Interview: Director John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell is the driving creative force behind one of this year’s most exciting releases, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). He directed, wrote, and played the title character in the film, which is an epic rock musical about the trials and adventures of a transsexual performer. His work is remarkable in that it succeeds on every level; dramatically, comedically, musically, and cinematically. The film was a favorite in the 2001 Sundance competition, and deservedly won both its Audience Award and the prize for Best New Director. The film also features memorable, infectious songs written by Stephen Trask.
Mitchell, as Hedwig, embodies the cynical aloofness of Marlene Dietrich, the forbidden sexual allure of Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and the timeless pathos of King Oedipus (including embroilment in convoluted sexual politics). Hedwig’s search for love and acceptance reflects what all of us want, and her quest gives the story a universal, ageless appeal that holds up on repeated viewing.
Mitchell himself is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man with deep ideas and the talent to express them in seemingly any form, whether via a stage production, film or music. It was my pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with this rising talent, who will surely be a creative force to watch.
Allen White: What was the genesis of this project? What was the driving force behind the story?
I just wanted to do something really different. I wanted it to be the excitement that I had in a rock show.
John Cameron Mitchell: I think I was bored. I was also tired of being told what I had to do as an actor, or an artist; I couldn’t even cut my hair, because I had to be ready for the next part. Other pressures–it was not so much New York, but I just got mad at the way people were acting in the film and theatre situation I was living in, even to the point of, like, if you’re gay you have to be closeted to be in Hollywood, and all that shit. So I just wanted to do something really different. I wanted it to be the excitement that I had in a rock show, and there’s a lot of things that are really interesting to me, specifically this Origin of Love myth is something that I always wanted to use, so I think you can say that was the beginning of it.
A lot of things came together; a rock drag club appeared at the time I was thinking about it. Stephen Trask, I got together with him–a wonderful composer. I started thinking about my dad commanding the Berlin Brigade, some memories about German army wives, and all of these things kind of combined to get me to this first gig at Club Squeezebox. And the character was really quite born whole at that point, and if the piece was all over the place, the character was there. So it was a combination of things, and we developed it over many years, so whatever was interesting to me over those five years found its way into the piece.
AW: So it partially started as kind of a rock show, then? It was more musically driven?
JCM: No, it was always toward a theatre piece, but we wanted to keep it in rock clubs so the music remained potent and didn’t get watered down.
AW: Could you talk a little about the Origin of Love myth that you mentioned?
Should I think of myself as partial? What does it meant to be whole? Can someone complete me? Why does this myth resonate for everybody?
JCM: Well, it comes from Plato’s Symposium, which is a 2500-year-old dialog. Its setting is a party after someone wins the theatre awards–it’s kind of like a post-Tonys party, or something. And I saw it performed as such; you know, I think it was about a post-Oscars party in West Hollywood, performed in that way, verbatim, from the original text, and it seemed so modern. And everyone had to give a speech at the party about an ode to love of a man for a man. And one of the speeches is given by Aristophanes, and it’s this myth of the Origin of Love. How we were all globular at the beginning, had two sets of arms and two sets of legs; some were male, some were female, some were hermaphrodites–and we were very powerful, so the gods cut us in half. And we seek our other half, so those that were male seek the male, and those who were hermaphrodites seek the opposite sex; we’re seeking to reunite, and it’s a very beautiful, long monologue. And so Stephen, he adapted it to this wonderful song. And that’s really the center of the whole story, and Hedwig’s interpretation of that myth.
AW: The myth is very strong. I immediately noticed the almost fairy tale quality of the story. And for me, that lends itself almost to a kind of genderlessness for the story; it’s beyond gender ambiguity, and it’s beyond the whole gender-blender thing. It’s something almost new in a way, in that although it’s got a powerful sexuality, it just gets totally beyond gender, centralized, of course, by Hedwig.
JCM: Yeah, and to me sexuality and gender, which are often mutually exclusive, are just givens, but fluid givens, and in the story of Hedwig, I wanted to set up that these things were fluid, and ultimately kind of unimportant–to Hedwig, at least. They’re just part of the stew. One of the ways I ended up doing that was to have a woman play a man who wants to dress as a woman as one of the characters. I, of course, am playing a man who is sort of forced to get a sex change, and ends up sort of adopting his womanhood, and using it, having fun with it, but then abandoning it at the end. And sexuality is really kind of barely a problem for anybody; everyone’s just what they are. Coming out was never a problem for Hedwig–she had other problems. [Laughs] So it’s the way I feel about sexuality, and to other people it’s more of a thing they have to deal with, especially in less-enlightened places. But getting to the core of what we all think about, what it comes to is: Should I think of myself as partial? What does it meant to be whole? Can someone complete me? Why does this myth resonate for everybody? Which is why I think it’s by accident kind of political, because it assumes that those things that seem to separate us really are as simple as eye color, when you’re thinking about what really matters. But doing it with some humor and some animation and having fun with it along the way.
AW: Have you had the reaction from audience members that they think it’s going to be a gay movie, it’s going to be a bi movie, but they come out going, “Wow, that’s got universal appeal.”
JCM: “Gay movie,” “bi movie”–those are definitions that haven’t really been defined, though certainly a lot of annoying filmmakers are trying to define them as such. Gay culture can be as equally parochial and dimwitted and conformist as straight. So never having really felt a part of any culture, ’cause I moved a lot as a kid and never really was from anywhere, it was really important for me to adapt and fit in wherever I was, but also it was important for me to move on, because I felt a bit trapped. Hedwig’s transplantation and citizen-of-the-world status allows for her to play around with all kinds of cultures and all kinds of genres and styles. It seemed appropriate to make a film that combined all the elements of the kinds of films that I liked, as it was to make a theatre piece that combined all the kinds of things that could be on a stage that I liked. Rock, drag, and performance art, stand-up and straight theatre–why can’t they have elements of all of those if the story is strong enough and the central voice is strong enough? ‘Cause anything goes now. The form really is so diluted and scrambled now, it’s like, pick the best. Pick the best of the form.
AW: You’ve got a natural gift as a film director. And I was really impressed with how you made the transition from stage to film so effectively. What kind of changes did you make, and what did you learn from by shooting film?
I wanted to preserve a lot of language, and I feel that some films don’t revere the word, don’t take advantage of the word these days.
JCM: Well, we had a real strong structure of story. And the play structure actually was very useful for the film in that the play is in the form of a single night’s rock gig where Hedwig is telling what happened in the past and then returning to the present, and dealing with the situation in the present and hopping back to the past; a flashback structure that is very language heavy. And I wanted to preserve a lot of language, and I feel that some films don’t revere the word, don’t take advantage of the word these days. So we’d had a lot of time to hone the word, and Hedwig’s point of view through the words was important, but much less important in the film. So I’d keep the stuff that was really important, and then slowly, over a year, year-and-a-half, pare away the words that could be better and more comprehensively shown with images.
For example, we’d had a joke that kind of happened in the middle of a gig, as often the lines did happen in the show. I just wiped my face with something, and there was glitter on it, and I said, “It’s the shroud of Hedwig, ladies and gentlemen! It’ll be on sale in the lobby after the show.” It just seemed natural for me to transmit that visually. I wasn’t wedded to any words; I was bored with them, in fact. And then in the film you actually see Hedwig doing that, and then magically, on a towel, appears a full transfigured face of Hedwig. So there was a lot of that going on. In fact, all the scenes described in the play you see in the film–everything was there.
One thing we also did, instead of one rock gig, we had Hedwig on tour so she could still talk to people, still talk to audiences; the film audience, ultimately. That preserved a lot of the language. And I looked at something like All That Jazz (1979) for the license to play around with styles and just write through her eyes and her memories. A style can be as varied as a person can be, so like All That Jazz, scene to scene you can really change the way you shoot as long as it’s still coming from the same mind. I wanted to action very realistic. Like my favorite comedies in the ’70s, like Hal Ashby, and Michael Ritchie, and Altman, you know. I didn’t want it to get into a generic drag queen, overdone, fake, camp, situation. And we had projections from the play that seemed natural to extrapolate into animation. So many years of working on it really gave us a lot of material to work with.
AW: One of the elements of the film that’s really fun is that of the teenager having the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. I wonder how much of that played a part of your own life, and what form did your teen rebellion take?
Mine was really more of an inner rebellion, until I came out, which actually activated me in a more external way to question religion, politics, the mainstream.
JCM: Well, I wasn’t very rebellious as a kid. I was always trying to fit in, ‘cause I was really such a freak, deep down. I was very smart, and sort of an overachiever, and always sort of forming groups. And we didn’t really have a theater in high school, so I had to kind of organize it and get my mom to direct sometimes. I was a real comic book freak, science fiction freak, fantasy–whatever my freak was it would change every couple of years and I’d really focus in that in a very artistic way. It was theatre and plays, and then recently it became film, and I became a film geek. And I would analyze my favorite films back and forth, watch a film every night for a year.
And I love to do research, and find that it’s exciting to me to make something that’s really dense, in the way that Lord of the Rings was dense; because there’s an appendix and there’s a dictionary, and you could wallow in it in a really artistic way, which is very calming. You know, it’s a world that someone has taken the time and love to create in so much dimension, why not do the same for a film? And the DVD should be a lot of fun, because there will be a lot of stuff that was cut from the film, and some people might find it interesting.
So mine was really more of an inner rebellion, until I came out, which actually activated me in a more external way to question religion, politics, the mainstream. That’s when I kind of discovered punk rock and all the things that I love now.
AW: How old were you when that happened?
JCM: About twenty, twenty-one. It took doing a certain play, and feeling confidence about myself to do that as it does for anybody. And it was little harder then, because there was no Internet; it was hard to find people who were like-minded. And I think right now it’s really great for people who feel different–it’s a different time. It’ll be nice to know that it will actually reach people who want to find it. Whether it does well in theaters or not it will find its way.
AW: I know exactly what you mean about going through the different geek phases, ’cause I had lots of that going in my own childhood. And it makes me very tempted to ask: Did you ever have a Rocky Horror phase?
JCM: No–I went to see it, but I wasn’t listening fully. I was like, “Tim Curry’s brilliant, but…” And I was sixteen, and I was like, “There isn’t really a consistency of tone here, and that execution was not quite–.” So I was very snobbish about it, though stirred by Tim Curry, and I loved the music. So not really.
And glam rock: I lived in Scotland in the early seventies in boarding school, and I discovered it there, and was actually a little rebellion–we weren’t allowed to have any music in the school–so I remember smuggling in Fox on the Run by Sweet, and listening to them on headphones, and that was very intense. And that kind of was dredged up again when I started doing Hedwig.
AW: Speaking of glam rock, there’s a lot of the history of glam rock in the film. What were some of the very specific influences you were conscious of? I also see a lot of cabaret influence as well.
I’m working on a children’s thing now; all I know is that it has explicit sex in it.
JCM: Well, I was a big Bob Fosse fan. I liked musicals in high school, but it was not traditional, like I never saw Chorus Line or The Sound of Music, or West Side Story, or Fiddler on the Roof; I still haven’t seen them. To me it was all about Fosse, and certain rock musicals–Fame, that was like my out-of-school high school. That was very good. And so I really discovered Bowie much later. Stephen Trapp, the composer, disdained glam rock, being more of a John Lennon and Lou Reed guy, who I love also. But he’s like, “Glam is really just execution, it’s not really about musical innovation,” which is true.
But I liked all kinds of music as a kid, ’cause I moved around so much. I had a huge funk phase in the seventies, and then sappy pop Barry Manilow stuff in the late seventies, and then it was, later, R.E.M. and Violent Femmes and stuff. And then now jazz, I like a lot of jazz. So it’s, to me, since I moved so much as a kid, I really loved immersing myself in different cultures. I may do a jazz album some time–that may be my next musical thing in ten years. I’ll probably never do another glam rock thing again, because I got that out of my system. And I’m working on a children’s thing now; all I know is that it has explicit sex in it, so it will probably never be in theaters but will be available on the Internet. So, it’s like, whatever comes to mind tends to be pretty different.
AW: Is music going to continue to be a big part of what you do?
JCM: Yeah. The guy I’m working with now, who’s co-writing this children’s thing, is a music guy. He’s involved with the Elephant Six Collective bands. They’re sort of an underground collective: Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Apples in Stereo. But he’s involved with them, and they’re very Brian Wilson, and Beatles, and very found-music oriented–in Athens, Georgia–so I’m really excited about that, and it will be very sound-oriented, about this blind woman who has this instrument that has all these taped pieces of her life on it. And I do want to do something with jazz. But you know, this explicit sex thing will probably be will very music-oriented.
AW: So what kind of other film projects do you want to do?
I actually like porn movies a lot–I’m sort of a connoisseur of stuff that’s really good. But I wish it really was combined with real actors, real story, real emotion, and hilarity.
JCM: Well those two are the things I’m thinking about most. The sex thing–I’m totally approaching it from the fact that I haven’t seen explicit sex used in an artful way, apart from some recent French alienated sex, bad sex. It just seems to denigrate sex, to use it as a shock treatment. It is unusual to see it used in a real way. But I think it can be used in a very erotic and funny way. I actually like porn movies a lot–I’m sort of a connoisseur of stuff that’s really good. But I wish it really was combined with real actors, real story, real emotion, and hilarity. I mean it’s quite hilarious, sex, often. So something with a story that has sex is very important–I probably won’t be able to write the story until I find the actors who would be able to do it, and who are good, and who probably won’t be professional actors, ’cause they’ll be afraid for their career. But once I find the people, I think the story will develop from who they are, and through improvisation, and stuff. And it would be very video-oriented, and way low-budget. But I’m actually not worried so much about getting funding for something like that.
But just in film there’s much less sex than there was in the seventies in mainstream film. Movie rating is really still quite repressive. It’s only by accident that we got certain things in our trailer, even. You know, I have a joke about what I think about all of the people I’ve “come upon” in my travels; the lady didn’t get the joke, so we got it in the trailer. And she didn’t get “Bigger, longer, uncut”–they didn’t get it, luckily. And they didn’t get our tagline, “Get Hed.” They didn’t get it. But they might have. A TV guy would have, because he would have got the joke, and then censored it, which I think is even more reprehensible than the old lady, because he pretends to think it’s funny, but then cuts it.
So I think that there’s a strange place for something like this that I’m talking about, but it will never be in theaters, but it will be available the way porn is, you know, on video and DVD, which is kind of fun, to really distribute it fully that way. ‘Cause I don’t really know of any really good films that are only distributed that way.
AW: How do you think some of the technology coming out is going to affect the projects that you’re working on?
JCM: The next thing I’m doing has a lot of digital animation or digital manipulation of live action. And as far as I know, it still takes as much time as hand-drawn animation, it’s just that it’s easier, and might be cheaper, but it still seems to take a lot of work. Which in a weird way is kind of strangely comforting, you know, that–’cause people, they keep saying, “You know, we’ll have digital actors from now on. Like eventually, we’ll have actual digital performance that will be controlled by the director.”
There’s no collaboration between two minds, there’s only one mind. And I think even in film there’s gotta be more than one mind, otherwise it’s a painting.
That scares the shit out of me, because there’s no collaboration between two minds, there’s only one mind. And I think even in film there’s gotta be more than one mind, otherwise it’s a painting. You know, maybe it is a film that’s a painting, but I don’t think of it as film. I appreciate the partnerships that I have with designers and actors.
Hedwig is unabashedly analog in many ways. We certainly used digital, you know, we used the Avid and we used a digital mixing system, which sure didn’t take any less time. In fact, because of the technical changes all the time we lost probably half of our work time-wise–we were mixing–but there was a certain flexibility. But I don’t necessarily see it being any better.
In fact, that you can do certain things faster, does that mean you can do them better? I don’t know. I still get a shortness of breath when I am surfing channels or surfing the Web. I start really breathing differently. My body actually doesn’t settle as my mouse is not settling. I can’t just get a grip, but I want to keep moving faster, but I’m not really absorbing where I am, unless, say, I’m moving on because of the ads, and I don’t wanna stay on that channel ’cause I refuse to watch a commercial, so you end up on this hamster wheel until I just turn it off and walk away from it.
As most people, I think that there’s a love-hate relationship with the technology that’s coming through. The only thing that’s indubitable is that anyone, if they really want, can find what they want. Especially for kids who are trying to find someone who’s like-minded, and they’re living in a small town. And for every gay kid this completely changes the story. I can’t imagine how helpful it is for disabled kids, for anyone who is marginalized. It’s like, you’re gonna find at least ten freaks somewhere who feel the same way, and that is good. It’s just good. It’s hard to say some things are good or bad, but that’s good.
AW: Do you want to continue to do live performance as well?
JCM: I’ve definitely had it with Hedwig. The other night I actually performed as myself at a rock club, and had a blast, just sort of jumped off the stage, and nobody caught me. I don’t know if they would have caught me if I was Hedwig. It’s gonna be a few years till I get back into something, but periodically, I like to have that release.
AW: Where do you want to be in ten years?
JCM: I really don’t know what I’ll be working on. What I would like to be: probably with kids, with my boyfriend, and have a place in New York and somewhere else, and not have to worry about money. Not have to worry about being recognized too much–I got out of the acting, and that helps. When I was a kid I used to sort of imagine myself becoming a monk, because I was taught by monks. I don’t know, maybe I’ll be in some cheap chateau in the south of France, holding seminars or master classes or something.