John Cameron Mitchell’s newest movie turns a Neil Gaiman short story into a vivacious cannibal punk extravaganza. He says it’s a metaphor for Brexit.
Once upon a time, sometime in the last decade, science-fiction ombudsman Neil Gaiman wrote a small, tidy short story called “How to Talk To Girls At Parties.” It was more of an extended anecdote, with the author of such expansive volumes like American Gods and Vertigo’s The Sandman comics diving into his own childhood growing up in the London suburbs in the late ‘70s. In the story, a nerdy boy named Enn tries to talk to girls at a party and discovers he isn’t very good at making conversation. In his defense, girls say some pretty wacky stuff. “But where does contagion end and art begin?” asks one, as if talking about the weather, but it’s nothing that the average nervous teen can’t relate to, even if the girls turn out to be outer space aliens all along. It’s cute, comic, surprisingly brisk, and populated by the author’s lushly readable lyricism (“We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable.” You can read the whole thing here. It was nominated for a Hugo that year, won the Locus Award for Best Short Story, and was adapted into a very twee coffee table graphic novel in 2016.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties arrives again this week in movie form, distributed by A24 and starring Elle Fanning as an alien girl named Zan and Broadway star Alex Sharp, in his first filmed role, as Gaiman’s awkward teen. It is also the latest project of John Cameron Mitchell, one of America’s most fascinating filmmakers, so we sat down to talk with him about the movie, the punk scene, and Brexit.
Mitchell had to be convinced to take the project on, adding that “I wanted my own brainchild.” He is cool-eyed, 55, seemingly dexterous even sitting down. A silver fox. If Anderson Cooper didn’t subject himself to the skin-sagging vanity of appearing in front of a TV camera every night, he would look something like Mitchell, who has made four movies since turning to directing in the early 2000s. “I saw that it could be an adopted child and I could dress it up the way I wanted,” he says of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, after offering me a green pin emblazoned with what looks like a Harry Potter scar intersecting a geometric grid or, perhaps, the number 34. It is the symbol of the planet Fanning’s character arrives from, part of an invented set of space colonies where the outer space visitors come from, each with their own unique lineage and set of rituals and practices, all the invention of Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett (Little Ashes, Mary Magdalene). Instead of merely being weird—from “outer space,” wherever that is—they are very real and wear bright latex.
Gaiman had no conniptions about the liberal enlargement of his decade-old short story. “He would sort of check in every year,” Mitchell says, “I think he feels like a lot of his stories have been blown out of proportion to get a mass audience so he told me, ‘I think it would be cool if you kept it in Croyden and not go off into space too much.’” Keeping the action in Croyden gave Mitchell the chance to make another deep dive into ‘70s London, which promoted the invention of the character of Bodacia, a cynical band manager and fashion designer that he modeled off Vivienne Westwood and is played by Nicole Kidman. She tells Enn that punk is already dead—it’s ’77 and the Clash just signed to CBS, after all—and he and Zan revive her spirits with the performance of an uplifting musical number called “Eat Me Alive.”
It is worth noting that the aliens are also cannibals, with an intricate system of eating their own, also Mitchell’s idea. “It takes an alien from the ‘free will colony’ and a punk to create a new colony because love is a possible way out of this suicide complex, since they’re going to eat their children until they peacefully pass away.”
I ask what inspired this.
“It’s a Brexit metaphor, of course,” Mitchell says, half-jokingly. “Of course, they’re actually wearing British flags as they jump off a building, to avoid contamination.”
Before directing movies, Mitchell was a struggling actor who ascended quickly to Broadway star: an understudy to Daniel Jenkins in the Tony Award-winning Big River and then Dickon in Marsha Norman’s musical adaptation of The Secret Garden in 1991. His side project was another musical, a rock opera he had co-written where he played a transgender East German singer named Hedwig, suffering heartbreak after being rejected by a straight grunge rocker. It was called Hedwig and the Angry Inch and was workshopped in New York drag clubs before becoming a traveling cult hit. Among its fans was David Bowie, who produced its run in Los Angeles. New Line released a movie adaptation in 2001, with Mitchell still playing Hedwig but also directing, his debut. Acclaim followed: Mitchell won Best Director at Sundance and a Golden Globe nomination for his acting, though since then he has largely remained in the director’s chair, acting only periodically in television: a publisher who dies suddenly on HBO’s Girls, a ‘Milo Yiannopoulos-type’ on CBS’s The Good Fight.
Like many independent filmmakers, Mitchell works inside the tropes of the American pop cinema canon, but his movies constantly transcend kitsch self-awareness. His characters have intricate interior lives, and each of his films feel like slices ripped out of complicated lives. Sexual desire is their most blatant theme but, for Mitchell, desire is just a language, like French or watercooler chit-chat, a text that contains a subtext instead of the other way around. A sex therapist is afraid of intimacy. Grieving parents express their anguish by hitting on strangers. A punk falls in love with an alien in order to grow up.
His movies can feel ruthlessly ahead of their time. The ultimate subject of Hedwig becomes straight appropriation of queer art and queer space. Its solution is a take-no-prisoners, love-on-our-own-terms sense of anarchy. His follow-up, Short Bus, trailed denizens of a New York sex club, mass orgies scored to Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective a decade before HBO made even communal sex passé. Rabbit Hole was his most mainstream work, a Broadway import of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Rabbit Hole is a suburban drama about two parents coping with the death of a child; Kidman’s deeply felt performance nabbed her a Best Actress nomination at the 83rd Academy Awards. But Rabbit Hole is also incredibly strange for an awards contender, with Kidman drawn toward the high school student who ran over her four-year-old. He introduces her to the idea of multiple universes, high school mumbo-jumbo. She, and Mitchell, take it seriously: “Somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”
Leaving a screening of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a particularly indignant movie blogger moans: “He was out for seven years and he comes out with this?” The movie’s trip from Cannes last year to wide distribution has been stormy, with critics confused by the cannibalism, the abundance of latex outfits and the CGI sequence of Enn & Xan’s souls melding into one. “The script is unfocused,” complained Vulture. BBC called it “one of the worst films ever made.” Martyn Conterio called it “about as punk as a Blink 182 album.” Mitchell is well aware of the mixed reaction and considers it barely worth addressing. He mentions overhearing a kid saying, “I don’t know, it was weird.” He wonders why weird is a pejorative and blames Netflix. “I’m a ’70s midnight-movie guy.”
That outsider quality finds a voice in the rebel yell of Mitchell’s latest film’s punk rockers, but it’s not a guarantee.
“Any group can become in-bred and die. Punk was long ago co-opted by fashion and kind of dissipated. The real punks will hold on, but musically it doesn’t really shift far,” Mitchell says. “If you only drink your own piss, you’ll eventually die of thirst. You could drink your own piss but eventually, you have less and less…”
I tell him that I haven’t tried. I mention that the punks in his movie similarly face the threat of insularity, the hemophilia of the kings.
Fanning has called Mitchell ‘the encyclopedia of punk.’ Mitchell gives me a short history. Excerpt: “Nirvana was punk gone big, it was punk attitude but it was completely co-opted, in fact destroyed. How could you be him and be famous? Courtney Love was never punk, she just wanted to be Stevie Nicks, by any means necessary.”
That encyclopedic knowledge gives Mitchell a fourth hat to wear, as a DJ in his off-hours. How to Talk to Girls at Parties has a killer soundtrack, a mash of forgotten punk love songs like the Damned’s “New Rose,” Mitchell’s own co-creations and the work of today’s hipsters: The New Pornographers’s A.C. Newman and the very chic post-hardcore singer Mitski on the end-credits. He mentions to me that he’s been listening to one of today’s fashionable London bands, Shame. “They feel sincere, as opposed to recreating a style,” he says. Like Mitchell’s latest movie, Shame is a band without a scene, and no target demo to speak of. I think this is what appeals to him, something that can feel outside of time.
I ask him where does one find punk, the spirit of punk, today.
He thinks about this. “The new punk is best exemplified, possibly, by a kind of Parkland teenager,” referring to survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting who have become some of the most vocal activists on the issue of gun violence. He cites one of them specifically, Emma González. “She’s an example of a new kind of punk, which is goal-based, which is still disrespectful of authority when it needs to be disrespected.” Punk is less of an abstract, Vice dot com stance to take than a point of view informed by place in the world. “ACT UP and AIDS activism was my punk. ‘Hedwig’ was my punk,” says Mitchell.
Hedwig remains Mitchell’s calling card film, and it still makes him most of his money. Revived on Broadway in 2014, Mitchell’s Hedwig was one of Neil Patrick Harris’s first roles after the end of How I Met Your Mother. It won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Mitchell is touring with the musical himself these days, leading a run in Japan last year and one in Australia this summer. He has announced the production of an extensive anthology podcast series called Anthem, whose first season arrives from Topic Studios, a division of First Look Media (Spotlight, Roman J. Israel, Esq.). Its first season, called Homunculus, arrives this year and stars Glenn Close and Patti LuPone. Mitchell describes it as similar to Hedwig: “It’s in the form that Hedwig is, someone talking to an audience but it’s in the form of a telethon, someone’s doing a live stream Kickstarter to raise money to get their brain tumor out.”
Of late, Mitchell has also been digging through his old storage unit to collect what footage remains from his Hedwig years. A recent deal inked between Warner Bros., New Line’s corporate masters, and beloved movie packagers, the Criterion Collection, means that a new edition of Hedwig will soon be available at a Barnes & Noble near you.
“There’s no date yet but one of their first orders of business is a Hedwig Blu-Ray with extras.” Mitchell stresses the last word, telling me that he has tons of footage from before Hedwig was even a twinkle in a movie executive’s eye. “We’re going to have to make some of them too,” he tells me.
He looks excited. Hedwig isn’t over yet.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties opened May 25th in limited release.