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Big Think Interview With John Cameron Mitchell

Question: How do you transition between roles when you’re acting and directing?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, the only thing I directed myself in was "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and that was very hard to do two at the same time.  It was also writing, it was, you know, it was too many hats at the same time.  But I had to do it because I’d written it for myself and there was a sense of inventing it as I go along because I hadn’t really done it before, the directing side.  I had played the role before on stage, was less interested in that, but sort of had to do it.  And I’d get all excited about the direction and forget that I’d have to go on in front of the camera, which was irritating, especially because I was in drag, and I had to get all that together.

So, there were very long days, we had a very short shoot, but I ended up having to watch a lot of stuff and playback to see if it was working... stuff that didn’t, you know... like a close up of myself, I could tell whether it was working or not, just internally, so I didn’t need to look at that, but the big picture stuff.  And it was really exhausting and I don’t think I ever want to do that again, but it taught me stuff that I, you know, can use to this day in knowing all the angles of filmmaking.

And I guess actors really trust me as a director because I know what they need, you know, having been one, but also, having worked with a lot different people with different processes, and the acting, I kind of, you know, I did it for about 20 years professionally and kind of burned out on it, but lately kind of wanting to feel those, you know, like I said, those cells working again, and I’m sure I’ll let it go again and do something else, end up writing a novel or something.

What do actors appreciate most in a director?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, the understanding that they’re partners and not just pawns, you know; that they have different processes from each other and from obviously other artists and craftsmen.  I think of actors, most actors are craftsmen, you know, they know how to build something, but they’re not necessarily creating the elements that you’re building with.  Like they don’t, you know, they didn’t create the tree, you know, from scratch, they put things together.  And there’s a small, special minority of actors that I think are artists, what they add to it is, pushes it into the realm of art.  Maybe those actors tend to be more self-directed, you know, some actors really need to be directed and edited to be their best and others are, can create something of a whole class, so in a way, they’re editing themselves, they’re writing a bit for themselves, they’re directing themselves and can make themselves, their performance into a kind of a sculpture that can stand on its own.  We’ve all seen films that the writing and the direction leave a lot to be desired, where a performance is quite stunning and can stand alone as a kind of a sculpture.

But actors, you know, are often suspicious of directors because directors tend to be afraid of them, you know, it’s the unknown quantity, it’s the immeasurable, you know, non-technical element, the talent that they, they tend to either just kind of not direct them at all and just hope, you know, something, and say "faster" or "funnier" or something.

I think the best directors of actors were actors or they’ve acted themselves, maybe taken a class or two, I think, you know, the best way for a director to find out about that process and not be afraid of it is to take an acting class for a, for a period of time, you know, for a few weeks, to see the, you know, excruciating position in an actor’s... that actors are often in and realizing that, you know, let the actor’s instincts be the first order of business, don’t over direct them too early, when they’re going in the wrong direction to know how to say very little to push them in the right direction, not over-direct them.

What do directors appreciate most in their actors?

John Cameron Mitchell: Well, there’s a lot of actors that are self-involved, you know, which is understandable.  There’s a kind of, you know, they are their tools, and get, forget that there are other people involved in a project.  You know, they appreciate actors that aren’t as needy, you know, that aren’t bringing their personal lives into the set, because it’s very difficult to be emotionally available all the time, and yet tough enough to deal with constant rejection and constant objectification, you know, and a lot of actors can get very caught up in what they look like and aren’t, you know, the lack of creativity between jobs, you know, the best actors that I like to work with have other creative interests.  You know, they’re writers or musicians and they don’t, they look at acting as another, very special, but it is just another job.  I mean, they should be, you know, no better than other craftsman on, treated no better than any other craftsman on the set.  But they’re usually coddled a lot more because they’re, the camera is on them.  And, that don’t get caught up in the, you know, in the money, the fame, the way it, you know, the way they appear to the world.  And generally theater, people who grew up in the theater, who developed in the theater, are the easiest to work with because they understand they’re part of a whole, they go to work regular hours, they’re team players.

Question: As a filmmaker, do you see yourself as an auteur or a part of a creative team?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, it’s nice to have the final say on things, but it’s very lonely if, I think, when you call yourself an auteur or a, you know, when people use that phrase, you know, that phrase at the beginning of the film, or a film by such and such, because as well as written and directed by, it’s like, people have this obsession with kind of, how many times can I get my name, you know, in the credits?  That feels very pretentious to me, so I’ve always eschewed that idea.

You know, to me, the collaboration is very important, you know, I... it’s important to be able to celebrate with somebody at the end of the day.  But, knowing you have the final say in creative matters is important as well.   I mean, I’ve worked as a person for hire, as well as the person who’s in, you know, in charge, and I prefer the in charge.  In a way, you are more open to input if you have the comfort of knowing that you have the final say.  It’s the people who always think they’re going to get fucked is, are the ones that get fucked.  The ones that are afraid of, you know, the studio or someone just clamping down, or the star, you know, crushing some beautiful idea, tend to have this attitude of, "You’re going to hurt me" and looking for trouble rather, so that notes aren’t received in a very open way.  They’re, you know, there’s a knee-jerk reaction against them.  People don’t always know that.

But when you have a director who does have the final say, within budget, they tend to be more relaxed and really open to what could very well be good notes.  You know, and I like all kinds of input, I have a lot of screenings; I have friends, I have strangers, you know, giving me their opinion, as long as I know I’m not going to be forced into something, that’s important to me.  Obviously when you get into larger budgets, you have less of that freedom and I just, I’m not a person that tends to make stories for those larger budgets.  To me, it’s not much fun to have that kind of pressure.  So I don’t know if I’ll, I’ve been pretty good at saying no to stuff where I know it’s going to be trouble, no matter how much money or glamor is involved.

Was “Hedwig” harder to produce as a play or a film?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Oh, well, you know, it was in all kinds of forms, other than those two, I mean, it started out, like really like a band, you know, in rock clubs and was in a more of a cabaret setting, it was in a sort of pseudo-cabaret theater setting, then it was a theater, then it was a film, and it’s been in concert, you know, which is a whole different thing.  We’re preparing to have it on Broadway, which will be a different... so to me, I don’t, I don’t differentiate them by, in terms of, you know, one’s more successful than the other.  They all have their challenges, they all have their rewards, and to me, they’re complementary.

So I just enjoy being able to, to try it in different venues and also enjoyed seeing other people do it as well.  I’m never micromanaging about other productions.  Some people get very uptight about protecting their property, and "it can only be done this way."  To me, that kind of kills it, makes it a museum piece.

What was the personal significance of the “Hedwig” story for you?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, you know, it was really my composer and I, I mean, from the beginning, I mean, I was playing around with some ideas and new I wanted to make a rock theater piece with the Plato’s story of the origin of love as the central metaphor and met with a few composers and then Steven Trask, the songwriter, came on, and we really developed it for many years together. So, bits and pieces of both of our lives came, came through, his struggling music career, my growing up on the army bases, it’s not really an autobiographical story in terms of facts, but it’s definitely emotionally auto-biographically.  Moving around a lot as a kid, and my father being the military commander in Berlin before the wall came down and... there was, you know, there was a woman who was our babysitter, a German divorcée living in a trailer park, who was my brother’s babysitter and a prostitute on the side and I didn’t really clock that until later.  But she was the original inspiration for Hedwig and then, you know, other characters in my life were grafted on her.  But, you know, probably her, her aesthetic came from other people, but her emotional core just came from my own, you know, sort of feeling like a citizen of the world kind of seeking out inner, you know, interaction and connection in a chaotic kind of, you know, sort of, I don’t know what to call it.  Kind of an understanding that we’re all very much these hybrids of all the people that we’ve met, you know?  And men, women, lovers, mothers, fathers, and reinterpreting the myth of the origin of love as a kind of collage of all the people we know, rather than just two halves.

So, you know, it’s still something that, my interpretation of changes, you know, when I look at it, as I age, you know.

Now that “Hedwig” is returning to the stage, do you view the show differently?

John Cameron Mitchell:  I don’t know yet, because I haven’t really, you know, entered that realm yet.  It’s interesting to think about it in terms of writing and directing, but I really don’t know till I get there.  But it’s a kind of an ageless character, could be, you know, she really could be telling her story at any given time, you know, in her life and, you know, I could be doing it in a wheelchair at some point.  But I don’t, I don’t know.  We’ll see.

What is love, and does the experience of love different between LGBT and straight culture?

John Cameron Mitchell: Well, there’s, you know, obviously different kinds of love and the Greeks had all different terms for it.  And in the strongest relationships we have, those kinds of love inter, you know, they are simultaneous, they ebb and flow, sometimes they’re all there at the same time.  You know, eros and agape, which is the more, sort of love of mankind, you know, selfless kind of love.  And philia, which is a kind of deeper, sort of non-sexual affinity.  And, you know, so I don’t really have any, there’s no rules that I’ve learned about the ebb and flow of those experiences.  I mean, we know that, we seem to learn some things from relationships that don’t always seem to work the next time around.  I mean, you try to avoid patterns and we learn about ourselves, you know, over time.  Oh, I married my mom again or I, you know, I made that mistake again.  It’s strange but it’s, you know, you hopefully learn along the way what is useful, what isn’t useful, and then the next time someone comes around, you forget it all.  So, I don’t know.

You know, there’s an understanding of different kinds of connection and as long as you don’t mistake one for the other, I think that’s useful.  You know, there’s an infatuation with someone, there’s the depth of a long relationship or friendship or love relationship that feels very different and in the is perhaps the most valuable.

And there’s, there’s a kind of a hard-won wisdom that maybe comes out of all those, all those relationships, while ultimately, you know, are trying to help you understand what it means to love yourself and to love the time alone.  At the end of "Hedwig," there’s this fragmented face that kind of comes together as she seems to find a certain wholeness in herself internally rather than by defining herself as a half and seeking another half.  You know, when you are defining, when you’re thinking of a lover as someone who completes you, it almost disrespects them and yourself, by calling both of you incomplete or you’re nothing but something to, you know, fill the wound.  You know, to cover the, you know, to, as something complementary rather than respecting someone as a whole.  And that might not always be useful, even though it’s very powerful for people.  So, you know, it’s an ongoing, it’s an ongoing understanding and quest and I hope there’s, what’s nice about Hedwig is that it doesn’t define anything too strongly and seems to have different interpretations across cultures.  You know, being in different countries and people’s reaction to the myth and to "Hedwig" is really interesting, it feels international.

What’s a situation in which your ideas about sexual preference have been challenged or changed?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, maybe, you know, I grew up in a military, very conservative Catholic background and certain things are considered received wisdom and not to be questioned, and of course that, you know, can be very comforting for some, but it sort of scared me.  And I knew I was different, in terms of my sexuality quite young, and having sort of an understanding that I probably deal with that later, at some point, it was an understanding, that I wasn’t really ready to do that until the end of college... which was, was a strange time to come out because AIDS had just hit, you know, and it was a complicated time and life and death was involved.

But also I was very excited about entering the world as an adult and a sexual being and someone who could actually be loved or love someone. Because I wasn’t really into girls, so I didn’t really have that outlet or opportunity to feel those things.  So I was like the first generation of people who came out, understanding that safe sex was important.  And people just a couple years older than me were dying, so, you know, even a year older, and it was very strange.  And I was an actor and at that time in the early ‘80’s, you just didn’t really come out, you know, and still it’s very uncommon for actors to talk about their sexuality lest they be discriminated against and people think, oh, well, you’re gay so you can’t play straight, though if you’re straight and you play gay, that’s generally a requirement for a major award.

So I thought, it was a strange, you know, intensity about it, it seemed stupid to be scared and in the closest, you know, thinking about being in the closet when people were dying and Reagan was doing so little and it was a, again, it was people who weren’t exactly my peers who were dying. So it was a very strange, but exciting time to be hitting your adolescence at, you know, at that very serious time.

And when you, you know, when you’re young, you think you know stuff and you don’t. And about relationships, certainly there’s a, you know, you can read about how things are, how things go, and that’s our first way of, you know, or now in a more, perhaps more visual, cinematic way.  You do your research on what you’re supposed to, you know, what you’re supposed to learn about love, about life, about everything.  And you have these pre-formed opinions, and especially now, in this information age, there’s a kind of false, false wisdom or predigested kind of, "Well, what do you think?"  You know, and it’s like your comment on the, you know, post a comment on... “Will North Korea attack? You vote!”  You know, and it’s like this sort of false, kind of like, knowledge that people foist on you and you’re supposed to have it, you know, you’re on Facebook and you’re supposed to know your sexual orientation at 13.  It’s like, I, nobody really knows what’s going on at that time and people seem to, you know, seem to know stuff or they have to act like they do, and they make decisions before they really need to and it’s a strange, a strange thing.

So I did that a bit, too, and then, you know, the older you get, you realize the less you know and you know some things.  And I guess the key thing is to... don’t make a decision based on some fear of the unknown.  And I make decisions based on fear of the known all the time, I mean, that’s what the voting booth is hopefully for.  But if it’s something based on fear of the unknown, it’s probably a bad decision, that’s the only thing I know.

Who was the first person you came out to, and how did that experience shape you?

John Cameron Mitchell:  I think I told a woman that was on top of me in high school... at this Catholic school, but not really that gay—it’s interesting, though, there was a guy, the first guy that I had sex with was at a, on a speech tournament trip, you know, I was in Albuquerque and the trip was through Roswell and we sort of, unspoken, you know, got the same bed in the motel and kind of fooled around, but there were people in the other bed so we had to be very quiet and I didn’t really like him that much, he was kind of, you know, silly, but I sort of had to get this over with.

And years later I went back to my college, or my high school, my drama teacher, I thanked her for that, you know, helping me get through that, she was sort of embarrassed and I said, “This guy, Danny, was, I remember, and a few sort of fumbling attempts,” and then at the school, she wanted me talk about "Hedwig," which was very strange because it was a very conservative Catholic school and she could’ve got in trouble and she wanted me to talk about being gay and Matthew Shepherd and, you know, it was in English class, all the kids were silent and terrified and then the bell rang, they all left, and a couple people stayed—you know, like the punk rocker and the little homo and the little musical theater girl, and my, you know, my people.  And some more kids stayed and we talked about this and that, it was very exciting.  And I was remembering what it was like at that age, you know, to hear somebody different, you know, at that—talk with authority or some, some empathy.

And then there was a teacher in the back of the room, sort of sitting back there looking kind of like a narc, you know, and he came down, I was like, “Oh, my drama teacher is going to get fired because this is a Catholic school and priests are in charge and some of them are molesting people.” It was just like this nightmare of Catholic rigidity and misogyny.  He came forward, and he was kind of a well-built, big guy and I said, reached out my hand and said, “I’m John Mitchell,” and he said, “Don’t you recognize me?  I’m Danny.”  It was the guy from the Roswell motel room.  And he said, “I’m a student teacher here now.”  And I looked at my drama teacher and she’s like, didn’t know what was going on.  And he got all nervous and then I said, “Walk me to my car,” and then I said, “We should have dinner,” and he’s like, “I can’t, I can’t, you know?”  And I was like, “Oh, God, get me out of here.”  And we, I said, “How about lunch?”  And he said, “I could do that.”  You know, and we hung out and the next day, and he suddenly was really cool, he was, he had, he was gay and he had gone to San Francisco for many years and got married to a guy and wanted to come back and teach at his old school, this conservative school, because that’s where he thought he was needed, you know?  You know, he might very well get fired from that Catholic school, but he was, left that up to them.  And I was, like, looking at him and thinking about my drama teacher and it was like, these are people who are really doing the good work, you know? They’re not preaching to the converted, they’re in a place where they’re needed rather than just shoring up with like-minded people and hiding off in your Web site or your town that’s safely liberal or this, or safely conservative, or whatever it is, they’re actually interacting and it was very moving, you know?  And I realized how much importance that can have for those kids that come in contact with those cool people.

Question: Should gay identity be fully integrated into mainstream culture?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, I don’t know if the Radical Faerie thing is a, I’ve been to some gatherings, a lot of my friends have been to gatherings, you know, friends live in this commune-like environment, I’m not so much hardcore into that, but I really appreciated that input in my life of people who think that your, you know, queerness, which I define as not necessarily having to do with sexuality, you can certainly be straight and be queer.  To me, it’s like an understanding of the world that isn’t limited by received notions of genders.  Like looking at the world through a prism of understanding the fluidity of gender and sexuality, which can manifest itself in humor and art, you know, sort of a queer sensibility, or it can also affect how you look at, you know, the way you interact with the earth, you know, with the world.  When you understand there’s a fluidity, perhaps you integrate your life more with how, you know, perhaps interact in a more sustainable way with the earth or, I’m not sure how that necessarily transmits itself, but it does in the Radical Faerie movement or "community."

And so I learned a lot from people who lived in these communes, you know, in the gatherings, they had kind a queer Burning Man feeling.  And it’s much less ageist and though it tends to be more men, I could do with a more, with a more diverse, you know, diversity in gender.  The more mixed a crowd, the better the party, you know, in terms of... because when there’s too many men in one space, you get too much of that energy, of sexual energy, or kind of competitive energy.  Just as too many, perhaps too many women in a room, there’s a different, too much sameness doesn’t always make a good, you know, it’s not a good recipe for balance.

But I do appreciate their understanding that, you know, being different isn’t a privilege, you know, it’s not, I don’t necessarily feel a pride in being different in that way, but there’s a pride in what you do with it, you know?  And certainly shame can be, can rub off from culture and self-hatred can rub off from culture and fear of, you know, misogyny and femininity in men and, you know, all these, these things that make you not like yourself when you’re young can’t, oddly that separateness can be a great mine of material when you’re seeking to create yourself as an individual.  Unfortunately, the more acceptance there is, yes, there are fewer kids killing themselves because of the Internet and acceptance of gays in the world as a natural variation, but there’s also a real embarrassing kind of conformism that comes with acceptance.  You know, acceptance and assimilation, you know, breeds mediocrity and perhaps an even more sheep-like, conformism in terms of what kind of music you’re supposed to listen to if you’re gay, what are you supposed to look like?  What’s your body supposed to look like?  How are you supposed to have sex?  How are you supposed to vote—can get very boring and very, you get a lot of unexamined lives. And that’s unfortunately the result of assimilation and acceptance, but it’s one that has to happen if there’s to be more happiness, I think. 

Being queer is not enough, certainly, it’s not interesting enough.  And there’s probably, there’s a lot of great beautiful people in the world and good people.  But there’s fewer people that, that’s... maybe .001 percent that is actually interesting, whether they’re straight or gay or whatever, because they’ve chosen to forge their own way, examine their life a bit more, and not settle.

Why does musical theater continue to be such a popular genre?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, I think, probably the earliest theater was a musical, when they talk about Western theater coming out of Greek religious performance, the dithyramb, the bacchic, you know, rites. And that was movement and music oriented and singing and... so I don’t, you know, since then it maybe started to codify a little bit in the 20th century of what a musical was supposed to be... in terms of the kind of music and the subjects of the stories.  But anything that uses songs—I mean, there’s opera, which tends to be, you know, all song—but a musical tends to be a story that uses songs to propel a plot and evoke emotion and help the story in a way that a straight play does in a different way.

So I remember seeing a Robert Wilson piece that he did with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, called "The Black Rider," which was very, you know, as far from a Broadway musical as you could think, but it had dialogue, it had musical... it had songs, it had a linear, or somewhat linear narrative, and it was, I realized this was a musical.  You know, we were inspired by that, inspired by something a little bit less linear, like Sandra Bernhard’s "Without You I’m Nothing," and, you know, "Ziggy Stardust," "Tommy," which are much less linear narratives but have kind of a song cycle feel about them; and definitely from Broadway, which is, you know, much more linear narrative, which I prefer—or traditional narrative, not necessarily linear—with a beginning, middle, and end, and the, you know, the importance of arrival.  You know, some people like stories to meander and can just sort of, you know, reflect, when there’s a pretty image happening.  But I really need an escalating story; it doesn’t have to be fast, doesn’t have to be slow, but I need something going somewhere and arriving somewhere.  Not that the arrival has to be, you know, all loose ends tied up, but something that’s using metaphors, is extending the metaphor, that’s, you know, about something that’s investigating things that confound us, that interest us, that, and ultimately try to be productive or useful to the audience.  You know, not just a jerk-off... well, I mean, watching somebody jerk off can be useful, but not everybody.  And there’s a sense, you know, trying to figure things out, to make things better.  Maybe that’s just my utilitarian, kind of Catholic thing, is good works.  The stuff that I’m involved with has to be useful to me, but also to an audience.

Question: How do you avoid making a musical clichéd or over the top?

John Cameron Mitchell: 
You know, "over the top" implies it’s just, it’s too much for what it should be.  To me, "over the top" is a pejorative.  You can have something extremely heightened and highly stylized and it’s not "over the top" because it’s exactly what it should be, you know?  And "Hedwig" has elements that some people would call "over the top," but to me are just enough, you know, are just right.

And "Hedwig" was a conscious amalgamation of all elements of different stage performances, techniques like drag, which has a tradition, doesn’t necessarily stray—hasn’t always necessarily strayed lately into more serious themes, but certainly Shakespeare and then the Greeks, you know, there was elements of drag, men playing women, Kabuki, where serious things were examined. Also standup, stand up comedy; the rock show, the punk rock show, the conventions of that; performance art; and the well-made play, and, you know, a well-made Broadway musical.  So using elements of all of those, you know, and trying to keep the integrity of all of them.  But, having it be a whole, you know, a holistic kind of entity, was our goal, which meant that the stand-up had to be funny, the drag had to be, you know, using some of the comedic and the double entendres that you might come out of, the rock show, the bank had to be there, it couldn’t be under, you know, at the back of the stage, had to be up front, you know, the songs had to propel the plot, you know, and the characters, which is what Broadway, which is what Broadway musicals do well, and so, giving each of the forms their integrity, but also melding them in a way that was new.

Do you or your fans worry that your latest project will be too “mainstream”?

John Cameron Mitchell: Well, for me, "mainstream" is not necessarily a negative because when I grew up, mainstream films in the ‘70s were critically lauded and popular.  You know, in a theater there’d be "Godfather" movies and "Network" and "Nashville" and, you know, these were popular movies, these were mainstream movies.  "Cuckoo’s Nest" and "MASH" and these were all very iconoclastic films and often, what would be considered now art films and independent films on bigger budgets, starring major stars that looked like us.  These people looked like us, as opposed to now where stars are, you know, really kind of royalty or aliens and they look that way.

So, to me, I never separated "popular" from "good."  And, you know, because of economics I think it has separated and so it’s rare for me to go to a Hollywood film unless it really got recommendations from people I know, because I'm... just so disappointed usually when so much money is being spent, you tend to have a, go for the lowest common denominator in terms of quality.

But there is, you know, doing "The Rabbit Hole" really is, the budget was less than "Hedwig," it just happened to have major stars in it, and there was no distributor or studio involved, putting on commercial pressures, it was just the producers, who have a mainstream understanding and how you live in Hollywood, but who definitely had good taste.  So, in a way with "Rabbit Hole" we’re trying to make the kind of film that was a small, a quiet film about real people that was common in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s as a mainstream film.  You know, like "Ordinary People," or "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Shoot the Moon," or any number of serious-minded-but-mainstream film with mainstream stars, which is unusual right now. 

How can films stay artistically vital in the coming decades?

John Cameron Mitchell:  We’re in a strange pocket of time where we don’t know how films, films haven’t yet been, there’s no comprehensive way of delivering films digitally to everyone—i.e. all films on demand, quickly, easily, cheaply.  Movie theaters don’t have digital projection yet, which means there’s financial constraints for certain films that right now are doing well, but because of the economics, doesn’t make sense to make prints for other theaters.  It’s just better to show them on demand, in the theater, on DVD, as the day and date situation, which means everything, you know, you can see it in different forms all on the same day.  Which is what I see in HD Net and other companies are doing more, which may be the future, looks like the future.

So right now, people aren’t, can’t quite figure out how to make money on the small films, you know, there’s the fear that the product’s being devalued and people don’t feel like they have to pay for films the way they have for music over the last few years, so that’s going to be very difficult to... you know, will that change, will people... I think the only way it will change is if they figure out that technology immediately, and all the companies agreeing on a single way to deliver the films by broadband to people’s TV’s.

So, that kind of stuff is making, there’s probably a third the number of the films being made, small films, all films, than there were two years ago.  And they tend toward the giant, you know, 3D kind of thing, genre thing, Hollywood thing, or the other side, which is small films packed with stars, in a low budget, less than 10 million, and there’s also this opportunity for very cheap films to lead the way, perhaps in quality, but also in... economically, it’s like how they’re delivered.  So films made for less than half a million, you’ll see a lot more of.  You’ll see them over 100 million and less than a half a million and not as much in the middle.  Stars seem to be less important for what people want to see now than they used to be.  They don’t guarantee grosses any more, which I think in a way is probably a relief, but it’s confusing for the studios, people aren’t sure of where to put their money.

Unfortunately, it takes time for good filmmakers to develop, there’s not too many whose first films fully develop because you need so many skills, musical, actor, financial, visual, you know, it’s not just like writing a song, you can have people who are, you know, prodigies, musically, but in a way you have to have prodigies, people who can do all kinds of things in order to be a good director.  So, the first film isn’t always the best.  Once in a while you’ll have someone very unusual will come out, like Jonathan Caouette, who did "Tarnation," or you know, Tarantino... when he, you know, "Reservoir Dogs," or someone who seems to have mastered it on their first go, and those are very, those are rare.  But it’s, you know, the David Lynches of the world and Scorsese and such made a lot of shorts and made some early films that were finding their way before they made their "Taxi Driver" or their, you know, "Blue Velvet."

So, it’s easier to make films now, technologically, financially, you know, the equipment is there for young people to do it.  There is the Internet for distribution, but how do you make money while you’re doing it, is the piece of the puzzle that’s still to be figured out.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

A conversation with the filmmaker, actor, and writer.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

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  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."