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John Cameron Mitchell explains 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties' and how Parkland is the new punk

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Based on the short story by renowned author Neil Gaiman, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a surrealist film about teen punks in 70s Croydon stumbling upon an alien gathering. Shy punk Enn (Alex Sharp) and rebellion alien Zan (Elle Fanning) begin a whirlwind romance amidst a world of anarchist fan-zines and children-eating alien colonies.

We spoke with director John Cameron Mitchell about how this story is relevant today.

Neil Gaiman’s short story only makes up a small part of this film - how did you go about expanding this world?

The first writer Philippa Goslett really started that process, and she did it by interviewing Neil about his own youth in the Croydon area, as a punk, in a band, with a zine - the budding comic-book writer that he was - and stories from his youth. A lot of the stories ended up in the piece, and the lead [character] became Neil. And the punk element, which is not in the story, became an important part of the film.

I expanded the alien cosmology more by giving them the various colonies that are based on the chakra system, adding the plot points like the kids thinking they’re in a cult and that Zan has to be rescued. Philippa and I came up with the new characters, Nicole [Kidman]’s character, Ruth Wilson’s - the various buddies and lovers and aliens that populate our little cosmos just came over a few years of writing.

Neil’s central metaphor, which is that everyone’s an alien when you’re in love, became a larger one, which was that maybe we can create a new species when you fall in love. Aliens fertilised by punks creates a new colony - the colony of love, the heart colony, which is a life-giving one, which questions authority, consumption, a culture of death. My little YA romance of a fairy tale is a simple story, but it has little anti-Brexit messages, about crossing borders and refreshing the gene pool being a healthy thing. I wanted to make the kind of film that would be my favourite film if I was a teenager. 

Did you worry the cultural specificity of punk in Croydon in the 70s might not translate to audiences now?

Well, then you might as well not do any period pieces then, right? Of course, we all relate to people of different cultures, times, sexualities, genders — we have to. That’s called empathy, that’s called fiction, that’s called putting yourself in the place of the character. Interestingly there was a study that said people who read and experience fiction exhibit much more empathy than people who only read the news or read non-fiction, which probably includes social media. And I believe that’s true! Because fiction requires you to identify with someone else and that is metaphor, and metaphor is required for empathy.

If you are only yourself and they are only them, you never cross the divide. And that is, of course, the danger that the aliens fear. They think that they’re helping the world by not consuming any outside resources, and only consuming their children, but when you don’t sample the world, when you don’t interact with people who are not like you, the natural conclusion is inbreeding and death! It really is! That’s a Brexit theme, and that’s also a personal theme. You’ve got to step outside yourself, and that sometimes means roleplaying. I always tell directors that they should take a short acting course so they can see what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera. It’s uncomfortable, but the emotional dividends are large. 

The intensity of this film - the animation, the costumes, the aesthetic - makes for such a wacky viewing experience. Was there ever a point where you reigned yourself in?

First of all, we had a certain budget, and I was trying to make a 70s midnight movie with this film. The aliens themselves take different forms — sometimes they’re bacteria, sometimes they’re stars — one of the jokes was, and I told Sandy Powell the costume designer, that the aliens when they take human form are taking the form and style of aliens in the 70s. Which means rubber suits and Gary Newman set pieces. So one of our jokes was that the punks wouldn’t become post-punk without the aliens. And that’s part of the fun!

There’s lots of shtick throughout the film — there’s lots of winking to the audience. We mix heartfelt stuff with humour, and even stepping-outside-of-the-story humour. So when we have the crazy animation in space, we’re using crazy 70s and 80s tropes. Liquid Sky, Phantom of the Paradise, The Apple - these are all weird cult films of those times where the design is breathtaking and a little bit cheesy, so we’re evoking tropes that exist before us, and we’re not being shy about it. 

We’re the anti-Hollywood science fiction film. We’re a nostalgic science fiction film. We’re really more about the love, the music, and the fun, and the colour, and the community of the audience in the theatre, rather than trying to appeal to mass markets. In our case, it’s much more fun to work within your budget, and that means fun animation — not trying to recreate actual outer space, but play with these fun lightbulbs that may be the forms of the aliens, or metaphoric forms in Enn’s dreams. 

Do you think that there’s an equivalent to the punk movement amongst today’s youth, and if so, what might that be?

Because of the internet, movements are splintered and atomised and rarefied, and it’s a little bit of a shame. It was supposed to bring us together, but sometimes the internet splits us apart and makes us feel lonely. Millennial experience was shaped by economic collapse and 9/11 so a lot of young people in the last 15 years have felt paralysed and bewildered by a truncated world of fear that their parents gave them. So young people haven’t necessarily been agents of change — maybe in personal change the internet has helped reach out to people who feel small, if you need a group you can feel less alone that way — but in terms of mass movement I think it’s splintered it a bit. And ADD has shut down determination and long term planning, which is why we saw the Occupy movement fizzle out. 

But I think the post-millennial generation are best exemplified by the Parkland teenagers, who are a new kind of punk. A punk that’s really, as Enn says in the film, about fixing what your parents screwed up. It’s about smashing what doesn’t work any more in order for the new things to grow. Scorching the ground so that the new plants can grow up. And that’s what punk did in the 70s. The music itself was quite limited, but when punk imploded in ’79, it allowed all these other forms of music and art to flourish, that were pun in spirit but not punk in style. So Emma Gonzalez to me is the best example of the possible new kind of punk which could be the tip of the spear for all kinds of change.

Of course, part of that came from the false feeling that was have of a conservative government here that was made possible through FOX News and Alt-Right brainwashing. It’s a minority government really, and the majority of people aren’t Trumpists, or Brexit supporters. Once they think about it, once they go there, once they realise who their neighbours are and that their parents and grandparents were immigrants, that their friends and lovers are queer — when you really think about it, everyone’s an internationalist, it’s just that people are feeding on irrational fears through the internet, to foster a xenophobia that is somehow supposed to save us all — which is a false one. The new punk is going to have to reckon with that. Which is why we have a little Brexit metaphor in the film — people dressed in union jacks jumping off buildings to avoid contamination.

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES IN CINEMAS FRIDAY 11TH MAY 2018

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