John Cameron Mitchell's long "Shortbus" ride

Susan Gerhard October 2, 2006

John Cameron Mitchell specializes in the unlikely. His first film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was a satiric, bitterly funny musical about the German rock God survivor of a botched sex-change surgery. His latest: A bright, sexually explicit ensemble piece featuring American friends and acquaintances who, without the nudity and love of the polyamorous atmospheres of an underground New York salon, might have made good primetime TV. Both films seem to have popped out of the Weimar era’s smoky cabaret liberations, and feature ideologies just as gloriously out of step with their culturally conservative times. When Cameron Mitchell called me a few years back during his outreach campaign for a film he said would be completely frank in its sex without being obscene, a film that would be pornographic, but happy, I never expected the project to see the light of day in the ’00s. This year, it received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and is now opening at a Landmark Theatre near you. I spoke again with Cameron Mitchell on his recent trip through San Francisco.

SF360: I remember being puzzled by the casting call. A film that showed graphic sex ending up on the mainstream arthouse circuit? But it is exactly what you said. I’m so surprised.

John Cameron Mitchell: I’m a populist in the films I make. I want them to be entertaining. I’m not trying to just do personal therapy. Though I’m learning a lot: I wouldn’t have made the film if I hadn’t grown up very Catholic. Everyone involved with the film had some intense conservative background, otherwise you wouldn’t go this far. But I like things to be entertaining. I’m not an elitist that way. You can say the sex will make it a limited audience. I don’t think it’ll be elitist; it’s popular entertainment in many ways. I come from theater, Broadway, Vaudeville, burlesque — all those popular entertainments — drag, standup. Those are all useful to me. I just like to recombine them. I always knew there’d be an audience for it. You never know what companies are going to get behind it. We were ready to self-distribute before we went to Cannes, Suddenly we get 12 offers, which was nice. I think things have changed a bit. Bush has been in office for so many years. It’s like the ’60s, with less hope. People want change, they just don’t know how to do it. Some of the inspiration for change may have to come from populist, popular entertainment. This film has a bit of that agenda, too. Criticism is a high art now — with Steven Colbert. That’s the best we’ve got, but it doesn’t provide an alternative. It provides satire, rational, humanistic satire, but it doesn’t say what else you can do. This film is hopefully a certain way of thinking that I think is very traditional in its American values: We’re all in this together, and we’re all different, and we’re all from somewhere else and we’re all fucked up and we gotta do it with some open-mindedness and love and get away from this fake patriotic consumer thing that we’re fed as a line.

SF360: It sounds like you want this film to be a model for living, or at least working out problems.

Cameron Mitchell: It’s creating a way of thinking where you’re not alone. Where you’re not a consumer. Where you love. Where you respect. Where you reach out. Where you are in the same room instead of just online. Salon is the microcosm of how it should be. No one is charged to get in there. You pass the hat. There’s art, there’s sex, there’s food, there’s comité, there’s society. And it’s an absolute variety of sexuality and ethnicity. That’s the best of New York, and that’s the best of America. The film opens with the Statue of Liberty. It’s not based on fear.

SF360: What years did you come of age sexually? If you had your first sexual experiences in 1979 vs., say, 1981, you had a radically different view of how things were, and were meant to be.

Cameron Mitchell: I came out right when AIDS hit, so it was strange. The experience was here in San Francisco. My brother was going to University of San Francisco, and I was visiting him, but had to get out. I went to Polk Street, which I heard was a gay street, the seedy one. I went to a bookstore that looked like a mall. Someone invited me to a solstice party. It’s something that’s been going on for decades in NY — they’re kind of loosely radical faerie. At that time, it was happening in Berkeley. They lived in this communal house. I was not hippy-ish in the least. The party had an orgy room, acid punch, and all these things — and it was so beyond my ken. And I actually wasn’t going to be there for the party. But the guy who was really cute who gave me the invite said, ‘Hey, do you wanna go out.’ He was an auto mechanic from Thunder Bay, and he was real quiet. I thought he was sick; it was ’85, he was coughing; I thought he had AIDS. I thought ‘What am I doing here?’ I stayed at his house, he drove me around on his motorcycle. It was a beautiful experience. I came back after a weekend. My brother said, ‘I thought you were dead.’ I said, ‘No, I’m gay, and I’ve got someone to fix your car.’ This awareness of mortality at the same time as freedom. I was very enthusiastic about life. I found out about HIV early enough that I was always safe. People just a year older than me, who came out right before AIDS, died. People younger than me lived. So I felt like I was on some kind of nexus, which was strange. And it radicalized me early, too. In Hollywood, people weren’t openly gay, certainly not in the ’80s, because actors are scared people, in general. They don’t want you to know anything about them. But I was always openly gay in Hollywood then, and was ready for a fight.

SF360: On your film’s web site, you said that you could make some really good guesses about two people by watching them have sex, even if you didn’t know them. With this film, you’ve had the opportunity to watch an awful lot.

Cameron Mitchell: It’s still a cliché, but it’s real — politicians like to get beat up. They want to be submissive because in their lives they have too much control. Often people who have no control, like people who gravitate toward low-end street hustling, have to be on top, because their lives are so out of control. Certainly if there was some abuse, you can see it come out in the way people have sex. Sometimes, they’re not aware of the other person. You can tell if they’re artists, if there’s imagination in it. You can tell things, but you can’t tell everything. It’s just a language that’s been ignored in cinema.

SF360: Your process built — like Mike Leigh’s — the story with improv input from your cast. I know you had a theme and a tone when you started, but were you surprised at where the plot took you?

Cameron Mitchell: Nothing was really surprising. It was just interesting. I didn’t have a plot. Anything surprising was just a bump. They would come up with raw material. I would guide it. The first draft of all the seven leads — that would have been a four-hour film if I had done that, so I had to narrow it down. It was two and 1/2 years in the making. It was a lot of things, but we’re all good friends.

SF360: Did people go through many changes?

Cameron Mitchell: Relationships outside the film that came and went. The two guys who played James and Jamie were already in a relationship and still are. So that was easy. They were the backbones. There were a lot of nerves about the sex. The guys before shooting were more cavalier about it, women were really nervous. On the days of shooting the women were Zen, and the guys were freaked out, because they had to keep it up, or felt like they had to. I always told them, just like in sex, it comes and goes, don’t worry about it.

SF360: The film’s a lot about New York itself, where you live. What concerns you most about emotional life in New York right now.

Cameron Mitchell: Artists are being priced out, so it becomes a less interesting city. I live in the West Village in a rent-stabilized apartment, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. It’s hard to move somewhere else once you’ve lived there. People say the next place they’d go if they still want variety is Berlin. I’m still a New Yorker, but who knows, my rent-stabilized situation may run out. It’s still New York, the artistic Ellis Island of North America.

SF360: What were expecting from Cannes? Were you surprised/pleased by the reaction?

Cameron Mitchell: It’s always better to be out of left field. It’s always better to be the underdog. Because people can say ‘Why wasn’t this in competition?!’ as opposed to ‘Why is this in competition?’ We will continue to be the freak, which is fine. We’re not going to be up for an Oscar. Fine: There’s much less pressure, expectation. We don’t have to make a lot of money to pay everyone back. I prefer to do it this way always. To have real people as opposed to stars. At Cannes, we were embraced. I fell asleep during the screening, and woke up to a 10-minute standing ovation.