The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival wrap ups this weekend, with an awards presentation and final screenings. 27,747 minutes of movies will have screened by fest’s end, in front of some 305,000 admissions. Among the highlights of the week was an on-stage conversation between filmmakers John Waters and John Cameron Mitchell and a full report is included in the latest dispatch from Toronto. Also included is the latest on the “Dixie Chicks” doc, which was acquired shortly before the fest by The Weinstein Company.
Talking With the Johns
The similarities between filmmakers John Waters and John Cameron Mitchell sparked this week’s on-stage conversation between the two maverick directors, moderated by Canadian Sook-Yin Lee (co-star of Mitchell’s “Shortbus”). Talk of what the two men had in common beyond their boundary-pushing cinematic tendencies eased in the chat.
In 2001, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” presented him as one of his generation’s most promising new directors. This year, his follow up, the controversial “Shortbus,” was part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s inaugural Vanguard program, highlighting the “innovative and bold,” and the film’s explicit depiction of sexual relationships between a group of New Yorkers was well recieved by audiences and critics alike here. Thirty years before Mitchell broke out, John Waters essentially produced a new genre with a string of outrageous and explicit films like “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester,” and “Female Trouble.” He is also at the festival with his one-man performance “This Filthy World,” documented by director Jeff Garlin as part of TIFF’s Real to Reel doc section. With both men in town, it seemed only natural for the Toronto International Film Festival‘s Mavericks series to bring together two of contemporary cinema’s most daring filmmakers. It proved an event that rivaled the films themselves, at least in entertainment value.
As for the similarities, both Johns were raised Catholic. They joked that their many years in Catholic schools were the reason they make the films they make, and both considered themselves child entertainers. Waters used to send out flyers for his puppet-shows influenced by Variety magazine (which he admitted subscribing to at age six). Mitchell so badly wanted to perform he begged his mother to come to his school and direct a play.
“I was desperate. I needed to be seen. But I wanted the middle aged diplomat role and [my mother] gave me the young faggot [part].” Parents also marked another commonality. “My parents are horrified by my work,” said Waters, who then informed Mitchell that “Shortbus” was definitely rated “N.P.” (No Parents). Mitchell admitted that his parents, though supportive, did not want to see the film. Waters commented specifically on the three-way gay sex scene in which one man sings the “Star-Spangled Banner” into another man’s anus: “That’s gonna be a tough one for mom.”
Also mutual were their feelings toward the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Mitchell knew that in regard to “Shortbus,” which will be released in the U.S. in October without a rating, “certain things just weren’t going to happen.” But he and Waters agreed that being unrated has fewer restrictions than an NC-17, which effectively eliminates any possibility for theatrical runs at most of America’s leading theater chains. Though being unrated does restrict certain exhibition venues, Waters felt that “it’s not going to play in malls either way, but there’s always going to be some theater that will play it.” The topic then turned to Waters’ last directorial effort, “A Dirty Shame,” which did recieve a surprising NC-17, though contractual obligations between Waters and his distribution company called for an R. “I was certain “A Dirty Shame” would get an ‘R’. But when it didn’t, I asked the MPAA what I could cut out and they told me that they stopped taking notes. At a different time it would have been an ‘R’.” But he at least admits there is a bright side: “We would have gone to prison for making these films 30 years ago.”
But according to Waters, the difference between the two Johns is the content of their work. “Your films are sexy,” he said to Mitchell. “Mine aren’t. You can’t masturbate to my movies.” Mitchell, who has been a vocal advocate that “Shortbus” is not pornographic, disagreed. “There are many levels of sex. My film stays away from something that was too hot.” But he still joked to Waters: “Did you get a stiffy, John?” Mitchell did admit that he’d like to make a pornographic film one day, with “couples and people who feel comfortable [with each other],” since contemporary porn has become “Hollywoodized.”
When it came time for the audience to participate in the moderation, one member asked Waters what he’d change about “Shortbus” and Mitchell what he’d change about “Pink Flamingos.” Both resisted any opportunity to make a comment about the other, with Waters simply noting that he’d give Mitchell “more money.” And though a few patrons walked out when the discussion turned to topics of ejaculation and orgasm (“That’s her limit,” Mitchell yelled at one woman as she exited), most of the audience questions were very positive. A man thanked Waters for his own sexual education, saying he’d show his own children both “Shame” and “Shortbus,” and that they should be mandatory in high schools. Waters was a little unsure of the statement. “I don’t know if I’d show an eight year-old ‘Pink Flamingos,’ he said.
Taking a different angle in the line of questioning, another person asked who their “types” were. Though Mitchell simply said it “varies,” Waters got a large laugh with his answer: “Gerontophiliacs. Or people who like old people. An ugly word for a lovely thought.” The discussion ended with the inevitable question of their upcoming projects, which led to surprisingly similar answers. Both are working on children’s films. “It’s the only genre I’ve never done,” said Waters, who said he completed the project but was unsure of when it would be released. Mitchell hadn’t even got the funding yet. “Nobody wants to do it, but I’m sure ‘Shortbus’ will help that,” he joked.
Waters’ admiration for someone who could easily be viewed as his successor was extremely evident. On “Shortbus” he gushed that “it’s completely original and people are going to say that.” He begged people to go see the film on opening night, even if they had already seen it. “It’s important for the future of films like this to have as large an opening weekend as possible,” Waters said. [Peter Knegt]
The Dixie Chicks Speak
Oscar-winning doc filmmaker Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA,” “American Dream“) teamed up with collaborator Cecilia Peck to co-direct a behind the scenes look at the best-selling female group of all time, “The Dixie Chicks.” The film, “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” was initially envisioned as a much more modest project, according to the band’s Natalie Maines who spoke at a press conference this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. “We originally thought of having a filmmaker [to capture footage] for ourselves or as a supplement to some concert DVD release,” said Maines. But Maines’ now famous off-handed comment during a March, 2003 concert in London not only caused a tidal change for the Dixie Chicks’ relationship with many of their fans, it also motivated Kopple to and Peck to expand the scale of the project.
“After the comment, we were really excited to do something more with the Dixie Chicks because they were willing to put everything on the line to stand up for what they believed in,” said Kopple in Toronto. Lubbock, TX-raised Maines’ remark, which caused an avalanche of criticism by right-wingers in the U.S. on the heels of the Iraq invasion was: “We’re embarrassed that the President is from Texas.” Perhaps not since John Lennon uttered the infamous remark that the Beatles were more famous then Jesus over three decades earlier had the reaction been so swift and vile. Right-wing groups responded with radio boycotts and CD burnings, and even a death threat against Maines.
“If we had been someone like Merle Haggard, it might have been spun like some kind of [cool] rebellion,” said fellow bandmate Emily Robison about the early days of the controversy. “But people just don’t like mouthy women in country music.”
While the fallout from Maines’ London comment is a focus of the film, “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” also takes viewers into personal arenas of the band, including balancing careers with motherhood, and there’s also segments on Maines and fellow Chick Martie Maguire’s in-vitro pregnancies in addition to their journey in the studio creating their latest album “Taking the Long Way,” which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts this summer.
But it was the controversy and its repercussions that received the biggest attention at Wednesday’s press conference. “We were their wet dream,” said Maines about the right wing as well as political website The Free Republic in particular for organizing a substantial portion of the backlash. “We’ve been playing to about half the audiences we used to, but they’re great and it feels like they have a purpose for being there… for free speech,” added Maguire about their latest tour. “I have sat among the audience and it’s been electric,” said Kopple. “People have been singing, and holding up signs saying, ‘Thank You!'”
Now a few years on, the band is still surprised that a one-off remark could cause such an uproar, and repeatedly referenced that surprise during the conversation in Toronto. “I would’ve never thought that me saying that would’ve brought on the reaction it did – with people banning us from the radio and me getting death threats.” Yet, when asked by a member of the press about their feelings about Bush, they are steadfast. “A major disappointment… A major disgrace [when seeing] footage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. [Bush] has been a disaster, and seeing Spike Lee’s documentary (“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”) was awful.”
At the world premiere of their film the night before in Toronto, co-director Cecilia Peck paid tribute to Canada on stage ahead of the screening, which the three band members recalled during the hour-long conversation with press the following day. Said Peck, “It’s great to have the world premiere in a country where something like that which happened to the Dixie Chicks could never happen.” “I think Americans should think about that,” added one of the Chicks. [Brian Brooks]
[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’06 section.]