It's the Right Time — John Cameron Mitchell on the 'Shortbus' Restoration

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday February 6, 2022
Originally published on January 26, 2022

When John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" hit screens in 2006, it brought a vivid splash of color and a range of emotional vibrance that felt rare. 15 years later, he returned to restore the film that he feels is more relevant than ever.

When John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" hit screens in 2006, it brought a vivid splash of color and a range of emotional vibrance that felt rare for a mainstream (or even semi-mainstream) movie. Mitchell had had a hit in 2001 with the musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," based on the 1998 stage play he had written with composer Stephen Trask; as boundary-pushing as that play and film had been, revolving around a transgender native of East Berlin who undergoes a sexual and musical journey of discovery after the fall of the Berlin Wall, "Shortbus" was even more daring, integrating unsimulated sex into its mix of relationship drama and offbeat comedy.

Mitchell famously collaborated with his cast to workshop the characters and story of "Shortbus," in which several New York City couples face crises of intimacy: A longtime gay couple experiments with opening up their relationship; a married straight couple struggle with issues of sexual compatibility; a dominatrix and her annoying john go head-to-head over political and philosophical debates (carried out, it must be said, even as she's whipping and tormenting him). We meet most of the principal characters during the film's opening montage, which blends crisp, storybook-style CGI and live footage, allowing Mitchell's camera to seemingly zoom around the city, dipping into and out of sexual situations that illustrate the characters' dilemmas.

"Shortbus" is the name of the salon to which they all gravitate. Run by Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, the salon is a hub of music, art, and sex — all sorts of sex: Gay, straight, and, most of all, uninhibited. It's no wonder the film is named for the salon, because both offer sexual intimacy that is explicit, and yet naturalistic; energetic, and free of prurience. Mitchell accomplishes what only a few earlier films had tried to do by making actual intercourse part of a serious cinematic narrative.

Curiously, cinema hasn't yet embraced the sex-as-storytelling possibilities that "Shortbus" proved can be a rich and valid avenue. The film stands even now as a pioneering work — and for that, we might be grateful that it's getting a 4K upgrade and restoration, accompanied by a theatrical re-release.

Mitchell himself is more active as an actor these days, working in film, television, and podcasts (including the recent "White Hot Heist," which boasts an all-star, all-LGBTQ+ cast). Keeping his resume up to the minute, culturally speaking, Mitchell has recently been cast for Peacock's upcoming limited series "Joe vs. Carole," a dramatic retelling of the life of the out gay man at the center of Netflix's hugely popular docuseries "Tiger King."

EDGE caught up with John Cameron Mitchell to talk about "Shortbus" on the eve of its re-release.

EDGE: The film looks terrific in 4K, and the CGI work in the opening montage, and elsewhere, is still just outstanding. Did you supervise the restoration?

John Cameron Mitchell: Sure. Got to, for [purposes of] future-proofing. We did a lot of work with [the restoration's] color at a place in New York called Final Frame, and [worked with] a wonderful colorist who's actually trans, trans femme, who loved the film when it came out.

EDGE: I'd love to ask about that opening sequence. It has to be one of the funniest, most striking, and most effective introductions to a cast of characters in film history. Even now, I can't think of anything like it.

John Cameron Mitchell: It's interesting; friends, or any people who "Hedwig" was useful for them at a certain point in their lives, they're like, "Thank you, it really helped me." And then, it's almost a different group of people who say "Shortbus" did the same. I think it tended to be people who were coming out or coming up into the world, into the sexual world, the romantic world, and it reordered them.

EDGE: "Shortbus" certainly showed something new about how sexuality can be a natural part of a story, cinematically, and deepen the emotional experience of a film.

John Cameron Mitchell: You know, one of the reasons we made it is because I was annoyed by porn. I'm not against porn; I think good porn is fun, but it seemed more and more formulaic, and felt more like Hollywood. You know, a Marvel movie and a porn movie nowadays [have a certain similarity in that] you know what's coming, so to speak. They have sex in the same order [in a porn film]; in the Marvel movie, the wisecrack is coming followed by the action sequence. Every 10 minutes there's an action sequence.

It was boring to me. I was inspired by how, around the turn of the 2000s, there were a lot of, especially, foreign films and small films that were using real sex — films like "Nine Songs" [2004, directed by Michael Winterbottom] and "Brown Bunny" [2003, directed by Vincent Gallo], and "Battle in Heaven" [2005, directed by Carlos Reygadas]. "Fat Girl" [2001] was the one I liked the best — [directed by] Cathering Breillat — but they were all a bit grim. The sex was always connected to trauma and boredom. And that can certainly be the case, but I wanted more, let's say, New York — comic New York, for sure. And a New York that's kind of gone, or it was fading at that time, as the internet was coming up, and Internet porn was starting to warp young minds. I mean, Billie Eilish famously recently said, "Seeing porn starting so young really messed me up." Like, "It didn't set me up for relationships, it just kind of created an artificial view of what was to come." You know, when you have young people watching porn for six years before they have sex, of course they're going to imitate it, and they're maybe going to be disappointed that it's not the same feeling as when they're masturbating.

When we came into sex, it was a few images that we saw that were very titillating. But it was mostly [a matter of actually] having it; you invented your sex, you had people who were maybe more experienced than you who taught you about how to be. In 1980 it was like, you play Roxy Music's "Avalon" for 45 minutes. You know, the length of the album was the length of your sex. You remember, "The Sex Album" was a big thing back then — which is shocking to young people today. They were so intentional [back then], whereas now, it's whack-off time.

We wanted to be a bit of an antidote for that commodification of sex, and also to remind people that sex is like music: You can use it in different ways. "Shortbus" is about sex as much as "Hedwig" is about music, which is not very much. What it is, is a delivery system for emotion, for comedy, for drama.

EDGE: And that's all right there in that montage. There are such funny beats, and such scary beats... it's all there.

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah, it's an overture. You get a little piece of most characters. An overture, usually, is a piece of every song in the musical. So, it's a setup; it's a prologue. And I also front-load the sex in the film. I compare the film to a relationship: A lot of sex at the beginning, not as much at the end. But other things become more important at the end — deeper stuff. And the sex is just a glue, but the objects being glued together, you're getting to know them — the people and their needs. What they want is connection, ultimately,

EDGE: It's always seemed to me that literature — and this is true of the movie, as well — literature takes us into a character's most private and personal spaces. That's when we feel we know a character in a novel, and when we feel connected to them. I think you do the same thing here.

John Cameron Mitchell: I love that. I love a good novel. I think of a TV series as a video version of a novel. A relationship is a novel. A one-night stand, if it's good, can be a poem. An affair can be a short story. It's how you look at it. And I came up during AIDS, so sex was life and death. But I still allowed myself to have a lot of sex — safe sex. Luckily, I was aware of it, and spreading the gospel of safe sex. I slept my way across Europe. There's this beautiful thing of, as a queer person you're kind of an internationalist; you can go to a queer bar in any city, meet someone who becomes your boyfriend for the week that you're there. You kind of know it's going to end, and they introduce you to the city from their local point of view, and I did that. I loved doing that in the '80s... while people died too, you know, that was part of it. There was something very [Jean] Genet about it. And, in fact, Genet's short, explicit film "Un chant d'amour" [1950] was an inspiration for "Hedwig," as well as other films like "Tazi zum Klo," which was a 1980 German film [directed by Frank Ripploh] that was a model for "Hedwig" in terms of the explicitness, but also the melancholy and the humor.

EDGE: I think that "Shortbus" is still unique in the way that it treats sexuality. You mentioned "Nine Songs," and that's a perfect example — that film is explicit, but it's so detached.

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah.

EDGE: Whereas in "Shortbus," there's a joy. There's also loneliness, sadness, apprehension. As a writer and director, how did you pull all those emotions forward?

John Cameron Mitchell: My favorite thing to do is to collaborate, especially with actors. My heroes were [Robert] Altman, [John] Cassavetes, Hal Ashby — people who love their actors, and the actors love them. [The actors] weren't pawns, like [with] Kubrick or Russell. They were partners. I want to be surprised by my actors. I want them to go places that are scary for them, but feel safe in my environment. We did two and a half years of improv before we shot, so we really knew each other. Some of the sexual charge was gone by then, which kind of made it easier to shoot, actually.

But wasn't about the sex. We only really had one sexual rehearsal. I remember in those two and a half years, they didn't seem to want to do [sexual rehearsal], which is fine. But we teased out their deepest fears and insecurities, and amplified them for their characters. And they felt safe enough to do that with me, which I really appreciate. Everyone since then said it was their favorite creative experience.

[If we were] making it today, you can imagine that the panic and the intimacy counselors and the riders and the [concerns around] nudity. I mean, even back then SAG [the Screen Actors Guild] didn't know what to do with us, because they didn't have a contract that worked for this kind of explicitness, but they knew it was real, and I wasn't just trying to make something exploitative. And I didn't really get much panic about the sex. Maybe it was a little moment, you know, after [the worst of] AIDS and before the resurgence of a kind of sex panic, which kind of has come from the left more. An inherent puritanism is kind of poking out in the kind of woke thing. It's almost like, if anyone's having sex, someone is being exploited. And you get a lot of young people having less and less sex every year, weirdly; the peak of young people having sex was right when the film came out, but since then studies show that young people are having less and less sex. In Japan, they've almost stopped having sex. This was before COVID, even, and COVID has put the nail in the coffin. So, I think it's the right time for the film to come out. I'm super sex positive, which is panicky for young people, and I think they need that right now — because if porn is their only guide, they're fucked. Or, not fucked.

EDGE: Yes, this seems like the perfect moment for "Shortbus" to be re-released, because of the way COVID has kept everyone in their bubbles. We're at risk, maybe, of forgetting about physical intimacy.

John Cameron Mitchell: It's true. I need society; I love being alone, too, but I need people, and just trying to get [friends] together... I'm like, "Let's get together. You're not going to get Omicron from me." Some of them say, "I don't know how to be with people anymore." It's like, you don't use it, you lose it. We have to remember that this is vital, this is important to us, to be in the same rooms with people.

I just moved to New Orleans, partly because New York was starting to feel very isolating. And the "Shortbus"/"Hedwig" feeling of collaboration wasn't there anymore. There's certainly creative people, but I didn't see a lot of innovation, that "walk around and help each other out" culture, because everyone's trying to pay their rent. So, I bought a place in New Orleans with my "Tiger King" money, and I love it. It feels like New York in the eighties, minus the AIDS; it's a little dangerous. It's beautiful. It's a damaged city, and an incredibly soulful one, so I'm hoping I can create my own little salons here now.

EDGE: Thank you for bringing up "Tiger King" — or, rather, "Joe vs. Carole," a dramatized TV series where you play Joe Exotic. That seems like very exciting casting, and also rather surprising.

John Cameron Mitchell: I'm not so much that kind of person who is, like, "Gay must play gay and straight must play straight," and all of that. It's like, if you can play the role believably, it's still acting. We're not all just playing ourselves. Nowadays there's this feeling of, "Stay in your lane," and, you know, we may just end up with nothing but autobiographies, which I find kind of boring and solipsistic. It's by playing and writing roles that are different from you that you awaken empathy. That actually is the point of it. And that's why Toni Morrison never let people write about themselves when she was teaching. They had to write from the point of view of people they didn't know. Otherwise, it's just navel gazing, she thought.

EDGE: How did you get involved with the Peacock series "Joe vs. Carole?"

John Cameron Mitchell: That was just my agent. I think they might have had someone before me and lost them, because it was last-minute casting. I hadn't auditioned for anything in 25 years and it seemed like a very juicy role. I hadn't really watched the whole [documentary] series, but what a fun character. So, I went all out in my audition tape, and got it within days, and [now am] getting ready to go to Australia to shoot it.

"Shortbus" will open at the IFC Center in New York on Jan. 26, followed by a theatrical expansion to select cities.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.