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NON-STOP EROTIC CABARET
John Cameron Mitchell pushes the sexual boundaries once again in Shortbus.

BY SANDI DUBOWSKI

SHORTBUS WRITER-DIRECTOR JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

There is nothing like watching John Cameron Mitchell so sweetly explode any boundary he touches. His Sundance award−winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical about a transgendered East German G.I. wife with a botched sex-change operation, gender-and genre-fucked its way to legendary cult status. While the film explored anger, despair and betrayal all to hilarious glam effect, at its tender core was the survivor’s theme of finding the other half of one’s innermost self. This sense of angst is the bridge between Mitchell’s musical Hedwig and his deliriously inventive new sex comedy Shortbus. In a besieged and Bushwhacked New York City, shaken by 9/11 and gentrification, Shortbus’s characters cope and grope their way to emotional and erotic connection.

A few years ago, for what was then called “The Sex Film Project,” Mitchell solicited audition videotapes “of no longer than 10 minutes of you, the actor, talking about a true-life sexual experience that was very important to you.” Five hundred submissions became 40 finalists. To determine sexual compatibility, Mitchell screened the audition tapes, and the finalists rated each other on a “hottie scale” of 1 to 4. And thus a cast was born. Through a 2½-year workshop of improv training, rehearsals, Whiffleball, Cassavetes and Altman screenings, board games and 100-person Spin the Bottle, the actors bonded within an artistic sanctuary. By the fifth week they entered more into explicit sexual improv. Mitchell, with a gifted ear for humor, crafted the material they generated together into a script.

What emerged from all of this was a collection of characters and stories. There’s a woman, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist in search of the mythic female orgasm; a gay couple, Jamie and James  (PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson, who are real-life partners), who try to add a third cutie (Jay Brannan) to their troubled relationship; a dominatrix/artist, Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who enlists Sofia to help her abandon alienation and enter into her first long-term relationship. The refuge for all of them is Shortbus, a sex-art underground playground inspired by actual Brooklyn salons. The club mixes live music, readings and video projections with orgasmic redemption for the gifted and challenged, drenching it all in sweat, cum, moans and tears. And while showing sex in all its marathon glory, Shortbus is not about the rote money shot and the animatronics of hardcore porn but rather sex fraught with confusion, risk, bliss, fear and pain. The performances are astonishingly vulnerable, making the lost depiction of just plain kindness, hope and anti-commodification, what defines Mitchell’s filmmaking so strongly. As he writes on the forum page of the Shortbus website, “Collaboration though love, sex, and art is a world-making project.” After a 10-minute standing ovation at the movie’s Cannes Film Festival world premiere and on the brink of THINKfilm’s Oct. 4 release, Filmmaker sat down to explore Mitchell’s creation of creative utopia and had a “relaxing” chat with the cast.

RAPHAEL BARKER AND SOOK-YIN LEE IN SHORTBUS.

The film feels like an anthem to a generation, to a time, to a city — and it resonated for me on so many levels. We build all these monuments to tragedy, and this film is what I would want as my own monument to this time, place and generation. John Cameron Mitchell: I think of it more as an anthem than a monument. Because an anthem you participate in and sing together. With a monument, you carve it and leave it there. You know Stephen Kent Jusick’s line “Voyeurism is participation”? Well, it can be passive or active participation. Passive participation is [what’s happening in] America right now, a tacit approval of what’s happening.

One of my favorite lines in the film is when Justin’s character says, “It’s like the ’60s but with less hope.” How do you balance your senses of irony and optimism? Mitchell: I don’t think irony is independent of deep commitment or belief or emotion. Nowadays it’s a common language. Irony is like the highest form of art. If I see another fucking ’80s haircut! There’s nothing organic about much of what passes as art lately. It’s just this common reference. But I think social criticism is in a highly developed state. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are quite brilliant critics. It comes from the heart, but it’s also criticism; it can only go so far. It’s just shooting at these targets which deserve to be shot at — it’s not an alternative. Stephen Colbert is faking [being] a right-wing host, but even with his big heart, he’s no Phil Donohue. And young people escape into irony without meaning. If we can laugh at things together, we’re somehow together. It’s a strange time for culture in the U.S. There’s a great need for something else. It’s just that people don’t feel the power to do that.

So what were the political, social or artistic collectives that influenced Shortbus? Mitchell: Certainly the Radical Faeries were influential. Sometimes those worlds can get a little much in those sanctuaries where everything is permitted; there can be a license to addiction. But when it was really healthy, it was wonderful. And certainly the energy of music collectives like the Elephant Six Collective and Neutral Milk Hotel. The way a group of people would work with each other on their own personal projects and shift the leadership role around. I was frustrated with dance clubs, and after Hedwig I had my own Shortbus dance parties. We weren’t charging [admission]; it was just friends. It was the same feeling as the film, though there wasn’t the sex element. I wanted to make the film more multi-sexual, and those environments were predominantly queer. Also, early in the ’90s [writer and editor] Jim Lyons curated some erotic film programs for MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival at the Ann Street Adult Entertainment Center, including Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour — art porn. And Stephen Kent Jusick’s Salon was very influential on this film.

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) JAY BRANNAN, SOOK-YIN LEE AND PETER STICKLES STAR IN SHORTBUS. PHOTOS: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

Can you trace the connection between Hedwig and Shortbus? Mitchell: Hedwig came out of Squeezebox, which was a male and female energy mixed together in a queer setting with rock ’n roll — a harder-edged environment. Moshing and highly sexual. A little bit harsh. It was exciting. I came out of a more traditional actor vibe — Broadway, TV, some films. A much gentler, controlled environment. I was itching to get out of that because I felt trapped. As an actor you’re pretty powerless, just waiting for your next job. So I started writing, and it was interesting what came out: putting Broadway, stand-up, drag and rock ’n roll together to get something new. I tend to be part of different social and artistic groups while not being necessarily a full-fledged member. So I’ll hang out in a Radical Faerie environment, but that isn’t my main social net or circle. I did that when I was a kid too. I wasn’t just the drama kid, the nerd, the comic book kid. I was hanging out with every group. Each project I do is our own sort of social group. We create our group for the project. And for Shortbus I wanted to draw in people I liked in the downtown NYC performance scenes — burlesque, vaudeville — [people like] Justin Bond, Dirty Martini, Bob, Wau Wau Sisters, Dr. Donut, Stephen Kent.

A blend of friends, artistic collaborators and inspiration... a continually evolving community. Mitchell: Mike Leigh chooses very trained actors and encourages them to make characters that are very different from themselves and then ends up with a set script. In our case we had people who were not that experienced doing characters that had more similarities to them and a script that was highly structured but not [acted out] verbatim. Jim McKay also creates all his films in workshops with less experienced people. It just seems like the way to do it. It’s more fun, and you’re not waiting around for stars — stars don’t want to rehearse.

PJ DEBOY. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

Are there other directors who have been mentors or role models to you? Mitchell: Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, those were the most influential in film when I was a kid. I said, “Oh, these guys are the most interesting.” They’re doing it their way, and they’re nice, they’re not assholes — like a lot of people feel that they have to be. They don’t do things they don’t want to do. Maybe Gus felt he did at a certain point. [He went] totally Hollywood but then came right back and made his own art films. How rare is that? And certainly Cassavetes. He is the ultimate, the father of American independent film. Probably my favorite filmmaker. Inspired by some European films, he went to a radio station and said if someone wants to see a different type of film, send money to the station, to me. And I did the same. I did an article in The New York Times, and I [told the reporter], “I’ll do this, but you have to say that we’re looking for money.” And we found an investor through the article. Someone who wanted to be part of something new. Obviously if we do well, our investors will do well too, and the budget’s low enough that it’s possible that we could make a profit. The actors, like with Cassavetes, get a percentage of the profits because they helped create it, and I still keep the writing credit because I codified it from the story material. It’s not a SAG film, so there’s no residuals, though they were paid SAG minimum. They get a certain amount of money early, sort of a deferred payment, and profit participation if something happens.

I was curious about the economic and producing side of this kind of “collective filmmaking.” Mitchell: You see something like Project Greenlight, and it actually celebrates an artificial battle between the director and a producer. And your producer’s supposed to be your best friend in the life of a film! They try to get these producers who seem to hate the script, to get conflict — you know, like in a Disney film when they put a spider and a scorpion in a cage together. And young people come up thinking that’s the environment you’re supposed to have on a million-dollar film. It’s criminal!

Through making this film, what did you understand about your artistic process and what you really need? Mitchell: What I learned from this film is to make decisions on your own: politically, artistically, emotionally. And the actors are doing the same. I think the actors have really learned to like themselves more. Because they were very vulnerable for this process; it was really useful obviously to the film, but it was really for themselves. It was just a perfect aesthetic experience, and now we’re all really spoiled. I don’t know where they’re going to get this kind of respect again in a film. Some people are asking them [if they think] anyone is going to hire them again? Once you see the film you don’t ask that question, because they’re so multifaceted, and in fact the main thing they get from people after seeing it is a kind of awe — like, You guys are that committed and made something beautiful. It’s just a stupid question to ask: Are they going to get a sitcom? They don’t want a sitcom; they want to do interesting things with interesting people, and this film will attract that. They’re all artists. They’re not products. And the process has to be as good for the soul as the result.

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) RAPHAEL BARKER, PAUL DAWSON AND LINDSAY BEAMISH. PHOTOS: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

At John’s suggestion, I hop to the next room to interview the cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Justin Bond, PJ DeBoy, Paul Dawson, Jay Brannan, Lindsay Beamish, Peter Stickles and Raphael Barker. When I enter the room, they’re all half naked in bras and underwear, laughing. A few are under the covers on the bed; some are hanging in the windowsill and lying on couches.

Sook-Yin Lee: Make yourself comfortable!

Lindsay Beamish: We were bored.

What could I do? I stripped off my shirt and ran around like a topless Oprah with the tape recorder.

Okay, people, what is this film about? Justin Bond: I guess the film is about trying to find love in a vacuum.

Peter Stickles: Finding love before the lights dim out.

Lee: For me it was this opportunity to jump into this completely crazy, wonderful experiment, of which I did not know where it would lead. Going for a big, epic adventure, with other people that I don’t know — that I now know — and intimately. And being part of a really fun and scary and incredible process of making a story together.

PJ DeBoy: Shortbus means a kind of a convergence of all these different beautiful people coming together. Love really does rise to the surface. When things go wrong, when the lights all go out, when things go completely bad, we still turn to each other in ways that are new to us. Shortbus has sparked in a lot of my friends and [colleagues on] this film new ways of communicating and being with each other. As Justin says, “it’s a beautiful little time capsule that we’re gonna set off.”

JUSTIN BOND IN SHORTBUS.

Bond: I think that the film is a way of reclaiming our city from what it came to represent after 9/11. This city has always been a city of bohemians and free thinkers, and it was then made to represent some fortress of democracy that was attacked. And this film is bringing it back to the human beings in the narrative that we’ve experienced in this city.

Lee: But I think it’s broader too. Like John says, “it’s a love letter to New York,” but I say it’s a love letter to the known universe. I’m more of a generalist.

Lindsay, you’re an actress, performance artist, dancer. You’re really a hybrid — all of you are. It’s not a film of actors. It’s a film of artists all coming together so beautifully and bringing all their art to the screen. It’s really, really moving, this creative sprawl, or creative sanctuary that you were part of. So where do you take it now? Like John said, you’re all kind of spoiled, I guess? Beamish: Right before we filmed Shortbus, I shot an episode of CSI, where I played a junkie hooker. And really, nothing against CSI, but it couldn’t have been more of a polar opposite of this experience. The acting was probably the least important thing of everything going on that set. The technical stuff, the network, everything else — the acting was like this thing they fit in at the end. And it’s true that this [film] spoiled us so much. It was sort of an art enclave. As actors, the experience we’ve had on this movie is such a privilege. Being able to improv, the freedom and the trust... I’d rather not just do shitty TV. I’d rather wait and find something where I can have somewhat of a similar experience.

Lee: I feel like the Mouseketeers. Annette Funicello did go on to have a career after that, and Britney Spears did transcend Mouseketeers, just as PJ DeBoy will have another career of which we know not after Shortbus.

Raphael Barker: What happened to the Dirty Rascals?

Jay Brannan: You mean the Little Rascals? [laughter]

Barker: Oh, right. Well, we’re the Dirty Rascals. So what’s next?

Paul Dawson: I wondered sometimes, what if this movie is my last one? What if I’m never able to get another acting job after this? I had to kind of be okay with that and just realize that even if it’s my last one, then at least I got to do the ultimate one. Some of the most successful actors never have a movie where they’re able to contribute like this and to work with such talented people. It will certainly encourage me to take more risks because it’s paid off beautifully.

Bond: Knowing how relationships go, with such a period of time commitment to doing a movie like this, did you feel like, Oh my god, what if you and PJ DeBoy [boyfriends in the movie and real life] break up or something? That would be really scary.

Dawson: John would always joke and say, “Please don’t break up before we shoot the movie!”

Bond: I mean, because I broke up with my boyfriend...

Lee: I broke up with mine too...but he wasn’t in the movie

Dawson: We were all interested in bringing these private parts of ourselves because we all knew how rich they were and how dramatic and full of conflict those things were, and so we knew that those were the best things that we would mine in a way, but we had to find a way to do it that was safe for us.

How do you navigate becoming a public person and the notion of celebrity? Mitchell: It’s the perfect level of sub-liberty, because people still want to work with you because they’ve seen something you’ve done. As a kid, because you’re insecure, you think more attention means more love, but thank god I didn’t get certain roles when I was young, because it would have completely derailed anything that would have made me happy artistically late. I’m never going to be rich, because you have to do things that don’t feel good to be rich. I might accidentally have a windfall, but if I wanted to make Shortbus for money I would have cut out the gay sex, I would have tried to cast a star — there are just so many other things if I really wanted it to be a financial success. But I was really clear from the beginning. I said this is what it is. If you want to be a part of something good, join it. It was easy to be rejected, because I knew that we were onto something and if they were not a part of it, it was going to be their loss.

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: S-16 mm, some 35 mm, MiniDV, Hi8 and S-8 mm.

CAMERA:Full Aaton XTR Prod w/Zeiss prime lenses and Cannon Zoom lenses.

FILM/TAPE STOCK: Kodak VISION2 500T 7218, Kodak VISION2 250D 5205 / 7205.

OFFLINE: Avid Xpress Pro 4.64.

COLOR CORRECTION: S-16 scanned on Arriscan at 3k and subsampled to 2048x1240 log DPX files that were recorded onto Terrablock SAN. The files were then migrated from the SAN onto a Quantel 2k where the various film formats and video source elements were conformed and integrated with submitted animation and titles from Edgeworx. Special lighting effects and compositing were also done on the IQ. Color Correction used the Quantel Pablo Color Correction system with large screen dark chip DLP projection. Files were resized to 1920x1080 and layed off as DPX files to hard drives that were delivered to DuArt Film for film recording on their Arrilaser film recorder. (From the same files, video deliverables were also created at Goldcrest). The digital intermediate was recorded onto 35mm Estar based internegative and printed on Kodak 2383 print stock. DI scanning, editorial, and color correction at Goldcrest Post Productions.