Perhaps the most eye-opening sequence in John Cameron Mitchell’s new movie Shortbus is when the participants of a male threesome all starting singing The Star-Spangled Banner in mid-bonk.

I think Morgan Freeman walked out at that point, Mitchell says. But I don’t think anyone had told him what the film was about.

He is speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his long-awaited follow-up to Hedwig And The Angry Inch has just screened. Five years in the making, Shortbus is an urban sex comedy with a startling difference: the sex is real and shown in graphic detail.

I just felt that I’d like to experiment using this language of sex, Mitchell says, just like I used music in Hedwig to find out more about the characters. But I knew the language had more range than just arousal. There’s so much humour, so much emotion and complexity.

Described as a love letter to New York, the new movie centres on an underground salon-slash-sex club named Shortbus, after the small yellow buses that gifted and special-needs students ride to school in the US.

Hosted by the flamboyant Justin (Justin Bond -“ a.k.a. Kiki of cabaret duo Kiki and Herb), the club attracts a number of disparate, predominantly gay characters, each undergoing an emotional and sexual crisis.

Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are a longstanding couple considering opening their relationship up to others. There’s also a lonely dominatrix calling herself Severin (Lindsay Beamish) whose real name is the far less intimidating Jennifer Aniston.

How did the director find performers who could not only act but were willing to have sex on camera? We had a website, he says. We got about 500 audition tapes and whittled them down to about 40 interesting, intelligent, charismatic, sexy people. Then we put them together to see if there could be sexual compatibility, worked with them in improv, and then I chose nine people.

We started workshopping, Mike Leigh-style, and from that improv I wrote a script, and we kept rehearsing and rewriting for two and a half years before shooting.

While there were nude rehearsals, the sex was saved largely until the cameras were rolling. It was awkward and nerve-wracking and ultimately funny with a lot of laughing. I reminded them that if a hard-on comes and goes, like it does in life, not to worry about it.

Mitchell was inspired to make the movie by the recent resurgence in serious cinema featuring actual sex -“ films like Romance, Intimacy and 9 Songs. That was interesting to me, but they all ended tragically, whether in castration or just boredom. They were very negative.

In contrast, the mood of Shortbus is profoundly optimistic, being set around the time of the 2003 New York summer blackout which, for Mitchell, reflected how the city had been brought together by 9/11. There was no violence. It was the kindest night I’ve ever experienced and the feeling we have in the film is exactly the feeling that was happening in the city.

Did Mitchell, nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn as Hedwig, not consider appearing in the film himself? No, I’m not really into acting any more. When I was growing up, acting was a way of feeling accepted and liking myself. I like myself, so it just feels like work now.

He has been promoting Shortbus since its world premiere in Cannes in May, where the film quickly found world-wide distribution. He regrets having been unable to visit Australia to see the recent sell-out stage production of Hedwig starring Iota. I heard him singing though because I had to approve the voice. Could he act?

Certainly. Great. I wish I could get down there -“ I can’t afford it.

That may change with the success of Shortbus, which Mitchell denies is pornography. I think most porn is just as bad as Hollywood, he says. The sex [in Shortbus] is integrated into the characters’ lives.

He cites a metaphorical moment at the start of the film when someone ejaculates and hits a Jackson Pollock painting. And what happens? The come disappears into the painting. Everyone says that by the end of the film the last thing you think about is the sex. Just like at the end of a good relationship.

Nevertheless, scenes such as the aforementioned rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner seem destined to push conservative American sensitivities to the limit.

There is a liberating feeling in that scene, Mitchell says, an exhilaration in saying, -˜Hey, being American is a lot of things and being patriotic is a lot of things.’ And I am patriotic, but not for the same reasons that George Bush is.

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Shortbus opens in Sydney on 2 November [TBC].

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