John Cameron Mitchell Interview

John Cameron Mitchell's film from his campy Off-Broadway punk opera may be the biggest cult hit in years

John Cameron Mitchell's film from his campy Off-Broadway punk opera may be the biggest cult hit in years

(Some questions in this interview may have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

John Cameron Mitchell has an impressive resume of theater credits and accolades. He's won two OBIE Awards and half a dozen drama critics awards for his stage acting. He's directed a Tennessee Williams play. He's even been in action movies and a Spike Lee flick.

But with his film adaptation of his own Off-Broadway smash, in which he stars as a transsexual punk-rock prima donna, John Cameron Mitchell may forever be known as the title character of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

The product of an East Berlin upbringing and a botched sex change (thus the "Angry Inch"), Hedwig is an over-the-top Ziggy Stardust-meets-Joan Rivers drag queen in starched, platinum Farrah wig. She the bitter lead singer of a failing band that belts out cathartic hardcore tunes so energetic and catchy that audiences have been singing along at festival screenings (the film won the Audience and Director Award at this year's Sundance).

Mitchell, on the other hand, is 180-degrees from his screen persona -- a soft-spoken and unpretentious bantamweight 38-year-old who looks ten years younger, and not unlike a male Rachel Griffiths. He first created Hedwig with the help of New York musician Stephen Trask seven years ago as way to grab the spotlight on stage at the city's notorious rock'n'roll drag bar Squeezebox.

"She had to fight her way out and push the main character aside," Mitchell said during a break from promoting the film at San Francisco's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last month.

It wasn't long before Mitchell and Trask were developing a show just for Hedwig that became a cult sensation, a bona fide hit, and a movie script.

Today Mitchell is crashing out in his hotel room, dressed casually in teal corduroy pants and a flannel shirt and popping individually wrapped chocolate bonbons. As we sit down to talk about the film, he puts a pillow on his lap, grabs my tape recorder and sets it right in front of him. He smiles, saying he learned while working on the film how hard it is to pick up his quiet voice on a microphone. But while he does speak in calm and breathy tones, that doesn't dampen what is clearly emphatic enthusiasm about the film.

Q: How did "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" evolve from into the film from the stage production? I imagine that was an interesting transition to make.

A: It was a long process, you know? The film actually allowed me to be more delicate about (the character of Hedwig) -- shading as opposed to broad strokes. The stage play (is presented as) a rock gig. The film, it just sort of seemed natural to make it a tour. I pretty much kept the same structure -- at the very end it's still like a concert, with six or seven songs in a row. (But) writing visually as opposed to verbally can do certain things. There's more information on the screen to play with, even if it's sound information, set information, costume information. We had some projections in the show that became animation. And then there were a million little details of visuals and casting.

Q: Speaking of which, that Michael Pitt kid playing Tommy...(a teen heartthrob rocker named Tommy Gnosis is Hedwig's lover and protégé until he plagiarizes and abandons her for MTV glory.)

A: [Enthusiastically] He's good, isn't he?

Q: He's got everything that's right about that age, about the egotistical aimlessness of that age. Then he's got that pouty Leonardo DiCaprio look going on, which is just perfect. He seems a little bit tough, and a little bit vulnerable and a little bit boy-band, and a little bit fey, but definitely masculine. That must have been a really hard part to cast.

A: It was. Though it was kind of fun because in the callbacks I always had to make out with them [smiles] -- to see if they could handle it.

Q: [Big laugh.]

A: But I wasn't, like, attracted to him at all -- which was probably better. A director is often defeated by that. You see a lot of good directors who cast someone who's pretty and you think "Why did they cast them?" Because they wanted to f**k them. And then they treat them differently on set. You get all these French directors who have all these pretty, vacuous stars of their movies -- from Jean Seberg on -- who have become iconic but were never really good actors.

Q: Speaking of being attracted to men, I understand you came out to your (straight) brother while visiting him here in San Francisco.

A: I just saw him for lunch! [Smiles.] It was a party at my brother's fraternity at USF! I can't remember what I was doing here. I think I had just made my first action movie or something.

Q: "Band of the Hand?"

A: Yeah, that's what it was. That's when I came out to my parents, during "Band of the Hand" (in 1986). I flew this guy I was in love with, he was from Berkeley, this auto mechanic, to be with me. I thought that was pretty movie star (of me)! He cheated on me on that trip. [Ironic grin.]

Q: Oh, god! [Laughing.]

A: My brother was freaked out because the guy had fixed his car. My boyfriend had fixed his car. He couldn't understand.

Q: There have been a lot of comparisons of "Hedwig" to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Could you see it playing every Saturday at midnight for the next 25 years?

A: Sure. I mean, I think. I have a feeling we'll do well. (But) it's different. It's not as much of a camp exercise. It uses, and has learned from, things like "Rocky Horror" and David Bowie, as far as presentation and stuff. Ziggy Stardust is a suggestion of a story. I wanted a really strong narrative that was emotional, you know, as well as just funny. So I don't think it will have the same trajectory (as "Rocky"). But if we had the same kind of loyalty, that would be amazing.

Q: It's just as memorable, and maybe even more quotable!

A: We worked on it for so long that I would get bored with stuff and just embellish it over the years, keep it interesting for us. I didn't want just gratuitous one-liners just because they're funny. I want the jokes and all the lines to have as many meanings as possible -- or at least to get a laugh. But hopefully to have a meaning too. And it was kind of fun to distill it even more for the film because we would pare away the jokes and replace them with visuals. Like on the stage a lot of the jokes would happen as ad libs and I'd keep them. Once I wiped my face with something and there was glitter on it. I said, "It's the Shroud of Hedwig!" In the film...we see the towel she wipes her face on, then it becomes actually the shroud of Hedwig. We don't need to say it, you know?

Q: Have you ever gotten sick of Hedwig over the last seven years?

A: Oh, yeah! Constantly. I was sick of it a few years ago. The directing was interesting, but I'm quite over playing her.

Q: Does the film feel like a closing chapter to the whole Hedwig thing?

A: For me. I have a strange feeling that it's actually going to blossom, but it will definitely be without me. You know, Hedwig was born as an experiment, and there are kids who just have the album and have never seen the show who are kind of passionate about it. I've met them at festivals and stuff, and this album has meant a lot to them. Just the album meant a lot to them. That's amazing! But like a child, I'd like it to sort of leave home.

Q: Could someone else actually play Hedwig?

A: There have been a lot of people who have been very, very good. I like the fact that it's like The Ramones. You just have to change your name and you're a Ramone. You just have to put the wig on and you're Hedwig. Women have played it. Gay men, straight men, you know. A lesbian hasn't played it yet, and a transsexual hasn't played it. That would be interesting.

Q: How do you feel about watching yourself on screen?

A: Well, I had been acting for a long time so I had seen it. But it's funny, in this part it does bring out more of the "My god, I don't look very good in that shot!" There are a couple scenes where I'm like, that low-angle lighting is just wrong. For everybody!

Q: [Laugh] Well, you've learned that for your next film, huh?

A: Yes! I'll know about my lighting like Marlene Dietrich. But I'm not really interested in acting for a while. I'm just kinda burned out on it. So I'm going to be directing for a while.

Q: Have people been sending you scripts?

A: They have been a little bit, but I want to do my own stuff. It's weird the things I've been getting! A James Brown biopic -- I mean I love his music but...

Q: How did you learn to direct film?

A: Well, I've obviously always been aware of actor-oriented films, being an actor. Altman and Cassavetes were really strong. And then I realized their structures were quite fascinating too. And it was only when I was approaching the film that I started analyzing and asking, "Why do I love these people?" I would look at (Bob) Fosse, I would look at Hal Ashby, especially for tone, highly realistic acting, but everything is heightened. A lot of still frames -- in "Being There" and "Harold and Maude" -- not calling attention to itself. And then I'll look at someone completely different who goes crazy on close-ups, and animation. So I got to kind of think about the directors that I like and in this case could go crazy on the subject matter.

Q: Do you know what you want to do next?

A: I'm working on a children's film with someone right now, which is a kind of cross between "Willy Wonka" and "Fanny and Alexander." It's kind of a darker thing, with music in it. And then something else, I don't even know what it's about, but all I know is it has explicit sex in it. But it's funny. And the sex is good, it's not the alienated French sex. That's all I know.

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