“What is Exciting about the movie [KABOOM] is
its free blending of different genres and different tones.”
Film director, writer and producer Gregg Araki has been an enduring figure in the independent film scene since his debut in 1987 – you may recognize his significant contributions to the craft such as 1992’s groundbreaking The Living End, The Doom Generation (1995) and the highly acclaimed Mysterious Skin (2004). Born and raised in Southern California, this gay Japanese American filmmaker defies all labels and is as complex, engaging and quick-witted as his films. We were lucky enough to catch up with Gregg upon the release of his latest work, Kaboom – an uncanny take on college sex, horror, conspiracy and action comedy that received a standing ovation at Cannes last year.
How did the idea for Kaboom come about?
The movie comes from a variety of different places. I really wanted to make a movie that was about the time of your life where everything is a question mark and when you’re completely an unwritten book. You’re an undergraduate in school, you don’t know what you’re going to study or who you’re going to be or even what your sexuality is – you know that time of your life where everything is uncertain. So that was one of the starting points for the film. But I also knew that I wanted to do something that was unique and completely outside of the box, that combined all these different genres, and it could be this kind of Twin Peaks-y kind of mystery and also this sort of sex comedy and just be all different kinds of things.
So would you deem this a satire?
There are aspects that are satirical but I don’t think of it as a satire – and one of the things that is to me so exciting about the movie is its free blending of different genres and different tones that’s not really any one thing. There are aspects of it that are sort of fantasy type aspects and also horror film and sex comedy and thriller and all of these different tones and textures and for me it was exciting to pull all of that together to create something totally unique and outside the box.
You have been a fiercely independent voice since the late 80’s. What does it mean to be an indie filmmaker in this new decade?
My experience is not really that different. I think that independent film has changed and it’s had sort of its ebb and flow in terms of the number of films being made, the size of the budgets and the number of companies and all that… but as far as what I do, which is sort of just making these movies that I’m passionate about, that I’m really invested in and that are really hard work but so rewarding at the same time – that part of it is very much the same. My producer Andrea and I have this sort of joke… it’s just every year is the same. The title of the movies change but it’s the same struggle every year it’s very familiar all the steps of it so that part of it is very much, from my experience, the same.
Do you think it’s more challenging, perhaps? The landscape is different, with new technology and modes of online distribution…
I feel like it is harder than ever. I think it’s harder to make movies, I think it’s harder to get them distributed, to get people to go see them… it’s definitely not getting any easier, that’s for sure. I hope there always will be cinema, and always will be independent film. I just think that there are a lot of factors – in terms of entertainment in general, just look at the whole way the music industry just kind of collapsed. Obviously I’m optimistic so I hope for the best but you don’t know what’s going to be around the bend.
What was it like to be an Asian American – specifically Japanese American – who was interested in film?
It didn’t necessarily inform my choices as a filmmaker so much as it did I think, sort of the same as being gay… I mean my films have always been about outsiders and when I was growing up, I was very assimilated and I didn’t really have any problems with overt prejudice, thankfully because of the age I grew up in. But there is definitely a feeling of being outside of the mainstream, which has been part of my sensibility from the very beginning. I guess partially influenced by being Japanese American but also I think more than anything I got really influenced by post punk music and alternative music culture, and that is always sort of about outsiders of the world.
How has being Asian American influenced your filmmaking style? Are there Asian filmmakers that have influenced you?
I went to film school, just like Smith (the main character in Kaboom) so obviously all of the pantheon auteurs like the Kurosawas and Ozus… I was exposed to that work at a very formative time, but no more so than any of the other great directors like the Godards and the Hitchcocks. All of my movies have been obviously very influenced by [David Lynch] but this one is probably the most overtly Lynchian movie I think.
So what’s next for you?
I usually work on four or five things at the same time, so hopefully soon – we’ll see! Something surprising I think. Nothing is financed, nothing is put together, but I like to do things that are different and I don’t like to be pigeonholed so I don’t want to be stuck into doing one kind of movie.
Have you been to Japan? What was your impression of it?
Only once, years and years ago for a film festival. It was amazing. I just remember it being very strange, very surreal… a really unusual place. Very cool, but very dreamlike. I went to Tokyo and other cities like Hiroshima with a tour group. It was really amazing and I’ve been to a lot of amazing places but it was definitely up there.
——– Interview by Nobi Nakanishi
GREGG ARAKI grew up in Southern California, and from a very young age was drawn to the visual arts, comics and alternative music. He graduated in Film Studies from the University of Santa Barbara, and received his Masters in Film Production from USC. Araki wrote, produced and directed his first film, THREE BEWILDERED PEOPLE IN THE NIGHT in 1987, which won three prizes at Locarno. In 1989, he made THE LONG WEEKEND (O’ DESPAIR) and won an LA Film Critics Prize for Best Independent Feature. Garnering a strong reputation for his uncompromising, nonconformist attitude, Araki truly erupted from the underground in 1992 with THE LIVING END, a film about two HIV positive gay lovers which introduced a much more tragic element to his work. In 1994 he began his “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy with TOTALLY F****ED Up, THE DOOM GENERATION and NOWHERE. The director was critically lauded for his treatment of the taboo subject of pedophilia in MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2005), an adaptation of Scott Heim’s eponymous novel.
Gregg Araki’s Kaboom opens in limited release on January 28th, 2011. If you have never seen one of his films, this is indeed a great way to introduce yourself to his signature style. If you are already a fan, this film will certainly be a breath of fresh air from all of the formalist Hollywood films that may have been making you feel a bit bloated – especially around this awards season.
The story goes like this: Smith, a college freshman and ambi-sexual film student is having strange dreams that may or may not hold clues that point to a worldwide cult. His best friend Stella is having girlfriend problems when she romances a bona fide witch. A girl named London may have more answers and surprises than you might expect. And no one else in the movie is exactly who they say they are. I’m a big fan of guessing, and not even I could predict the film’s smile-inducing ending.
The visual style will take you back to the indie scene of the 90’s, the story will draw you into its web of intrigue and nudge-nudge-wink-wink silliness, and the wild humor and displays of sexuality will shock or delight you. The performances by the cast, in particular Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple and Haley Bennett as the main leads, are excellent. And this movie is never afraid of going where it wants – which is one of its greatest strengths.
Look for it at a theater near you.
Written, Produced, and Directed by Gregg Araki
Cast: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Juno Temple, James Duval and Kelly Lynch