I am standing alone in the men’s room of a West Village club, collecting my thoughts, when a good-looking guy comes in. He has followed me. “Hey!” he says. “I wanted to get a moment alone with you.” Smiling, he walks up to me, drops his pants, and takes out his penis. “What do you think?” he says.
It is the early spring of 2003. I am a gay man in my 30s in New York City, so this is not an entirely unfamiliar situation. But this is a special circumstance. Both his smile and his dick are big, but they also both look somehow expectant in a way that suggests each could get a lot bigger or a lot smaller very quickly depending on the next words I choose.
I choose the wrong words — or the right words, but in the wrong way.
“Um,” I venture, trying to keep my gaze at eye level. “I don’t think that … it’s not really my sense that that’s what they’re looking for.”
His face falls. Everything falls. His dejection in that moment makes him look older and more tired than his age (mid-20s). “No, no,” I say quickly, “it’s great! I mean, I can’t imagine it will hurt your chances! I just think John is looking for more of an overall thing, kind of looking at your personality, who you are, what your vibe is.”
He cheers up. “The whole package, not just the package,” he says, sauntering over to a urinal.
He looks over at me, inclining his head toward the next urinal. “Did you need to …”
“Nope,” I say. “I just came in here to take some notes.” I am holding a small black journal and a pen, and by this point, after a couple of hours of milling around and chatting with two dozen young actors, their friends, and the core creative team of the movie that will become John Cameron Mitchell’s one-of-a-kind groundbreaker Shortbus, I have become so used to feeling absurd that I am well past the embarrassment of being seen taking notes while hanging out in a public bathroom. Word was out: There is going to be real sex in this movie, and a lot of it. Earlier, one prospective cast member I met on the dance floor assumed I was an auditionee, eyeballing me and then remarking, only slightly woundingly, “It’s so great that they’re looking at, you know, all different types!” But with my glasses, my notebook, and what one ex described as “the face of someone who looks like he chose ‘Designated Driver’ on grade-school Career Day,” I am more likely to be mistaken for an undercover cop than for an actor.
Alex (not his real name — after nearly 20 years, I’ll grant the actors who were not eventually cast a measure of privacy) has started to pee. “It’s so exciting meeting all these people,” he says. “I feel bad that we’re in a competition, but I guess we are.”
“Can I ask you why you want to do this?” I say.
“You can ask me whatever you want!” he says. “I love being interviewed while I’m tugging my cock.” (Which is what he has now moved on to doing, I should note.) “Why do I want to do this? John. Mostly John. I believe in him and the way he talks about this. And because of him, I think this is going to be an amazing journey for everyone who gets to take it.”
“Where do you think that journey will take you if you get cast?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Definitely away from my current situation,” he says. “Because if I do this, I am clearly getting fired.”
“Fired from what?”
“Now that,” he says, “is much too personal a question.”
He zips up, looks at me, and finger-guns my crotch with a wink. “Your turn next time,” he says, and leaves the men’s room.
In my notebook, I write, “This is going to be complicated. BOUNDARIES.”
A few weeks earlier, I had found myself sitting in a quiet, mostly empty restaurant across from John Cameron Mitchell. John and one of his producers, Howard Gertler, had approached me with an idea. They were about to undertake a movie project that was close to John’s heart, something that he had been thinking about for a while and was now, on the verge of his 40th birthday, about to make a reality — a sexually explicit, sex-positive comedy-drama about the moment we were in as New Yorkers and as sexual beings. A film that would explore all the possibilities — that is, as we defined “possibilities” 20 years ago.
To add a bit of context, it was about a year and a half after 9/11, and while I know that the first thing that comes to mind when I say “9/11” isn’t “sex,” the event had disrupted and altered everything — including, for some New Yorkers, that thing. A straight guy I knew had suddenly started sleeping with men in a casual, almost transactional way (he said it calmed him down); a monogamous wife had embarked on a series of one-night stands. Some people I knew didn’t feel like having any sex at all for a long stretch; others couldn’t get enough. And now, as the city and its residents were pushing forward and figuring out what life would look like in what was beginning to be called the post-9/11 era, John wanted to make a movie that would showcase the particular version of New York City in which he lived — a place that was open to more modes of pleasure than many had considered.
After 15 years of being devastated by the AIDS crisis, when sexuality was literally shadowed by the possibility of death, the city’s population was adjusting, first uncertainly and then with joy, to a new world of medicine and science in which HIV was chronic but not fatal. Sex, even sexual adventure, seemed possible again. The film that would emerge from that moment was, then and now, one of a kind — a come-one-come-all party of a romantic comedy with a gentle, good-hearted sense of humor, bondage, autofellatio, a tender view of the fragility and possibility of human connection, and cum shots. (Oscilloscope Laboratories recently restored the film, which can be seen starting January 26 at the IFC Center in Manhattan.)
But when John and I met that afternoon, Shortbus was still a long way from being Shortbus. He and Howard wanted to know if I might be interested in following the film from casting and preproduction through filming as a fly on the wall (“an unzipped fly on the wall,” one joked) and possibly write a book about it. I was more than interested; I was in. Besides being wildly curious, I admired John as both a serious cultural artist and a nexus of deep fun. I thought that the co-creator and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was just the right person to blaze this trail, and I think he and Howard felt that my quietness and circumspection would probably be an asset in a room full of interesting transgressors; as a reporter/observer, I knew how to make myself relatively invisible when necessary. Boundaries!
John had asked me to come to a café on Perry Street near his apartment to see if he felt comfortable, and if I did. We got together for coffee on a cold March afternoon. Here’s what I wrote right afterwards, on the subway home:
I really like John a lot. He’s slighter and quieter than I would have guessed from Hedwig. We talk about sex in the movies. He says he’s seen every European legit movie with explicit sex [in the pre-streaming era, watching them still took work and required frequent visits to Kim’s Video], from Baise-Moi to Intimacy to Taxi Zum Klo, which he cited as the closest thing to a model. It’s clear that this project isn’t a lark for him — he’s very serious-minded and thoughtful about it. Wants the sex scenes to be hot and the movie to be fun. He says he wants to make a movie about the kind of people he knows, and that sex is a big part of their lives. He mentions a movie salon where sometimes people have sex after the movie.
We talk about how sex movies are like musicals in a way — the sex scene can express a feeling in a more elaborated or ritualized manner than dialogue, or it can actually advance the plot. I ask him how he’s planning to do this. He doesn’t know yet how he’ll rehearse the actors for sex — will they do it at the beginning of the process? The end? Will they wait until cameras are rolling if the two characters onscreen are never supposed to have had sex before?
He also tells me that he’s not casting anyone to whom he’s sexually attracted — “it’s fucked up too many movies.” Financing is not in place yet. He mentions that Joseph Gordon-Levitt from Third Rock From the Sun has expressed interest in playing a part, but other than him, all the name actors he knows have balked at explicit sex and offered only to play nonsexual supporting roles. He says the finalists are a mix of actors, sex performers who want to go legit, amateurs, people he has known for a while, and new people. One has been a prostitute since she was 13 (she’s now 20). He also says that HBO is interested in putting up some $$ in exchange for the rights to film a documentary about the making of the movie.
John had created a website ad announcing the project and inviting people to put themselves on tape for whatever kind of audition they felt like offering. It yielded about 400 videotaped responses — an extraordinary number in the pre-phone-cam era.
Of those, I wrote, he says maybe 40 were worth a second look. He’s called 25 people back — gay men but also straight people and lesbians — and invited them for what he’s calling “actors week” — a welcome party at a place where he’s been DJing regularly, then a collective watching of the auditions — maybe he’ll also ask them all who they’re attracted to — and then further auditions. When he makes his final selections, he’ll run a four-week workshop. Out of that, he hopes the fuel for a script will emerge. He plans to write in May. Production will start in October in NYC and will take about a month.
I step out of the bathroom to see that the party has gotten noisier, more crowded, more intense. HBO’s cameras are seemingly everywhere. (The documentary didn’t come together in the end.) “I don’t know about this. They’re getting on my tits already,” says John, irritated by the long list of dos and don’ts that the company has already sent him (one big don’t: no music at the party for which the rights haven’t been cleared). There’s also the problem that a thing observed is a thing altered: The presence of rolling cameras has swiftly divided the invitees in the room into extroverts and wallflowers. The first group has found its way to the most advantageous spots on the dance floor, where some hopefuls are now spontaneously shedding their shirts — though not, so far, more than that — and showing what they’ve got. The second group has fled to the banquettes behind the cameras, where they’re watching the action with expressions that range from detached amusement to open anxiety. Two will drop out after tonight, already sensing that this isn’t the right road for them.
I make my way over to the quiet end of the room. Andy, a young man from Georgia — soft-spoken, bespectacled, not someone you’d expect to be up for this — smiles at me, and I ask him if this all makes him nervous. “Noooo,” he says, speaking very slowly. “Because I feel I have self-confidence. I am nervous about other things. Airplanes. And bumblebees.” Ian, from San Francisco, confesses to some apprehension about his audition tape. “Everybody is telling me about theirs, and I feel like I’m the only one who wasn’t naked in mine,” he says. “All my friends were naked and one of them has, like, a horse dick, and I … don’t?”
I start to feel shy — not an ideal characteristic for a reporter — shortly after I introduce myself to a genial-looking guy (“Hi, I’m writing a book about this whole thing”), and he replies, “Cool, I’m a sex slave.” For no reason, I start thinking about my wedding, which is six weeks away. I picture my family and my husband’s family watching me work. It’s not useful.
I go up to Jay, a young, slender, sweet-faced, faux-hawked aspiring actor and musician who has come from the West Coast, and I ask him, “What does it feel like to be looking at this group of strangers and thinking, ‘I might end up having sex with some of these people?’” He laughs. “Honestly, it feels normal, because it’s probably what I’d be thinking if I was in a place like this even if there wasn’t a movie being made.”
My impression, late in the evening, is that John has chosen his candidates well. Almost everyone is personable, bright, thoughtful, and attractive in ways just unconventional enough to make you take a second and third look. There are guys whose girlfriends urged them to do it; girls whose guy friends urged them to do it; gay and queer men — who probably make up the majority of those in the room — who decided to do it together; spiky, interesting women who are there solo. One of them is reading No Exit (too on the nose?). Another is talking earnestly about John Cassavetes. Some are John’s friends, recruited from the downtown demimonde that inspired his idea for Shortbus; some have never met him. There are many process-of-elimination jokes about American Idol (the first season has just aired) and the now-forgotten reality series ElimiDate. Everybody is talking about sex. “Hold my drink, and don’t slip a roofie in it, because I know you want me,” a woman who has misjudged me on several levels instructs me on her way to the bathroom. And the vast majority of the people I talk to are completely confident they are going to be cast in the movie, which is going to be a problem, because the vast majority are not.
With every passing hour, the atmosphere gets looser and slurrier (“We saw you talking to John Cameron Diaz, take us to meet him!” one drunk or high straight(-ish) couple implores me; they are hoping to get cast as a package deal even though only one of them has apparently been invited to actor week. As 2 a.m. approaches, it becomes apparent that word about Shortbus — which is at that point known simply as “the real sex movie” — has gotten out, that a number of people who were not on the list have found their way into the party hoping to be discovered. And there is another unwelcome and unanticipated guest in the club: neediness. A number of people I chat with have come from unstable or abusive backgrounds; some have turned their trauma into creative expression, and others hope to. For all of them, John’s interest, in ways that he may not have anticipated, is a potential life-changer. “Pick me, pick me, pick me!” a gregarious actress yells at me, grabbing my pad. “I like the size of your notebook.” I’m not a producer, I tell her. She says she doesn’t care; she’s drunk. “I’m sure you’re gay,” she adds. I confirm. “Is every man here gay? Jesus!” She punches me. It’s supposed to be a friendly punch, but it is an actual punch. A drink goes flying. She says, “Fuuuuck, sorry. Well, on the positive side, at least you’re not a producer!”
Time for me to go. “Can I ask you something?” a young man says as I make my way to the door. He looks worried. “What do I do if the party ends and the subway doesn’t … does the subway run all night? This is my first time in New York and I don’t know how to get around. I didn’t think this was going to be so …”
I ask him if he needs me to drop him off somewhere. He says no, he’s worried he’ll miss something important if he leaves. The last thing I write in my notebook that night is Some of these people should not be in this movie.
Too early the next morning, I am at the avant-garde movie mecca Anthology Film Archives, on Second Avenue, waiting for day two of actor week to begin. Today’s agenda is to gather all of the auditionees who made it to New York City (several, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, did not come, but sent tapes) for a long talk with John in AFA’s 63-seat Maya Deren Theater, after which they will, over several hours, watch all of their auditions together and then, gulp, tell John whom they think they might be attracted to. It promises to be a challenging combination of freshman orientation day, self-exposure session, and intense (if so far theoretical) speed-dating game. That is, if people show up. Last night’s revelry didn’t end until 4 a.m., and actors straggle into Anthology slowly, distinguishable by various degrees of bedragglement, hangover, and walk-of-shame-iness. By the 1 p.m. call, only about a dozen have arrived. Almost everybody looks rough. There is talk of obtaining a large amount of Tylenol with codeine.
John himself seems fresh and excited, even though, he tells me, he was at the party “until the bitter end. I was really happy to get to see all the actors and give them hugs and calm them down, and I found that it calmed me down. I was going to leave earlier, but then I thought, no, it’d be nice to see everyone go. Plus,” he laughs, “I was making out with somebody. And I saw two of the actors making out, so that’s something.”
“Maybe we could lower the lights a little,” he says, seeing a couple of the newest arrivals wince under the glare.
“John, it’d be great to keep the lights up, thanks,” says someone from HBO.
If the day goes well, it is largely because of the sensitivity with which John shifts between his roles as den mother, dad, host, boss, matchmaker, and psychologist, making himself available to anyone who needs a moment in private or a bit of bolstering. “There’s one guy who doesn’t want to show his tape at all,” he tells me. “Even though there’s nothing on that tape except him talking to me. It’d be a shame if they don’t all agree to be on a level playing field. If they don’t want to sign a release, they don’t have to. But before they go into the theater, I want them to know that they should at least be comfortable being shot watching their tapes.”
The actors file into the auditorium. When they’re seated, John talks a bit about Jonas Mekas and the history of the theater they’re in, jokes about how hammered some of them were last night, gently heckles some latecomers, and waits until he senses that they’re relaxed before proceeding to the day’s business.
“Today will be fascinating,” he says. “You’ll see a little bit of everybody — unplugged, uncensored, undressed. I think it’ll be a really good thing for all of you to watch all of these tapes, so everybody is equally slightly embarrassed.”
He has their attention now. “Sex is in the world,” he says. “Drugs are. Work is. Creativity is. And that’s the energy I want for the film, which I hope will be about a kind of utopian New York.” He tells them about the film salon he’s been attending — “last night was a new version of that, just for dancing and fun” — and says that he’s thinking that the concept of a salon may make it into the script (which, in fact, it does). “I’m hoping that this film can be a little bit of a model for a new way of thinking about being an outsider, and about how to be in the world if you feel like you don’t fit in. So anyway, we’re all going to have these little sheets, and we’re going to use them to gauge our initial impressions about our attractions, and” — John’s phone rings; he looks at it — “that’s who I made out with last night,” he says.
The printed-out forms are passed around. They have slots for I’d Never, Curious, Possibly — Need to Know More, I Think So, and Definitely. John’s hope is to put the Definitelys together after the watch-athon and see if anything sparks.
“There’s a new wave happening here,” he says. “I don’t know what you think of Larry Clark — I think he’s a little loveless — but we want to have fun with sex. And to go there fully, with trust and love.” The actors have a lot of questions, and some have traveled thousands of miles to ask them. A surprising number of them are expressing a certain squeamishness, as if until now, they imagined he had been bluffing. Can you actually show penetrative sex in a movie theater? Yes, John says, adding that he imagines that the film could eventually play at movie houses like the Quad on West 13th Street and the Cinema Village as well as in college towns and, eventually, on the internet. Would he ever consider a soft-core version? No, too much would have to be left out. How much control are we going to have over what people are seeing? Not much, John says gently. “I want to use whatever an individual actor is interested in — I mean, one of you told me you can suck your own dick, and so maybe there’s a metaphor there” — that, too, makes it into the movie — “but you’re going to have to ask yourself where you’re willing to go.” Can we watch dailies? That’s something we can talk about, he says.
The viewing day that follows is epic, a seemingly endless daisy chain of on-camera masturbation (to music, to silence, accompanied by monologues, with and without tears, in character and as themselves), confessionals, rage, role-playing, anomie, enthusiasm, humor, posturing and sincerity, steeliness and vulnerability. One auditionee jerks off on-camera to “I Hope I Get It,” from A Chorus Line. One pulls a pubic hair out of her tongue piercing as she talks about stripping under her Orthodox Jewish mother’s name as an act of payback. One tape is so scabrous and nasty it actually draws hisses. Another is so shaky and heartfelt that there is audible sniffling in the theater.
As the tapes roll on, the mood of the audience passes through several phases. People are giggly and embarrassed at first; then they seem somewhat intimidated by the sheer volume and variety of the sex that they’re seeing and hearing about (at least half the people in the room came in thinking that they were the outrageous one only to discover that perhaps they weren’t). Then, suddenly, everyone’s a critic, assessing, weighing, comparing. And finally, they start to act bored — possibly as a defense against the openness and pain and vulnerability that continues to pour forth from the screen. As a young woman talks on-camera about losing her virginity to a heroin addict as a trade-off for some drugs, two guys sitting in the audience elbow each other, trade their comment sheets, read them, and giggle. At that moment, it feels like we have all taken an extraordinary journey only to disembark at last in the most mundane possible place: high school.
By 6 p.m., everybody seems overexposed and exhausted, even John. He asks the actors to leave the next three nights free; he and his producers are going to look at the comments and attempt to pair some people off for unmonitored dates that they hope will generate some chemistry. Later in the week, a series of callbacks will be scheduled during which John will work with the actors he has selected individually and in pairs (or, depending on how many people they matched with and in keeping with the spirit of the movie, threesomes or foursomes). As the actors drift onto the East Village streets, most of them seem not to have registered the fact that this is the last time they’ll all be together.
The three days that follow are challenging. The chemistry dates, a producer tells me, prove to be “75/25 successful … I mean, they were 75 percent unsuccessful, which is not so great.” Some of the actors grow so jittery that I find myself fielding calls from a couple of them: Do you think John likes me? Is it bad that I didn’t pair with people? A couple more of the prospects have decided their journey with this project is over. “I think this is probably not for me,” one told me with evident sadness the night after the group viewing. “I think maybe you need to be an exhibitionist to do this movie, and what I discovered today is, I’m not. I can’t imagine being naked with these people. The audition already felt like too much exposure for me.”
But now, in the Chelsea casting office where John and the other producers are holding callbacks and auditions, one can feel, for the first time, the movie that is going to become Shortbus begin to take shape. Today, John the king of the party is nowhere in evidence; instead, the actors he has called into the office are about to meet John the theater pro, the veteran actor who made his Broadway debut at 22 as a replacement Huckleberry Finn in Big River, who performed in Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, and who has a sharp eye for the question that has, for the last several days, lurked in the background: Which of these people can actually act?
John and Howard have examined the pairings on the worksheets and have called actors in at staggered times in twos and threes. Some of them — the ones who received the pre-Tinder equivalent of several right-swipes from other actors on the worksheets — will be asked to stick around for much of the day or to come back the next day for more; others will get only one shot. Clothes are going to stay on; nobody is going to be asked to perform sex acts or consent to anything that feels physically invasive at an audition. (In fact, in the whole process of making Shortbus, there will only ever be a single sex rehearsal, and that won’t happen for a long time.)
John doesn’t yet know what he’s going to find. “The comment sheets were helpful,” he tells me just before the workday starts. “Some of the women have expressed disappointment that the group is so predominantly gay men, and I get that. I wish there were more straight men too, but that’s who auditioned. And the dates … I feel like some of these people have already found boyfriends!”
“Anyway, we’re not a dating service,” another member of the team puts in. “If somebody can’t act, that’s it.”
For some, this is a painful moment of truth, a last chance to step into a new world. One of the actors shows up with a rolling suitcase — I ask him where he’s been staying and he says, “Wherever I can,” then looks around and says, “Honestly, I’d sleep here tonight if they’d let me.” I peek at his name on the call sheet, which someone has already begun to unsentimentally annotate. “Good actor from other things, but got almost no bites.” “Lots of interest in him, almost none from him.” “Says he’s happy to pair with anyone but may just want to maximize his chances.” And when that day’s auditions begin, it becomes clear that the ability to create a vibrant, personality-driven solo audition tape has little if anything to do with the skill required to forge a connection with other actors, or to embody a character convincingly.
John has come up with a number of improvs — a paid massage, a late-night, desperate attempt at phone sex, an awkward attempt to initiate a three-way — that will allow him to see how easily actors can jump from character to character or can pivot in tone. “Instead of acting like you’re just horny, this time show me all your disappointment,” he tells one. He works gently with every performer, even when it’s apparent that they’re wildly out of their depth. At one point he throws an arm around Darryl, a sad-eyed, drifty boy who is among the youngest of the auditionees and is clearly overwhelmed, and quietly explains to him, “I have a really good sense of who you are now, but for the next few minutes I want you to try to pretend to be someone else.”
“I know I didn’t get it,” Darryl tells me afterwards. “I’m not ready. I just wish I had one more day to try again before I go home.”
Some performers, including those with virtually no acting experience, prove to be naturals — Jay, the faux-hawked boy last seen surveying the dance floor for possible partners, proves to be exceptionally funny, sharply instinctive, and fast on his feet. He gets cast. Others are baffled, in ways that surprise and dispirit them, at how hard it is to step outside of themselves. And the dates may have been a mixed blessing — two guys who had ended up having sex the previous evening came in ready to wow everyone with their hot dynamic only to discover what so many people discover the next morning: They have none.
As John works with the actors, it becomes clear what his priorities are: a sense of humor. A sense of elasticity. A sensitivity to shifting moods. A knack for reading signals. An ability to play — literally, to be playful — with other actors. A joy in discovering the unexpected. By the end of the second day of callbacks, he knows much more about whom he’s going to be shaping this movie around — and about what the movie is going to be. The call sheets are now fairly stark in their scribbled verdicts: “No.” “Absolutely not.” “Okay but awfully young. Not a lead.” “Sullen.” “Too nervous.” “Can’t take notes.” And this is the end, sadly, for Alex, he of the charming smile and enthusiastic penis: “So enthralling. But no.”
At the end of the day, one of the actors who had been paired on a date tells me, almost with relief, that he’s out. “I think John saw something between us and so he set us up. But my own situation was really brought home to me during the auditions. I got a message from my boyfriend — my real boyfriend — and I was just [mentally] gone, and I know they saw it. I realized that I had had a very nice time with this other person, and yeah, we hooked up, but I was doing the scene with him and I suddenly felt, I don’t know this person at all. And I could see, in that moment, how messy this could get.”
Overall, though, the unconventional audition has been a success. By the end of the callbacks, John has found the core of his cast, more than half a dozen of the actors who will populate Shortbus and play the characters at its heart: the gay couple who brings in a younger third; the voyeur/stalker who can’t seem to connect with anyone; the guy in a committed straight relationship who finds himself attracted to a dominatrix and his anorgasmic partner who begins her own journey toward sexual fulfillment. But it’s also clear that the month John had allowed himself to write the script was overoptimistic — every writer’s been there — and in any case, it’s moot: Not long after the majority of the movie’s cast is set, Shortbus’s best prospect for financing falls through, and the movie is put on hold.
Those callbacks, though I didn’t know it then, would be the end of my time with Shortbus. During the long unplanned hiatus that followed, I reluctantly realized that I wouldn’t be able to embark on the complicated voyage of this movie and its cast and crew while holding down a full-time job, and by the time the project resumed, I was at work on a different book. But John and I became friendly, and last week, we had our first long conversation in 19 years about the earliest days of his remarkable movie. One of the first things he tells me is that he’s been thinking about the different way a 2022 version of the film would have to be produced. “Can you imagine the intimacy-counselor budget?” he says. “I just did [the Peacock limited series] Joe Exotic, and the counselor was very sweet, but they were saying things like, ‘Is it okay if he puts his hand on your shoulder?’ And I’m laughing, like, ‘Shoulder?!’”
“My mantra during the movie,” he says, “was, I never want you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I always want you to challenge yourselves, because we are challenging an eroto-phobic culture — that’s one of the reasons we’re doing it. We weren’t trying to shock people. What we were trying to do was to create a relationship with the audience, and oftentimes, a relationship begins with a lot of sex.”
John remembers actors week as being helpful to him. “We didn’t even really have a budget to get them [to New York], and to their credit, most of them got themselves there, and we made sure they had a good time.” But the callbacks, he says, revealed how complicated the work ahead of him was going to be. “I was trying to give the actors what I always wanted, which was a good time while auditioning instead of a horrible judgy situation.” But what the callbacks made clear, he says, was that “there are people who could do lines verbatim, but couldn’t improvise. There were people who could paraphrase but not do verbatim. There are people who can improvise, but only with no parameters. And we needed parameters.”
A few months after the callbacks, John got his cast together to start work. “We had nine actors, we got a loft, and we did about a month of improv and hanging out and watching films and doing Viola Spolin improv exercises,” he says. “I’m from Chicago, and it’s all about improv and experimentation there. So I was using everything I knew. I was using techniques I’d learned from a book about Mike Leigh’s process, and Cassavetes’s process, which was closer to mine in that he liked actors to paraphrase from a script.”
Then the film fell apart. “I was so upset,” he remembers. “It felt like everything had just crumbled, but my actors held me together.”
The long delay in being able to obtain financing become a blessing of sorts. Every six months or so, John and the cast would reunite to work on the characters and deepen the material. Miraculously, he managed to keep his ensemble more or less intact for two and a half years until the money came through. By the time production began, they had all invested so deeply in their characters that when the film finally opened, to warm reviews, in the fall of 2006, three and a half years after actors week, some who saw it assumed that John had simply found a bunch of skilled, game performers to play versions of themselves.
How will a new generation of moviegoers who are seeing Shortbus for the first time take it all in — the threesome, the spectacularly large orgy, the BDSM, the now almost subversive feeling of joy that the film takes in all forms of sexual pleasure? “I think you should always be sensitive to any kind of vulnerability in art,” John says. “To many people, sex is not a vulnerable thing, but to many it is. Sex is scary. Young people are having less and less sex every year. I was reading some studies that [said] that trend started when the film came out — that the height of young people having sex was 2006. And now, for the young person, Gen Z, who’s in a morally correct liberal mode, sex is suspect in and of itself. There starts to be a feeling that if anyone is having sex, someone’s being exploited, and if you’re on film, even more so. And some of that correctness, that desire to protect the vulnerable, actually fig-leafs a panic about sex.”
“I don’t think I could get Shortbus financed today,” he says. “So I’m thrilled that it’s coming out now, but also a little nervous.” He doesn’t know how audiences will react, he says. “But I want to remind people that everyone on that shoot still says it’s their favorite creative experience.”
When I rewatched Shortbus recently, I also felt that it probably couldn’t be made today — not because of its sexual explicitness, although that would doubtless be scrutinized through a stern contemporary lens of power dynamics and problematics and representation but could probably survive all that and maybe even wink at it, but because of its optimism. It’s a movie full of joy and delight — not just in sexual discovery and self-discovery, but in the awkward, itchy, uncomfortable, embarrassing stuff, in the fact that sex is messy because people and their feelings are messy. In a way, the movie’s conviction that the mess is part of the fun seems like its most transgressive aspect. Today, contemporary sensibilities might demand that the sex in Shortbus be framed as a refuge or escape within a late-capitalist dystopia, instead of an invitation to get naked and jump in, in a city that glows with various secret pleasures just waiting to be unlocked. Wants the sex scenes to be hot and the movie to be fun, I had written after my first meeting with John. In 2003, as mission statements went, that seemed solid. Today, it seems revolutionary.