Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Script Factory/NFTS Masterclass with John Cameron Mitchell

50th London Film Festival
26th October 2006

The director of Shortbus was accompanied by two of his leads, the two Jamies, Pawl Dawson and PJDeBoy, who explained a thing or two about their participation in the film.

Host Briony Hanson had wisely included clips from all the range of work of John Cameron Mitchell. She did not include, to our despair, any of the ads that paid the bills, but did include clips from his two films and the notorious music video for Scissors Sisters’ song Filthy/Gorgeous. In retrospect, if felt a lot like Shortbus—had the same atmosphere and some of the people worked in both—Mitchell said.


“Sex sometimes is an entrée to an interesting friendship” he commented, when asked on the opening scene of Shortbus, which is, after all, the only one that bombards the audience with explicit sex. Sex is also seen as music, he said, so the first sequence is an overture. The rest of the sex comes mainly to keep the narrative going and not to shock or titillate. This is why the film is not pornographic: pornography has arousal as its goal, Shortbus not. After all, Shortbus mainly portrays bad, unsuccessful and funny sex in order to be more dramatic, because good sex is porn. Still, he accepted that the opening is hardcore on purpose, “to break the hymen of the audience”.

How was it, after all, filming the real sex scenes? Everybody was nervous from the director to the actors. “I’d like to make a porn film one day”, Mitchell confided, though.

Trying to pitch his film in a sentence he said that it is “Showgirls without the rape”. He was trying to present a salon where art, sex and food mix in the most pleasant way. No question, he needed a contemporary Gertrude Stein for such a venture, and found her in the face of Justin Bond, famous for his queer performances and Kiki character. He did not direct him in the usual sense, just gave him an aim to fulfill and left him the freedom to do it his own way.


He first chose the cast and then created the narrative through improvisation. He tried, he said, to have in mind John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Woody Allen, when making the film. (Irony is prominent, so I guess he succeeded) How did he cast the film? There was an open call for everyone, not just actors, especially partners, to send material. He got tapes, poems, anything that explained why they wanted to be part of the project. In the end, he chose people he liked. You have to cast people “you want to spend time with” he believes. This is an ensemble film that demanded team work; some of the actors dropped out before the shooting, because they were not team players.


The two Jamies went on to describe the process from their point of view: the actors took part in a 5-week workshop where they were playing trust games, giving massage to each other, telling stories from their lives. They did improvisations that had a setting, characters and targets that Mitchell was constantly changing to keep the improv going. Slowly ideas for the plot started coming up—but there was a NOT in this whole process: the actors should not learn their lines by heart. Comparing with jazz, where one note can be played in so many different ways, the actors could endlessly play the same scenes again and again.

Mitchell, though, as a true professional did pay the actors upfront for every rehearsal and they also have percentage participation.

He recognized a penchant to associate sex with despair and mutilation, giving as example Catherine Breillat and her grim portrayals of heroines. Shortbus, unlike this, is an optimistic film he said proudly, and this is how it differs from everything else.


Mitchell agrees that in editing there is need for a fresh pair of eyes, the director has no objectivity over his material. The editor, as well, loses objectivity after 10 weeks tackling with a film. At this point, there is a need for test screenings; the audience is a good judge and can tell if something has to be changed.

For Shortbus, they shoot more footage than usual. The rough edit was made based on the script, an assembly in fact, something that later changed a lot. No film ever works as written, according to Mitchell, unless you are Kubrick and edit the film years in your head before actually writing it!

By the end of the 10 weeks of editing, they showed the film to some people, but not yet to the investors and distributors. In fact, Shortbus premiered in Cannes without a distributor.

“Filmmaking is a good cure for control freaks, as there is no way to do it all by yourself” Mitchell said.


The genesis of Hedwig was an entire different thing. First, the play developed in rock clubs, where Mitchell was doing gigs. He is not very interested in acting, as writing is the most natural, but he started acting first, as a kid: the instant gratification from the audience is an important factor.

Todd Haynes was quoted as an inspiration; he was also cast in two of his films, Velvet Goldmine and Safe but didn’t do them, because theatre was paying more…


John Cameron Mitchell did music videos for people he knew and occasionally commercials. It felt dirty, though, he said, to use his creative powers to sell something…

As for the music video Filthy/Gorgeous(2004) that was banned on MTV, we learnt that they actually filmed two versions, cause they knew that they would be censored. “Every damn drag queen had to have a couple of frames”, Mitchell said, something that made it hard to edit it.


“Being unrated is much more freeing”, Mitchell reckons. Of course, rating is important for Studios, which have specialty units to tell them what they should and what they should not show, but small studios don’t have to get rated.(there is some freedom of speech in the States, then?) There is less restriction in unrated, than in NC-17, he said.

“Let’s talk about sex” could be the title of the last part of the Masterclass. Mithcell started analyzing…that sex is based on power, that the irrational power that it has over us is why there is legislation of sex, that repression goes hand in hand with violence and so on. Fair enough to talk about his art and craft (I can take his advice), but it seems he becomes an expert on sex lately, too.

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