Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of John Cameron Mitchell.
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to,” John Cameron Mitchell told DP/30 in 2013. “That’s my lucky situation.”
But it’s not really about luck. Mitchell has been working hard for decades, and through a mix of talent and imagination, and passion he has continued to have success on a level that he’s happy with. That’s all any artist, including filmmakers, should hope for.
For those unfamiliar with Mitchell, given that he’s not a huge name, he started his career as a theater actor and created the original Hedwig and the Angry Inch for Broadway before turning the show into an acclaimed movie. His next feature, Shortbus, got him attention at Cannes back in 2006 and further showcased his naturalistic approach to telling stories in an authentic light.
Since then, he has not shied away from his ability to tackle raw and tough narratives in an impactful way, as he did with Rabbit Hole, which features an Oscar-nominated performance from Nicole Kidman. Mitchell reunited with the actress seven years later for a follow-up, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which may have been less positively received but not for lack of spark and ambition.
Having found happiness in a career spanning both the theater and in the film industry, Mitchell is ready to give back to young artists hoping to find their own fulfillment within a similar career path. Below we’ve gathered some of the advice he has shared over the years.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from John Cameron Mitchell
1. Don’t Do It For the Money
Agreeing to work on a film is a long-term commitment. Doing it for reasons other than a passion for the art can only get you so far. Mitchell told Filmmaker Magazine in 2011:
“‘Hedwig’ opened up millions of opportunities and I was very diligent in saying no a million times because I was older and less lured by the limelight. I knew each and every project would take years. When you’re going through that painful process of making a film over many years, you better love it. You better not be doing anything just for a career move or just for money.”
2. Value the Experience
In a 2006 interview with IndieWire, Mitchell gave a bunch of tips when asked for general advice for emerging filmmakers. One of them is to watch a documentary he produced. Another stands out more than the rest:
“I’d tell them to check out ‘Tarnation.’ You really can do it for cheap. But they already knew that. Also, remember: the experience of making the film is more important than the result because that’s the part that’s your life. Only work with people you like.”
Mitchell also addressed the importance of the experience in a 2006 interview with IGN while discussing the making of Shortbus:
“A lot of artists think that the more miserable the time is making the art, the better the art, but I never thought that. I’ve always thought that was bullshit, and abusing their actors to get the right emotion? Bullshit. You know, the experience is as important if not more than the result.”
3. Don’t Worry About What the Audience Wants
Trying to figure out what the audience wants can put you off track from what you hope to achieve with your film. Mitchell discussed this in the IGN interview:
“I don’t think it’s very healthy to decide what your audience wants to see, because you just start to forget what felt special about it for you. You’re blinded to what moved you about it when you’re worrying too much about what they want to see. As soon as someone is asking that question — what do they want to see? — it’s a problem for me. Sometimes you can ask it and kind of play with that. Like they may want to see that, but you give them something else, and then it’s what they need to see rather than what they think they want to see. Those are the films that moved me. You know, it’s like unexpected moments like, ‘Wow. I didn’t know I could relate to such a person because you’re so different from me.’ But it’s in the very specificity of their difference that you find a universality. Going for the lowest common denominator doesn’t last; it becomes a sugar burst and then it kind of disappears. It doesn’t stay with you. So for me, I do like to play with genre and I certainly will make films that some will consider more commercial, but I have to think of them in their own terms rather than just commercial things.”
4. Serve the Actors’ Needs
Instead of worrying about what the audience wants, concern yourself more with what the actors need in order to get the best out of them. Mitchell explained to Backstage in 2010 how he got such great performances from his Rabbit Hold cast and why this process of accommodating actors is important in general:
“If there’s anything I know about directing, it’s how to make actors comfortable. It’s where I started and it’s what I know and it’s what I love… You have to find out very quickly how different people work. Some people are better in their first take or their third take and you have to decide who to shoot first, coverage-wise. Ask them what they prefer. Everything I was doing was trying to reduce the resistance between the actor and the moment they were trying to get. So if that meant fewer dolly shots, more hand-held, or paraphrasing off of the lines, great. It was everything we could do to get the performances that you see, which I’m still galvanized by. It’s like they’re all doing their best work. They’re at the top of their game.”
When Backstage asked if it’s true that he whispers in actors’ ears, Mitchell continued to explain the importance of working close with the cast:
“Some directors are scared of actors and they hide over by their monitors and direct from a distance, which actors hate. No actor likes to be directed by being yelled at from across the room. They want it to be a private process, so whenever I give notes it’s always whispered in the ear. That often helps the other actor not to know what the person is going to give them. Say someone’s reaction is burned out a little from too many takes—I’ll whisper to the other actor off camera to throw them a curve ball.”
Here’s more from Mitchell, in 2011 via Big Think, on his experience as an actor and director and what each job needs from the other:
5. Do It in the Dark
When working on a new project, the temptation to show others your work will be difficult to resist. Mitchell advised a crowd at OutFest in 2015 (via THR):
“Don’t over document it. Do it in the dark. The best things happen in the dark.”
What did he mean? Mitchell elaborated in an interview with Queerty during the festival that it may be best to keep things to yourself while working on them:
“It is possible to make interesting things on a low budget. I was expecting more wunderkinds coming out. Where are the David Lynch’s and the weirdos? Perhaps ADD sets in and they don’t finish the projects. Maybe they’re afraid of being judged so quickly. It happens lightning fast online. User comments curtail actual creativity. If I’d shown ‘Hedwig’ as my first gig online, I’d have never done any more on it. People would have commented on it, and I’d have looked at it and said that’s very crude. You have to be in the dark. You have to be ignorant to create something over time. You have to keep it from prying eyes for a while.”
6. Sex Should Be Positive
This last tip isn’t so much advice so much as an observed wish of Mitchell’s regarding the depiction of sex — simulated or, as in the case of his Shortbus, not simulated (“real”) — in cinema. In a number of interviews promoting Shortbus, Mitchell mentions a frustration with even graphic art films’ treatment of sex as negative. Here is part of a 2006 interview with IndieLondon on the issue:
“I thought that ‘Fat Girl’ was very powerful, but sort of negative about sex. And pretty much every one of these films I was seeing, without exception, was negative about sex. I wanted to make a film that used sex in a positive way. So Shortbus began as a formal exercise in showing sex in a film in a way I hadn’t seen… I understand logistically, culturally, financially why sex is challenging in film. But personally, I feel patronized when I see a serious, adult film about relationships and the sex begins and they dissolve to the end. Why am I being treated like a child? If I can handle it in life, why can’t I handle it in film? There are just so many interesting things that happen during sex, just dramatically. It’s hilarious, it’s moving, it’s boring, it’s all those kinds of things that everything else in your life is. It’s just more intense and revealing.”
Seven years later, Mitchell was part of a panel on sex in film at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival (watch it here). And in an interview with ExBerliner promoting the panel, he addressed the issue again and how it was still the same in the wake of what he’d done with Shortbus:
“After ‘Shortbus’ in 2006, I expected more films to use explicit sex. In the mid-2000s there was a burst of these films. They tended to be more serious and maybe the sex had more of a negative cast to it: a kind of a Euro-nihilist, alienated sex that was in a few films. And sometimes it was very interesting – like ‘Fat Girl,’ which I thought was great. There’s also a film by Carlos Reygadas, a Mexican director, called ‘Battle in Heaven’ that was very explicit and very thought-provoking. It just seemed like a bit of a cliché though… that sex had to be associated with grim gloominess. It felt a little old fashioned as well as being purely pornographic. We wanted to bust it up a little by working humor (into it) but then going to serious places as well. And it seems like people maybe pulled back a bit.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
As a filmmaker, it’s important to be real with yourself and your work. Acknowledging who you are and the stories you want to tell can be a great first step in preparing to give your all to a project. Like Mitchell has often advised, it’s better when you can take on films because you love them. Ultimately, by doing this, the experience of making the film will be worthwhile for everyone involved.