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Hard to describe but easy to enjoy, Hedwig and The Angry Inch comes from the theatre – very big, very successful New York theatre. One of its creators (and star), John Cameron Mitchell, describes it as it a post-punk neo-glam rock musical. There you have it.

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 prostitute."

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 before."

"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 Mitchell.

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 says.

"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

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