Photo by Alexis Rodriguez-DuarteAfter you've read this article, John Cameron Mitchell hopes you'll go to his provocative new website, www.thesexfilmproject.com. (You must be at least 18 years old.) When I logged on, the site featured an enviably limber young man, nude and rather worked up, who has bent his head so far forward that he's able to—let's just say that he has a skill many a man wishes he possessed. I half expected him to raise his head and yell, "Look, Ma, no hands!"
By phone from New York, Mitchell, who's best-known for his film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, admits that he both knows and doesn't know the gifted lad. "It's a rip from an amateur webcam self-pic gallery," he says. "To avoid the Pee-wee Herman squad, we Photoshopped a friend's face onto it." Despite the racy calling card, Mitchell isn't selling a porn-site membership. He's pitching a movie, an extremely explicit "pansexual bohemian" relationship movie, set in New York City, and he wants you to audition for a role. Fearlessness is called for: if all goes according to plan, the film's actors—men and women, amateurs and pros—will be asked to have sex in front of the camera as part of a scripted dramatic storyline. Those whose 10-minute videotapes inspire Mitchell and his production team will be invited to New York this spring for callback auditions (no sex involved). Then, after a weeding-out process, there'll be a monthlong improvisational workshop (sex involved, maybe). From this unorthodox process, the director hopes, a cast and a screenplay will emerge.
Mitchell is reluctant to term his website a casting call. "I'm also welcoming non-actors. I'm encouraging people to be creative. Some are going to clubs with a video camera and documenting their sexual life. In one videotape, someone is talking directly to the camera and saying, 'I was raped.'" Mitchell grows quiet for a moment; then he's jazzed again. "I know these black and white guys who are painting themselves the opposite color and shooting themselves having sex. The people who step up to the plate are the people I'll work with. I want straight people. I want gay people. I may get a lot of dumb porn actors, too. But, you know, I've met some really smart porn actors."
When I make a comparison between his proposed workshop and the ones conducted in the late 1950s by that other actor/writer/director John Cassavetes, Mitchell seems pleased. Aiming for something more high-minded than just a dirty movie, the iconoclastic 40-year-old director wouldn't mind if his movie mirrored the raw emotional intensity of Cassavetes' Shadows, the groundbreaking 1959 film that the late director and his ensemble of non-pro and professional actors improvised in a Manhattan rehearsal loft. "He's a hero of mine," Mitchell declares. "He went on the radio and said, 'Hey, I'm making this movie. Whoever wants to help out, send in $5.' And he got, like, $5,000." Mitchell wonders, deadpan, "Should I have asked for money?"
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The Sex Film Project certainly sounds like an insane idea—a career killer, actually—but Mitchell's measured, unruffled tones are persuasive. He's serious about this, and maybe we shouldn't scoff at a man who turned his back on a fast-rising Broadway acting career (The Secret Garden) to focus on a drag show. Begun as a one-shot nightclub lark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, co-written with composer Stephen Trask, quickly evolved into an off-Broadway sensation and in 2001 became an instant cult-classic film. Through the title character, Mitchell obsessed for seven years about love and sex, although unlike the characters he envisions for the new film, Hedwig's sex life was of the frustrating, no-penetration kind. For the East German transsexual with a sealed vagina and a famously small penis, love didn't lead to sex but to an endless, maddening circle of frustrated desire. No wonder her creator is ready to break free and see a little action.
Mitchell's dream of making movie sex more honest and true to life—"hard-ons, come and all," the website proclaims—predates the filming of Hedwig. In an essay penned for the 2000 Sundance Film Festival program, he was already looking ahead. Lamenting the American movie tradition of "panning to the candle" when things get hot and heavy, he writes, "Ultimately, that's an aesthetic decision that's based on fear—of not getting your audience, of not getting your money. But there really is a point where as a filmmaker or a film viewer, you say, 'Gyp!' If you're really going into a story between two people, why not go all the way? In other words, go with the sex explicitly—how about the way you see it when you're having sex?—and risk being pornographic."
Now that the moment is approaching, how does Mitchell plan to film a dramatically sound, emotionally textured love scene that doesn't cut to the candle and avoids disintegrating into mere porn? He cracks wise at the question, yet his humor is tinged with a practical truth: "One way, maybe, is to not cast actors you want to fuck. That's ruined many a film." He laughs, then gets to the crux of his mission. "It'll be very challenging, very interesting," he continues, "to keep the camera out of the way so that the actors can be emotionally connected. But I'll just remember what it's like to have sex. How does one see sex when having it? You're seeing your partner in ways that no one else sees. And what about after sex? When sex and love really come together, how do you keep them together? What does monogamy mean? Is it okay to just get your rocks off? What are the rules of an open relationship, and how is that different for gays as opposed to straights? These are the places I want to go. I want more than just a good dick shot."
Even Mitchell is a bit alarmed at his own daring. "When I wrote that article for Sundance, I said to myself, 'I'm too scared to make this film.' Well, that was three years ago, and nothing's changed. I'm still scared," he says. "I come from a strict Catholic upbringing, and maybe I have a little of that Paul Schrader thing of going to places I'm forbidden to go. I have sexual hang-ups, just like everybody, and this is a way of working them out. I want the film to be useful for other people, but it's going to be very powerful for me." For Mitchell, good sex provides a continuous learning curve, and this project, as wild and risky as it is, feels like a logical step forward. When I suggest that Hedwig would approve, Mitchell smiles through the phone. "You think? Maybe she'll give me money."