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Filmmakers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell came together on Thursday for a thought-provoking conversation as part of Outfest’s United in Pride digital film festival, taking place in partnership with Film Independent’s Coffee Talks and Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter‘s upcoming Pride Summit.
During their portion of the live-streamed event, Van Sant and Mitchell spoke about several topics impacting independent filmmakers in 2020, including the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the reignited Black Lives Matter movement and November’s presidential election.
“Do you think this pandemic is actually going to shift that even more to this smaller screen and make it more difficult to finance?” Mitchell asked the Oscar-nominated Van Sant, to which he responded optimistically.
“You have a lot of independent films that are on YouTube, that are all over the place, that are valid amazing works,” said Van Sant, explaining that there is a need, now more than ever, for innovative content as most movie theaters remained closed. “I think it’s kind of good in some ways for smaller filmmakers, political filmmakers or any other kind of filmmakers.”
Van Sant — who is responsible for such iconic films as My Own Private Idaho and Milk — and Mitchell — who has helmed notable projects like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus and Hulu’s Shrill — went on to say that they are making the most of their time while sheltering at their respective homes in California. “We’ve both kind of been guiltily enjoying the productivity of the lockdown, right?” asked Mitchell.
While Van Sant has a secret project in development, Mitchell has leaned into his musical abilities, writing songs, including a parody about South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s alleged relationships with male sex workers who have come forward with stories of their interactions with the politician on social media. (Graham has yet to publicly acknowledge the claims.)
“The lyrics are the tweets that have been coming out from sex workers,” Mitchell said with a chuckle, later acknowledging Graham’s longstanding support of anti-gay legislation as well as his loyalty to President Donald Trump, who has also made multiple attempts to roll back LGBTQ protections throughout his time in the White House.
“I don’t believe in outing unless someone is truly dangerous,” added Mitchell, who also labeled Graham a “Trump puppet.”
Speaking more about Trump, Van Sant and Mitchell opened up about the importance of queer voices in film, especially as the country gears up for the November election.
“Change is happening,” said Mitchell, sharing his hope for a less divisive administration as demonstrators across the country have melded Pride marches with protests against systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, a seismic response to the killing of George Floyd. “This election will be more historic than ever. And what happens between now and the election is a question.”
During this time of unprecedented unrest, Van Sant and Mitchell — considered icons of the New Queer Cinema movement — have pondered the future of LGBTQ storytelling on screen.
Van Sant noted that queer representation, in his eyes, has “just proliferated to the point where it’s on my YouTube feed, it’s everywhere, all the shorts [and] features. It’s amazing.”
Van Sant and Mitchell both acknowledged the importance of seeing LGBTQ persons in mainstream properties like Greg Berlanti’s 2018 teen gay romantic comedy Love, Simon and its forthcoming Hulu spinoff series, Love, Victor; plus the countless seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. However, Mitchell admitted that he “miss[es] the punk-queer films that really launched me.”
“One of the prices of acceptance is mediocrity,” he said. “As things get more accepting, there’s RuPaul who has kind of standardized drag. It’s definitely given a lot of careers to a lot of talented people, but it feels a little bit standardized: you have to lip sync, you have to do this and that. To me, drag was a form that you can do a lot of things with, just like film.”
With that said, Mitchell predicts that more LGBTQ themes will be infused into big-budget projects that would have previously been interpreted as “straight” stories. “I would love to see the queer Nancy Drew,” he said. “I mean, she obviously always was queer in my view.”
Still, Mitchell never wants audiences to forget the resilience of the LGBTQ community. “I’d love to queer the mainstream more,” he said. “But I also think it’s very important to remind ourselves that nurturing the outsiders is key. Because, after all, that’s where we came from.”
Outfest’s programming will continue on Friday, including Film Independent’s Project Involve Shorts showcase — featuring Care, Get the Life and La Gloria, among other projects. Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter‘s Pride Summit and Pride Prom will take place Saturday at BBTHRPrideSummit.com.
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