John Cameron Mitchell was nervous as hell when he showed his debut film Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Berlin Film Festival last year. His protagonist, after all, was a Berliner and he was not. Biographically, he had a lot more in common with what you might call the film's antagonist, Tommy, the American army brat who steals Hedwig's songs and goes on to make his big splash in the music business. Well, except for the big splash. Until Hedwig, the movie.
The story of Hansel, an East Berliner who becomes Hedwig when he undergoes a botched sex change operation that leaves an "angry inch" between her legs and is then abandoned in a Kansas trailer park, looks pretty grim at first glance. But the songs Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask gave Hedwig and the sparkling monologues strike that "delicate balance" between drama and comedy Mitchell says he admires in the films he loved most growing up in the 70s. Besides all the stateside awards and accolades, Mitchell scored a Teddy in Berlin, the award given by gay and lesbian film festival organizers. That's when Nina Rehfeld got to talk with him.
Tell me a bit about your Berlin background.
My father was Stadtkommandant in Berlin in 1984 through 1988. So I would come to visit him in the "Big House," you know, the occupying force in Berlin and in my life. And I would hang out in Kreuzberg at nights and meet all the people that wanted to throw eggs at my father. It was kind of interesting.
Why didn't you live with him?
I was in college at the time, in Chicago.
How often did you come over?
Not often. Once a year. We lived all over Europe and the States and in different places in Germany when I was young. But of course, at the army bases, you don't even have to speak German. It's like a little American village. And when you're ten years old, you just want to go to McDonald's.
How often did you go to East Berlin?
Every time I came over, I'd go. It was always fascinating to me, and I think that the last time I was there, coincidentally, was when I was here for the festival in '88. It was just very easy for the soldiers to go back and forth. They didn't have to show a passport, they just had to have their uniform on. And I met this guy from East Berlin who had just come over to the west -- I forget how he got there exactly -- but he was talking about being gay in the east, how hard it was, how the bars were very secret and he was excited to be in the west. He had a certain acid-washed denim flair and an initiative to make something of himself that I really appreciated.
It was different from some of the students I'd met in the west, studying so that they could avoid the draft. They were leftist students who were doing nothing but throwing eggs at my father. They weren't doing any art or anything, so I liked this guy's spirit.
Was that what drove you to visit the east so often? Because most Americans came over and they went once to look at it, check it out, and that was that.
It was just fascinating to me. There was no place like Berlin, ever. It was just thrilling. Maybe it was because I moved so much as a kid that I always felt a little bit like the outsider. The goal as a child was always to fit in. So, when I moved every year, I would have to learn a new accent and a new way of acting in order to fit in at school.
The idea that two cities of the same language could be right next to each other just intrigued me and made me want to be part of it. It was just so outré. There were a lot of German army wives on the army bases in America, too, who'd married to get out, and then, they would divorce and end up worse off, you know, in these ridiculous towns in America. There was a specific woman in Kansas who was sort of an inspiration for Hedwig, a German army wife. Also, my brother's babysitter, a prostitute; she lived in a trailer and she was friend of mine.
She was the one who made you sing for her?
Yes, she would make me sing and act out "Copacabana," for example, and give me beers when I was good.
How old were you then?
That was when I was 14.
So you are a little bit like the young singer in the movie.
At first, I was a little bit like Tommy, yeah. He was the main character originally. And Hedwig was a small character, but because my composer was working in a drag club at the time, he said, "Well, you can develop only the female character in this play." Then, when I started thinking about her, she was much more interesting.
Can you talk about this search for the lost half of oneself?
Yes, I guess it's a theme that we do variations on throughout the film. I was always interested in the myth that Plato wrote for the Symposium. It was always just fascinating to me. I think that partly because it wasn't possible to reunite with anyone, whether they're your other half or not -- just the fact that we want to is more interesting than the fact that we cannot.
Then I started thinking about the different things that can be your other half. To some people, it becomes religion; to some people, it becomes their mother or their lover or their country. The feeling of being partial is one I guess I felt a little bit when I was younger. How do you find a wholeness? I had this myth in mind before I had any of the story, so it was a combination of that and my father being in Berlin and working in a drag club that the separated genders also came up. So many divided things and the operation suddenly came to mind. I guess it was an example of the plot coming from the theme. It seems to resonate with a lot of people in different ways. Like a good rock show does. You can start free associating a little bit on it as to what it means to you.
When did you write the play? Was the music rock from the beginning, with the glam rock revival on and all?
You know, we didn't really think about it consciously. We started writing in '94. My composer is pretty versatile in styles. He always thinks of glam rock as more of a delivery and a content rather than a style. Because with these songs, you can see a lot of people doing in different ways. Because they're solid songs. And they're traditionally well-made, you know, chorus, verse and so on. Some of them are country and some of them are more like punk rock.
There was a Pere Ubu song that kind of inspired one of the songs. There's more of a Stonesy feeling for a couple of the songs, you know, the first one. The last one definitely feels like a Lou Reed glam rocker, you know, "Midnight Radio." So glam rock is really more of a state of mind than a style musically.
And then, of course, the fact that I'm in this make-up. We developed it from the beginning as a theater piece with rock music and it happened to be that we started developing it at a club that was kind of at the forefront, the first predominantly gay rock club in New York, called Squeezebox. It was an exciting scene. It was the first place where you could slam dance with a guy and the homoerotic subtext was suddenly on top. Which was new. Because it was always submerged in other places, even in the 70s.
The whole glam rock thing was not really that gay. There was sort of a fake bisexuality situation going on. So it was very exciting and it was definitely glam rock and the punk rock scene and it influenced me. There were a lot of drag queens who were there that I thought were great and who I learned from. It just seemed to be by accident that other things were happening that way. Todd Haynes, who did Velvet Goldmine, is a friend of mine, and we were developing our projects at the same time and comparing notes and music.
What can music accomplish that a straightforward narration doesn't?
I had an acting teacher who used to ask, "How do you burst into song on stage without seeming ridiculous?" And he always said that you have to get to the emotional level where you can no longer speak -- you have to sing. That's for me what musical theater is. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't really work. It has to be like, "The next thing coming out of my mouth has to be a note." If that's all musical theater is, it can be anything. It can be an opera or a rock show. It can be Sondheim or it can be Carousel. It doesn't have to be bound by conventions of movie musicals. It doesn't have to be Grease or Rocky Horror or Cabaret. It can be all of them or none of them.
What does it take to get this from the stage to the cinema? What was the idea behind bringing it to the screen?
Well, it just seemed like another forum. We did it in clubs, then cabarets, then theater, then in concert, then on an album. So, it was like, "Oh, here's another playground where we can explore some of the same themes." When we were doing the play, there were some things I realized, "Oh, I can't do that. It's a stage." And when it was time for the film, it was like, "Oh. We can go into the oven, we can go into the trailer." It was great. We could let some of the words go and let the images do it. That was very relaxing because on stage I had to talk too much. I was just explaining everything. I really enjoyed tearing away the language and letting my designers take over. On stage, it was a little bit of a one-man show. On film, you know, there hundreds of men and women doing it. I really enjoyed letting other people take over because I was very tired. Directing myself was not much fun.
I enjoy directing other actors, but this was too much. It was just the volume of stuff. 16-hour days, and you could only go on for so long without collapsing. The make-up in the morning and preparing for the next day at night. And the acting was not interesting to me. It was like, "Oh, God, I have to act this now...?"
You can feel that, watching the movie. It was quite overwhelming.
Thanks. I think it was because I was so beaten down by it all. The acting was just a little bit more, "Oh, I have to do it now." Rather than some actors who are thinking about their scene all day. I'm like, "Oh, my God, I have to cry today, I have to cry today, in twelve hours." Or, "I have to make people laugh." I was just, you know, "Action! Uh..." And I would remember the songs that I had been doing for years, so I think it was less studied, but also it was just so much. And I had to go back and look at the video monitor and it would just take up so much time.