John Cameron Mitchell's SHORTBUS explores the lives of several emotionally challenged characters as they navigate the comic and tragic intersections between love and sex in and around a modern-day underground salon. A sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, a dominatrix who is unable to connect, a gay couple who are deciding whether to open up their relationship, and the people who weave in and out of their lives, all converge on a weekly gathering called Shortbus, a mad nexus of art, music, politics and polysexual carnality. In a post-9/11, Bush-exhausted New York City, SHORTBUS tells its story with sexual frankness, suggesting new ways to reconcile questions of the mind, pleasures of the flesh and imperatives of the heart.
EXPLANATION AND REDEMPTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL
(Received from Process Productions Company; edited from an interview by Tony Rayns (New York-London, March 2006)
John Cameron MITCHELL (writer/director) directed, wrote and starred in the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for which he received the Best Director and Audience awards at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Prix at Deauville. The film was honored as Best Directorial Debut by the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics Society. John was also nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor. He was executive producer of Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation. He has directed music videos for the bands Bright Eyes and Scissor Sisters and is presently working on two scripts: Nigh (a children's story co-written with Julian Koster) and Oskur Fishman.
I KNOW IT WAS SOME YEARS AGO NOW, BUT CAN YOU IDENTIFY THE PROJECT'S STARTING POINT?
In the years I was making Hedwig, I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexually frankness again, as some had in the 60's and 70's, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it's understandable. I had been brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment and sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I had the idea of making a New York-style emotionally-challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking and, if possible, funny. It would not necessarily seek to be erotic; instead, it would try to use the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters' lives. I've always regarded sex as the nerve endings of people's lives. I always thought that if you watched two strangers having sex you could make some very good guesses about them--from what their childhood was like to what they had eaten for lunch that day. At the same time, I wanted to create a film where the characters and script were developed through group improvisations, inspired by the disparate techniques of John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Mike Leigh. (Interestingly, all three expressed distaste for the prospect of "real" or "unsimulated" sex in their own films.) I also knew I wanted the piece to center around a modern-day multi-sexual underground salon, inspired by Gertrude Stein's Parisian model and contemporary New York City salons that I had experienced--smorgasbords of music, literature, art and even public group sex.
If I had to name specific sexual cinematic antecedents for my film, I guess I'd have to mention Frank Ripploh's autobiographical Taxi zum Klo - I liked the melancholy tone underpinning the comedy, and the way that he treats sex the same as he treats everything else in his life - and perhaps Jean Genet's Un Chant d'amour, which is the grandfather of all interesting sexual films. As far as tone and style, I'd say the most influential films for Shortbus were Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz, Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, Scorsese's The King of Comedy, Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, Altman's A Wedding and Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives.
SO HOW DID YOU SET ABOUT MAKING THE FILM POSSIBLE?
Producer Howard Gertler, Casting Director Susan Shopmaker and I sent out an open casting call early in 2003. We avoided agents and stars--stars don't have sex--and I'd envisioned a year's-long workshop process, and stars generally don't do that either. Instead, we solicited interviews (we didn't have money for ads) in various alternative papers and magazines inviting anyone--experienced actors or not--to go to our website, read about what we were trying to do and send in audition tapes. I suggested they talk on their tapes about a sexual experience that was emotional meaningful to them. I encouraged them to put anything on there that might help us get to know them. More than half a million people visited the website, and nearly 500 people, mostly from North America, sent in tapes. Some talked to the camera, some made short films, some sang songs, some jerked off. We chose about forty people for the audition stage. We had very little money and they all flew themselves in. Everyone was told that the auditions would involve improvisation but nothing sexual--I didn't want to scare the horses. I wanted an in-depth audition process where the actors were creative partners and trust could be built over time.
Around that time I was throwing a monthly party (called "Shortbus"--before we named the film). I was trying to create a junior high school dance atmosphere--without all the 'club' attitude--we'd play all kinds of music. Friends and I would DJ extremely eclectically--I specialized in slow-dancing. I threw a Shortbus party for the forty finalists. We had a game of "spin the bottle" with a hundred people. Whomever the bottle landed on would have to make out with the spinner. It broke the ice.
The next day, all the hung over actors watched each others' audition tapes together in the same room. It was nerve-wracking, because some of the tapes were very personal. But it let everyone know that we were all in this together. Also, we only had a few days together and I had to quickly ascertain who was sexually attracted to whom, i.e., who had the potential to play couples in the film. We had a secret ballot and everyone had to rate everyone else on a scale of one to four, so we'd have some information about compatibility. It was all very strange, and kind of fun. We ended up with a gigantic wall chart--a cross-referenced grid showing who was attracted to whom. The number of permutations was impressive and it was a real timesaver. We brought together the people who had rated each other with 'fours' for the first improv auditions. It quickly became clear who were the natural actors, trained or not. We wanted people who could improvise off a written script while maintaining a strict scene structure. It's different from pure improv; it's more like paraphrasing. We were seeking intelligent, charismatic people who could interact well with others. Divas were eliminated. I cast the most interesting and compatible actors and immediately began our first improv workshop. We would figure out the characters and story together.
HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT THE SPECIFIC CHARACTERS AND ISSUES WHICH ARE EXPLORED IN THE FILM?
By the time we got to our initial five-week improv workshop, we had raised a little money from friends (including the musician/activist Moby) to pay the actors and put them up. We sublet a loft in the Lower East Side and started with simple theater improv games; we watched films, played whiffleball (baseball with plastic bats and balls) and went bowling. We moved on to more complicated improvs using interesting character/story elements that had come up in the auditions. I had read books about Mike Leigh's and Cassavetes' script creation processes and we adapted a few of their methods. We developed the characters' backgrounds, secrets, desires. We'd stage "press conferences" where the actors would be interrogated as their characters. We videotaped all the rehearsals so when the workshop was over I had plenty of material to work with when I started on the screenplay. The actors were, in effect, generating the characters and their struggles. I used this information to develop the plot and explore themes into a traditional script. That became our structure: we'd workshop/rehearse for a few weeks, then I'd work on the script for a few months, then back to workshop, then writing. We alternated like that for 2 years until the financing came through. By the time we shot, the script was tight and we were as comfortable with each other as anyone could be.
In workshop, we did a few sexually-oriented "closed set" improvs but not many. Some actors were immediately comfortable with that, others needed time. Each had his/her own needs, and I wanted them to find their own way of approaching the sex. Many wanted to save it for the camera, a strategy which paid off in many ways (all the orgasms portrayed in the film are real!). My cinematographer, Frank DeMarco, sat in on rehearsals--sexual and not--to put everyone more at ease. My constant refrain to the performers was: "I'll never ask you to do anything you don't want to do, but I'll always ask you to challenge yourselves."
I was constantly encouraging them to bring up insecurities as soon as they arose, so we could nip them in the bud. There was much discussion of sex safety. Not to say there weren't a lot of nerves during shooting. But it was a wonderfully rewarding process for both cast and crew and we all remain good friends.
HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT THE CHARACTER OF JAMES AS A FILMMAKER? IS THERE SOME AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NUANCE THERE?
That idea came partly from the actor himself, who documents his life photographically. Jonathan Caouette, director of Tarnation, was an inspiration for the character too. As far as my own autobiography goes, my father was the military commander of the US sector of West Berlin right before the Wall fell, and my mother's a Scottish-born artist. It was a very Catholic upbringing--including boys' Benedictine boarding school in Scotland. So I grew up in a religious, military, artistically-encouraging, but fairly eroto-phobic environment. And I was gay. All those variables helped to create Hedwig and Shortbus. Yes, the film is pushing against some boundaries here in the States. It's saying "Why not explore sex in an American film in a context that can be, I hope, amusing and thoughtful? Why should these things be so frightening to us?" Of course, I understand why we can be frightened on a personal level--but as a friend, Dan Savage, once said to me: "Sex is certainly something to be afraid of but not something that can be avoided." I also see how fear of sex--or really fear of any substantive connection--in my own culture leads directly to unhappiness, unnecessary conflict and violence. I see an increasing inherent prudishness in America cinema (just as in American government) that I wanted to call attention to and tweak a bit. This prudishness naturally vents itself in increasingly joyless and formulaic porn, now probably the primary sexual education delivery system for American young people.
WAS IT HARD TO SQUARE THE FILM'S CAREFUL, INTRICATE STRUCTURE WITH THE CO-CREATION ELEMENT?
As I mentioned, I worked on the screenplay between workshops. The workshopping was necessary to (a) to create a way of working with the actors and (b) to make sure the characters/scenes/dialogue made sense to them. I always listen to my actors because they often know best. They'd tell me if I was trying to force characters into something that wasn't believable.
Here's an example of how we worked to keep the balance of structure and freedom. Take the post-coital scene between Sofia and her husband when she discusses her non-orgasmic client. That scene developed out of an improv--I codified it in a written scene made up of, say, twenty lines of dialogue which corresponded to twenty acting beats--beats that the actors agreed made sense to them. When we rehearsed, the actors would read the written scene silently to themselves, then they'd put the script away and perform the scene from memory. They didn't have time to memorize anything, so the lines changed each time we ran through the scene. We repeated it until they had memorized the sequence of 20 beats, never the verbatim lines. I'd constantly tell them, "I'll fire you if you say the lines as written." We shot in exactly the same manner. No two takes had identical dialogue. This required some fancy footwork from my brilliant picture editor, Brian Kates.
THE ANIMATION INSERTS ARE VERY DIFFERENT FROM WHAT EMILY HUBLEY GAVE YOU ON HEDWIG, AND THEY MAKE IT A VERY NEW YORK FILM BY INSISTING ON THE PRECISE GEOGRAPHY OF THE CITY...
Well, we needed a city-wide blackout, and a real blackout was not possible on our budget. My first idea was to shoot a scale model of the city. This was also too expensive so I went to John Bair, an animator who'd done some digital work on Hedwig. I think he succeeded wonderfully with a lovely hand-made, painterly touch. In fact, he scanned a lot of his own painting and used it for the 3d surfaces. It was pretty much a one-man job. It made sense to use animation for other scenes. The Statue of Liberty seemed right for the beginning--with the lines "Is you is, or is you ain't my baby?" being sung over a reveal of her face. A lot of us have been asking her that lately.
ASIDE FROM ANITA O'DAY SINGING "IS YOU IS…?", THE SONGS ARE ALL ORIGINALS?
There is a lot of music from actors/friends who appear in the film. I wanted it to be a family affair. There's also stuff from people I don't know, like the great bands Animal Collective and Azure Ray. Yo La Tengo did some gorgeous score work for us. There are five new songs by the wonderful Scott Matthew--he's the bearded guy who sings in the salon. He also wrote the last song, "In the End" which Louis Schwadron arranged into a massive orchestral suite with string quintet and marching band.
ARE THERE REAL-LIFE PROTOTYPES FOR THE SHORTBUS SALON?
Yes, there are/were weekly New York salons in people's homes where music, art, food and politics blend. One very influential one was called "Cinesalon", run by a friend of ours--actually he's the guy who plays the Sex Room maitre d', Stephen Kent Jusick. He showed 16mm films, served vegetarian food, and encouraged group sex later in the evening. He also hosted a few "Sex-Not-Bombs" parties, which inspired the Sex-Not-Bombs Room in the film. We actually shot the salon in a Brooklyn queer artists' collective called DUMBA where Shortbus-style events runneth over (though neighborhood rents are skyrocketing--and its survival is in doubt). The salon's name, "Shortbus", refers to the traditional American yellow school bus. Most "normal" kids rode in the long yellow bus. Children with "special needs" - the disabled, the emotionally-disturbed, the abnormally gifted--rode the shorter yellow bus, because there weren't so many of them. A lot of people I hang out with feel to me like they're familiar with the short bus in one way or another.
New York is a distillation of much of the best of America (as well as some of the worst) but, for me, the Shortbus salon is a representation of the best of New York. New York has traditionally offered sanctuary to the nation's ambitious outcasts. But the city has lately become much more expensive; artists and young people are being priced-out. A few grizzled, increasingly-isolated nonconformists are clinging to their tiny, rent-stabilized apartments. I wanted our salon to make a stand for old New York, for traditional chosen family values: the values of Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca and punk rock. I hope it will always be a locus of connection and transformation, where everyone--from a shy bookish college girl to a seen-it-all tranny cabaret singer (and even a washed-up former mayor)--can atone for their real and imagined sins and redeem themselves by creating beautiful things with their friends and lovers.
T H E P R O D U C T I O N C O M P A N Y
Process is headed by Tim Perell, who served as co-president at Eureka Pictures, a production company he co-founded with Howard Bernstein in 1996. At Eureka he produced Myles Connell's The Opportunists, starring Christopher Walken and Cyndi Lauper, which was released in summer 2000 by First Look Pictures, and went on to executive-produce Joel Hopkins' BAFTA-award-winning Jump Tomorrow, financed by Film Four UK, which premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed by IPC Films in July 2001. His other producing credits include Bart Freundlich's The Myth of Fingerprints (starring Noah Wyle, Julianne Moore, Roy Schneider and Blythe Danner), which premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. His first production, Breathing Room directed by Jon Sherman and starring Dan Futterman, Susan Floyd and Edie Falco, was distributed by Arrow Releasing.
Head of Production Howard Gertler worked with Perell and Bernstein at Eureka, associate producing Jump Tomorrow and Wet Hot American Summer, the latter released by USA Films in July 2001.
Process aims to produce low-to-medium budget films by both established and first-time directors, aimed at the adult audience weaned on Robert Altman and Woody Allen.
Its past productions include Bart Freundlich's World Traveller, starring Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore, which was financed by IFC Productions and Alliance/Atlantis, and the Gaumont-backed I'm With Lucy, directed by Jon Sherman and starring Monica Potter, Henry Thomas, Gael Garcia Bernal and Julie Christie, which was chosen as opening film for the 2002 Deauville Film Festival and went on to debut at #2 in France's nationwide box-office in September 2002.
Recent productions include The Best Thief in the World by writer/director Jacob Kornbluth (Haiku Tunnel), starring Mary Louise Parker, which premiered in the dramatic competition at Sundance in 2004 and was produced in conjunction with Showtime, and Pizzaby director Mark Christopher (54), produced in conjunction with InDigEnt. Best Thief aired on Showtime throughout 2005, and Pizza was released by IFC Films in January 2006.
The company's recent music video productions have included "Filthy/Gorgeous" by Scissor Sisters and "First Day of My Life" by Bright Eyes, both directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The Bright Eyes video was voted #1 on mtv.com.
In its recent foray to produce "guilty pleasures for smart people," Process has produced three original romantic comedies for the Oxygen Network. My Sexiest Mistake (directed by Jon Sherman) and Tempting Adam (directed by Kris Isaacson) aired in 2004, and Romancing the Bride (starring Laura Prepon and Carrie Fisher) premiered in December 2005.
Aside from John Cameron Mitchell's controversial Shortbus, the company will release in 2006 Bart Freundlch's Trust the Man, starring David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film will be distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Process is currently developing projects with such directors as Joel Hopkins, Eric Mendelsohn (of Judy Berlin) and Alex Steyermark (adapting Marc Spitz' comic novel How Soon is Never?). It's also developing a feature based on The Waitresses' classic holiday song "Christmas Wrapping," a pilot for Oxygen with Eric Pomerance and work with graphic novelists Joe Matt (Peepshow) and Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis (Skinwalkers).
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS / INTERNATIONAL SALES
Wouter Barendrecht / Michael J. Werner
FORTISSIMO FILMS is one of the world's leading international film, television and video sales organizations specializing in the production, presentation, promotion and distribution of award- winning and innovative feature films from independent film-makers from many countries. With offices in Amsterdam, London and Hong Kong and agents in Sydney, New York, Tokyo and Beijing, the company has a truly global presence and reach.
Founded in 1991, the company is well known for its commitment to original and ground-breaking films and for nurturing relationships with talented new directors and producers. The company's staff also works to cultivate relationships with key distributors around the world and film festivals, not to mention international and local journalists. Now in its sixteenth year of business, the company has experienced uninterrupted growth and continues to move from strength to strength.
The library of FORTISSIMO FILMS includes feature films, feature-length documentaries, animated films and short subjects. As of February 2006, FORTISSIMO FILMS has represented nearly 250 films from around the globe. Approximately 12-15 films per year are added to the line-up. Additionally the company has started to acquire and manage existing libraries on behalf of independent producers and directors, such as that of leading US-based producer Killer Films, Hart Sharp Entertainment and director Jim Jarmusch. FORTISSIMO FILMS maintains strong and developing contacts with the US independent production sector.
In the last five years FORTISSIMO FILMS has entered into activities related to the development, financing and co-production of films and has earned production credits on a number of titles including THE GODDESS OF 1967, THOMAS IN LOVE, PARTY MONSTER, GRIMM, Tsui Hark's THE ERA OF VAMPIRES, SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN, THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES, LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, P.S., MYSTERIOUS SKIN, SEVEN SWORDS and John Cameron Mitchell's SHORTBUS.
Return to homepage