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John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film blends Neil Gaiman, punk, and teen aliens

John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film blends Neil Gaiman, punk, and teen aliens


‘This, in a way, is an alternative history of Neil’s birth as an artist. And you know, every artist is born from heartbreak’

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Photo: A24

Neil Gaiman’s short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties captures a feeling a lot of teenage boys may have at some point: the fear that girls their age are utterly alien, operating on a completely different wavelength. Gaiman just makes that insecurity literal, with a teenage boy awkwardly trying to interact with girls who are actually aliens. John Cameron Mitchell’s film adaptation makes the metaphorical literal in a different way. While his version draws heavily on Gaiman’s 1970s suburban London setting (and on Gaiman’s own history), it also finds an eerie horror-movie symbolism in the generation gap, through a race of aliens that send their children out to have experiences, then devour them afterward.  

Mitchell, the writer-director-star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (and the writer-director of Shortbus, and the director of Rabbit Hole), likens his version of How to Talk to Girls at Parties to a punk science fiction version of Romeo and Juliet. In the film version — which operates with Hedwig’s love of music, color, and bawdy pansexuality — Alex Sharp stars as Enn, a teenage punk fan living in Croydon in 1977. When his friends crash the wrong party, he meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a rebellious alien who’s tired of being a tourist on Earth and wants to have real experiences. Enn and Zan run off together so she can experience the punk lifestyle, from political and cultural defiance to the angry music that lets her express her frustrations. But her culture pulls her back to her family, and a confrontation with their child-eating habits. Nicole Kidman co-stars as a musical maven who’s built her own Croydon art scene. I recently spoke to Mitchell about what he drew from Gaiman’s life, what he drew from his own obsession with the 1970s, and how queer culture, midnight movies, and the lessons of Hedwig influenced the film.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve said you weren’t really out to accurately re-create the punk scene of 1977 with this film. What was the important part of the punk scene for this story?

Well, to me, the setting was appropriate. First of all, the story takes place in suburban ‘70s London, and Neil Gaiman, who really is the character of Enn, grew up in Croydon at that time. He was in a punk band, had a punk ’zine. And this, in a way, is an alternative history of Neil’s birth as an artist. And you know, every artist is born from heartbreak, I’m afraid. And first love is always doomed. I also wanted to make my high school love story for the 16-year-old goth girl within me — and within everyone, because we all have one. So all my films in some ways are fairy tales and midnight movies from the ’70s. Because that’s what I come from. I come from comic books, from the ’70s culturally. My mother is British. I lived in Scotland in the ’70s. So even the world of this film is very real. I always wanted to do a British story because that’s where my sense of humor comes from.

I like to mix the gritty with the fantastical, which feels like a particularly British thing, where Ken Loach can meet Ken Russell. So this story just had a lot of elements that I like to work with, and, of course, I added my own stuff to it. It was the groups of outsiders that attracted me, and how they split up. That’s also a very British thing. You have the mods and the rockers and skas and the skinheads and the teddies. There’s always another damn group! The punks were one of many. And I thought, “Why not have two groups bump into each other, just like every Romeo and Juliet story?” Their only interface is love and sex. It’s the only thing that gets out of our clan and out of our house sometimes.

So in that were little Easter egg thoughts of philosophy that I have, that I believe. “Evolve or die” being Nicole Kidman’s character’s paean to the world, her dictum. All the characters do have to evolve or die. There’s this Brexit metaphor in the insular alien group being willing to jump off buildings, wearing British flags, just to avoid being contaminated by outsiders. All my films are about outsiders trying to find home and community. And sometimes that’s with one other person. So a lot of things about this attracted me. But I really wanted to make the high school romance I would have wanted to see at 16.

John Cameron Mitchell on the set of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
John Cameron Mitchell on the set of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Photo: A24

There are a lot of distinctive things going on here, and the humor’s a big one. The original story is more wonderstruck than funny, but the film’s humor is very rough and lively. How did you settle on that tone?

Well, all my films have that. Even Rabbit Hole has some shtick. But growing up in Scotland, in Britain, it’s like humor is in the blood. “Taking the piss” is a term British people came up with that means putting a pin in the balloon of pompousness with of absurdity. Surrealism was invented in France and Spain, but it became verbal, a word-based thing, in Britain. There’s just something about British humor that you don’t see in Germany, in France, in Italy. Maybe the closer you get to the sun, the less you need that absurd humor. The humor is more about real things because you’re in the real world and you’re outside and it’s warm. But when you’re in Britain, it’s cloudy and you’re trapped and bitter. [Laughs] You know, punk came out of Britain. Why? Because there’s rage. They’re a lost empire. I don’t know why, but it’s still in my blood, and I love it.

I’m also am a big Borscht Belt fan. If I had to be a religion, I would be Jewish, but secular. I also think it’s about being queer. Humor is a huge survival technique for marginalized people, and particularly queer humor is about exaggerations, about absurdities as well. It’s about passing. I think that’s where Jewish and queer humor coincide. Because you can pass as goyish, you can pass as straight, whereas African-American humor, for example, isn’t usually about passing because most people can’t. You’re always going to be black. And there’s a certain humor that comes from that, too. What was the latest headline about napping while black in the Yale library? Jesus Christ.

But then gay humor is also about hiding, or about drag, about dropping a feather and letting the secrets out. Jewish humor is about running and hiding, from the Holocaust to the Cossacks, and about banding together. Queer humor is also about banding together in the bars, about running from the press, about AIDS being our own holocaust. So there’s a connection there.

John Cameron Mitchell and Alex Sharp on the set of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
John Cameron Mitchell and Alex Sharp on the set of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Photo: A24

Was the 1970s British punk scene really that queer-friendly?

It was in the beginning. I mean, you can be angry and friendly at the same time. That’s a very British thing. “Winding someone up” is another specifically British term, about insulting someone in a friendly way. It’s a brilliant skill. I usually run away from that kind of thing, but it’s incredible what can happen with a drunk British person.

But actually, the beginning of the punk scene, there was a punk scene in New York first, which was very diverse and arty and poetic. Patti Smith, and sometimes people who were cartoonish, like the Ramones. Richard Hell and Television and the early proto-punk people were a little more arty. In the UK, the scene was a little more snotty and younger. It was all the misfits, and the punks were hanging out in the gay bars at first before there was The Roxy, the first punk bar in the UK. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks was gay, and everybody knew it, and it wasn’t a big deal.

Dress-up was very much the order of the day and drag. It was about outrageousness. So there was pushing on a lot of levels, even though there was certainly misogyny and homophobia. There was a band called The Raped, led by a male prostitute, that was sort of the house band. Later, they changed their name to The Cuddly Toys, which was named after the [Harry] Nilsson song about a rape. It was anything goes. Suddenly there were women in bands — Siouxsie Sioux was the queen. The Slits were the most interesting band around. They didn’t get recorded till later. Yes, there was the girlfriend / groupie mode, but whoever took the stage, took it. If you were Steve Strange and openly gay, that was accepted, as long as you held your space and shocked and delivered.

Photo: A24

Later, even a year later, pop-punk was at the top of the charts, and Sex Pistols was number one. So suddenly everybody and their teenage brother was into it. And then it spread to the mean boys, and started to get associated with the National Front. It so quickly became about aggression toward outsiders, immigrants, women. It became much more ugly. It’s amazing how we humans can take something, and quickly adapt it to ugliness. I remember Kurt Cobain, who I really liked. He knew he’d hit the wrong kind of zenith when he heard about someone being raped, and the rapists were playing his song “Polly” while they were doing it. No wonder he killed himself. I mean, how can you survive fame as a punk? It’s so ugly to think that you have fans that you hate. Luckily, I’ve never met fans I hate. I think that’s a good level of celebrity to remain at, is to just have fans and people who support your work that you like, and you have stuff in common with. Once you go beyond that, you’re in no-man’s-land, and they’ll tear you down as quickly as lift you up.

In this film, it feels like punk is a big stand-in for generational rebellion, but there’s a sense of inclusiveness and commonality. Just because some of the characters are aliens doesn’t make them different from anyone else in the scene. They aren’t any more or less alienated.

I think that’s true. Nicole Kidman’s character creates a little suburban punk enclave, separate from the one in London. And you know, when you go to the suburbs, you find the one cool place, the one gay bar, and you get all the misfits together. Like, I remember going to a gay bar in Anchorage, Alaska, and all the lesbians, trans, and gay men were together because there was only one place. And that was an awesome mix. When you’re in the big city, you can atomize, right? You can have the muscle gays in one place, the bro straight guys someplace else. You start to separate more. But I love groups of outsiders ganging together. So the aliens are just another cult group, something closer to the Rajneeshees or Scientologists than the punks, in that they’re more controlled, and there’s a sense of insularity.

Photo: A24

So much of this film is expressed through colors, especially the signature colors of the different groups. How did you approach visually designing your aliens?

I decided they should each belong to a colony that was connected to a chakra. The Eastern chakra system — there are seven main chakras, and I removed one, the heart chakra. I thought each of the colonies would be complementary. They create the body celestial. Each chakra has an associated color, so I told my designers, “Let’s take the color from that chakra. Let’s create their colony’s symbol. Let’s let their ethos come out in their movement, in their vocalizations, in their costumes.” I also told the designers to keep the rest of the human world very drab and color-free. The punks are all in black and white, with no real color. So in the aliens, there’s that shock of color. I also told my designers to avoid green in any clothing, until the end.

I also told the designers that the aliens were taking human form, and were perhaps taking the form of aliens from the 1970s, like they’ve checked out movies of the ’60s and ’70s, and played on those tropes for their manifestation in human form. It’s almost like they’re aliens impersonating aliens.

The “Eat Me Alive” musical sequence reminds me a lot of the “Origin of Love” sequence from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in that it’s simultaneously a song and a visual drug trip and a mystic explanation for everything. How did you plan that sequence out visually?

I knew I wanted the cast to be performing live, which I learned from Hedwig is the best way to do a more raucous song because it sounds a bit canned otherwise. So they were singing live. The music was prerecorded, as it was for Hedwig. They’re kind of being possessed by the song, which is really what a musical is. Suddenly, everyone knows the words to a song, and they start singing together, which is weird. So there’s something special going on with Enn. He has these dreams about the aliens. It’s explained later, when Zan points out that he’s different, and he says, “I’m an artist.” It’s the little metaphor of the artist being the shaman, the medium between the supernatural and the natural. He’s the channel.

And so they go into his dream, in a way, and he sees their true forms, these glass globes in space. And he sees himself as a virus in those dreams. So in “Eat Me Alive,” that story is continued, and we see how the aliens really live, and it’s a revealed as a horrible thing in a glorious, fun, punky song. So the purpose of it is like when dragonflies go up into the air to mate. They’re flying together in this song, and afterward, she’s different. But it’s also a song of history. Zan knows the progenitor aliens are eating their young alive, and this needs to stop. She conceives an idea that what’s been happening is bad and needs to change, and that’s the beginning of her changing the future.

Photo: A24

Was this your first time working with CGI on this scale?

Actually, no. Shortbus had a lot more CGI. It was the same designer, and we had a model of the entirety of New York City that we created through CGI, which you see throughout the film as we zip through the city. We were going to shoot an actual model of the city. There’s a scale model of New York City in the Queens Museum, which I was going to use. We couldn’t make it work, but Todd Haynes ended up using it in Wonderstruck.

How did you get to that specific look, that acid-flashback CGI fairy tale style for that sequence? 

I’ll just say — all three of my personal films come out of my aesthetic, which is ’70s, ’70s, ’70s. It was a miscegenation of styles. Everything was equal. Punk, heavy metal, soul music, Barry Manilow, Rocky Horror, Apocalypse Now — anything went, right? And midnight movies, that’s my wellspring. So this is another fairy tale from my mind, by way of Neil Gaiman’s mind. I like a bit of camp, I like a bit of humor, I like a bit of animation. All of my stories are kind of punk fairytales. And I’ll probably keep doing that! I’ll direct other people’s things. I like other styles, and I like acting in other people’s projects. But if I can be known as the latter-day John Waters, I’ll take it.