During a recent visit to Sydney, Gregg Araki spoke to Damon Young and Gilbert Caluya after a preview of his new film, Mysterious Skin (2004), an adaptation of the novel by Scott Heim, which explores two boys’ experience of sexual abuse. At the time, the film was at the centre of a controversy, Australia’s Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, having requested a reconsideration of the film’s classification, following pressure from Christian and ‘family’ groups.
Araki is best known for his teen angst trilogy – Totally F***ed Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997) – whose “satirical and postmodern” stylistics earned him a reputation as the “Bad Boy of the New Queer Cinema”. This may be because his work, at least since The Living End (1992), has continually challenged the hetero-normative premises of conventional narrative structure. However, Araki has shied away from this appellation, along with all other attempts to pin him down to a particular political agenda.
In this interview, Young and Caluya spoke to Araki about the difficulty of locating intimacy in a hyper-real world.
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GILBERT CALUYA: Although she works entirely with words, author Toni Morrison talks about using an image to start off her writing. What do you start with at the beginning of the creative process? I realise that with Mysterious Skin you had a book that you have adapted to the screen, but what about your previous work?
GREG ARAKI: Mysterious Skin, like all my movies, is really inspired by music. One of the reasons why Mysterious Skin appealed to me so much is that Scott Heim, the author of the novel, is also very inspired by music and listens to music when he writes. The dreamy atmospheric quality of Mysterious Skin comes from the music of bands like Slowdive and the Cocteau Twins, “shoe-gazer” music that was popular in the UK in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That music was a big inspiration for the book and has always been a huge inspiration to me. It has been in all of my films since The Doom Generation and was an intersection point for Scott and I.
I still listen to music pretty much every day, all day long – especially when I write.
DAMON YOUNG: Why did you choose film as your artistic medium rather than music?
GA: I’ve always been visually-oriented. When I was a young kid, I used to draw comic books. I was always drawing. I also used to write fiction, short stories, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I put the two together, and thought seriously about cinema and filmmaking.
DY: Were you studying film?
GA: I went to college wanting to be a veterinarian. I was a pre-med major, and I was very good at math and science. I was going to be a veterinarian and an artist on the side – a veterinarian who painted! It wasn’t until I was in college that the artistic side of me became much more ‘dominant’. I got good grades, straight ‘A’s and stuff, but I was really frustrated and unhappy with the work. So, when I was an undergraduate, I started taking film classes.
DY: You were at the University of Southern California (USC)?
GA: I was at UC Santa Barbara. They had a small film-studies program there. That’s kind of how I got into cinema.
DY: How did you move from there to getting it together to make your first film?
GA: I went to an old-school film school. I was studying film history and film criticism, and the work of all the masters like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks and John Ford – the whole pantheon of auteur directors. My whole undergraduate career was really history- and criticism-based. But there were small production classes, where we made little Super-8 movies, which inspired me to want to make my own movies. I was very enamoured of the cinematic medium.
So, that’s how I eventually came to go to USC for my Masters in Production.
DY: Did you have a good experience there?
GA: I had a little bit of a difficult time because USC is a very industry-oriented school. But it was important for me to go through that program, because I’d had such a thorough background in academia and been very influenced by things like Jean-Luc Godard films. My upbringing was very theoretical. Then to go through USC, which was the exact opposite – very Hollywood, very mainstream – to go through their screenwriting classes and all the production courses gave me a taste of that world and formed me, in a way, to make the kind of films that I make.
DY: In film schools like USC, they teach writing and the classic 3-act structure. A lot of films that you would have been studying and interested in, like those of Godard and the French New Wave, don’t necessarily use that structure.
GA: That’s why it was so important to my early formation as a filmmaker. I always think that if I’d gone to a school that was more artsy or experimental, like the San Francisco Art Institute, I wouldn’t have been exposed to that whole Hollywood structure, the classical Hollywood structure.
When I was at USC, I had conflicts with my professors because they were all very by-the-book. They’d never heard of Godard, or they thought Godard was nonsense. It was very important in the formation of my filmmaking identity to exist between these two worlds – to exist in the world of film history, criticism and academia, and also to be acquainted with the system and structure of Hollywood.
DY: Do you use the classical structure when you’re writing?
GA: Not necessarily. I don’t sit down and have the classic structure laid out and I don’t write with Post-It notes, the way they tell you to! [Laughs.] I write in a much more organic way. But I think that my training in classical cinema subconsciously influences the structure of my movies. When a movie comes to me in my head, it’s formed through the prism of the structures that I’ve learned repeatedly and absorbed through the years.
GC: In your earlier work, you wrote the script from scratch, whereas in Mysterious Skin you were working from a book. Did you feel restricted in adapting the screenplay from a novel?
GA: I found that adapting Mysterious Skin was, in a weird way, easier than writing one of my own original screenplays, because everything was laid out for me: the structure, the characters, all the character arcs. The process of adapting it was really just condensing it – condensing a 300-page book into a 100-minute movie. It was almost like editing a film, in the sense that when you edit a movie you have all these rushes and you distil it and condense it and cut it down to the appropriate size.
So the writing of the script was actually easier for me, because I was editing rather than having to create this whole world; it was already created for me.
DY: In a way, it’s your most conventionally structured film. The form and style are very deferential to the narrative; there’s a sense of psychological realism and biographical detail, which haven’t been featured in your other work. They seem to affect a certain style, an æsthetic, an attitude, but the story isn’t necessarily the central driving force. That makes Mysterious Skin much more aligned with conventional narrative cinema.
GA: It’s true that the structure and narrative of Mysterious Skin are more clear in the sense that my other films, particularly The Doom Generation and Nowhere, are much more satirical and postmodern in nature. They have this kind of self-conscious irony to them, whereas Mysterious Skin is much more straightforward in that it is an emotional story. The tone of it is very different. The film is much more serious and much more character-driven. But it really comes from the source material. I really wanted to tell this particular story, which I thought was an important story to tell, in a very faithful and pure way. The tone and point of view were very much dictated by Scott’s book.
GC: I was going to ask about the differences in audience reception between Australia and America, but the recent controversy here has made that embarrassingly redundant. It seems there is a shift in your responsible treatment of pædophilia in Mysterious Skin. That’s in contrast to The Living End, which the pre-title announces as “An irresponsible film by Gregg Araki”. Is it because of the subject material that you’re dealing with?
GA: It’s a combination of things. In general, there’s a more serious, ‘mature’ sensibility at work in Mysterious Skin. I’m at a different place in my life; I don’t think I could have made Mysterious Skin ten years ago when the book was sent to me for the first time. At the same time, I’m not at a place in my life where I’m going to make The Doom Generation, either. My films are really an evolution, a snapshot of where my head is at a certain time. Every film I make is a representation of where I’m at and each one is very different. There’s definitely a voice to them, a flow to the œuvre, but at the same time I think that they represent an ongoing progression.
Just recently at a film festival in LA, I saw a screening of my first film, Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987), which is really hard to see and rare. It’s not available on video or anything.
DY: We couldn’t get our hands on it! Was it shot on 16mm?
GA: It was shot on 16mm black and white when I had just graduated from USC.
At the LA screening, I was just going to watch the first five minutes and then leave. But I found myself totally sucked into it and I couldn’t leave. The film created this whole world; it was really so much a part of where I was at that time. It was very strange to watch it because I hadn’t seen it for 15 years or longer and I had forgotten whole chunks of it. I was really watching it like somebody else’s movie. I was fascinated by it. There’s something about your first movie: it has all of the things that are in my movies in a very embryonic stage.
DY: Like everything about Mysterious Skin, the violence is handled with great care, precision and delicacy. You suggested in an interview that one reason a wide audience has responded to the film, and been so receptive, is because there’s nothing gratuitous about the treatment of the subject. That strikes me as a bit of a stylistic departure for you, because in your other films there’s much more of a camp sense, a showy sense of almost gratuitous gore – for example, the severed arm in The Doom Generation or the bloodied face of Dark Smith (James Duval) in the Campbell’s soup can scene in Nowhere.
GA: It’s interesting, because the word “camp” is frequently attached to my movies, as is the word “nihilism”, and both of those things are alien to me in the sense that I don’t really think of my films as being campy or nihilistic. I know they’re perceived that way by a lot of people, but, as the person who makes them, I don’t think of them as being gratuitously violent. Certainly a lot of people do perceive the violence in the films as being gratuitous, but I honestly don’t think of it that way. It’s hard for me to describe where those images come from. I don’t want to be all mystical about it, but it’s literally like I’m channelling these images; I don’t know where they come from. Even in The Doom Generation, the famous scene in the Quik-E-Mart with the guy’s head flying through the air, it’s not like I said, “I just want to make something outrageous and campy and gratuitous!” It’s really like the characters discover this strange stuff happening to them and I’m discovering it along with them. A lot of it comes from film school and influences of things I’m not even aware of.
DY: Such as horror films?
GA: All the films I’ve ever seen and all my experiences in the culture at large. In a lot of ways, I feel like a vessel of imagery, not just from films but also from the world. I approach film in a very pure, artistic way. My films express my sense of my place in the world. A lot of the things in my films which are perceived as campy or nihilistic, I perceive as being more surrealistic – like we are living this strange, dreamlike existence in a totally unpredictable and irrational world – and especially because I live in Los Angeles. LA is a place where life is larger than life and everyday experience has a very twisted, cartoonish quality to it. The characters in my movies come from this world and that’s why Mysterious Skin is so different for me. The characters in my other movies exist in this kind of hyper-real world, where colours are brighter than normal and actions are more vibrant and more extreme – like the way the scuffle in the mini-mart in Doom Generation turns into a phantasmagorical nightmare. I don’t sit down to write and say, “I’m going to make this campy gratuitous scene”, it just kind of creates itself. The characters are in these situations and this crazy stuff begins to happen.
I don’t really know exactly where it comes from, I think it emanates from my own perceptions of the world, my own worldview. Because I’m a film-school trained auteurist, it’s similar to the way that Godard’s worldview is so clear in his movies, and Hitchcock’s worldview is so clear in his movies, and how their films are really an expression of their place in the world. Not that I’m putting myself anywhere near their level, of course.
GC: I was having a debate last night about surrealism in your work. Is it because you feel that the world itself is more dreamlike than dreams?
GA: The idea of surrealism and dreams is much more accurate with regard to my movies than either camp or nihilism. It’s certainly more the way that I perceive them. But, to tell the truth, I don’t ever really think about it. I leave all that kind of stuff to the academics. I don’t really analyse my own movies; I just make them.
DY: Come on, you’re trained in film theory!
GA: I think it has something to do with the idea of cinema being this extended dream state. The world of my films is very much this world of pure imagination. That’s where, for me as a filmmaker, my interest in cinema lies. I’m not so interested in plain old reality; I don’t really like movies that are pseudo-documentaries, that have this sort of ‘real world’ æsthetic, this shaky camerawork or digital stuff, or Dogme movies, where there’s no lighting or design. I don’t go to the cinema to see reality. Reality to me is boring. What’s interesting is taking that reality and creating this hyper-reality. That’s where my films exist, in this controlled and created world.
Mysterious Skin is the same. It is definitely the most naturalistic movie I’ve made in terms of where it’s set. But, at the same time, it’s not reality. It’s actually stylistically very similar to my other movies in the way it takes reality and æsthetically shapes it. It’s very controlled and manipulated.
DY: I’m interested in your stylistic influences in respect to Mysterious Skin. In your early work, you often used a lot of overt references to filmmakers that may have inspired you, such as the Andy Warhol poster that appears in both The Living End and Totally F***ed Up.
GA: It’s funny you bring that up, because we were working on a tight budget and it was a poster that I personally owned. People keep saying that they reference each other, but it’s just that I was working on them at the same time. I was still cutting one while I was shooting the other. So the poster got used twice. [Laughs.]
DY: There’s also the Qwik-E-Mart scene which you have said was based on Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925). (1) In Mysterious Skin, this kind of inter-textual referencing is not so obvious, because the style is more naturalistic and less self-conscious. What filmmakers were you drawing on in conceiving Mysterious Skin? Were you looking beyond the New Wave and avant-garde filmmakers like Godard and Warhol, who have influenced some of your earlier work?
GA: The book, Mysterious Skin, is written in this very poetic and lyrical language, so I wanted the film to be a cinematically and æsthetically beautiful experience. When I was talking to the DP and the designers, we’d talk about Wong Kar-Wai movies – and Terrence Malick is one of my favourite filmmakers. These movies are filled with these lush, gorgeous surfaces. I was creating these incredibly beautiful images out of this milieu, which is very kind of – I don’t want to say “white trash”, because it’s politically incorrect – lower-income Kansas. These old houses with tattered furniture, these sleazy motel rooms, these places that are not so obviously beautiful or exciting. It wasn’t The Doom Generation, where we had chequerboard hotel rooms and these crazy expressionistic sets. It was this low-key and lower-income world and, from that, through lighting and colour and composition, we set out to create these very beautiful images.
There’s a photographer that we studied, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. He specialises in these unbelievably gorgeous photographs of hustlers in fast-food restaurants or hotel rooms or just desolate streets, but they’re lit and composed in this very controlled and precise way. He’s a famous fine art photographer. He did this one book in particular and literally almost every designer that I met with brought this book in.
DY: Speaking of influences, in Totally F***ed Up one of the characters says he wants to be a writer like Dennis Cooper. The film itself has a kind of Cooperesque quality to it. Were you reading him at the time?
GA: I had read several of his books in the early ’90s.
DY: Did you ever think about adapting one of his novels to the screen?
GA: They really wanted me to make Frisk.
DY: Oh, I wish that you had. The film they made of it (Todd Verow, 1995) is terrible.
GA: The producer of that film was really trying to get me to do the film and I just really felt like it was – much more so than Mysterious Skin – an unadaptable book. It went to a place that really wouldn’t work as a film, and I don’t think the film really works. So I guess I was right! [Laughs.]
It was different with Mysterious Skin. There were difficult parts of that adaptation. I had to figure out how to shoot all the stuff with the young kids, and how to keep the kids protected from what the movie was about, etc. At the same time, Mysterious Skin really works in the cinematic medium. In a weird way, I think it’s ideally suited for cinema. I don’t want to say it works better as a film than as a book, but the medium of cinema, because of the subjective nature of the story, works perfectly for the story. The film envelops you; it takes you over in a way that a printed word on the page can’t – particularly if you watch the movie as it’s intended to be watched, in a big dark cinema with a huge screen. Being an old-school film person, I really want people to see it in the theatre, because it takes you over and you’re powerless in the way that the protagonists of the movie are. It’s very subjective and it really works to put you in their place. The powerlessness of the movie-goer, and the vulnerability of that state, are really important to the experience of Mysterious Skin as a whole.
DY: You’ve said a number of times that you don’t like the word “nihilism” applied to your work. In one interview, you said that what you thought your films had in common was a “romantic core”, that your characters are “clinging to [an] ideal of love, [searching] for love and purity in what is essentially a chaotic and impure world” (2). Dark Smith, in the ‘teen angst’ trilogy, seems to represent a kind of romantic innocent. And, yet, it seems that there is a kind of nihilism or pessimism in these films, in that they end on a note of despair or uncertainty – for example, when Montgomery turns into a giant beetle at the end of Nowhere.
GA: [Laughs.] When he explodes! There’s this moment of tenderness that’s kind of rudely shattered.
DY: Right. So, it’s as if you have acknowledged that the pure, romantic connection that Dark Smith is looking for is impossible – or that you deny it to the characters. I’m interested in that tension between romanticism and what I don’t want to call it nihilism.
GA: To me, the fact that this idea of romantic utopia is such a driving force, and it’s what the characters are desperately yearning for, that makes the films romantic. Even if, at the end of the day, Jimmy’s character [Dark Smith] is denied that happiness, the fact that he’s searching for it is still romantic. My films are frequently about the search for this utopian idea of love and connection in this chaotic and disconnected world. That’s the thing about [Dark]; that’s one of the reasons why I wrote the Teen Apocalypse trilogy around him. His persona has this sort of openness and vulnerability; there’s a genuine sweetness and sincerity that makes you believe that he believes in this notion. He has a yearning quality for a pure connection with another person, and I think that’s what makes the films ultimately kind of romantic, even if he’s denied the ‘happily ever after’. The fact is he’s searching for it and believes in it in the first place. The cynical or nihilistic viewpoint, I think, would be for him to not believe in it anymore, for him to turn his back on it, or to say it doesn’t exist.
That’s part of the reason why I didn’t think I could do the Dennis Cooper book, because that world is, to me, truly nihilistic. It really is just about sex and brutality and violence and real disconnectedness. There is no purity in that world and no sense of connection; there’s no affection. All my films have always had that and that’s another reason why Mysterious Skin totally fits into my œuvre. It shares with all my films this longing for tenderness and affection. There’s a warmth and tenderness between the characters. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking, because it’s set in a world that is incredibly chaotic and hostile.
DY: In Mysterious Skin, those moments of intimacy and affection between the characters all take place in a non-sexual context, like the friendships between Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Eric (Jeff Licon), and Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg). It also seems in your other work that sexuality is a dangerous and ultimately selfish force. I’m wondering about the relation between sexuality and that kind of humane, intimate connection that, in Mysterious Skin, is desexualised. Do you see a tension there?
GA: In Mysterious Skin, the sexuality is slightly different than in my other films, in the sense that in, say, The Living End or The Doom Generation, or Nowhere to a certain extent, there isn’t such a gap between the uncontrolled and sometimes dangerous intensity of sexual connection and romantic love. The Living End is very much structured like a traditional couple-on-the-run, l’amour fou kind of movie, where there’s a connection between the characters that’s sexual and romantic. It’s the two of them against this world that’s trying to destroy them.
So, in those films, I think there’s much more of a marriage between sex and romantic love. Whereas, in Mysterious Skin, the sexuality in general comes more from a place of someone acting out their damage, like with Neil’s character and his hustling. Neil’s sexuality is tainted with the damage that he carries with him from his early abuse. And the abuse in the film has grave repercussions for the other characters, either directly or indirectly. It’s true that the tenderness in the film is all either platonic or unrequited – like Eric and Neil, or Neil and Wendy, Brian and Eric, or the boys with their mothers. But those relationships are so important. They’re the centre of that movie, because it’s the connections, the deep love between those characters that holds the movie together.
GC: There have been a lot of references to you in Asian-American film criticism or Asian-American studies. But it doesn’t seem to me that ethnicity is much of a concern in your work. Is it?
GA: Not really. The world of Nowhere is, in a way, typical of my worldview in the sense that both race and sexuality are, as far as issues go, very neutered. I mean, there’s a utopian vision of the world as this place where sexuality is not really an issue, where characters are not really gay or straight or bisexual, they just sort of ‘are’. And, in the same way, there are African-American characters and Asian-American characters and Latino characters, and they’re all in this melting pot. There’s not really an issue of “I’m black and you’re white and we’re in this relationship, so how do we navigate our differences?”
The world of Nowhere in particular is very colour-blind in the sense that, as an Asian-American raised in Southern California, I grew up very ‘assimilated’. My ethnic identity is not like a separatist sort of thing; it doesn’t keep me from other people. It’s not something that I view as this huge difference.
We would like to thank Gregg Araki for his generosity of time and engagement. Thanks also to Sally Steele from Hopscotch films; Amber Ma and Natalya Lusty; John Dennis and Paxton Chmara for helping with equipment; and to Josh Wright for his critically insightful conversations on Araki’s work.