There is no doubt that John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the creators of the
hottest musical that New York City had seen in years, had a challenge on their hands. The
off-Broadway production of Hedwig and The Angry Inch was a huge success, having received
raves from both critics and audiences. This innovative and groundbreaking piece of theatre
had left audiences wanting more. 'More' manifested itself into a full length CD and
numerous studios wanting to bring Hedwig to the big screen.
"just two people with shared interests"
Mitchell and Trask first met on a plane, where, having decided not to watch the
in-flight movie, they started to talk. They spoke about their mutual careers; John's in
the theatre and Stephen's in music and how each admired the medium of the other. After
that first meeting, the two began spending time together and soon recognised a common
dream. "It was the way you hear people start bands, except we were starting a play.
He'd come over to my house or I'd go over to his house. Just two people with shared
interests, talking about the things that they love and then starting to work on a project
and really pushing and prodding each other," says Trask.
Out of their collaboration the "internationally ignored songstress" Hedwig
was born. Mitchell wrote the monologues and starred as Hedwig, while Trask composed the
songs and lyrics and starred as Skszp. Micthell's band Cheater then joined in creating
Hedwig and The Angry Inch which made its New York City debut at the punk rock drag night
of Squeezebox, a local rock and roll club. A fan base established itself almost instantly
and with it the need for a larger venue.
When Mitchell and Trask moved the production to a West Village theatre, it immediately
became the buzz of the town. Celebrities turned out in droves. After performing on Late
Night with David Letterman, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, MTV, being featured on the cover of
Time Out and written up in Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine, Micthell and Trask received
requests for the show from around the world.
Watching the theatre performance, Killer Films was immediately impressed. Producer
Katie Roumel recalls how "the whole company went to see the show and we were all
really charged and excited about it. In was incredibly rich. So much of the dialogue and
jokes has double meanings or referred back to something and John gave an amazing,
compelling performance. The show was very funny but very poignant and smart at the same
time." Producer Christine Vachon, who along with Pamela Koffler founded Killer Films,
(and has produced such critically acclaimed and pop culture inspired films as I Shot Andy
Warhol and Velvet Goldmine), believed that Hedwig and The Angry Inch belonged on the big
screen. "I saw the potential of how it could open up. I mean what is great film? It's
a great story well told. I thought there was a really incredible narrative line that could
even be better served cinematically then theatrically" says Vachon.
Killer Films, which has produced Todd Solondz's Happiness and Kimberly Peirce's Academy
Award-winning Boys Don't Cry, is known for taking risks on novice directors as well as
liking controversial material. "It's really exciting working with a first time
director. Their lack of experience can mean that they aren't aware of what the imitations
are. If you know what the problems are, and know what to fear, you don't open yourself up
in a way that you do when you're treading on territory you haven't been on before. I think
Killer Films has a really good knack for supporting a director – lending them our
experience without clouding their vision," says producer Pamela Koffler.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind at Killer Films that Mitchell was the man to direct
this film. "It was obvious that John is the type of first time director that we are
really good at producing for. He created this character, he knew the story intimately and
he was well prepared. It is a perfect first time director experience in a lot of
ways," says Koffler. "John is Hedwig, he's intimate with the character and the
material and there was no question he would make a great director," Vachon agrees.
"Bullshit only happens when you have the time and the
money to indulge it"
According to Mitchell, Killler Films and Hedwig and The Angry Inch were a perfect
match; "Killer has made some of the most interesting movies in the last ten years.
Their group is very hands-on. They think the same way I do. There's no bullshit, and
there's no time for it, 'cause you don't have enough money,' he says bluntly.
"Bullshit only happens when you have the time and the money to indulge it," he
adds with a laugh.
The inspiration for Hedwig and The Angry Inch arose spontaneously out of Mitchell and
Trask's early collaboration. Mitchell explains: "I had become bored with doing the
usual guest star sitcom work and was interested in writing a solo performance piece
incorporating rock music. I had some autobiograhical images, a few characters, and a myth
from Plato's Symposium. And then I met Stephen who is an amazing composer and he took that
myth and wrote the song The Origin of Love."
The piece took a strange turn when Trask urged Mitchell to develop one of the
peripheral characters who was inspired by a woman from Mitchell's past. "She was my
brother's baby sitter. She was German and divorced from an American G.I. She became
friends with my friend Brenda and I, when we were 14 and living in Kansas. She had a
trailer we went to and she'd give us drinks," he says with a laugh. "She had a
lot of dates and I couldn't figure out why she was so popular, because she was not overly
attractive, although she did have a certain poise. In retrospect, I realised she was a
When Mitchell told Trask this story, Trask suggested that she be adapted to be a
nightclub singer, a frustrated would-be rock star who once performed with the male rocker
when he was a teenager. They began workshopping her at a drag club where Trask was music
director and she very quickly became a hit - as well as the main character.
Even though Hedwig and The Angry Inch is not autobiographical, she shares many things
with her creators. "I moved around a lot as a kid," says Mitchell. "I was
an Army brat and moved almost every year. So there's a sense of displacement and
disorientation like I've always been on tour or something. Hedwig is sort of a balm to
that feeling of rootlessness and homelessness that came up when I was younger. Plus I get
to rock out and I get to do drag for awhile," he smiles. "I had never done drag
"the film goes places the stage play never could"
Trask also saw his experiences as a musician come to life in Hedwig. "The
struggling musician side of Hedwig comes from me," Trask laughs. "How she
constantly turns back to her love for rock and roll music as inspiration even when things
aren't going well. You know, the sad struggling musician who believes in the music and
keeps on going."
Mitchell agreed with Vachon, for he had always envisioned Hedwig on celluloid.
"When I started writing for stage, I actually saw it more cinematically. There were
jokes, or visual cuts I had in mind. And I thought 'Oh it would be so much easier if we
could just show an image, you know a picture is worth a thousand words," states
He realises now that the challenge of translating the images to prose for stage would
later prove important for the script. "Conjuring up images through words really made
me hone the words. I worked on them for years, polishing them, but now I can also go back
to my original images in my head and slowly pare away some of the voiceover," he
"The play was in the form of a rock gig and the film is in the form of a rock
tour. So the structure for the film is the band on tour and then flashbacks. The play was
talking to the audience and then telling stories from memory," he explains. The film
depicts what could only be referred to in the play, including such characters as the
band's enthusiastic manager Phyllis Stein and the young rock-star Tommy Gnosis. "The
joys of live theatre performance will never be duplicated in this film but the film goes
places the stage play never could," says Mitchell.
When it comes to trying to label Hedwig And The Angry Inch in typical 'Hollywood
speak,' most of the people involved are baffled. "It's always hard to explain
it," says Mitchell. "Is it a Merchant Ivory costume piece? Is it an action
drama? Is it a romantic comedy? A romantic thriller? It does defy description and because
of that I think it is a little more precious to me and to the people who like it."
"a post-punk neo-glam rock musical"
However, when pressed Mitchell does say that he "sometimes calls it a post-punk
neo-glam rock musical." Or more, "a character who goes on a quest to find out
who he/she is and what that means… yes, I think an odyssey may be best way to
describe it," Mitchell finally admits.
Published November 1, 2001