Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I’ve noticed something about myself.
I don’t much like doing interviews.
Don’t get me wrong... if I get a chance to sit down with an artist and have a conversation with them about their work, about their approach to their craft, about influences and shared interests, then I enjoy the hell out of that.
But that’s not what most interviews are. Not when you have publicists involved and timetables to satisfy and a promotional tour to adhere to. It’s typically only when someone’s trying to sell you something that they make time to sit down with “the press,” and I’ve grown less and less interested in having round table conversations where I end up feeding questions to the rest of the table. I’m not interested in barking my one question at someone from the midst of a crowded press conference. That doesn’t interest me, and more often than not, I’ll avoid those situations if it’s at all possible.
The interviews I really work to make happen are the ones where I get a chance to speak to someone who is iconic to me and my personal experience with film and talk to them about what it is they do. I’ll accept any circumstance to make that happen. I’m pretty lucky in terms of who I’ve gotten to sit down with since I started at AICN. Brad Bird, Jackie Chan, Hiyao Miyazaki, Samuel Jackson, Neil Gaiman, William Goldman... these are people who I wanted to meet, who I worked to get a chance to talk to. For me to throw my energy into setting up an interview, I have to be very interested in what someone’s doing or who they are.
Sitting in Park City this January, in the darkened Yarrow screening room, even before the credits started to roll at the end of HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, I knew I wanted to interview John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film.
HEDWIG, as I said in my initial review from Sundance, is a revelation, a searing movie that reminds you of the simple power of music to not only transport us, but also transform us. It’s a great character piece, it’s a wickedly funny ride, it’s an emotional powerhouse... and it’s a rock musical that rocks.
When John Robie and I were lucky enough to see a live performance by Hedwig and her band near the end of our week at Sundance, we videotaped it, and the energy of that performance sealed the deal for me. John Cameron Mitchell had to be one of the most precocious talents since Orson Welles to be able to give a performance like that and direct as well as he did in his first time at bat. I was fascinated, and made a note to talk to New Line about the film.
Then Mitchell contacted me. Out of the blue. Wrote me a great e-mail about his reaction to my review. We started trading occasional letters, and when the time came to try and set up an official interview, I had an ally who helped me make sure that it wouldn’t just be a 15 minute phone thing where he gave the same five answers to the same five questions he’s no doubt been subjected to over the last few weeks. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, and it’s been playing special dates all over the place, including the opening night of LA’s Outfest last week.
So it was that I found myself creeping through afternoon traffic Monday en route to the New Line building on Robertson. I had disc one of the Pink Floyd live album IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE? playing quite loudly part of the way over. There’s something HEDWIG has in common with a theatrical experience like Floyd’s THE WALL live or The Who’s TOMMY, but Mitchell and his chief collaborator Stephen Trask have crafted something deeper, more affecting. It’s got the energy of a concert like those pieces do, but it’s also more intimate than they manage to be. And keep in mind... THE WALL got me through high school.
The film version of HEDWIG isn’t some abstract cousin of a music video, though. It’s not just a filmed version of a stage show, either. It’s a fully realized movie, and I couldn’t wait to talk to Mitchell about how he put it all together.
Upon arriving on the fifth floor of the building, the Fine Line offices, I’m greeted by Grace Niu, who ushers me back to where John is waiting. It’s 4:30, and I’m the last interview of the day, so I’m not surprised when John seems slightly exhausted as we are introduced, finally meeting face to face after our extended correspondence. He’s slight, elfin in the same way Bjork is, looking like a slightly more sardonic Beck, and as we settle in for the interview, I offer him a package of Gummi bears, something directly tied to a sequence in the film.
He laughs, then turns the package over a few times. “You know we have HEDWIG Gummis, right?”
”Oh, yes. They’ll give you some on the way out. We are going to put them in when we issue the McDonald’s Hedwig Unhappy Meals.”
Laughing, I turn my tape recorder on, set up my clock so I won’t forget to flip the tape, and settle in.
Moriarty: Okay. First question. When does the soundtrack hit stores?
John Cameron Mitchell: It is. It has.
M: Oh, it’s in stores?
JCM: Yeah... they’ll give you one.
M: Excellent news. Right now in my WinAmp, I have all the tracks from the live show...
JCM: At Sundance?
M: No, sorry. Not the Sundance show. The stage version. The original cast recording.
JCM: Oh, right. Okay.
M: I’ve been listening to that since January, since I saw the film, and I’m looking forward to hearing the versions from the film again.
JCM: Yeah, well... Stephen [Trask] had to use a mixer that Atlantic sort of pushed on him, so he wasn’t really happy with the final. You know? It was a little glossier than he would have liked.
M: Really? Because in the film, there’s such a great raw energy about it.
JCM: Right, and he got to mix it for the film. The soundtrack is mixed differently from the film. In the film, you know, you want to hear the lyrics a little bit better, and on the album he does a little more burying of the lyrics. But he’s got a great producer working with him, and he got Bob Mould to come in and play on all these takes.
M: I’ll tell you what struck me first about the film. I came to it cold, with no knowledge of the stage show. I mean, I knew that there was one, and I had read some general descriptions of it, but I hadn’t seen it. My strongest impression walking in was what was in the Sundance program, and even then, I just glanced at it, put it down, and wanted to have the experience.
JCM: (smiles) Perfect.
M: So let me thank you now. In January, I didn’t realize how beautifully timed the film’s release would be. This summer has been dreadful.
JCM: That’s right...
M: It’s been pretty painful, week in, week out. I’ve been writing for AICN since ’97, and this is the first time I’ve dreaded each new Friday. There are a few bright spots that I’ve been dying to talk more to our readers about, and now that HEDWIG’s here, it’s time to sort of sound the alarm and run an interview and remind them of this treat that’s coming.
JCM: I think New Line’s done a good job getting it out to the right people.
M: I’ve seen the trailer a number of times now...
JCM: What was the reaction to it? Because I was afraid the trailer was too schticky.
M: I think the trailer’s okay. The best reaction I’ve heard to it was in front of MOULIN ROUGE.
JCM: That was a gift to us, having that film come out before us and sort of clear the decks. We weren’t sure how to release a musical, where to put it. You know, there’s PEARL HARBOR and stuff like that, and how are we going to define this?
M: Well, it’s a risky genre, even if it’s strange to think of it as one. The musical was always so commercial, so directly tied to studios like MGM and Warner Bros.
JCM: GREASE was the biggest hit of its year...
M: Absolutely. There was a time when they were huge, and every year, there were a certain number of musicals from the studios, and now it’s almost experimental to do so.
M: And HEDWIG is pure musical.
JCM: It’s very traditional in some ways.
M: But this is different, in that it’s a real rock musical. This is rock music. This is not show tunes...
JCM: Show tunes all dressed up.
M: Not at all.
JCM: Well, that comes from Stephen being a real rock guy. He just happens to have a real theatrical flair.
M: Okay. Let’s go back and assume that our readers are coming to it the same way I did. Let’s start with how you and Stephen met.
JCM: We met on a plane, actually, where we were the only two people not watching the movie. I think it was WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, which I still haven’t seen with the sound. And he was kind of flirting with me, and his way of doing it was to put the Fassbinder biography on the chair between us, which was the obvious beginning of trouble, you know? So we hung out, and we talked, and then we didn’t see each other again for... two years? Actually, more like four years. We kept running into each other, and at that time I was doing stuff like Broadway musicals and HEAD OF THE CLASS and MAGUYVER and LAW & ORDER, and I was just like, over. I was tired of the acting I had been doing. So I moved to New York. I had lived in LA, and I was just bored of this. I was always a little rebellious, and basically just pissed off at actors who are just people who live in fear. They don’t want you to know anything about them so you will cast them. They’re scared. They’re worried about people loving them. I was just angry about that, too.
So I wanted to write something that would make me feel as excited as I felt when I saw Patti Smith and Violent Femmes, but was a real story. And not TOMMY, where it’s sort of a half-assed story. That’s really more of an oratory or a concert...
M: Or like THE WALL, which is a great concert experience.
JCM: Right, which is fine, but don’t call it a story, you know what I mean? Then there was ROCKY HORROR, which was fun, but... too campy, not serious enough. And not a concept album, either. ZIGGY STARDUST was great, but what’s the real story? What happened? Who was ZIGGY STARDUST?
M: Todd Haynes covered similar stylistic ground with his film VELVET GOLDMINE.
JCM: Right. Well, we’re buddies, and we were actually developing at the same time. We sort of exchanged music. We’re both big glam fans, you know, and he was the only person I knew who knew who Steve Holly and Cockney Rebel were... all these obscure glam bands.
M: His doesn’t feel like an organic mix, though, the music and the film together. His is like a glam rock EDDIE & THE CRUISERS with the sort of mystery structure.
JCM: Right, but his is also sort of a semiotic experiment. Every line in that movie is a quote or a paraphrase of something that Bowie or Lou or somebody said in real interviews. That was part of the experiment, to see if something could be made entirely out of quotes.
M: Don’t get me wrong. Todd Haynes is a really adventurous filmmaker.
JCM: SAFE is one of the best movies of the last fifteen years.
M: SAFE is one of my favorite horror films. It’s smart and real and speaks to what we’re really afraid of now, or what we should be afraid of. Still, VELVET GOLDMINE is a filmmaker’s trick more than anything, clever. Part of the rush of HEDWIG is that unabashed thrill of performance. It feels like a live show.
JCM: That was one of the things we did. I just hate punk rock lip synched. So I tried to do about half the songs, the more rocking songs, live for the camera. That’s expensive because you have to have, like, five cameras. We’d throw up two 16mms and three 35mms, and you have to crew all of those, get operators. And the film was not cheap. It was around $6 million ultimately, but every Canadian dollar is up on that screen. We shot in Toronto. And when it was time to write it, I was just so bored with stuff that I was looking for a composer who was a real rock’n’roll person. I had the Plato Symposium myth, “Origin of Love,” and I had some stuff from my life like this person who was sort of a babysitter for my brother and a whore and a friend of mine in Kansas when I was fourteen, and then my dad was the Commander in Berlin. So all of this stuff was bouncing around in my head, and Stephen was helping me organize it. I mean, Tommy was the main character originally. Hewig was a tiny character. He was working at Squeezebox, which is kind of like the Maxis Kansas City of the ‘90s. And he said, “I can get you a gig here, but you’ve gotta do the drag role. You can’t do the male role. It’s a drag club.”
And it was a fun club. It was like, all these old drag queens who had been lip synching for years who were just learning that they didn’t have to sing that good to sing punk rock. They were certainly more authentically punk rock than the kids in the malls. I mean, look at their life. And they were like, “Oh, god, The Buzzcocks!” They were discovering it all at this late age, and they were discovering that they didn’t have to sing as pretty when they could sing with feeling. It was exciting to watch them, because they had years of experience performing, but they just hadn’t sung in that genre yet. I hadn’t either. I had never sung with a band or performed in drag. He got me a gig, and at that point I started thinking about the operation and the Berlin stuff was coming in. We did cover songs. Like all the drag queens, we did a Television song, and a Bowie song, and a Fleetwood Mac song and a Pere Ubu song, and “Origin Of Love,” which was the first original song. And there was a scout there from Woodstock ’94, and he was like, “We want you to perform.” I was freaking out. I mean, this was what I’d always wanted to do. I mean, fuck MAGUYVER, you know?
And so it took off, but since we were just doing it as gigs, we would do it every six months, between jobs. So we had time to think about it. We would put more jokes in it. We would make more costumes. I would make my own costumes. I would find people to do my wigs. He was writing new songs. He was working with his own band at the time. So, doing it for all those years until we started doing it off-Broadway, which was... ’98... we thought about it so long that it has a density. People could come back and get another joke each time. We tried to do the same thing in the film. There’s jokes in the background, in the actual production design and the sound design. Stephen got his friend who was on the Lilith Fair albums to do the Menses Fair songs, you know, and there’s all these little things. It’s like LORD OF THE RINGS, you know? There’s a lot of lore that you can enjoy with repeated viewings.
M: As soon as I wrote about seeing the film at Sundance, I was contacted by fans of the stage show, people who had seen you at Squeezebox, people who were familiar with everything. It was great to get a sense of how much weight it carries for some people. It’s like Douglas Adams with his HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE material. It was a radio show, then a novel, then a TV series. He just kept refining certain ideas and by the time he was writing his drafts of the movie script, he had already lived with it for so long...
JCM: It’s like an old whore. Lived in. Worn.
M: It comes through clearly in HEDWIG from the opening frames.
JCM: It’s something I told my designers. Sure, Hedwig is an extreme person. Her appearance is extreme and her situation is extreme, but this isn’t PRISCILLA. This isn’t ROCKY HORROR. It’s not TOMMY. It’s not anything we’ve seen before. We have to believe that Hedwig could exist in order to go to the despairing, angry places, too. You have to believe that she can afford those costumes and those wigs. You have to believe the band is real. It’s slightly heightened. I kept thinking of films like BEING THERE and NASHVILLE and ALL THAT JAZZ, films that were just slightly heightened, but the acting was natural. You were improvising at times, you know? A lot of scenes... I wrote them tightly, but I encouraged the actors not to stick to the script. We rehearsed a lot, so the actors knew what they had to hit, but scenes like Tommy in the trailer or scenes with the band... I don’t care if any two takes are the same. As long as you do the same moves, we can cut it together. I wanted to have a set like Cassavetes or Altman. I love Cassavetes. People who can think on their feet, so you can buy, hopefully, that she can exist. Then it doesn’t become a fantasy or a comedy or something that you can dismiss.
M: There was something surreal about that week at Sundance, about going to see the movie having that experience, then a few nights later seeing you guys live. At one point, John Robie and I were right at the edge of the stage, video camera running, and you’re about a foot from us. Someone comes leaping up and slams into me from behind. Years of mosh pit experience kick in and I slam back into them without looking. When I do glance back, it’s Tommy Gnosis... Michael Pitt... and because of the overlap between seeing you on screen and seeing you live, it was Tommy Gnosis, as far as I was concerned. That really sort of underlined the film. It also confirmed that you guys are amazing as a live band.
JCM: At that altitude, I could barely sing a note.
M: It didn’t matter. The energy was incredible.
M: I will have dupes of that for you soon. I went into the office [for the AICN TV show] and dug up the right Sundance tape the other day. We’ve got the whole show for you.
JCM: Great. You know, my parents were there. My dad, the General, was right next to you.
M: Right, and I also saw your brother. I talked to your brother before the show.
JCM: I looked out and saw my dad with a Hedwig wig on.
M: What an amazing experience for you. That journey... to go from those early shows at Squeezebox to today... did you ever expect that HEDWIG would be here, that you would be promoting a movie, a major studio release?
JCM: I don’t know. We were so busy with whatever the gig was that we didn’t push too far into the future. We would joke about things like the Hedwig McDonald’s Unhappy Meal and stuff like that. It doesn’t feel unnatural. It certainly doesn’t feel like selling out. Hedwig, the character, would have done that, and ultimately if there was an Unhappy Meal and it got some kid to go see it and it broadened his mind in any way, it feels like it’s all for the power of good. I love that the wig could be on all these unusual heads actually. I really hope it gets to those weird malls and things. I don’t know if it will, but with the delivery systems of the day, eventually...
M: Eventually, this DVD is going to be sold at WalMart.
JCM: And that’s when it will get to those kids, when it will get to the right person.
M: The energy of this film, the fresh feeling it has, this film could be some kid’s STAR WARS. It could awaken him to the power of how many worlds or lives can be portrayed on film. There is no judgement in the film. There is no moralizing. It’s just a character piece that dares you to open yourself up to Hedwig. As alien as Hedwig’s experience might be from mine, we have things in common.
JCM: And unlike so many treatments of this sort of world, there isn’t a fuck you about her. It’s not that she isn’t mad at Tommy or about this or that, but she doesn’t confuse that with what she feels for her audience. The audience is always included. She’s like, “Come on in.”
M: Even in the scenes performing at Bilgewater’s, she’s not talking down to her audience.
JCM: And the audience might... beat you, like in that one scene... but the initial situation is, “Let me tell you this story. Come and sit down on the stage while I tell it to you.” That actually gets the biggest reaction that I never expected, when we’re at the Menses Fair and there’s just the single audience member and Hedwig goes...
(John gestures as if waving someone over to him and inviting them to sit down next to him.)
JCM: Everyone wants to be there. I love the fact that, somehow, my dad the General can relate to that.
M: We’ve all heard the Nietzsche quote that I’ll paraphrase: “When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you.” How has the experience of being Hedwig for so long changed you? What has she taught you?
JCM: I feel a little bit like Hedwig herself in that I didn’t want to be a drag queen. I didn’t even write the piece for her. It was just sort of... she just sort of forced herself on me through the circumstances in which we developed it. So I was even doing drag when I wasn’t comfortable with it yet. There’s that whole thing, especially when you’re gay or any sort of a freak, and for a boy, anything feminine is just the worst thing you can be. The worst thing is to be a sissy. Even for girls. There’s the phrase, “Don’t be a girl.” It’s common now, and it’s said to girls. It’s considered weak. It’s considered powerless.
M: On Madonna’s new album, there’s a track called “What It Feels Like For A Girl” that starts with spoken words. “Little girls can cut their hair short and wear jeans. But if a little boy dresses like a girl, you think it’s degrading. Because you think being a girl is degrading.”
JCM: It’s true. There would be no homophobia if there was no misogyny. As most gay people are, you’re told that as a kid and you hold onto that to some extent, which is why you see so many gay guys going to the gym so they can butch up and so they can defend themselves from themselves. There’s that thought, “If I can be like the bully who beat me up or even bigger, then I’ll be okay.” I didn’t have it that bad. I was fairly social growing up. But it manifested in me in some ways, in that I didn’t find guys who were feminine attractive. I actually found women who were masculine more attractive than men who were feminine. I never wanted to go out with a guy who was feminine because I hated it in myself. And so when I was forced to do drag, it was like pushing the envelope so far that all of a sudden, the envelope was bigger. There was more room in it. Suddenly I felt more masculine and more feminine and more everything playing this role. It was like great therapy as well as art. I knew I didn’t want to do one of those shows like, “My mom did this and my dad did that” like a lot of actors do in New York because they have free time. I wanted it to be a totally different character than me because I wanted it to be useful to other people. It just turned out to be useful to me, too. And after doing it, I could tell Hollywood to fuck off much easier. I could say no to jobs. I could say yes to stranger things. I felt like I could rage in these songs like I never could in life, because I’m a pretty quiet person. I could come onto people. I could have women really attracted to me. For some reason, women were really open to saying, “You’re so hot as a girl.” Then I realized why glam rock was invented by a lot of often straight men. Of course Mick Jagger was wearing that boa. He got more girls that way. And I even found that gay men started to be attracted to me as a woman, which is very unusual, because drag queens are usually desexualized in the gay community. It was like challenging the drag queens, too, to step up. And now, at the end of it, I really don’t want to ever wear a wig again.
(John shows me where his fingernails are painted quite ornately.)
I’ve got this from a ROLLING STONE shoot. They forced me into the wig with the old “One more time.” I don’t want to shave my legs again. I don’t need the wig or the drag. I’ll maybe do a benefit performance in ten years or a concert next year, but like Hedwig at the end of the movie, I don’t need it now. I feel more comfortable with myself. I find guys who are naturally androgynous more attractive now. I find that I’m not scared of Hollywood anymore. I’ve freed myself from that pit that actors are in when the feel like they have to be a certain age or a certain physical type of body or sexuality, whatever. I’m free of that. I don’t want to act anymore. I want to take a break for a few years until I get excited about it again. I only want to direct and write for a while. I want to do a children’s film that is big-budget with [Julian Koster, ] the guy from the Elephant 6 bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control, and he has his own band called The Music Tapes. So we’re writing a children’s film together that will be very strange, and we’ll need a lot of money. Then I want to do something that’s really cheap that has explicit sex in it, but is, like, really serious and really funny and has a real story. I want the sex to be highly necessary and highly important, and also highly explicit. And not like one of these French films lately where the sex is bad and alienated and boring. I want American sex, you know? HEDWIG really freed me up to do those things. HEDWIG saved my ass.
M: How much conscious pushing the envelope was involved in the decision to create Miriam Schorr’s character, who is just as challenging in terms of gender roles as Hedwig?