Fri, Sep 22, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Everybody in the room has to take their clothes off

Actors in John Cameron Mitchell's `Shortbus' gave it all -- nakedness, sexual intimacy and frank abandon -- for the sake of art


From left, actors Raphael Barker and Sook-Yin Lee with John Cameron Mitchell, director of Shortbus.


In the crazy and no doubt kinky history of casting calls, there have surely been few like the one for Shortbus. It was all about sex, but not because the actors were coming on to the director. And not because the director was looking for big-name hotties to lure audiences into theaters. He wanted people whose sexual histories and hangups might become fodder for the screenplay. He wanted erotically adventurous recruits for an expedition to what he saw as an unexplored confluence of drama, comedy and unblinking pornography.

And so, on a Web site for what he cryptically called "the sex film project," the director, John Cameron Mitchell, solicited videotapes "of no longer than 10 minutes of you, the actor, talking about a true-life sexual experience that was very important to you." Any actor averse to having sex on camera, he added, need not apply.

Raphael Barker applied. On his tape he reminisced about a school trip to Spain when he was 12, and about an older boy there who taught him to masturbate. Lee Sook-yin applied. On her tape she talked about her struggle to become comfortable enough in her own body to experience sexual pleasure.

For them and the other half dozen other people cast in principal roles in the movie (which opens in New York on Oct. 4), the audition tapes were only the beginning of an odyssey that got no more ordinary -- and no less risque -- after that.

The unusual process occasionally blurred the line between reality and illusion. During improvisation workshops and rehearsals with Mitchell, the writer, director and star of the movie Shortbus, actors drew on aspects of their own lives to create their characters. Lee, for example, plays a woman searching for her first orgasm.

While Mitchell is credited with the final screenplay for Shortbus, the cast shares credit with him for the story. From the beginning, he said in a recent interview, "I realized that for the actors not to feel exposed, they would have to be co-creators with me of the piece. So that dictated how we were going to make it."

To overcome their inhibitions, they at one point found themselves playing a 100-person game of Spin the Bottle, replete with special tools to determine where, in a circle that large, the bottle was pointing. "We had a T-square and a tape measure," said Mitchell, who has a choirboy's face, a librarian's voice and a twinkle that suggests all the mischief just under the surface.

Much later on, when rehearsing a nude scene, Lee made a special request: "How about everybody in the room has to take their clothes off?" Mitchell, a cameraman and a few others obligingly stripped, and then they all got on with their work.

Although it has the style, pacing, oddball characters and unknown cast of many low-budget independent movies, Shortbus, which is unrated in the US, has sex scenes as graphic as those in a hard-core skin flick. That ensures it will be kept out of most theaters, but it also ensures attention that most films made on such a modest budget (about US$2 million) could not achieve.

Its characters orbit around a weekly Manhattan salon and sex party called Shortbus, named for the vehicle that ferries special-ed children to school. Lee's character, a couples counselor named Sofia, is brought to the party by two gay men, clients of hers who become the sponsors of her quest for sexual fulfillment. The two men meanwhile are searching for a third man to join them in bed and lend spark to their cooling relationship.

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