The 1995 flop-turned-cult classic Showgirls is pedestrian trash. No, it’s outrageous at every turn, an endless fountain of creativity. It’s misogyny in motion, a two-hour-eight-minute montage of exploitation masquerading as a gritty expose of American culture. No, it’s a cathartic fairytale of overcoming the pitfalls of capitalism by clawing your way to the top (courtesy of nails you filed and intricately painted yourself). It was the vehicle for one of the most embarrassingly over-the-top performances by a lead actor in the history of cinema. No, Elizabeth Berkley’s indefatigable turn as stripper-turned... high-end stripper is a force of nature, like little we’d seen before and nothing since. It’s a drama. No, it’s a comedy. It’s a piece of shit. No, it’s a masterpiece. No, it’s a masterpiece of shit.
The panoply of opinions that have kept Paul Verhoeven’s once-notorious bomb in the ether—repeatedly viewed, endlessly debated, sometimes satirized—is captured in the feature-length documentary You Don’t Nomi, which will have its world premiere Saturday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Almost as entertaining as Showgirls itself, You Don’t Nomi is a clips-and-commentary essay in the style of the 2013 doc about The Shining, Room 237. Over copious Showgirls footage, we only hear the voices of an arsenal of commentators, which include cultural critics like Adam Nayman (It Doesn’t Suck) and friend of Jezebel Haley Mlotek, April Kidwell (who played Nomi in the uproarious Off Broadway production Showgirls the Musical), and Peaches Christ, the drag queen responsible for assembling the cult of Showgirls in San Francisco.
Rounding out the loose narrative are some archival interviews that help shed light on what the hell everyone was thinking when they made it, as well as some postmortem interviews in which the cast and Verhoeven reconcile their intentions with the audience reactions (including, most poignantly, Berkley’s eventual embrace of a project that derailed her career and traumatized her for years).
And it was assembled on the laptop of its director/producer/editor Jeffrey McHale, who’s edited shows for Al Jazeera and Fox, and worked on You Don’t Nomi in his spare time from his kitchen table. (He started conceiving the doc in 2016, conducted interviews for about six or seven months starting at the end of the year and then spent about a year and a half editing it.) The micro-budgeted result has the rapid-fire associating feel of a polished supercut, the unfussy insight of the very best film criticism, and the open mind to understand that there is no one definitive read on Showgirls—and that is in fact key to its enduring appeal.
McHale stopped by Jezebel’s office on Thursday to discuss his feature film debut. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our chat.
JEZEBEL: What is it about Showgirls that lends itself to this kind of long-form exploration?
JEFFREY MCHALE: Initially, the response that it got. If you have something that was rejected so violently from critics and audiences, that in itself deserves examination. It’s the audience that takes it to where we’re at now. Because the cult fandom kept this thing alive, it allowed critics to start reevaluating it. Haley [Mlotek], our contributor, says, “We’re still talking about it because we’re not done with it.” It’s not a movie you can watch once and discard, like many good films.
Philosophically, your movie accounts for a panoply opinions, suggesting there is no one definitive read on Showgirls, nor one neat and tidy explanation for its appeal.
That was really important to me, at the beginning: We hear critical voices. Those opinions are valid, too. I approach it as a fan, but we’re not going to gush over this for 90 minutes. There are things that happen in the film that should be looked at critically, but there is a kind of gray area that it fits perfectly in.
I’ve always thought of camp as not a dismissal but a conversation. It can provide some of the richest conversation with yourself because of this notion of intention and how much the art at hand seems to deviate from it.
One of our commentators talks about failed seriousness and that directors sometimes don’t even know what they intended. I think that speaks true to Paula and Joe. [Writer] David Schmader pointed me to Portrait of a Film, the essays [on the making of the movie] from Verhoeven, which is a wild read, to really wrap your head around where he was at with it [before release]. From the press interviews at the time, I thought it was interesting to hear their voices, how they were pushing it, because that’s not how it was received and that’s not what the fan group has attached itself to.
Do you buy Gina Gershon’s assertion that she was aware of the movie’s ridiculousness while making it?
It’s hard to. I think people project their own ideas of the actors and actresses—everybody said that. She does play the role of Cristal Connors with a little wink and a nod, so it’s hard to ignore.
I interviewed her last year and I tried to pin her down on that—basically, if you were so aware, what is going through your head when Elizabeth Berkley is freaking out in your face? She didn’t answer.
She was sitting next to Paul in the 2016 clip of him talking about it, and she was like, “Showgirls, it was ‘so bad’ when it came out, but it’s the only movie people still ask me questions about.” It’s hard to say what she was thinking or what they were thinking. Kyle [MacLachlan] said it was a drama and, “We were playing the whole film for drama and if anyone tells you differently, they’re lying.”
Did you envision your movie ever going to a place where you were evaluating Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as legitimately good, as opposed to being so bad it’s good?
She throws herself into it. Our commentators are like, “This is a performance that you do not see in cinema these days.” That’s refreshing. It’s hard to get into the weeds on the intent of everybody. I never set out to make a behind-the-scenes or making-of. There are aspects of the Showgirls story of how it was made that make it interesting, so we touch a little bit on that, but I was mostly interested in the relationship that we have with it after its release and how that’s evolved.
One of the slickest decisions you made was not to include your interview subjects onscreen. Why leave them out?
That was always part of the design going in. I was a fan of Room 237 and Los Angeles Plays Itself, and so seeing those was inspiring. I was like, “You can tell these amazing, incredible stories and not even need to see who [is talking].” Once you break free from that, you’re focused so much more on the visual aspects and you’re being intentional with the images you choose. Once I started going back and going over Verhoven’s other work, I was amazed that all the dots were connecting, and I was like, “There has to be a way to visually show how…” I think the prevailing knowledge is that Showgirls stands outside the rest of his work, if you look at Total Recall and Robocop, people don’t understand Showgirls, but it makes perfect sense. Showgirls is Verhoeven at his purest. There was just so much visual material to work with that I thought [showing talking heads] would be distracting. We didn’t shoot one frame of video-scans, archived material from contributors, and we FedExed an audio kit to contributors and interviewed on Skype. We did that for six months.
I felt like it was something I could do on my own time, free of any sort of constraints. When you’re working on that small of a scale, literally on my laptop, cutting at my kitchen table.
Is there any concern about how much footage made the final cut? I’m assuming you are operating under fair use…
We’re working with the top legal firm for clearances. They cleared it; we have the insurance. It was a back and forth. You submit the first cut and you make changes based on their notes. It’s kind of just shortening and moving things around and making sure we’re commenting directly on what we’re seeing and it’s tied into our argument.
Did the wake of MeToo affect your filmmaking or editing decisions?
That all happened after our interviews. I think we talk about a lot of that stuff indirectly without directly saying, “We’re talking about MeToo.” That didn’t shape the conversation we had with the contributors, but it kind of shapes the conversation we’re having about film now. I keep going back to Paul’s quote where he’s like, “I hold a mirror up to life. I show it as it is.” I think that’s his excuse or defense for a lot of that stuff, but I don’t think Paul has the authority to speak on that. Neither do I.