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The secret history of Kids

Twenty years later, Larry Clark’s clarion call for fucked-up youth is still as shocking as ever. Here, the film’s cast and crew give us an annotated oral history of how it all came to be

We partnered with Genius to create an annotated history of Kids. Click the yellow highlights for insights from Chloë Sevigny, Larry Clark and key members of the film crew

“Two virgins in one day? That’s impossible,” said one New Jersey teen. “The sex was nasty,” said another. These were the comments of real teens asked to weigh in on Kids, one of the most controversial films of the 90s, maybe of all time. The film is Larry Clark’s searing portrait of randy youth, a horny and sexually frank rendering of New York skaters and groupies whose main aim was to collect V-cards and bluff about the breadth of their collection. Upon its release 20 years ago today, it cleaved audiences into two distinct categories: those who took offence at its X-rated honesty, and those who deemed it irrefutably ‘the shit’ – something to aspire to, emulate, watch and rewatch until their VCRs broke or the tape unfurled. Now it’s bait for lawless teens, a rite of passage for barely legals to check their privilege and gawk at hard-up, inner city life in a much grittier, puerile New Yawk.

Never before had there been such candour on screen among teenagers. This was how teens pissed on kerbs, huffed whipping cream canisters, and scored butterscotch-scented pussy. More than that, however, Kids was a cultural blitzkrieg, a sensual assault that was as plain-speaking as is possible without sidewinding into documentary. Girls swallow pills without question; guys high-five each other over details of their hookups; booze, drugs and f-bombs are the film’s butter. And its bread? This was urban life as an American teen, an extreme depiction of juvenile hedonism, hashtag no filter.

Then there was what Harmony Korine dubbed the ‘Jaws element’ – Aids. Kids reconfigured the perception of Aids at the peak of its epidemic, suggesting through the film’s bone-chilling rape scene that HIV could be contracted through heterosexual sex. Whether this was at the forefront of Clark and writer Harmony Korine’s minds at the time is moot. Poking narrative convention in the eye, the movie levels with its audience. This is how it is – take it or leave it. Nineteen-year-old Korine was a 50-year-old Clark’s all-access pass to the downtown skate scene. He may have been an expert in lensing drug-crazed teens as a photographer for resolute books like Tulsa and Teenage Lust, but this was Clark’s first foray into film.

The movie’s day-and-night-in-the-life storyline is told through the eyes of Jennie, a walking pixie cut played by a young Chloë Sevigny, who contracts HIV when Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) sleeps with her. She then tries to track him down to tell him, only to find him breaking hymens left, right and centre.

Kids’ unflinching voyeurism was the result of a massive effort by a crack team. Martin Scorsese was once attached to produce, only later being replaced by Clark’s friend and king of teen disillusion Gus Van Sant. Korine wrote the script, which was put in motion by producers Lauren Zalaznick and Christine Vachon. The intimate, grainy aesthetic was courtesy of cinematographer Eric Edwards, which roared to life when paired with the grunge sounds of Folk Implosion, a discovery by Korine and music supervisor Randall Poster. Through annotations by the film’s crew using Genius and archive interviews with the cast, we take a comprehensive look at where Kids all began...

19-YEAR-OLD HARMONY KORINE DECLARED HIMSELF WORLD FAMOUS

Randall Poster (music supervisor): “Somebody had given me a script and on the title page of the script it said ‘Kids by the world-famous writer Harmony Korine’, and as soon as I read that I was fascinated and had to meet Harmony. Having read the script I was really eager to be involved. That’s what it said on the byline, ‘by the world-famous writer Harmony Korine’. I was just completely captivated.”

A few years ago, the original flyer for Kids’ open casting call circled the internet, the very same one that was handed out in parks and pasted up in the street when casting director Alyssa Wishingrad, Clark and Korine went looking for “real NYC kids, all backgrounds and colors”. In bold? NO PREVIOUS ACTING EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. And, despite the firm assertion by Clark after the film premiered that everyone was over 18, the flyer notably calls for 13-19-year-olds.

The process of striking a balance between the inexperienced, genuine street kids with teens who could act proved difficult. Clark pushed for as many fresh faces as possible, relying on Korine to pull in skater friends. Leo Fitzpatrick, who plays “virgin surgeon” Telly, was plucked directly from the streets. One career-making decision came by casting downtown it-girl and fashion fixture Chloë Sevigny. However, the role Sevigny plays, Jennie, was already occupied by Canadian actress Mia Kirshner, and the crew was just days away from the beginning of production. Kirshner didn’t gel with the rest of the cast, so she was fired and replaced by Sevigny. It was her big break. 

MOST OF THE CAST WERE SKATERS

Eric Edwards (cinematographer): “Larry originally tried to cast one actress (Mia Kirshner) who came down and interviewed for it and he’d already assembled most of the cast, but they pretty much all came from the street, either from Washington Square Park or St Mark’s Square. So they all knew each other; a lot were skateboarders and Larry had been skateboarding with them for quite a while and got to know them.” 

LARRY CLARK WANTED A LEGLESS GUY HE SPOTTED IN THE SUBWAY FOR THE FILM

Christine Vachon (producer): “Larry really wanted this legless guy that he saw on the subways all of the time. Of course, we couldn’t find him. We were not riding the subways ourselves but the people who were working with us were doing that. We did eventually find him and he was obviously in the movie.”

ROSARIO DAWSON SUNG HER WAY INTO THE FILM

Eric Edwards: “The one that stood out was Rosario Dawson. We found her the first week of shooting. It was the last week before we were going to shoot and we were walking around Alphabet City. Somebody heard Rosario singing on one of the balconies. We were walking down the street and there was this photoshoot going on for Wired magazine and we were just walking through that and we saw her on this balcony. Someone went up and introduced her to us and it was like, ‘Wow.’ Harmony Korine met her and told her about the film and said, ‘Do you wanna come down?’ And that was it.” 

THE CREW USED BEEPERS TO LOCATE CAST MEMBERS

Lauren Zalaznick (producer): “We couldn’t simply text the cast in 1995, we couldn’t find them. They didn’t live at home, they didn’t live in one place. So we would go, ‘Here is tomorrow’s call sheet. We need Telly, Justin and Harold. So we would go, ‘OK, who has seen Harold today?’ ‘I think he’s shredding on this rail that he found.’ Astor Place, the Cube, was like our departure place. We would say, ‘Go by the Cube, go by the park, go by the bridge.’ Every cast member had a pager extension number and we would say to the PA, ‘Page us when you find Harold. If you need to, take him to Larry’s and Larry will take him to set in the morning.’ You don't know your next day’s call times until the very end of shooting the day before. So you can’t tell them on Monday, ‘Here is your schedule for Thursday’ – every day we had to find them. They all had beepers that they would lose at a rate of two or three times a week.”

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Larry Clark
“This one is Larry with the kids and the group. We cross-cut with the girls talking in their apartment and then with the guys talking in their apartment. That was just a cool old apartment, it was kind of burned out and didn’t have a renter in it.”Photography by Eric Edwards

The cast was nicked off the street. The visuals were an extension of the dramatic intimacy that permeates Clark’s photos. To marry these dramatic elements, Kids needed its own sound, something that would underscore its raw visual style without overpowering it. It had to be complementary. That became the tricky job of music supervisor Randall Poster. Together with Korine, who had his fingers in all parts of the film’s making, they would jam out to a collection of vinyl until they came across grunge king Lou Barlow. Barlow’s band Folk Implosion slotted itself in perfectly to this unflinching nihilist vision. Subtle rebellion was woven into the beats, and they lucked out: one of the tracks landed a spot in Billboard’s Top 40 – a huge feat for a small film.

FOLK IMPLOSION WAS THE PERFECT SOUND FOR THE FILM 

Randall Poster: “Harmony and I used to spend time together listening to records over the course of (soundtracking the film). He had been very interested in listening to a lot of Lou Barlow’s music and Sebadoh, Sentridoh and some of his homemade cassettes, and that led us to Lou Barlow. Lou was working at the time with a guy named John Davis, which became Folk Implosion. They had done some work together and that became the central musical motor of the movie. I went to Boston and spent some time with Lou and John and a key person in the making of the score, a guy named Wally Gagel, who produced The Folk Implosion stuff. He really gave it a really electronic pulse, which is what distinguished the sound of Folk Implosion from the other music Lou had previously been making.”

THE SONG “NATURAL ONE” CHARTED ON THE BILLBOARD TOP 40

Randall Poster: “The big news was that we had a big hit record. That was something we didn’t see coming. We thought it would be good to have a vocal on one of the score pieces so we asked Lou (Barlow) and that became “Natural One”. We were all pretty surprised that it became a top 40 hit. It was life-changing. It was one of those tracks that just kept coming back. The response to that was incredible; outside of the music industry we heard, ‘Oh my God, this track is so happening.’”

Kids’ total refusal to make any apologies for its shocking nature landed Korine and Clark in hot water. It didn’t take long for Kids to become an international magnet for debate after a showing at both Sundance and Cannes film festivals. The film was skewered by one English MP, who billed it as “disgusting material that panders to paedophile fantasies”. Some ‘actors’ were paid nominal sums for their parts in the film; one girl, named Gaby, reportedly got $50 for her walk-on role and sunk the money back into her ecstasy habit. Drugs even wormed their way on set. In the party scene towards the end of the film, three underage kids pass a joint between them – a totally improvised and serendipitous moment that cinematographer Eric Edwards just happened to catch on camera. To this day, Clark is unsure whether or not it was real marijuana they were smoking, but some of the crew members, thinking they had gone a step too far, reportedly walked off set after that scene was filmed. Most of the issues while filming originated with Justin Pierce. Pierce was homeless at the time he was cast. His self-destructive nature lent itself perfectly to playing Telly’s reckless sidekick, Casper, but he was a nightmare to track down for shoots.

JUSTIN GOT ARRESTED AND THROWN IN JAIL

Eric Edwards: “When you’re a street kid, you’re often getting hassled and messed up by the police, and there was a lot of getting drunk and goofing off and getting caught by the cops. That was always a concern. One of the times Justin (Pierce) did get arrested was when we were filming. He hit somebody or something and he threatened to commit suicide in jail – it really got ugly. We had to go down and bail him out. It was a big deal.”

“Justin (Pierce) was caught by one of the bouncers stealing bottles of liquor from behind the bar. Larry was really mad. He just said, ‘You’re not gonna fuck up my movie!’” – Eric Edwards

JUSTIN STOLE BOOZE AND PISSED OFF LARRY

Eric Edwards: “Towards the end of the film we were shooting in a nightclub called The Tunnel. We’d closed down the place cos we were shooting there and Justin was caught by one of the bouncers stealing bottles of liquor from behind the bar. The bouncers had taken him out on the street and were holding him up against the wall or something and then Larry got a hold of Justin and we grabbed him and put him in the back of the camera truck. Larry was really mad. He just said, ‘You’re not gonna fuck up my movie!’”

IT WAS CONTROVERSIAL AND EVERYONE KNEW IT

Eric Edwards: “I knew that the movie was going to be pretty controversial and that we were tackling a lot of new stuff like underage sexuality. I knew when we were beating up this African American kid in the park that that would be pretty controversial. Larry’s whole position was that this is what kids were fucking doing, and parents don’t know this and they should know, so Larry was going to show – I don’t want to say the darker side, but just a more truthful side of what kids were about, what kids were doing. He just wanted to expose it and explore it in a raw way.”

JUSTIN WENT METHOD WITH HUFFING WHIP IT CANISTERS

Lauren Zalaznick: “They are real Whip Its in the Whip It scene. Our prop department went and bought a flat of Whip Its and emptied all the cartridges. And it is safe; it’s a prop. It was 110 degrees, we were on the fifth floor of a walk-up tenement in Hell’s Kitchen before Times Square was even beginning to be palatable again.”

Christine Vachon: “For the sake of authenticity, Justin did real Whip Its. We found out and Lauren and I freaked out because he had never done them before, so we were scared that he was going to have a bad reaction. It was not an illegal drug. Anybody could go and buy them. We had spoken to Justin about it the day before and he had never done them. At the end of the day we were dealing with a bunch of teenagers. Most of them were over 18 but a few of them were not. It was like corralling kittens. We were always trying to make sure that we had them all and that they were going to show up when they were supposed to, that they stayed out of trouble as much as possible, etc.”

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Kids smoking a joint
“We set up the party sequence, but those three kids were just there. I don’t see it in the script, but it was pretty hysterical, we shot it in one take. It just went on for three or four minutes so that was really good.”Photography by Eric Edwards

Kids opens with sex. It closes with sex. And sandwiched in the middle is a whole lot of sweaty, probing teen sex. It can be awkward to watch, but the conversations it ignited were the direct result of its bold approach to teenage sexuality. Clark mistakenly thought, when hanging out at Washington Square Park before production started, that these kids were committed to safe sex. The reality was a lot closer to what the film illustrates: you got a condom? Bonus. If not, well, no big deal. The consequences of clocking up virgins served as a warning – difficult to prove, maybe, but even if one teen practices safer sex after viewing what some describe as Clark’s “cautionary tale”, then it’s a win. For the film’s crew and underage cast, pulling off a believable shag became an exacting art.

TELLY’S VIRGINITY-TAKING SEX SCENE WAS THE FIRST DAY OF SHOOTING

Eric Edwards: “That first sex scene might have been our first day on set. The sexual scenes were pretty hard to do. They were thrown into it and Leo was saying how he was pretty naive at the time, but they were obviously faking it really well. Larry really wanted them to keep kissing for a long time; he wanted it to get awkward. I would keep the camera handheld for most of it, close and intimate. We used longer length lenses to keep it focused on the kids and what they were doing. Nobody ever had real sex on camera, it was all just simulated.”

THE RAPE SCENE WAS TRICKY BECAUSE OF THE COUCH

Christine Vachon: “There was no real sex ever on the movie. We worked very hard to make sure that Chloë and Justin knew each other and she was comfortable with him.”

Lauren Zalaznick: “That last scene was about rape, it was about non-consent, it was about HIV. And most of that sex scene, the entire freaking night we spent having a meltdown with the sound guy, who was out of his mind because the couch that had been established in the master party shot was this white, cheesy, awful vinyl thing and when it came to do the actual rape scene, the squeaking of their bodies on this couch was rendering the entire audio track absolutely unusable. We couldn’t swap out the couch because we had seen it in a million other shots. The gripping, devastating scene at that (climactic) moment was all about making sure a robe was out of sight but within her arm’s reach, and then worrying about this squeaky freaking couch the whole time.”

“The entire freaking night we spent having a meltdown with the sound guy, who was out of his mind because the squeaking of their bodies on this couch was rendering the entire audio track absolutely unusable” – Lauren Zalaznick

AN S&M SEX SCENE DIDN’T MAKE THE FINAL CUT 

Eric Edwards: “In the early part of the movie there’s a story being told of how this kid had come home from school and his mum was having sex with her boyfriend. The kid would hear his mum screaming, go into the room and see this guy with an S&M mask on, then would go to get a knife to defend his mum. The father was there with his kid while we were filming. Larry says to the father, ‘Come here and see this (set-up) ’cos this is what your kid’s gonna see.’ The father comes in, looks around and goes, ‘Yeah, OK.’ It was funny ’cos this kid was, like, eight years old. His dad let us film the scene and that was one thing that was weird to me. Nobody minded this kid seeing this pretty heavy-looking scene. He was totally cool with it. You never know, maybe he needed years of therapy afterwards.” (laughs)

That Kids became the benchmark against which reckless youth could measure their rebellious rule-breaking or fucked up-ness was no accident. It was made by those very people. Two decades later and you’d be hard pressed to find a film that detonated in front of its audience with nothing more than the pure honesty of grappling with adolescence: how we talk, how we fuck, how we pick ourselves up after making juvenile mistakes. It was for that very reason that it almost didn’t get a cinematic release. Mainstream society rushed to denounce its simple genius, its lack of morality and its ability to harness the ever-elusive teen spirit. And it only made us want to watch it more. That resistance is still apparent and makes Larry Clark’s unrated epic a shot of truth we’ll continue to mainline – one high we may never again reach.