'How To Talk To Girls At Parties': A Punk Love Story From John Cameron Mitchell The writer/director has turned a Neil Gaiman short story into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. It follows an alien exploring the 1970s punk music scene of Croydon, England.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/614469635/614518667" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
John Cameron Mitchell On Punks, Aliens And The Queerness Of 'How To Talk To Girls'

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/614469635/614518667" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


More than a decade ago, the 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." It's really only one scene. Two boys stumble upon a party where the girls seem rather alien because, as it turns out, the girls are actual aliens. Here's Neil Gaiman reading a bit of the story.


NEIL GAIMAN: (Reading) Understand me; all the girls at that party in the twilight were lovely. They all had perfect faces. But more important than that, they had whatever strangeness and proportion of oddness or humanity it is that makes a beauty something more than a shop window dummy.

SHAPIRO: Fast-forward to the present day, and the writer-director John Cameron Mitchell has expanded "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" into a full-length film.


SHAPIRO: Like the story, the movie is set in the 1970s punk scene of Croydon, England, a dingy area south of London. The soundtrack is full of new music that sounds like it could have come from that era.


THE DYSCHORDS: (Singing) Oh, yeah, it's killing me. Climb, climb over me.

SHAPIRO: "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" is a low-budget independent film with some big-name actors like Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. She plays an alien named Zan, a kind of traveler who wants a different way of experiencing life on Earth.


ELLE FANNING: (As Zan) You constantly use words like enrichment and authenticity, but we're behaving more like tourists than travelers.

SHAPIRO: Zan's big adventure begins when she meets a human boy and runs off with him. Director John Cameron Mitchell's other movies focus on adult themes. His films include "Rabbit Hole" and "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." So I asked him what attracted him to this sweet, punk, sci-fi, Romeo-Juliet tale.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: I've always wanted to make my YA teenage love story that had, you know, little idea bombs throughout, one of which is, you know, this idea of punk, you know, being identified in a certain way. My favorite thing is sort of destroying things that are not useful in order for a plethora of other things to grow out of the scorched ground.

SHAPIRO: That's a great definition.

MITCHELL: You know, Nicole Kidman calls it - I wrote her a line saying it's the fag end of the blues. You know, it's the end of it.

SHAPIRO: Fag being British slang for the butt of a cigarette.

MITCHELL: Butt of a cigarette - the fag end of the blues, you know, the last gasp.

SHAPIRO: It is so grounded in the '70s, this movie is. And so many of your stars are young. I mean, Elle Fanning is 20 years old. What did you tell them about this time that you lived through and they did not to ground them in the details of it?

MITCHELL: Well, funnily enough, I mean, the older actors who were generally British, you know, they all knew that. They knew what a midnight movie was. They knew what punk rock was even if they weren't punks. The kids - they didn't really know about punk. But they were so happy to when I gave them certain movies to watch, "The Filth And The Fury," and books about The Roxy, which was the first punk club. And it's funny because I didn't ask them not to wash, which was...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...Much more common back then 'cause, you know, I didn't want to do that to the poor dressers and the other actors.

SHAPIRO: You know, punks and rockers have used alien imagery for a long time, David Bowie most notably but lots of others, too. What do you think happens when you introduce actual aliens into this world of punks?

MITCHELL: They kind of take on the form of what aliens might look like to humans in the '70s. So they have rubber suits. They have geometric patterns. They're unnaturally interesting-looking, you know, quite beautiful, physical specimens. And they're confronted with grubby, messy, bloody, sexy fragrances of bodily fluids and secretions that is repellent for most of them but is like catnip for Zan, our alien heroine.


FANNING: (As Zan) Do more punk to me.

MITCHELL: So the aliens are - in the tradition of aliens-on-Earth-movie - learns something from the humans, and the humans learn something from the aliens. It is, you know, our "Contact" or our "Close Encounters" but with much more of a sense of humor and zany, midnight movie, '70s vibe.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about Nicole Kidman's character because she was not in the original Neil Gaiman short story. She was created from whole cloth. If people have seen her in "Big Little Lies," this character is basically the exact opposite of that (laughter).

MITCHELL: Yes, Nicole - Philippa, our writer, wrote a character named Allison who became Boadicea 'cause 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. 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. You know, she's much bawdier and brave.


NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) Right, then. Right, then, you crowd, shut it. Tonight I am delighted to announce that The Dyschords will be welcoming a guest singer who will also be modeling some of my...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where's Slap?

KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) Shut your gaping gob. He's on probation.

SHAPIRO: Just to give people an image of Boadicea, Nicole Kidman's character, we're talking about spiky silver and black hair and a high collar piece that's made entirely out of zippers and very strong eyeliner. She's somebody you don't mess with.

MITCHELL: No. 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, you know, forced her into a non-comfortable zone with our rock 'n' roll filming techniques because, you know, she got hit in the head with a guitar, and one the actors kept spitting in her face by accident. And she...

SHAPIRO: Oh, God, really?

MITCHELL: ...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.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MITCHELL: Yeah. And I kept it in the film.


KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) What are you, suicidal?

MARTIN TOMLINSON: (As Slap) You remind me of my mum. Bo, I'm a golden goose.

KIDMAN: (As Queen Boadicea) You haven't laid a golden egg yet, have you? I've had it, Slap.

TOMLINSON: (As Slap) So where's the afterparty?

SHAPIRO: Your films have almost always been about outsiders, whether it was "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," which is about a transgender woman from East Berlin, or "Shortbus," which is about sexual outsiders in a different way. This movie is much less explicitly queer, but do you still see a connection with the other feature films you've made?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, you know, for me rock 'n' roll and punk are queer. There's a queerness about rock 'n' roll and gender bending. But I do think of "How To Talk To Girls" as a queer film. It's the - 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.

So I think "How To Talk To Girls" is definitely a part of my, you know, landscape and the things that I'm interested in. I'm - 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.

SHAPIRO: John Cameron Mitchell, thank you so much for talking with us about your new movie.

MITCHELL: You're welcome, Ari.


SHAPIRO: The film is called "How To Talk To Girls At Parties." John Cameron Mitchell is the director and co-screenwriter.


THE DYSCHORDS: (Singing) The city is (unintelligible). She's singing, I love you, oh, oh, oh, oh. I had a planned adolescence. Why don't you rest? (Unintelligible).

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.