Shortbus - interview

Real sex in the city

John Cameron Mitchell, director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the upcoming Shortbus, explains the joy of sex to Miles Fielder.

New York City rom-com Shortbus is John Cameron Mitchell’s (writer, director and star of the stage musical and subsequent Sundance Film Festival favourite Hedwig and the Angry Inch) new film. It might sound a rather conventional follow-up to his riotous story of a transsexual rock star who, following a failed operation, is left with a one-inch nub of cock, but aside from being a genuinely romantic, funny and truthful film about the variously dysfunctional relationships between half a dozen New Yorkers, Shortbus is also full of eye-opening explicit and non-simulated sex between same and different sex couples, triples and groups.

‘I wanted to make a film that used sex in a positive way,’ says Mitchell, who flew into the UK in October for the premiere of the movie at the London Film Festival. ‘Around the time of the stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch [off-Broadway in 1998] I had seen some films coming out of Europe, such as Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, that were sexually frank. There seemed to be a renaissance of that kind of filmmaking, which I hadn’t seen since the 70s. But these films were without exception negative about sex, so Shortbus began as a formal exercise in showing sex in a film in a way I hadn’t seen.’

In one scene two guys blow each other while a third yodels the US national anthem up one of their asses. It’s a very raunchy, very funny and finally very tender scene. ‘There are just so many interesting things that happen during sex,’ Mitchell says. ‘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. Personally, I feel patronised when I see a serious, adult film about relationships and the sex begins and they dissolve to the end. If I can handle it in life, why can’t I handle it in film?’

Knowing he’d never get Hollywood stars to appear in the film (‘They don’t have sex on film,’ says Mitchell. ‘Stars are concerned about how they are perceived by the media.’), Mitchell organised open casting sessions via a website on which he posted his mission statement. This led to rehearsals with 40 or so professional and non-professional actors, and then to improvisational workshops with a shortlist of eight during which the characters and their relationships were created. By the time Mitchell began filming, 9/11 had happened, and the fallout from it influenced the film.

‘9/11 affected everyone in New York, America and the world,’ Mitchell says. ‘Fear of terrorism inspired certain people to stoke all kinds of fears. So you’ll have a hysterical congressman in America saying that gay marriage is as dangerous as terrorism. But for other people, 9/11 focused their minds on their jobs, lives, relationships and what it means to be in America. Bush’s actions after 9/11 certainly made people think about all this. That fed into the film.’

Is Mitchell concerned about Bushwhacked conservative America’s reaction to Shortbus? ‘We haven’t had any resistance,’ he says with a smile. ‘And the Republicans are busy at the moment, so we’re under the radar.’

Shortbus, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Fri 1 Dec.

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