Not long after Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” was published, talk of a movie — which opens this week — began.
“It was a long and winding decade,” said Gaiman, in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival in April with director John Cameron Mitchell.
The legendary sci-fi writer, known for his “Sandman” comics and novels “Stardust,” “American Gods” and “Coraline,” met Mitchell at some point during those years, introduced through his now-wife.
He loved Mitchell’s films “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus.”
It was 18 months before Mitchell agreed to direct “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” says Gaiman, calling the deal both natural and odd because nothing in his oeuvre would suggest aliens in 1977. He adds, “But knowing him personally, it’s obvious. And I’m just so happy!”
The story follows two friends, young punk rockers in 1977 in England who wind up at a party full of very strange people, perhaps even extra-terrestrial.
Enn (Alex Sharp), the shy one, finds it difficult to talk to girls. But he meets Zan (Elle Fanning), and they make a connection.
Screenwriter Philippa Goslett sat down with Gaiman to enlist his help in cracking the screenplay; Gaiman suggested that the short story become the movie’s first act, followed by more about the relationship between Enn and Zan.
What Gaiman didn’t know was that Goslett was using some of Gaiman’s personal experiences to flesh out the film.
“She interviewed Neil about his own upbringing in the south of London and punk and the vibe, and that found its way into the piece,” says Mitchell. “So in a way it became a bit more Neil-like.”
Committed to making “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” into a true punk-rock movie with an authentic punk attitude, the filmmakers start it explosively with The Damned song “New Rose.”
Mentioning an urban legend that the song is about a sexually-transmitted disease and not a new love, Gaiman says, “Whether it was or not, I loved the viral nature of that, something about viruses infecting and changing stuff. And it really was one of the first punk anthems.”
Mitchell spoke to members of the band to glean details for the film.
“They needed money so they’d pick tomatoes by the sewage plant. The seeds wouldn’t be digested. They would go through the system and grow there, and the boys would pick and sell them.”
He liked the idea, not only because dots of red color liven up an otherwise dreary landscape, but also because of an affinity for the fruit.
“I used tomatoes a lot in ‘Hedwig,’ because they’re a symbol of failure,” he says. “People threw tomatoes, and after the show I had a nice salad.”
IF YOU GO
How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson
Written by: Philippa Goslett, John Cameron Mitchell
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes