An in-depth look with Genius at the making of Gregg Araki’s teen epic with never-before-seen images, 20 years since its release
We partnered with Genius to create an annotated history of The Doom Generation. Click the yellow highlights for insights from director of photography Jim Fealy and production designer Thérèse DePrez
Looking back, 1995 was a seriously good year for teen flicks. There were peppy, perceptive comedies (Empire Records, Clueless), angsty, existential dramas (Kids, La Haine, The Basketball Diaries) – and yet, even in such distinguished company, there’s one film that stands out as unique.
The second part of his ‘teenage apocalypse trilogy’, Gregg Araki’s killer road movie The Doom Generation boasted a self-penned script brimming with pop culture references and acidic political satire, while the characters’ (and America’s) cisgendered view was ruthlessly unravelled and challenged in a collision of visual reality and hyperreality.
Audiences walked out of screenings at Sundance, appalled by the expletive-strewn, alliterative dialogue, the apathy of self-obsessed Amy Blue (Rose McGowan), Jordan White (James Duval) and Xavier Red (Johnathan Schaech), and floored by the violence and sex in soulless, arid, neon-washed landscapes. The censors slashed 11 minutes to leave its gruesome ending in tatters. McGowan’s father threatened to kill Araki, and critics loudly loved or loathed it, their reviews calling it out on its bad taste and absurdity or applauding its audacity and nods to Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic, Bande à Part.
Twenty years later, The Doom Generation is one of the few 90s teen movies to remain watchably relevant as well as stylistically impressive. Its oft-overlooked dark humour is still sharp, while the spiky themes of intolerance and alienation feel more timely than ever. But when it comes to today’s lists of ‘best teen’ this or that, The Doom Generation and its plot of two drug-buzzed kids who pick up a violent, handsome drifter is often conspicuously absent. Yet, away from Buzzfeed listicles and Cosmopolitan Which-90s-Squad-Are-You? quizzes, the film’s cult following lives passionately in the darker pockets of music and film forums, with scenes screencapped, gif-ed and quoted meticulously on Tumblr dashboards.
Araki, who rose to prominence with his early contributions to the loose canon of New Queer Cinema, had begun his trilogy two years earlier with Totally Fucked Up, a film following the exploits of six gay teenagers, including Duval, in LA. For its unrelated follow-up, The Doom Generation, he wrote the character of Jordan with the actor in mind.
“When I did Totally Fucked Up there was a very specific motive,” says Araki. “I wanted to make a movie about queer young people and their place in the world and in gay culture. I never set out to be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna make all these teenage movies’, but that experience and meeting Jimmy inspired me to write The Doom Generation and Nowhere. The characters are different but there’s a commonality; they’re spiritually related – the innocent antihero in this chaotic and surrealistic world.”
“Gregg is fascinated with young people,” says Duval. “When I read the script of Totally Fucked Up, I really identified with that character. I’d experienced feeling like I was in a world where I didn’t belong. You didn’t have movies about teenagers rebelling quite the way they were in Gregg’s films. It was definitely against everything in the social norm, including sexuality, at a time when people didn’t really make movies about that.”
Rose McGowan, who at that point had only one role to her name, a tiny part in the Pauly Shore vehicle Encino Man, was discovered by Araki outside a gym. Her reasons for taking the role were less artistic than her director and co-star’s. “I just needed money for rent. I was very mercenary,” she says, laughing. “I’d been a homeless 13-year-old and I didn’t want to be homeless again. It was something more to be gotten through and do it well, but actually I learned so much, I didn’t even know what the X on the floor was!”
The film was Araki’s first to be shot on 35mm, with a defined budget (around $800K) and full crew. Prior to The Doom Generation, the director’s films were made primarily on weekends, often taking several months to shoot. Doom, by contrast, was a gruelling 28-day shoot with a director of photography (Jim Fealy) and production designer (Thérèse DePrez) on board, but Araki recalls being unfazed by the step up.
“It wasn’t that much different to how I’d directed before,” he says. “It meant I could focus on what was important – the acting, the performances. We’d come up with ideas and just go for it. There was never a moment of ‘I don't know what I’m doing.’” There were, however, hiccups in the filming. “There’s a thing around Hollywood that if the name (of your film) is kind of ominous, like chaos or disaster, then shit always happens. So you’re calling the gods to bring it when you call it Doom Generation.”
“We’d finished the first day,” Duval recalls, “then there was the massive Northridge earthquake. So there was this sense of impending doom that hung over us, especially in the car. We were shooting in the canyons and every time there was an aftershock, rocks and boulders would fall down. Because the car was so large and the trailer hitch was just a normal one, we couldn’t open the doors, so you were trapped. You’d see the dust rise, and Johnathan (Schaech) and I would look at each other like, ‘Yeah, we’ll be fine, we’re gonna be OK!’”
“It was such a crazy movie (to be on),” adds Araki. “I remember the first day of dailies got ruined. We had to reshoot. Then (we had) the earthquake, so the movie was literally kind of cursed. But it made us more determined to make it. At the time it was hard, but in retrospect it was the most fun we ever had.”
“The first day of dailies got ruined. We had to reshoot. Then (we had) the earthquake, so literally the movie was kind of cursed... At the time it was hard, but in retrospect it was the most fun we ever had” – Gregg Araki
For McGowan, memories are more personally rooted. Five weeks before filming, her boyfriend was killed, the shock haunting her time on set and giving what she calls “a disaffected quality” to Amy Blue, whom she describes as an “iron eggshell”. Though a screen novice, “I used what I learned as a voracious reader. I used to get teased in school for assuming the personalities of whichever book I was reading, but that was how I went about acting,” McGowan says. “The great thing about Gregg and not having a single iota of ad-libbing was that it was a bootcamp for acting. I just based my whole character on me as a 15-year-old – minus the sex stuff,” she laughs.
Araki was vehemently against ad-libbing in his script. “Once the script gets to a certain place, that’s exactly what we shoot,” he says. “It’s usually pretty specific in terms of the shots and where the actors pause. Like, the shot of Jimmy and Rose at the drive-in, it's very planned out about when they light their cigarette because the camera has to follow it. It’s always been how I’ve worked.”
Araki’s dialogue was borderline insane, tongue-tying, crass and aggressive, with Amy’s endlessly quotable lines consistently stealing scenes (for a flavour, try “Fuck you, you stinkin’ kootch. Fuck you, you big, wet-bearded clam!” or “What is this, Night of the Living Braindead? Wake up and smell the cappucino, geek!”).
“I thought it was 90 per cent made-up slang,” says McGowan. “My favourite line was ‘Look, you fucking chunky pumpkinhead...’ I love her mouth. When I finally understood what I was saying, I was shocked, especially the sexual things because (back then) I had no idea. The reviews were like, ‘You’re so brave’ and I was like, ‘I was, and my braveness was pure stupidity!’”
“I love everything that she says, that everyone says,” says Araki. “I was really interested in language, in making up my own slang. So the dialogue is really stylistic and no one talks that way but the world would be way more fun if they did.”
Duval might have been used to Araki’s methods, but The Doom Generation still caught him by surprise. “When he first sent me the script I was like, ‘This is amazing – but that’s not the real ending, right?!’ He was like, ‘No, no, that’s how it goes. There’s no changing it.’” For Duval’s character, that meant death alongside Amy’s rape in a queasy strobe-lit sequence, filmed over five days in a cold, dirty, rat-infested warehouse, which Araki remembers as “torturous... everyone’s nerves were shredded.”
McGowan took a pragmatic approach to filming the scene. “I can quite easily disassociate from my body and let the character take over. It comes from growing up with bad things happening to you. But for that scene you had to let yourself feel. I channelled ghosts, the things that wail through me, and I’d added up a few ghosts, even by then. I had so much going on at the time that (the scene) couldn’t really touch what was happening in my life. I used what was happening in real life and I felt a bit like a creep for using that.”
The violence saw the film lazily compared by critics to Oliver Stone’s 1993 film Natural Born Killers, or lumped in with 1995’s other teen air-raid siren, Larry Clark’s Kids. “I like Kids a lot but they’re two completely different films,” argues Araki. “Kids was to me a really nihilistic movie. People always talk about Amy and Jordan being nihilistic but I’ve never felt that, I think they have a naïve innocence, they’re sweet in a way. And funny – there are dark moments, but there’s a level of pop culture irony. Like the Kwik-i-mart head scene, it’s handled very lightly. It’s not shocking, it doesn’t revel in violence like Saw or Hostel.”
“Every screening, someone walked out, which I thought was hilarious! I was like, ‘Get with it!’ I thought they were prissy and boring. It’s not for a square mind, this movie, which is a pity, ’cos it could push a mind into not being square” – Rose McGowan
That’s not to say the level of violence wasn’t intentional. “We did want people to think it was violent, Gregg wanted people to think it was over-the-top and unnecessary,” Duval offers. “That was kind of the point. When he was gearing up for Doom, he would say, ‘My next film will be my most offensive movie yet!’ Not for the sake of offending people, but (because) he knew there was already people outspoken against him from the beginning. He’s going to pull something out of them they like or don’t like, they’re going to have to react. That’s extremely important when making the movies that Gregg makes.”
“Every screening, someone walked out,” McGowan says of the film’s premiere at Sundance, “which I thought was hilarious! I was like, ‘Get with it!’ I thought they were prissy and boring. It’s not for a square mind, this movie, which is a pity, ’cos it could push a mind into not being square.”
One of the film’s more vociferous critics was Roger Ebert, who tore into it with an infamous one-star mauling. “He hated the movie so much he put it in a book, like the worst movies of all time,” chuckles Araki. “It was like he’d been pissed on in high school by all the cool kids and was taking it out on this movie, like, ‘It thinks it’s too cool and it’s not cool, it’s stupid!’”
The adverse reactions to The Doom Generation affected the cast a bit closer to home, as well. The story goes that McGowan’s father chased Araki out of a theatre, which McGowan retells ruefully. “I told my dad not to see it, I was mortified. He didn’t talk to me for a year, he was so furious!”
Duval, meanwhille, was so persuasive in the role of Jordan that he found himself typecast for a few years after the film’s release. “People just saw me as Jordan,” he says. “People believed (my work on) this character so much they thought that was really me. And I’ve had people come right up to me and say, ‘Doom Generation – that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen,’ but that’s completely valid; movies are subjective.”
Yet for every negative barb fired at The Doom Generation, there has been a positive. The film’s composition, look and design – particularly the showstopping hotel rooms – have shifted into the realm of iconic. Midnight screenings started to draw sell-out crowds long after its release, film and gender studies courses feature it as part of the curriculum, sites like Pitchfork and Rookie wax lyrical abut it, and Araki is still asked on the street to talk about it by teenagers who were not even born when it was released. Even Rihanna referenced the film in her video for “BBHMM” – clearly, The Doom Generation’s youth-culture appeal spans generations.
“There’s always going to be these types of kids,” says Araki. “It’s an extension of what every teen feels – they don’t fit in, the world doesn’t understand them. It’s that age, the insecurities and confusion. It’s cool that the movie strikes that chord still and I’m flattered that people take it to heart. But honestly, I didn’t expect to still be talking about it 20 years later!”
“It was definitely hyper-accentuated to put forth how extreme the teenage mind is,” says Duval. “Everything is life or death on a daily basis, so taking it there and putting the characters in these situations was kind of a (teenage) reality, figuratively speaking.”
Even McGowan continues to occasionally get trapped in a Blue bubble. “I still have the dress, those are my combat boots, the bra and panties. I just bought a dress the other day and I was like, what does this dress remind me of... Oh my, it’s so Amy Blue. I forget sometimes and it’s like, ‘That’s not me, it’s the character.’ I hadn’t drunk a Diet Coke until that movie. I still have one now and then, and I always want to say, ‘Diet Coke, extra large’.” To hear the petulant Amy drawl suddenly appear over the phone is startling.
Despite the rollercoaster ride following its release, there’s the sense that each of them enjoy the film’s impact and legacy, though their appreciation takes different forms. For McGowan ,it’s somewhat combative: “I think it was like a bomb in culture, it was super punk. Gregg is a punk and a disrupter and I hope I’m in some way too an agitator. It suits me and it suits him.” Duval approaches it more mindfully. “Yes, it's a cult movie, but it and Gregg have an important part in cinema history. There’s now a new perception of it, a new dialogue going on that didn’t exist in the beginning and I’ve always felt honoured to have been a part of it.”
The last word, however, must go to its creator. “There’s nothing like it, even with the whole explosion of independent filmmakers,” Araki beams. “It’s so crazy and weird and different. It’s a definition of a cult movie. The indie movies getting made now are more middle-class. I don’t feel like there’s been another Doom Generation. The bands I’ve always loved – Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Slowdive – aren’t for everyone and they’ve never achieved huge mainstream success but for the people they speak to, they do so in a very meaningful way. That’s what I aspire to. They’re not Spielberg blockbusters, my movies are specific. And that’s cool.”