Thursday, November 15, 2007
Back on the Bus
I really liked Shortbus. My DVD has gone missing from its case, so may have to get another copy.
Meanwhile, took a look back at my feature article on the film and its making, and decided to post it here - since you should see the movie too, if you haven't yet. This is the never before published full version...
Get on the Bus
By Lawrence Ferber
Movie directors have gone to extraordinary, unexpected lengths to gain their cast and crew’s trust, or coax performances. Add actor/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell to that ever-growing list of auteurs. While shooting Shortbus, his dramedy about a group of New Yorkers who intersect at a progressive underground salon/sex party – which features explicit, very real sex - one of the lead actors felt that Mitchell should show solidarity by going to the same lengths he expected his cast to.
“She was like, ‘If we have to have sex, you should do something,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘alright, I’ll do something I haven’t done - I’ll eat pussy.’ So I eat pussy for the first time in one shot. I didn’t get turned on, but I realized that from that angle I could see the actors and could continue to direct them from down there, so that was fun.”
The long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and Mitchell’s second feature as director, Shortbus begins as a gay couple, depressed former hustler James (Paul Dawson) and extroverted former child actor Jamie (PJ DeBoy), seek relationship help from a couples counselor/sex therapist, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). But Sofia is dealing with her own relationship problem – she’s never had an orgasm with her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker). So her new clients take her to Shortbus, a modern-day underground salon where art, discussion, music, and sex intermingle. At Shortbus, Sofia meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), an emotionally jaded dominatrix who may hold the key to her G-spot. Meanwhile, James and Jamie welcome a third lover, youthful Ceth (Jay Brannan), into their relationship, much to the chagrin of an across-the-street stalker, Caleb (Peter Stickles), who obsessively spies on them. Can this diverse group of individuals reconcile their love and sex lives… or must they ultimately exist apart?
Sprinkled amongst the cast are some of NYC’s best loved queer and underground performers, including Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb), drag king Murray Hill, film guru Stephen Kent Jusick (whose real-life event, dubbed “Cinesalon,” served as an inspiration), and musician Scott Matthew. Gorgeous animation sequences by John Bair – an amalgamation of CGI and miniatures depicting the city and its outer boroughs – bridge the film together, which is ultimately a celebration of and valentine to the city and its omnisexual denizens. It’s a place, scene, and population where Mitchell himself came of age, explored his sexuality, and developed as an artist and person.
“In the film, a character talks about New York being the place everyone comes to get fucked, metaphorically or literally,” Mitchell says. “To bend over and see what life has got to give you. It’s the where I came of age, where I first was sexually active. Literally fucked. But it was also a place where I had to prove myself. It’s a brusque, direct city. And that was new to me because I came from a very conservative, uncommunicative environment. Very Catholic, military. There was directness but not a lot of honesty and the city requires honesty to get by. New York is Walt Whitman – I sing the body electric, fuck the world, fuck me. It taught me a directness I didn’t have.”
After starring in, writing, and directing Hedwig, which garnered international acclaim and prestigious film festival awards (at Sundance, the Berlin Film Festival, and numerous others), Mitchell decided that he would exist exclusively behind the camera when it came to his next project (barring unforeseen cameos!). He also decided to incorporate explicit sexuality, which he saw emerging in serious arthouse fare like Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy and Catherine Breillat’s Romance, but with a humor those titles lacked (“We tried to integrate the sex into the characters’ lives the way it is in life,” he adds). The story and characters would be developed through improvisational workshops, a la the films of Mike Leigh, and the actors playing couples and sexual partners would need to have genuine sexual chemistry together. Mitchell dubbed this ambitious undertaking the “Sex Film Project” and, in early 2003, he, producer Howard Gertler, and casting director Susan Shopmaker held an “open call” via the internet and trade ads, soliciting audition videos from thespians and would-be thespians willing to have real sex onscreen.
Nearly 500 tapes arrived.
Mitchell says that few full-time or professional actors submitted tapes – most maintained other artistic endeavors or careers. “Sook-Yin is a journalist and musician and filmmaker,” he notes. “PJ is a musician. Paul is a writer.” Yet there was one well-known exception: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who since has starred in Mysterious Skin). “It makes sense that the best known actor who auditioned was a former child star,” Mitchell observes, “because they’re the ones caught in a very mainstream box and they’re desperate to break out. Joseph was fantastic. He had a very provocative videotape. I was seriously considering him but there was no perfect consort and I wanted [believable] couples and it didn’t work out with some of the other actors for compatibility. But I think he enjoyed pushing the envelope and I really admire him.”
Aside from chemistry, Mitchell says practical concerns included STDs (everyone who made it to the workshop stage was extensively tested, while background actors who had sex – dubbed “Sextras” – were all preexisting sexual partners) and representing a wide variety of different body types (on the de facto lack of small penises onscreen: “You know, there are a couple of average penises but you have to look. I didn’t really check size when I cast, it kind of turned out that way. And of course the screen does add ten pounds.”).
Once filming began, Mitchell admits a few unforeseen sex-related complications arose, resulting in the occasional comedy of errors. “Some people tried Viagra and took it too early,” he recalls, “so they were on Viagra during some dialogue scene and had to take it again. Some people came by accident, or the camera missed them cumming and we had to do it again.”
Other times, the sex was as good at it gets for both the filmmaker and the actors. “The female orgasms, I think we counted 7 orgasms, real orgasms, onscreen,” he adds. “Only one is simulated. I’m not telling which one.”
During the extensive improvisational workshops, Mitchell encouraged his omnisexual cast (none of whom, refreshingly, are sheepish about their real-life queerness) to incorporate elements of their own lives into the story and characters. Yet DeBoy and Dawson, close friends who became a bona fide couple over the course of the film’s making, stress that it was equally important to not simply play themselves.
“The reason John wanted us to dig around in our own sexual and emotional baggage was to get the authenticity of the character you see,” says Dawson. “He wanted us to be playing things that were important to us and that we were especially equipped to play. But also he was clear from the beginning this wasn’t a reality entertainment project and in order to do this process we were going to have to distinguish ourselves.”
“It was very important to have the characters not be us at all,” DeBoy adds. “That’s why it was such a great experience creatively.”
Dawson and DeBoy shared some pretty intimate experiences with co-star Jay Brannan – famously, a riotous three-way scene during which they sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Singer/songwriter Brannan moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting but became disenchanted and quit. Then a friend spotted a Sex Film Project ad in a trade magazine and thought Brannan, by that point working as a receptionist, might be interested. Brannan was intrigued, albeit intimidated by the real sex aspect. “I thought I’ll send in the audition tape and take it one step at a time,” he recalls. “I believed in what John was trying to do and if it is something I believe in why not. He’s so good at creating an environment that’s safe and comfortable and it’s very validating. For me it was as big or bigger of a challenge and fear to do the acting stuff as sex stuff. Because I’m self-conscious and insecure I’m not that comfortable in front of the camera. But doing this project helped me work through some of that.”
Like Brannan, the Los Angeles-based Beamish (one of the few cast members who identifies as heterosexual – although she’s open to same-sex possibilities) had also grown frustrated with acting in Hollywood. Yet when referred to Mitchell by her friend Miranda July, Beamish flew to New York and joined the in-progress improvisational sessions (she was replacing an actress that dropped out). “I loved and trusted John right away and wanted to help him make his vision come true,” Beamish says. “And it was very affirming to me as an actress. It’s hard, as Jay was saying, to live in LA and audition for shitty TV commercials. But it was definitely like I finally felt like I got to accomplish what I always thought I could do and was given the opportunity to realize my potential.”
Beamish also had an opportunity to do a little bit of method research for her role, learning the ins and outs of the dominatrix arts. “As soon as I learned all the whip techniques I had a huge desire to beat up every man I saw,” she laughs. “It unleashed some latent thing in me!”
All of the actors praise Mitchell and the creative atmosphere that allowed them to journey down sometimes outrageous, provocative directions and come up with some very funny riffs on pop and political culture. But not all of those elements and scenes made it to the final cut. One cut sequence saw Ceth masturbating while cruising online porn ads, text messaging, and instant messaging at the same time when, just as he ejaculates, his mother calls. “It’s a bit of a satire on this multitasking thing that overwhelms us and we end up not being able to communicate at all,” says Mitchell. And a subplot in which the character of Caleb was working as the Bush twins’ personal assistant, constantly communicating with President Bush via a wireless headset (which he’s still seen wearing in the final cut), was excised. “We found that it called too much attention to this character,” Mitchell explains. “It was an editing decision but it’ll all be in the DVD.”
If Mitchell has his way, by the time the DVD hits shelves we will see a revival of salon culture and social-artistic-sexual gatherings in real life, which he feels could inject a little much-needed liberation, connection, and free-thinking and willingness to explore ideas in today’s queer community. “Personally I like a multi-sexual setting,” he says. “I think too many gay men in a room is bad news. People start thinking with their dicks and don’t end up hanging out and relaxing. Same with too many women. But I’m a little disappointed in today’s gay culture. At how conformist it has become. We listen to the same music, have the same clothes, the same bodies, the same bullshit. I was saved by being gay. If I hadn’t been gay I would have accepted all kinds of things I was told. Being gay showed me the world. It opened me up to art, politics, to question religion. Now it just seems to be an entrée to a certain marketing niche, letting people tell you what you’re supposed to like. There’s a lot of diversity and why not use the fact you’re a freak to create.”