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John Cameron Mitchell on his latest movie, a 70s punk rom com with aliens

How To Talk To Girls At Parties is a raucous adaption of a Neil Gaiman short story, starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman

John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties has “misunderstood cult classic” written all over it. Raucous, vibrant, and outrageous, the newly released sci-fi comedy is a total blast from start to finish. Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story, the 1977-set coming-of-ager starts off with three teen boys, led by Enn (Alex Sharp), each eager for a frivolous night out in London. However, when the trio sneak into a house party, they realise the latex-loving guests aren’t just otherworldly, but actually out of this world.

Elle Fanning, it turns out, was born to play an extra-terrestrial. As Zan, a visitor from the Fourth Colony, she’s intrigued by the Earthling that is Enn, and together they discover punk music and even share a tender kiss – well, she misunderstands and vomits into his mouth. Along the way, there’s Nicole Kidman as a rock villain called Boadicea, a plot to enslave the human race, and an original soundtrack featuring the likes of Xiu Xiu, Mitski, AC Newman, and Matmos. As for what unites aliens and human adolescents? A total, utter awkwardness when it comes to sex. “Your penis is small and folded, like the bud of a flower,” Zan observes. “Oh, it’s losing its structure…”

Mitchell is no stranger to aggressively weird movies about outsiders. He directed and starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a transgressive musical about fame and identity, and followed it up with Shortbus, an x-rated drama which opens with a guy genuinely sucking himself off. At the London Film Festival, we spoke to Mitchell about crafting an alien-punk soundtrack, the Bjork-ness of Elle Fanning, and why he’d like to shoot a hardcore porn film.

What were your own experiences of punk and 1970s London?

John Cameron Mitchell: I lived in Britain in the early 70s, because my mum is Scottish. So I was here for the glam years. I was a David Bowie boy. When punk came, I was in Kansas, sadly. So I discovered it later. I was like, “Damn, I missed it.”

Like anything, punk popped up in different places. In New York, it was more of an artsy thing. There were The Ramones, who were real bubblegum awesomeness. Then there’s Patti Smith, who was more poetic, and Television, who were very heady. The UK were inspired by those people, but it was more of a pop thing. It ended up being the music of a whole young generation. Then everything became co-opted.

The punks and West Indians allied themselves in London, and Don Letts had a lot to do with that. I was really interested in the cross-cultural stuff. It was a place the queers could go. You were freaks, and you could be what you wanted. Which is what I loved about it.

Did you write “Eat Me Alive”, the psychedelic song that Elle and Alex do on stage?

John Cameron Mitchell: I wrote the lyrics, but it was Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu. He has a punk-y but synth-y thing that seemed right for the aliens. Part of our joke is that without the aliens, there would be no post-punk or Joy Division. Our punk boys are like, “What’s that music? It sounds alien.” So “Eat Me Alive” was our punk-alien hybrid song, which they really fuck during.

Jamie and I also wrote the closing credits song, which is a New Wave-y song sung by Mitski. They say rock is dead now, but in the US, at least, all the interesting people working with guitars are woman-fronted bands. Mitski, I’ve always loved. I asked Kate Bush first. She doesn’t do much. I worship her. And then I asked Kim Deal, who’s a friend of mine. She said, “I don’t do other people’s things, but thank you.” Mitski’s going to be a legend. It was really fun to write a pop-dance song in the Cocteau Twins style.

Elle reminded me of Björk in this film. There’s a musician/alien hybrid going on, especially the way she’s curious about everything.

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah, they both have an elfin thing. She’s so charming, so easy to work with. From the first take, brilliant.

In each of my films, I love to introduce young people. The two other boys, Abraham Lewis and Ethan Lawrence, were fantastic. Alex, the lead guy, I met in New York. He was in a show on Broadway. Rabbit Hole was Miles Teller’s first film. He was just a kid out of college. Michael Pitt in Hedwig. It’s getting people in that theatre vibe where we’re having fun. We made it in the punk spirit, too.

Do you see this as a continuation of films like Hedwig and Shortbus, where it’s humans trying to make sense of their sexuality?

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah, they’re all about freaks, however you define that. And with me being queer, and me moving around a lot – my dad was in the army, so I moved every year, and I was always the new guy – I had to reinvent myself, and then I was hiding my sexuality to just survive. I later realised that all of those were gifts that could go in my work.

I always identify with the underdog or the outsider – as long as they’re open to being kind. Because you can say a terrorist is an outsider, too. A loner who shoots up Las Vegas might be an outsider, but I have nothing in common with him. It’s the ones who are reaching out for a community.

So each of those films is about dealing with trauma, and coming together in a community. There’s always got to be laughs, there’s always go to be music and a bit of colour. This is my teenage punk love story.

The Cannes premiere was quite divisive. Do you think maybe they weren’t the target audience?

John Cameron Mitchell: We had offers to premiere it elsewhere, like Sundance and SXSW. But our producers made the decision that it would be more press (at Cannes). The actual premiere was great. Interestingly, all the French and European press was fantastic, but some of the American and British ones were cranky. I also put it down to some guys being like, “I was a punk. That’s not what it was like.”

“There were no aliens around when I was there…”

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah. Come on, it’s a fairytale! This is our little Moonrise Kingdom. We’re not trying to do The Filth and the Fury. But I find it healthy to not read reviews, to not check box office. I don’t even ask how much I’m going to make on a film. It’s so low-budget, I’m like, “Whatever is fair.” I trust my producers. That way, I can just get along with the work.

“For the aliens, I wanted them to be based on the primary colours of the chakra. We thought of the B-52s, the Rezillos, and Pam Hogg” – John Cameron Mitchell

The costumes are outrageous. How did you and Sandy Powell come up with all the distinctive looks?

John Cameron Mitchell: Sandy is the greatest living costume designer. I’d known her socially, because she works with Todd Haynes, who’s a sweetheart. He and Gus van Sant were my heroes, my models of how to work. We had a low budget. So Sandy does Scorsese, then other things like us. She said she hadn’t had more fun since working with Derek Jarman in the 80s on Caravaggio.

Obviously, there’s a lot of research. Nicole Kidman’s character is a designer, so what’s her take on punk? For the aliens, I wanted them to be based on the primary colours of the chakra. We thought of the B-52s, the Rezillos, and Pam Hogg, who was a punk designer. So it’s all very geometric. Sandy was like, “Latex.” I’m like, “Great.” She made that happen.

How much input did you want from the younger cast members? On one hand, it’s a movie about young people, but they also weren’t alive in 1977.

John Cameron Mitchell: They did a lot of research. The way I work is, I want their input all the time. In some scenes, I’d encourage them not to learn the lines, but to learn the beats. They did everything in order, but they could say it differently every time. That allows them to really relax. They all leave saying, “This is my favourite project that I’ve worked on.” I pride myself on making it a good time. I never cast an asshole. I do my research on that.

You’re doing some TV now. Is that quite easy to slip into?

John Cameron Mitchell: I’ve been around long enough that people are like, “Sure, come and do an episode.” I’m on a show called The Good Fight in a recurring role, playing (a character based on) Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s very creepy. He Instagram messaged me to say, “You’re welcome for your career.”

I’m like, “Who the fuck are you? Who hangs out with a gay Trump supporter? Who are you with? Do you enjoy it?”

You said on the press tour for Shortbus that you’d like to make a real hardcore porn film someday. Is that still the case?

John Cameron Mitchell: I would like to, because I don’t think of that film as hot. It’s not about getting people off. It’s about the awkward, sweet side of sex, which is never shown in porn, unless it’s unintentional. A lot of porn is so rigid. I actually like porn, but I like it when they’re really having fun and there’s spontaneity.

You seem quite picky with your projects. What kind of stuff have you turned down?

John Cameron Mitchell: I’m really picky. I think it’s because I started older, and was a bit of a punk, in a way. I was sceptical. If there’s a lot of money and not a good script, I sense that it’s going to be a bad time. I don’t need to be famous. I don’t run after money. I’ve got to pay my bills. My mum has Alzheimer’s, so I have to take care of her and do stuff that I’m not necessarily dying to do. I’m going to Japan on Saturday to do a series of Hedwig concerts for my mum, which I’d rather not do. But it’s Japan, so I’ll have a good time.

I was asked to consider doing the film of Rent, and, oddly, Memoirs of a Geisha – I don’t know why. Especially after Hedwig, I got a lot of offers like Josie and the Pussycats.

But that was a good film.

John Cameron Mitchell: It was good. It turned out well. The script was good. I was asked to write music for things, and Target wanted us to do a giant campaign. I was asked to be an X-Men.

Which one?

John Cameron Mitchell: Nightcrawler. But I was just tired.

You’ve got taste, as well.

John Cameron Mitchell: It actually turned out to be one of the few good superhero movies, the second X-Men. I really liked it.

They want to do a Hedwig production in Shanghai, which would be interesting, right? They said it passed the censors, which killed me, because it’s about a boy trying to escape communism by becoming a woman. Did they miss that?

How to Talk to Girls at Parties opens in UK cinemas today, May 11