Friday, June 22, 2018

The Auteurs #66: John Cameron Mitchell

Among one of the current figures in American independent cinema who makes film that doesn’t play by the rules, John Cameron Mitchell is a figure in cinema and television who is interested in telling stories about those who struggle with being part of conventional society. Being openly gay, Mitchell started off as a voice for LGBT audiences only to broaden himself even more in making films and projects that also appeal to straight audiences but without giving in towards the conventional ideas of cinema. While he would also work as an actor in various projects to get funding for films that studios wouldn’t want to take on. His independent spirit has made him a vital voice for filmmakers who like to think outside the box.

Born on April 21, 1963 in El Paso, Texas, John Cameron Mitchell was the son of a U.S. Army general as he and his brother Colin along with their Scottish-born schoolteacher mother moved around the world as Mitchell and his brother Colin grew up on different army bases in West Germany, Scotland, and in various parts of the U.S. During that time when he was living Scotland, he attended the Benedictine boarding school where he discovered theatre as he would play the Virgin Mary for a Nativity musical at the age of 11. Through his love for acting and theatre, Mitchell would later attend Northwestern University in Illinois in 1981 where he attended the school for four years studying drama as he would also learn about film. On the year he graduated from Northwestern in 1985, he also came out of the closest to friends and family knowing that homosexuality was still considered taboo in America.

Living in Chicago following his college graduation, Mitchell got the role of Huckleberry Finn for a stage play in the city’s Goodman Theatre as it got the attention of theatre agents in New York City as he played Finn once again in a stage version of Big River. Mitchell would also get work in television, commercials, movies, and theatre for the course of more than a decade as he played different kind of roles. It was also around this time that he also learned the craft of directing theatre where he founded the Drama Department Theatre Company in the mid-1990s as he directed a version of Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth that would star Cynthia Nixon and Peter Sarsgaard. It was around this time that Mitchell met musician Stephen Trask through various punk rock clubs in New York City. The two shared an interest for music as they both loved David Bowie and 1970s glam rock as they decided to collaborate on a theatre project that would get the attention of the world of theatre.

Hedwig & the Angry Inch

In 1998, Mitchell and Trask staged their off-Broadway play about a German androgynous rock singer with a botched sex change operation who is touring with his band as they’re following a more popular singer that used to be the lover of the titular character. The character was partially inspired by Mitchell’s German babysitter when he was living in Junction City, Kansas as well as other luminaries in 70s glam rock like Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. The play would have a two-year run off-Broadway as it grew a lot of attention including the endorsement of David Bowie and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell who invited Mitchell and Trask to perform a song on her show. The success of the play would inspire Mitchell to do his own film version of the play as he would co-write, direct, and star in the film with Trask also co-starring and co-writing the film’s script.

With a budget of $6 million that was aided by famed independent film producer Christine Vachon who would produce the film, Mitchell would be given the chance to create his own film version of the story he created rather than have big Hollywood studios adapt it and make it more mainstream. With Mitchell playing the role of Hedwig as he did onstage and Trask as one of the band members, the film’s cast would include Miriam Shor who would reprise her role as Hedwig’s husband/back-up singer Yitzhak, Andrea Martin as Hedwig’s manager, and then-newcomer Michael Pitt as Hedwig’s former lover Tommy Gnosis who had become a popular singer that had taken the songs he and Hedwig had written. Mitchell would gain the support of cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco to shoot the film as he would be a recurring collaborator of Mitchell for much of his film as DeMarco would create visuals to play into Mitchell’s ambition.

Knowing that musicals often are made with large budgets that was one of the reasons the genre had phased out in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as attempts to revive the genre in the coming decades haven’t been well-received. Mitchell knew that he didn’t want to fall into the traps of creating spectacles as he used the film’s $6 million budget to his advantage to create something that has elements of spectacles but not be afraid to play into its low budget aesthetics. At the same time, Mitchell wanted to create that air of excitement into the fact that his musical is largely based on rock n’ roll rather than the typical idea of show-tunes as the songs he and Trask created definitely had an edge as it play into Hedwig’s own faults and anger towards his protégé whom he felt had used him for his own success.

The film made its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year as it won the festival’s Audience prize as well as a directing prize for Mitchell. The film would also make its European premiere a month later at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the festival’s Teddy Award as it appealed to the LGBT audience. The film’s success through film festivals lead to a limited theatrical release in the U.S. later that summer. Despite its immense critical success, the film only made $3.6 million which wasn’t enough to cover its $6 million budget though the film would eventually become a cult film since its release. Mitchell would also garner a large amount of critical support as he would win the L.A. Film Critics Association New Generation prize as well as Best Debut Director from the National Board of Review in the U.S. and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a comedy/musical.

Bright Eyes-First Day of My Life (music video)/Scissor Sisters-Filthy/Gorgeous (music video)

The critical and cult success of Hedwig & the Angry Inch would give Mitchell the chance to do other work as well as be a host for the Independent Film Channel’s Escape from Hollywood film series in showcasing revered independent films to a wide audience for two years. While trying to get money in developing a new film project, Mitchell would also take the time to direct a couple of music videos during this break between film projects. The first of which is a video for the indie folk group Bright Eyes as it was a simple video of various people on a couch as they listen to the song on headphones as it play into the idea of love. The video would help Bright Eyes become a viable act in the indie scene as Mitchell would make another video for the American dance band Scissor Sisters that would be extremely controversial as it is set at a sex club though Mitchell didn’t want to make it totally explicit. Still, the video in an edited version and its uncensored version was considered too controversial to be aired on MTV or any mainstream music outlet.


Wanting to make his next feature film something completely different and use non-professional actors, unknowns, and some obscure actors, Mitchell and producer Howard Gertler decided to get people to answer a casting call on participating in a film project about sex. The film would revolve around a group of people in New York City coping with their sexuality and what it would mean to them as it include a subplot in which a sex therapist deals with her lack of orgasm in her sexual life. Many people would send thousands of confessional tapes and such for Mitchell and Gertler to watch as one of the tapes came from Jonathan Caouette whose confession lead to Mitchell finding him and eventually fund Caouette’s own documentary Tarnation that was released through film festivals in 2004 to rave reviews. Nine people were eventually chosen including Canadian radio personality Sook-Yin Lee who had appeared in a small role in Hedwig & the Angry Inch as they would all take part in a workshop to develop ideas for the film and its characters.

Three people would leave the workshop while Lee’s involvement in the film would nearly have her fired by her bosses until several people such as filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Bart Freundlich along with actress Julianne Moore and musician Moby stepped in to save Lee’s job. Mitchell would take the workshop to Los Angeles to find more actors as he would succeed as well as get the $2 million he needed for the film along with distribution in THINKfilm. The film was finally shot in the summer of 2005 as Mitchell brought along his collaborators that include sound designer Benjamin Cheah, animator John Bair for some visual effects, production designer Judy Asnes, and costume designers Bart Mueller and Kurt Swanson for the production. Much of the cast of non-professional actors and amateurs would take part in sexually explicit acts but Mitchell knew he didn’t want to make a film that many thought would be pornography.

For an orgy scene, Mitchell decided to take part in the scene as an act of solidarity with the other actors taking part in the orgy as he and a cameraman were both naked for the scene. Even as there’s moments in the film where real orgasm and real sex occurred where during a shoot where Mitchell and his crew were finishing up the shoot that night. Actors involved in an orgy were still having sex that made Mitchell and crew members restless into having the people finish things up as Mitchell would also have another crew film the making of the orgy scene. Actors would get tested for STDs in case something goes wrong though fortunately no one had any STDs as Mitchell was able to get what he wanted.

The film made its premiere in May of 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival in France where it received a rousing reception in its screening as it was released a few months later by THINKfilm in the U.S. in a limited release due to its sexually explicit content as Mitchell refused to do further cuts by the MPAA and chose to release the film unrated. Despite its lack of commercial appeal and receiving mixed reviews from critics, the film did manage to make more than $5.4 million in its limited theatrical release against its $2 million budget. The film would also play in film festivals around the world where it received some accolades giving Mitchell some clout in the industry. A year after its release, the film was banned from South Korea for its release though it would still play in film festivals in the country that did help the ban get lifted for the film two years to be seen publicly in its unrated presentation.

Rabbit Hole

Following a break between films in which Mitchell was trying to develop other projects, he went to see David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about a couple dealing with the loss of their child as it would play into their disintegrating marriage where they each go into separate paths to cope with their grief. The play’s 2006 premiere on Broadway that featured Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery in the lead roles was a major hit as Mitchell met Lindsay-Abaire about the play as the two decided collaborated on turning the play into a feature film project. With Lindsay-Abaire winning the Pulitizer Prize for its play, he agreed to work with Mitchell due to their experiences in theater as they also wanted to stray from the conventional ideas of Hollywood as it relate to hit plays becoming mainstream films that often don’t deliver.

Knowing that the film would mark a major departure for Mitchell from his more raucous stories of sexuality, the film would have Mitchell play it straight but also go further into the way a couple deals with grief. With the exception of longtime cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco and sound designer Benjamin Cheah, Mitchell took on an entire new crew for the production during its development as he and Lindsay-Abaire got the attention of Nicole Kidman who is interested in doing the film. Kidman who dropped out of a film project for Woody Allen agreed to do the film in the role of Becca as she would also serve as one of its producers to keep the film’s budget low. For the role of Becca’s husband Howie, Aaron Eckhart accepted the role as he would go into his own research into the idea of grief by attending meetings for parents who had lost their children.

The ensemble would include Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, then-newcomer Miles Teller, and Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother as the shooting began in late 2009/early 2010 for a 28-day shoot in the boroughs of Queens in New York City with the small budget of $3.2 million. Mitchell wanted to maintain the same kind of intimacy that the play had while shooting the film on various locations in Queens such as an arcade where Howie and Sandra Oh’s character Gabby decide to skip a grief counseling meeting to just hang out and have fun. It would play into Becca and Howie’s disintegrating marriage as Becca would find herself spending time with the character of Jason, played by Miles Teller, who accidentally killed their son as he feels guilty over what he did giving Becca a chance to cope with her own loss as well as learning her sister is pregnant. Mitchell chooses not to over-embellish nor underplay the drama in order to play with these ideas of grief giving the actors a chance to take the characters into places that most films wouldn’t go into.

The film made its premiere in September 2010 at the Toronto Film Festival where it was well-received as it was later distributed by Lions Gate which gave the film a limited release later in December for its Oscar consideration. The film received rave reviews from critics while managing to do well in its box office making more than $5 million against its $3.2 million budget while it would give Kidman an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Though there were some who were critical of the changes Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire made from the play into the film. Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire were still proud of what they did as it would help the former become more visible in Hollywood despite his reluctance to play into their world preferring to remain independent.

Dior: L.A.dy Dior/Dior: Lady Grey London/Dior: Dior Homme Sport

After the release of Rabbit Hole, Mitchell chose to take on a few small projects as he was asked by Dior to direct a few ads for the fashion company. A couple of these ads/shorts would star French actress Marion Cotillard as the first short involved her as a movie star in Los Angeles that is tired of the photoshoots and such as the overwhelming pressure in being a star finally gets to her as she acts out. The second short set in London which also starred Ian McKellan and Russell Tovey in which Cotillard played a mysterious stage performer who entrances both a crippled McKellan and Tovey as an artist as it is a mixture of cabaret and melodrama. A third short film Mitchell did for Dior would star Jude Law as a man driving to Paris to the South of France to meet a woman as it is told through the Rolling Stones’ song Paint It Black where Mitchell infuses it with a sense of style and Law’s sense of cool.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

During a long break between films in which Mitchell directed an episode of Showtime’s medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie in 2013 as well as appearing in a recurring role for the HBO comedy series Girls from 2013 to 2014 and later appearing as Andy Warhol two years later in another HBO series in Vinyl. Mitchell’s foray into television was brief as he shot an unaired pilot of another Showtime comedy series in Happyish that never got off the ground since the pilot featured one of the final acting performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman who died in early 2014. It was around in 2015 when Mitchell was approached in helming a film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story about a young punk rocker who meets and falls in love with a young woman who is believed to be an alien as it’s set during the late 70s punk movement in Britain.

Mitchell collaborated with Philippa Goslett in adapting the script as they were able to get the film shot in Sheffield instead of London due to the fact that certain locations in London didn’t look like what they did back in 1977. Along with longtime collaborators in Frank G. DeMarco and Benjamin Cheah, Mitchell would get the services of famed costume designer Sandy Powell in creating costumes just as Mitchell also got Nicole Kidman on board to play the role of punk rock leader Queen Boadicea. Mitchell wanted Marion Cotillard to do a cameo appearance in the film but Cotillard was unable to take part due to scheduling conflicts as the cameo was scrapped where Mitchell focused on getting the right actors for the lead roles. It was in British theater actor Alex Sharp who would get the role of Enn while American actress Elle Fanning played the role of the mysterious alien Zan.

The ensemble cast would include Matt Lucas and Ruth Wilson as colony leaders as shooting began in November 2015 on a $3.8 million budget for the film. Being familiar with the world of punk culture, Mitchell wanted to maintain that air of authenticity as well as writing original songs for the film that Zan and Enn would sing to play into their growing union. It added to this energy that Mitchell wanted while he wanted the scenes involving the aliens to be filled with some comical absurdity as idealists who have an agenda yet would be confronted by the punks who reveal the major flaws into their ideals. All of which would lead to Enn, who is an artist trying to find his own artistic voice, to write up his own experiences similar to what Gaiman had experienced in the time of punk rock.

The film made its premiere in May of 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival in France where it played out of competition where it got a mixed reception. The film was eventually released in theaters a year later in Britain and in the U.S. where some praised the film for its energy though some felt the blending of different genres hurt the film. The polarizing reaction did hamper the film’s limited release in the U.S. even though Mitchell remains confident over the film and his vision.

While he’s only made four feature films so far and doesn’t make films very often due to his reluctance to work with Hollywood. John Cameron Mitchell is still an important figure for American independent and LGBT cinema as he would be a champion for both movements as well as maintain that need to not be pigeonholed like other filmmakers known for doing certain types of films. It is why cinema should be grateful in having someone like John Cameron Mitchell to be the voice for stories that Hollywood wouldn’t dare touch.

© thevoid99 2018


Alex Withrow said...

Great breakdown here. I loved all that information about Shortbus. I didn't know a lot of that, and I thought it was fascinating to read here. Rabbit Hole is one of the best films I've ever seen about grief, and I of course adore his Dior spots with Marion. Great work!

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. It was stuff I remembered writing about in my review as I wanted to see if it's still true as I was right. I love how he approaches his films and those shorts with Marion are great. I hope they do a film together.