Spinning Platters Interview: Gregg Araki on “Kaboom”

by Jason LeRoy on February 17, 2011

Gregg Araki directing Thomas Dekker and Juno Temple on the set of KABOOM

For most of the ’90s, the name “Gregg Araki” was synonymous with edgy underground movies about armageddon and alienation, with bursts of disturbing violence and, most importantly for those of us who were going through puberty at the time, lots of graphic pansexual coupling. Emerging from the New Queer Cinema scene with films like The Living End and Totally Fucked Up, Araki earned his place in the cult-movie pantheon with his sex-and-apocalypse masterworks The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Then, after 1999’s comparatively tame romantic comedy Splendor, Araki stunned fans and critics alike with the devastating drama Mysterious Skin, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a revelatory, career-best performance as a furious hustler living in the aftermath of the molestation he suffered as a young boy. Araki followed this with a much lighter offering, the delightful Anna Faris stoner comedy Smiley Face.

But for those of us who’ve always had a soft (or hard) spot for his ’90s heyday, there’s good news: the old Araki is back in business with Kaboom, which out-sexes and over-apocalypses even his most delirious big-screen moments. Araki recently sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss creative freedom, talking to Republicans about gay sex, and the Doom Generation commentary track we’ve all been waiting for.

When I spoke to Araki, a very energetic and handsome 51, he was still buzzing from the incredibly well-received Roxie Theater screening of Kaboom the previous evening as part of SF IndieFest. “When I introduced the movie I could tell the audience was really amped and excited to see it. There were definitely a lot of hardcore fans of mine there,” he says. “Then I went outside to do some interviews, and when I came back into the theater for the last reel, the audience was seriously, like, screaming and cheering. It was literally insane. The energy level was pretty intense.”

How did it compare to your experience showing Kaboom at Cannes?

Cannes was literally the highlight of my whole entire career. I had been there for Smiley Face for the Director’s Fortnight before, but had never been a Main Selection. I’d never screened in the Palais, which is seriously the most incredible theater I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the hugest screen I’ve ever seen. The screen is so big and the sound is so intense, just to see my movie on that screen… When I was walking up the red carpet steps with the cast and crew, and we were all in tuxedos and fancy clothes, I literally started to cry. That place just reeks of history. Every great director I ever studied in film school, every masterpiece of cinema, has been in this place. The idea that your little movie is going to screen where the giants have all screened their films was so overpowering to me, I literally started to cry. We screened the movie on a Saturday at midnight, and after the last shot of the movie, the audience just started to cheer and gave us this crazy standing ovation. It was just so intense, definitely the most surreal and amazing screening I’ve ever had, and the highlight of any movie I’ve ever done.

And you won the first-ever Queer Palm [a new award at Cannes for LGBT film]!

The whole thing was so incredible as it was, and then we got a prize on top of it, so that was just like the cherry on the sundae. I was really glad a bunch of the cast and crew were there, because it all felt like a dream. Fortunately people were there taking pictures and documenting it, because it didn’t even feel real. It was so weird.

So is the Queer Palm really any queerer than the Golden Palm?

[laughs] Well, it is kinda pink.

Oh, good. As long as it’s distinguishable. So, Kaboom is the first film you’ve directed from your own original, non-adapted screenplay in over a decade. How was that experience for you?

That’s correct. The way I describe it is like this: I don’t have kids, so my films are really like my children, and Smiley Face and Mysterious Skin are almost like my adopted kids. I didn’t create those characters or write those stories, even though I love them so much and am so proud of them. But there’s a more personal investment and risk in a movie like Kaboom, which was made under the idea of being very small but also very free. It was really exciting in the sense that, not to discount Mysterious Skin or Smiley Face, but it was like a return for me. I was trying to get back to kind of like a naive creative space. I wasn’t really thinking about audience expectations, or what such-and-such distributor will think about it, or what will the market be like.

I specifically set out to make something that was just creatively totally free and open, and really just let my imagination go wild. I wanted to let the story and the characters get as crazy in as many different directions as they wanted, to let the sex scenes go wherever they were going to go without worrying, “Oh, I’m going too far here, this is pushing the envelope too much.” I just wanted to let it go, and it was so liberating to do that. It kinda explains the free and playful nature of the movie. It’s this kind of crazy ride, you just feel it exploding all over the place [laughs]. It really is a creative explosion in that way. I specifically set out not to censor myself in any way, and it was really kind of exciting to make a movie like that.

Haley Bennett, Gregg Araki, and Roxane Mesquida on the set of KABOOM

What drew you to Thomas Dekker [who plays the lead character of Smith]? He has to carry so much of the movie on his tiny little shoulders.

Thomas in this movie is just really amazing. It’s a tricky performance in the sense that he makes it look a lot easier than it is. I’ve seen the movie so many times now, and I always just sorta marvel at Thomas’ performance. Technically he’s such a precise actor, which is so awesome to work with, particularly on a tight schedule and a low budget. He’s been a regular on a TV series for a few years, and I’ve found that a lot of TV actors are technically so precise. It’s such a joy because they can always hit their marks, it’s easy for them to adjust to things, and they’re technically so proficient. His character is so important because he’s the conduit to this whole crazy world. All the actors in this movie play it very straight. No matter how campy it gets, there’s no wink-wink at the camera. And Thomas’ belief is so strong. Because he’s in the moment, you’re in the moment with him. It’s what makes the movie work. I think that’s really the key. As absurd and insane as it gets, there’s belief in it. It’s not just weirdness for its own sake. This universe does make sense in its own way, it has its own rules.

Have you ever had any pressure to tone down the sexually explicit content in your films?

Not in Kaboom. With any project, there’s certainly always the question of, “What will the rating be? Are we going for an R?” But with Kaboom, I specifically set out to create it in a space of creative freedom. I just wanted to go for it and let it be what it wanted to be. So there was never any question of, “Oh, we’d better tone down that cunnilingus scene,” or, “Maybe we should have less nudity.” That’s one of the reasons why it goes as far as it does. Because what’s the point of making an indie movie like Kaboom if it’s basically just an episode of Gossip Girl? You can see that on TV every week for free. If you’re just going to make this PG-13, wink-wink, little bits of innuendo, Maybe these kids are going to have sex! kind of thing, then why bother? You can watch that every single night. We wanted to go to that place Gossip Girl wishes it could go to, but can’t. [laughs]

Ever since you dubbed The Doom Generation “a heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki,” you’ve been known for eschewing sexual labels, which hasn’t always gone so well with the gay community. [Araki laughs] Do you think people are starting to catch up with you?

Doom and Nowhere were set in this sort of ambisexual world, and in a way, for me that has been kinda prophetic. I go to Coachella every year, and I love going there because it’s like Nowhere come to life. There are all these ambisexual kids and this atmosphere of freedom. Everyone’s just kinda of who they are, it’s not really about labels. The flipside is, in my “maturity” [laughs], I have a new answer for that questions: it depends who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to a Sarah Palin Republican, it’s very important to come out and say you’re gay. Sexual identity is very important in those circumstances. And it’s so important for young gay kids out there in Timbuktu to know there’s positive gay role models out there…

It gets better.

Right, it gets better! I think all that stuff is very important. But that is different than if you’re talking to a more sophisticated, enlightened audience. There are two different conversations to have. For Republican assholes, it’s, “Yeah, I’m gay,” whatever. But the other flipside is, if you’re in a more sophisticated discussion, it’s good to ask, “What is gay, really? What are the gray areas of that? What are the issues around identity politics? What is this really all about?” I think the reluctance to take on a label is really common in kids today, and it’s really healthy. Life is really about experimenting and figuring out who you are. As a person, sex and sexuality are such crucial parts of that.

I feel really sorry for these young celebrities, who shall all go unnamed but they’re all in the Twilight cast [laughs]. They can never become who they’re really meant to be because they live under this microscope. They can’t do anything. And it’s impossible for someone when you’re 18 to say, “This is who I am!” You’re not anything yet! You’re just an unwritten book! To be 18 and thrust into the spotlight saying, “This is who I am, this is my identity”… You don’t know anything about yourself yet. You think you know, you hope you know, but you don’t. There’s so much learning and growing, so many experiences and relationships that will make you into the person you turn out to  be. But when you’re that age and you’re so famous you can’t do anything, can’t go out with anyone, can’t leave the house — how can you ever find out who you’re going to be?

Anna Faris and Gregg Araki on the set of SMILEY FACE

Okay, so I have to ask a fan question: when will we see a U.S. DVD release for Nowhere? Can we get Criterion on the case?

I get that question every day. It’s a movie that I really, really, really want to be on DVD, because it has such a cult following to this day. The problem is that it’s tied up in a rights thing with Time Warner, because it was released by Fine Line, and it’s this big conglomerate thing. The rights are eventually going to revert, because in those days the contracts were all limited. So, at that point, I really, really want to release it. I also want to remaster The Doom Generation, which has never gotten a proper release. Doom is really beautifully photographed, but the DVD that exists has this weird pan-and-scan crappy quality to it. It’d be great to get it letterboxed. Jim [Duval] is a good friend of mine, and I’m still in touch with Rose [McGowan] and Johnathan [Schaech]. It would be great to do a full-on group commentary track.

[deep orgasmic breathing]

It would be insane, because the making of that movie was fucking crazy! Seeing it with the three of them would just be like, “Oh my god, that scene! Remember that day?” It would be awesome to do that. I’m kinda pissed at Lionsgate because they inherited it from the studio that originally released it, and they re-released it themselves without even contacting me. I totally could have taken that opportunity to remaster it and create a deluxe version.

I was going to ask you to talk a bit about what it was like making Doom.

It was one of the craziest movies ever. The stories behind it are just… Well, the second day of production was the Northridge earthquake, and our location was totally destroyed. Whenever you call a movie “doom” or something gloomy, bad shit will happen. I remember on our first day of filming, the dailies were destroyed, which I later found out was an assistant cameraman error. Just all kinds of crazy shit happened on that movie. Plus it was my first movie with a crew, and just generally an amazing experience. It was so much fun.

And it transformed Rose into a bit of an icon.

Rose was literally, like, this 18- or 19-year old kid, and it just thrust her into this whole other world of being. She went from this person who was just like… this kid, into being “Rose McGowan from The Doom Generation!” And then she was in Scream, and then I’m looking at her in Interview Magazine… It was just an amazing time. The commentary would be a total blast to do, because there’s just such a cult following. The Kaboom DVD is also going to be awesome. There’s a bunch of deleted scenes with some crazy stuff in them, and a commentary track.

Awesome! I just have to say that I saw The Doom Generation when I was 14, and it totally changed my life.

Thank you. To me, that’s really why I make movies. It’s just so flattering to me that the movies mean something to someone. I work in my bubble, living my life and making my movies, and you just sort of work in isolation in that way, and hope that someone out there somewhere is connecting with the movies you’re making. It’s a huge compliment that the movies mean so much to people.

Kaboom opens Friday, February 18, at the Bridge Theatre for an exclusive one-week engagement. Gregg Araki will appear in-person Friday and Saturday at the 7:15 and 9:45pm screenings.

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