“It’s Disturbing to Me How Relevant They Are”: Gregg Araki on New Restorations and His Teen Apocalypse Trilogy
In the late 1980s, Gregg Araki began making movies. He made films on a shoestring budget with a do-it-yourself mindset–not due to any kind of loyalty to the auteur theory, but the constraints of what he had at his disposal. In 1992, he made The Living End, a tale of two HIV-positive gay men, a loner and a film critic, who set off on a bloody, ferocious adventure. The film was dedicated to “the hundreds of thousands who’ve died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big white house full of republican fuckheads.” From there, the next three movies Araki would make, Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997) would cement his status as a major voice in independent queer cinema. The films, later referred to as the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” with their psychedelic production design and iconic dialogue (“Eat my fuck,” “Who pissed in your Fruit Loops?” “This party’s as much fun as an ingrown butthair,”) sounding as if it came from the mouth of John Hughes’s bratty younger brother, achieved a cult following in the years to come. Araki, now 63, has sustained his status as a beloved cult filmmaker and has continued to make brash, powerful, and deeply queer work, such as his recent television series Now Apocalypse.
Celebrating brand-new restorations of The Doom Generation and Nowhere, as well as screenings of the trilogy this weekend, September 15 and 16, at the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles, Gregg Araki spoke to Filmmaker about the process behind restoring his new films, their political relevance today, and his love for John Waters, among other topics.
Filmmaker: So you’re doing the screening at the Academy Museum. It’s three of your films, Totally Fucked Up, Doom Generation and Nowhere.
Gregg Araki: The “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy.”
Filmmaker: Did you know they would form a trilogy when you were making them, or is that something you realized after the fact?
Araki: Totally Fucked Up was made on its own. It’s basically my homage to Godard’s Masculin Feminin — like a LGBT Masculin Feminin. [The cast] were all basically teenagers at that time. The experience of doing that movie inspired me to do this trilogy of movies. So I wrote the part of Jordan in Doom Generation and the part of Dark in Nowhere for Jimmy Duval, who played Andy in Totally Fucked Up. He’s the through line through the three films. But yeah, so the second two were definitely part of the trilogy.
Filmmaker: What is it you saw in him, and what did you guys learn from each other in your collaborations?
Araki: It was was his spirit, a little bit. All the kids in Totally Fucked Up, it was their openness, and [that] gave me a little bit of hope for the future and the next generation. There was just this level of soulfulness about Jimmy. It just made sense to center the trilogy around his kind of persona. The characters in the movies are not him, but they’re loosely inspired by him. I was writing the second two with him in mind.
Filmmaker: What convinced you to restore these films, and how involved in that process were you?
Araki: Very. For Doom Generation and Nowhere, it’s been like a full-time job — basically like being in post on a new movie. Both Doom Generation and Nowhere have been completely re-colored from the original negative. We remixed the sound of both movies. The movies were theatrically released in the US in the ’90s for five minutes, really, as some art independent films did in those days. They came and went, and it was hard to compete with the bigger indie movies, the studio movies and the franchise movies that came out. But both of those movies have lived on in this very amazing, and honestly very humbling, way. They both have inspired intense cult followings. When we were screening Doom Generation, I would always ask at the screenings, “How many people have seen this movie before and never seen this movie before?” I thought it was going to be a lot of nostalgic people, but frequently half the audience or more were brand new. And a lot of them were so young!
Doom Generation came out 28 years ago; Nowhere was 26 years ago. And Nowhere was never even released on DVD in the US. Both Doom and Nowhere, they’ve lived on in this kind of amazing way, on the basis of the shittiest copies imaginable. Doom Generation was this horrible pan-and-scan that I don’t even think I ever approved or supervised. And then through the years, they’re also not streaming, so they’re on YouTube, or some Russian website, and the copies get worse and worse and worse and worse. Even the original master, which we went back and looked at, there are so many problems in terms of the way it’s color timed and mixed. Both those movies have the most amazing soundtracks, and you can’t hear half the music and dialogue. I’ve been doing this now for 35 years, and I’m a much better filmmaker today than I was in 1994, so it was great to be able to revisit those movies and really polish them and remix them and make the most of that amazing music. You can hear all the dialogue now. They are just whole new movies, almost, particularly Nowhere. We just finished the DCP of it, and it’s so beautiful. I almost cried when I was watching it.
Filmmaker: There’s kind of a fuzziness to some of those films that’s part of the aesthetic. I imagine that you have to walk a fine line in terms of sharpening the image, but keeping that intended look.
Araki: I don’t know what you mean by fuzziness, because Living End and Totally Fucked Up were shot on 16mm. The images are a little rough around the edges. Doom Generation and Nowhere were my first movies in 35, and my first movies with a DP, and both those movies are beautifully, beautifully shot. The lighting is amazing, and the actors are all at the zenith of their physical beauty. So it’s almost breathtaking to see their faces in these glowing closeups. Doom and Nowhere were both very stylized. I was very inspired by comic books and pop art and glossy magazines. It was really [about] making those images really pop. A lot of it is the color and the painterly quality of the images, the idea that the images just have their own aesthetic beauty. So that was really what we were going for when we were redoing the picture.
Filmmaker: The set design in those films, the bedrooms in each film feel almost like an installation or something.
Araki: The production designer of Nowhere, Patti Podesta, her background is in studio art and stuff, and a lot of her department were Cal Art students. So, there was a lot of art stuff going on, particularly in the production design. And the late, great, Thérèse DePrez did the production design of Doom Generation, and it was the same thing. It was the first time I’d ever had a production designer, and I’ve always been interested in this kind of stylized, surreal reality, even on Living End and Totally Fucked Up, where I had no designer and no money. I was always looking for locations that had a weird surreal quality to them. What I learned on Doom Generation we doubled down on Nowhere and just really pushed the movie into that super stylized crazy pop aesthetic.
Filmmaker: When I watched Totally Fucked Up, I was reminded of the video work of somebody like Gregg Bordowitz who was making AIDS activist tapes at that time. Was ACT UP and their video work a conscious influence on you at the time?
Araki: Totally Fucked Up and Living End were both very much a product of the ACT UP, Queer Nation, the late ’80s, early ’90s artistic political scene. Like Tom Kalin, he’s a video artist, and he did Swoon. There was a lot of overlap between political activism, culture, art and young artists. Both of those movies were very much a part of that time, and that’s why I’m so glad that they exist today, because they are kind of historical artifacts of a super, super important period in queer history, I think.
Filmmaker: And yet they feel chillingly relevant still.
Araki: Yeah, it’s disturbing to me how relevant they are. Particularly Totally Fucked Up and Doom Generation. I wish they were more outdated. Right wing homophobia, the culture wars and all the stuff that fuels those movies, it’s almost worse today than ever. In Nowhere, the kids are playing a kick-the-can game, and to pick who’s it, they’re spitting at a target of Jesse Helms, who was one of the main anti-gay, bigot political figures. It’s shocking and super disheartening to know that there’s a million more Jesse Helms to take his place.
Filmmaker: You mentioned Godard as an inspiration. I’m wondering how his passing affected you.
Araki: It affected me, but also, he left no crumbs. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] He was here, and he lived, he was like 90, or something, right? You can’t ask for anything more than that. Live a long life and just change the face of fucking cinema single-handedly. I was in Cannes in 2009 or 2010 for the Kaboom premiere, and he was there with one of his later movies, but I’ve never met him. Apparently he was kind of a prickly, not super nice guy. I don’t want to veer off on a tangent, but what’s so amazing is our Academy Museum screenings coincide with the John Waters opening and the John Waters retrospective. And John is the opposite. John is a legendary, huge, huge figure, so much bigger than just being a filmmaker. The coolest, nicest, most super friendly and amazing human being. But I’ve heard from other people that Godard was a little bit of a handful. I was sad that he’s gone, but what a fucking life.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I had the chance to talk to John Waters for another interview, and he is the greatest guy. I was also super intimidated though.
Araki: He could be such an asshole if he wanted to be. He’s John-Fucking-Waters, but he’s just fucking amazing. I always say he’s a national treasure, and he is. I’m so excited to see him this weekend.
Filmmaker: This trilogy of films, it was shocking at the time, and it still shocks now. There’s been a bit of a hubbub about transgressive art these days. I wonder what’s really transgressive, and I feel like the people who intend to make transgressive art just fall into a more reactionary crowd. So, I’m wondering who you think is making work that feels really truly transgressive these days.
Araki: I’m just such a bad person to ask that question to, because I always say that’s a question for critics and programmers. Ask Kim Yutani that question, the programmer for Sundance. She sees everything. She has her finger on the pulse. She knows what’s going on, who the new filmmakers are, who did this short film, or who’s buzzy. I am really just not really up to date.
Filmmaker: Well, what do you watch?
Araki: I remember Scorsese was talking about this, about as he gets older, time becomes more and more precious. I really just focus on my own stuff and living my own life, especially in this day and age, with so much distraction. I’ll see stuff. I am always paying attention, like, “What’s going on in Toronto and Venice right now?” I keep up to date on what’s buzzy, but I’m like everybody else, I’m not at the forefront. I’m waiting for people like you to go, “You’ve got to see this.” I’m sorry to be evasive. That’s my long answer to a short question.
Filmmaker: No, it’s okay. So, what are you working on now?
Araki: I have three things I’m working on right now, besides the Nowhere restoration, which was a lot of work. I don’t really talk about stuff I’m working on. One’s a film, a feature film, two are TV ideas. So it’s stuff that…my friend used to say, “I got a lot of irons in the freezer.” Laughs.
Filmmaker: It does seem like as of late, you’ve made a conscious shift towards television work. What can you say about when that started?
Araki: There’s nothing conscious about it. My career has been so random… It’s really like whatever movie comes together, whatever movie gets financed, that becomes the next movie. And so, the TV thing came about by accident really. John Ridley in 2015 approached me because he was working on American Crime, and the storyline that season was a little bit similar to Mysterious Skin, and he was a big Mysterious Skin fan. So that season he was looking for Sundance-y indie filmmakers to work on his show. That was my first episodic job, and then from there, once you proved that [you can direct episodic], you start getting other shows and other offers and stuff.
I was learning so much about TV, how TV production is different from film production. I was working on my show Now Apocalypse. I learned so much about show running and how to make a show work, especially Red Oaks. Greg Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh were executive producers on that. That’s the show I met Greg Jacobs on. He read the Now Apocalypse pilot script that me and Karley [Sciortino] wrote, and he said, “I love this, I want to produce it.” And so Now Apocalypse happened because I directed his show Red Oaks.
But I’ve always been interested in TV. Nowhere actually came out right around the time as, or was very, very inspired by, Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was released in Europe as a feature film. And so they released Twin Peaks as a feature, and that was the mindset behind Nowhere — the pilot was going to be a feature, and then there would be a show inspired by Nowhere.
Filmmaker: It’s such an ensemble piece, there are so many characters. You could see that easily.
Araki: I was researching it by watching 90210 and Melrose Place, and all those are “soapy young people having sex” serials. For Nowhere we actually had a development deal to write, I think, two or three scripts for the series. We were trying to sell Nowhere as a series, but this was mid-’90s. And people were like, “What is this fucking show?” But since Nowhere, I’ve always wanted to do a show, and Now Apocalypse is really that dream.
Filmmaker: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I’m very excited for you for this event, and congratulations.
Araki: Thank you so much, and I’m super excited to see Nowhere on the big screen at the Geffen Theater, which is like 900 seats. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that theater…it’s designed by Renzo Piano as part of the Academy Museum. It’s a stunning space, literally just an Architectural Digest kind of masterpiece. And the screen is huge. All three movies, Doom, Nowhere and Totally Fucked Up are all going to be screening at the Geffen Theater, and those movies will never be seen like that again, in my lifetime at least. I’m so just over the moon about it.