Teenage Daydream: Interview with Gregg Araki

<b>Gregg Araki</b>, director of new queer cinema freak-outs <i>Totally Fucked Up</i> and <i>The Doom Generation</i>, talks to The Skinny about his latest pop-art paean to teenage sexual liberation, <b>Kaboom</b>

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 10 Jun 2011

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing a Gregg Araki movie, then his latest, Kaboom, is an excellent place to start. It’s like a greatest hits collection, bursting with the images and motifs that have obsessed the 51-year-old director since his breakthrough third feature, The Living End (1992), a classic of 90s New Queer Cinema. There’s the exotically beautiful leading man; spiky female characters who get all the best lines; a nice-but-dim blonde haired guy who’s discovering his sexuality; paranoid fears of abduction (see Mysterious Skin (2004) and Nowhere (1997)); and a general funk of feverish sexual abandon.

In Kaboom, Thomas Dekker plays Smith, an eighteen-year-old film student with a haircut that would make Justin Bieber weep and the kind of sex-life that would require a superinjunction if he played for Manchester United. Smith is having weird dreams, and after a night of drug-taking and lovemaking with fez-wearing party-girl London (a scene stealing Juno Temple), these dreams start bleeding into reality. What begins as a paean to the polysexual freedoms of college life quickly morphs into a bat-shit apocalypse aria featuring a cult of animal mask-wearing perverts and a bipolar witch who’s psychotically possessive of her girlfriend, Smith’s gal pal Stella (Haley Bennett).

Visually, Kaboom pops. It’s as if Araki has taken inspiration from the colour palette and art design of a particularly gaudy episode of Saved by the Bell and mixed it up with vignettes from a David Lynch fever dream, creating a hallucinatory Day-Glo delight. With its volley of quotable one-liners ("dude, it's a vagina – not a bowl of spaghetti"), surreal plot machinations, and a hip pop soundtrack, it’sdestined to join the likes of Eating Raoul and Repo Man as a midnight movie favourite in years to come.

Ahead of Kaboom's UK theatrical release, Gregg Araki spoke to The Skinny from his Los Angeles home to discuss our current age of movie conservatism, his responsibility as a new queer cinema pioneer, and his own college days.

Kaboom seems like a continuation in some way of your Teenage Apocalypse trilogy [Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere]. Was there a specific reason you wanted to revisit the themes of those films?

The inspiration for Kaboom came from several places. I really wanted to make a movie that was totally outside the box; a movie that marched to its own drum. It’s hard to get movies like Kaboom made nowadays – to get the financing and get them distributed. The market place has, in general, gotten sort of conservative, and I just wanted to make a film that was really free spirited.

Do you think it’s cinema, or the world in general, that’s become more conservative?

I wouldn’t say we’re more conservative politically or culturally, because I do think things are opening up. But as a moviegoer, at least, I feel like a lot of films are all the same. I see Kaboom as a kind of cult movie – those are the sort of films that don’t really get made any more.

Kaboom feels more personal than some of your more recent films. Are there autobiographical elements?

There are, although I guess that’s a weird thing to say given the film is so crazy, with its conspiracies and cults and witches with supernatural powers. But the milieu is based, sort of, on my early life as an undergraduate filmmaking student. That part of the movie is very personal to me. It’s very much me revisiting this time in my life which was more innocent – you know? When you’re at the age of the characters in the movie you’re an open book. You don’t know what you’re going to be or what your sexuality is – everything is a question mark.

It was interesting for me, thematically, to go back to that time, because the characters are in a state of constant transition. I think as you get older your life becomes much more regular, and much more, in the sense of the word, settled, and I think that it’s dramatically interesting to deal with these characters whose lives are in a state of flux.

Is that why you tend to make films about young people?

Not necessarily – as a filmmaker I want to do all different kinds of movies. There was a period where I wasn’t actually making movies about young people specifically because of the movies I did back in the 90s, Doom Generation and Nowhere and all those films. I felt I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.

So is Thomas Dekker’s character, Smith, your alter ego?

The Smith character is sort of based on some of my experience, but he's still a fictional character. There are aspects, certainly, of my own life in there, but he’s not directly autobiographical – you know, I certainly didn't have as much sex as Smith does in the movie. There's just a lot of basic little personal touches that are me: there's a certain look on Thomas' face when he's in film class, a sort of wide eyed wonder and his reverence for cinema; and, also, when he's in the club and they're watching that band and he's being transported by that music – I've always been so into music and it's always been a big part of my life; and things like the Stella character, I had a friend very much like that.

My strong recollection of that period of my life is that there was so much free time, like we were constantly just hanging out. That's why there are so many scenes of them just in that coffee shop talking about what's going on. Smith’s sexual confusion and all that was very much a part of it all too, at least my recollection of what that life was like.

Smith says that his sexuality is “undeclared.” What I love about your films is they’re also “undeclared.” You can’t put a label on them – their genre and tone are very fluid, just like their characters’ sexualities.

I've wanted to make a kind of Twin Peaksy / David Lynchy epic mystery for a while. I wanted with this movie to be able to blend all different kinds of genres and tones and let it be as free and idiosyncratic as it wanted to be. The one thing I set out to do was to try and not censor myself. I really just let the characters and the story go off wherever it wanted to go and not pull back in any way.

Kaboom won the inaugural Queer Palm award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Do you feel a pressure or a responsibility to represent LGBT characters on screen, being as you were instrumental in the New Queer Cinema movement of the 90s?

I've never really taken on that responsibility. The thing about the whole queer new wave is that it was never any dogma or agenda that we had as filmmakers. I mean, I am friends with Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant and Tom Kalin and Rose Torche and many of the filmmakers from that new wave, but we are all artists doing our own thing. We never sat in a room and came up with a campaign. It was really all of us being artists and having this similar sensibility; it was really just a natural thing. I actually didn't know any of them before I made my movies; I met them all on the film festival circuit. I think all of us have gone on to make films that are informed by that sensibility, but our films are more influenced by our artistic impulses rather than any political agenda.

Your visual style seems to have changed over the last few films – they seem lighter, more colourful?

I definitely feel that as I’ve gotten older my movies have become more optimistic, and in a weird way, more accessible. Kaboom is sort of an interesting contradiction, in the sense that it’s this sort of dark apocalyptic epic, but at the same time there’s a sort of playfulness and a sense of fun about the movie that is much closer to Smiley Face [Araki’s wonderfully stupid stoner comedy from 2007 starring Anna Faris] than to The Doom Generation. There’s just this weird sense of celebration about Kaboom that is very different from some of my earlier movies, I think. I feel like that is more where my head is at.

Kaboom is released in select UK cities from 10 Jun and is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre from 24-30 Jun