Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
So... let’s just reset the scene a bit. John Cameron Mitchell, star/writer/director of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, New Line’s remarkable new film that starts its limited platform release in NY and LA on Friday, is sitting across from me in a small conference room in the Fine Line Films offices over on Robertson. I’m flipping the tape in my microrecorder, halfway through the hour that’s been allotted for us to talk.
As I do so, he asks me about AICN and how it works and how I’ve enjoyed working on it and I tell him a little bit about the TV show and about lessons learned and about the evolution of my attitudes and approach. He tells me a story about how he learned to be careful what to say to the media, a fairly lengthy story about Madonna and a friend of John Cameron Mitchell’s who performed at a party and D’Angelo and kicking and a shared costume designer. I won’t reprint the story here, but I will say it ended with an emphatic, “I won’t say she’s talentless, but I know she was mean to one of my friends!”
Have I mentioned yet I like this guy? And his film?
Okay, then... back to it.
MORIARTY: So eventually I learned to separate the two... art and artist. I don’t bring feelings about one into feelings about the other, and I don’t write personal reviews. Unless it’s Tarsem or someone I want to make cry.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: Right. Who knows what influence a studio has had in a film?
M: There’s a whole process where things can go horribly wrong. That’s why we start talking about films early on, when things are still in script form. It’s fascinating to me to follow a film through development and see the exact moment where it either jumps the shark or snaps into focus.
JCM: Do the studios worry about the fact that you guys write about scripts?
M: Ummm... yeah. Definitely.
JCM: I think there’s a freedom of information. I think that’s a good thing.
M: There are some studios who won’t work with us, who won’t do publicity with us, and that’s just part of it. You accept that. You hope that you’re doing something positive overall, that you’re helping films, that you’re not just passively watching. Maybe something like IRON GIANT gets its day in court.
Anyway, back to it. The show is a success onstage, and at some point, the decision is made to cross over into film.
JCM: We weren’t an instant success. It took press to kind of push it over the edge, to make it into a must-see. Remember, theater audiences are conservative in New York. It was a little too raw, a little too punk. We had to get the okay in TIME magazine or ROLLING STONE before they started coming in. So finally we get a certain amount of respect. Even if some of the theater people were kind of alarmed, we found the cool ones. We found the young ones. We found people who hated theater who suddenly liked it now. We had to build our audience. We had to fight for our gay audience and our straight audience. And in the end, it was, like, totally multi-diverse. Then Hollywood started coming in and suddenly there were stars in the audience. And I started noticing it. Oh, look, there’s David Bowie in the audience. And there’s Lou Reed. What? Glenn Close has been here six times? What’s going on? We had Broadway singahs and... and... Bea Arthur, and she’s crying, and she’s holding your hand after, just crying, and it’s like, hold on a minute. Barry Manilow and Marilyn Manson came on the same day.
M: Really? (I start laughing at the image.)
JCM: Well, they weren’t together. I loved that! I mean, I loved Barry Manilow as a kid. I may not necessarily be a fan of Marilyn Manson, but come on...
M: What a collision of celebrity.
JCM: Hedwig is a showwoman. So anyone who is a showperson relates. A lot of people were interested in meeting us about a movie, and it turned out that the most serious people were Jersey Films, Danny DeVito’s company, which is very reputable. Very strange having Danny right there in the dressing room. I’m, like, trying to go to the bathroom and there he is. Totally cool guy. Also right in there is New Line, with Mike De Luca. We had some connections to New Line. Bob Shaye actually directed me in a film in the ‘80s. Stephen’s uncle worked there. His manager worked there. There were all these connections. They really stepped up, and it was a good deal. They wanted me to direct. They wanted to give us these advance fees so we could live while we were waiting for it to happen. They wanted to do the record, too, and Stephen didn’t want to do the record with them. He wanted to do it with Atlantic. So they dropped out and I brought in Killer Films. I knew them. I knew Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon. Perfect. It was a perfect match. Downtown New York. Pushing it. No bullshit. Just enjoying being this sort of “fuck you” to the establishment and they’re great filmmakers. So after a year of negotiating... and in that time, I wrote another movie... we got it together. And I went to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in that waiting time. They helped me start thinking about developing it. They helped me figure out how to use the good stuff from the play. They helped me keep the structure from the play, in a way. You’re still left with a narrator’s voice.
M: How valuable was that Sundance experience for you?
JCM: It was great. Even if a particular person’s opinion wasn’t... wasn’t useful... the fact is they were all so excited to help. The environment there is sooo pure. It’s one of the few places that remains pure year after year. Maybe A.A. and that, because neither one is about money. Having Robert Redford sit down and say, “Hedvig...” I mean, just having him say the word “Hed-vig” is weird enough. But to have him say, “You’re keeping it real, right?” What do you say? “Yes, Bob, I am.” To have Gus Van Sant sitting there, bouncing ideas off of him, it’s exciting.
So they assigned Frank DeMarco, this D.P., to me. I’d never heard of him, but we’re doing this great stuff, right? These video scenes. My first scene was a disaster. Tom DeCillo was, like, “What the fuck are you doing? This is a disaster.” I was crushed. I was doing things I hadn’t done in years. We were playing soccer, and there was karaoke. It was like summer camp, you know? We were dancing all night because we were all freaked out and excited. And then the second scene, it started working. Suddenly the D.P. was helping, and the actor was responding, and we were improvising, and then the guy who directed MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING is suddenly there, and is that Frank Oz? Who are these people who seem to be from a different world? They are there... to help. What they made me realize is that I could direct. I was a little afraid I was going to need a co-director, that it would all just be too much. It was their idea for me to direct myself in a scene and then have someone else direct me in the same scene to see what the difference was. So I brought in a friend, Tom Kalin, who directed SWOON. In the end, I found that it was easier when it was just me. First of all, I was just bored, just acting, sitting around and waiting. Second of all, when you’ve got five minutes left to shoot and the sun’s about to go down, two heads are not better than one. And I had so many ideas, so many strong ideas, that I didn’t want to force them on somebody and turn this into a star vehicle with some hired-on director.
So I realized that my scenes were working and Mike De Luca was thrilled with them and just said, “Go, great, full steam ahead.” So we just started hiring people, and there were so many people who wanted to be part of this movie that I actually... it was crazy. I had to turn people down. There were actors that were psyched, who wanted to do it. Like for Tommy, I saw tons of people, and I was thrilled by how good they were. That’s what I needed, was the acting. And I had this D.P. from the Lab who I kept rather than going with the fancy D.P., the famous people. Especially as we got going. Frank was just this great guy who I worked with. It worked well. He ws experienced but not well known. And we had a luxury that most films don’t have. For six months ahead, we were sitting down with the production designer, who was a friend, and him, and really plotting out things like the trailer with the wall falling down, and we asked ourselves, “What can we do with the little money we have?” We can shoot multiple cameras. Frank’s like, “Hell, I’ll bring my camera. We’ll have a 35mm. I got my wig and makeup guy from my club days. He’d never done a film, and his work is unbelievable. Stephen got Bob Mould and Girls Against Boys and a lot of his friends. We called in all the credit we had over the years. Then there was shooting in Canada because it was cheaper and having to get the Canadians psyched about it. They were excited, too. They’d been doing Lifetime movies for years at our budget. Suddenly they’re working on HEDWIG. You should have seen the light in those teamsters’ eyes, like they were going to drop their doughnuts and rush to help.
M: One of the most important collaborators you have on the film is Emily Hubley.
JCM: Oh, yeah. Do you know her work?
M: Well, I know her parents’ [John and Faith Hubley] work very well. I grew up on it. I remember sitting in the theater, one of the sequences that really dropped me... the moment I fell for the movie, actually... was “Origin Of Love.” It sneaks up on us, the way it’s conveyed visually and the power of that. When I saw the name Hubley go by, I had all these immediate connections that came up, and I’ve since gone back and seen some of her work. She’s got a very strong style. How did you two hook up, and how did you direct her work?
JCM: Well, we used drawings in the play that were projected, specifically for “Origin of Love” to tell the story because it was complicated. It just seemed like a natural extension to have animation for that song. I needed to find an original animator, since the guy who did the drawings didn’t animate. I met with people and saw their work, and right away her style, which comes somewhat from her parents, especially the mythological thing that her mother does and the comedy that comes from her dad, seemed right to me. It was childlike. I wanted it to look like something that Hedwig could have drawn. It just jumped out at me. And when I met her, she was totally cool. Her sister Georgia is in Yo La Tengo and had worked with Killer Films on I SHOT ANDY WARHOL. Jim Lyons, who edited VELVET GOLDMINE and SAFE, told me I should check her out. He was going to be my editor originally. Emily’s just a total sweetie, and it was perfect. We actually worked the longest of any of my film collaborators because of the lead time you need for animation. I knew that “Origin of Love” was the centerpiece, and, uh, we didn’t have much money, so we couldn’t be doing any animation that we weren’t going to use. We couldn’t afford it. We very carefully broke the song down and asked ourselves questions. We don’t want to lose Hedwig’s performance, so how often do we go back to her? Just on the chorus? We really plotted out what section had to be animated and how it related to other artwork in the film. How do we use the projections that Hedwig has in her show? We knew there would be a final sequence where the two halves try to come together. We really worked for about ten months off and on, honing this stuff. Turned out we had some sequences we couldn’t use, like when Hedwig’s flying. It was originally going to be me flying against a background of drawings, but we didn’t have time to shoot it so we just did that little tiny map sequence. Later in shooting, we had a sequence... if you remember the sequence where Hansel’s being born from his mother?
JCM: That used to be slides on a TV, but it didn’t work, and my editor said, “Let’s call Emily.” When we ran into problems, we would call Emily to animate something. Something doesn’t work in camera, we’re all “Could you do a little ten second sequence of the birth?” “Of course.” She was right there, and there was stuff she did that was fun that we didn’t get to use. I wanted the film to feel handmade. I wanted HEDWIG to be analog. She’s not digital, you know? I mean, sure, we had to do some digital mixing to get away with that stuff, but the effect... it feels like it’s in-camera or organic. Hedwig is handmade, patchwork. She’s the Exquisite Corpse. What I kept telling everyone is that she’s putting these old pieces together to make something new. Go with that... the wigs, the makeup, the sets... it’s all about found objects put together in a weird way. Your dick gets cut off? Replace it with some prop, you know?
M: I think only Alan Parker is currently shooting musicals on any sort of regular basis. What filmmakers did you look at when preparing to shoot your film? Who inspired you?
JCM: I tried to look at rock stuff from the ‘70s. I knew I wanted that energy, like in THE LAST WALTZ. That’s just shooting an event with, like, 100 cameras, though. I thought about NASHVILLE, where there’s a narrative, but the songs are actually in the scenes. The most useful one was ALL THAT JAZZ, which was out when I was in high school. That and FAME are the ones I remember. FAME was like... “God, I’m going to live forever!” It made me want to be an actor. It’s not a bad film if you look at it now. The acting’s pretty real. ALL THAT JAZZ freed me up with the idea that each scene could have its own style if the central voice was strong. Hedwig’s voice is very strong and her voice is clear, which means that each scene can have its own feeling. It’s all through her eyes. You can have the Berlin Wall sequence where almost everything is a close-up. I can go crazy on the close-ups there, use animation here, punk rock with five cameras to shoot it there. Funny montage with Tommy. This funny thing we’ve seen before but used in a new way here. Improvise some dialogue here, but not there. Have handheld shots for some of. “Wig In A Box” is very movie-musical, with locked down dolly shots. Because she’s so strong and stays at the center of it, we don’t get freaked out about the changes in tone or approach. And it’s not just jerking off, like Oliver Stone going, “Look what I can do now.” And you’re watching and it’s like, “What was the story? Are we in video now? Is this in black and white for a reason?” You can become so aware of your technique that it suffocates you sometimes. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s very facile and very skilled...
M: A lot of that is because he started to really get off on his work with one particular collaborator, Robert Richardson. They just started to egg each other on, and you can see the precision of that style devolve over a few films.
JCM: He turned it down a little when he got to, like, U-TURN, and started to get back to the characters.
M: I’ve worked in both theater and film, and there’s such a difference in terms of the immediate feedback you get from a live crowd and a film where you have to wait to see it all assembled. How has the reaction been to the film at Outfest or in San Francisco or at Sundance? Do they sing along when they’re supposed to?
JCM: They do, and the Castro was the most fun. It was like a rock concert. They have an organ at the beginning of the show. It’s this really well-preserved old theater filled with people bouncing beach balls and screaming. It’ll be great to see what people do once this has been out for a long time. Maybe people will sing along to a lot of the songs. I can’t imagine people shouting along to “Love The Front Of Me,” but it’ll be interesting if everyone’s singing, “Six inches forward and five inches back.” For people, the first time they see it is kind of like, “oh, my god!” and the second time is more emotional for them. I don’t know how it will play for people a third or a fourth time yet. I can see all the work we’ve done to make it feel like the show. It makes the audience feel like they’re part of a club, like they didn’t just experience it by themselves in a room. I love when the group is really diverse, like you’re sitting next to an old person and they’re really enjoying it, too. I mean, there was a guy who was here earlier in his 70s, interviewing me for some little rag, and he was like, “You know, I only like movies from the ‘40s, and I think you’re bringing some glamour back.” I love that! I want kids and couples and... I want everybody who could possibly relate to the movie to go and see it any way they can. I still like to watch it, but only the parts where I can hear the audience, where I can hear laughs. I can’t watch the ending. I can’t take it anymore. I still want to see them laugh at the Menses Fair, the Lillith Fair bit, and at the Korean women...
M: ... which is great. They’re so much fun.
JCM: Yeah, those are my favorite scenes.
M: It would be neglectful of me not to ask how was the experience of working with the great Andrea Martin?
JCM: She’s amazing. I actually had more fun with her in rehearsals because I had time to play around. And there were scenes of her that we couldn’t use that were brilliant. I was getting bored of Hedwig so I started writing more stuff for her. There’s a scene where she had the latest cell phone which is actually implanted in her head with a false tooth for the mic. She operated it like...
[John suddenly does the most obscene thing with his tongue flicking over a tooth, making me laugh very hard.]
JCM: ... like that. And she gets calls periodically and answers by just turning her head and talking, like when we’re in the mall. She’s just sitting there and goes...
[John turns his head like he hears something.]
JCM: “Yeah?” (long pause) “The red eye!” (longer pause) “Cunt!” To have Andrea Martin screaming “You cunt!” in a Toronto mall, echoing past the extras... it’s a wondrous thing. And the band I had more stuff for, too. They sort of recreated this fake Slavic language. It was this gibberish language that we created in rehearsal, and it was hilarious. Maybe I should put some of these rehearsal tapes in the DVD.
M: You’re definitely at the right company, then. New Line has always gotten DVD and been a leader in terms of what they’ll put on a disc as extras and how they’ll play with the format. Like the work they’re doing for John Waters now... I can’t believe how nice it is.
JCM: What are they doing?
M: They’re going in and doing back catalog titles for him finally and putting director’s commentaries that are just hilarious on the films. DESPERATE LIVING is about to come out, and POLYESTER, which they’re releasing with the scratch’n’sniff card.
JCM: That’s great.
M: They take care of all their films, not just the big giant new releases.
JCM: I should go through all that stuff. Rather than just do deleted scenes, we edited this 17-minute sequence that’s actually in order. There are some scenes from the film that are reedited and put together in a sequence with other deleted scenes. You can watch it all at once and you get stuff like the backup singer in Croatia where Hedwig meets him at a drag bar in Zagreb where they’re both dressed as Barbra Streisand. There were all these scenes we had to cut because they just didn’t fit in the puzzle.
M: Okay... here’s my final question for you. In this summer of mediocrity, when people are spending their nine bucks on one big bloated dumb film after another, sum it up for my readers: why HEDWIG?
JCM: Because... she will kick Reese Witherspoon’s ass if they ever meet. They’re wearing the same goddamn wig. Hedwig would rip the wig off and kick Reese into the mud. She’s take on Nicole Kidman. She’ll take on... anyone. Who else is coming up?
M: The dinosaurs are opening this week...