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Interview: Gregg Araki

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Gregg Araki is a director that you might not have heard of, but he's as major to his loyal audience as a filmmaker can be. Araki did with queer and punk life in the 1990s what Martin Scorcese did with Italian life—he stylized exaggerations of its dangers and its joys and made it seem like a great, exclusive American melodrama. You can't watch a Scorcese movie without thinking that you'd never be tough enough to make it in the real world of Italian gangs, that you couldn't handle the grim reality required to make money and survive. Araki turned queerness and punkness into that kind of hard privilege, chronicling a bad kids club in movies like Nowhere, The Doom Generation, and The Living End that's ridiculously unhealthy, at times fatal, but also irresistible. In those early movies, characters rip off each other's heads, listen to This Mortal Coil, have loads of sex, smoke millions of cigarettes, die, oblivious to the future or their careers. If you were queer, watching them reminded you of how cool it all was. If you weren't queer, you wished you could be.

Lately he's been taking a different tack. 2005's Mysterious Skin established him as a director capable of reaching a mainstream. It was still gay, Joseph Gorden-Levitt cast as a hooker and a victim of child abuse, but it had almost Oscar-bait levels of emotional intensity. It's an incredible movie, sad without ever being sentimental, but adult. He followed it up with the amazing stoner comedy Smiley Face and now Kaboom, out Thursday, January 27 at BAM and then Friday, January 28 at IFC, a sci-fi thriller set at a college. He's up to his old tricks—there's threesomes, farce and comic violence, ridiculous plot lines, but it's still the movie of a grown-up filmmaker, deliberate and perfectly calculated. Araki will be conducting Q&As at both the BAM and IFC screenings. We sat down and asked him about the new movie, and the path that led him there; check out the interview after the jump.

I saw in the press notes about the movie that Kaboom was an attempt to get back to the spirit of your early ‘90s movies a little bit. Is that true?
It’s true and it’s not true. True in the sense that I do want to make cult movies for the next generation because I run into kids, some of them are so young that I have no idea how they even saw a movie like Nowhere or The Doom Generation, they’ll say, “Oh my God, I’ve seen Nowhere like a thousand times. I grew up in some shit little town, in Bumfuck Montana, and this movie saved my life, I watched it everyday.” As a filmmaker that’s one of the highest compliments that someone could pay, something you created as meaningful to them. I did have an interest in making a film that was kind of a cult movie in a way. I wanted it to really speak to its specific audience. It would be a film that kids like that, they can say, “This film is my film, it’s for me!”

It’s also interesting to me that you went about making a cult movie, normally that just happens, it finds a cult audience, but I’ve never heard a director seek it out.
Specifically I was thinking about fans that I talk to, that’s all I mean. Kids with that feeling of being different, a feeling of being the outsider. People said Kaboom is utopian in a way. There’s no consequence to the sex, you know, it’s not like it’s a bad thing or you’re going to be punished for it. It’s really just something that’s seen as part of growing up and sort of a positive experience. It’s what forms you as a person. There’s a sense of fun and adventure. I think it’s because I wanted to conjure that world.

And so I was really excited to do a film like that. But at the same time I didn’t really want to make Doom Generation 2, you know? I’m not really the same person I was when I made that movie so it’s not really possible to make The Doom Generation for today. I’m not in a 1995 headspace.

What is a 1995 headspace? Your movies represent that early ‘90s Alternative Nation, grunge and punk and queer politics to so many people. Do you just mean that that cultural mentality is gone?
I actually think that it’s bigger than ever. I think that utopian vision of the Alternative Nation is, at best, an ambisexual world of sexual acceptance, you know? That’s big today, I think. No labels. It’s creatively based, it’s music based. There’s a vibe that's, in a weird way, a throwback to the hippies. There’s just like peace and love and people are accepted for who they are.

And the characters in Kaboom have such a matter-of-factness about sex and being gay.
That’s just how I operate, but it was also a conscious decision that I wanted it to be honest and true. I think that with a lot of people in the younger generation, much more so than in the mid-90’s when I did The Doom Generation, that there is a matter-of-factness about sexuality and the idea that sexuality is a grey area. It’s not really about labels, it’s not really about “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” or bisexual, I just am who I am, I have relationships and I have experiences and all of this. I think, personally, that that’s a really healthy attitude. A lot of times when you are young you are just finding out about yourself, it’s best to be free of that idea of “Does this mean that I am this?” I think that there should be that space to do that, without having to take on responsibilities or burdens.

What else is different about the early ‘90s and now?
I don’t know but my characters are definitely less blasé. In The Doom Generation all this violence and blood and the characters don’t care. It’s decadent. But Smith isn’t blasé. It reminds me of Mysterious Skin. That’s kind of how the Brian character is in Mysterious Skin: more sensitive and more deeply affected by things.

gregarrakiThat movie is so sensitive.
It's all in the book. Scott Heim wrote those characters and when I read the book I was so devastated. I was balling. I'd never been through anything like what those kids went through, but the genius with Scott is that he’s so specific, capturing those childhood moments that anybody who grew up in suburbia remembers. What cereals were on the shelf. Those details were so vivid and it really makes you feel like you've been through what those kids have been through. It's the only thing I've ever seen about child abuse that has affected me in that way. Because I really felt for the first time that I got it and I understood what that must be like because it really makes you feel like you've been through what they've been through. You relate so strongly to those kids. Even the bikes they ride—everything about it is like, That's my childhood. Usually when you see those movies about child abuse you think, Oh God, that's terrible, that's so sad, that's tragic and you don't really have any real empathy for it because you're looking at it from the outside

Yeah, it’s much harder to relate to your early ‘90s characters then your more recent ones, because no one is that punk. No one is as punk as Rose McGowan in The Doom Generation.
Yep. Because those characters go through a lot of crazy shit and they are all so dead to it. But there’s that scene in The Doom Generation where they run the dog over. People are dying left and right, arms flying, legs flying. And then it’s like, Oh my God we killed a dog, I can’t watch it, it’s suffering, what are we going to do?! That scene was so important.

Part of not being able to relate to those characters exactly is that you want to, you’re physically attracted to the characters in your movies, they’re desirable and so cool. How do you cast them? Do you have crushes on them? Did you have a crush on James Duval and knew he’d be the right guy for your older movies?
[Laughs] That’s so funny because Jimmy is like my little brother, like it’s even creepy that you’d think about that! So the answer’s no. My films are influenced by a lot of things but definitely by still photography and advertising. So much of the photography I love is about sex and beauty. Bruce Weber is a big influence, and not just on me, but I think on all of western Civilization. That one man has changed the whole world. I can’t help, in this culture and also as a gay man, to be influenced by that aesthetic of beauty, the aesthetic of these beautiful young boys and girls. Everyone in Kaboom, you can just stare at them for hours. To me that’s part of the joys of cinema. You get to stare. I mean it’s not polite to stare at people in real life. Although you want to sometimes. And that’s how I cast movies in general, it’s somebody that I just want to look at. If an actor is really just sitting in a chair doing nothing and I can’t take my eyes of them..

That’s the guy.
Yeah. It’s not necessarily just that, they have to be able to act. But there’s something that people have that is just a charisma, they light up the screen. And so naturally my aesthetic is steeped in that desire.

And the music sets that tone, as well, all the shoegaze you use just begs you to stare at the screen.
My soundtracks are just my favorite bands that fit into the aesthetic of the movie. For this movie the music was really important. It really just shapes the mood and tone of the movie. We were so lucky to get The XX, And then also the film has a lot of real small, young bands like Arial.

Which are kind of ‘90s throwback bands. Do you think it’s weird that the younger generation is in love with the early ‘90s?

Is that true? I didn’t know there was an early ‘90s renaissance. The ’90s had some great stuff, some terrible stuff too, but some amazing stuff. Some amazing, amazing music. But, you know, amazing music is coming out today. But I did pick a lot of bands from the movies that are Nu Gaze, stuff that’s like a resurrection of the early 90’s shoegaze sound, so I guess you’re right. A lot of those bands are super influential, and they weren’t ever big commercially. They had a lasting impact. Like My Bloody Valentine and all those groups that have hade a huge influence on all these new ones. I think that’s amazing.

Did it kind of piss you off that you got a gay designation with the Queer Palmes for the movie at Cannes instead of just being considered with all of the other movies?
No.

Really? It's kind of separate but equal.
I was just thrilled and excited to be in Cannes in the first place. It was my first time screening at the Palais which was, in it of itself, the most amazing screening of my entire life. So the trip was the most surreal and amazing thing that could ever happen to me. So to win a prize on top of that is like the cherry. I was really so honoured to be recognized. It’s a lot of different things, that’s for sure. It’s not your typical gay movie. But for these small independent movies like Kaboom, it’s really a struggle to get your movie seen and to get it out there. So every little thing helps. If two or three people see the movie because of Cannes, it’s useful to us. I was really thrilled about it.

Posted: January 25, 2011
Interview: Gregg Araki