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John Cameron Mitchell On Punks, Aliens And The Queerness Of 'How To Talk To Girls'

Zan (Elle Fanning), an alien, starts a romance with Enn (Alex Sharp), a British punk, in <em>How to Talk to Girls at Parties</em>.
Dean Rogers
Courtesy of A24
Zan (Elle Fanning), an alien, starts a romance with Enn (Alex Sharp), a British punk, in How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

More than a decade ago, author Neil Gaiman wrote a short story that captures some of the strangeness of being a teenager discovering the world. It's called "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," and it's really only one scene: Two boys stumble upon a party where the girls seem rather alien. As it turns out, the girls are actual aliens.

Now, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell has expanded "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" into a full-length, low-budget indie film of the same name. Like the original, it's set in the 1970s punk music scene of Croydon, England, a dingy area south of London. It stars Elle Fanning as an alien named Zan, and Nicole Kidman as a punk rocker named Queen Boadicea.

Mitchell tells NPR, "I've always wanted to make my YA teenage love story that had little idea bombs throughout, one of which is this idea of punk being identified in a certain way. A lot of people have identified it in a lot of different ways. My favorite [definition] is sort of destroying things that are not useful in order for a plethora of other things to grow out of the scorched ground."

Mitchell's other films include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a transgender woman from East Berlin, and Shortbus, about sexual outsiders in New York.

Interview Highlights

On how the film's aliens react to the British punks

They're confused because their music isn't very rock and roll. But they are confronted with grubby, messy, beautiful, bloody, sexy fragrances of bodily fluids and secretions that [are] repellent for most of them, but [are] like catnip for Zan, our alien heroine. And she, throughout the film, is tasting everything, every bodily fluid she can, and her own blood and vomits in people's mouths, and it's all wonderful because it's all new for her.

The big joke, of course, is the British kid takes all of her absurd spouting as to be explained by the fact that she's from California. ... She's American, so they say these things.

On creating Nicole Kidman's character, Queen Boadicea, who wasn't in the original Gaiman story

Philippa [Goslett], our writer, wrote a character named Allison who became Boadicea, because I always liked that name. Every British schoolchild knows Boadicea. She was the Celtic princess, or queen, really, who drove the Romans out of London. It was the one loss of the Romans, you know, early in British history, and she ultimately was killed.

But there was, you know — Nicole's character says, "The first punk was a she." And Nicole's character really is a bit of Vivienne Westwood, a bit of Malcolm McLaren. She's much bawdier and braying.

Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman) runs an art space frequented by Zan's teenage love interest.
Dean Rogers / Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24
Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman) runs an art space frequented by Zan's teenage love interest.

On making a punk indie film with a big-name actress like Kidman

She's a pro. And she wasn't always in her comfort level because she got hit in the head with a guitar and one of the actors kept spitting in her face by accident, and she really hated that. Well, he was the punk singer, you know. And she actually hauled off and cracked him across the face when he did it one too many times. ... And I kept it in the film. But he was a real punk guy and he wasn't really an actor, so he was trying his best.

But so she was just there for like six days and really kicked ass, and she was really a pro about it. But we kind of forced her into a non-comfortable zone with our rock and roll filming techniques.

It's how you look at things, as opposed to who you have sex with, that makes you queer.

On how How to Talk to Girls at Parties relates to his other, often queer films

For me, rock and roll and punk are queer. ... There's a queerness about rock and roll, and gender-bending in punk and rock and roll. But I do think of How to Talk to Girls as a queer film. ... It's how you look at things, as opposed to who you have sex with, that makes you queer. It's how you look at the world through a bit of a prism of perhaps the fluidity of gender, the understanding that the underdog has something to say that might be useful to society, and a sense of humor where, you know, camp ... is a useful form.

So I think of How to Talk to Girls as definitely a part of my landscape and the things that I'm interested in. I came out of comic books and science fiction and fantasy, and I want to explore that more. And you put Broadway, Borscht Belt, punk rock, glam rock and comic books together and you probably get one of my films.

Sam Gringlas and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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