The LA filmmaker discusses the challenges of bringing his LGBT odyssey to the big screen.
Eleven months after being awarded the inaugural Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, LWLies meets Gregg Araki on launch day of the 25th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where Kaboom – the film that won him the accolade – is about to cut the ribbon. It’s an honour to which the 51-year-old director is well accustomed, having been a prominent force in raising the profile of gay cinema ever since his 1989 feature, The Long Weekend (O’Despair), picked up the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent-Experimental Award. Times have changed, but what does it mean to Araki to be an LGBT filmmaker in twenty-first-century America?
LWLies: We first saw Kaboom back in October for the LFF, but it’s a film we’ve watched a few times since. It seems to command repeat viewings...
Araki: It’s a film, I think, that you don’t really get all in your first viewing. I know that some of the cast members who’ve seen it have seen it now several times... it goes by so fast and there’s so much going on that you pick up more and more each time you see it. It’s a film that I very much constructed to be seen over and over. From the very beginning I wanted to suck the audience into this other world.
What is the world, how do you see it? Because there’s a lot going on, as you say, and there’s a lot of themes that you’ve not really dealt with before, a lot more fantasy and sci-fi...
Kaboom is one of my most stylised movies, and there’s a very strong influence from comic book and graphic novels, with all the supernatural elements, the cult and the paranoid thriller... With Kaboom I just really wanted to make a film that was totally different to anything else out there. And that’s hard to do, films like Kaboom aren’t really made anymore; there’s this conservatism in the States that’s tough to break through. Filmmakers and distributors are a bit reluctant to make things that are too different, and Kaboom is such a mash up of different genres and tones. But I really wanted to make a film that existed within this universe, this unpredictable space.
Do you see yourself as a defender of that? There aren’t many people making films like you.
I don’t know if I’d call myself a defender. In general my movies have always been about outsiders and my own sensibilities are very much steeped in music and post-punk culture, and I’ve always existed outside of the mainstream, that run-of-the-mill Middle America. I’ve always questioned the norm, and Kaboom is very much an expression of that.
Were you an outsider growing up?
Not in the sense of being, like, the Columbine kid, or whatever. I had mainstream friends, but I was always very artistic and I would spend hours by myself writing and drawing, and as I got older it was around the time that post-punk and that whole new wave music scene was emerging and I was very much a part of that, it was a formative influence on me. I belonged to that punk-rock model, that energetic alternative to the bland, corporate mainstream culture.
What made you go into movies?
It wasn’t really until I got into college that I really started to study film, just like Smith in the movie. But it was very much a natural progression for me at that time, I was very into visual art and I was also very into comic books, and I would write these little stories and movies were really just the next step up from that.
A lot of your characters are excessive, caricatures almost, but at the same time they feel very genuine, even if you don’t always relate directly to them. How do you create these characters, are they drawn from real life?
There’s a mix of everything, they’re not necessarily based on people I know but there are elements of truth in them. Kaboom is probably my most autobiographical movie in the sense that I’ve never made a movie before that’s so directly related to my own life. I was just like Smith; the school he goes to is based on UC Santa Barbara, which is where I did my undergrad, his best friend is an art major who wears crazy outfits all the time. All of those adventures and experience that they have are very much based on things I was doing at the time. Except that I didn’t have as much sex! But yeah, the questioning part of the movie is very true to my life.
It’s an exaggerated autobiography though, because for one the characters have a lot of sex...
I really wanted the film to have a very positive view of sexuality, which is very much un-American. American film is very puritanical and hypocritical when it comes to sex, and I wanted the film to really embrace the idea of this sexual openness. It’s embodied in the character of London, in the way she speaks about sex. But those years of your life are not so much about the exams and the papers, it’s the people you sleep with and the relationships you have. To this day those are the things that have had the most impact on my life.
It’s a very positive view of sex, almost in contrast to Mysterious Skin.
The sexuality in Mysterious Skin is complicated. To me he uses his sexuality in the way he does is because he was a victim of abuse early on and that shaped him into this twisted adult. I wanted to present Kaboom as a celebration of freespiritedness. You have these sexual people who are experiencing the world through sex, and those experiences are completely free from stigma and guilt. I think the strongest thing in the movie is that the sexuality isn’t punished; it’s shown in a very truthful, very pure sense.
You’ve mentioned the post-punk music scene, but who influenced you film-wise at that time?
I’ve seen so many great movies and I studied a lot of the great auteurs in college, people like Hitchcock and Hawks and Fellini. It’s all so much a part of my consciousness, and sometimes when I make a film I’m not aware of he influence, but they’re so ingrained in me that they inevitably come through. And for Kaboom, I guess there’s a lot of Lynch; it’s a surreal world that vibrates on a whole different frequency. It’s a seductive world, and it’s intended to be very escapist in that way. To me Kaboom is a world that’s fun to go to, that more colourful, sexier place that people will want to keep going back to. So there’s a tonne of references in different layers of the movie that you won’t catch the first time. There’s so much crammed into it and it’s such a short movie.
What’s the next step for you?
As a filmmaker I’d like to keep challenging myself and try to make something different from this project. I’ve got three or four things like that which I’m working on at the moment and they’re all really different to anything I’ve done before. Hopefully I’ll be shooting something soon. But I think that my films really change with time, I feel that every movie I’ve made was meant to be made when it was made. So I don’t think it would have been possible to make Kaboom 10 years ago because I wasn’t in the same headspace. I passed on Mysterious Skin three times before I made it; I made it when I was ready. And I never in a million years would’ve expected myself to make a movie like Smiley Face, but I’m really proud of that movie. I’ll only ever want to make things that I love and am passionate about. I love movies like The Living End, but it’s almost like they belong to a different person. I’m totally different now. All my movies are very personal though, it’s just interesting to see that progression in my mindset and where I am in life when I look back at the movies I made 10 or 15 years ago.
Why do you think there aren’t more Gregg Arakis out there?
Film is such an artistic and challenging medium, and it’s also so expensive. But the technology of filmmaking is making things easier and that’s really helping to raise the profiles of films like Kaboom, but I’m a little perplexed that there’s been this democritisation of cinema in the sense that it’s so accessible for everyone with a camera of Final Cut or whatever. I saw Richard Linklater at Sundance this year and we started talking about how, when we were making our first two movies, making a movie in the late '80s on 16mm was really, really hard. So why there’s not more interesting, experimental movies being made is a mystery to me because it’s just much easier to do now. Or maybe they are, but they’re certainly not getting seen. It’s puzzling to me.
Do you think gay cinema is underrepresented?
Probably, but there are a lot of challenges in getting the kinds of movies that I make financed and distributed. It’s not a black and white thing. There’s been a lot of progress though, certainly in the span of my career. So much has happened, and whether it’s Brokeback Mountain or Glee it’s all helping to raise the presence of a gay voice. It’s more prevalent in the mainstream than it’s ever been, but it’s still two steps forward one step back. But it has to be palatable, and something that’s more transgressive like Kaboom is never going to break into the mainstream. In general there’s progress, but it’s not as quick as it could be. It’s certainly easier to make a film about lesbians – if The Kids Are All Right was about two guy it definitely would have been more challenging, because just that vision of two guys with children is upsetting to middle America. But in the same respect two women with children is now widely accepted, and that had to be taken as a big step forward.