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“Movie stars don’t have sex — they just don’t,” John Cameron Mitchell said Wednesday night inside Landmark’s Nuart Theater during a Q&A that followed a special screening of his experimental and sexually explicit Shortbus.
Of course, movie stars do get intimate, but they don’t typically have real, penetrative sex on camera, outside of the porn industry anyway. That is precisely what Mitchell wanted to capture and explore in the 2006 film, which is getting a theatrical re-release and 4K restoration from Oscilloscope Laboratories to mark the 15th-anniversary milestone.
Shortbus stars Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Peter Stickles, Jay Brannan, Adam Hardman and Justin Vivian Bond as a group of New Yorkers navigating love, sex and intimacy in and around a modern-day underground salon in a post-9/11 reality. It’s packed with nudity, orgies, erect penises, musical interludes, orgasms and two memorable ejaculation scenes but Mitchell has long countered the shock and awe with a reminder that the film is, at its heart, about the complexities of relationships.
Mitchell, the actor, writer, director and producer best known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, revisited his cult classic during back-to-back screenings Wednesday and Thursday. During the latter, attended by The Hollywood Reporter, Mitchell was joined by fellow panelists from the film, Stickles, Alan Mandell and a performer who goes by the name Bitch. Moderator Manuel Betancourt kicked off the Q&A by asking how the project came to be.
“I’d seen a lot of films that had used real sex in the early 2000s, and they were interesting, sometimes, but they were grim and the sex was bad,” explained Mitchell of his motivation to mount something more dynamic and daring. But because he knew that Hollywood stars would not sign on for such a project, he cast a wide net in early 2002 with a public casting call that asked interested parties to send in an audition tape that featured them talking about “an emotional sexual experience,” Mitchell recalled of the process.
From the submissions, producers selected 40 participants for callbacks that included improv, parties and dances as a way to explore chemistry. “We had a good time,” he noted. “They watched each other’s tapes because I had to see who was into each other.”
The group was eventually whittled down to nine actors who joined for a monthlong workshop, held in New York’s East Village inside a rented loft. It was there that Mitchell shaped the story by using his actors as inspiration. The gay couple at the center of the story, Dawson and DeBoy, were a couple in real life and Mitchell said they are still together, now living in “witness protection” in Florida, he joked.
Lee, who plays a pre-orgasmic sex therapist on a quest to finally achieve a climax, is a Canadian multi-hyphenate who, at the time, nearly lost her job at the CBC due to the NC-17 action. Francis Ford Coppola, Julianne Moore, Gus Van Sant, Yoko Ono, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Michael Stipe wrote letters on her behalf that saved her hosting gig.
“It was ahead of its time, in many ways,” Mitchell said of the way the film was received upon its rollout that began at the Cannes Film Festival and continued with other festival showings and an international release via ThinkFilm. “People say Hedwig was, too. Hedwig was a flop in the theaters and people found it later. Shortbus actually made a bit of money, but it wasn’t a smash hit. People were still scared.”
It made $5.5 million worldwide, and Mitchell said he’s glad to see it getting another run in theaters, particularly at this moment in time when he says a different kind of fear has emerged around sex. The reception will be tested as Shortbus opens in New York on Jan. 26 followed by screenings in February and March in Seattle, Iowa City, Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, Irvine, Detroit, Cleveland, Portland and Austin.
“There is a panic about sex now,” he explained. “In the past, it was more about the Christian religious right, and now there’s a little bit more panic on the left. In the wake of #MeToo and consent stuff, a lot of young people are starting to just get really nervous about sex. It’s almost like if any sex is happening, then someone is being exploited. We have a puritan streak in our culture and unfortunately, the rush to fix things that need to be fixed has besmirched the name of sex in general. It’s almost like that [writer] Andrea Dworkin thing, if someone is being penetrated, someone is being hurt, which I have to disagree with as I’m being fucked.”
Mitchell suggested that the film can be therapeutic for viewers in the way it was for him to create. “I was brought up very Catholic and so sex was a bad thing and queer sex was worse,” he said. “This was my own therapy, as well, to remind us that sex is a part of life. We think of the film as a relationship. It’s front-loaded with sex and by the end of it, it’s the last thing you’re thinking about, just like a relationship.”
He said that with a laugh, before finishing with an earnest reflection on the film’s artistic impact. “There’s deeper stuff going on. It’s a good thing to see now when there’s a little panic to do anything. Straight guys are not even sure if they could ever ask a girl out again without crossing a line, and they’re not sure what the line is. There’s so much tension about hurting, offending or triggering. This is full of triggers. I love a trigger. Art is triggering, in a good way.”
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