Tom Beasley chats to John Cameron Mitchell about How To Talk To Girls at Parties, which brings aliens to Croydon, ahead of its release on DVD and Blu-ray…
Aliens? In Croydon? How To Talk To Girls at Parties brought an alien invasion to London, through the prism of Enn (Alex Sharp) and his group of punks, who discover a series of outer space clans when a house party gets very strange indeed. Before long, Enn has formed a relationship with young alien renegade Zan (Elle Fanning) and their worlds collide in mad, psychedelic ways against the backdrop of the 1970s. There are scene-stealing turns from a selection of great British and Hollywood talents, including Matt Lucas, Ruth Wilson and even Nicole Kidman, doing one of the weirdest accents of the year.
Flickering Myth got the chance to chat on the phone with director and co-writer John Cameron Mitchell about the film ahead of its arrival on DVD, as well as his own career making some very radical, unusual movies. Be warned, because there are spoilers for the film ahead.
By way of a first question, I wanted to say that it was a pleasant surprise to me to see a sci-fi film set in Croydon. That doesn’t happen very often!
No, not for a while! If you’re gonna go in, you might as well go in from behind. [laughs] Not to call Croydon the ass end of London, but it’s got a reputation as not being the place you want to be.
As an American filmmaker coming in to make a film set in Britain, how did you approach it?
Well, I lived in Britain as a kid. My mother is British and I was there just a little bit before when the film takes place, up until about 1975. The grey and dull 70s, brightened up by flashes of Bowie and The Damned, made a lot of sense to me. I was hooked on Top of the Pops and Doctor Who and, in a way, this is my mash-up of Top of the Pops, Doctor Who and a little bit of The Blue Lagoon maybe – the teenage romance.
It comes across as a very brave and very strange film. How difficult was it to get the film made in the way that you wanted?
It wasn’t difficult! It took a while to get financing but we were very clear from the beginning that I didn’t want to go into a situation where the weirdness was taken out of it. I grew up in the 70s and midnight movies were my film school – the weirder the better and the more personal the better. When you saw a David Lynch or Rocky Horror or Alejandro Jodorowsky, it wouldn’t inspire you to imitate, but it would inspire you to go somewhere. I feel like nowadays, when you love something, you want to do something exactly like it. Things were so out there that they were impossible to imitate, so you would just go to the farthest reaches of your own mind. That’s what a really good film at that time would do.
My favourite compliment as a filmmaker is that things like Hedwig and the Angry Itch made me realise I could talk about my own life or Shortbus made me realise anything is a paint in the paint box – sex, love, comedy, music, animation. They’re all just paints in the paint box.
I’m interested to learn a bit more about your relationship with the short story and adapting Neil Gaiman’s work into something more expansive than the original 18-page story.
I only read it once. I thought that what stayed with me would be what was important. It sets up such a very strong first act of a larger story, which is a boy interfaces with teenage aliens and mistakes them for Americans. It only made sense to our original writer, Philippa Goslett, that there would be one girl who our hero connects to. So it’s boy meets girl, boy and girl hang out in Croydon and then boy leaves girl because she’s on tour. In this case, she becomes pregnant and has to make a decision about whether to keep her baby. So it’s kind of a traditional story! [laughs]
It’s just got aliens in it!
It’s just got aliens in it! And strange priorities from the aliens, as well as the punks. They are both subcultures that are misunderstood and, in some ways, self-contained. There have always been these youth groups that have had rules and been at war with each other. To me, the punks and the aliens have a lot in common. They just have very different philosophies. The aliens’ way to think about their relationship to the world is to die off slowly and with grace.
I’m intrigued to talk about the mythology of these aliens because it’s quite complex and there’s a lot of detail to it. How much came from you and how much was in there from Philippa?
The original story had different kinds of aliens and different tribes. We had different colonies and it seemed a little haphazard. I wanted to give it some discipline and metaphorical shape, so I said we should just make them the seven chakras. Elle Fanning’s character is the solar plexus chakra, which is traditionally yellow. That’s the chakra that free will is part of. She’s the punk, so she’s breaking up the free will by running off with a boy.
That seemed to make sense for her, so it put all of the other characters in other chakras. Matt Lucas’s very judgy, head-based chakra was the third-eye chakra. Ruth Wilson’s sexual-based chakra, we called the Stellas. They are the ones that are allowed to integrate with the locals, perhaps penetratively, and they used the Roswell ritual of ‘abduct and probe’. We wanted the ‘abduct and probe’ not just to be a joke in itself, but rather an example of Boadicea’s dictum, which is ‘evolve or change’. The aliens find that they have feelings instead of just instincts. Everybody changes with this meeting of two clans.
This is the second film I have seen in the last few years, after Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, that is a genre film based on punks. Is there anything that makes that subculture particularly appealing for genre cinema?
Punk used to be a genre in and of itself, before it became a fashion thing. The punk movement of the 70s had musical adjuncts, film, animation, art and a lot of people did all of them. Basquiat was definitely punk, and so was Raymond Pettibon. They had different sides that often had a visual element. The Black Flag album covers were all done by Pettibon and he was the punk artist at that time. Britain had its own famous punk artists.
So we wanted the punks to be somewhat different from the aliens, but with elements of alien in it. We see Enn’s internal view of what the aliens look like in his dreams and that’s his punk-inflected graphic novel view of it. Like with Hedwig, I start with characters and what they need and then change the style to fit it. John Bair, who actually did animation on Shortbus and some stuff on Hedwig, we worked together again on the alien stuff. But it’s all coming through Enn’s mind because he’s a graphic novelist, like Neil Gaiman if he drew. It has been called an alternate history of Neil Gaiman.
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