are going to laugh at jokes, some aren't. Suk-Yin has been to Athens, other actors have seen it in Sarajevo, Taipei. Oddly for such a specific film about New York and a certain demi-monde, it seems to have a good deal of universality. It's not for everyone. It's not for the very young and probably not for the very old, but it's got this truly democratic spirit in that it tries to remind us that we're all in the same boat when it comes to relationships and connecting to each other. The shadow of 9/11 is all over the film too. There's that sense of a global unease.

You're now a New Yorker by adoption, and it shows. The film probably couldn't have been made anywhere else. There's a real New York spirit to it.

It's definitely a New York story as much as a Woody Allen or Scorsese movie, but those guys are native sons of New York, and this is definitely an immigrant's story. The first image in the film is of the Statue of Liberty and it's all about those folks who come to New York because they didn't fit in anywhere else. As the character who is a former Mayor of New York says, It's a place where everyone comes to be forgiven; from, I would add, sins that are real or imagined. When you're told there's something wrong with you, you come to New York to find out if it's true and when you ascertain that, you come there to make something new. So all of the characters, the actors, the world of the film is a creative world where everyone is truly striving for self-knowledge in a collective experience. They are a band of outsiders, the Shortbus, the kids who were told that they didn't measure up somehow, who find that they're more interesting because of it.

Is there a film that inspired you, that made you realise I want to get into the movies?

I grew up as a child in the 70s and it was a golden era of American film. It's my favourite period, although many of those films I discovered in the 80s when I grew up. Nashville by Robert Altman, along with Cassevetes, the early Scorseses and Coppolas. There's so many examples of people who were allowed to use their imagination and bring a certain naturalism into their films that inspired me. These are directors who allow their actors to be true creative partners in a project, rather than another kind of director who just uses their actors as puppets. I can admire directors like Kubrick or Bresson, but I rarely feel much in my heart for their films.

Brian Robinson

Published on London Festival Site


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