Sex, death and Kaboom
It's the end of the world as he knows it, yet indie vet Gregg Araki feels just fine.
Tue Jan 25 2011
"I don't know where my movies come from," says Gregg Araki with a laugh that suggests he's willing to figure it out. "I'm fascinated by cults, by Scientology and Mormons. I'm like a sponge, absorbing all this crazy stuff. Did you see those birds dropping out of the sky the other week?"
Naturally, the birds interest him. Kaboom, the zippy, paranoid latest from the 51-year-old indie director, is an apocalyptic comedy. It speeds along like a collegiate version of Mulholland Drive: an ominous SoCal mystery complete with whack-job conspiracies, shifting identities and a number of robust, polysexual hookups. Of course, it wouldn't be an Araki film if it didn't also include nods to the scarier material that once fueled his earlier projects, like 1995's nihilistic The Doom Generation.
Or would it? "I just don't have that in me anymore," Araki says, of his sourer impulses, much receded. "People walked out of Doom Generation looking shell shocked, like somebody electrocuted them. In that time of my life, I was much angrier, much more angst-ridden."
Araki has changed, even though he's wearing a skinny black tie with skulls on it. You can see it in his easy smile, hear it in his relaxed California twang. Years of funding difficulties and an aborted MTV series led the director to go for broke, resulting in a critical apotheosis, 2005's acclaimed hustler drama Mysterious Skin. What followed was his 2007 Anna Faris stoner comedy, Smiley Face. By his own admission, he's happier now.
"I love being middle-aged and able to look back on that time with warmth," he says. "That age for me was tough. You figure out who you are. I feel comfortable in my own skin." Araki still worries mightily ("Every time I look at Sarah Palin's face, I see the end of the world," he blurts out during our chat), but his mood is playful. Playfully cynical?
For a filmmaker whose work has sometimes resembled an extended adolescence, the mature Araki remains vastly interested in immaturity, now with a sympathetic eye. Kaboom ("my most autobiographical movie, with more sex and drama thrown in") takes place on a campus like the Santa Barbara state school where Araki was an undergrad; its blue-eyed hero, Smith (Thomas Dekker), majors in cinema studies, as did his creator.
"I think Gregg's often been misunderstood," says Dekker, 23, a superfan long before he was cast. (The actor, best known for the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, acquired an early draft of the script a year before shooting.) "All of his films, they're very aggressive and anarchic, but they're traced with this line of sadness. There's always this fear of life ending before you have the chance to fully understand it."
Araki is moved by how a younger generation cherishes his work—one not old enough to remember the first flourish of New Queer Cinema that brought Araki to prominence. "One time I was in Sundance with Rick Linklater—this was like ten years ago—and we were walking down the street and these 20-year-old kids came up to us and said, 'Oh my God. You guys were my idols when I was in junior high!' And me and Rick were like, 'Yeah, we're the grandpas of this place.' I really wanted to make a movie for them."
Kaboom does feel like a personal transmission, intended for an audience of like-minded outsiders, as well as lovers of camp, sci-fi silliness and tongue-in-cheek histrionics. The movie also bears the Araki trademark of frank sex scenes, and even some lessons in technique.
"The characters are really young, but they're not juvenile," says Hayley Bennett, 23, from her home in L.A. As Smith's snide companion, Stella, Bennett finds herself in bed with a voluptuous, spell-casting witch (Fat Girl's Roxane Mesquida). "Roxane is French—I aspire to be French," Bennett says pointedly of their intimate day of shooting. "But it proved to be very relaxed for me."
Dekker, who does some exposed work himself, agrees. "I don't think any of us felt there was anything lascivious coming from Gregg's end." Araki has handled the sex question before. "It's really about making the set feel as safe as it can be," he offers. "But I'm fascinated by private moments in all my films." The director pauses, feeling his bad-boy roots. "Everyone knows what you look like when you go to Starbucks."