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John Cameron Mitchell: People of the Year 2001

His drag-queen rock opera made for one of the year’s best films

John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch

John Cameron Mitchell in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'

courtesy of Fine Line Features/Getty Images

Six years after John Cameron Mitchell and musician Stephen Trask hatched the idea for a rock opera about a German transsexual with a one-inch schlong, and three years after the stage version opened off-Broadway, the film of Hedwig and the Angry Inch finally hit theaters this summer. In addition to winning the Audience Prize at this year’s Sundance festival, the movie won a Best Director Award for Mitchell, who also wrote the screenplay and starred as Hedwig. A future cult classic destined to lead a long life on DVD and video, Hedwig — a bittersweet story about finding love by looking inward — will likely be remembered as the work that first hinted at the depth of Mitchell’s remarkable creativity. In the coming year, he’ll focus on two projects: an animated film with musician Julian Koster of the indie-rock group Neutral Milk Hotel, and a movie with “lots of sex” in it. “Hopefully, I’ll end up surprising the people who thought they were buying porn, with something emotional,” Mitchell says. “Catch ’em with their pricks stiff.”

What was the high point of your year?
Winning the Best Director Award at Sundance, because it was such a wonderful surprise and we had just finished the film. And my boyfriend was there, and family was nearby, and all the people I’ve worked with were there. It was just a perfect validation of everything we’d done.

What do you consider the defining pop-culture moment of this year?
The fact that Wilco couldn’t release their new album because they got dropped. What the hell is going on with the major labels? But I think it is an augury of good music coming out of independent labels in the future. They all got swallowed up years ago by the majors, and now they are finally free to do something really interesting. And obviously the war that we are in now is the other thing that will hopefully make artistic people say, “What have I been doing? Is it really of any use?”

But don’t you think there’s a fine line between that attitude and artists censoring themselves too much?
Those who will censor themselves because they are afraid are probably doing that already. But I think for the serious people, it’s going to make them go deeper into wherever they are going. You can make serious pop, you know? There was a time when the best movies were the most popular, and I keep thinking that can happen again.

Were you here in New York on September 11th?
I was in Scotland. I wanted to be here because I was watching TV alone in a house. And I felt very, very far from people I loved. Thank God for e-mail. I stayed away for a couple of weeks, and since then I’ve been really happy to be back. Even though it’s a different city, it feels like a better city, strangely. New York is so unique, and you are not always encouraged to consider the people in the city your neighbors because of the fast pace and surface anonymity. But, you know, a lot of these people came here or stayed here because they felt somewhat alienated from someone else, including all the immigrants, all the artists, all the fags, all the students. And that is a really strong bond, even if you don’t have a family union with these people. I had been thinking of spending more time away from the city, and now I want to spend more time in the city.

Do you wish you’d done anything differently this year?
Je ne regrette rien. I don’t regret anything, because I feel better every year, and if I’d done something different, maybe I wouldn’t. I’m more of a whole person, the older I get. 

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