John Cameron Mitchell On Aliens Hooking Up With Punks And Anal Probing In “How To Talk To Girls At Parties”

"When we were faced with a big punks and aliens battle I was like, ‘is that going to take three days out of my schedule?'"

One way to describe the movie How To Talk With Girls At Parties is a Romeo and Juliet tale between a British teenage punk and alien girl whose race replicates by sticking their hands up human’s butts.

“This is extending the anal probe metaphor if you will, and assigning meaning to it,” director John Cameron Mitchell explains. “My instinct was they didn’t have many emotions of their own until they are inside a human and can feel. Those are alien tropes we repurpose and extend.”

Mitchell, who previously directed Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Shortbus, and Rabbit Hole, based the film on a 2007 Hugo Award-nominated short story by comic book/American Gods writer Neil Gaiman (the story is available for free here).

In the film (co-written by Mitchell with Philippa Goslett), a trio of fifteen-year-old punk boys crash an alien house party-ritual. One of the lads, Enn (Alex Sharp), falls for rebellious alien girl Zan (Elle Fanning), and so begins a whirlwind romance with eye-popping latex costumes, choreography, mind control, and supporting turns by Nicole Kidman as a punk rock den mother and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as an alien colony leader.

Mitchell, who hosts the free monthly party Mattachine at NYC’s historic gay bar Julius, spoke with NewNowNext about the film, his role as a Milo Yiannopolis-inspired gay conservative provocateur on CBS’s The Good Fight, and his ambitious, upcoming musical podcast series, Homonculus.

Why did you choose to adapt and expand upon such a short, slight story?

That’s the advantage. A slight story allows you to pile things on top of it. I would never want to adapt something like The Lord of the Rings, because you have all the fans going, ‘where’s that scene?’ and you end up with a series of set pieces. Here we had a seed we could expand on, and it was fun to dress it up and find the cosmology of the aliens [who are broken into colonies based on chakras] and what they need to do. Also, a good Romeo and Juliet story cracks those assumptions that love and sex are the only things that can get us out of the house or clan or tribe and question its traditions, which is an inherently queer thing.

I understand that Neil Gaiman’s one request was that you keep the story set on earth and not go to outer space with it.

Yeah. He’s seen stories pushed to the nth degree in terms of special effects, moving away from the humanity. He said, “Let’s keep this as a day in the life of the suburban out of the way village.” That certainly helped my budget. I’m not an action filmmaker. Leave that to Christopher Nolan, who does that great. I use digital technology to tell analog stories. When we were faced with a big punks and aliens battle I was like, “Is that going to take three days out of my schedule? I’d rather have more scenes with acting.”

Do you like punk music?

I do. After I came out I got into queer punk, specifically. I probably revered the punk godfathers, the Bowie and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, rather than punks themselves. They could play anything they wanted. Punk keeps popping up like a fungus in different forms, maybe in a way through these Parkland teens.

Is Parkland’s David Hogg punk?

I think so. Emma Gonzalez is. I love them. They’re post-millennial, and I don’t like to generalize but I will. Our generation came out of the 1970s and ’80s, and AIDS, so our punk came out of life or death and ACT-UP was very punk. It takes something like Parkland to see the edge of a spear maybe for a new kind of punk, a young person equaling change as opposed to old people voting in Trump and being punks. The old people became punk. “Smash it!” You hear Roseanne, “smash it all up.” That’s the kind of punk that’s ascendant right now.

Have you ever hooked up with a guy who made you question whether he was alien?

I did lose my virginity in Roswell, New Mexico, on a high school speech tournament trip. I was a freshman and he was a senior and experienced. Also, there are some people whose penises are so large they feel like they’re from some other body, which could have been an alien grafting job.

You previously directed Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole. What made her want to play this anarchistic Vivienne Westwood-esque role?

Because she hadn’t played anything like that before. She’s one of the few that seeks out the new, the raw, the punk directors. Kate Winslet doesn’t run after Park Chan-Wook and Lars Von Trier! Even the guys are lazy. Anthony Hopkins is just yawning between takes in Westworld. Nicole is getting in there and playing a slut in The Paperboy and producing her own projects—she hired me for Rabbit Hole, it was her project. Tilda Swinton is like that too, Isabelle Huppert, Marion Cotillard. People are like, “Who does she think she is?” She’s Nicole Kidman! She can do whatever she wants and she doesn’t do it based on money, either.

Have you met or spoken with Milo since playing his thinly-veiled alter-ego Felix on The Good Fight?

Yeah. I think I took a picture of myself as the character on Instagram and I got a message saying, “you’re welcome.” Thank you, Milo. You saved me.

What can you say about your upcoming semi-autobiographical musical podcast series, Homunculus?

Bryan Weller, who worked on Parties, is my composer. It’s a five-hour, ten episode podcast. Anthem is the series’ name, but Homonculus is our season’s title. It’s about a guy doing a live Kickstarter, to get money to get a tumor out. He’s out of insurance and on his trailer park porch like, “Please pledge $100,000, here’s some songs, here’s my life story,” and then we go into flashbacks and hallucinations. We’ve got Glenn Close and Patti Lupone and this amazing new queer South African singer, Nakhane, who was in The Wound. He’s the lead and has a new album, a spectacular voice. We’re doing it for nothing, it’s an expensive podcast that took two years’ work. It feels like my new Hedwig, because I’m starring and writing and for the first time writing songs.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties opens May 25th.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber