John Cameron
Mitchell tests limits with explicit new film

The scene inside
the cavernous warehouse on the banks of the East River
looks something like a bohemian circus. Perched in front of
makeup mirrors are lesbians with dreadlocks, ripped
jeans, and knee-high boots; drag queens wearing
violently colored wigs; and a man in a fleshy fat suit
covered with plastic doughnuts. A buxom blond in a
floor-length evening gown adjusts the pink flower
pasties under her top, while members of a marching
band mill about, warming up their trumpets and trombones.
It's just another day on the set for director John Cameron
Mitchell, who glides through the crowd in a
spray-painted leather jacket, kissing hellos and
making final preparations for a party scene in his sophomore
film, Shortbus

Regardless of
what the actors are wearing on this day, it's what they're
not wearing in much of the film that has generated all the
early buzz. Four years after Mitchell put on a coifed
blond wig and punk-rock T-shirt to become an East
German transgender singer in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
, the director is pushing new boundaries with
an unfiltered look at sexual relationships that
promises to make The Brown Bunny and Mysterious
look tame by comparison.

Despite initial
problems getting money for the project and the prospect
of being slapped with an NC-17 rating, the gay 42-year-old
filmmaker says he's unwilling to hold back on any of
his vision—to depict (real) sex in as realistic
a fashion as possible. "I wanted to make a film about
sex that had humor, emotional weight, and metaphor all at
the same time," Mitchell says at his production
office. "That's how I've experienced it in my life."

"I have seen so
few films in which the sex felt really respected by
the filmmaker," he says. "Hollywood too often shies away
from it or makes adolescent jokes about it.... Sex is
only connected to the negative because people are
scared of it." To keep the sex real, Mitchell says he
avoided casting professional actors—"stars don't
have sex"—and instead placed ads in alternative
weeklies inviting people to send in audition tapes.
After selecting a cast, he began holding "structured
improv" workshops about two years ago to work out a
rough sketch of the plot.

The film revolves
around a salon of the Gertrude Stein model from the
early 1900s, where artists, writers, musicians, and
intellectuals converged to share their works and
discuss new ideas in art and politics. Mitchell's
version attracts an updated assortment of regulars culled
from New York's burlesque and gay performing arts
communities—or, as he says, the kinds of people
who belonged on the "short bus" for gifted and
challenged children in elementary school.

Though the cast
includes actors with varying backgrounds and sexual
orientations, the thing connecting them is their humorous
and frustrating explorations of sexual relationships.
One character, a sex therapist, has never herself
experienced an orgasm. A gay couple is thinking about
opening up their relationship to include other lovers. "It
travels the fence between tragic and comic, and that's
where my life teeters," Mitchell says. To make
everyone comfortable from the start, Mitchell says he
kept the improv sessions light, playing "spin the
bottle" to help the cast open up. He formed the movie's
couples by having the actors watch each other's
audition tapes and vote on who they were most
attracted to.

Although the cast
knew what they were getting into when they signed up,
some still had trepidation about having sex in front of a
movie crew, let alone a camera. One actress, who goes
by the name Capital B and plays opposite her real-life
girlfriend in the movie, says that before shooting
began earlier this year Mitchell allowed them to state their
own boundaries. "It was an interesting quandary of
mine," she says, adding that initially she didn't see
a problem but then didn't want anyone to see her
naked. Adds PJ DeBoy, who plays part of the gay couple
exploring an open relationship: "We're lucky because it is a
small crew, and we've known each other for over two
years, so there's a real great comfortability between
all of us."

"Most people get
self-conscious being naked in front of other people,
but we're really concerned with the story, what's going on
within these characters," DeBoy says. "The fact that
we're naked having sex in front of each other, it's
just a variable that's very easy to deal with."

It wasn't so easy
for potential financial backers to deal with, though.
Mitchell says he initially approached 50 to 60 investors,
with little luck. Even envelope-pushing HBO, which
filmed parts of the audition process, eventually
backed away from the project. "Regular financing
companies were scared because they have parent companies,"
he says. "A lot of investors said they were
interested, but they didn't trust their guts." In the
end, most of the budget, which Mitchell estimates will
be between $1 million and $2 million, came from a new
gay and lesbian TV network called Q Television. The
network, headed by Frank Olsen, will retain the film's
cable rights.

The next hurdle
will be finding a distributor, which Mitchell hopes won't
be difficult after Shortbus premieres in 2006
at a film festival, such as Sundance or Berlin. He's going
to allow the film to be unrated rather than risking a
potentially stigmatizing NC-17 rating. But Mitchell
believes there's an audience for his film. He says
many people around the country are concerned about the
recent influence of conservative mores on arts and
entertainment and would welcome a movie to challenge
that. "This is an act of resistance," he says. "There
is such a reluctance to address sex as an inherent part of
the human experience in this country.... The true
perversion to me is crushing it and hiding it."
(Justin Bergman, via AP)

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