If John Cameron Mitchell flies under Hollywood’s radar, it’s not by design. It’s because Hollywood needs a stronger tracking device. A teen actor of the ’80s — he starred in Paul Michael Glaser’s teen-rebellion flick “Band of the Hand” and appeared on TV’s “MacGyver” and “Head of the Class” — Mitchell is best known for his off-Broadway musical-turned-underground-celluloid-hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001).
A glittery, disturbing, darkly humorous story about identity, sexuality, abandonment and rock-and-roll, “Hedwig” should have put Mitchell on the A-list. But Tinseltown doesn’t like controversy, and controversy attends Mitchell’s work like a handmaiden. He followed up his debut film with the even more heterodox “Shortbus” in 2006, virtually guaranteeing his position as a renegade artiste. Using explicit sex as a doorway into the lives of the film’s main characters, “Short Bus” is a frustrating and liberating look at relationships straight and gay, conflicted and obsessive, well-defined and nebulous. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re in the majority. It’s damn near impossible to get a domestic copy on DVD, and it showed only briefly in Northeast Florida upon its opening. (Variety dubbed it, “Unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the porn industry.”)
Enter Tim Massett, Jacksonville’s once and future champion of indie film, who formerly ran the underground theater The Pit and recently returned to the area to open Sun-Ray Cinema (in the old Five Points Theater). His aim is to bring to town the oddities of the film world (as he did last week with a rare performance by eccentric film star Crispin Hellion Glover), and the upcoming weekend with Mitchell (March 2 and 3) fits the bill. Mitchell will screen and discuss “Hedwig” and “Shortbus.” He’ll also host screenings of two of his favorite films, Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” (1979) and Terrence Malick’s 1973 “Badlands.” Folio Weekly recently spoke with Mitchell about sex, movies and, um, sex.
Folio Weekly: What stoked your interest in theater and film?
John Cameron Mitchell: God, that’s huge. How about just film? Theater came naturally. I was acting in films, and a big film buff, but I really didn’t think about making it for a long time, until “Hedwig” became a hit on stage. Oddly, there was this opportunity — I was a director on stage, not for “Hedwig,” but for other things — and there was this strange opportunity, in the late ’90s when small films were doing well, for me to be able to direct the film [version of “Hedwig”]. One of the odd circumstances was that the head of New Line Cinema directed me in a teen comedy in the ’80s, so there was a very paternal “I’m gonna help you make this” [attitude]. My composer’s uncle worked there, so there was a strange family environment at New Line. They were doing “Lord of the Rings,” betting it all on “Lord of the Rings,” and letting me do [“Hedwig”] for a large amount of money with no stars, which wouldn’t happen today.
F.W.: As I understand it, you workshopped “Hedwig” in a live club setting before staging it.
J.C.M.: Yeah, we did it in rock clubs rather than theaters to keep the energy up, to keep it from getting too “Rent”-like, if you know what I mean. Keeping the rock-and-roll authentic. And learning my chops, ’cause I had never done drag, I’d never done rock. So I needed to learn those chops before we brought it into the theater. We did that for four years before we got it to off-Broadway [in ’98].
F.W.: You’ve said of “Shortbus” that you used explicit sex to take the mystery and power out of the sex itself, and to allow for deeper character development and exposure.
J.C.M.: I always say that sex is a kind of universal language, like music, that can be used in different ways. We tend to see it only used for porn, which has its own language and formula, almost like Hollywood. Or in European art films, which tend to emphasize the negative. Both can feel like clichés. As we know in our lives, sex is so much more complicated. Sex is so much funnier, so much odder than we are shown. So I figured, the way someone has sex tells you something about them that no other parts of their lives can reveal. It’s fascinating. How can sex not be fascinating, especially since it’s something so hidden? Things aren’t interesting unless they’re hidden.
F.W.: In the first two or three scenes, there’s very little dialogue, and it’s all explicit sex. But there is a range of emotional responses.
J.C.M.: Yes. It’s all bad sex, too, when you think about it.
F.W.: How much did the actors’ personal lives influence that aspect of the film?
J.C.M.: We cast interesting people before we had a story. Their auditions and our workshops are what generated the content. It’s like taking elements of yourself and exaggerating them, pushing them in certain directions. Paul [Dawson] and PJ [Deboy], who were the gay couple — who will be at the [“Shortbus” screening] — are a couple [in real life], were a couple before the film, and elements of their lives came into the story. What happens when sex changes in a long-term relationship? How do you keep it alive? Is the three-way interesting? So [we were] taking things, focusing, exaggerating, manipulating. Luckily, these actors felt very safe with me, could veto things that felt odd or were too close to the bone. That was part of the process. That was why we were doing it. It’s not just the sex that’s intimate. It’s the details of these peoples’ lives that are more intimate. The emotional details were harder for the actors than the sex.
F.W.: The ideas about sex expressed in “Short Bus” are sometimes dark, in some cases to the point of possession of one’s sexual partner — obsession and ownership.
J.C.M.: That’s part of the tapestry. Sex and love are two different things, and when they come together, it’s fantastic. But to say that they must be present at the same time, at all times, is unrealistic. All of the characters [in “Shortbus”] are desperate for connection — connection with themselves and through others.
John E. C