Jeffrey McHale’s You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about his obsession with the 1995 Paul Verhoeven film Showgirls, was recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. The poet Jeffery Conway, another Showgirls obsessive, interviewed Jeffrey McHale for PKM.
In 1995, the film Showgirls (directed by Paul Verhoeven, from a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas) was widely released in theaters across America with a NC-17 rating (for “nudity and strong sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and aberrant sexual violence”). The film was touted as an “erotic drama,” and featured former teen actress Elizabeth Berkley, Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan, and Gina Gershon.
Showgirls centered on a “street-smart” grifter who hitches to Vegas and climbs her way up from stripper at the Cheetah club to showgirl at the Stardust Hotel. Significant controversy and hype preceded its theatrical release (nudity, sex, and violence, ya dig?), and it was a box office and critical bomb. Despite this, Showgirls developed a cult following, enjoying massive success on the home video market, and generating more than $100 million in rentals (the film cost $40 million to make).
In the winter of 1996, I was on my way Upstate, intent on holing up in a cottage for a few weeks. A friend of mine gave me some videotapes for the trip, tapes that had one or two movies copied onto them. On one of those VHS tapes, I watched GoldenEye. Yawn. But after that movie ended, the glowing word “Showgirls” appeared on my tiny screen. My life changed instantly. At age 30, I was already a devotee of Camp. It was just a few minutes into Showgirls that I recognized that rarified language speaking to me. I began to jump up and down on the bed in ecstasy. That first viewing was the start of my 20-year love affair with Showgirls.
My life changed instantly. At age 30, I was already a devotee of Camp. It was just a few minutes into Showgirls that I recognized that rarified language speaking to me.
In early 2007, I began to write a book of sestinas about the film—one sestina for each scene. This book Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas (Blaze Vox Books) was published in 2014. That’s how Jeffrey McHale found me. In 2016, he located me through my publisher and asked if he could interview me for a documentary he was making about Showgirls. At last! I cried out—the call I had been waiting all these years! To talk at length with another obsessed artist about Nomi—her nails! her chips! her tits!
McHale discovered Showgirls in his mid-20s, years after the film was released. He became a diehard fan, consuming everything that had been written about it. He was interested in the people—film critics, scholars, drag queens, poets—who contributed to the afterlife of Showgirls. He began reaching out to those people, recorded interviews via Skype through an audio kit sent by FedEx. McHale used these interviews as voiceovers to piece together a critical evaluation of the movie, to answer the all-important question—was Showgirls conceived to be a serious, hard-hitting drama, or was it unintentionally bad? McHale’s You Don’t Nomi parses out this question and addresses elements that some viewers of the film may overlook. The documentary also presents counterbalanced perspectives on the film’s treatment of women. Even Berkley’s over-the-top performance is scrutinized by its defenders and detractors. McHale takes an unbiased approach. He makes his case by inserting scenes from Showgirls along with archival interviews and clips from Verhoeven’s other films.
Was Showgirls conceived to be a serious, hard-hitting drama, or was it unintentionally bad?
I interviewed Jeffrey McHale in the Fall of 2019. His film You Don’t Nomi made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2019.
JC: Now that you’ve begun to get reactions to your movie from people (audience members and critics), has anything surprised you?
Jeffrey McHale: I expected it would at least have a small but loyal audience within the Showgirls fanbase, but what has surprised me most is the wide range of support for the film, especially some of these prestige festivals where You Don’t Nomi showed (Tribeca, BFI London, Oldenburg, Melbourne International). I also didn’t expect to be screening in so many genre festivals but because Verhoeven’s filmography is a central focus in the film and his work is so genre, it’s a natural fit.
JC: Can you describe that moment—that moment of clarity—when the thought occurred to you, I need to make a movie about Showgirls. Where were you, what was happening?
Jeffrey McHale: When I first started tinkering with the idea of making a documentary, I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for a project like this. I had been making movies my whole life but never made a feature documentary, tackling a subject like Showgirls seemed like a huge undertaking. I definitely had to battle the voice in my head that also was saying “don’t waste your time.” I was so inspired by movies like Room 237 and Los Angeles Plays Itself, so I knew, as an editor first, I could create a narrative without needing to actually shoot a single frame. From there, I reached out to people who I thought had interesting perspectives or unique relationships to the afterlife of Showgirls and let what they said shape the film’s narrative.
JC: How soon after you had the notion to make your film could you “see” the blueprint of what you wanted to do/how you wanted to do it?
Jeffrey McHale: This was actually one of the most difficult parts of the process. You Don’t Nomi was never going to be a traditional behind-the-scenes documentary. This afforded me the exciting and terrifying challenge of deciding how to present these vignettes of intellectual insight and analysis into a compelling structure fan audiences could understand. Since I was the producer, director, and editor on this project, it was sometimes hard to step out and see the big picture. It took quite a few versions and revisions before the three acts of the film revealed themselves as “The Bomb,” “The Cult” and “The Resurrection,” respectively.
JC: Can you describe your process, the way you worked, to make this film? I often write with collaborators, and that really makes the process more, well, it helps to have the quick support of others when things get low (or high, for that matter). I’m just curious if there is another filmmaker or someone who you shared completed bits with as you went along, got feedback. Or was the endeavor painfully solitary? I guess I’m wondering if the process of making a film is anything like the writing process.
Jeffrey McHale: It was very much both a solitary and collaborative process. In the edit bay, it was always just me. There were about seven rough cuts of the film along the way and I’d always show each edit to the same people: my producer Suzanne Zionts, my associate producer Zel McCarthy, and my husband Kevin. Their feedback helped me better understand what was going on with my own film’s progression through each edit. I would also have one-off screenings where I would show the latest cut to one person who hadn’t seen it yet, then get their feedback and determine what to implement in the next cut. I submitted a “work in progress” cut to festivals and that cut was accepted into Tribeca, from there we had a short timeline to finish the music, graphics and sound mix.
JC: How did you know you were finished with the film? At what point did you say to yourself, okay, no more tinkering, this is “it”?
Jeffrey McHale: It was “it” when we submitted to Tribeca. My producer Ariana Garfinkel really pushed me to set a deadline for submitting to festivals. By the fall of 2018, I had been working on the film for two years and was really happy with it and while I knew there was nothing else I could squeeze into it, without a deadline, the finishing process can become endless. Only after we were accepted to Tribeca and knew we were premiering there in April, we began the process of legally clearing all the footage. I had to make a handful of changes from their notes to comply with fair use stipulations, but even our lawyers’ feedback really ended up strengthening the principal arguments of the film. I was really happy with everything.
JC: Have you had any thoughts like, ‘oh gosh, I wish I could redo that bit, take out that, add something there’? I mean, do you think finishing a film is similar to finishing a poem or a piece of prose, like once it’s published, it’s “done.”
Jeffrey McHale: There are still so many great little moments from my interviews that would be fun to include, late in the edit when having to make some legal revisions, I’d stumble upon a line or interview moment that I had forgotten about and would always think, ‘oh can I add this?’ The answer was always ultimately no. Knowing when to stop is the tough call every filmmaker has to make, but it feels good when you look back.
JC: Okay, Showgirls Rapid Response Round (don’t think, just say the first thought that pops into your head). Funniest moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Catsup and french fries.
JC: Most gorgeous shot:
Jeffrey McHale: Nomi eating a cheeseburger on the roof (it’s also final shot in Nomi)
JC: Nomi’s best outfit:
Jeffrey McHale: Pink fringe dress (a Molly original obviously)
JC: EB’s best acting moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Everything with Kyle at his mansion and pool. I believe Nomi is acting here, so we have EB’s fine acting slathered over Nomi’s acting—a sort of whory Russian nesting doll.
JC: EB’s worst acting moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Everything in a moving vehicle
JC: Campiest line:
Jeffrey McHale: Must be weird not having anybody cum on you
JC: Campiest scene:
Jeffrey McHale: Thrust it!
JC: Saddest moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Molly
JC: Oddest moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Tracking the holidays. Hearing kids trick or treating on the Vegas strip when Molly and Nomi bond over fast food. The office secretary hanging Christmas decorations. giant Christmas tree on display at Spago.
JC: Most moving moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Must be weird not having anybody cum on you
JC: Favorite dance moment:
Jeffrey McHale: “Avenging Angel”
JC: Line you most repeat to yourself:
Jeffrey McHale: “No I’m not” (Spago scene, after Cristal calls Nomi a whore)
JC: Line you most repeat to friends or family:
Jeffrey McHale: We take the cash, we cash the checks, we show them what they want to see
JC: Favorite supporting character:
Jeffrey McHale: Molly
JC: Best makeup moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Gina removing hers in the dressing room
JC: Best hair and/or wig:
Jeffrey McHale: Nomi’s highway tousled hitchhiking do
JC: Sexiest moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Kyle’s butt when he rolls across the bed the morning after his evening swimming lesson.
JC: Most unsexiest moment:
Jeffrey McHale: Nomi and Penny’s duet dance at the Cheetah
JC: Scene you’d most like to enter in the film, like if you could just walk through the screen and be a part of the action:
Jeffrey McHale: Ugh. I would love to see the REST of “Goddess.” Actually sit down and watch the entire show. There are a few numbers where we only see the costumes or hear the song. The jazzy number Nomi does at the boat show is one of them. How does the actual show play in the theater as an audience member?
JC: You have a son, right? So, like, when do you think you’ll have him watch Showgirls for the first time? At what age, more or less?
Jeffrey McHale: Hmmm . . . good question. Well, I’ll definitely make sure he sees Saved By The Bell. My parents didn’t show us anything R rated until we were in high school, so I think he can wait until then too? We’ll see!
JC: Would you consider filming that viewing? Future documentary: two dads show son Showgirls and study his reaction. You know, like for PBS or something. Thoughts?
Jeffrey McHale: A Showgirls reaction video. Great idea. Not sure if my husband would be up for it. That would be a hard sell. Maybe we can have that conversation when our son is a teenager if reaction videos are still a thing then?
JC: I often reflect on my reactions to Showgirls as I’ve watched and re-watched it over the decades; specifically, I’m always fascinated by that dichotomous gut-punch the film delivers: I might be laughing uncontrollably with joy at how bad it is at any given moment, and then, minutes later, I’m fetal on the floor, so sad, so distraught over Nomi’s struggles, her overwhelming soul ache. My reactions seem, well, histrionic in nature. I’m just curious, is it ever like that for you?
Jeffrey McHale: I think it eventually got there for me. In the beginning for me it was just so strange and outrageous that it was nothing but FUNNY. But as the years passed and I matured *a little* then I definitely felt on more of the heartache. How sad it was that Nomi felt like she needed to sell her soul for a really shitty job. When you see that element, it becomes uncomfortable and sad. It’s hard to tell if Nomi is a character who is truly stupid or if Nomi is just playing stupid. Either way, I began to have great sympathy for her. I had similar feelings when I watched my all-time-favorite TV series, The Comeback. Valerie Cherish is pouring her heart and soul into being accepted, staying relevant and trying to fit in, knowing she’s not but unaware of how to fix it. I see so many parallels with those characters.
JC: When I saw your film for the first time, I was really surprised by what I perceived to be a highly redemptive element—your film allows Elizabeth Berkley to be a whole person, to follow an arc from cheesy child sitcom star, to young adult actress who delivers (let’s be honest) the hilariously overacted role of Nomi in Showgirls, to critically-crucified adult actress who practically disappears from film, to knocking-on-middle-age’s door E.B., who boldly shows up to face a crowd of thousands at the Cinespia’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery outdoor screening in Los Angeles in 2015 to claim in her legacy in what is often derided as the worst film ever. I’m just saying, your fairness and compassion toward her in your documentary really moved me . . . was this something you envisioned at the outset of your project, or did it reveal itself to you over time?
Jeffrey McHale: Thank you. It shows because that’s how I felt when I was there. I was one of those 4,000 people screaming at her in that Hollywood cemetery. It felt like I was witnessing a moment in history. In Nomi, it’s the emotional denouement, but it’s really where I began with this project. Even though I stepped my toe in this sinful pool a few years before with a mashup of Showgirls with the trailer for Aronofsky’s Black Swan, working on this took it to a whole new level.
JC: Because I am kind of a big queen, I often spend valuable daydreaming time musing about the three stars of what I refer to as the Holy Trilogy of Camp as they moved through life post-premiere of their respective bombs—Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls. Patty Duke avoided owning up to her bad performance in VOD for about thirty years, until us Gays finally wore her down, helped her see the Camp beauty, and she learned to at least acknowledge that, yeah, a lot of Gays love the movie, and, what the hell, she learned to love it, too, and she even said once that (paraphrase) some of her acting was pretty bad. Faye, on the other hand, avoids talking about MD like the plague to this day (YouTube her infamous voicemail recording where she expresses her disgust about the movie—or just listen if you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned operatic Camp egoic rant!). Finally, in 2015, twenty years after the fact, Elizabeth Berkley faces thousands (in person!) to recognize the legacy of the film. I have watched her speech at that outdoor screening (online) (it’s also excerpted in your film) a few times. O.K., I’m just going to say it: hardcore Gays want to know, has she really acknowledged, you know, has she admitted, taken personal responsibility for her performance? You know, like, “Yes. I was fantastically bad. A Camp calamity. My performance was an over-the-top hot mess.” Any comment?
Jeffrey McHale: What Elizabeth Berkley thinks is a question that seems to be on many people’s minds! It wasn’t one I tried to address, partly because it’s ancillary to the way we’ve consumed the film as fans. I can say, I haven’t seen anything where she directly acknowledges her performance. From what I’ve seen, there has been acknowledgement of her experience with it and the backlash. That’s her story to tell, without question, so we’ll see what she has in store during the 25th anniversary year. I was happy to see Mr. Verhoeven took responsibility for the criticism of her performance, back in 2015 when there were some interviews about the 20th anniversary he takes the blame. Directors rarely fall on their sword like that. That was refreshing.
JC: Speaking of Cinespia’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery outdoor screening of Showgirls in Los Angeles in 2015, I was intrigued (when you spoke at the Tribeca screening Q&A of your film) by the way you described the feeling you got attending that event—I remember hearing something like “spiritual experience”—can you say more about that?
Jeffrey McHale: My father is one of thirteen kids, so I grew up with a large extended family, most of whom were Irish Catholic. Because my father had stepped away from the church as an adult, but I think the few times my brother and I even really noticed that was during events like weddings where we wouldn’t walk up to take communion. So I was always a little curious and maybe felt a little left out. When I was 15, I traveled with two of my aunts and a few cousins from Detroit to Cincinnati for an event called Our Lady of the Holy Spirit. I was curious because my aunt told me that at this event the Virgin Mary appears as lights in the sky. They had a couple grainy photos on their fridge from the event the previous year and I wasn’t sure if this was something I should believe in, but I was curious and wanted to go.
JC: OMG-string, I’d totally go . . .
Jeffrey McHale: People come from all over the country to the grounds of this Catholic Church for this event. Carrying folding chairs, picnic blankets, singing prayers and hymns all night, just waiting for this moment. At midnight, everyone gets quiet to wait for Mary’s appearance. I remember as a 15-year-old how the anticipation was just so incredibly exciting. I wanted to see this thing and along with the crowds I had no doubt I would. But then it happened really fast and as soon as it was over, I felt this disappointment. I wasn’t even religious but I felt like I had been let down. I think there were only a few flashes in the sky, which were most likely from other worshipers’ disposable cameras.
It wasn’t until June 27, 2015, when I was part of another gathering of pilgrims when my husband and a few close friends lugged folding chairs and a cooler full of candy and tequila to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for Cinespia’s summer screening of Showgirls. We go to screenings like this all the time. Thousands of people cram themselves into a clearing of grass in the cemetery where they project movies onto a wall. Because it’s in LA, it’s not unusual to have the occasional celebrity appearing to introduce the film. Still, I don’t think anyone even considered the possibility that someone from the Showgirls cast would show up. However, as the organizer announced that “someone involved with the film has something to say,” everybody in that field leapt to their feet. A slow wave of sound, gasps, cheers slowly made its way through the audience as everyone gradually realized we were in the presence of the holy mother herself—St. Nomi Malone. It was a sacred moment. A holy revelation. A true miracle sighting and an experience that has changed my life forever.
JC: I remember when the web was being born, in the late nineties, and of course one of the first ways I used it was to look for anything related to Showgirls. I have to say, I was kind of shocked to discover that seemingly straight people were obsessed with the movie, too—I assumed it was like so many other Camp movies, mainly a “gay thing.” I sometimes wonder if entre into the gay Camp arena for straight people has been facilitated by the larger societal acceptance of gays over the past twenty or twenty-five years. What do you think?
Jeffrey McHale: There’s no doubt that cult audiences and the queer community have kept Showgirls alive for all these years through pure adoration. That kind of audience-driven revival prompted some critics to see it in a new light or at least appreciate it differently as a movie that deserves its own place in history. There are also those of us who either grew up on Showgirls or who discovered our taste in film or camp culture with Showgirls already in our consciousness. Our standards for what is offensive or shocking has definitely evolved over the last 25 years too, and I think that’s helped us all see beyond provocative elements to a film that is uniquely flawed, but succeeds because of those flaws. My film is not meant to be a definitive statement on camp, but by embracing the enigma of Showgirls’ origins and finding beauty in its failure, its audiences have established it as an undeniable camp classic.
JC: I love that you did the math and figured out that there were fourteen years between Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest, and Showgirls. By your calculations, another Camp supernova film should have been released in 2009. I have gone back to databases, and the best contender I can find is Precious. Do you have any ideas/opinions on this?
Jeffrey McHale: I went back and I think the best contender for 2009 would be Obsessed starring Beyonce Knowles and Idris Elba and Ali Larter—which is basically a remake of Fatal Attraction. I saw it in the theater. It was pretty fucking bad, laughably bad at times. But I’m not sure how likely it is to fit next to those classic films since I had mostly forgotten about it and have never cared much to revisit it since. But maybe now I will . . . .
JC: I have a film professor friend who watched every film released in 1947 for a project he was working on. Would you ever consider watching every film released in 2009 to winkle out the sleeper that might be the next installment of this “fourteen-year legacy”?
Jeffrey McHale: I love that concept but I could NEVER.
JC: When your film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, during the Q&A after the showing, the moderator asked the contributors (those who were present) how we felt when we found out that you intended to make a documentary about Showgirls and that you wanted to interview us for your project. I attempted to articulate the fact that, as the eldest contributor there that night, it probably hit me the deepest—just because I had been watching and loving Showgirls since about a year after its release in 1995. My fascination felt so private, almost transgressive. Of course, I shared my admiration with my closest, gayest friends . . . but outside the bootleg copy of the film that I had, a squawky VCR and smallish TV, my universe of Showgirls felt very small for many years. Just over ten years after its release, I started to write a whole book of poems about the film—an effort, I think, to try and exorcise the obsession of the film from my psyche. And then three years ago I got a call from you—you, who wanted to talk at length (!) about the film and ask me (!) questions about it. Showgirls didn’t bomb and die on a shelf somewhere in time; for me, worlds have opened up inside of it. My question for you is: are you done? Did making your documentary assuage your burning obsession with the film? Has your relationship to the film changed any since you released You Don’t Nomi–what can you say, you know, about how you envision you being with Showgirls, about you . . . and Nomi . . . driving into the future?
Jeffrey McHale: Creatively, I would say that I am done. I definitely want to explore other topics. After my mashup and now Nomi, I’m not sure I can squeeze anything else out of that goddess. I firmly have cemented my relationship to the film and Nomi can sit pertly next to all the other strange Showgirls artifacts. What I think will be interesting will be how the conversation around Showgirls continues to evolve and how its place in cinema history remains a subject to debate.