This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with an earth-shattering orgasm. Or at least that’s what happens in a lot of Gregg Araki’s greatest films.
The indie filmmaker made a name for himself in the early ’90s with his “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” a spectacularly fun, trippy trio of movies about horny Los Angeles teenagers terrorized by reptilian aliens, neo-Nazis, and, of course, the slippery boundaries of non-monogamous relationships. As a young filmmaker, Araki became a queer provocateur (Roger Ebert gave his film The Doom Generation zero stars), but his early films have grown in cult status. His teenage characters better reflect mainstream attitudes towards sexuality today than back then; and his body of work has mellowed out considerably with films like the stoner comedy Smiley Face and 2014's White Bird in a Blizzard. For the past few years, he’s also been directing episodes of shows like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why.
Araki’s own series Now, Apocalypse, premiering March 10 on Starz, builds on his canon, following a group of twenty-somethings trying to make it in Hollywood, led by Ulysses (Avan Jogia), who falls down a rabbit hole of conspiracies after aliens begin to invade his dreams (or is it his life?).
“I haven’t forsaken independent cinema, but I’m really enjoying this time in the TV world,” Araki says. Here, we talk about the show’s fruition, getting indie projects off the ground now, as opposed to in the 1990s, and moving away from his NIN youth. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: When did you first start envisioning this show?
GREGG ARAKI: I’ve been making indie movies for like 25, 30 years, but I’ve been wanting to do a TV show like this for at least 20 of those years. In the past couple years, I’ve been directing other people’s episodic shows, like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, and working on those shows from the ground up, I sort of saw what a showrunner does and how a TV show is made. It was an education for me, but I was thinking like, wow, running a show is an incredible amount of work, and for me to do a show it would literally have to be my dream show. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth it for me. I don’t really live an extravagant life; it’s not like I have a huge mortgage or a bunch of bills to pay. It’s not really about the money to me.
Two or three years ago, I started thinking about, well if I did ever have a show, like, what would it be. And I started to come up with the concept for Now, Apocalypse. Around that same time, I met my co-writer Karley Sciortino. We were working on an indie film together and we just hit it off. We have a very similar view of sex and sexuality and how important it is to your experiences as a human being. It sort of formulated in my mind, here’s this show about these 25-year-olds that’s kind of like a Girls, Sex and the City sort of sex comedy.
Something I thought about while watching this show was the MTV pilot you made.
Is there anything from that experience that you took into making this series?
Yeah, that was a much more typical TV experience, in that it was a development deal for a script. They said we were going to shoot the pilot, and then we shoot the pilot and we wait around forever wondering if they’re going to pick the pilot up, you know? I was telling Karley, it was really funny, after we left our first pitch meeting, [producer] Greg Jacobs said, ‘They are 100 percent going to make this show, I can just feel it.’ And I said, ‘100 percent?!’ Hollywood is usually things take forever, particularly with TV, and there’s this huge development process and this giant bureaucracy. So this was an unusual, crazy experience. Starz was basically like, whatever you want to do, just don’t bore us.
We’re kind of in this TV explosion right now, and TV has become this new avenue for directors to kind of create these big projects. How do you think the current TV landscape has helped filmmakers?
Oh it’s definitely [helped]. I don’t think the show could have been made even like five years ago. There’s 500 shows out there and you really have to stretch. You can’t just make the same old show and expect people to watch it. It’s awesome for content creators, but it’s hard to penetrate the noise and get your show seen. And our show is very fun and I made a conscious effort to make it stylized, colorful, and vibrant. Kind of consciously and unconsciously, this show was designed to go to the top of the pile. It’s half an hour, it’s 10 episodes, it’s fun, it’s sexy, and it’s really easy to watch. A show like The Handmaids Tale, which I haven’t seen yet, I hear it’s amazing, I just can’t handle watching it yet.
It’s too real.
It’s heavy. That, to me, is what is sort of in the back of my mind making this show. I want to make a show that’s fun to watch, as opposed to something that’s like work.
This is yet another project for you where you’re exploring the apocalypse. Why do you keep coming back to that?
One thing is, when we pitched the show, I was interested in making this sort of HBO-ish, R-rated comedy, those sort of shows that deal with relationships and confusion and growing up and figuring out who you are. But to do this show in 2019 is hard because that genre is so done. I’ve always been a big David Lynch fan—I was in film school when Twin Peaks came out—and this idea of making something where you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not and you live in this sort of luminous, heightened reality. That was always a big part of the show. Obviously, the world we live in right now is so insane and chaotic, it just makes the show’s world seem almost tame by comparison. [Laughs]
It’s interesting, when we first wrote the script, it was the tale end of the Obama administration and it was written in a much more utopian world. Then 2016 happened, and I remembered making [another] pass at the script. It’s always sort of had that end of the world feel to it, but the darker things got a little bit darker. There’s a scene where [characters] Gabriel and Ulysses are in front of the coffee shop on their first date and they are about to kiss and then the fag-bashers drive by—that was not in the original in the pilot and I added it. I feel like it’s very much a show of its time, unfortunately.
When I think about the “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy, it feels like those films are even more relevant today.
Nowhere, Doom Generation, those movies were speaking to a world that existed in the margins; it didn’t really exist in such a broad way as it does today. Even in terms of sexual fluidity and what you’re talking about, this sense of the apocalypse. I think every generation has this sense of “we’re going to see the end of the world,” but I do think where we are today is different, compared to what I’ve seen in my lifetime. The political situation is a nightmare, but also this whole idea of global warming and the climate, everything shifting in such a dramatic way so quickly.
The characters in Now, Apocalypse are using social media all the time, and their phones are constantly interrupting their lives, especially sex. How has technology changed the way you write dialogue for younger characters?
We would joke about how, when we were shooting, we’d just have so many shots of fucking phones, iPads, text messages, Skype, so many shots of people holding phones. Like, okay, now here’s the insert of the phone. We were like, we should just do this on a green screen, put the background wherever they are. But it’s just a part of the world right now for better or worse. As a creative person it’s interesting, just as a device. When you think back on it, back in the ’80s, people had to go to, like, pay phones. Meeting people is really hard. I was working on one script that’s like a period piece and it’s like... people have to call each other? And go to each other’s houses? It was very weird trying to get people in the same room. [Laughs] They have to drive over and pick each other up?
Most of the characters work in the film industry or they’ve left it. Why set it there?
I knew that my dream show would be set in Los Angeles, I’ve lived here almost all of my life, and L.A. is like the only place the show could happen. Ulysses talks about Los Angeles as living inside an insane cartoon, and L.A. is sort of the land of dreams. Reality here is not like reality everywhere else. The line between fantasy and reality is so blurry here. It’s sort of the only place it could happen. And just from all my years living here, so much of the show is from my own experience of this place. One of the big inspirations for this show is just how I love driving through the Valley in the middle of the night. Just this notion of this place that is so easy to get lost in.
In the first episode, Ulysses says something like, “Movies are now more irrelevant than books. They’re all about superheroes and YA bullshit.” Is that something you agree with?
Ha! That whole monologue, I remember the first time I met Avan we hung out—he’s a creative soul, and we were talking about this thing about the age he’s living in versus the age I grew up in. The world’s changed so much, it was easier for me when I was in school to say, “I want to be a director” and cinema and film school was different than it was today. At that point, you could say, I want to be in a rock band and there was a music industry [to support] that. Creative millennials are in this weird position of having all this creative energy and inspiration and almost no place to put it because, like in the monologue, he says everything’s been done. So many art forms have been killed off by the internet, and that was something I really wanted from that character. He’s kind of bursting.
I know you’ve said before that when you were in film school, there was no blueprint for what indie cinema looked like, that you and your peers were working sort of from classic Hollywood. Do you think truly independent cinema exists anymore?
It definitely exists. I was just at Sundance, and it’s certainly bigger and more vigorous than ever! We just live in a very strange time in terms of indie cinema. With Netflix and streaming and everything shifting, it’s harder and harder to get an indie film distributed. But then again, there’s Moonlight, a little movie like that, that suddenly just blows up. For me, as a content creator, it’s a super exciting time because the thought of having this TV show is kind of unheard of or would be unheard of at any other time. When you make an indie film, they’re hard to see, and you have to go to a little, like, Landmark theater to see it. It’s hard to get it out there. But to do a show on Starz, you have it beamed out to millions of houses or on an iPad or on your phone, it’s like everywhere. It’s exciting that someone who’s never heard of Sundance, never heard of independent cinema, certainly never heard of me, will suddenly have this thing. It’s a democratic medium.
Was making movies with major studios something that was every attractive to you?
I’ve flirted with it. I’ve met with studios for talks of doing bigger movies before, but it’s funny, it’s always been a matter of trying to assure people, don’t worry, this won’t be The Doom Generation. [Laughs] It’s not going to be so extreme. When we pitched the show to Starz, I’m so used to doing that, telling them, “We’ll tone it down, it won’t be too crazy,” and Starz was the opposite. They were like, “No, we don’t want you to tame it down.” That was liberating. I’m used to people trying to rein me in.
It seems like your movies or projects in general have gotten less violent over time. Was that a conscious decision for you, or was it something you felt like you had to do to sort of appease others, to sort of rein yourself in?
It certainly wasn’t conscious. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Doom Generation was 1994, which was about 24, 25 years ago, so as a person I’m different now. When I was younger and I made The Doom Generation I was much closer in age to the characters and much closer in mindset to those characters than I am now. Being in my 50s, I just have this different perspective. I’m hopefully older and wiser. When I made The Doom Generation, I called it “my Nine Inch Nails movie.” It was just a very angry movie, and that’s what I love about that movie because it was so purely where I was in the early-to-mid-1990s.
Now, Apocalypse is very in your face and very confrontational. There’s BDSM and orgies, there’s a three-way, there’s so much stuff in the show that sounds kind of incendiary. But for all the punk rock approach in terms of sexuality, there’s an inherent sweetness to it that makes it all so easy to watch. It’s much easier, I think, to watch, and much friendlier than The Doom Generation, which was just generally angry, and I think that has to do with where I am in my life.
Something about Now, Apocalypse that feels surprisingly new, or still sort of novel at least on television, is that there’s a lot of explicit gay sex. That’s still not something we see a lot in TV or movies in 2019, even something like Call Me By Your Name where the camera cuts away during the sex scene, or sex is rendered more palatable for straight audiences. Was that something that was important to you to include in the series? Why do you think so many directors shy away from showing it explicitly?
When I sat down to make the show, the queer aspect of it was super important to me. I feel like it’s an important time to put that into the world, especially given our current administration. It’s all about making America oppressive again, making America a racist, homophobic place. We’ve come so far in my lifetime from where we started and we’re going backwards. Having a queer hero like Ulysses is central to the show. I think it’s also a testament to how great Avon is; he’s just to me this very soulful screen presence. You really feel for him so much, and the sex that he gets involved in might seem crazy and extreme, but I never feel shocked by it. You’re sort of with him on this ride.
One of the things I’m surprised about the show, and it does have sex and nudity and three-ways, is that I really just quickly forget the sex. That scene where Karley and Jethro have their first spanking adventure. It’s like this six-minute long scene where they’re naked for most of it, but I really forget that they’re even naked. She has this moment—you just see it on her face—of a transformation. It’s not about titillation; it’s not porn. It’s always, to me, about the characters and what’s happening to them in this super intimate way, where you really know them and start to care about them.