John Cameron Mitchell is the master of midnight movies. “All of my movies are midnight movies,” says the filmmaker behind cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “Except Rabbit Hole [which follows a couple after the death of their son], which is more of a ‘late afternoon movie.’”
Mitchell goes back to his glam-rock roots with How To Talk To Girls at Parties, a punk rock sci-fi fantasy based on a short story by Neil Gaiman. Set in Croydon (“The trashy New Jersey of the London area”), a lonely teenager, Enn (Alex Sharp), falls for a stranger he meets at a party (Elle Fanning) and learns that she’s a member of a tribe of cultish, new wave aliens.
“I’m a big fan of subcultures and tribes, and outsiders,” Mitchell tells EW. “The punks and the aliens being two very different kinds of outsiders interfacing through, of course, romantic love — the Romeo and Juliet story, timeless, heartbreaking — brings up politics, sexual, and gender stuff: all the things I’m interested in.”
Whereas in the original short story, the aliens Enn meets at the party are, at first glance, normal humans, the aliens in Mitchell’s film dress like moving sculptures at an avant-garde art gallery. “I said to my designers, let’s think of aliens in the ’70s. So of course latex and rubber and geometric shapes, new wave, which is just post-punk—The B-52s, The Human League, Gary Numan. The whole punk world and Croydon, we had very little color: the punks are all in blacks and whites and grayscale, and the only color is really the aliens. Or, the British flag because it was the Silver Jubilee, which was the big patriotic festival at the time. And the aliens disguise themselves in British flag ponchos, so as to blend in. And then we ended up having an accidental Brexit metaphor, when they’re filing off the edge of a building in British flags to avoid contamination.”
The end of the film includes another real-world parallel: an aged-up Enn is styled to look suspiciously like Neil Gaiman himself. “We really used a lot of elements of his own life for the character Enn — that he made a zine and was a budding comic book writer, Neil had a punk band that someone wanted to sign when he was 16, and he lived in Croydon,” said Mitchell. “All of these things sort of made this an alternative history of Neil Gaiman. So when we arrive in the ’90s, and Enn’s clearly a character that’s grown into a Neil Gaiman, it’s always a big laugh from the audience, at least from the people who know Neil.”
And that’s not the only celebrity connection: “Those are actually Leonardo DiCaprio’s latex eye bags under his eyes. It was the same makeup and hair designer as Wolf of Wall Street, and when Leonardo DiCaprio had to age, we reused those eyebags under Alex’s eyes.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is in theaters Friday.