Director John Cameron Mitchell first made a splash in the filmmaking scene after creating the cinematic version of a gender-bending character he developed in the New York nightclub world. It eventually became a popular stage act, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the film version, which came together via Mitchell’s participation in the Sundance Labs, later won the audience and directors prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival followed by similar accolades along the festival circuit. His latest film, “Shortbus” continues the talented director’s penchant for breaking barriers. The feature is a raw look at the lives of a group of New Yorkers as they traverse the comical and serious side between sex and love in a present-day underground salon. The film created a torrent of buzz at the Festival de Cannes in May where it had its world debut, and had its North American premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. ThinkFilm begins to roll out the film theatrically in North America in limited release beginning Wednesday, October 4.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
I was always a bit of a film buff. It was interesting coming to filmmaking later in life (I’d been an actor/playwright for a long time) because by then I know what I liked aesthetically but didn’t have any technique. The stage version of “Hedwig & the Angry Inch” afforded me the opportunity to make a film adaptation. The Sundance Labs were invaluable in helping me learn how to direct.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Shortbus” came about.
In the late ’90s, I saw some recent European films that used unsimulated sex. They were all pretty grim though often very effective (like Catherine Breillat‘s “Fat Girl“). I thought that sex could be used in different ways. So it started out as an aesthetic exercise.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I realized that for such a project the actors would feel unusually vulnerable, physically and emotionally. To create a safe working environment, I decided they should help create their own characters through improv. We took a page from Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes and cast the actors first (we avoided agents and stars and organized an open web call) then headed into a series of improv workshops. I wrote a traditional script from the material they generated. Together, we worked off and on for 2 1/2 years before shooting.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for “Shortbus”?
The development process was long and leisurely. It was really rather perfect. Certainly, the actors were often nervous, but we had a lot of time to work through tensions. Some actors dropped out (ironically, it was the only characters that didn’t have sex) which made me sad. But they were young and not used to collaboration. It was also difficult when I had to let some actors go because the script was getting too long.
How did the financing for the film come together?
Financing was difficult because, generally speaking, people give you money by comparing your project to other projects that made money. “Shortbus” wasn’t comparable. But everyone who passed on financing sure wanted to see it! Some distributors simply couldn’t release it because of its explicitness — they were afraid of what their parents might think (parent companies, that is). The bigger you are, the slower you move — and the bigger target you are for boycotts. We financed “Shortbus” through a combination of private equity, the wonderful foreign sales company Fortissimo (who presold it in Japan and elsewhere) and Q Television, a now-defunct gay cable channel. Before our premiere at Cannes, we were preparing for self-distribution (as difficult as auto-fellatio) but instead we had 12 offers of distribution money in the US alone. Now we’re delighted to be working with the envelope-pushing Thinkfilm.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
I enjoyed executive-producing “Tarnation” for director Jonathan Coauette and producer Stephen Winter. I’m sure I’ll do that kind of thing again.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I’m most influenced by John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Emir Kusturica. I’m very inspired by the very pure and attitude-free way that Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant and Lynne Ramsey work.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I like to try new cinematic languages. I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m working on that are more stylized: an original children’s story called “Nigh” and a film called “Oskur Fishman.”
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Oy, I can’t answer that. It’s so subjective. I guess you know it when you see it. Like obscenity.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
“A Woman Under the Influence,” “Nights of Cabiria,” “The Conversation,” “Network,” “A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf),” “Fanny and Alexander,” “Nashville,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Don’t Look Back,” “After Life…”
What are some of your recent favorite films?
Not very excited by this year’s crop, though I’ve been too busy to see a lot. I liked “Brothers of the Head” a lot. Last year I thought there were scenes in “You and Me and Everyone We Know” that were fucking powerful. I’ve been really moved by many documentaries in the last few years: “To Be and To Have,” “Keep the River On Your Right,” “Boys of Baraka,” “My Architect,” “Rivers and Tides…”
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I’d tell them to check out “Tarnation.” You really can do it for cheap. But they already knew that. Also, remember: the experience of making the film is more important than the result, because that’s the part that’s your life. Only work with people you like.
[For more information, check out the film’s website.]