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All the paints in the paint box: John Cameron Mitchell on “Shortbus”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: ThinkFilm, 2006]

Into a desert of retrograde Puritanism and institutional denial, director John Cameron Mitchell (who made his directorial debut with 2001’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) posits “Shortbus,” a New York-based oasis/salon where a Bush-fatigued populace can converge for art, music, conversation, and, oh yeah, unbridled sex. Into this fictional Eden, he casts, amongst others, a pre-orgasmic sex therapist (Sook-Yin Lee), a gay couple seeking a relationship-cementing third (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy), a dominatrix with intimacy issues (Lindsay Beamish), and a stalker with an uncommonly poignant raison d’etre (Peter Stickles). The film that follows has gained notoriety for the unsimulated nature of its sex scenes — dig past the sensation, though, and one finds no shortage of wit, plus a reassuring empathy towards characters striving, with varying degrees of success, to find the things that will make them whole.

This could’ve been easy: a potted plant positioned just so; a cutaway to an above-the-shoulders C.U. Why go so explicit, particularly when it might open you up to more criticism?

The kind of criticism it might court, I’m excited about. It raises a dialogue about censorship, about erotophobia, about our society, about the powers that be. That, I think, is a healthy dialogue. Originally, it was an aesthetic choice — it was more, why not use all the paints in the paint box? You don’t ask, “Could you have done ‘Hedwig’ without the songs?” Well, yeah, but it’s an aesthetic realm in which to play. And since sex is so revealing and so about our personalities, I really think it connects to a lot of parts of our lives. It can tell you a lot more about people than just looking at them having tea.

For a film so centered on eroticism, “Shortbus” pretty much states that sexual freedom isn’t the complete answer.

No, I don’t say at all that free sex is going to save us. But there are other films that examine people through other appetites or activities. You could say that something like “Requiem for a Dream,” in the way that [the characters] interact through the drug world, that language, through the sharing of the needles and all that, there’s a poetry in that, whether you like it or not. It’s just another language through which we can reveal character. And this is another one. We’re catching characters in moments of crisis, and, in fact, the sex is quite unsuccessful and ridiculous. I found that when we were rehearsing and the sex was going great, it was quite boring… unless you were doing it.

You’ve included the credit, “Story developed with the cast.” Was it always in your plan that the actors would be involved in the creation of the story?

It started with the form: How can I use sex in a new way? Okay, the actors will be nervous; why not do what I’ve always dreamed of as an actor, which is to create a script through improv? Everyone wants to work with Mike Leigh, everyone loves Robert Altman — actors flock to them because they give them leeway and they give them, in some ways, authorship of their own characters. I realized that this was really necessary because of the sex, so the actors could feel comfortable creating their scenes, creating their characters, so that there was a mutual agreement on everything, with me as a guide, a bit of a benevolent dictator.

Did working with mostly newcomers make this process easier?

In the auditions I saw very clearly people who hadn’t done many films or acted at all. Some of them were naturals at improv, remembering what they had to do every take, but as soon as they had a set script, they sucked. I worked that way with “Hedwig,” so it just seemed like another aesthetic exercise: Let’s try something unusual for this unusual film.

What did the actors bring to the story.

They brought their stories, their characters’ backstories, their characters’ names. I asked them to come up with a broad, overarching emotional goal for their characters. They all had goals, and taking those goals and their backstories, I wove them together into a script.

We did this for two and a half years, so there were all kinds of stuff that was emotionally important to them as characters. They would exaggerate elements of their own lives — for example, [Sook-Yin Lee,] when she was young, she didn’t know what to do with her body and didn’t know how to be free and sensual in any way. I just exaggerated that by making her non-orgasmic, made it more interesting. Paul had been depressed in the past. It wasn’t suicidal, but [I turned] it up. I turned it to ten, for all of them.

Let’s talk about Tobias, the Mayor [Alan Mandell]. This clearly is the character who’s closest to a real-life analogue…

I don’t want to say that it’s… you know…

Let’s just say that there are suggestions of a certain, allegedly closeted New York mayor…

Well, we say imagine this very dramatic situation… Might a person who’s closeted and actually affected other people’s lives, what if he acknowledged that in some way and sought some sort of forgiveness? We don’t really point to any person, we let it… you know… we let it percolate. But it was always a character in my mind.

Why was it important to include him?

Well, for many people, that’s the most affecting scene. He starts out as sort of a Greek chorus, telling us what New York is: A place where people come to be fucked and forgiven. He’s not just a chorus, he’s a protagonist, just like all of them, seeking some redemption from a real or imagined sin. A lot of [people] come here [to New York] thinking there’s something wrong with them, and then realize there really isn’t. There’s that chicken-and-egg thing: If you think you’re bad, you do bad things. This is a refuge for the outcast, the persecuted, and those who were branded sinners. [The mayor’s] the… I guess he’s the father of… He’s like a messenger to me. He’s seen it.

I tend to look at the politics of sex as a momentum type of thing: Once you’ve moved forward, you don’t go back. But is that still true these days? Do you feel there’s a regression going on in this country?

There’s more like a lateral movement. You’ve got a lot of people who are really scared about the propulsive movement of the sixties and seventies, that they felt pushed into something they weren’t ready for. The backlash to that is kind of a shutdown, a clampdown for many people. Oddly, I think fear of terrorism is linked to fear of sex. In fact, someone like Falwell explicitly called the terrorists and the sexual minority equally responsible for 9/11 — it’s kind of amazing to hear that kind of clarity about a fear.

Anything that’s a fear of the unknown gets equated, in a weird way. There’s been a sort of crush-down from top-down — from conservatives, government — this crush-down on sex. But it doesn’t go away — you don’t vaporize sexual interest, you just push it into different realms. It goes into porn, rather than something more multivalent or colorful… like life, like relationships, like an openness in a healthier way. It goes into porn — which is sort of flattened sex — but I think it moves around, rather than reduces. And I hope a film like [“Shortbus”] can bring it back into connection with other parts of our lives, for those few people who will see it.

“Shortbus” opened in New York on October 4, Los Angeles and San Francisco on October 6, and expands to other U.S. markets starting on October 13 (official site).

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