One of the things I wanted to ask about is the amazing cast, from the young performers through to Nicole Kidman, who you’ve worked with before, and the British comedy legends. How did you go about putting this incredible selection of people together?
A lot of it was people I knew. I knew Matt Lucas socially and we always wanted to do something together. He was up for anything. Ruth, I met while we were both doing Broadway shows and we were at the physical therapist because the shows were hurting our bodies. We started chatting there and she’s so easy-going. With Nicole, once I had written the role, I was thinking and thinking of someone and realised she had never done a role like this. That’s her MO, asking “what have I not done?” and “what do we need in the film right now?” She was in right away. Jo Scanlan was someone I had seen and I was thrilled to know she would meet with me. I didn’t want to audition her because she was so damn obviously good, and she’s a sweetheart too.
Edward Petherbridge had been mentioned to me over the years by Ian McKellen, who I initially asked to play the role, but he was unavailable. Actors love to tell stories of when things go wrong on stage and Edward Petherbridge had to give a poisoned book to an assassin in The Duchess of Malfi and he said “come sir, take this poison’d…” and there was no book. They both stared at each other and the audience was looking, so he closed his hand very small and said “take this very little book” [laughs] And then the assassin made his hand very small and took it. That cracked me up and Edward also said I was his favourite director.
All of the other people, mostly, were new. Elle Fanning, who is very experienced, helped everybody else to relax. Alex Sharp had never done a film, so it was more kind of birthing a really good stage actor into a really good film actor. So it was a perfect experience.
I wanted to ask about Shortbus. It’s a film that’s over a decade old now, but if someone discovered it for the first time, it would still feel radical. Why do you think that we still haven’t moved on and it’s still as radical as it was?
With us Anglos, the Puritans won. All British comedy is basically embarrassment about sex writ large and projected onto politics and everything else. It’s all about embarrassment about being human, whereas other cultures have other priorities. American, Australian, Canadian and British humour springs from embarrassment of the body and obviously embarrassment of the mind too. We have this awkwardness about our bodies, and about sex and death. I grew up very Catholic and sex was just not discussed at all, so it always seemed to me like it had to be important if you go out of your way to not talk about it.
Being gay, I had a way in to sex and love from a different angle that was threatened by disease, epidemic and right-wing, sex-phobic, Christian politicians. I felt it was something that needed to be opened up in a way that wasn’t about needing to shock or titillate. Porn is for jerking off to and it’s so commodified that you click here for this and click there for that. Porn sites are like Amazon now. Sex has become product.
So I wanted to go against commercial aspects of sex and the repressive aspects of it. There are many aspects and I can’t hit them all, but I felt the characters were trying to free themselves a bit by going to the Shortbus Salon, which was based on places where I had gone in the early 2000s. They were often queer-friendly places where sex, art and food and drink were freely available in different rooms, like a buffet. I imagined a character who was so uncomfortable with their body that she had never had an orgasm might be invited to go there. Then there’s a gay couple, who are struggling to stay together and maybe thinking about opening up the relationship.
I really wanted to hit a lot of things that we don’t necessarily hit in real relationships, and have a lot of people, thinking about Robert Altman’s ensemble comedies. Even now, people who are my age haven’t seen it because they were scared. They were scared I was just going to use sex to freak people out, like Lars Von Trier or Gaspar Noé, who is just trying to blow your mind rather than change it.
Maybe it’s my gay male version as opposed to the straight male version, which is more like “own it” and “look at me mommy”. I was trying not to do that, but I was also trying to remind people that being nude around a group of other nude people gets boring quick. These were characters with needs, wants and emotional imperatives. There’s very little good sex in Altman’s films because bad sex is funnier and more interesting.
I think today, I wouldn’t be able to finance it. The objection would come, perhaps, from the Left now rather than the Right. We have this fear of sex in all of us, but it comes out in different ways. From the Right, it’s that sex is this sacred thing that you can’t show or it will corrupt our children and make us into sex maniacs because it’s a sin. On the Left, you have this same fear, but the censorship comes out through the belief that someone is being exploited. It’s almost like pleasure is suspect. “You’re male and you’re telling a woman’s story, that’s problematic” or “you don’t have enough sexual variety in your story”, despite the fact I only have six characters. There would be some problem, but in fact everyone said they had a perfect experience. We worked on it for two years before we shot.
I think Shortbus might actually be a film that gets away from all of those critiques. It’s massively diverse in terms of race, gender and sexuality.
There’s also a trans person in the orgy scene, if you look closely. I went for actors who opened themselves up. I advertised for people to send their own tapes. They didn’t go through agents. I didn’t want stars because we knew they would be more limiting in their demands. There were people who were famous who auditioned, but didn’t have partners who matched up with them, so I didn’t use them. It wasn’t about names, it was about compatibility.
We asked for people to exaggerate elements of their own lives. It’s an example of working with someone, maybe a little bit like the way Cassavetes did or Mike Leigh. It’s using improvisation to come to a script that was never fully finished. I told them they’d be fired if they ever learned their lines. It made them better when they were very structured, but very loose.
As a final point, I didn’t realise you had co-directed an episode of GLOW. I was wondering how you got involved in that?
I had a blast working on that. I vaguely knew the showrunners because some had worked on Nurse Jackie. They asked when I was free. It wasn’t about a specific script. I said I could be there after playing Hedwig in Japan and they handed me a script, which just happened to be the best script of the season. I knew how it could be better, so I spoke about what I would do and they were open to that. I was gently forward and they were very happy to have me.
It was the ‘Mother of All Matches’ episode. It’s quite racially intense because Tammé’s son sees her playing this racial stereotype and it’s very upsetting for both of them. There were some jokes after and I said we had to lose them because what they had set up was very powerful and getting shtick in after would make the epiphany seem less important. I scheduled in rehearsals, which were vital because there were a lot of tears shed and I wanted to let them know it was going to be honoured well. We did a lot of that, which they don’t usually do.
I only shot one day before I came down with salmonella. Another director who knew the show well came in and did what we had all set up with the cinematographer. I had teed it up and I was really happy with what we did and that they edited it well, because sometimes they can fuck up what you did. [laughs]
Would you be open to coming back to GLOW for the third season?
Yes, I would! I love those people. I am actually in a show at the moment. I just became a series regular on a half-hour comedy for Hulu called Shrill, starting next spring. I’m kind of playing a version of the role I played in Girls as the gay editor, who’s a bit power mad. So I’m up for writing, directing, acting in any form.
But my main thing right now is a five-hour radio play that will come out as a podcast series, starring me, Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Marion Cotillard.
That’s a cast and a half!
Yeah, it’s amazing when you can record something and it only takes a couple of days for the actor to record their whole part. That’s called Anthem and we’re finishing it up now. It should be out next year as a podcast series.
Well, I will look forward to that. Thank you very much your time.
How To Talk To Girls at Parties will be available on both DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from September 3rd.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.