Adapted from the short story by Neil Gaiman and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the quirky teenage romance How to Talk to Girls at Parties follows a group of friends, as they unexpectedly meet an otherworldly colony in 1970s suburban England. It’s a Romeo + Juliet story, but with a punk boy (Alex Sharp) and an alien girl (Elle Fanning), on an adventure through punk clubs and alien hangouts in Croydon, with a great soundtrack of music and some wild latex fashion.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell talked about what made him want to tell this story, wanting to include little messages in all the stories he tells, taking a real do-it-yourself approach, creating a band and music for the film, and the great vibe that co-stars Alex Sharp and Elle Fanning brought to the set. He also talked about Hedwig and the Angry Inch finally coming to Criterion, why his creation has had such staying power, for nearly two decades, revisiting the songs for a new tour, The Origin of Love: Songs and Stories of Hedwig, and what he’s working on next.
Collider: It’s a real pleasure to talk to you! I’ve been a long time fan. I absolutely adore Hedwig, which I’m sure you hear a lot, but I would imagine that it never gets old to hear how much people love you and her.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: It doesn’t!
What is it that made you want to make an alien punk romance, and could you have ever have imagined that that’s something you would be putting on your resume?
MITCHELL: Oh, sure! Next to Hedwig and Shortbus, this is mainstream, baby! I come from the ‘70s, and in the ‘70s, everything was available and everything was out there. Weird wasn’t a pejorative. It was just another thing. It was the age of Rocky Horror, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Liquid Sky and A Boy and His Dog. Those were all crazy, unusual sci-fi romances. This came from a Neil Gaiman story, and my producer was already starting the project and wooed me in to adopt it. It’s less of a child, and more of an adopted alien changeling child that I helped, along the way. I’ve always wanted to make a teenage love story. This is my YA romance, through my lens. Also, my mother is British, so it was really exciting to get to tell a British story and have it accepted in Britain. I like being able to use my British-trained sense of humor. So, I had a good time.
I love that Neil Gaiman has said that no one but you could have made this “mad, glorious, sex positive, punk positive film, which having seen it, I have to agree with. I can’t imagine anybody else handling this material because it just seems like it could have gone very wrong, very quickly.
MITCHELL: There’s the Hollywood version of this. I’m sure Todd Haynes could have had a great time with it. There might have been a darker version that Todd Solondz could have done. It’s a simple Romeo and Juliet story. Everyone is an alien, when you’re in love. Then, it ends up being less about first love and more about parenthood, weirdly. What does it mean to propagate the species? What does it mean to break up the monopoly? Why are the aliens jumping off of a building wearing British flags, to avoid contamination? What does closing the borders mean, emotionally as well as politically? That’s our little underlying criticism of a kind of nationalism that’s becoming quite popular now, which is very much about, “Let’s all die the same, together. Let’s all die alien, together. Let’s all die white, together. Let’s all die British, together.” My stories always have to have little messages and thoughts, and the main one is, evolve or die.
I also love that you created a punk bank for this, and they contributed original songs and even went out and played shows, which is just awesome. What was it like to bring the film to life, in that way, and put that together?
MITCHELL: It was a blast because I wasn’t really around in the late ‘70s, in a punk environment. I grew up in Britain during the glam years, and then discovered punk after I came out in the ‘80s, when there was more of a queer punk thing happening, which is what Hedwig came out of. It was really fun! Partly it was a do it yourself thing. Our film was punk, in the way that it was made. I got to put together a band, the way Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood put together Sex Pistols. We found a great front man. My friend Danny Fields, who used to manage The Ramones and Iggy Pop, suggested this guy Martin Tomlinson, who was in a band called Selfish Cunt. I saw some videos, and he was really out there. He was very queer Iggy. So, we created a band, called The Dyschords, and my composer Bryan Weller worked with him. He was my assistant, but we lost a composer, so he stepped in. It was very punk. It what just like, “Get somebody to do something, and write a song.”
Sandy Powell, who had been doing [Martin] Scorsese, did the alien costumes. She wanted to use rubber and do an alien geometric thing. They’re all based on the chakras, and the chakras have colors. And then, I told the actors to go and create a way of moving, based on their chakra. If it was crotch-oriented, then they’d go off and work on that. It was like summer camp, in the freezing British winter. Even the crew got into it. A lot of them are old punks themselves, and they loved what we were doing. They gave us extra hours, which they usually don’t do there, especially for Americans. So, I was adopted, as a half Brit. I also made sure to do my research to find out if an actor was gonna be a team player or a diva. I’ll always recast, if I hear they’re not gonna be cooperative and not gonna have fun with other people, but make it about them. Luckily, we had no bad apples. It was a great group of people. It was good to work with young and newer people, too, because they’re more excited and some of them are willing to stay a little longer. British actors also come out of the theater, so they’re more generous and less pretentious. People who only do film are a little odd because they never know when they’re gonna work. They don’t have a time clock the way that theater people do.