Shortbus - John Cameron Mitchell interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
JOHN Cameron Mitchell, the controversial director of Shortbus, talks about the film’s graphic sexual content and his reasons for making something so provocative.
Q. What is the origin of Shortbus?
John Cameron Mitchell: Around the time of the stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch I had seen some films coming out of Europe – Catherine Breillat’s films for example, that were sexually frank. There seemed to be some kind of renaissance of that kind of filmmaking, which I hadn’t seen since the ’70s.
I thought that Fat Girl was very powerful, but sort of negative about sex. And pretty much every one of these films I was seeing, without exception, was negative about sex. I wanted to make a film that used sex in a positive way. So Shortbus began as a formal exercise in showing sex in a film in a way I hadn’t seen. And that exercise demanded a way of working that was unusual, which was the actors would be collaborators in the story.
Q. Is Shortbus a response to life in New York post-9/11?
John Cameron Mitchell: I started thinking about this film in the late ’90s, but certainly 9/11 affected everyone in New York, America and the world. Fear breeds more fear, and fear of terrorism inspired certain people to stoke all kinds of fears. So, for example, you’ll have a hysterical Congressman in America saying that gay marriage is as dangerous as terrorism. But for other people it focused their minds to think about their jobs and their lives and their relationships and what it means to be in America. Bush’s actions after 9/11 certainly made people think about all this. So, all of that fed into the film. It’s all kind of connected.
Q. What was the inspiration for the Shortbus salon?
John Cameron Mitchell: I had been to a place in New York, called DUMBA, where we ended up shooting some of the film. It’s an arts collective rather than a salon, but they had parties there. The place that most directly inspired the film is a place called Cine Salon, which is run by the guy who passes out condoms in the movie during the sex show.
At Cine Salon they would show experimental short films and then hand out food. And then at the end of the evening, in the same space, not a big apartment and filled with about 30 or 40 people, sex would break out. It was fascinating that sex was a part of the whole evening. Our salon is perhaps an idealised version. It’s more sexual, and there is more diversity of people.
Q. You said the cast collaborated on the film. Does that mean Shortbus had an unusual casting process?
John Cameron Mitchell: We had an open call on the web, on a site that I publicised with a lot of interviews. And the website had a mission statement for the film, for what I wanted to do. It asked people to send in tapes, perhaps with them talking about a sexual experience that was emotionally important. Other people made short films or whacked off or wrote short stories. It was a mixed bag of things.
It was very clear who the people were that were just looking for a “cheap thrill” and who the serious collaborators were. We chose 40 people for their intelligence, humour, charisma and diversity of sexual types.
Then we put on a party, called Shortbus, for these people and their friends. Next morning they watched all of their audition tapes together, and they had to vote on whom they thought they could possibly be sexually compatible with. So we put these people together first, and it generally worked out. And then we did a workshop for the final nine people who ended up playing the main characters in the film.
Q. Why did you use explicit and non-simulated sex scenes in the film?
John Cameron Mitchell: I think it has different functions in every scene. Overall, we wanted to challenge people’s expectations of sex on film as well as in their own life. A lot of sex in films is connected to pure, compartmentalised arousal, or to something very negative, trauma or abuse. But people are surprised by it. They say: “It’s not what I expected; it’s funny.” And I say: “Well, what do you expect? Do you really have such a narrow view of sex in your own life? Do you ever laugh when you’re having sex, or is it always a trauma? Why not in a film, if it’s in your life?”
I understand logistically, culturally, financially why sex is challenging in film. But personally, I feel patronised when I see a serious, adult film about relationships and the sex begins and they dissolve to the end. Why am I being treated like a child? If I can handle it in life, why can’t I handle it in film? There are just so many interesting things that happen during sex, just dramatically. It’s hilarious, it’s moving, it’s boring, it’s all those kinds of things that everything else in your life is. It’s just more intense and revealing.
Growing up as a Catholic I certainly understand the fear of it. It has this irrational power, so we try to compartmentalise it, minimise it because it is so powerful. Powerful in a different way, say, than violence. In film, violence is generally a power. It’s usually very simple, and much more easily digested: they killed his wife, now he’s going to blow away the bad guys. It’s easy. Sex is, oddly, less easy than violence. It’s more complicated in films, so most people just avoid it. When you get into the complexities of filmmakers ready to handle sex or violence, a Michael Haneke perhaps, people generally don’t want to hear it – it’s too much.
So in our case, the humour and all those things we use, including the Hollywood filmmaking tropes, were very useful in couching the sex, using the sex as a vehicle. It’s a gentle way of reminding people that sex is really not that scary, and is perhaps something that we should integrate a bit more in our lives, talk about it a bit more. So it’s less frightening.
Q. What were the practicalities involved in filming the sex scenes?
John Cameron Mitchell: The sex in the salon was just putting a bunch of pre-existing couples in the room, keep the cameras away from them and let them go until people could relax. Working with the actors in the more dramatic scenes, there was nothing easy about it. It’s just not a natural or easy thing to be having sex in front of people.
None of the actors are exhibitionists. The exhibitionists were weeded out in the audition process, because they were there for the wrong reasons. So each actor had his or her own needs. Some people preferred to rehearse sexual scenes through improv with me. Some people wanted to rehearse scenes with nudity but no sex, and save the sex for the shooting. Some didn’t mind if crew members were there, some preferred to limit it. Some of the guys wanted Viagra, some didn’t. There was lots of discussion of safety.
Some of the people were already in relationships – James and Jaime, for example – which saved time. For some there wasn’t much sexual tension, so it was a bit more of a challenge. But I wasn’t trying to create couples. The sex wasn’t for good times; it was for story. We just figured out how we needed to do it for each of the actors.