John Cameron Mitchell On Punks, Aliens And The Queerness Of 'How To Talk To Girls' | Texas Public Radio

John Cameron Mitchell On Punks, Aliens And The Queerness Of 'How To Talk To Girls'

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 5:36 pm

More than a decade ago, author Neil Gaiman wrote a short story that captures some of the strangeness of being a teenager discovering the world. It's called "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," and it's really only one scene: Two boys stumble upon a party where the girls seem rather alien. As it turns out, the girls are actual aliens.

Now, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell has expanded "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" into a full-length, low-budget indie film of the same name. Like the original, it's set in the 1970s punk music scene of Croydon, England, a dingy area south of London. It stars Elle Fanning as an alien named Zan, and Nicole Kidman as a punk rocker named Queen Boadicea.

Mitchell tells NPR, "I've always wanted to make my YA teenage love story that had little idea bombs throughout, one of which is this idea of punk being identified in a certain way. A lot of people have identified it in a lot of different ways. My favorite [definition] is sort of destroying things that are not useful in order for a plethora of other things to grow out of the scorched ground."

Mitchell's other films include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a transgender woman from East Berlin, and Shortbus, about sexual outsiders in New York.


Interview Highlights

On how the film's aliens react to the British punks

They're confused because their music isn't very rock and roll. But they are confronted with grubby, messy, beautiful, bloody, sexy fragrances of bodily fluids and secretions that [are] repellent for most of them, but [are] like catnip for Zan, our alien heroine. And she, throughout the film, is tasting everything, every bodily fluid she can, and her own blood and vomits in people's mouths, and it's all wonderful because it's all new for her.

The big joke, of course, is the British kid takes all of her absurd spouting as to be explained by the fact that she's from California. ... She's American, so they say these things.

On creating Nicole Kidman's character, Queen Boadicea, who wasn't in the original Gaiman story

Philippa [Goslett], our writer, wrote a character named Allison who became Boadicea, because I always liked that name. Every British schoolchild knows Boadicea. She was the Celtic princess, or queen, really, who drove the Romans out of London. It was the one loss of the Romans, you know, early in British history, and she ultimately was killed.

But there was, you know — Nicole's character says, "The first punk was a she." And Nicole's character really is a bit of Vivienne Westwood, a bit of Malcolm McLaren. She's much bawdier and braying.

On making a punk indie film with a big-name actress like Kidman

She's a pro. And she wasn't always in her comfort level because she got hit in the head with a guitar and one of the actors kept spitting in her face by accident, and she really hated that. Well, he was the punk singer, you know. And she actually hauled off and cracked him across the face when he did it one too many times. ... And I kept it in the film. But he was a real punk guy and he wasn't really an actor, so he was trying his best.

But so she was just there for like six days and really kicked ass, and she was really a pro about it. But we kind of forced her into a non-comfortable zone with our rock and roll filming techniques.

On how How to Talk to Girls at Parties relates to his other, often queer films

For me, rock and roll and punk are queer. ... There's a queerness about rock and roll, and gender-bending in punk and rock and roll. But I do think of How to Talk to Girls as a queer film. ... It's how you look at things, as opposed to who you have sex with, that makes you queer. It's how you look at the world through a bit of a prism of perhaps the fluidity of gender, the understanding that the underdog has something to say that might be useful to society, and a sense of humor where, you know, camp ... is a useful form.

So I think of How to Talk to Girls as definitely a part of my landscape and the things that I'm interested in. I came out of comic books and science fiction and fantasy, and I want to explore that more. And you put Broadway, Borscht Belt, punk rock, glam rock and comic books together and you probably get one of my films.

Sam Gringlas and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a decade ago, the author Neil Gaiman wrote a short story that captures some of the strangeness of being a teenager discovering the world. It's called "How To Talk To Girls At Parties." It's really only one scene. Two boys stumble upon a party where the girls seem rather alien because, as it turns out, the girls are actual aliens. Here's Neil Gaiman reading a bit of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL GAIMAN: (Reading) Understand me; all the girls at that party in the twilight were lovely. They all had perfect faces. But more important than that, they had whatever strangeness and proportion of oddness or humanity it is that makes a beauty something more than a shop window dummy.

SHAPIRO: Fast-forward to the present day, and the writer-director John Cameron Mitchell has expanded "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" into a full-length film.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DYSCHORDS SONG, "CLIMB OVER ME")

SHAPIRO: Like the story, the movie is set in the 1970s punk scene of Croydon, England, a dingy area south of London. The soundtrack is full of new music that sounds like it could have come from that era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLIMB OVER ME")

THE DYSCHORDS: (Singing) Oh, yeah, it's killing me. Climb, climb over me.

SHAPIRO: "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" is a low-budget independent film with some big-name actors like Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. She plays an alien named Zan, a kind of traveler who wants a different way of experiencing life on Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES")

ELLE FANNING: (As Zan) You constantly use words like enrichment and authenticity, but we're behaving more like tourists than travelers.

SHAPIRO: Zan's big adventure begins when she meets a human boy and runs off with him. Director John Cameron Mitchell's other movies focus on adult themes. His films include "Rabbit Hole" and "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." So I asked him what attracted him to this sweet, punk, sci-fi, Romeo-Juliet tale.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: I've always wanted to make my YA teenage love story that had, you know, little idea bombs throughout, one of which is, you know, this idea of punk, you know, being identified in a certain way. My favorite thing is sort of destroying things that are not useful in order for a plethora of other things to grow out of the scorched ground.

SHAPIRO: That's a great definition.

MITCHELL: You know, Nicole Kidman calls it - I wrote her a line saying it's the fag end of the blues. You know, it's the end of it.

SHAPIRO: Fag being British slang for the butt of a cigarette.

MITCHELL: Butt of a cigarette - the fag end of the blues, you know, the last gasp.

SHAPIRO: It is so grounded in the '70s, this movie is. And so many of your stars are young. I mean, Elle Fanning is 20 years old. What did you tell them about this time that you lived through and they did not to ground them in the details of it?

MITCHELL: Well, funnily enough, I mean, the older actors who were generally British, you know, they all knew that. They knew what a midnight movie was. They knew what punk rock was even if they weren't punks. The kids - they didn't really know about punk. But they were so happy to when I gave them certain movies to watch, "The Filth And The Fury," and books about The Roxy, which was the first punk club. And it's funny because I didn't ask them not to wash, which was...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...Much more common back then 'cause, you know, I didn't want to do that to the poor dressers and the other actors.

SHAPIRO: You know, punks and rockers have used alien imagery for a long time, David Bowie most notably but lots of others, too. What do you think happens when you introduce actual aliens into this world of punks?

MITCHELL: They kind of take on the form of what aliens might look like to humans in the '70s. So they have rubber suits. They have geometric patterns. They're unnaturally interesting-looking, you know, quite beautiful, physical specimens. And they're confronted with grubby, messy, bloody, sexy fragrances of bodily fluids and secretions that is repellent for most of them but is like catnip for Zan, our alien heroine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES")

FANNING: (As Zan) Do more punk to me.

MITCHELL: So the aliens are - in the tradition of aliens-on-Earth-movie - learns something from the humans, and the humans learn something from the aliens. It is, you know, our "Contact" or our "Close Encounters" but with much more of a sense of humor and zany, midnight movie, '70s vibe.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about Nicole Kidman's character because she was not in the original Neil Gaiman short story. She was created from whole cloth. If people have seen her in "Big Little Lies," this character is basically the exact opposite of that (laughter).

MITCHELL: Yes, Nicole - Philippa, our writer, wrote a character named Allison who became Boadicea 'cause I always liked that name. Every British schoolchild knows Boadicea. She was the Celtic princess or queen, really, who drove the Romans out of London. You know, Nicole's character says the first punk was a she. And Nicole's character really is a bit of Vivienne Westwood, a bit of Malcolm McLaren. You know, she's much bawdier and brave.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) Right, then. Right, then, you crowd, shut it. Tonight I am delighted to announce that The Dyschords will be welcoming a guest singer who will also be modeling some of my...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where's Slap?

KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) Shut your gaping gob. He's on probation.

SHAPIRO: Just to give people an image of Boadicea, Nicole Kidman's character, we're talking about spiky silver and black hair and a high collar piece that's made entirely out of zippers and very strong eyeliner. She's somebody you don't mess with.

MITCHELL: No. So she was just there for, like, six days and really kicked ass. And she was really a pro about it. But we kind of, you know, forced her into a non-comfortable zone with our rock 'n' roll filming techniques because, you know, she got hit in the head with a guitar, and one the actors kept spitting in her face by accident. And she...

SHAPIRO: Oh, God, really?

MITCHELL: ...Hated that. Well, he was the punk singer, you know? And she actually hauled off and cracked him across the face when he did it one too many times.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MITCHELL: Yeah. And I kept it in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES")

KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) What are you, suicidal?

MARTIN TOMLINSON: (As Slap) You remind me of my mum. Bo, I'm a golden goose.

KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) You haven't laid a golden egg yet, have you? I've had it, Slap.

TOMLINSON: (As Slap) So where's the afterparty?

SHAPIRO: Your films have almost always been about outsiders, whether it was "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," which is about a transgender woman from East Berlin, or "Shortbus," which is about sexual outsiders in a different way. This movie is much less explicitly queer, but do you still see a connection with the other feature films you've made?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, you know, for me rock 'n' roll and punk are queer. There's a queerness about rock 'n' roll and gender bending. But I do think of "How To Talk To Girls" as a queer film. It's the - it's how you look at things as opposed to who you have sex with that makes you queer. It's how you look at the world through a bit of a prism of perhaps the fluidity of gender, the understanding that the underdog has something to say that might be useful to society.

So I think "How To Talk To Girls" is definitely a part of my, you know, landscape and the things that I'm interested in. I'm - I came out of comic books and science fiction and fantasy, and I want to explore that more. And you put Broadway, Borscht Belt, punk rock, glam rock and comic books together, and you probably get one of my films.

SHAPIRO: John Cameron Mitchell, thank you so much for talking with us about your new movie.

MITCHELL: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DYSCHORDS SONG, "PLANNED ADOLESCENCE")

SHAPIRO: The film is called "How To Talk To Girls At Parties." John Cameron Mitchell is the director and co-screenwriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANNED ADOLESCENCE")

THE DYSCHORDS: (Singing) The city is (unintelligible). She's singing, I love you, oh, oh, oh, oh. I had a planned adolescence. Why don't you rest? (Unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.