As June winds down, let’s pause once more to celebrate Pride Month 2020—and particularly for us, the work of queer filmmakers. On June 11, Film Independent was thrilled to host a very special Coffee Talk chat between New Queer Cinema icons (and pals!) Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), who got together over video chat for a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation.
“It’s funny you were mentioning us being part of the New Queer Cinema,” laughed Mitchell, “We’re definitely the Old Queer Cinema.” To which Van Sant responded, jokingly: “That’s what we’re looking like.” The June 11 Coffee Talk is available to watch in full below. Keep reading for more highlights from this exclusive meeting of the minds.
Mitchell began the conversation by wondering if smaller films have “gone a bit out of fashion” due to the internet and the way films are now frequently screened on smaller screens and handheld devices. Van Sant argued that maybe it’s a good time for smaller, indie filmmakers—especially for politically minded content creators and film activists.
Viewing films, he said, has shifted “to the smaller screen, but you have a lot of independent works that are on YouTube or all over the place and valid, amazing works. So I think it’s kind of good, in some ways, for [independent] filmmakers.”
Mitchell praised Van Sant and English filmmaker Derek Jarman (Jubilee, Caravaggio) for being, in his view, the godfathers of Queer Cinema’s first wave.
“I feel like Sundance was one of the helpers, you know, for people to see a lot of queer cinema and gay cinema,” Van Sant said. Michell agreed: “The labs, which I went to, were indispensable for me,” adding, “There were voices from all parts of America,” speaking to the push from organizations—including Sundance and the Film Independent Spirit Awards—to embrace such diversity far, far sooner than mainstream Hollywood.
Said Mitchell, “My classmates went on to produce Empire and make Winters Bone. These were amazing people,” noting that Van Sant was actually his advisor at the Sundance labs, back when he was first developing his cult musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, into an independent feature. Of their lab encounter, Van Sant said: “I sort of happened to be there for another reason, and then I joined the advisory group. I remember Alfonso Cuaron was one of them [the advisors], Delroy Lindo—it was amazing.”
In developing Hedwig, Mitchell praised the now-defunct NYC performance venue SqueezeBox!—one of New York City’s best clubs for gay men and women that revolutionized the punk rock drag scene back in the day. It was here that Mitchell held his very first gigs for what would eventually become Hedwig.
“I was a more traditional actor [on] Broadway and TV. But I felt punk rock and drag were more exciting than the stuff I was seeing on Broadway, for sure. And I thought, ‘What’s more Broadway than drag or punk?’” Noting, “It was only homophobia and middle-class panic that stopped them [the queens] from being on stages.”
Seeing the intensity of SqueezeBox! and such violently rebellious performances, said Mitchell, were thrilling to watch. He even shouted out the name of particular drag queens who he felt were big influences on his Hedwig stage persona: Lady Bunny, Jayne County, and Mistress Formika, just to name a few.
Mitchell told the Coffee Talk audience that if you’re looking for classic queer films to watch, search no further than Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), as well as Van Sant’s directorial debut, Mala Noche (1986)—Mitchell even going as far as writing Van Sant a fan letter, which Gus still remembers receiving.
Mitchell spoke to the profound effect that Mala Noche had on him as a young gay artist coming up in the 1980s. “I was looking for the alt queer filmmakers. The ones that I thought of as more punk. But it took really you and Derek Jarman, Fassbinder. He [Rainer Werner Fassbinder] was really the unapologetic queer master,” Mitchell said.
He also recommended Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 autobiographical documentary Tarnation, which both Mitchell and Van Sant helped shepherd as executive producers. Said Van Sant: “It’s a beautiful film, if anyone hasn’t seen it, check out Tarnation. It’s a queer classic.”
Film Independent promotes unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work. To support our work with a donation, please click here.
To become a Member of Film Independent, just click here. New Members who join during the month of June always receive 30% off a general two-year Membership.