there's an alien punk romance movie and it's messy af (in a good way)
New film How To Talk To Girls At Parties stars Elle Fanning as an alien and Nicole Kidman as a Vivienne Westwood-esqe punk. We speak to its brilliant director, John Cameron Mitchell, about not selling out.
Messy is what 55-year-old writer, director and actor John Cameron Mitchell does best. His queer-sex milestone, the 2006 film Shortbus, caused a rumpus with its un-simulated sex and actual ejaculation. His masterwork, the off-Broadway show turned film, 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch was about a transgender East German rock star on a chaotic, musical journey following a botched sex-change operation.
John’s work is not easy, which makes it difficult to get made. But he has fans in high places; he persuaded Nicole Kidman to join his most serious-minded work, Rabbit Hole (2011), and she’s back for arguably his weirdest film yet. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is, in the grand tradition of Cameron Mitchell’s oeuvre, messy AF.
Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story, the new film stars Elle Fanning as an alien whose band of extraterrestrials crash land into 1977 punk Croydon. Kidman plays a badass Vivienne Westwood prototype punk, who rages and spits with the best of them. It’s all very peculiar, but spend time in John’s company and you get why Elle, Nicole, Ruth Wilson and (somewhat randomly) comedian Simon Amstell are happy to get involved with a load of old punks. Cameron Mitchell is delicious fun -- flirty, gossipy, an open book -- brutally honest about doing stuff for the monies, and how to not sell out. Here, he tells i-D about his enduring punk spirit.
Nicole said she was surprised you wanted her for this. Why did you?
Well because she’s so game. She’s one of the few. Maybe Isabelle Huppert, Cate Blanchett -- I’m thinking of the people in her class. They’re up for anything. Nicole’s up for anything, she says let’s give it a go. Some of them would rather sit back. Kate Winslet’s not up for anything.
Is give it a go your mantra?
Yeah, I don’t do that many films. I purposefully didn’t go the Hollywood route after Hedwig because I was older and I saw friends of mine who’d been sucked in and ravaged by it, their creative control taken away, money dumped into their accounts in return for that. They were a little bit crushed. I have cheap rent in New York so it helps to subsidise special things that I like. Now because my mom is sick I do have to branch out a bit more.
I have to run out to Japan and do some concerts. They’re Hedwig themed. In Korea I’m kind of a rockstar. I’m doing it for my mom because she has Alzheimer’s and I need a lot of money for her care right now, because America sucks. I gotta go put the wig on for mom.
Do you still enjoy doing Hedwig ?
I did it on Broadway a couple of years ago for the first time in 15 years and had a blast. I’m sure I’ll do it again. I might do it here in the West End when we finally get that Broadway production together.
Do you see any of Hedwig ’s influence on modern drag?
Hedwig uses drag tropes but it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with RuPaul. Drag is a performance thing, trans is a different thing and this [ Hedwig] is a totally different thing, which is really a metaphor for power and what it does to you and finding a beauty in what you have to work with. I used drag fun and rock ‘n’ roll as vehicles to keep it fun.
What’s at the heart of your new film?
There’s a gentle punk message, the kind of punk that I always liked, which is community based and challenging conformity -- that close-minded reactionary mentality. It’s like Romeo & Juliet. Nicole Kidman is our Montague. It’s punks vs aliens by the end but then they all get along because it’s a love story.
The film also reintroduces the world to band Selfish Cunt. Were you a fan?
I needed a singer. I actually offered the part to Daniel Radcliffe because he’s a big punk fan. Then I saw those YouTube videos of Selfish Cunt. [Singer] Martin Tomlinson is this pure punk queer political guy. He stood toe to toe with Nicole and gobbed in her face, which wasn’t planned.
Did you have to explain punk to the younger cast like Elle?
Punk is in the eye of the beholder. It’s often defined by what it’s against. The lead singer of The Homosexuals, Bruno Wizard, has a cameo in the film. He chose the name for his band so they would never be tempted to sell out, because no radio would ever play them. He was even more punk because he chose to talk about love.
What’s on the to do list?
The project at my heart right now is a new musical. It’s more in the Hedwig realm, starring me. It’s too crazy for TV. It’s called The Homunculus, which means little man and is also the name of a tumour. My character is doing a live-stream online telethon from his trailer park to raise money to get his brain tumour out, because it’s America. It’s Kickstarter to survive.
Is it possible to not sell out?
I do miss the time when people made art for art’s sake, when people did politics for politics sake. I met Pussy Riot. They’re not coming here and starting a fashion brand. It’s still possible to have that ethic. But of course young people are now taught to brand. I don’t want to be a content provider. There’s time to pay the bills and there’s time to do what you have to do.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is in cinemas now.