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The Doom Generation, 1995 (Film Still)Courtesy Sundance London

Gregg Araki: ‘It’s disconcerting how topical The Doom Generation is’

With a new retrospective of his work opening in London next month, the cult cinema legend speaks about queerbaiting, bigotry, and how close he came to directing the 50 Shades of Grey sequel

Gregg Araki makes films for young people, even if they weren’t alive when his queer cult classics were originally released. In fact, when I mention that younger generations are statistically gayer than their predecessors, the 63-year-old director immediately jokes, “I like to take credit for that! I’ve had people tell me my movies made them gay, which I always take as a huge compliment.”

Whether it’s through the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” (Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere), his smartly stupid stoner comedy Smiley Face, or his 2019 TV series Now Apocalypse, Araki has been a constant presence in pop culture as a provocateur who breaks taboos with vivid colours, snappy dialogue, and shoegaze soundtracks. Even though his most recent feature was 2014’s White Bird in a Blizzard, the Japanese-American director has remained a beloved figure amongst cinephiles on social media, Letterboxd, and now, at Sundance London, with an upcoming retrospective.

At Sundance London, Araki will present, in person, three features: his 1987 black-and-white debut Three Bewildered People in the Night; a director’s cut of the 1995 road movie The Doom Generation; and the 2004 Joseph Gordon-Levitt-starring drama Mysterious Skin. Over Zoom, I show the LA-based director a collage of rhyming images (nosebleeds, trios in cars, etcetera) as a theory for why he curated this specific selection. “I have no idea why these three,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t pick them. Sundance did.”

When challenged to come up with a recurring theme anyway, Araki observes, “Having rewatched Three Bewildered People, there’s so much that is literally in every movie I’ve made. The whole threesome of it, the bisexual confusion. Almost every film I’ve done has a queer protagonist with his female best friend – even Mysterious Skin, which was based on a book I didn’t write.”

Shot on a $5,000 budget, Three Bewildered People in the Night isn’t exactly widely seen. When I requested a screening link before the interview, Araki sent over an illegal YouTube upload; it’s mind-boggling to imagine it on a big screen. It’s also pure Araki: a queer love triangle where, for instance, a character wonders whether bisexuals can be exactly 50/50 in their sexual preferences. “A lot of things the characters say are related to what I was feeling,” Araki explains. “My movies are like diaries to me.”

To Araki, it’s his equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche. “It’s really interesting how much of a director’s personality, worldview, and sensibility is contained in their first movie. For people that study auteur theory, it’s so fun.”

With 1995’s The Doom Generation, Araki cast Rose McGowan, James Duval, and Johnathon Schaech as a trio embarking on a murderous crime spree that’s interrupted by shared baths, sex, and neo-Nazis. Well, depending on which cut you watch. “There’s this weird, butchered version they cut for Blockbuster [in the 90s] without my approval,” Araki sighs. “If you have the choice of watching the Blockbuster version, or not watching it, I’d rather you not see it. It’s such a horrible misrepresentation of the movie.”

Sundance London, though, is screening a 4K restoration of The Doom Generation, complete with new colour timing, remixed sound (plus ADR), and the ruder, edgier scenes reinstated. “There are so many things you can do digitally to visually enhance a movie and bring out the colours,” Araki says. “All three of the leads are at the peak of their 20-year-old beauty. It’s the only version of The Doom Generation that should exist from here on out.”

All the old torrents should be deleted? “That’s what I mean! I love that these movies have lived for so long, and people will have watched some shitty YouTube version. But now there’s an official Doom Generation that’s director-approved and technically so superior.”

“I pitched on the sequel to Fifth Shades of Grey... They passed on me! [But] I think I would have been miserable if I’d done it” – Gregg Araki

After Araki notices I’m wearing a hoodie with The Cure on it, the conversation shifts to his recent euphoria from watching Robert Smith’s band in LA. “The purity of The Doom Generation is what speaks to people throughout the ages,” Araki theorises. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without music [like The Cure]. The idea that some people take my films in that way, and my films have had an impact on them, is just incredibly amazing to me.” This Sundance London retrospective, then, is a movie version of seeing The Cure do fan favourites. “It’s also an audience movie, because it was made in the 90s when people used to go to the movies!”

Mysterious Skin, though, is a more challenging proposition. Adapted from a Scott Haim novel, the 2004 drama stars Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as teenagers whose lives spin off in opposite directions after sexual abuse. Without the flippancy of The Doom Generation, Araki’s dreamy, often playful mise-en-scène conveys the protagonists’ fractured, traumatised minds and their escapist fantasies. “Mysterious Skin is such an intense experience in a theatre. You’re very much a prisoner of the movie.”

In the past decade, Araki has mainly worked in TV, directing on shows such as 13 Reasons Why, as well as co-writing and directing every episode of Now Apocalypse. However, there were attempts to make movies during that period, not just from his own scripts. “I pitched on the sequel to Fifth Shades of Grey,” Araki says. “They did 2 and 3 at the same time. That would have been different.” What went wrong? “Ask them! They passed on me! I went to Universal, had the whole meeting and everything. I think I would have been miserable if I’d done it.“

“Obviously the first movie’s fucking terrible, but it’s up my alley, the sex and sexuality. They had a female director on the first one. My take was that because it’s such a woman’s movie – it’s for women – they needed a female director or gay male director. Because it’s about objectifying the male lead character, I said, ‘You need to hire either a gay guy or woman.’ But they went and hired a straight guy.”

Araki has future projects in the work (he doesn’t want to reveal anything) and is also remastering Nowhere, the 1997 follow-up to The Doom Generation. “I want there to be versions I’m happy with – you know, after I’m dead.” Is part of the affinity for his unapologetically queer movies due to no one questioning whether his gay characters are a marketing exercise? “I’m not queerbaiting!” he laughs. “I mean, I’m all for representation. If Disney has a gay character, it definitely helps young, gay people, or young, sexually questioning people. It makes the culture more open and less scary. In the 90s, The Living End and Totally Fucked Up had gay bashings. It was a more dangerous time to be gay. There was a feeling of impending danger around the corner.

“Sadly, we’ve cycled back to that after the golden days of Obama and marriage equality, with Trump and all the crazy shit going on now, and the rise of anti-gay violence, anti-trans legislation and bigotry, and people protesting at Target because of a goddamn Pride t-shirt. I’d love for The Doom Generation to be completely obsolete, with people going, ‘What’s a neo-Nazi?’ But those people are more vocal, visible, and full of hate than ever. It’s disconcerting how topical The Doom Generation is.”

The Gregg Araki Retrospective “The Totally F*cked Up Cinema of Gregg Araki” screens at Sundance London 6-9 July, at Picturehouse Central. Tickets and more information available here:

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