Between the years 1890 and 1945, individuals born at or around the turn of the 20th century increasingly reported feelings of anxiousness, ennui and a sense of impending doom. Modernist artists and writers responded to the fin-de-siècle anxiety in the air; the two world wars that followed didn’t help. In a 1941 letter to Virginia Woolf, who would commit suicide two months after receiving it, novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote of her generation: “I feel a sort of despair about the people the same age as the century... we don’t really suffer much, but we get all sealed up.” It seems if you are young at the dawn of a new century, life always feels like it is about to end.
At the turn of the next century, between the years 1987 and 2019, Gregg Araki makes movies. In Totally Fucked Up (1993), 15 vignettes introduced his signature queer, lost-boy protagonist, played by muse James Duval, among a gang of friends in LA. At the end of the film, our hero commits suicide by drinking bleach and falling into a swimming pool; earlier, but not at this moment, he wears a t-shirt that reads ‘I BLAME SOCIETY’. The vignettes are punctuated by graphic title cards, shouting in lower-case like imprints of our future phone screens: ‘the decline of stupid fucking western civilisation’. ‘can this world really be as sad as it seems?’ ‘more teen angst’.
Watching a Gregg Araki film is like seeing a reptilian alien on a soapbox reading Susan Sontag’s “Notes On ‘Camp’” aloud with one hand and smoking a spliff with the other – smart, terrifying, and possibly transcendent to experience, these are movies you couldn’t make up, but somehow, somewhere, someone has. The tender, harrowing dissection of childhood abuse and its repercussions of Mysterious Skin (2004) brought Araki critical acclaim, but it was his ‘Teen Apocalypse trilogy’ – Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997) – that first staked the director’s claim as the premier youth-culture chronicler of the 90s. Unlike his peer, Larry Clark, Araki doesn’t observe and eroticise youth as a voyeur in these films, but stays among them, entering into the mindsets of a generation that sought out chaos with empathy. This is sex, drugs and violence, but somehow intimately portrayed, as though these films were self-shot by the characters. They are films that get at a truth about young people, even with their sci-fi tendencies and pop-art sets: alienation might be projected as aliens, but poor mental health, especially for queer teenage boys, is depicted with a never-before-seen sensitivity at the same time. With Araki, the generation that liked to bewail how nobody understood them found someone who did. Even now, there is nobody who understands the brutality of adolescence better.
“It’s almost like my retrospective in a TV show,” says Araki of Now Apocalypse, the 59-year-old director’s first fully fledged move into television. Araki has always created worlds that tremble with the off-kilter energy of something bad around the corner, and now he has achieved his dream of bringing together his interests in binge-watchable form – the apocalypse, it seems, will be televised. “There are parts of all my movies in it. Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face... the use of music, just everything about the show, is so much a part of all the films I’ve made – I think I’ve made 11 now. It’s a culmination of all those thematic concerns. I wanted to take all of the mythology and iconography that’s in my movies, and really push it to the limit.”
Like the pill-popping demi-goth Amy Blue in The Doom Generation (played by Rose McGowan), Now Apocalypse takes all the markers of Araki’s usual themes and puts them on speed. “Gregg came to me a few years ago and said, ‘I have an idea for a show,’” says Karley Sciortino, founder of the Slutever blog and Araki’s co-writer on the programme. “‘It’s essentially about four 20-somethings in LA, trying to make it and having sex in the midst of an alien conspiracy.’” Naturally, she was hooked, as were the cast members Araki approached as his new-gen faces: Avan Jogia as weed-loving protagonist Ulysses, Beau Mirchoff as his hunky jock roommate, Roxane Mesquida reprising her ‘slightly evil sexual temptress’ persona last seen in Kaboom (2010), and Kelli Berglund as the confident, cynical best friend. Much like Harmony Korine in Spring Breakers, Araki’s neatest trick is how he has appropriated actors with pure-as-snow Disney Channel pasts, dropping them into the sex-positive, full-frontal, joyfully bisexual, unreal reality of all his films.
Together, the quartet must navigate the new Hollyweird, experiencing the trials and triumphs of dating through apps, and trying to make it in showbiz while temping or living off Mum and Dad. Eventually, they discover a real-life conspiracy that easily dwarfs their own relationship issues. (Yes, the giant reptile-like alien from Nowhere reprises his role here.) The effect is somewhere between David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and a reality-show pilot where the stars are not quite famous yet: two equally demented cultural documents of LA and its discontents, and the poles between which the tone of Now Apocalypse lies. When we speak, Araki can barely contain his glee at what I’ve yet to see in the show; his laughter constantly fuzzes up the line. “It’s definitely a show for the diehard Gregg Araki fans, all 200 of them,” he says with a chuckle. “There are layers and special little touches only they will recognise, but I’ve been surprised by... you know, it has a very queer, transgressive sensibility, but we have this sound editor at the mixing house who is a straight, white guy in his 60s and he’s obsessed with it. It really has, even at this early juncture, penetrated that bubble.”
One echo even casual Araki fans won’t miss is Ulysses’ similarities with previous lost boys of the director’s oeuvre: he’s like Smith in Kaboom, with his premonitions of an exploding world, but especially Dark in Nowhere. For Araki’s long-term collaborator, James ‘Jimmy’ Duval (who has been friends with Araki so long that their voices and mannerisms are weirdly alike), the fact that the director keeps returning to this particular kind of doomy, queer male protagonist says something about his personal history. “There is definitely a piece of that character within Gregg and me, even to this day. But I think the difference is, and it almost feels strange saying this – but it was probably the greatest therapy for me, becoming an actor and doing his films. To accept myself and find my place in the world. And I think for Gregg, too – we’re both very comfortable with who we are and what we do now, but we’ve never lost touch with the emotion of what it was like struggling to get there.” Duval, who also appears in Now Apocalypse, recalls lead Avan Jogia summing up the similarities pretty succinctly on set, quipping, “Can we call Ulysses the rich man’s Jimmy Duval?”
“(Now Apocalypse) is like my retrospective in a TV show. I wanted to take all the mythology and iconography that’s in my movies, and really push it to the limit” – Gregg Araki
Nowhere seems to be the film of which both Araki and Duval are the most proud, and the one that looms largest in the memories of the cast and collaborators of Now Apocalypse. While Doom Generation gave us Rose McGowan’s perfect bob, sheer macs with cat’s-eye sunglasses and ‘Eat my Fuck’, Nowhere’s deep-seated tenderness stays with you the longest. Even in their highly stylised bedrooms and parties, its cast of boys and girls flicker with the insecurities of your own coming-of-age; the sensibility is so pure. “I remember when I was 18 or 19 years old, a friend showed me Nowhere,” recalls Sciortino. “And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, movies like this exist?’ It was super-colourful; it was sexy but funny – which is a combo that is rare but amazing – and very bisexual, which is something that still doesn’t happen very much now, (let alone) 20 years ago. So I devoured all of his movies, and they really helped to shape my ideas around sexuality in my late teens and early 20s.”
Nowhere also seems to act as a node between the early, ‘no-budget’ works, and the director’s longstanding televisual ambitions. “(Nowhere) was actually written as a pilot for a TV show,” reveals Araki. “I’ve been wanting to do this kind of crazy, over-the-top show that’s not like any other show for a really, really long time.” Duval recalls the one, binned episode they filmed for the series – the one that takes place the day after the film’s events. “I still have that script!” he exclaims. “Basically, Dark wakes up. The glass breaks, a rock comes through the window, he’s not covered in blood, Montgomery didn’t blow up – well, maybe he did, but there’s no blood or evidence of it – and he takes the rock, which has a rubber band and a piece of paper that just says, ‘YER DED’. Then (there is) this Montgomery-like character named Clift, who has black hair instead of blonde hair, and his blue and green eye have switched sides...”
“When I was 18 or 19 years old, a friend showed me Nowhere. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, movies like this exist?’” – Karley Sciortino
It’s evident that, when the director says Now Apocalypse is the culmination of 20 years of Twin Peaks-esque TV ambitions, he’s not exaggerating – Araki has plenty of TV scripts that never got shown, or never got made (including, famously, the ill-fated This is How the World Ends for MTV, which only reached pilot stage). But the medium has always been woven into the thread of Araki’s films: you can’t achieve their strange, somewhat superficial tone without it. “When I went to film school I became a real film-school brat. I was a real cinephile, I was very into my Godard, my Howard Hawks or whatever auteur I was into at the time,” he admits. “But as a kid I was very much a part of that 70s TV generation. I remember watching all those Brady Bunch, touchstone shows. It definitely had a subconscious influence on my films.” It’s true that Araki has fun with TV-show types: his films are often populated by cheesily gritty local cops and desperate housewives on the verge, tropes that he had the most fun with in his last feature, White Bird in a Blizzard (2014). “Now Apocalypse has got a very pop, fun, accessible element to it. It’s not a Haneke movie. It’s (not) behind glass. It’s very much this sort of pop (feeling) that comes from me watching way too much bad TV when I was a kid.”
Araki’s unabashedly populist tone is what sets him apart, creating an atmosphere of unreality as at home in soaps as arthouse cinema. His is a playful world, requiring a slight suspension of disbelief: the perfect space for co-writer Sciortino to pursue her sexual utopias. “It’s real life but bigger,” she says. “Like the way everyone dresses. If only people dressed this excitingly, this colourfully, this beautifully, in real life. The clothes are such a fantasy, and these characters are sort of a fantasy too, I think – but they’re also so human and so real.” In this world, a female rocket scientist can debate the benefits of an open relationship with her boyfriend, and a struggling actress can be depicted partaking in work as an online cam-girl without the usual narrative of victimhood. The latter character, played by Kelli Berglund, contains much of Sciortino herself – such as her experiences working as a dominatrix to pay the bills when she was coming up in New York, something she writes about in her book Slutever. “Writing the character of Carly was cathartic for me. I think what we demonstrate on the show is that this kind of (sex) work is complicated.” Much like their antecedents – Rose McGowan’s Amy Blue in Doom Generation, Juno Temple’s London in Kaboom – the young women of Now Apocalypse are more sexually adventurous and confident than their male counterparts, a power they wield even while the show reveals their vulnerabilities.
You can’t help but wonder whether Araki could even make a show about teenagers now, given that they are, statistically speaking, the safest – having less sex, doing less drugs and drinking less alcohol than ever before. Maybe millennials are the last generation to put themselves in the kind of extreme situations Araki’s world requires (as Ulysses says in the show, “It’s not like I’m brave or anything, it’s more reckless stupidity”). “My films have always (responded to the mood of a generation),” says the director. “I’m kind of a sponge in terms of absorbing what the vibe or the zeitgeist is. Obviously, with our president and the insane chaos of where we are right now, that couldn’t help but infect the show’s sensibility, and play into that apprehension and apocalyptic mood.” His millennial muse Jogia agrees. “There’s this weird miasma of dread everywhere right now,” he says. “But this isn’t the first time that we’ve banged on the doors of questioning what our identity is. It doesn’t really feel like Gregg catching up to the culture, it’s more like the culture catching up to Gregg’s movies.”
“There’s this weird miasma of dread everywhere right now, but this isn’t the first time we’ve banged on the doors of questioning what our identity is” – Avan Jogia
For Araki’s part, as he nears his 60th, he feels he’s always been the perfect age. “I was the right age for all the right stuff,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I probably wouldn’t have become a filmmaker if I hadn’t been born when I was born. When I was in college in the early 80s, there was this explosion of new wave and post-punk music – Joy Division, Sid and Nancy, The Smiths... That’s when your brain is the most able to be shaped. That’s probably why the characters in Now Apocalypse are all 25, because you’re just kind of an open book and you’re not written yet.”
While the characters of Now Apocalypse feel tribeless – Jock? Geek? Gay? Straight? Whatever! – music is as much a part of the director’s universe as it has always been. To watch any Araki film is to enter into a listening booth of the director’s own making, one ear held up to his obsessions. Fittingly, Now Apocalypse’s ‘theme’ is provided by none other than reformed shoegaze legends Slowdive, and their stadium-sized track “Star Roving”. Araki cites the band, along with the likes of the Cocteau Twins and The B-52’s, as fuel for his unique audiovisual sensibility. “I remember talking with Robin Guthrie once about Cocteau Twins (Guthrie has collaborated with Araki on his films ever since Mysterious Skin), who were obviously a giant, giant influence on me. He said, ‘I always thought of the Cocteau Twins as a punk-rock band, because we were just doing our own fucking thing.’ And that’s exactly my sensibility, you know – just this idea to do your own thing. And some people get it, and some people don’t.”
For fellow shoegazer Duval, the liminal soundscape of these bands – which doesn’t exist completely in one place or another – reveals something important about the in-between space Araki’s films also seem to occupy. Much like LA itself, these films are nowhere and everywhere: just the right amount of ethereal, and unreal, to get at what’s actually real. They’re reality, plus: kind of like the way dreams can tell you more about what you feel than waking life. “It almost goes beyond the sadness,” he muses of a Slowdive gig in a record shop that left him and Araki weeping. “I think that’s the thing Gregg taps into in his films, and what we find in the music we love, because there’s a sadness there, but it goes beyond that.
“It’s this sense of feeling something so deeply that, as difficult as it is, you’re living – you’re alive, you know you’re alive, you feel alive, and that hurts. There’s no numbness to it whatsoever. That is what I think it is for me working for him and watching his projects. They tap into something very deep within us, a sense of belonging – the need to love and be loved which I think really are universal themes, put into its almost very basic form. In a way it almost reminds me of early Pulp – no, I shouldn’t say early Pulp, because early Pulp was the 80s, but, like, when Different Class came out. It was like, you know, ‘We just want the right to be different. We don’t look like you, we don’t dress like you, but we’re like you.’ And it’s that whole idea of not fitting in, but you’re there. You’re alive.”
Now Apocalypse is out in the UK on STARZPLAY from March 10
Make-up Grace Ahn at Julian Watson Agency using Chanel, styling assistant Nadia Beeman, make-up assistant Christina Roberson, production assistant Shane McKoy