John Cameron Mitchell: Vive Le Punk

May 7, 2019
The director’s latest, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a celebration of punk and trying to bring fisting back to the conversation.

Director John Cameron Mitchell has always pushed boundaries, whether it’s with his musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch before musicals were in vogue, or the sexually and artfully explicit Shortbus or even the heartbreakingly honest Rabbit Hole.

He now adapts Neil Gaiman’s short story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties for the big screen, a sci-fi romantic comedy set in a 1970s punk London, which will no doubt divide audiences but like all of John Cameron Mitchell’s previous films, attract a devoted audience, punk at heart or otherwise.

How aware were you of Neil Gaiman’s writing; were you a fan?

I didn’t know Neil that well except for The Sandman. I’m a big comics fan. I didn’t know the story and now we’re big best buddies and we’re even talking about doing another one of his stories. This is the first one; he said, that he really, really liked. The first one adapted from his… The others have had too much money involved, somebody fucks it up…

The short story is just the beginning of the movie, the next act, is that Romeo and Juliet?

It’s just the party, there was no punk, there’s no Elle character. The initial writer, Philippa Goslett worked with Neil to create something that was the next act. That was the first act. It’s totally Romeo and Juliet with punks and aliens. As with Romeo and Juliet, it’s a laugh riot until it’s not, until danger happens. But it’s first love too. First love is always doomed, which is why it’s so special to us. Very rarely does first love last forever, so we always remember it. The character of Enn [Alex Sharp] is a little bit me when I was younger, but the gay version which is even more awkward. This is pretty queer, you know? I am trying to bring fisting back to the conversation.

Always a popular topic.

Not as popular as it used to be. Very sanitary with [Costume Designer] Sandy Powell’s rubber gloves. But compared to Shortbus, it’s very mild.

How was it working with Sandy Powell?

I actually first offered it to my Hedwig designer, Arianne Philips, who’s brilliant. But Sandy is… in the film we have the parent-teachers, the aliens are the parent teachers, so we always called her parent-teacher Sandy because she outranked me. In fact, there’d be times where I’d say, “we have the scene coming up, do you have the costume ready?” She’s like, “don’t have it ready, sorry can’t do it.” “But it’s on the schedule?” “Not going to happen, we haven’t had enough money to do it.” “Well what do we do?” “Body suit. Love it. Simple body suit, love it.” So, she outranked me, but in a wonderful way. She may be our best designer working today in film. She said she hasn’t had so much fun since working with Derek Jarman in the ‘80s on Caravaggio.


What did you make of Croydon, where your film is set?

I grew up in Scotland when I was young, a bit. My mum is from Glasgow. So, the provincial ‘70s British town was close to my heart and Croydon, for those of you who don’t know, in England is almost like a punchline. Like New Jersey for Americans, like, “Oh he’s from Croydon. Oh.” So, the fact that aliens would be visiting there is unusual and it’s also the kind of suburban punk scene, it’s not the cool London one, it’s a bit off. Nicole Kidman’s character is gritting her teeth that she’s still stuck in Croydon.

Do you like the idea that your film may be referred to in a political way?

I do, because I really believe the story is about a lot of people stuck in little sub-enclaves, demimonde, and it’s all about closing the walls. That aliens are all in, kind of, a suicide pact. I believe when you do close the doors, it’s just to die better. We’re going to die with the same accent, or the same colour skin. The whole metaphor of the virus infecting and making us healthier, that’s very important for me. Being under Trump right now, he’s a virus that we have to survive. I don’t see him as very punk, but evolve or die is Nicole’s mantra. All the characters, the aliens and the punks, evolve and they create a new breed – the punk-alien babies that are born at the end. And there’s a little bit of hope there.

I think a lot of young people need a bit of punk and a bit of hope because they’ve all been handed this very strange world. Although older people are now the punks. They’re the alt-right, they’re saying, “Trump! Look how rock ‘n’ roll we are to go back to the past.” Weirdly, the older people have become the angry punks.

We had the strange Brexit metaphor. I wasn’t thinking about it at all, and the aliens wear the Union Jacks and they say, “If you exit, you cannot return,” and then they jump off a building. My costume designer Sandy Powell said, “Well they have to wear something? Why not Jubilee Union Jacks?” I’m like, “But if they’re jumping off the building, won’t that be a metaphor for something?” She’s like, “I don’t know what it means, it looks fabulous.” So then, a year later, it’s like, “Oh shit, we’re brilliant.”

How did you make Nicole Kidman punk?

I forced her to be punk, a little bit against her will. She said, “I’m not punk, I’m country and western.” And I said, “Nicole you’re going to love it.” She’s like, “I’ve never done it.” So, she got really excited. But I did push her a little bit. Someone hit her in the head with a guitar in one scene, a few people spat at her in a scene and I was like, “It looks great. I don’t know what it means, Nicole, but it looks great.” So, we kept that in. She was out of her comfort zone but she was having a blast. She was screaming with laughter the whole time.

It was a different experience than your last with her [Rabbit Hole].

I know, with the dead children, yeah. We got along great so we always try to find things to do with each other.

Punk burned quickly, do you miss it as an era?

I miss it as a philosophy. Obviously, there were different punk philosophies but my favourite was that British incarnation, which was about, as Nicole says, smash the oppressor, be an original, challenge authority and yourself, create, express, but in a community. The best of anarchism. Oftentimes it was political, anarchist or syndico-anarchist, sometimes it would have political elements and sometimes it was purely about questioning what your parents fucked up. Your parents being Led Zeppelin sometimes, or Maggie Thatcher. To me, it’s less of a style than a way of looking at the world which is skeptical but loving. It’s always towards trying to make things better. Sometimes you have to burn the brush in the fort to see the trees. There is a destructive element before regeneration, in my view.

Through the character of Zan [Elle Fanning], can you say it’s a feminist movie as well?

Apart from the boy, who’s a little bit helpless, all of the main characters are women. In my view, there’s Nicole, Elle, who have an understanding mother/daughter thing. The strongest character of the aliens is an androgynous character whose hair is based on Queen Elizabeth. Ruth Wilson is the strongest of the sexual, she changes too and Enn’s mom. To me, I don’t think it’s feminist, I just think there’s a lot of really strong female characters. Elle’s an alien, we don’t really know what gender she is. She was a star, what gender is a star? A star can be a gender but a gender is not a star.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is available on DVD and Digital now.

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