The 1995 film Kids is one of those projects that stays active in your mind long after you’ve watched the end credits roll. Following the lives of a band of misfits living in New York, and shot with the unpolished lens of a documentary, it touched on the blissful ignorance of youth and the unsettling prevalence of peer pressure—all framed within the context of the AIDS pandemic that was devastating the American healthcare system. Directed by photographer Larry Clarke and written by Harmony Korine, who would later write and direct Spring Breakers, the film was a star-making vehicle for a young Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny. It also made celebrities of the skateboarders featured heavily as marauders of the city who were constantly up to no good.
Reactions to the film were explosive and polarized, with critics applauding (through gritted teeth) the realism of teenage self-destruction, while others found it salacious and wildly exploitive. In the 25 years since its debut, cast members have spoken of the film, both the creative process and the ways it shaped their lives. Notably, an air of unease has followed Kids, making it somewhat of an acclaimed but eerie success story in indie filmmaking. Two cast members, Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter, died relatively young after battling drug addiction and depression, and Leo Fitzpatrick, who played the lead role of Telly, has spoken of being accosted and harassed in the streets by viewers who truly believed he was the same menace to society he portrayed in the film.
For co-producers Christine Vachon and Lauren Zalaznick, jumping on board was a no-brainer after reading the script. Vachon, the winner of both a Gotham and an Independent Spirit Award, was a short film veteran when she started working on Kids alongside Zalaznick, with the two having forged a successful working relationship after meeting right out of college. Kids is a standout part of Vachon’s creative oeuvre that has seen her produce films like the Academy nominated Far From Home, I Shot Andy Warhol, and the Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry. Zalaznick is most known for her work in the reality television industry-leading hits Project Runway and Top Chef.
Aside from working together on Kids, the pair also co-produced the sci-fi drama Poison, Swoon (a cinematic retelling of the relationship between murderers Nathaniel Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb), and the 1993 short Dottie Gets Spanked. I recently spoke with Vachon and Zalaznick about the making of Kids, its zeitgeist appeal, and how it still stands apart decades later.
JEZEBEL: What first drew you to the film? Was it the cast, script, director, or a little bit of everything?
CHRISTINE VACHON: Well, it came to us as a script from Red Hot, which was an organization that came together to do various productions to benefit people with HIV. The most famous one they did was a series of cover bands covering Cole Porter music. They wanted to do more and the woman who ran it (Leigh Blake) showed Lauren and me the script. There was no cast attached to it; it was Harmony and Larry, and they knew they wanted to cast the film mostly from a group of kids who skateboarded at Washington Square Park. We really got involved, I would say very quickly after the script was written. Is that your recollection, Lauren?
LAUREN ZALAZNICK: It is. And in terms of what drew us, it’s an overused word today, but the script was absolutely fresh. It was not trying to be anything it wasn’t. It was definitely, in my recollection, the [type of] script which just leapt off the page. It was probably secondarily the way that Harmony and Larry had this vision for these kids who they described in Washington Square Park. Christine and I were really very connected to that area. Our office was right near there, I lived right near there. It was brought to life in the script and then through Harmony and Larry and then through the actual cast as we either met them or during the casting process.
So then you were both pretty hands-on during the creative process?
And it wasn’t just a case of funding the film?
Zalaznick: No. Let’s be clear we did not fund a nickel of the film. We were not the financiers. I was actually going to draw that distinction and say there were no other producers who were with the film, making the film, working with Larry and Harmony every single day. There were mercifully funders of the film who were great executive producers, but this one was a hands-on endeavor. Wouldn’t you say, Christine?
So could you breakdown for me your specific roles as producers and what that entailed?
Zalaznick: Today, you would call what we did like a startup. That’s what an independent film does. There’s no studio infrastructure whatsoever. And you go from maybe two to five people in an office to a few months later maybe having 200 making the film. It’s the equivalent of setting up a whole business with logistics, budgets, location permits, whatever it is. And it’s all in service of the creative endeavor.
Lauren, I know throughout your career whether in films or at NBC, you really seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the kind of shows younger views would pivot towards. Was this awareness something that was present when you first came across Kids or have you honed it throughout your career?
Zalaznick: You know, I was very, very tuned into the way things that are attractive to me are going to be very polemic for some niche in the cultural world. And the thing that has always been underestimated I think, which is finally, finally coming into full bloom is that a niche is a heavier cultural impact than a movie or a TV show that is supposedly quote-unquote “for everybody.” And I think what Christine and I responded to and knew we would capture was that [Kids] would scare the grown-ups. And those could be parents, teachers or religious figures. Because the fact is, every 20 years or so when you go from 18 to 38 or whatever the ages are, you do forget, and you become fearful, judgemental, and completely shut down to understanding what’s happening. And I think we freaking knew that this was going to scare people.
Christine, I read an interview you did some years ago where you talked about your short film company, Apparatus Films, which you started because you wanted to “create an apparatus for filmmakers to work inside of.” How did that desire affect your approach to Kids, which was made on a low budget and is somewhat removed from the excess that comes with big-budget Hollywood productions?
Zalaznick: You know, I don’t really think of Kids in that way because it did not feel small to us. I think it felt very authentic, and that’s what we spent a lot of time trying to protect and to make sure that, for example, the kids did have a natural rapport with each other, that there was a certain amount of fluidity on set that allowed Larry to find the scenes and to let the kids feel comfortable enough to not feel like they were too act-y. We put a lot of effort into that. But I don’t think we were ever fighting budget limitations. We kind of felt like it was the rare movie that cost exactly what it should.
That’s pretty amazing.
Zalaznick: I would say that’s true. I would say we were very good at our jobs, Christine, and we had made a bunch of films, not scores of films but a bunch of short films before. This had a little more money than a dirt-cheap budget.
Vachon: That’s correct.
Zalaznick: We just had a great crew, but I do think it was hard, Christine. I mean we were in New York City and it would have been helpful to get a couple more things to help with the kids and that kind of thing. But this one was not a trial and tribulation because of the budget like other ones were.
Vachon: Right. And with a few exceptions, our days were not crazy long. And the kids could only go for so long, and when they got tired or started saying the same lines often, it wasn’t good anymore.
Zalaznick: And with the under-18s, we had shooting hour restrictions.
Of course. So you’ve worked together on several films and listening to the way you two talk to each other, it’s clear there’s a very nice symbiosis. How would you describe your combined working relationship over the years?
Vachon: Well, we did Kids almost 25 years ago so there’s a lot of shared memories and you’re hearing this lifelong friendship.
Zalaznick: You know Christine, when I think back, we were in it at that time and probably closer in our working relationship than ever before. We had gotten through Poison, Dottie gets Spanked, Swoon….
Vachon: We were juggling.
Zalaznick: Exactly. We were juggling the post-production of Spanks, with the production of Kids. We really had spent maybe two years not knowing which was going to go first and which would get financing between the two. So we had really kind of hammered some stuff out. We are both producers, and we both know how to get people to get things done through this creative filter. We both work extremely well together and there is no tension.
Looking at the current film and television landscape, do you think it would be possible to make a film like Kids today?
Vachon: It’s kind of hard to answer that question, but I mean you couldn’t make that exact movie today because times are very different. You have to understand that when Kids came out, the only way to see it was theatrically. So everybody had that experience. And that’s very different now. Kids became a very common experience, and a lot of people to this day will feel the need to tell me where they saw it for the first time, or how they stole a big brother’s DVD. You know, something like that. And even then with DVDs on VHS, they are the type of thing that could be shared and passed around from person to person and that doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore.
So basically the shifts in how media is made has changed how it is consumed, and it’s less about what is being made, and more how is it being experienced?
That’s something I hadn’t really thought about in that way. So in that vein, when the film was being made, what type of framework was available for the kids as they were shooting these very intense scenes? Because after its release a lot of them spoke about the reactions they received and how it impacted their lives. And some of them ended up going down some pretty dark paths.
Vachon: I just want to make it clear that one thing, and part of the mythology of Kids that Harmony and Larry promoted to a certain degree—and tell me if you agree, Lauren—is that there were no rules and there was chaos on set. And nothing could be farther from the truth. It really wasn’t like that. It was very much a typical film set where things were staged and nobody was ever really having sex. We discussed what the camera was going to see and what actors were comfortable showing. But I mean now, I’m on a set right now that has nudity and we have an intimacy coordinator which is the first time I have worked with one. We didn’t have that then, but when the kids were beating up the guy in Washington Square Park, there was a stunt coordinator and so nobody got hurt. Any of the sexual stuff we made sure that the young people involved felt comfortable, that they knew we were there, and that we would always stop filming if anyone felt uncomfortable. It was mundane.
Zalaznick: I would reiterate very clearly that it was a film set, and everyone on the crew was a professional. It was the real deal. We had call sheets, we had call times. Also as I said we did our darndest to cast over-18s which is a completely different thing than under-18s. What I would say is, it’s a testament to the fluidity of Larry Clarke’s vision, which you can see in his photographs translated through Eric Edward’s cinematography to the screen. And I will also say that there were a couple of improvised dialogue. But there was nothing improvised about the physical scenes, whether it was violence or the sex. Unfortunately, a tremendous amount of mental health issues of depression, issues of anxiety, issues of bipolar, issues of drug and alcohol abuse and some of the pathos that was evident in these performances, like many great performances, possibly had an element of emotional resonance that years later caught up with these human beings.
So as producers and creators whose careers are still ongoing, where does Kids stand in your filmography when you think about work that either shaped how you saw the industry or prepared you for what was to come?
Vachon: It was a relatively early film for us, but I feel like in those first 10 to 15 films, each one felt like it sort of opened a different kind of door not just in terms of recognition within the industry but also sort of recognition of the different ways in which you could tell stories. And a lot of what was revelatory to me at least about Kids was how do you take a story, like Lauren said, that felt that kind of exhilaratingly new and how do you not let it get away from you and become something more staid or conventional. We really protected that, and I think doing that and seeing how strong the result was maybe gave me the conviction to continue to do so.
Zalaznick: That is intense, and I agree a thousand percent. I would add, when I think about it, it’s obviously hard to know where everything is going to fall as we get further and further away and we do more and more different kinds of things. But I would say at this point one of the things that’s meaningful to me, even though we didn’t know it at the time, was we were heading towards the peak of what is now known as independent films. And so I think I would probably look back and say I was enormously proud to be at the forefront of what will always go down in history as the period of the greatest independent films ever made.