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You Don’t Nomi! Fans of Showgirls prepare: Jeffrey McHale’s documentary about the film’s bizarre afterlife and resurrection is coming at you faster than a goddess can pop out of a volcano. It’ll be available via video on demand platforms in the U.S. on June 9th.
Showgirls opened in 1995, drawing harsh reviews and universal pans from moviegoers and critics alike. It all but ruined the career of star Elizabeth Berkley. Since 1995, Showgirls has taken on a melodramatic, glittery life of its own. Drag show tributes and comedy show homages, academic papers defending it, the common saying among fans is, “Some say it’s the worst movie ever made. Some say it’s the best. They’re all right.”
Instead of poking fun at the film, which is easy and fashionable in today’s culture, (I had a great time doing just that) director, writer, and editor of You Don’t Nomi Jeffrey McHale treats his subject with kindness and empathy. He recently joined me on the phone for a chat with me. I assure you, I was eating Dog Chow and wearing my finest Versayce. Here, he dives into his inspiration, editorial choices, and the reasons he believes Showgirls endures in the cinematic universe.
Jill Watson: Everyone seems to have a story about how they came to appreciate Showgirls in one way or another, whether they loved it or hated it and then later realized its value. Since you made a documentary diving really deep into the film, I can imagine you must have a really interesting story of the like to tell. What was your Showgirls journey?
Jeffrey McHale: I came to it late in life. I was a little young to see it in theaters when it first came out, so it took me some time. I saw it about ten years afterwards, and at that point it had already become like a queer cult classic. I was at a friend’s house late one evening in Chicago when I lived there, and the topic of Showgirls came up. He was offended and shocked that I hadn’t seen it yet, so he pulled it off his DVD shelf and popped it in, and it’s just like everyone says, their mind just is blown. I just didn’t want it to end. It was one of those things that the first three minutes, you’re just like, “This is how the movie is?” Like, I had absolutely no idea that this was what I was in store for, and I was just so, so excited to be on the ride, and like I said, I just didn’t want it to end.
JW: There’s something really fascinating about the almost evangelicism of the community of Showgirls fans, isn’t there?
JM: Yeah, they are loyal; they have perfectly timed responses if you’re lucky enough to see it in a midnight screening. The terms and the language become part of the queer lexicon. You know, over the last 25 years you could throw in a reference to “Versayce” [sic] or “Doggy Chow,” or “brown rice and veggies,” and people who know, will actually know what you’re talking about. If they don’t, then you don’t need to talk to them.
JW: Yeah! It’s a code, isn’t it?
JW: So many people from so many different walks of life, you mentioned the queer community…everybody has so much to say about Showgirls. What were your deciding factors on the perspectives to include, and how did you narrow that list of contributors and commentators for You Don’t Nomi?
JM: When I set out on this journey, I didn’t necessarily start out to make your traditional “behind the scenes” or “making of,” and so I was inspired by other films like Room 237 or Los Angeles Plays Itself, and I was inspired and really inspired by the opportunity with fair use, and everything that we can do with commentary. So I wanted to explore Showgirls, something that is a complicated and complex film for most people, and something that we haven’t unanimously agreed on. And just the different opinions about it. I started with people who had contributed to the afterlife of it. I reached out to David Schmader, whose commentary track is featured on the Showgirls DVD. I reached out to Adam Nayman, who wrote a book about Showgirls, and Peaches Christ, who had been hosting midnight screenings in San Francisco for the last 25 years. That’s where I started, and I built on it from there. I spoke to critics and people who have shaped the conversation. Because that’s where I feel like, it’s about the audience. It’s an audience-driven revival. And that’s why we’re still talking about it. So I thought that they’re the ones we needed to hear from.
JW: Well, the film was just beautiful. In a culture where it’s fashionable to frame insults comedically and poke fun at everything, I have to commend you for treating the effects of Showgirls’ poor reception on Elizabeth Berkley with great empathy and care. What inspired you to such compassion?
JM: You know, I wanted to have an honest conversation about the film and the response to it, and really look at the way in which we initially responded to it, because I don’t think that was fair. I thought that was something we needed to look at, the lessons we’ve learned, or I hope we’ve learned since then. Her performance is kind of singled out. But I think it’s the biggest reason people like us keep returning to it. The physicality of it is incredible, and it’s a performance like nothing else in cinema, so I think, just honoring that. Because this is why we go see movies: for actors and what they can do, and I think it’s just so unique. There’s never been anything like it since, so I just wanted to make sure that we were sensitive about the journey and the way we handled everybody’s experience affected by the film.
JW: I think it came across as very kind and sympathetic and genuine, so congratulations on that.
JM: Thank you.
JW: What is your hope for the future life of Showgirls?
JM: I hope we take the lessons we’ve learned and apply those to the way we look at media and the way we look at culture, or things we might think are offensive, or problematic. Everything doesn’t need to be thrown out and dismissed, you know if there’s something we disagree with or don’t like. The interesting thing about Showgirls is that even the most adamant supporters of it can still see the issues and the problems that are in it. So, I think, having a little more maturity with the way we look at media, the way we look at culture and dismiss culture.
JW: When and where will people be able to watch You Don’t Nomi?
JM: They’ll be able to see it on June 9th on V.O.D. and digital platforms.
JW: Thank you so much for taking the time, Jeffrey. I really did enjoy the film.
JM: Thank you so much.