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By KJ Doughton | November 21, 2006

What if Woody Allen, Richard O’Brien, and Tim Burton became trapped together in an elevator? Suppose they emerged several hours later, re-invigorated and intent on combining forces for a hardcore re-imagining of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Sure, it’s unlikely. But this fantasy collaboration gives a sense of John Cameron Mitchell’s whimsical “Shortbus,” an envelope-pushing celebration of sexual freedom and carnal awakening.

Maybe Larry Flynt should be included in that imaginary elevator think tank, as well. The anatomical gymnastics featured in “Shortbus” are for real.

Mitchell launches several unsatisfied, Big Apple-based neurotics through an emotional pinball machine, empowering their searches for meaning with clever, uninhibited wordplay. Longtime companions James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) consider allowing a third partner into their love life. There’s also a sex therapist (Sook-Yin Lee) unable to achieve orgasm, and a lonely dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish) who gets plenty of action, but little real emotional intimacy. These chatty, frustrated New Yorkers validate the comparison to Allen’s films.

Mitchell’s approach, however, is more whimsical and lighthearted than “Manhattan.” An animated, miniature cityscape depicts New York’s skyline as a series of star-bright windows – behind which anything might happen. This defining image from “Shortbus” blankets itself around the film like gaudy gift-wrap. Such glorious visuals are Burton-esque to the max, more “Beetlejuice” than “Annie Hall” – with added flesh tones.

Meanwhile, in place of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s androgynous castle of hedonists from “Rocky Horror,” we’re chaperoned down these clothing-optional streets by Justin Bond. Shortbus is a Brooklyn salon in which assorted misfits congregate for anything-goes gatherings to perform art, debate politics, or get it on. All the while, Bond acts as presiding Master of Ceremonies to this sanctuary of strays. Like “Rocky Horror” – and Cameron’s previous feature, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”- “Shortbus” is an unabashed celebration of nonconformity.

Actor Jay Brannan, a soft-spoken blonde whose onscreen character Ceth converts James and Jamie’s duo into a threesome, can certainly empathize with being an outsider – he grew up gay in Texas. In striking contrast to Brannan’s tow-head and baby face, Peter Stickles boasts steely eyes and dark locks reminiscent of Christian Bale. Before playing Caleb, a voyeur who’s none-too-happy about the new lust triangle formed by James, Jamie, and Ceth, Stickles also marched through his youth to the beat of a different drummer. While siblings played football, this self-described “misfit” settled into acting classes in Upstate New York.

From downtown Seattle, where “Shortbus” will open the 2006 Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Brannan and Stickles reminisce about growing up as “shortbussers,” and describe the lengthy, unusual auditioning process behind Mitchell’s provocative film.

Are there places like Shortbus around? I understand that it’s not invented just for the film, but that there are salons like Shortbus out there…
Jay: I think it’s based on elements of real things. The Shortbus in the film is kind of a Utopia – an exaggerated situation. I know John has been to parties where they show movies, exploring filmmakers’ work and music. Sometimes sex happens later on at those parties. We have some friends who put on a salon. They have this nice loft in Manhattan, and sometimes they will have friends come over to do poetry readings, and play music. I’ve played a few times. I’m also a singer-songwriter. I think the Shortbus salon is also symbolic of anywhere people come together for communication, connection, inspiration, or expression. Open mics. Poetry readings. Anything like that, where an exchange of ideas is happening.

It’s great that there’s a niche for these groups. I remember going to high school, where unless you were a football player, you were perceived as the odd man out. Of course, the Shortbus concept relates to people who were different from the norm– who symbolically “rode the short bus.” Today, we have vehicles for…
Jay: Bringing misfits together? (Laughter)

Exactly. Are there examples you can give of feeling alienated while growing up?
Peter: I brought that to my character. He is obviously on the outside, looking in. Maybe trying to touch, then pulling his hand back. Wishing that he could kind of be there, in some way, but at the same time… maybe not. So I brought that in, (growing up as) a “shortbusser.”

Jay: I’m from Texas. My whole life has been about not fitting the mold. Football is religion, and my family is very Southern Baptist. It’s a very traditional society, where everyone sort of follows the set path. I played with Barbies, instead of “he-man” dolls. I was a gymnast and swimmer. I liked dancing and wanted to be a cheerleader, not a football player.

Peter: And you’re gay? I’m surprised! (Laughter)

Jay: I wanted to do music and acting, instead of sports. It’s certainly a role I’m familiar with playing, as the outcast.

It would seem that Texas, with its conservative leanings, would be an especially tough place to grow up. Were there places you could go to acknowledge differences – fringe areas?
Jay: Definitely. You stay within metropolitan areas. In high school, I would tell my parents I was going somewhere, then sneak out to downtown Houston, where I would hang out at a coffee shop. I started going to gay bars and clubs when I was sixteen, and could drive. So there are certainly places that are more liberal. But it’s a huge state, and for the most part, it is very conservative. A lot of the rumors and stereotypes are true. But it’s like anywhere. There are different types of people everywhere. You just have to find the communities that are a little bit more open-minded. But they do exist in Texas, too.

Peter, you obviously did not grow up in Texas.
Peter: No. I grew up in Upstate New York. I had to find similar outlets. I was in the theatre, and in drama club. I was an outsider. My brother was an athlete. Football games were a big deal. But my parents were very cool. My plays were a big deal, so I had those opportunities to express myself.

In the context of movies, I think of “Spellbound,” “Wordplay,” and others that celebrate people who have talents outside of athletics. It’s not the stuff that previous generations worshipped. Do you feel that it’s gotten easier to “wave your own flag,” so to speak, and do your own thing?
Peter: I think so, compared to when we were in high school.

Jay: I think it’s getting easier, and getting better every day. We have a long way to go, as far as accepting everyone for who they are, everywhere. We’re far from that. I’m a major cynic, but I do have the hope that human evolution can’t go backwards. Maybe government, or certain groups, want to hold things back, or take them back to where they used to be, but I don’t think cultural evolution can be held back in that way. Thank god.

“Shortbus” came from a unique ensemble situation. You got together for a type of long-term improv, before the movie was actually made.
Peter: Right. We were cast first, before there was even a script. There was very little acting experience from any of us, before the years of improv and workshops that we did with John.

Jay: John would go away, and write for a few months, then come back. We would improv off the stuff that he wrote. We were never allowed to follow the written scenes completely. His joke was that if we said the lines, he’d fire us. So we were supposed to always keep it very real and impulsive, paraphrasing what he had written. Even once we got to shooting, there was a lot of stuff that we had never even rehearsed before.

Peter: He wrote it right there, or would say, “Try this…”

Jay: We would just do it, and some of it would end up in the movie.

Peter: There were certain “beats” he wanted us to hit. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to the story. He’d be like, “Whatever you want to say, make sure to mention that you couldn’t have an orgasm.” Keep mentioning certain plot points.

Jay: It was kind of an actor’s dream, a very creative, organic, collaborative working environment. And you always felt validated. A lot of times, especially as an actor in the entertainment industry, it’s really hard not to feel constantly judged and evaluated. Asking yourself whether or not you’re good enough, or if what you’re doing is good enough. With John, we were having such a good time that it became a family-type atmosphere. What I think family should be. Friendly. It was very comfortable. We always had input. Because there was such sensitive subject matter in this film, there was always a dialogue about what we were comfortable doing. It was a one-of-a-kind creative experience. We’ll probably never get the chance to do something like this again.

Since “Shortbus” wrapped, how many times have you seen the film?
Peter: About five times now.

Do you pick up on different things each time?
Peter: Every time. It’s funny.

Jay: It’s weird. It’s been an evolution for me, as a viewer. The first couple of times, there were so many external things going through my head. Like, “I can’t believe we’re actually finished,” or “We’ve been working on this for three years.” I knew what was happening behind the scenes in each scene. What got cut out. What did and didn’t make the final cut. After getting over all of that, I was able to follow the story more, and enjoy the film. I noticed little props that I had never noticed before. Little details. It’s weird how the experience of watching it has evolved.

Sounds like initially, you’re in a state of, “Hallelujah! It’s over.” Then, later on, you notice the subtle little details.
Jay: I’m really happy with the film. I’m really proud of it.

Peter: I love watching it, still. I haven’t gotten sick of it yet.

Jay: It means a lot to us, because we put ourselves out there in a way that most actors don’t. We made ourselves vulnerable, in a big way. And we’ve all gotten so close, so it’s like watching this thing that we made with our friends. We feel like it has some kind of greater purpose. It’s really exciting that we’re actually finally getting to present it to people. And there’s been an overwhelmingly good response. We never knew what to expect.

You mentioned the sensitive subject matter in the film – the sexual dimension. It seems as though society’s perception of sex, in this day and age, is very much shaped by pornography. You have instant access to these images through the Internet. Do you feel that this accessibility to sexual images is a good thing, or not such a good thing – the new access to porn that wasn’t available a generation ago?
Jay: I think it’s good and bad. I think any sort of openness about sexuality, or nudity, is a good thing – becoming more comfortable with it, and less ashamed of it. I think it’s not so great that it’s only portrayed in very unrealistic, erotic (scenarios). Sex is not always erotic. (In porn) it’s only to arouse, and sex is so much more dimensional than that. It’s (done by) people who generally aren’t even attracted to each other, aren’t into it, or have to be on drugs to do it. So it’s a shame that there’s only one angle of sexuality that’s being explored. I guess it’s a slow process… and maybe that’s opened the doors for us to do something like this. We’re exploring different types of sex; hopefully more realistic types.

In terms of mainstream Hollywood movies, do you have any favorite scenes of onscreen sex?
Jay: Sex has always been portrayed as erotic, or as something kind of dark. It’s generally completely unrelated to the plot. The movie is going along, and it comes to a screeching halt. Then there’s this beautifully choreographed sex scene that’s suggested, or metaphorical. Then the plot picks up again. It’s never intertwined with the lives of the characters in the story.

In terms of Ceth, how does the sex enhance his characterization?
Jay: I think it’s a turning point in the relationship – the two guys becoming a threesome. It’s also the means through which Ceth is able to get the connection that he needs; sort of vicariously experience their relationship and the benefits of that, while also staying on the periphery, which is a safe way to experience love without really having to invest yourself. If you cut the sex scenes in this movie, you’re left with holes in the story, and it doesn’t make sense any more. To me, that’s proof that they are turning points, important points in the actual story or the development of the characters.

It’s not a cookie-cutter process.
Peter: Right.

Jay: It’s not like, “We’re gonna put sex in the movie to shock people,” or just to do it.

It sounds like for Ceth, that connectedness is symbolized by joining the couple. What about Caleb? How does sex define his character?
Peter: It’s very similar. Throughout the film, I’m kind of watching from afar, in the background. It’s kind of creepy, for a while. People might wonder if I’m going to kill (the couple he’s observing). But then I get involved in James’ life. He’d never (been made love to) before by his boyfriend, and I’m kind of the one to do it for him. It brings out all these other emotions in him. He’s able to realize that he needs his relationship with Jamie, and it took someone else to finally show him that, in a sexual way.

Jay: Another character is a sex therapist that has never had an orgasm. So her journey is the search for an orgasm – how and where to find it, and what that means. There’s also a dominatrix, who has led this very sexualized life, who has never had a real relationship. We’re including the sex, rather than avoiding it, but it’s not really the focal point. Everyone who has seen it says that the sex isn’t what you think about as you’re leaving the theater.

I read that initially, when you auditioned, John asked you to videotape yourselves, and talk about something having to do with your sexuality.
Peter: He asked us to videotape ourselves, and talk about a sexual experience in our life that meant something to us.

Jay: A formative experience.

Peter: So we did. Everyone had to submit a tape. So we all started scratching that way. Jay and I made very simple tapes. I simply propped up a camera, and talked briefly about some experienced I had in a sex club, that I had started to explore.

Jay: Mine was similar. I just talked into the camera for a while. It was very nonsexual. Shoulders up, rambling. I didn’t have anything planned. I recorded it several times, but I sent in the first take. I played one of my songs, as well. That was an element that ended up in the movie. The song was featured in the movie. So some of the elements – as early as the audition tapes – made it into the film. Other things were completely improvised.

Peter: I forget how important those tapes were. You really had to respond to something specific.

Jay: For the callback, they narrowed it down to about forty of us. In New York, we all went into a theater and watched each other’s audition tapes. We were supposed to fill out this survey, and rate each other, as far as sexual compatibility. Then John took the results of that, and graphed it out, so that he could set people up for improvs for the audition.

Did a “four” mark extreme compatibility?
Jay: Yeah.

What about the equivalent to the guy who was picked last in gym class? (Laughter) Was there anyone who scored all “ones?” Did this cause problems and embarrassment?
Jay: It was all anonymous and private. You turned the surveys into him, and he graphed it out privately. No one ever saw the results. That’s just what he used to set people up for audition scenes. There was nothing sexual in the auditions, but he didn’t want to end up casting people, and find out that there was no sexual compatibility on the day of filming.

Did that ever happen? Were there people who ranked each other high, then found that there was no chemistry or libido when they finally got together?
Peter: I’m not sure. In my case, no. I didn’t know what was going on with everybody else’s experiences. John was very discreet; very quiet about it. If we ever had any problems or concerns about compatibility issues, John was very open to it. We could come to him with absolutely anything.

Jay: By the time we got to filming, I think the anxiety was less about the partner than it was about filming the sex scene – what the mechanics of that really meant. That was the bigger challenge. We all had been working for 2 ½ years at that point, and we had all become really close friends. In a way, that was helpful, because it was more comfortable. But in another way, we had become close platonic friends, which maybe took away from some of the eroticism.

There’s a quote in the movie from someone attending a Shortbus party, who says, “This is very much like the sixties, but with less hope.”
Peter: That’s a very “John Cameron Mitchell” line.

Jay: Justin Bond, the host of the Shortbus salon, is the one who says that in the film. That’s everyone’s favorite line, and the one that’s most quoted. For me… I wasn’t around in the sixties, so it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. It’s hard for me to understand.

Peter: I think in the Shortbus salon atmosphere, they were just loving each other and coming together. But they weren’t really trying to say anything. They weren’t fighting against something as much as they were in the sixties, I guess.

Jay: I think (that line) has something to do with people wanting to label my generation as being very apathetic, and not caring. I have a hard time accepting that. In the original script, there were some other things along those lines that I felt a little insulted by. I did, at one point, express my concern to John. I said, “I don’t really appreciate that.” I don’t think he’s trying to insult anyone. Obviously, that line resonates with many people. As the youngest member of the cast, I’m sort of from a different generation than we’ve discussed the film with. I dunno. I have a hard time with the idea that…

Peter: … we suck! (Laughter)

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