Director Gregg Araki cemented his reputation as a cinematic provocateur early, with the 1992 road movie The Living End, about two HIV-positive men who decide to get dangerous. Throughout the ’90s, Araki continued to make jagged little indie movies filled with aggression, transgression, and loud rock ’n’ roll, but in 2005, he surprised some of his harshest critics with his sensitive adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel Mysterious Skin, about how a gay hustler and his boyhood friend were shaped by the abuse they endured as kids. Araki followed Mysterious Skin with the goofy pot comedy Smiley Face, and now he’s back with Kaboom, a crazy college comedy about religious cults and wanton sexuality. Araki recently spoke with The A.V. Club about whether he feels he’s matured as a filmmaker, and why the nutso Kaboom may be his most autobiographical work.
The A.V. Club: After you finished Smiley Face, you said in an interview that you went from Mysterious Skin to Smiley Face because you’d been working on a screenplay that was darker and heavier, and you wanted to do something lighter first. Was Kaboom that screenplay?
Gregg Araki: No, I was talking about Mysterious Skin, I think. I’m sure the context of it was that after doing Mysterious Skin, which was so dark and serious, I wanted to do something that was completely different, and that’s where Smiley Face came from. I did think of Kaboom as being more like the kind of teenage nihilist movies I made in the mid-’90s, but it actually has a lot more Smiley Face and Mysterious Skin than I intended. [Laughs.] I think part of that is because it’s where I am in my life, where my head is. Smiley Face is my most recent movie besides Kaboom, and it’s closer to my sensibility right now, in terms of where I’m at personally. There’s a lot of that sense of fun and optimism in Smiley Face and in Kaboom, more so than in my other movies.
I remember when The Doom Generation premièred at Sundance, the audience walked out of the theater basically shell-shocked. [Laughs.] For Kaboom, we premièred in Cannes at the Palais, and it was like, the most amazing experience of my whole life. After the last shot of the movie, the whole audience started to cheer, and then we got this crazy standing ovation. The cast and I didn’t know what to do. After the movie, the energy level was just—everybody was ready to party. Our screening was Saturday at midnight, and the whole crowd was electrified. We had this huge party that the financiers put on that was one of the craziest parties I’ve ever been to in my life. It’s more like a party movie in a way, despite its apocalyptic themes. It has more joyfulness.
AVC: You mentioned Kaboom being unexpectedly like Mysterious Skin, but while the tone is very different, the plot of both films features a young person trying to figure out his past almost like it’s a puzzle to be solved.
GA: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of Mysterious Skin in it, particularly in the use of music. A lot of Mysterious Skin is music-based, and so much of the mood and atmosphere is coming out of that music. The same with this movie—we had Robin Guthrie, and the score is very evocative, kind of like, “What’s going on here?” [Laughs.] I’ve always said that Mysterious Skin is so much about the music that if you ever listen to the soundtrack, you see the whole movie, because it’s all there. The same with this film.
AVC: That’s common to your earliest films, too. Oftentimes you seem to be trying to approximate what a song feels like, through dialogue and action.
GA: Yeah, well, music has always been probably the biggest influence on me. Basically, I listen to my stereo from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed at night. It’s weird to say, because it’s such a crazy movie, but Kaboom is one of my most autobiographical movies, in that I remember that time in your life when you’re a freshman in university, and you don’t know who you are, or what your sexuality is, or what you’re going to be. Your whole life is sort of this big question mark. For this movie, I just wanted to explore that time.
I remember in my 20s being extremely angst-ridden and very confused. Everything seemed so traumatic and hard. But when you look back on it from the perspective of middle age, it’s sort of like what Stella says in the movie—those are some of the best years of your life. Those adventures and experiences are so important. That’s what Stella says about college. Those experiences are what make you who you are, and the experiences are what’s important, not the grades you got in calculus, or some midterm, or whatever. [Laughs.] It’s not really about those things you’re studying. It’s about what you learned about yourself as a person. Your sexual experiences, the relationships you had, the breakups you had, and all that stuff that seems so dramatic and confusing at that time.
To get back to my point, I was an undergraduate film student very much like Smith, and I had a best friend who went to the College Of Creative Studies who was an art major. There are so many of those things in the movie that are very close to my own life. One of the scenes that’s most resonant is the scene when Smith’s in the club watching the band play. That scene of him, I just find very, very… it really reverberates with me. Even now, when I go to concerts, there’s that feeling of being transported by music, and how it’s the only thing important in your life at that moment. That’s a scene I relate to strongly.
AVC: And yet it’s set in the present day, with computers and cell phones.
GA: No, it’s not a period piece. [Laughs.]
AVC: Given the technology that students have access to now, do you think the college experience has changed?
GA: I think a lot of it is the same. That was one thing I noticed about the script when it was finished, that like half the movie is fucking text messages and computers. [Laughs.] I mean, the whole movie is literally them looking at little screens or getting messages. The Internet and communications and all that is a huge part of everybody’s life today. So that part has changed, but I think a lot of the rest of the experiences are at least similar.
AVC: What about the sexual mores? The switching between different sexual partners of different genders?
GA: I actually think that’s more common now, or at least less like a secret than it was when I was in college. I’ve always been fascinated with sex and sexuality and sexual gray areas. My earlier movies are sort of about that idea of sexuality as beyond categories and labels, a thing that is flexible and not black and white. I find in contemporary society, in particular amongst the younger generation, the kids in their early 20s, that’s really common. It’s much more common and much more prevalent than when I went to college. It’s always sort of been there, but I think people are becoming more comfortable with themselves and more aware of these alternatives. Personally, I think it’s really a healthy thing, you know? I think those experiences are very much a part of growing up.
AVC: Kaboom won the first ever Queer Palm at Cannes. Was that an award designed simply for this film, or is that going to be an annual award?
GA: It’s an annual award. Basically, they’ve had a Queer Award in Berlin every year for decades. I think they’re just trying to start a similar award in Cannes. Yeah. Pretty amazing that we got it.
AVC: Do you take pride in that, or do you think it slaps one of those labels on the film that you don’t like?
GA: I don’t feel like it’s an identifier. I was so thrilled and amazed to be at Cannes in the first place, for the first time. Smiley Face was in Director’s Fortnight in 2007, but I had never been in the main selection before. I had never screened at the Palais before. I was just so amazed and thrilled to be there. It was such an incredible experience. I wasn’t expecting to win any awards. Just to have won anything there was the cherry on the top for me. Amazing. Very thrilled to be the first recipient for that.
AVC: Kaboom’s storytelling style is so frenetic, almost like an entire season of a TV series compressed into about 80 minutes. How did you plot it out?
GA: I had been working on it for several years, and it’s gone through various incarnations. At one point, it actually was a TV series, for cable. A year or so before I made it, it turned into a feature in sort of the same way Mulholland Dr. became a feature after being written as a TV pilot. Yeah, I did have all these different storylines and different characters. I just did the deleted scenes for the DVD of Kaboom, and there are several I cut out of the movie, and I talk about them a little bit in the commentary track, because it just killed me to cut them. But I really wanted to make this the sort of movie you could watch again and again and again. And I have a personal pet peeve about movies that are too long. Whenever I see a movie, and it’s 20 minutes too long, 30 minutes too long… I always feel like movies that overstay their welcome, I get what they’re trying to do really quickly. I personally feel as a moviegoer I just don’t have a lot of time to see these movies that are two and a half hours, three and a half hours long. I don’t have enough time in the day to do that. By the time you park, and with the drive there, it’s like five hours out of your day. So for this movie, because it’s kind of like for a younger audience, I really wanted it to be compact.
That’s one of the things I really appreciate about the movie: It just kind of goes. It starts, it sucks you into this weird world, and it just happens. And then before you know it, it’s over. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like a roller-coaster ride in a way. You get on it, ride it, and then you’re like, “Oh wow. What just happened?” So I had to cut stuff out in the name of keeping the pace of the movie relentless. There were a few kind of crazy things. Particularly, there’s a subplot involving Thor that absolutely broke my heart to cut out. But it lives on in the deleted scenes.
AVC: Is it difficult, when you’re working with low budgets and know what it costs to shoot a scene, to then cut it? Or does DVD make it easier?
GA: For me, it’s always about what’s right for the movie. I edit my movies, and Kaboom is my 10th. Every time you make a movie, you learn so much about editing and pace and rhythm, and how movies work. You just learn. I’m technically so much better as a filmmaker today than I was 10, 15 years ago. A lot of first-time filmmakers fall into that trap of “Oh, I love this shot.” You fall in love with something, and the movie’s not really about those little things. It’s about the whole. For the good of the movie, you need to lose it. You just have to bite the bullet and lose it. At least with DVD, people get to see it. Also, they could talk about “Oh, why did it get cut out?” It could start a discussion.
AVC: Your earlier films are divisive, but your recent movies have been more widely accepted. Do you think it’s a matter of critics catching up to you, or do you think it has to do with you changing your approach?
GA: It’s hard to say. To me, my films continue to be divisive. The one film that really shocked me in its lack of divisiveness was Mysterious Skin. I remember when I made Mysterious Skin, because of what it was about, I felt like it was a huge risk. It could’ve really been misinterpreted. People could’ve taken it the wrong way and run me out of town on a rail. But I loved the book. I loved the story. I felt passionate about it. I really felt like, “I don’t think anybody is going to make this movie but me, so I’m just going to do it because I love it.” Then it comes out, and it’s literally the most unanimously acclaimed movie I’ve ever made. [Laughs.] That kind of shocked me, because I really was preparing for the love-it-or-hate-it type stuff. I still feel like my movies have a tendency to divide. They definitely have their supporters and they have their detractors. I mean, obviously it’s nicer when people appreciate something you do. But I’m so used to both extremes that I really just make the movies I feel super-passionate about. I know what my intent is.
I think Gus Van Sant told me that once. You can’t really think how people are going to respond to your movies. You just have to make movies that you like, and hope other people like them too. That’s great advice. Mysterious Skin taught me that you can’t second-guess what anybody is going to think, or how movies will be received. It’s really about “This is what I love. This is the best possible movie I could make.” Put it out there and cross your fingers.
AVC: When The Living End came out, it was an edgy, underground, hard-to-find movie. Now it’s on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service—
GA: Is it the remastered version? Can you understand what they’re saying? [Laughs.]
AVC: You can hear the dialogue.
GA: Okay, in that case, it’s probably the remastered version. We remastered and remixed it recently so that it is at least decipherable. For years, the copy of The Living End floating around was like a VHS, such a bad copy. I was mortified that it was actually being watched, in queer-studies classes in college or whatever. I was like, “Oh my God, the copy of that movie is terrible.” We remastered it like three years ago, and now there’s a decent copy floating around.
That’s like one of the reasons I’m so excited about Kaboom. When I did The Living End and The Doom Generation—those movies to this day have this kind of crazy cult following. I’ll go to a film festival and run into these kids who were not even born when those movies came out, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I’ve seen The Doom Generation 5,000 times,” or, “I watched Nowhere on VHS every night in college, it means so much to me.” As a filmmaker, that’s the highest compliment you could ever get, that something you’ve done is so meaningful to somebody. I really with Kaboom wanted to do something like that, for the next generation, you know? Make a movie that’s really for a wider audience, but also for a core audience. Something they can really embrace and claim as their own.
Say you’re some outsider kid living in North Dakota or something, and you feel sort of different. [Laughs.] You want to make a movie for that kid, to make him say, “Oh my God, that movie is my movie.” The thing about those older movies that has always baffled me is that when those movies came out in the ’90s, there was no Internet, no Facebook, so I don’t even know how those kids ever got hold of those movies. There was basically just theatrical distribution and video, and no real abilities for it to permeate the culture. Now with the Internet and Netflix—and Kaboom is going to be on VOD—some kid in Alaska can watch Kaboom. They can read about it and then watch it. I think that’s amazing.
The downside is, I’m an old-school film person the way Smith is in the movie. That scene when he sits in the movie theater talking about cinema and all that. I do believe in the church of cinema, and being able to go to the theater and watch a movie on a big screen with surround sound and an audience and everything else. I think Kaboom works best when you’re immersed in it, when you’re in that world. So I hope that if people do watch it at home on TV or whatever, they do it in the most cinematic way possible, with the lights off. It’s cool that way.