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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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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

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A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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