John Cameron Mitchell on Directing His Wild Sci-Fi Punk Opus 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'

John Cameron Mitchell
Dean Rogers/Courtesy of A24

John Cameron Mitchell and Alex Sharp.

Following a group of late 70s-era British punks as they navigate both the worlds of young love and alien lifeforms (literally, and sometimes together), How to Talk to Girls at Parties is the latest film from the mind of John Cameron Mitchell, who is perhaps most known for another equally glam, thoughtful and bizzaro tale that blended music and society, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (the 1998 off-Broadway smash he wrote, directed and starred in).

Based on a story story by Neil Gaiman, his latest project stars the likes of Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman and blends a quirky Sci-Fi story of extraterrestrial visitors with reminiscences and attitudes of the late '70s British punk scene, complete with a soundtrack full of original music. With a soundtrack album out now and the film premiering in theaters this weekend, Mitchell spoke to Billboard about his own memories of punk, replicating the music of the day, and what it was like to throw Kidman into the raucous shoot. (She’d say, "John, I’m not in my comfort zone..." I’d say, "I love it!")

I know this is based on a 2006 short story by the author Neil Gaiman. How did you come across it and what drew you to directing an adaptation?

My producer, Howard Gertler, secured the rights. He thought it would make a great film and he sort of wooed me. I didn’t really want to do someone else’s story at the time, but the short story is a slim and beautiful tale that allowed for a lot of extrapolations. I realized that I could talk about the things I was interested in within the framework of a great story, which is really kind of a coming-of-age story. When you’re 16 and in love-slash-lust, everyone is an alien, especially girls, if you’re a straight boy. That was a revelation that made me feel free to talk not just about first love, but about parenting, punk, individuals versus society, and to just indulge myself from there.

This film is so deeply a love letter to London punk, and Hedwig was about an East German, but you were born in Texas and raised in the States. Do people ever think you are European?

Well, my dad was in the army, so I did live half of my youth in Europe. There’s a special weird thing about the military brat where it’s a conservative macho environment but it’s internationalist too. In some way it informed me as an artist, too. Also being gay, being queer...all gay people are really internationalists. Sexuality and gender are without borders, so if you’re queer, you’re kind of an immigrant to society. An immigrant in your own country. But this idea of a borderless world where love and sexuality are the things we have in common are my style and seeps into my work. Growing up in the '70s meant all kinds of culture and music were valid. I was always weirded out when people only liked one kind of music or one thing when there were so many wonderful things. I was lucky enough to experience glam, punk, disco, funk and rock and roll equally.

Similar to Hedwig, the costumes and makeup in How To Talk to Girls at Parties are very extravagant. What was the process behind the fashion of the film?

My (personal) influences were Bob Fosse and Bowie; people who dressed up to express themselves, which is a version of drag. The original punks, certainly in the UK, were fashion victims like Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant and Vivienne Westwood. It was about dress-up and it was "fuck you" with the dress-up. Sandy Powell, our venerable designer, thought about those artists, and thought about Pam Hogg, a famous punk designer. One of our jokes is that without the aliens, the punks would have never become post-punk.

What are your personal memories of punk? Were you a punk kid growing up?

Well, no. I was in Kansas and there was no presence of punk there. You had to really be lucky enough to know about that scene; it was so small and you had to mail-order everything. So I didn’t really know and was too young. To me, the first kind of rumblings of it were pop acts like The Cars, and then I heard about Patti Smith. Then the B-52s came around, punk-infused dance pop. They were in my tribe with their sense of humor and abandon and their sense of a fun "fuck you" in the prog rock ideal of self-serious stadium rock, which the punks hated. In a way, our film has more in common with The B-52s and The Damned and The Buzzcocks than the Sex Pistols or Patti Smith or the arty ones. Ours are sort of the fun punk-pop acts. So to me, it felt fresh and weirdly queer even though I didn’t know what that word meant.

When did you eventually get into the genre?

I really got into much more in the '80s and '90s and the queer punk movement. Punk felt very queer to me. Iggy Pop, Bowie, Lou Reed. They all had a queerness about them. There were masks, they were playing with gender, they were menacing. People like Iggy were breaking down the wall between the stage and the audience and shouting out, "I am you." That’s the most punk thing you can say to an audience, I think: "I am you." That’s where DIY comes from. It’s like, anybody can do it. Here’s three chords, go. That was empowering and community-building. People ruin communities by adding rules to them, and punk could disintegrate into a conformist list of rules that were punk and not punk. Punk is like obscenity: you know it when you see it but you can’t really define it. It questions authority, it’s anti-commercial, it’s about individual expression. The part of it I always loved was tearing things down in order for better things to grow. In effect, fixing what your parents fucked up by smashing it. It’s all how you use it. But the queer punk interface was important to me. There was a club (in New York) called Squeezebox in the '90s where I hung out; it was a rock and roll drag party. I watched these incredible drag queens singing punk rock and that’s actually where Hedwig came from. My composer was the head of the house band.

How did you capture the energy of punk shows of the time? The scenes in this film where you showcase them jump out in a big way with a lot of energy.

We recorded the songs live, so that was the biggest thing. And finding a real punk singer in Martin Tomlinson who was recommended to me by Danny Fields, who managed The Ramones and Iggy Pop. He said I had to check out this singer from a band called Selfish C--t, which is this anti capitalist, amazing British band of the 2000s, a queer Iggy Pop. We built a band around him called The Dischords. And Bryan Weller ended up writing the music for the band. We did real gigs with them to get them together as a band, and shot it live with great extras who were our punks for the whole film. Putting Nicole Kidman in there too [added a lot]. She’d say, "John, I’m not in my comfort zone..." I’d say, "I love it!" Someone hit her in the head with a guitar, a punk singer spat in her face so many times and she just cracked him.

Wow, props to Nicole. How do you even go about replicating the music of that era? The songs sound like the real deal.

Bryan Weller, a musical genius, is a buddy and I didn’t even know his talents at the time. We lost our songwriter during this film and he just stepped in and wrote a couple things. I was like, "Oh my God, you’re really writing in the form of the time." Neil Gaiman, who was in a punk band in a time, really thought we had one of those punk bands who never made it, and that felt like a triumph. We’d give them a title, like "Planned Adolescence," and say go! Like the punk ethic, 90 percent of our music is original.

Aside from the original music in the film, you also use classic tracks from The Velvet Underground and The Damned. Was that a task?

It was. [Credit to] Michael Hill, our music supervisor who has a storied history in music, discovering (bands like) The Replacements. We couldn’t get "God Save the Queen," the most anti-establishment song, because there were too many rights held by too many companies! We couldn’t get The Slits. We got The Damned, probably because they’re less famous here and some of them are from Croidan where the story takes place and there’s was the first punk single, so it felt right from the beginning. We got the Velvets because I’m friends with Laurie Anderson and Hal Willner; Hal administers Lou Reed’s estate. I did want a Bowie song, "Conversation Piece," which is a very rare, realy song of his, very melancholy and personal. But he just passed away right before we were editing and the entire estate froze, of course.