It’s not often you get to watch an actor ejaculate into his mouth onscreen – in a respectable cinema that is. That’s what you’ll experience in the first few minutes of Shortbus; the very explicit and remarkable new film by Hedwig and the Angry Inch director, John Cameron Mitchell. If you’d like show your mother a movie that will reflect the gay experience, this is not the one to take her to. But it is one you will not want to miss – it’ll make you laugh, move you and turn you on.
Shortbus is a layered multiple character tale set in New York dealing with contemporary sexuality and relationships; there’s the gay couple trying to save their fragile relationship by opening it up to others; a sex therapist searching for her elusive first orgasm; a dominatrix hooker who just wants to have a real relationship with someone; and a smorgasbord of other characters all trying to make sense of life and love. They come together – so to speak – at a weekly creative, social and polysexual event called Shortbus.
It’s a real movie – in the sense that it has a genuine narrative; intelligent insight, coherent (and likable) characters, great performances and is professionally made – but is also described by Variety as “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the porn industry”. And while there have been a number of hardcore art-house European features released over the last few years, Shortbus depicts the most explicit – real – gay sex scenes I’ve seen in any theatrically screened mainstream film.
Ster Kinekor, which is releasing the film in May, is showing Shortbus for limited Cinema Nouveau pre-screenings this March; 2 – 8 March at Rosebank in Joburg and 16 – 22 March at V&A Waterfront in Cape Town (only at the 8pm shows). One can’t fail to note that the screenings largely coincide with the OIA Film Festival at Nu Metro, but so what? There’s no reason to complain; we’re blessed with a month of great gay-themed films to pick and choose from.
In an interview with writer and director John Cameron Mitchell, Tony Rayns discusses the origins of Shortbus and the fascinating collaborative process through which it was made.
The project’s starting point…
I had 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 characters’ 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. 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.
Finding the actors…
Producer Howard Gertler, Casting Director Susan Shopmaker and I sent out an open casting call early in 2003. We avoided agents and stars – stars don’t have sex – and I’d envisioned a year’s-long workshop process, and stars generally don’t do that either. Instead, we solicited interviews (we didn’t have money for ads) in various alternative papers and magazines inviting anyone – experienced actors or not—to 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 emotional meaningful to them. I encouraged them to put anything on there that might help us get to know them. 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. 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.
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 – we’d play all kinds of music. Friends and I would DJ extremely eclectically – I specialised 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.
We had a secret ballot and everyone had to rate everyone else on a scale of one to four, so we’d have some information about compatibility. It was all very strange, and kind of fun. We ended up with a gigantic wall chart – a cross-referenced grid showing who was attracted to whom. We brought together the people who had rated 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 would figure out the characters and story together.
Improvising the film
We sublet a loft in the Lower East Side and started with simple theater improv games; we watched films, played whiffleball (baseball with plastic bats and balls) and went bowling. We moved on to more complicated improvs using interesting character/story elements that had come up in the auditions. I had read books about Mike Leigh’s and Cassavetes’ script creation processes and we adapted a few of their methods. We developed the characters’ backgrounds, secrets, desires. We’d stage “press conferences” where the actors would be interrogated as their characters. We videotaped all the rehearsals so when the workshop was over I had plenty of material to work with when I started on the screenplay. The actors were, in effect, generating the characters and their struggles. I used this information to develop the plot and explore themes into a traditional script. That became our structure: we’d workshop/rehearse for a few weeks, then I’d work on the script for a few months, then back to workshop, then writing. We alternated like that for 2 years until the financing came through. By the time we shot, the script was tight and we were as comfortable with each other as anyone could be.
In workshop, we did a few sexually-oriented “closed set” improvs 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 which paid off in many ways (all the orgasms portrayed in the film are real!). My cinematographer, Frank DeMarco, sat in on rehearsals – sexual and not – to put everyone more at ease. My consta