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Decade: John Cameron Mitchell on “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

Decade: John Cameron Mitchell on "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every day for the next month, indieWIRE will be republishing profiles and interviews from the past ten years (in their original, retro format) with some of the people that have defined independent cinema in the first decade of this century. Today, we’ll step back to 2001 with an interview indieWIRE’s Jonny Leahan had with John Cameron Mitchell upon the release of his intensely acclaimed adaptation of his own musical, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

INTERVIEW: An Angry Inch Takes You A Mile; John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig" Rocks to the Big Screen

(indieWIRE/ 07.19.01) — With the success of recent films like “Moulin Rouge” and “Dancer in the Dark,” is it possible that movie musicals are finally cool again? If not, they will be when “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” hits theaters this Friday via Fine Line. The rock musical is a result of several years of collaboration between John Cameron Mitchell, the film’s writer-director-star, and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask. The movie follows the fantastic misadventures of Hedwig, a German transsexual glam rocker who is the victim of a bungled sex change operation (hence the “angry inch”).

“Hedwig is not autobiographical, but what she goes through is clearly a big metaphor.”

In Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell has created a character that is more than just a tragic figure, she appeals to universal themes of hope and the struggle for self-acceptance. “Hedwig is not autobiographical,” says Mitchell, “but what she goes through is clearly a big metaphor. She doesn’t want to be what she is, but she comes to an understanding that what happened to her has actually made her whole.” The complexity and humor of Hedwig’s character was developed over a six-year period.

Started as a drag show in 1994 at the notorious New York City club Squeezebox, “Hedwig” slowly evolved into a full-fledged theatrical production. Taking it from clubs to stage was always Cameron’s intention, he says. “We knew we wanted to eventually, because we just wanted people to listen. I wanted to hone it and I’m not a real rock and roll guy in that I don’t want to be on tour — I don’t want to be sleeping on people’s floors. I want people to listen to the words.”

Ultimately, the show became an off-Broadway hit with a huge cult following. It went on to play in several cities worldwide to critical acclaim, though it was never Mitchell’s intention. “I’m not interested in replicating ‘Hedwig’ like a virus,” he jokes. But for both Mitchell and Trask, making “Hedwig” into a film was simply the next logical step. That’s not to say they didn’t run into some roadblocks.

Casting, for instance, presented some unique challenges. “Tommy took the most time to find,” says Mitchell, referring to the part of Hedwig’s young lover, played by Michael Pitt, who steals the music and limelight for himself. “So many different people and actors really wanted to be in the movie, and sometimes agents were like, ‘Well, he doesn’t read; he’ll meet, but he won’t read.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t cast if they don’t read.’ So it was a sort of a shock that I wasn’t doing such a big movie and that I was demanding that actors read,” says Mitchell. “A lot of lazy actors wouldn’t learn their lines because they get cast anyway. And we didn’t have to cast any stars, because New Line didn’t demand that, to their credit. Except they demanded that I be in it,” Mitchell laughs.

Once casting was completed, costume designer Arianne Phillips was charged with creating a look that would capture Mitchell’s complex vision. The character of Hedwig alone has 41 different costumes in the movie version, while the stage production calls for only two. Having worked her magic on films as diverse as “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “The Crow,” in addition to being the stylist for some of the world’s leading rock musicians, Phillips was well-suited to the task.

“My biggest challenge was creating costumes that underscored the emotional tone of the film,” says Phillips, “and help illustrate these beautiful characters John Cameron has created.” Phillips states that her goal was simply to “maintain a balance and authenticity in the costumes and to entertain and inform the story.”

“When you perform live, it’s all about entertaining in the moment. Creating a film score is much more of a purely compositional task. You are inserting yourself into a scene that is otherwise entirely finished and you have to do it in a way that is unobtrusive, interactive, supportive and creative all at once.”

Then there was the task of taking the music and reworking it to fit the cinematic medium. “When you perform live, it’s all about entertaining in the moment,” says Trask. “The compositional work has been done and you’re trying to express it in a way that appears spontaneous. Creating a film score is much more of a purely compositional task. The challenge is that you are inserting yourself into a scene that is otherwise entirely finished and you have to do it in a way that is unobtrusive, interactive, supportive and creative all at once.”

So far, their work has paid off. “Hedwig” has been getting rave reviews from critics (“a triumphant transition to the screen,” trumpeted The Hollywood Reporter) as well as from film festival attendees. At Sundance 2001, “Hedwig” received a standing ovation, winning the Dramatic Audience Award, while Mitchell took home the Dramatic Directing Award. And the following month at Berlin 2001, “Hedwig” won the Teddy Award for best gay/lesbian feature, where Mitchell quipped, “It is very important to be accepted in Berlin; this is so much more fun than Sundance.” Since then, the film has opened festivals such as The New Festival and Atlanta Film & Video, and played everywhere from San Francisco to Lake Placid to Provincetown.

Now, the question is, will Hedwig have the same success in movie theaters? “It would be great if we could have some housewives somehow end up in our theater because of some TV flier or coupon and be kind of shocked, but then start coming back,” Mitchell says. “I wouldn’t be surprised that what you would call ‘normal people’ would be psyched by it. What I think is new is that it will go to those places rather than coming to us. And I think it would be genius if it would be at the local multiplex in a 20-thousand person town. But it’s going to take a lot of creative marketing.”

“It’s really about word of mouth,” says Mitchell, “which for young people moves pretty fast, but for the small towns, those theater owners don’t wait around for it to catch on. So it’s an experiment,” he wonders. “Who knows?”

For more information on “Hedwig,” check out the website:



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