John Cameron Mitchell on How to Talk to Girls at Parties — When the Girls Are Aliens

The creator of ”Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has adapted Neil Gaiman’s short story into a film about the off-kilter universe of teenage romance.

Tony Award recipient John Cameron Mitchell, director of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Tony Award recipient John Cameron Mitchell, director of How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
(© David Gordon)

In Neil Gaiman's 2006 short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a teenager named Enn (Tony winner Alex Sharp) encounters a party full of beautiful girls who are enigmatically not what they seem. In John Cameron Mitchell's new film adaptation of the tale, the story expands as the young, punk-rock enthusiast finds himself falling in love with Zan (Elle Fanning), one of those mysterious visitors from another world.

At a glance (especially if you're glancing at the movie poster) How to Talk to Girls at Parties might seem like an alien movie or a punk film, and it's both of those things. But in this recent interview about the project, Mitchell discusses the points of connection between the story's "submerged" themes of punk-style anarchy and the blossoming of first love.

Why did you decide to take this project on?

I wanted to make my teenage love story, my '70s midnight movie. Obviously we weren't trying to re-create the era because you know I don't remember aliens being part of it, but it's a love story and it's got some submerged philosophical thoughts about first love and parenting and the individual versus community.

And everyone's an alien when you're 17, right? Everyone you're attracted to is an alien. And every person is an alien. The goal is to find the things you have in common with the aliens — what can you learn from the aliens and what can they learn from you.

One of our taglines is "Evolve or die." And what's missing for the aliens? Wouldn't it be what could come from punk, could come from humanity? The messiness of humanity, the messiness of love.

The idea of first love works so beautifully as a metaphor in this film.

First love shakes you up and shatters everything you've learned as a child. How you react to it is very formative, and it can be very disastrous. But it also is the beginning of your life as an adult. And the metaphor of losing your virginity is a broad metaphor. It can be scary, it can be scarring, it can be opening — as it is for Zan and for Enn. It can lead to pregnancy. It can lead to the birth of a way of life. We're saved by love, we're saved by sex. We can also be destroyed by it if we're not careful, but it's the one thing that forces us into places that we've never been.

What was the process like when you decided to adapt the story?

Philippa [Goslett], the first writer, really broke the hymen — to continue the virginity metaphor — of the story by interviewing Neil about his own youth. And Neil told us about his life growing up in Croydon, UK, as a teenage punk rocker with a band and a zine, breaking into clubs where he wasn't allowed and writing about his favorite punk stars as a budding writer. So we made Enn into Neil and this is really an alternative history of Neil Gaiman.

What are you most proud of in the film?

I think it's the journey. It starts out as a horny teenagers thing with sexist overtones and in the end everyone evolves, and our hero and heroine become parents to a new breed that might be a kind of salvation.