PROVINCETOWN — “Do you watch porn today?” John Waters asked.
Sitting in front of more than 100 festival attendees at the Provincetown International Film Festival, John Cameron Mitchell laughed. “I do, I do,” he said.
“But there’s no good porn stars anymore. It shouldn’t be free, you need that guilt!” Waters replied, to whoops and laughter from the audience.
From porn to drugs to political correctness and the “death” of independent film, the filmmakers chatted candidly on the Provincetown Town Hall stage at PIFF on Saturday, where Mitchell was awarded the 2019 Filmmaker on the Edge Award. Earlier in the evening, Judith Light was awarded the festival’s 2019 Excellence in Acting award in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney.
“We’ve been struggling in independent film . . . television and other things have supplanted it,” Mitchell said. “We find it very hard to get financed right now.”
Like Waters, Mitchell shot to fame with productions that acquired cult followings. Known for co-directing, writing, and starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the musical and later film adaptation, Mitchell went on to direct “Shortbus” (2006), “Rabbit Hole” (2010) starring Nicole Kidman, and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (2017).
Mitchell and Waters agreed that they probably met for the first time at SqueezeBox, a weekly New York City dance party, in the early 1990s, although neither can remember for sure. They did remember the club, however: “It was the last great gay club,” Waters said. SqueezeBox was also where Mitchell first performed songs from “Hedwig,” his musical-turned-film about an East German rock singer who undergoes a botched gender reassignment surgery.
Each year, Waters interviews the recipient of the directing award, which in past years has gone to directors Sofia Coppola , Ang Lee , David Cronenberg , Quentin Tarantino and Waters himself. A Provincetown regular, tThe “Hairspray” director is now in his 55th year of vacationing in the town. “I’m like the town crier,” he said.
On Saturday evening, Waters and Mitchell traded stories and jokes for an hour, buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd. (On Mitchell’s affiliation with the counterculture queer spiritual group The Radical Faeries, Waters sarcastically asked if Mitchell needed to “wear wings” all the time. “No, grandpa!” Mitchell shot back.)
Mitchell earned one of the biggest sustained laughs from the audience when he told a story about a meeting he had in Toronto with Lionsgate representatives, when he was trying to find a distributor for his 2010 drama, “Rabbit Hole.”
It was a high-stakes, last-minute meeting — made all the more urgent by the fact that Mitchell had just dropped MDMA. He left for the meeting panicked, he said. “Then it finally kicked in, and I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
“By the end [of the meeting,] we’re all crying. And we got the best deal we’ve ever gotten for a film,” he said.
The moral of the story?
“Always negotiate” on drugs, Mitchell said.
Nora McGreevy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.