Shortbus: Sex according to John Cameron Mitchell

“Shortbus,” John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” centers on two characters in long-term relationships, both of whom want to open their marriages sexually, albeit for different reasons. The hot, controversial movie receives its world premiere as a midnight screening at the 2006 Festival de Cannes.

Project’s beginnings

In the years I was making “Hedwig,” I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the 1960s and 1970s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I’ve been brought up in a strict Catholic-military environment and sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating.

I had the idea of making a New York-style emotionally-challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking and, if possible, funny. It would not necessarily seek to be erotic; instead, it would try to use the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the character’s lives.

I’ve always regarded sex as the nerve endings of people’s lives. I always thought that if you watched two strangers having sex, you could make some very good guesses about them, from what their childhood was like to what they had eaten for lunch that day.

Literary and cinematic influences

At the same time, I wanted to create a film where the characters and script were developed through group improvisations, inspired by the disparate techniques of John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and Mike Leigh. Interestingly, though, all three expressed distaste for the prospect of “real” or “unsimulated” sex in their own films.

I also knew I wanted the piece to center around a modern-day multi-sexual underground salon, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Parisian model and contemporary New York salons that I had experiencedsmorgasboards of music, literature, art and even public group sex.

Cinematic Influences

If I had to name specific sexual cinematic antecedents for my film, I guess I’d have to mention Frank Riploe’s autobiographical “Taxi Zum Klo.” I like the melancholy tone underpinning the comedy, and the way he treats sex the same as he treats everything else in his life. I also like Jean Genet’s “Un Chant d’Amour,” which is the grandfather of all interesting sexual films.

As far as tone and style, the most influential films for Shortbus are Cassavetes’ “Minnie and Moskowitz,” Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” Altman’s “A Wedding,” and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and Her Sister,” and “Husbands and Wives.”

Casting

Producer Howard Gertler, casting director Susan Shopmaker, and I sent an open casting call early in 2003. We avoided agents and stars-stars don’t have sex. I had envisioned a year’s long workshop process, and stars generally don’t do that either. Because we didn’t have money for ads, we solicited interviews in various alternative papers and magazines inviting anyoneexperienced actors or notto go to our website, read about what we were trying to do and send in audition tapes. I suggested they talk on their tapes about a sexual experience that was emotionally meaningful to them. I encouraged them to put anything on there that might help us get to know them.

Response to the Website

More than half a million people visited the website, and nearly 500 people, mostly from North America, sent in tapes. Some talked to the camera, some made short films, some sang songs, some jerked off. We chose about forty people for the audition stage.

Audition

We had very little money and they all flew themselves in. Everyone was told that the auditions would involve improvisation but nothing sexual. I didn’t want to scare the horses. I wanted an in-depth audition process where the actors were creative partners and trust could be built over time.

Personal parties

Around that time, I was throwing a monthly party called “Shortbus” (before we named the film). I was trying to create a junior high school dance atmosphere, without all the “club” attitude, and we’d play all kinds of music. Friends and I would DJ extremely electricallyI specialized in slow-dancing. I threw a Shortbus party for the forty finalists. We had a game of “spin the bottle” with a hundred people. Whomever the bottle landed on, would have to make out with the spinner. It broke the ice.

Watching personal tapes

The next day, all the hung over actors watched each other’s audition tapes together in the same room. It was nerve-wrecking, because some of the tapes were very personal. But it let everyone know that we were all in this together.

Secret ballot

Also, we had a few days together and I had to quickly ascertain who was sexually attracted to whom, i.e. who had the potential to play couples in the film. We had a secret ballot and everyone had to rate everyone else on a scale of one to four, so we would have some information about compatibility. It was all very strange, and kind of fun. We ended up with a gigantic wall charta cross-referenced grid showing who was attracted to whom.

Rating and improv

The number of permutations was impressive and it was a real timesaver. We brought together the people who had rate each other with “fours” for the first improv auditions. It quickly became clear who were the natural actors, trained or not. We wanted people who could improvise off a written script while maintaining a strict scene structure. It’s different from pure improv: It’s more like paraphrasing. We were seeking intelligent, charismatic people who could interact well with others. Divas were eliminated. I cast the most interesting and compatible actors and immediately began our first improv workshop. We could figure out the characters and story together.

Real Orgasms

In workshop, we did a few sexually-oriented “closed set” improves, but not many. Some actors were immediately comfortable with that, others needed time. Each had his/her own needs, and I wanted them to find their own way of approaching the sex. Many wanted to save it for the camera, a strategy that paid off in many ways. All the orgasms portrayed in the film are real. My cinematographer, Frank DeMarco, sat in on rehearsalssexual and notto put everyone more at ease.

Instructing the actors

My constant refrain to the performers was, “I’ll never ask you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I’ll always ask you to challenge yourselves.” I was constantly encouraging them to bring up insecurities as soon as they arose, so we could nip them in the bud. There was much discussion of safe sex. Not to say there weren’t a lot of nerves during shooting. But it was a wonderfully rewarding process for both the cast and we all remain good friends.