It's been over 15 years since Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's sweet and sexually explicit ensemble film, shocked and charmed audiences.
The cult classic, which premiered to much fanfare at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival due to its inclusion of non-simulated sex, is back to make headlines as it returns to theaters this month in a stunning new 4K restoration.
Mitchell's follow-up film to his award-winning 2001 rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch centers on several emotionally challenged characters in New York City as they navigate their love and sex lives in a post 9/11 world.
Mitchell, who's soon set to star as Tiger King's Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage in Peacock's upcoming Joe Exotic limited series, spoke with PEOPLE about bringing Shortbus back.
How did Hedwig change things for you before you conceived of Shortbus?
After Hedwig, I had that golden Hollywood moment of, like, you can do whatever you want, you know? So I was offered to direct Rent and Memoirs of a Geisha and all these huge films. And I was old enough to know that if it wasn't something that I cared deeply about, that I would be unhappy as money was being thrown at me. So I always kept my overhead low. My rent-stabilized apartment allowed me to have my career.
Nowadays the person who made Hedwig or Nomadland or whatever the well-regarded indie of the moment would immediately take the Marvel movie right after. That's just what you do. And I've seen that destroy too many people, lose their way as artists, end up in the wilds of development and directing TV shows they don't really care much about. I never had any of those things. So I was free in a way to zip in and out of Hollywood and make my own things.
How do you think Shortbus will play with a new generation of moviegoers?
It's definitely a bit of a time capsule. I didn't expect it to be time capsule-y. I was hoping there'd be more movies like it now. We used sex the way a musical uses music and it can be used in many ways.
And sex, of course, has been removed from Hollywood and television and plopped into the internet, undigested and aggregated and separated and sliced and diced into your proclivities and affinities, which was the absolute opposite of what we were hoping to do, which was kind of integrate it more into life and remind ourselves that we all know this language, why be afraid of it in other forms of narrative?
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
So you're saying the film couldn't be made nowadays?
I wonder if it could. Financing is a different issue, and distribution. The small film is no longer in vogue, unfortunately. It was in the late… in the '90s and early 2000s. It was a kind of third Golden Age of cinema in America.
It's also a little bit of a love letter to a New York that doesn't exist in the same way anymore. So I do miss the surprising and kind of scary New York that I came up in, you know?
You surprised your fans with your follow-up film Rabbit Hole (2010) starring Nicole Kidman. What attracted you to that project?
With Rabbit Hole, I lost a brother at the age of the character who dies in Rabbit Hole. It was a film for my family. I understood it, and just as I understood someone who I had nothing in common with except in an emotional bond, which is Hedwig, and Shortbus is about a lot of people and all those main characters are bits of me. I faked an orgasm too, to get things over with. But I really… My favorite directors were the ones who would try new things all the time. Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon to Murder on the Orient Express. It's like, I love it. Shake it up. Some people do the same film over and over with skill like [Quentin] Tarantino, but I can't do that.
Oscilloscope Laboratories will be re-releasing Shortbus in theaters with a new 4K restoration for its 15th anniversary. The film opens at the IFC Center in New York on Jan. 26, with a larger theatrical release to follow. Special screenings are occurring in Los Angeles at the Nuart on Jan. 18 and 19.