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Gregg Araki: apocalypse now and again

From queer cinema classics to murder mysteries – the indie director talks coming of age, the apocalypse and why he'll never make the same movie twice

Taken from the spring 2015 issue of Dazed:

Gregg Araki
 is the maestro of modern desperation and teen rage. With films such as The Living End (1992), Mysterious Skin (2004) and The Doom Generation (1995), the indie director unleashed an incandescent, post-new wave aesthetic that informed an entire generation and looks equally at home on the Cannes Croisette as it does in your cult classic Netflix queue. With new movie White Bird in a Blizzard, a murder mystery in which Shailene Woodley gets her sexual awakening on screen, he revisits the 1980s, the era that made him as an artist, and comes to his most disturbing conclusion yet: somewhere along the way to total annihilation, Gregg Araki grew up. 

Boredom and looming apocalypse are themes which have recurred in your work since your first film, Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987). Where do you stand on these ideas now?

Gregg Araki: We live in very weird, apocalyptic times. Three Bewildered People was 28 years ago. The world that we live in now feels very much like The Doom Generation, with global warming... The Sony hacking thing really freaked me out. It feels a bit like the beginning of the end. But then there’s the idea that it has always kind of felt that way. There was Y2K, the atom bomb, the Aids crisis... My first movies were very much a diary for me. They were very personal; it was almost like therapy. White Bird is looking back at those feelings from the perspective of somebody who is older and hopefully wiser. 

Something that ties the protagonists of your films together is their sense of hopelessness. Why are you drawn to these characters?

Gregg Araki: For me it’s always been about the outsiders; the people who aren’t in the mainstream. Maybe it’s the generation I’m from. I grew up at the exact right moment: I was in high school when the Sex Pistols came out, and all through college, when I was finding myself and the period in which White Bird is set, was the explosion of post-punk and alternative music. It was all about being different; having your own voice and your own ideas. And it was a big influence on me – it really is what formulated my sensibility. 

And then there’s the homosexuality…

Gregg Araki: That’s another thing. I grew up in this open, exciting period with new wave music and crazy artistic expression and performance art and goth clubs. It was important for me to grow up in that atmosphere, but there was also the bonus of being gay or queer in that world – I was always the outsider, always different, always approaching things from a different point of view. As an artist, that’s a huge advantage. 

“Every movie I’ve made is different, but it’s because I’m different. I’m not the same person I was in 1992 or 1999” – Gregg Araki

You won the first Queer Palm at Cannes, and you are often pegged as a ‘gay director’, even though your films feature characters of every sexual orientation. Do you think Hollywood has faced the reality of homosexuality in the last 20 years?

Gregg Araki: I think it has, in a lot of ways. The world has changed a lot since The Living End came out. That film was so shocking and radical at the time in terms of its portrayal of gay desire. You look back on it now and it all seems so quaint. I don’t watch How to Get Away With Murder but I’ve heard about it, and the fact that they have these pretty steamy gay sex scenes on primetime television, that was unheard of in the early 90s. But back then nobody would have imagined gay people would be getting married in the US. So things have changed, which is obviously great. But it’s just like racism. Things have changed, but they also haven’t changed. There’s still ignorance. But there has been a remarkable step forward, I think. 

Would you ever direct a Hollywood blockbuster?

Gregg Araki: I’ve got nothing against doing a studio movie. I would love to do a Twin Peaks-type TV show and direct a pilot. But it would have to be something I’m passionate about. The bigger the movie or show, the more it has to make economic sense. You can’t make something niche like The Doom Generation on a huge budget, it’s just not very responsible. I have a script now that’s a genre project that’s very commercial. It’s still very much one of my movies, but it has elements that are very marketable so it can support a larger budget. 

I heard you were currently working on a new project, The Womb?

Gregg Araki: That’s one of them! I work on a few projects at the same time, so hopefully it’ll happen sooner rather than later. It’s a script that was given to me years ago and I did a rewrite on it. It’s sort of like Seven or Zodiac, it’s this really dark serial-killer type of thriller, but it has a lot of thematic things that are very in line with my other movies. It makes sense. It’s not like, ‘Oh, direct Step Up 4.’ (laughs)

But they’re past Step Up 4 now, aren’t they? 

Gregg Araki: I’m not sure! I think it’s a 3D thing now. Hey, they gave the world Channing Tatum! For better or for worse, we have Channing Tatum because of Step Up

You made Totally Fucked Up (1993) on very little budget without permits, yet it’s one of your most beautiful films. What is the biggest budget you’ve had to work with?

Gregg Araki: The biggest budget in the range of Splendor (1999) was $3 million I think, and Smiley Face (2007) was also in the $2 million range. All of them are tiny movies even by indie standards. Look at ‘indie’ movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel. That movie probably cost $20 million. It’s a completely different ballpark. But it’s true, the early movies like The Living End and Totally Fucked Up were made for about $20,000, which is nothing. Totally Fucked Up was made, of all things, with an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant. It’s so much easier to do that now than it was in the early 90s. We didn’t have things like Final Cut and all the things that kids today have. 

What does White Bird in a Blizzard say about who you are today?

Gregg Araki: It’s more serious, it’s more classical. In a weird way, it’s not just a coming-of-age story, it’s also a coming of age (for me personally). It has thematic consistencies with my other movies, but it’s also tackling different things – I was able to stretch myself. The last scene with Eva Green and Chris Meloni is the best scene I’ve directed in my life. When I saw it come together for the first time I was kind of blown away. I remember in Mysterious Skin when we shot that scene where the kids are in the car and that redneck guy pulls a gun – that scene to me was so much fun to shoot, but I can do that in my sleep. 

You’ve done your own versions of the road movie, the arthouse film, the crime caper, the teen flick and more besides. Now, with White Bird in a Blizzard, you’re doing the murder mystery. Was it your intention to reinvent these tropes?

Gregg Araki: I didn’t want to make The Living End or The Doom Generation again. But there are certain contemporary filmmakers – I won’t name them – that do the same fucking movie over and over and it’s really boring. You change as you get older. Every movie I’ve made is different, but it’s because I’m different. I’m not the same person I was in 1992 or 1999. 

White Bird in a Blizzard is out now

Gregg wears suit by BOSS; cotton shirt by Dior Homme

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