From writer/director Jeffrey McHale, the documentary You Don’t Nomi explores the controversial NC-17 rated film Showgirls, from its disastrous theatrical release to its unexpected cult status and why its gained such a following of devotees, over its 25-year history. With the debate over its quality and its questionable messages about sex and gender, a collection of film critics, scholars and members of the fan community explore and reflect back on an artistic intent they may never be fully known or understood, but that sparks a conversation that connects them all together.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Jeffrey McHale talked about how he first came to see Showgirls, why he made the decision not to shoot a single frame of video for this doc, whether he ever considered interviewing anyone directly involved with the film, having an honest conversation that also pointed out all of the issues, learning about what an individual experience art can be, and what he’d like to do next.
JEFFREY McHALE: I did come to it later in life. I saw it about 10 years after its release and, at that point, I was aware that it was a queer cult classic, but no one had actually sat me down and said that I needed to watch it. But that’s what happened one night, at a friend’s house in Chicago, late one night. Showgirls girls came up, and I said that I hadn’t seen it. He immediately pulled it off the DVD shelf, and my mind was just blown. I had a very similar experience to that of a lot of the contributors. Everyone can remember the first time they saw it. It was one of those things where, in the first few minutes, I was like, “Is this the whole movie? I don’t want it to end.” My heart started racing, and it didn’t let up. It was over two hours of insanity. After that, it’s always been something that I’ve watched, once or twice a year. With many good films, you see them once, and you don’t need to see them again. But it’s just one of those interesting films that, every time you watch it, something new jumps out and you have another question. I was at the Cinespia outdoor screening, for the 20th anniversary, when Elizabeth [Berkley] was there and presented the film. That was something that none of us had expected to happen, and after that, I just got serious and wanted to dive into Showgirls, and figure out why it connects with queer audiences and me. That’s when I started reaching out to different contributors. I didn’t really know what I was doing, when I first started. This is my first feature film. So, I just wanted to see if there was anything worth exploring, and there was.
It seems like there would be endless things to explore with this, and that it would be challenging to edit it all together into the length of a film. Was that a challenge?
McHALE: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t shoot a single frame of video for this. I was inspired by films like Room 237 and Los Angeles Plays Itself. I thought those were really interesting ways of making films now, with the use of fair use and with commentary. I thought there was something there that I could do on my own, without needing anybody else, and if it didn’t work out, that would be it. It was an easy way for me to just play around because I’m a television editor, by day. I sent an audio kit to each contributor, and we had the interviews conducted over Skype. And then, when the interview was done, they would mail the audio kit back to me, and I would adjust it and transcribe it. After nine months of that, I started editing and took each thread, scene or moment and assembled these small pieces of puzzles, and then started moving them around. I eventually found a structure, based on the reception of the film. We were focusing more on the afterlife.
Was there ever any point in time where you considered interviewing or getting newer footage of director Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, or even Elizabeth Berkley, or had you always known that you didn’t want to do that?
McHALE: I get asked that question a lot, and the thought was always there, but after speaking with the contributors, I really did feel like their job was done and that was a different story to tell. The reason that Showgirls is what it is today is because of audiences and fans like myself, that have embraced it, over the years. That’s why we’re talking about it now. I felt like the commentary, their thoughts, and their relationship and experience with the film was something a little bit unique and different. That was the conversation that I wanted to have, and I felt like it would be impossible to do both. So, I didn’t reach out to them, and it didn’t feel like I needed to. The story was with these writers, artists and performers. I read and watched all of the interviews that they had given, and the defenses and explanations and feelings around the film have evolved, over the years, so it was interesting to see what they were saying, at the time, and that’s what I wanted to kind of show.
I like that you do point out the issues with the film, as well. Was that something that was also important to you?
McHALE: Yeah, definitely. Part of the appeal and allure of Showgirls are the strange decisions that make it a “bad” film. I wanted to have an honest conversation about the film and I didn’t want to rush over it ‘cause there are serious issues within the film and choices that were made. One of the harder things was finding dissenting voices. Even though everybody involved still was able to speak up, critically, I wanted to find critics that reviewed it negatively, at the time, and still aren’t fans of the film. That was probably one of the more challenging things, getting critics who weren’t fans of the film, on board and speaking with me, but luckily, I did.
There are plenty of box office flops, and there are plenty of bad movies that just disappear and people never talk about them again. Why do you think that didn’t happen with Showgirls? Why do you think it’s taken on a life of its own, since the movie came out?
McHALE: It’s hard to say, but the thing that I would probably have to point to is just the unique way that it’s bad. It succeed because of its failures. I think that’s why people like me were drawn to it and watch it, over and over, and that’s why cult and queer audiences, celebrated it and midnight screenings, for the last 25 years. Because of those audiences and because of that attention, it forces re-examination from others. It’s a film like nothing else, and I don’t think that there ever will be a film like it again. I saw a lot of Cats comparisons, when that came out, and it’s strange and it’s weird, but it’s different. You can’t really compare the two.
Have you ever thought, at all, about what the film might have been, if it had a female writer and a female director?
McHALE: Yeah, it probably would have felt more like Hustlers. It would have changed a lot. Who knows if it would have been made in the ‘90s. I think there would have been a different tone and different decisions that were made, that were probably a little bit more realistic and sensitive. It would be a completely different viewpoint. I would love to see that point of view.
Showgirls is clearly a film that couldn’t have existed in another way, at that time, as there’s probably no chance that a female director and writer would have been given a green light to make their version of that movie.
McHALE: Yeah. Paul Verhoeven got a blank check to deliver an NC-17 film from the studio. He expressed frustration with getting Basic Instinct down to the R-rating, so he was a kid in a candy store with wild eyes going, “Oh, my gosh, we can get away with whatever we want now.” I don’t think you’d have a studio doing that again.
Now that you’ve gone through the experience of making this film, what did you learn about Showgirlsthat you didn’t already know?
McHALE: One of the things I was surprised about, with the experience, was just how deep and individual everyone’s connections to film are. Everyone brings their own experience to what they view and they take what they want from it. There are claims of misogyny within the film, but a film doesn’t have to have feminist ideals involved in like the making of the film, in order for people to pull that out of it and take from it what they want. One of the more surprising things was just the interesting ways that we can individually connect with art. It’s helping people be a little bit more aware of the media and what we consume, and the way that we talk about it. If you look at the way that the film was talked about and the way that Elizabeth was talked about, at the release, it was just disgusting. I hope that we have matured and learned some lessons, but look where we are. I don’t know how much we’ve learned in 25 years.
What have you learned, as a filmmaker, and what are you looking to do next?
McHALE: This was my first foray into this kind of film. I’m a television editor, during the day, so I have that to fall back on. I definitely wanna explore other topics. I wanna stay in the pop cultural landscape and take deeper dives, and look at a topic and how we connect to it. I still have to figure out what exactly is next. It seems like productivity has grinded to a halt, the last few months. The interesting thing about this is that I was able to make it by myself, without shooting a frame of video. Going forward, that has only proven that I could do something like this again. What better time to play around with this type of films. I wouldn’t need to travel anywhere. It just showed me that, whatever is next, I can figure it out.
If somebody had told you, that first time that you’ve watched Showgirls, that you would be here now, with this movie, would you have just thought that they were crazy?
McHALE: I’ve always been a fan of films. I grew up making my own films, with my cousins and friends, and I went to film school. But in the last 10 years or so, I focused more on the editing side of it, and I was happy and felt lucky for what I had. I set the filmmaking dream aside, for a little bit. It was being there at that 20th anniversary screening ofShowgirls. I purposely was really quiet and low-key when I was making this. I didn’t talk to many friends about it. I just wanted to figure out if there was something there, on my own, first. I’ve been blown away by the reception and the success that it’s had. It’s just been mind-blowing.
You Don’t Nomi is available on-demand and digital.