For those of us around in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a wild time for American cinema. You wouldn’t know it by looking at what’s screening at the multiplex today, but once upon a time sex actually existed at the movies. Practically every week there was a new erotic thriller like Unfaithful or an indie drama like Roger Dodger openly dealing with sex, laying it on the table and discussing it as if it were a natural thing to engage with and not run away from as cinema does today.
In fact, sex was so frequently present in the visuals and dialogue of films at the time, that occassionally there were even films that featured real sex. That’s right, unsimulated. Most films of this type were from outside of the United States, but sometimes you’d get some in the US, and we got a lot of it with John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 ensemble dramedy, Shortbus.
The filmmaker behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch worked for years to bring together a collective of actors––some he had worked with before and others first-time performers––to star in this film, which opens with one character bending his legs over his head and sucking his own dick. If that sounds shocking to read, imagine what some audiences felt at the time upon seeing the film, beginning with its debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
For those who understand the intentions behind Mitchell’s explicit approach to sex on screen, they were welcomed into a world that normalized something that so many of us deal with in our day-to-day lives. Shortbus presents sex in all of its glory—exciting, yes, but also often funny, awkward, frustrating, and complicated.
With Oscilloscope giving the film a pristine new 4K restoration for its 15th anniversary, I sat down with John Cameron Mitchell to talk about the extraordinarily unique process of making this one-of-a-kind film.
The Film Stage: What was the genesis for Shortbus, if you can remember? What was the first seed of the idea that was planted in your brain?
John Cameron Mitchell: I think it was around the time I was making Hedwig. There were a few films out of Europe, or from outside the US, that were using real sex, and not always successfully. It felt a little bit like a trend—films like 9 Songs, Battle in Heaven, and Intimacy—but I was unconvinced. It felt like a bit of a manifestation, and the sex was always grim—which is certainly defensible for those stories, but it almost felt like a cliche to have dehumanized and boring sex. The one film I really liked from that era was Fat Girl, by Catherine Breillat, which was really good. I was looking more to the films of the past, though. There was a film called Taxi zum Klo from 1981 that was more a model for Shortbus in that it had a sense of humor, a sense of melancholy, and a sense of reality. The filmmaker was telling his own story, but in a way that didn’t feel solipsistic.
I had wanted to create a film through improv that was more of a New York film, using my sense of humor and emotion, which are equally important. I realized there were few people, actors, who might want to go there, especially in America. So I opened it up to whoever wanted to send in an audition tape and talk about an emotional sexual experience. We got about 500 tapes and chose 40 people. We had a callback week where we had parties and improvs and games and people had to rate each other based on sexual attraction so we could get couples together. Then we chose nine people from there and went into improv workshop. Two people dropped out, and then two-and-a-half years later we finally got financing to shoot.
It was a group effort of creating the script through improv and then finding a process where these sometimes unexperienced actors could level up towards the experienced ones. They were allowed to always say their lines in their own words, always paraphrase it. Sometimes when you have to say things verbatim the pressure makes actors act badly. I borrowed some of the Cassavettes, Altman, Mike Leigh vibe to create it and to keep it fresh.
Could you tell me a bit more about those workshops? What kinds of inspirations were you looking for there to help form the film’s story?
I read a Mike Leigh book about his process because he does the same thing. He starts with the actors but he ends up with a very firmly written script, and the actors are very experienced. In our case it was newer people, and I didn’t want to have a set script. By the end I did have a written script but they could still paraphrase. Even in their audition tapes and callbacks I was starting to get inklings about their own lives. I said, “This is what’s interesting to me. You made a tape about the inaccessibility of your orgasm. Well, what if we exaggerate that and the character’s never had an orgasm—and she’s a sex therapist?” [Laughs] The actors created their character’s backstories, their names, their jobs, what they wanted in life, and then I would write the script from their improvs.
We also watched films that felt germane to the process and to the tone. We watched Altman’s Nashville, we watched Woman Under the Influence—which is probably my favorite film—and we watched 3 Women. Everyone loved that experience. We rented a loft and often slept over, playing theater games. There’s a game where you interview a person as their character, and they have to be really prepared for any question. I dipped into my theater-school memory of improv in Chicago, where I went to college, which is a real improv town, and it was great.
Two of the actors dropped out, interestingly, because they were the only two who weren’t gonna have sex in the film. [Laughs] They were a couple in the film and I discouraged everyone from hooking up outside of work hours. [Laughs] I couldn’t enforce that, and in fact those young actors did, and it led to some bad feelings, which I knew it would. You know, you don’t shit where you eat—just, you know, in front of camera [Laughs] So they moved on and we had another set of auditions and found Lindsay Beamish, who plays Severin, the dominatrix. Many of the performers made their own music, so that ended up in the soundtrack. It was a very low-budget film. We used friends’ houses. It was my cheapest project, but perhaps the one that brought me the most pleasure.
You’ve spoken about how older Hollywood movies would use visual metaphors to represent sex, and that you wanted to turn that on its head by using sex as a metaphor for the things going on in the characters’ lives. How did you utilize that approach?
Well, an example of the former would be Hitchcock, where we see people kiss and they fall into bed and then a train goes through a tunnel. You can have fun with those. But, as we all know in our lives, a story about first love must include the first sex, because that’s a very important part of that story, and yet we often shy away and cut to the morning.
In our case, an example of using sex as a metaphor for something else would be the opening scene where a very lonely character is shooting himself trying to get his dick in his mouth and, in effect, self-fertilize. The dominatrix is with her john and he says, “What do you think about procreation?,” and she’s like, “I wish I could do it alone in the dark, like a worm.” Then we cut to our character trying to do exactly that, and get his dick in his mouth to be the most self-sufficient sexual being ever. He manages it, he manages to come, and then he bursts into tears because he’s not alone. He’s in the world, and the world requires things from him—including his boyfriend. His boyfriend shows up and they have the conversation about him just having jerked off and his boyfriend asks if he was thinking about him and there’s no answer.
Those are things that happen in real life. Even the self-fellatio, the auto-fellatio—which is kind of a good drag king name [Laughs] Certainly, as well, the idea of opening up a relationship is a very common thing, especially in a gay men’s world, and can often help a relationship or it can be the first sign of the end of it. The whole film is really about people feeling very alone, trying desperately to connect, and the salon is one of the places where they can do that. Sex is one of the ways they can do that.
The film itself we think of as a metaphor for a relationship, meaning the sex is front-loaded, and at the end of it it’s the last thing you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about the deeper stuff. I wanted to acclimatize the audience to the sex at the very beginning, maybe scare some people off [Laughs] and then from that point on you start to forget about that shock. The first time you have sex with anyone is a shock, and then it starts to settle down until the sex becomes just another thing in their lives. The salon honors that by saying this is a place with food, drink, art, sex, and all of those things are equal. They’re equal in importance.
Speaking of those other movies around that time that were also using real sex, one of the big differences with Shortbus is the familiarity we experience over the course of the film. You normalize it so that we are able to simply see healthy sex, as opposed to it being salacious.
Yeah, Americans think sex on film has to be hot because they mistake sex for porn, and porn is arousing. That’s the point of it. Our film was poking and tweaking. You’re seeing somebody peeing in the bath, and you’re seeing this and that, and we’re making jokes about it. Most of the sex is actually not satisfying. It has drama within it. The woman is trying hard to have the orgasm. Everyone’s trying too hard. The only people that seem relaxed about it are the people in the orgy room, and those were friends. There were some strangers, but they were mostly couples that preexisted. Sometimes there were new three-ways that happened on the day, but we created an environment where everyone felt safe. I played my Al Green, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
The actors asked me to join them in there, and I did. I couldn’t get a hard-on because I was too worried about the editing [Laughs] But it was definitely a community experience where no one felt exploited and everyone felt like it was the best experience they’ve had on film. That’s what I’m most proud of, because it’s the making of the film that is your life, not the film itself.
Do you think a film like this could be made now? It came out at this moment in time where sex was becoming more present in film, and yet in the fifteen years since then we’ve really regressed to the point where now it feels like cinema is more afraid than ever to address sex.
I wonder if I could do it now. It’s funny because it was this sort of sweet spot that we were in, at the end of the so-called golden era of independent film of the ‘90s and ‘00s. It kind of collapsed with the financial collapse and digital culture. Our film came out three months before the first iPhone, which changed everything in terms of independent film. The DVD’s gone, it’s a different world for film. If I don’t make another feature, I wouldn’t be surprised, because I don’t want to be begging for financing for a film that no one’s going to see. I’d much rather make a play or a TV show.
We really were in a certain sweet spot. We made it for very cheap and the film did well. The film company went bankrupt, so we never saw some of our profits, but we’re able to put it out now with Oscilloscope and we’re thrilled because now it’s future-proof with 4K and everything. Now it can exist without me when I’m gone and not be consigned to the trash heap, but a lot of small films are lost right now. They can come back, but because of these bankruptcies, because Netflix doesn’t want small films anymore, because people don’t go see them—the Internet was supposed to have everything available, but there’s some films that are just not available. You could possibly torrent them, but the Criterions and MUBIs can’t handle everything. It sucks.
We hope this will remind young people that sex is not just exploitative. It’s not just under the shadow of #MeToo. It’s actually something in our lives that can be healthy. It can be awkward, it can be funny, it can be sad, but it is necessary—not to live, but it’s a necessary part of our lives that needn’t be shrunken-away from. We needn’t be terrified of it and consign it to the care of Internet porn. Internet porn monopolizes sex now because most film and TV has removed sex and even nudity, and it’s just consigned to the Internet. With Pornhub and everything, porn is as commercialized as a Marvel movie now. It’s just generally seeing what order people are gonna have sex from watching porn and when you’re just trying to imitate it you sit there and wonder why it’s not hot. [Laughs]
That aspect of humor in the film is one of the things that makes it so refreshing. It’s such an essential part of sex, and you don’t get that in porn, really—at least not in the everyday sense where you’re scared if something’s a little bit awkward then you think you ruined the experience.
Right, what if somebody farts? [Laughs] What if a hard-on goes away? It’s the end of the world! Young people are losing their hard-ons. When did that ever happen in history? You’re 20 and you can’t get a hard-on. It’s because you’re thinking too much. Because you’re watching too much porn and you’re putting pressure on yourself.
I was rewatching Shortbus the other day because I hadn’t seen it since it came out, so I was very excited to see this new restoration. One of the scenes I had forgotten about was the threesome scene where the singing comes in and there’s the iconic line about one character singing the National Anthem into the other’s ass. What was the inspiration for that scene?
I think it just came out of an improv when we were improvising the three of them getting together. We only did one rehearsal scene with sex and it was with that couple—they were a preexisting couple, Paul and PJ. I learned a lot from that rehearsal. In improv you give each actor a goal and you need conflict because sex in itself is not inherently interesting. So I told them to pause and I whispered different things in each of their ears. For one, I’d say “you need to come as soon as possible,” and then to the other I’d say, “whenever your nipple is touched, you think of your mother.” [Laughs] Right away there was tension in the room, and it was funny.
So I learned that sex still needs to have drama, and often bad sex is more interesting than good sex. When we finally did it we were comfortable with each other. I mean, sometimes we were even bored with each other. Yes, the actors were nervous, and they did take their Viagra and stuff just as an insurance policy. [Laughs] The women were quite zen about it, because we processed it enough for them. The guys were all like “let’s do it,” and then when it was time they were terrified. The women were nervous at first and then processed and were quite zen when we shot. It was interesting. I even was required to jump into the orgy because everyone was shouting for me to get in, and like I said I couldn’t get a hard-on because I was worried about the editing, but I was glad I was able to feel that solidarity with them. It was a good time, and everyone remembers it with a glow.
With both Shortbus and Hedwig you’ve created films that have really helped facilitate a healthy understanding of gender and sex and I think, even from personal experience, people see themselves a lot in these films. What has the response to your films meant for you, from seeing people with stories of recognizing themselves or gaining that growth of understanding from watching them?
I still get a lot of people for both of those films saying thank you, that they saw it at a certain time and it was useful to them. I love that compliment. Now, I haven’t seen Shortbus tattoos. [Laughs] With Hedwig I was really learning about myself, about drag and drag performers at the club SqueezeBox!, which is where Hedwig originated. The story was not my own, but the emotions were my own. Interestingly, now there’s a sort of obsession with telling your own story and certain things not being your story to tell. There’s a lot of rules about art, which annoy me coming from a more punk point of view where anything goes.
Now, I understand that you can be reckless with that freedom and not do your homework, but I’m more of the Toni Morrison side of things. She said to her students that you are not allowed to write what you know. You’re not old enough to understand that yet. You need to write from the point-of-view of someone who’s completely different. And that is the beginning of empathy. You’ve got to do your research. You’ve got to be honest about it. You have to go in there. And that’s me, that’s my point of view. I moved around as a kid. I had to change my accent, I had to become a new person wherever I was, and that made me an actor. But I was also fascinated by different worlds. You move around the world and you often meet people in different towns, like in a gay bar where you meet someone and he becomes your boyfriend for that week, and you would get really deep into that city because you had a local, and it was a beautiful kind of way to learn about the world.
Queer people are internationalists. They don’t tend to be inward-looking, nationalist, nativist, “get the fuck off my lawn” kind of people. There’s always another lawn. When you’re young it’s really like get me out of here and let me find my people somewhere else. For people who hew to the mainstream, the idea of leaving is scary. That’s why queer people have this great privilege of questioning the world, of experiencing the world, of traveling the world. You can feel very lonely and like a misunderstood being, but I believe that’s outweighed by the opportunities of being queer, which is understanding empathy, which is understanding metaphor earlier than the ruling class. The ruling class sees things for what they are, but if you’re an outsider you understand there’s different layers of reality. There’s a surface and there’s a true nature. That’s the beginning of understanding metaphors representing something else.
That’s why outsiders have always been attracted to the arts and creativity. Shortbus is full of those people. It’s the bus for the gifted, the challenged, the weirdos, the ones that don’t fit in, the differently-abled, the overly smart—it’s all of the misfits who’ve always been my people working together. That’s why I get upset when overzealous woke culture tries to separate us by looking for trouble and looking for differences. “You’re not as oppressed as I am.” Oppression Olympics to me are a dead-end. We slash each other while Trump laughs. There are real targets. There are real enemies that have to be dealt with and it’s not Hedwig. We can try to fix the world, but let’s not define ourselves as accusers.
The 4K restoration of Shortbus begins its theatrical run on January 26th at IFC Center, with more screenings in select cities to follow.