John Cameron Mitchell on Making “Shortbus” and Prophesying Grindr

“I think I would have been MeToo-ed if I made this film now.”

Real sex, real orgasms, and an unforgettable rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung into a guy’s ass during a gay threeway made John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus stand out at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where it first premiered. Thanks to a new 4K restoration and rerelease, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories, the movie is about to be introduced to a new generation.

Long out of print on DVD and never available via streaming or Blu-ray, the cult classic now sees a theatrical rerelease with a Blu-ray drop to follow later this year. Weaving together the stories of a gay couple at a crossroads (Paul Dawson and PJ Deboy), a therapist who can’t have an orgasm (Soon-Yin Lee), and a dominatrix seeking real connection (Lindsay Beamish), Mitchell’s sophomore effort as feature director following Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which the Criterion Collection restored and released in 2019) blends humor, emotional intensity, poignancy, animation, and a portrait of a based-on-real-life New York City pansexual arty “sex salon” scene that has since vanished.

Speaking with Logo, Mitchell – recently recovered from a bout with Omicron, of which he quips, “It’s my favorite variant!” – discusses Shortbus (which also costarred musicians Jay Brannon, Justin Vivian Bond, and JD Samson); his turn as Joe Exotic in Joe vs Carole, Peacock’s upcoming limited series; and the details of his role in Netflix’s hotly awaited adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic series Sandman.
 

The restoration looks amazing, like the film was shot yesterday, and the animated sequences are even more vibrant and detailed!

We had an amazing trans colorist who saw the film when they were younger and was thrilled to be part of it. I meet a lot of people who say ‘Hedwig helped me a lot,’ and then I meet some who feel Shortbus was their touchstone.

Could you make a Shortbus in 2022, and if so, what would the major differences be besides Justin Vivian Bond’s pronoun?

I think I would have been MeToo-ed if I made this film now. Nowadays there might be a panic [over the sex]. Imagine the squadron of “intimacy counselors” I would need. Forget it! I just played Joe Exotic and the counselor would ask [when shooting a scene with the actor playing my husband], “Is it OK if he touches your shoulder?” Can you imagine me asking, “Is it OK if he cums in your mouth right now?” But I was the intimacy counselor and everyone felt heard, loved, and part of the making of it. Everyone feels in retrospect that was their favorite creative experience, and that to me is perhaps even more important than the film itself. The making of the film is your life, while the film is a byproduct of your life.

Were people totally cool with Shortbus at the time, or were there criticisms and controversies?

Back then we didn’t get much pushback. It was sort of off the right-wing’s radar. But a couple of people were like, “Why didn’t you have an asexual character?” “Why didn’t you show a dick going into an asshole?” Guys, I only have 90 minutes! Today, they might also say, “Your cast isn’t diverse enough!” God knows I tried to have as diverse a cast as possible, but I was working with actors who wanted to do this, and there was a limited number [to choose from]. Paul and PJ were an existing couple which was a timesaver. I wanted to have a lesbian couple, but I couldn’t find one who wanted to do it and could act. I’m not one for shoehorning representation. I want it to be organic, I want the best actor for the role. And today, I believe a response would be, “What right do you have as a white cis male gay shooting an Asian straight woman having an orgasm? That’s not your story to tell!” Well, I understand that character. I wrote her. I love all my characters and there are parts of me in each. Read your Toni Morrison. She didn’t let any of her students write about themselves. She thought it was solipsistic and writing about people who aren’t you is the beginning of empathy, and that’s my goal.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

One person who did audition via what you called a “provocative” videotape was Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Did anyone try to steal it?

We destroyed a lot of [the tapes]. Luckily they were on VHS, so there wasn’t that danger of things getting online, but the spirit with which we auditioned was, let’s not be afraid of this. At the same time, we were respectful and said, you tell us what you want us to do with these tapes. Most of them were saying whatever, I’m not ashamed of anything. Some of the actors since, someone at work would discover they’re in this and be a little bit pokey and mean about it. There’s more of a panic from the left about sex now than there was 15 years ago. It’s almost like if anyone’s having sex, someone’s being exploited if you take the woke MeToo all the way. If there’s penetration happening,, someone’s being abused. Which is an America thing. We’re scared of sex and it pops up in the left and right-wing.

Does anything like the arty queer salon you based Shortbus on exist today, and if not, what the heck happened?

Not that I know of, and I think the internet happened. They say younger people are having less and less sex. “IRL panic” is real, and COVID exacerbated it. In Japan, which is at the forefront of digital culture, the peak of the amount of sex young people had was in 2006, when the film came out. Since then it plummeted. Now they’re jerking off online and just going to hang out and buy cute things. America is following suit. Young people are having less sex and are in fact scared of it. The messiness and unpredictability of love and sex are being avoided and evaded, and COVID is just a cover. If you can’t break up with someone except by text, how will you have sex?

The characters in Shortbus use a device and app called Yenta that is basically like Grindr, and the film actually predates Grindr’s launch by three years, so you basically created Grindr! How crazy is that?

Yes. I saw the GPS technology and thought, this is gonna happen, and we created Yenta which is a kinder, gentler Grindr. I remember telling my lawyer, this is gonna happen. But you can’t patent an idea, you have to actually make it and there was no iPhone or apps back then. So I made not a penny. I gave it to the world as a socialist gift rather than a mercenary start-up.

Joe vs Carole premieres in March on Peacock. I understand that this was the first project you auditioned for in over 25 years. What made you want to play him so much?

Because I know that. I’m the same age as him; I’m from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas like he was and know what it was like there at that time. I saw him looking for love and power and trying to rescue people and it was going to his head. He has a zoo, I have my films and plays. I try to create an environment to make people who are unwanted elsewhere feel wanted. Joe, unfortunately, took nothing but ex-cons and rehab people and paid them very little and lorded over them and they were a codependent mess. And he kept going after these guys who were more straight-identified but sexually had a pansexual vibe and made the best of where he was.
 

In a way, I respect Joe for creating his own kingdom of rejects, but I also deplore him because he imitated his oppressor and became an attempted murderer according to the courts. If I’d stayed there, maybe I would have become a little theater Joe Exotic. Hopefully not attempting to kill my theater competitor in the other town, but I might be more like Waiting for Guffman’s Christopher Guest character, who has his own fiefdom.

Some photos hit last summer of you in character kissing the actor who played Joe’s first husband, Brian Rhyne, who died from AIDS and wasn’t even mentioned in the first Netflix docuseries. Did you call Joe while preparing to play him?

No, no you can’t go near that. First of all, they recommended we don’t. But also he’s clearly manipulative. He’d want to get you on his side, and I want to be impartial. And later, Joe saw some of those pictures and said [does Joe Exotic voice], “John Cameron Mitchell will make me look like a flaming fag when I’m just a hardworking gay male!” I’m like, oh God. Then his lawyer reached out to try and make nice, but he’s out of control! I don’t want to get near that, but Joe’s going to be very surprised at how humanized he is in this piece because it’s very sympathetic and empathetic without hiding his excesses.

You cowrote and directed a 2017 movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and now you have a role in the Netflix series based on Gaiman’s Sandman comic. Since your character hasn’t yet been announced or listed on IMDB, there’s speculation you play Desire: True or not?

Actually, Desire is a younger person’s role. Nonbinary actor Mason Alexander Park, who played Hedwig on our national tour, is Desire. I play Hal, who has a B&B in Florida. He’s gay and does drag, and I get to perform a lot of songs from Gypsy in the show, which is why I wanted to do it! And Neil Gaiman’s a friend, of course, and I had a blast.

The sixth season of The Good Fight is in the works. Will your cringey alt-right character Felix Staples return, and will he now be an ex-gay like the troll he’s inspired by, Milo Yiannopoulos?

I don’t know! I haven’t heard. I should check in with them. I did love playing that fucking Trump gay, what an asshole, and yes I would. I’d like to see a death match between him and Joe Exotic. And I think Joe would win because he’s got the guns.

For Shortbus theatrical engagements info and tickets, click here.

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