Chatting with John Cameron Mitchell
Out producer, director and actor John Cameron Mitchell is somewhat of an anti-Valentine’s day hero.
Best known for such grim productions as the 1998 Off Broadway smash musical (and 2001 feature film) “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” about an East German trans-rocker romantically and creatively spurned by her ex, 2006's sexually explicit, issue-filled relationship drama “Shortbus,” and the bittersweet 2004 docu-drama “Tarnation,” he is perhaps the last person you’d expect to put on a Valentine’s show.
Well, that’s only if you regard Feb. 14 as a warm, cuddly, feel-good holiday. But if you’ve ever had your heart broken (ripped to shreds more like it) or if you’re single, then -- let’s face it -- the day hurts and stinks. In that case, Mitchell’s presentation of “Origin of Love” a mixture of song, prose, poetry and film (named for the trademark “Hedwig” tune), this Valentine’s weekend, may be the perfect band aid.
Last month Gay.com’s Josh Rocker chatted with the acclaimed 45-year-old auteur about, among other things, what Valentine’s Day means to him, his lost love, and what to expect at “Origin of Love.”
Hi John, considering your body of work, you could be perceived as somewhat jaded about love. So, I’m curious, what is your take on V-Day?
Well, to me, Valentine's Day is shrouded by shadows sometimes. There's so much pressure on it, like 'Oh, you should be with someone.' If you are with someone, it's predominantly warm and fuzzy feelings, but there's still a commercial pressure to be romantic and cuddly. So it's a many splendor thing with many colors, including a sense of sadness. 'Hedwig' and 'Shortbus' are cuddly in one way but also aware of the shadows, so the show, the songs, the stuff I'm gonna read is not the cuddliest. But the audience will go out with a good feeling, as I hope they feel at the end of the films.
What are some of your fondest V-Day memories?
We actually opened 'Hedwig' in 1998 Off Broadway on Valentine's Day. That was our premiere. There were a number of drag queens in the audience, who made me nervous. Justin Bond was there and Jackie Beat and Lady Bunny, and there I was, a fake drag queen, because I never do drag outside of the character. I was with [musician Jack Steeb] at the time. It was very intense, because we were together for six years, and there were a lot of colors to it. But that night totally changed my life.
Did you and your partner do something special after the show?
No, because it was so much about everybody else. A few years later, I went to Sundance with the film and thanked my boyfriend at the podium, cause he'd been through a lot. He was the bass player in the original [“Hedwig”] band. He passed away a few years later. He's still very much in my heart on Valentine's Day.
Have you dated since his passing?
I've dated, but nothing serious.
After “Hedwig,” you directed the film “Shortbus,” which explored relationships in a naturalistic way, even incorporating explicit sex. Why did you choose to undertake such a risque project?
I knew people were afraid of sex, and I certainly grew up that way. I was aware of the complex feelings that would come up when sex is explicit. The difference, however, is that it's explicit in a non-porn way. It's not shot to get you off. It's not focusing on the acts or the body parts, and faces are always in the shots. I knew people would have all kinds of reactions, which is why we kept the film audience- friendly. It's a Hollywood film, more cuddly than if we had made the sex more explicit, which was the sugar that helped the medicine go down. I knew straight audience members would be uncomfortable, so [gay] sex comes in later. But once you've seen so much, it becomes the same as straight sex, so they might be enjoying it, or it might be excruciating. A lot of people I know haven't seen it, because they have this knee-jerk fear. But that's the risk you take when you do something unusual.
Your work could be described as John Waters-esque. Was he a major influence of yours?
I think we share a similar view of the world. Like me, he's clearly an outsider and queer, and has a punk point of view. In fact he helped invent it, and he's a minority of a minority, because there's a real kindness and sympathy in his films. I'm not interested in a lot of outsider films that don't have a lot of love and I don't feel Larry Clark, Harmony Korine and Vincent Gallo do. It seems that they have a harsher view of the world. As for John, we get along well and appreciate each other's sense of humor. He feels like my godfather.
You said earlier that you’ve only gotten into drag for the “Hedwig” role, yet you definitely play with gender identity in much of your work. Talk to us about that.
There's a queer point of view that involves gender, a mix of masculinity and femininity as defined by cultures and oneself. There are straight guys who have it, there are transpeople who are straight, butch women, all types of people who break through the prison of gender and its corollary sexuality, which are two different things but always connected. It's interesting in a way how an African American writer sees life in a way that involves race. But a lot of young people are divorced from any awareness of queer history, Oscar Wilde and any number of important figures, politicians, and also artists, which is why 'Milk' is important for a lot of people.
In 2005, you directed the Scissor Sisters' "Filthy/Gorgeous" video, which was brimming with drag queens. The video screams sexy and fun, but I’ve always wondered what it was like behind the scenes.
It was really hard to shoot, because everyone worked so hard to get themselves together, and if they didn't get a close-up, I'm killed. I'd hear, 'Why was Juanita not in there?' But we only had three minutes, so I had to cut to shorter shots to get everyone in there. Even Charlotte Rae got a close-up.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
It's a rough time for independent film. However, it's easier when your project is super cheap, so I don't know if what I'm writing now is going to be financed for a while, unless I rethink it and make it really cheap. When it's cheap, you have more control, flexibility and creativity, because people are not thinking of the money and you don't have stars with massage therapists on the set. Stars are too much trouble and thankfully, sex on film is a prophylactic of not having to use stars.
I'm currently writing something that examines Catholicism deeply and in a strange way. It's more autobiographical than most things I've written, but I'm not sure what form it'll take -- maybe a graphic novel or a one-man reading. But I'm not too worried about the economic situation in terms of art, because there's that silver lining that people who are not working have time to make some beautiful things out of their ideas. It gives them the opportunity to rethink stuff. The people on the verge of getting hurt the most are the people who are just getting by now, but even those people might make the decision to live somewhere else or try something else. Without crisis, there's no change, so something good has to come out of this.
‘Til then Bay Area audiences will be served chocolate-dipped morsels of your “most romantic” existing work at the upcoming “Origin of Love” show. Can you give us a preview of what we can expect to see and hear?
Each performance has a screening involved, one of the two films with live director commentary, where I talk during the film and react to what's on the screen and the stories that come up. The host will sing a few songs, sprinkling in some 'Hedwig' and Valentine’s specials, as well as poetry. I'll also play my other music video for Bright Eyes' 'First Day of My Life.' I'll make it a bit of a grab bag. It'll be a cozy night with me. And who knows, maybe I'll get laid afterwards?
Check out Mitchell performing “Origin of Love” at http://www.tinyurl.com.au/x.php?1ly5
Marc Huestis and John Cameron Mitchell present “Origin of Love” at Victoria Theatre, 16th & Mission, SF. For complete schedule information or to purchase tickets, call 415/ 863-0611, log on to ticketweb.com, or head down to A Different Light Books, 429 Castro St., SF.
Images courtesy Marc Huestis