In the past three decades, Gregg Araki has watched his work go from shocking to sweet. The director made his first splash at the 1992 film festival with his third feature, the road movie The Living End. Its heroes, Jon and Luke (a reference not to the New Testament but to Araki’s French New Wave idol Jean-Luc Godard), were HIV positive gay men who reclaimed their country’s refusal to give a fuck about them or their future, spitting it back out in a spray of nihilism and chaos. The movie featured its protagonists engaged in shower sex replete with erotic asphyxiation and close-ups of them kissing (the previous year, much of the controversy surrounding Madonna: Truth or Dare came as a result of a scene in which two of her male dancers made out).
“When The Living End played Sundance, people were horrified and shocked. I heard stories about people getting into fistfights,” Araki told Jezebel via phone earlier this week. “It did really take decades of Will & Grace and Glee and all the other stuff out there to get people to the place of, ‘Yeah, two guys kissing, whatever.’”
The Living End still packs a punch, though largely via its scrappy, DIY aesthetic. Araki shot it on 16 mm, guerilla-style, and was frequently the only crew member on the set. A “gay/lesbian John Hughes movie directed by Godard” called Totally Fucked Up followed in 1994 with much the same unvarnished charm. For Pride month, both movies in addition to Araki’s decidedly more polished aesthetically but no less audacious 2004 film Mysterious Skin (which depicts child sex abuse, grooming, and underage sex work), are streaming on the Criterion Channel. With my recent conversations about film canon in mind, I talked to the 60-year-old filmmaker about Pride, his career, the New Queer Cinema movement with which he was affiliated in the early ’90s, and his legacy. “I’m on Criterion,” he said to me at one point. “What is this world coming to?”
The transcript of our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Do you have a personal attachment to Pride, not in the general existential sense but as something celebrated specifically every June?
GREGG ARAKI: I’ve always been mixed on Pride. I went to San Francisco Pride once, I think. It’s never been that big of a deal for me. I’ve lived most of my adult life out, my work is queer, but that’s because I’m lucky. I was born in California. I have the coolest parents in the world. For their generation, they’re not normal. They’re so loving and accepting. I never had an issue with coming out. I never even really came out to my parents. I think Pride is really important, and I feel blessed that it wasn’t a big deal to me. But it is great because the big message of Pride is you’re not alone. There’s a whole world out here. There’s a whole world within the world where you’re safe, where you’re loved, and where you’re accepted. I think that’s so important, even today.
I don’t have much use for a month dedicated to Pride because I live my pride every day. I wonder if you see your movies as a similar expression.
Yeah, it’s that “we’re here, we’re queer.” It just is. I think that’s kind of why my movies are never about, “I’m gay, what should I do?” It’s like, “I’m gay and now there’s some dude with a gun.” [Laughs] They take it as a part of life, in a way that it’s a part of my life. It’s a reflection of my own world and my own experience.
Via feedback or whatever, did you encounter any hardship from making movies as openly queer as yours were as far back as the late ’80s?
I actually feel like it’s been a blessing, particularly in retrospect. Being a person of color and being queer, it’s given me my voice. It’s what makes me and my films different and individual. As a moviegoer, I’m not really interested in the white, straight, cis, male story anymore. It has to be so special for me to perk up and pay attention to it. My films have always been about people outside the mainstream, and that’s where the more interesting stories lie to me.
What do you make of the fact that queer stories are mainstream today? Has something been lost in what’s been gained?
I’m blown away at how far we’ve come, but we still have a ways to go. Homophobia is not over. When I was in film school at USC in the early ’80s, I was not out. It was still secret. You still had to sneak off to gay bars to hook up with people. I feel super fortunate that at this age, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been through all the phases of it. When The Living End played Sundance, people were horrified and shocked. I heard stories about people getting into fistfights. That movie was so provocative and really upset people. The politics of it, obviously, but also the frankness of the sexuality. When we remastered it in 2008, I was surprised at how tame and sweet it was. It just goes to show you how far in that 25 years we’ve come.
When Living End came out at Sundance in ’92, this was before Ellen came out, before Will & Grace. The image of two guys kissing was so crazy. That’s one of the things I think is amazing about media and representation. It did really take decades of Will & Grace and Glee and all the other stuff out there to get people to the place of, “Yeah, two guys kissing, whatever.” I think that’s amazing progress.
You’ve described the Living End shoot as “guerrilla.” What did that mean for you?
There were days it was just me and the actors just shooting with this camera—a 16 mm camera, was a bulky thing that you had to load film in. And then other days when it was like a P.A. and a sound person and someone was clapping the clapper. I had made my first two black-and-white movies completely by myself. It was just me and the actors and nothing else. It was a step up for me when I did The Living End and Totally Fucked Up, to have at least a few people around.
When you think back to the “New Queer Cinema” movement, do you think it fulfilled its potential?
I think in retrospect, it’s kind of amazing. The Living End was this little, tiny art project. It cost $20,000 or something. I got an AFI grant to make it. The fact that it was seen around the world, distributed, talked about, that it had the impact that it had was largely due to the queer new wave and the hullaballoo surrounding it, the film being talked about in the context of that movement, as well as ACT UP and Queer Nation. Without all of the cultural stuff that was happening, The Living End would have come and gone very quickly.
Did you think about race when you made The Living End? Your main characters are white gay guys.
It was just different. In retrospect, it’s like, “Maybe one of them should have been of color.” It’s something I’ve been aware of, and that’s why Totally Fucked Up was such an ethnic melting pot. That was very much a part of my reality in my life at the time. My world was very multiethnic and I wanted my films to reflect that. I think it’s good to present a world that is the world you want to see.
You’ve talked about how your films aren’t necessarily autobiographical, but they are personal. When Tommy says in Totally Fucked Up, “Everything that homos are supposed to like—disco music, drag shows, Joan Crawford—I hate.” Was that a recitation of your ethos?
Both of those films are. I used to keep these journals of observations or cool locations, and a lot of those movies were very much everything I was thinking and feeling at the time. For me, the movies are such time capsules and they’re exactly who I was and where I was at in the early ’80s.
So as scant as gay representation was in pop culture at the time, you were already thinking about its shortcomings and how to push against them?
Yeah, and also I was hanging out with these punkish, alternative kids and that was their sentiment. I remember back in these days, Rage, the gay bar in West Hollywood, was the mainstream, Top 40, predominantly white gay bar. They would have this alternative night on Mondays where they’d play Depeche Mode or Siouxsie and the Banshees; and the people I’d hang out with that night, that was very much their sentiment. They were sort of a minority within a minority. They didn’t fit in with the mainstream gays because they had a more alternative background and that was where I was at.
It’s interesting to watch that scene today because there’s something about that that still holds true. RuPaul’s Drag Race pretty much the most visible, beloved element of gay culture today.
But it’s cool today because there’s such a wide range. It’s not just that, which I think would be problematic, but there are so many different shades of gay representation and trans representation. It’s easier to see yourself now than it used to be, not that there’s not room for improvement there.
Queer stuff aside, Totally Fucked Up presents a depiction of teens that was way more naturalistic than what audiences were accustomed to seeing.
When Totally Fucked Up came out, I used to describe it as a gay/lesbian John Hughes movie directed by Godard. Masculin Féminin is one of my favorite Godard films, and it was very much inspired by or ripped off of that movie, which is Godard’s movie about youth. I had seen the John Hughes movies and Heathers and the other movies. I wanted to make a movie for kids who relate to some of those issues of adolescence but they hadn’t really seen themselves on screen before.
What was your relationship to the traditional connotation of “quality?” I think your early work was sometimes dismissed for reasons tied directly to resources. It was scrappy.
“Scrappy” is a good word for it. It’s something that’s run throughout my films. My background is in punk rock music, and that whole alternative to the mainstream is pretty much where I come from. Punk rock, post-punk, and new wave. That’s the energy that is really probably the biggest influence on me, in terms of my sensibility. Punk was a scrappy, rough thing that stands in defiance of big-budget, poppy, glossy, over-produced Top 40 mainstream media. My films, particularly Living End and Totally Fucked Up, come from that street, garage-band level. One of my early producers, Jim Stark, said, “You make these queer punk movies that are too punk for gay people and too queer for punks.” He told me, “If you make a heterosexual movie, I’ll finance it for you.” That was the story of The Doom Generation and that’s why The Doom Generation was [subtitled] “A Heterosexual Movie.” It was a joke. “Here’s your heterosexual movie.
When the Sex Pistols came out, they were so reviled and there were riots at their concerts. It was this thing that’s so out there. And then the 2000s, there’s Coachella. These renegade movements get absorbed by the mainstream culture and they’re not seen as so renegade anymore. What was the Sex Pistols in ’76 was Nirvana in the ’90s. It’s seen as part of this gradual movement, and I think historically that’s proven time and time again.
Mysterious Skin, in contrast, is polished by conventional standards in terms of its aesthetics, not its content. Do you think it’s a fair assessment to call that movie a maturation?
That’s what everybody else said about it! I don’t think about the movies in that way. I didn’t think, “Oh, it’s time for me to grow up and make a mature movie.” I remember reading Scott Heim’s book Mysterious Skin and loving it so much and being so moved by it. It, in its own way, was very punk rock. I remember when I started making Mysterious Skin, thinking, This film could very well be the end of my career. I was used to polarizing people, the sort of love it/hate it reaction and provocative nature of the films, but this film, because it was about child abuse and it told the story in such a raw and easily misinterpreted way, I thought people could go nuts. I thought people might be so outraged they’d run me out of town. It just goes to show that you never know because of all my movies, people loved it in a way that they had never reacted to my movies before.
Do you have any theories as to why people didn’t freak out? I’d argue it’s the filmmaking, but the subject matter is audacious nonetheless.
I passed on the movie like four or five times. There was no way to tell the story without traumatizing some poor child actor, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. It wasn’t until the early 2000s after I’d done a few more things where I figured out this way to use subjective camera and editing and a way to make two different movies. The kids never read the full script. We wrote a special kids version of the script that didn’t have the tougher parts of it. The kids read weird, sanitized versions of the scenes. And then Bill Sage, who played the coach, shot his half the scenes separately. It’s all created in the editing, really.
What was it like hearing from abuse survivors who’d seen the movie?
It was really intense. I remember being at Seattle and a woman coming up to me with tears in her eyes. One thing I learned while making the movie is just the astronomical amount of people who have been molested. I haven’t been. I lived the kind of idyllic childhood. The genius of the book is that it took everybody’s idyllic childhood and all of those details, like the TV tray, the Froot Loops—the iconography of childhood allows you to really relate to those kids, and then what happens to them is so devastating. Molestation is so more common than people know and that’s why it was such a powerful experience to make that movie, and that’s why I think people were moved by it.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten your due? Do you feel adequately appreciated for what you’ve put into the world?
Absolutely. If when I was in film school somebody told me, “One day, you’re going to have made 12 movies and TV shows and all kinds of stuff and gone to the Cannes Film Festival, been to Sundance 10, 20 times,” I would never have believed it. I’m just this middle-class kid from Santa Barbara who likes punk rock music. I’ve never had any ambitions like, “Oh I want to win an Oscar,” or, “I want to be Steven Spielberg and own a giant empire.” I’ve always just wanted to make my movies and do my thing and one of my dreams was to make a TV show [last year’s Now Apocalypse]. I remember telling [Apocalypse executive producer] Greg Jacobs, “There’s nothing more. This is my bucket list.” I’ve done everything, more than I ever dreamed possible. What I’ve been able to do with my scrappy little movies is amazing to me.