Over the course of a 25-year acting career, Mitchell Lichtenstein starred on Broadway and worked with directors ranging from Robert Altman to Ang Lee. In February, the former actor (and son of the artist Roy) is making his directorial debut with Teeth, a comic horror movie about a young girl with a vagina dentata. It’s a campy, John Waters–esque farce, with a little bit of Pedro Almod??var and Brian De Palma’s Carrie thrown in for good measure. Here, he talks to WWDScoop about Camille Paglia, the Motion Picture Association of America and the difficulties getting financing for a movie like this.
WWD: What inspired the movie? Did you have a really traumatizing sexual experience or something?
Mitchell Lichtenstein: No. It was the myth itself, which I learned about in college. Camille Paglia was my teacher and it came up in her class in connection to late 19th-century literature. Over the years, I saw it referenced in popular culture, mostly indirectly, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if you referenced it directly.
WWD: What examples are there in popular culture?
M.L.: Well, Aliens has been written about as a vagina dentata metaphor. It’s a female monster with teeth and the movie takes place in moist, dripping tunnels.
But it’s in many cultures. It takes different forms, but the story line is always the same. A hero has to come and conquer the woman or women with teeth. And they always do. In my movie, I wanted her to be the hero.
WWD: The woman who castrates a world filled with sexual predators. Do you actually believe men deserve that?
M.L.: Well, men are still in power in the world, and could stand to be cut down a notch.
WWD: That’s a pretty harsh punishment. I have to admit, I felt sorry for some of the men in the film.
M.L.: They’re victims of their own urges. In the movie, there’s this unstoppable male urge to get what it wants. But there’s a moral message, too—that if your intentions are honorable, you’ll be just fine. And we got an R rating from the MPAA.
WWD: You did?
M.L.: Yes, the MPAA was very eager for it to get an R because they saw it as a cautionary tale. They thought mothers should take their teenage boys to see it.
WWD: You’ve been openly gay for a long time. I wondered whether the movie was a bit of a gay man’s revenge fantasy.
M.L.: Not consciously, but that could be an element of it. I have no stake in maintaining the image of straight men, or their position of power. It doesn’t upset me to cut that down a bit.
WWD: Pun intended? You keep using the word “cut.”
M.L.: Let’s just say I have no stake in the status quo of heterosexual men.
WWD: But there’s this one character in the movie whom she castrates after she finds out he made a bet that he could get her into bed. I mean, he’s just a dumb teenage boy.
M.L.: A bet is pretty mean.
WWD: Mean, yes. But deserving of castration?
M.L.: He gets it sewn back on.
WWD: Was it difficult getting financing for the movie?
M.L.: We learned pretty early on that we weren’t going to get any money from conventional movie people, even independent movie people that made quirky movies. Partly because of the subject matter and partly because I’m a first-time director. It was a lethal combination. But we had a couple of private investors.
WWD: And were you one of them?
M.L.: I was invested in it, yes.
WWD: Then what?
M.L.: It was bought at Sundance. We had the big screening in the 1,300-seat theater. Our sales agent was hanging out in the lobby. After the scene with the gynecologist, Harvey Weinstein walked out and said “How much?” And the Weinstein Company teamed up with Lion’s Gate to buy it.
WWD: You recently sold one of your dad’s paintings for a lot of money. Is it harder to sell it or keep it, given the current state of the market?
M.L.: It’s hard to sell. I mean, everyone should have such problems. But my dad gave me that painting when I was a kid. I’d looked at it every day since then. So it is hard. But he was into whatever would help me out. And he always used to joke that he couldn’t believe we could get actual money in exchange for used canvas.