John Cameron Mitchell

Interview by
Adam Baran
Photography by
Wolfgang Tillmans


John’s been doing so much press for his recent film Shortbus — combining hardcore unsimulated sex and a narrative plot into a surprisingly ‘mainstream’ film — that I figured there weren’t many questions about sex or cinema I could ask that he hadn’t already heard a million times. That was fine with John. We met in his West Village flat, a cozy nest lovingly cluttered with vitamin bottles and Cassavetes DVDs. John is world and fag famous for writing and directing the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and producing the documentary Tarnation. He’s also a gifted cocksucker (so I’ve heard, I swear). JCM tells me that he’s been overwhelmed with the response he’s gotten to Shortbus. He hates doing press even though he does get to meet nice journalists.

Adam: Do you feel like you’re back to acting, memorizing lines and reciting them?
John: In a sense. I don’t like it. I don’t like acting anymore. I’d love to hear a new question.
Okay John, some simple ones then. What time do you get up in the morning?
Um lately, because I’ve been on the press tour I’ve had to take Ambien.
Oh, I take it too.
I don’t like being on it.
No, because I really feel it.
You mean when you wake up?
Yeah, but just knowing that I have to take it — you can’t actually be spontaneous when you’re an addict. Not that it’s any more harmful than smoking or something, but if you take one, in a way, you’ve decided what the next eight hours are going to be. It actually takes spontaneity out of your life. And then you forget what you did, half the night.
I always remember.
But you know what, what if you take it and…
…someone calls and says let’s go out.
Or what if something happens spontaneously that’s sexual and then you’re drugged. You know, it’s like it almost can be a prison. And I just don’t like to feel that way. But you know if you gotta sleep, you gotta sleep sometimes.
Well yeah, I always have a very bad time falling asleep.
Sleep is so important to me. If I don’t get it, it really does fuck me up, and I have my white noise machine because I’ve lived above a 24-hour restaurant for a decade. I’m a light sleeper more than an insomniac. But, uh, to answer your question, I get up — when I have to. Though I generally am more of a night person.
So what’s your routine when you get up? Feel free to be as detailed as you like, or as undetailed.
Oh um, I usually take a shower, do some sort of yoga-like stretching for 15, 20 minutes.
What’s your shower routine like? Do you wash your face first, or your body or hair?
Lately, I’ve been washing — I had a rash under my armpit for some reason, which was irritated by, you know, deodorant. I was like, ‘I wonder where that came from.’ So I’ve been washing my body with the shampoo. So you wash your hair and then use the rest of it. And it feels to my Scottish parsimony like I’m not wasting any soap. So I usually wash the spots where I get sweaty, and then have the screechy effect of the um, towel, and make sure to close my shower curtain so it doesn’t get mildew. And um, powder and shave with an electric. I can’t use a blade.
You don’t use a blade?
No, I used to but I can’t do it every day because I’m so sensitive.
I’ve been using the same electric for years. Actually ten years ago I thought, ‘I’m going to hire a hooker for the first time, and see what that’s like.’ But then I chickened out. But then there was this one hooker who kinda was coming on to me, but wasn’t asking for money. I’d walk by and he’d kinda smile. And I was like, ‘I don’t have any money.’ And he was like, ‘That’s okay.’ So he came over, and we fooled around and it was actually pretty fun. And then he went to the bathroom and left, and he took my shaver!
Well, I guess since you didn’t have any money.
I thought he liked me! (laughs)
That whole time do you think he was like, ‘I need a shaver, I’m just going to trick for a shaver’?

I think he just thought he deserved it because it was part of his job. I don’t think he got off even… Well, there’s no such thing as free blowjobs.
There’s no such thing as free anything. But definitely not such a thing as a free blowjob. What kind of toothpaste do you use?
I use ones without saccharine or sugar. So like Nature’s Path or Tom’s of Maine.
I use Rembrandt.
Oh, yeah because your face is a work of art.
(laughs) Exactly!
You have very white teeth.
Yeah well, I don’t smoke or drink coffee or anything.
Mine are a little yellow, but I’m so anti-altering your appearance, apart from trimming you know, hair or something. On your legs.
Mild grooming.
But I just feel sort of anti-augmentation. You know, coloring my hair, or like facial surgery or whitening my teeth just feels like cheating. Although I guess I did have braces as a kid. But that’s different. ’Cause it’s kind of a health thing. But I don’t want to be critical. Maybe some day I will need some sort of tuck. But people do tend to fill up their day with it sometimes.
So we’re at breakfast time.
Oh, well, that’s after the yoga, because I don’t want to have breakfast and then put my legs over my head. I’ll have my cereal and I’m a pretty routine guy when it comes to eating and sleeping and things like that, so I’ll have, you know, cereal and oat bran and flax seed. I don’t eat much — all I eat is cereal and one meal a day.
Really? You only eat one meal a day?
Usually. And I don’t eat a lot of things like pasta, but I love sushi. I’m not a vegetarian but I do like when I eat vegetarian. After you do yoga, you actually do want to eat healthy. So that kind of stuff gives me energy, and even though I don’t subscribe to much else when it comes to the holistic thing, though I probably should, it allows me energy-wise to not have to take a nap. I drink like one cup of coffee, and it’s usually an espresso.
Do you write in the morning?
When I’m writing I’ll usually get up really early and write all day, and do yoga, and then hang out with somebody I know at night, because you gotta get out of your head. And I like to go to different places I’ve never been and write. Places I’ve never been but where I might know a few people, but with fewer distractions. So I’ll go to like Portland or Asheville or San Francisco.
So you go out of New York entirely?
Yeah. I don’t write at home or otherwise I’d be home the whole time. I don’t have a desk — though my TV just broke and I don’t have money for a flat screen, so maybe I’ll have room for a desk. But I like to write in cafes. I like to be able to look up and see people around me. There’s some really nice places I’ve written, like Puerto Rico, where I have a little place I share. I could imagine going to Amsterdam or Lisbon just to, you know, stay there for a month and meet people, but my stay would have a real creative center to it.
That sounds lovely.
Yeah. That’s all I can think of for next year, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been writing because of Shortbus. I like the writing better than the shooting though.
Because shooting is nerve-racking. You can’t ever enjoy what you shot because of the schedules — 16-hour days worrying about whether you got enough footage. But that’s only thirty days out of three and a half years. And it’s hell. There’s nothing fun about it. The actors may be having fun, but I’m not. And then the editing is very interesting to me, but again it’s predictable how much energy you’re going to use, just like writing is. But when you’re shooting you don’t know what disaster is going to happen that’s going to sap your will. Like, ‘Oh my god, the stuff we shot yesterday is useless.’ It’s just like a nightmare. I think of some key moment in the movie, like one of the boys looking out of the window at the other, that was out of focus, and no one told me until a week later. It’s like a nightmare.

BUTT - 1

Do you ever think, ‘I’m a terrible director,’ when you watch some of the stuff you shoot?
Yeah. Totally. I feel like a fraud sometimes. Not when I watch what I shoot, but because it’s more like getting enough coverage you know?
‘How come I didn’t get enough shots?’
Not like how, because I know how, but like why didn’t I demand it? When you’re directing, you really realize your limits as a person. No one can do it by himself, and in fact, all the things you have to do, like be a diplomat, an editor, a cinematographer, an actor, a writer — it’s not a natural thing for one person to be able to do all those things well. It’s very good to be able to see your limitations as a human being, periodically.
But are you happy with how the film turned out in the end?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s… I mean, I’m very happy. Clearly I wasn’t going to make a… Someone recently said to me: ‘I can’t wait to see the director’s cut.’ I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’ Why would I make this film if it wasn’t going to be the director’s cut? I’m not cutting anything for anybody; that would have been so hypocritical. But I mean, Americans are so used to directors not getting their way. Not that every director should get his way…
I noticed on your IMDb credits that you were on Freddy’s Nightmares, the short-lived Freddy Krueger show from the 80s.
Yes I was.
Were you killed by Freddy?
Well that show was actually narrated by Freddy, and it was more like The Twilight Zone.
Right, I remember, but I thought sometimes Freddy killed?
No, I was killed by a…I worked at a Drive Thru and a motorcycle guy shot me in the head, and between the moment when the bullet left the gun and hit my head, I had this crazy dream.
And that’s the whole episode?
And then at the end you realize I was actually dead. And it was fun.
Did you get to meet Freddy?
I did. We went to his house to watch the episode. He was very sweet. You know he had a certain ‘It’s a gig’ attitude. He was apologizing. But he was sweet. And actually the executive producer of the show ended up executive producing Hedwig. He was at New Line, and the reason I also got to do Hedwig at New Line was because I was directed in a teen sex comedy by Bob Shay who ran New Line in the 80s. And he kept in touch, and then Hedwig came up and he was like. ‘I’m going to make your movie.’
Do you ever do this kind of thing where you sit down and write out: ‘This is where I’d like to be in five or ten years?’
I don’t. But I can see a time where I don’t direct films anymore because it just requires so much time and money. I can see a time where I just write prose or make an album. But with this film, I’m really glad it’s getting out there. Because I want to try to do something else. And I need a little time. And I’m gonna need to make a little money now, ’cause this film will probably break even. I mean I may be surprised, but if there is any money it’s not going to be for years, and the actors will get some of it — I mean there’s so many collaborators who I want to share it with. So it’s not a big money-making thing, and that’s fine. It made me very happy. But I may have to do a commercial or something, which I’m kind of dreading.
Well, I did just read that the documentarian Erol Morris and other filmmakers are all of a sudden doing lots of commercials.
I know, but if everyone was jumping off a bridge would you? I was asked to direct a porn film, you know? Michael Lucas asked me to direct something, which you know, is not really my aesthetic. Since I was making Shortbus, in which in my opinion the eroticism is bleached away…
Do you really think that? ’Cause I got very turned on by it. I wanted there to be an intermission so we could all go in the bathroom and hook up.
Really? Maybe it’s just how it feels to me but, uh, I don’t know. I’d like to make a porn film sometime, using what I learned about working with the actors and the camera, but it would be completely non-narrative. Personally, I think narrative gets in the way of eroticism.

BUTT - 3
Director and actor and producer John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Pink Narcissus does that in a way, somewhat successfully.
Yeah, but that gets pretty boring after a while.
Really, you think so?
Yeah, I feel like — they should just fuck. You still have to have escalations and ebbs and flows. I mean mine would be much more, you know, real. That other stuff is too posed for me, because real great sex is completely spontaneous, you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes a great editor can recreate that by shooting unimaginative sex. You know, someone cums right away — that’s kinda hot to me. Premature ejaculation has always been really hot to me. I’ve never experienced it, maybe that’s why. But it doesn’t preclude another orgasm, if you’re really excited — and the fact that someone feels like that so quickly is really exciting to me. I mean of course it may truncate it a bit for some, or you know what I mean. So much of porn is in the exact same order and it’s so… Predictability kills the hard-on.
Where was your pussy-eating cameo in Shortbus? I think I missed it.
One was the first time you see the Sex Not Bombs room. And later, when Sophia’s vibrating egg is going off, her husband is watching a woman getting eaten out.
And that’s you.
Did you fool around a lot while filming Shortbus or Hedwig?
Nooo. I really don’t believe you should mix the two. Also, I encouraged the actors to not hook up with anyone else on set. But of course you can’t legislate that.
But, like, everyone has been on a set where someone has an affair and then they break up and it ruins the morale. A lot of directors just cast people they want to fuck, who can’t act. And you know Helmut Berger was not good in The Damned, and Jean Marais was not good in Cocteau’s films and Anna Karina could barely move in Godard’s. It’s like there are limits to shitting where you eat. You can really fuck up your own work by thinking I can fuck and direct the same person. To me it gets in the way of art, because both sex and directing are creative acts.
Film Comment compared Shortbus to Scorcese’s After Hours. I was thinking they should have compared it to Parting Glances.
Oh, which feels more genuine. Yeah.
I was thinking there are a lot of similarities between the two films.
Yeah, there are. A group of people helping each other out, couples, parties.
The idea of battling status quo — in that film it’s all about HIV and AIDS, and in Shortbus there’s this idea of battling the Bush and…
Consumerist. Yeah I like that. I remember seeing it when it came out, and even as a kid I was still like, ‘They could have cast better actors as the leads.’ (laughs) Steve Buscemi was great, but you know, like, the guys, they didn’t quite measure up to him, but I love the spirit of it. It was so warm and loving.
And it also has a thing at the end where one character tries to kill himself.
Huh. Wow, I forgot about that. I wonder if that was internalized in some way. It’s funny what stays with you, you know? That’s why I don’t think plot is ever really original. What’s original is what your take is — what’s the word…not interpretation, but you know, the way you put words together, and the way you put images together. Everyone is unique, if they’re truly listening to themselves.
How do you manage to do that?
Well I don’t know. I mean in this case we created the film through improvisation, so I was always inspired by something that someone said or something that came out of their life or a suggestion — that just sparks an idea. You have to have raw material to spark it.
What do you do before you go to bed?
Uh, I usually jerk off. Ummm. Take Vitamins. ’Cause if you jerk off, you lose vitamins.
There’s a Freudian idea that in dreams you’re every single character. I wondered if you felt that on some level you’re everyone in Shortbus?
Oh yes. Definitely. Every aspect of a lead character is some exaggeration or aspect of me, and of the actors. And that’s a wonderful thing, that we’re all the same character. The writer E.M. Cioran said, ‘In dreams we are all geniuses. The butcher is the poet’s equal there.’ You know? I think it’s true. Not every dream is art, but there’s a freedom about it that to me is at the core of true creativity, and the core of true imagination.
And what kind of stuff do you dream about?
Well, with the Ambien I don’t really remember them.

Originally published in BUTT 18