John Cameron Mitchell is something of a hero. As well as being a standard bearer for the Radical Faeries movement, he created the iconic films Hedwig and The Angry Inch and Shortbus, which have arguably had a significant impact on LGBT people’s lives (both of them made it into our list of the best LGBT films earlier this year). But recently he’s moved on from doing his own work to direct Nicole Kidman in an adaption of the Pulitzer award winning play Rabbit Hole (Kidman was also the film’s producer).
While Mitchell admits that this is a film he’d want to take his mother to see, his fans needn’t worry that he’s sold out to Hollywood. Rabbit Hole is a challenging, harrowing and yet hopeful film which has really benefited from his touch. Ahead of the film’s release on DVD next month he spoke to So So Gay.[pullquote_right]The older I get, I need more reasons to ignore the news, to ignore bad behaviour and to remind myself of beauty.[/pullquote_right]SSG: Given that you normally work on your own productions, how did you get involved with Rabbit Hole?
John Cameron Mitchell: When I was an actor my job was working with other people on their projects and tailoring my work to serve the script, so it didn’t feel unusual to do that as a director. I’ve certainly directed other things on stage that I hadn’t written. The most unusual thing was working with big stars, as their schedules are very tight and communication is unusual because you have to go through people’s teams because of their busy lives. My agent is always sending me things, and I’m usually turning them all down; I can’t do anything I kind of like. I have to do something I love, because it takes too much time to do it. I get cranky if I’m not really into it. I hate any inkling of hackdom, it really disgusts me. There’s so many people doing stuff, killing themselves to do stuff, they don’t care a whole lot about. There’s times when economic situation requires it but my own overhead is really low. My rent is cheap so I can say no very easily.
As well as acting, Nicole Kidman produced the film; did that make it hard to direct her?
Well, she was a very non‑micromanaging producer. Her producing partner was detail-oriented. But she was more concerned about making sure it was going in the right direction and in no way interfering with my work, in any way that was negative. Her notes to me were very positive, and they were very once in a while. They were very rare. So, that was not a problem at all.
Some people have described Rabbit Hole as a harrowing film; do you think that’s fair?
And a hopeful one. There is no need for stories to tell us there’s no hope left in the world. People can do it artfully. Lars von Trier and Fassbinder do it very artfully. Each of their films is a very different and artful way of saying there’s no hope, which tires me after a while. [Laughs] Because certainly, the older I get, I need more reasons to ignore the news, to ignore bad behaviour and to remind myself of beauty – and that doesn’t mean Hollywood happy ending, and that doesn’t mean fake optimism. It means maybe going through the fire a little and coming out the other end a bit more purified, a bit more grateful for what we do have.
My youth was about finding myself, finding power, sexual power, connecting with people that were like minded and the excitement of coming out, the excitement of doing drag, being a bit of a rebel, and I’ll continue to do that, for sure. Working on this film for two years was very healing for me. It was lovely to make something that my Mom could really connect to. She lost a child, my brother, when I was a teenager. It felt very necessary to do this film to watch together with my family.
If I had had total control, I might have done it differently. I don’t think it would be any better. But this is the first time I didn’t have the final say which was sometimes uncomfortable and made things take longer, because you had more approvals. But I have to admit, they often had great ideas that I never would have thought of.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch and Shortbus both made it in to So So Gay’s list of the greatest LGBT films. Are you proud of the impact these films have had on so many people?
It’s always better to be ten people’s favorite film of all time, than a million people’s 200th favorite film. It’s just good karma. You know, I’ve met lots of cool people over the years because of the personal ad effect of my film. The film is a letter of introduction to the world, and if you do something dishonest or slick or superficial, slick, dishonest and superficial people will want to hang out with you.
I love when people say, and I’ve heard this a lot, ‘you know, sometimes when I start dating someone I might show them Hedwig or some film that I love and if they don’t like it, the deal’s off’. I like being a litmus test.[pullquote_right]The film is a letter of introduction to the world; if you do something superficial, superficial people will want to hang out with you.[/pullquote_right]When I said I was doing this interview, somebody messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘wasn’t Shortbus the film you tried to seduce me with?‘ [Gasps] I don’t know if it’s a first date film.
Music plays a really strong part in your films and you’ve also directed music videos. The soundtrack for Shortbus is fantastic and Rabbit Hole makes strong use of music. Is it important to your film making?
It always will be. It was my saviour as a kid, and later it was comic books and science fiction and theatre and films. But I’m a nerd or geek in terms of the things that I love, and a DJ. I was just in Tennessee where there’s a Radical Fairy gathering for May Day. We had a giant dance party in an outdoor pavilion for hundreds of Radical Fairies and it was just so fun. I love tag-teaming the people. You put a song on and they surprise you with the next song and you learn something. And I specialise in slow dancing, which adults have forgotten the joys of. It’s a beautiful thing to me, music.
And you worked with the Scissor Sisters on ‘Filthy/Gorgeous’.
Yes. I actually met Jake [Shears] at a gathering in 2003. He was at the talent show there and just sang to a boom box, sang ‘Laura’ to the backing track. And I was like, ‘you’re fucking amazing’. And he’s like, ‘really?’ I think he said something like, ‘you think I can make it?’ So cute. I said he could totally be a big star if he wanted to be. We started to listen to more of his songs and I sang backup for him for his song ‘Monkey Baby’ we did at a big party later that week. The only advice I gave him was to bring more live instruments in, because all of his stuff was totally electronic before. And don’t do anything that feels wrong. I specifically thought about labels telling him to turn down the gay, and he didn’t and it’s made all the difference. In some ways maybe he could have done some kind of American takeover, but how do you do this in the Sisters and not be queer?
Maybe there was some disappointment with not taking over the US with that first album – which perhaps at another time, with more closetedness, might have happened. But I also remind him of the great joy of making a great living and being a bit more anonymous in your home town. There’s a great joy in sitting in a park with a friend which goes away once you’re Boy George. Jake’s got the best of all worlds now. I think he realises. He’s about to open Tales of the City in San Francisco. And he bought a house where the Fairy gathering is. He’s got a great life right now.
You’ve worked in the past with Russell Tovey, after seeing him in History Boys. He says he’d work with you again in a heartbeat. Would you work with him?
Oh, totally. I love him. History Boys was so amazing; everyone was so incredible, but he stood out for me. He and Samuel Barnett bounced out.
Are you still working with Neil Gaiman on a short story?
Yes, we’re just finalizing a deal to write the script right now. A British writer is going to work on it, I’m going to supervise and hopefully eventually direct. I’m going to be a producer too. Neil and I have gotten to know each other. I love him; he and his wife Amanda and I have forged a lovely friendship, and we’re going to be doing stuff together I’m sure. Amanda and I have done shows together. It’s like a great kinship I feel with those guys.
Neil Gaiman has just written an episode of Doctor Who. Have you heard of it?
Well my Mom is Scottish and I lived in North Berwick in boarding school in the early Seventies, so Doctor Who and Top of the Pops were the things we were allowed to see. I’m all about the Tom Baker period. But I don’t know all the periods. I haven’t actually seen the new guy, is he good?
He’s very good. There’s a lot of very interesting, very dark, very grown up stuff in it as well as keeping the family stuff. We just have the feeling here that a John Cameron Mitchell episode, or directed episode, would be quite special. Is that something you’d consider?
That would be amazing! Yeah, I’d love that. I’m actually creating a new TV series for HBO. We just finalized the deal. I can’t say what it’s about yet but it’s very exciting. The idea of creating a series, the long-form of narrative. I’m a huge fan of The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos, and this premise that I have will actually allow me to examine everything I’m interested in, over five years if I do it right. I’m a huge fan of the series form. And I have a really good feeling that this thing is going to last for a long time. I’m all about TV.