Intimidated, perhaps, by the potency brimming under the chalky surfaces of Gregg Araki’s HIV positive road movie, The Living End, a major Los Angeles dubbing facility refused to make video copies of the film, calling it “pornographic shit.” The only thing pornographic about The Living End, though, is the “dark, personal place” from which the 33-year-old director says the film came. Araki, who is known for his filmic exercises in uncontrolled middle class angst, can be confoundingly hesitant discussing his motivations, but his work remains a testimony to “no-budget” tenacity. The Living End is Araki’s third feature film and with a $20,000 budget, it’s also his most expensive. Both of his first features, Three Bewildered People in the Night and The Long Weekend (O’ Despair) were made for $5,000 each.
Lawrence Chua What was your own emotional involvement in The Living End? I’m especially curious about…
Gregg Araki My HIV status.
LC No. Not at all, actually. There are just things in the film that appeal to people on different levels. On one level it’s the joy of seeing things like bashing back homophobes or blowing off a policeman’s head. Where did those scenes come from?
GA Wish fulfillment. (laughter) Yeah, The Living End, as all my films, comes from a really personal place. In many ways, my films are not autobiographical. I’m not HIV-positive, and I’ve never, of course, had a relationship like the one in The Living End, but the characters express things that I’ve felt. At least for me, The Living End is a very kind of cathartic experience. The whole AIDS crisis has led to a certain attitude among gay people of acting now, as opposed to being content. That has been the major “benefit” of AIDS. There is a real sense of urgency.
LC For a lot of us, though, that sense of urgency was always there.
GA That’s hard for me to say, because I’m of that weird generation that came out after the ’70s. Being gay in the ’90s is not just a matter of what you do when you have sex. It has to do with a whole outlook, your place in society, your feelings toward government, politics, culture. Because homophobia is so prevalent, it becomes ingrained in your personality on all levels. It really informs my films. Not just the presence of gay characters and gay themes, but in terms of being, as a director, the outsider.
LC You talk about gay identity as some kind of essential experience. How does that relate to your own work?
GA To a large extent my outlook is not exactly embraced by a lot of the gay community, especially the “Stonewall Generation.” You know, the characters are definitely gay, but they’re fucked up. There are problems. I am in no way, obviously, a spokesman for gay people in the ’90s. But being gay in a society like this totally affects my films. Being gay, or queer, as the lingo goes, does put you outside or underground.
LC Is that a place you’d like to stay? Do you feel you have a choice of where you place yourself?
GA What I’m interested in, with each progressive film, is trying to push myself harder to explore things I haven’t explored before. Whether that means that my films are more successful or less successful in terms of the "mainstream"—that’s a by-product. I never think about things like who is the audience for this movie? It comes from going to U.S.C., which is a very industry-oriented school, and all they really cared about was what does your audience want? It doesn’t matter what you want. It doesn’t matter what you have to say. What does your audience want? My reaction to that was, fuck the audience. They’re my films. I’m just going to make them, and if people like them, that’s great, and if they don’t, well, I’m not going to kill myself over it. Which is why I get criticized for being so self-indulgent. But since I paid for my first two movies, I can be self-indulgent. My next film Totally F***ed Up, which we shot this summer, is about gay and lesbian teenagers. That film was inspired by stories I’ve read about gay teenagers, homophobia, and suicide. But again, it’s my own personal take on the matter. Some people sit in coffeehouses and write poetry. I sit there and scroll these weird screenplays out.
LC Are you satisfied with the placement of your work?
GA I realize that my work is bound to be marginalized. Not just because of the queerness of the subject matter, but because of the whole punk thing, which probably much more than being gay or Asian is the biggest cultural influence on me. I don’t think marginalization is necessarily a bad thing. Economically it’s inferior. Certainly my level of living is well below anybody who directs commercials in Hollywood, but that’s not why I make movies. The mainstream has become such a strange, amorphous thing. As much as Hollywood wants there to be surefire formulas, wants everything to be broken down into statistics and numbers, in a lot of ways, America is such a weird place, that those things just don’t work. You just can’t explain some things that are really successful. Which is why I think, in terms of Hollywood, the mainstream is not something which is readily definable. You can’t explain the success of My Own Private Idaho because that film is like the most idiosyncratic film I’ve ever seen.
LC Tell me about Totally F***ed Up.
GA It’s my most Godard-damaged movie to date. It’s really inspired, or heavily influenced, by Masculine/Feminine. Because I’m such a Los Angeles brat, it’s about 18-year-olds, and it’s filled with that kind of like L.A. talk and shopping malls. My producer said it’s like a gay John Hughes movie directed by Godard. Formally, it’s experimental, but the content is very accessible. These kids crack jokes, smoke pot, have sex, you know all that fun stuff. Totally F***ed Up is finally my big multi-ethnic production, which everybody has been dying for. I can finally answer all my critics in one fell swoop. I always get attacked for the lack of ethnicity in my films and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to deal with. Originally in Long Weekend (O’ Despair), the script was supposed to have all these different ethnic people. Unfortunately when we were casting, it came down to choosing the best actor, or casting someone just because they were black or Asian. So, I ended up with six white actors. Same with The Living End. I ended up with white actors, although there are ethnic actors in small parts. Totally F***ed Up, was extremely hard to cast, because I hate those movies like Heathers where there’s 35-year-old teenagers in high school. I wanted really young kids. Amazingly, of the kids, only one of the six was actually gay. They shocked me, that 19-year-olds in America would be willing to kiss another guy or kiss another girl. That really impressed me and made me somewhat less pessimistic. But, I did finally get my multi-ethnic cast after much trial and tribulation. My approach to them is still somewhat incorrect to some people, but totally correct to me. The parts are not written in any sort of ethnic way. Their ethnicity was completely interchangeable. The ethnicity of the characters was like wardrobe, essentially. All the boys in Totally F***ed Up are totally multi-racial, but they’re all beautiful in their own way.
LC Why is beauty a vanilla construct for you?
GA The lead in Totally F***ed Up is this half-Asian kid. He’s probably the most beautiful actor I’ve ever worked with. And I think that it isn’t predominantly associated with one race or the other. But it is this thing, all the characters are totally assimilated into the “white” culture, as I am. He’s not different culturally than of the other characters. He doesn’t have all the kind of “identifiers.”
LC What do you mean by “identifiers”?
GA He doesn’t eat with chopsticks, and he doesn’t take his shoes off when he comes into the house. He’s like all the other kids, he talks about sex and drugs, music, whatever. You know what I mean?
LC So is that what you mean by “assimilation”? Can’t somebody eat with chopsticks, take their shoes off when they come into the house, and talk about sex, or shoot up drugs, or whatever?
GA We were talking about the mainstream earlier. If he’s different from the mainstream culture, it’s because he’s gay. It’s not because he’s part Asian. All the relationships in the film are multi-racial because it’s the make up of the cast. It’s something that’s not dealt with as an additional problem. The essential problem is that they’re gay in a homophobic society. It’s not like their racial differences cause a problem. I have this thing about filmmakers who are very race specific, what I view as a kind of reverse-discriminatory, elitist view of race. And they make movies that are wholly Asian-American, or African-American. And I think that those films are ultimately boring and retrogressive. And really destructive. In my own life, race is not really an issue. It’s not like something that needs to be overcome. All my friends have the same interests; we’re different colors and we’re friends. This black guy came up to me after the screening and said, “I understand what you’re saying, but I’m black and I’m trying to get an apartment. Racism is an issue; it is not a non-issue.” To me it’s not that racism doesn’t exist, because it does exist, and is, of course, a problem. I live this kind of privileged existence, being in Los Angeles, which is somewhat liberal, being in this kind of underground whatever and having my knot of friends and stuff, I realize that I, in a way, live in a bubble. I’m not in the South, where I’m surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan. I live close to Hollywood where anything goes. So it’s not to say racism doesn’t exist, I personally don’t like to see race. I judge people on what they’re like, not by their race. It’s not really a problem for me.
LC How nice for you! But don’t you think it informs certain choices? You mentioned how much you liked My Beautiful Laundrette. How come the Asian guy always has to fall for Vanilla Ice?
GA If they were both Asian, I think that it would have been, in a way, backwards. These black films or Asian films or Latin films, where there are Asians and Asians and blacks and blacks, are representative of a separatist attitude. I’m third generation Japanese-American, but I grew up in Santa Barbara which is very white, very middle class suburbia. Consequently my friends say that I’m whiter than they are, because that’s just my upbringing. I have relatives who live in Los Angeles where there’s more of a Japanese-American community and their friends are all Japanese-American in that clique-y way, you know, ethnic bonding. I find that really backwards. Personally, I don’t like blacks who hang out with blacks because those are the only people that relate to them, and that they feel at home with. That’s racism in a bad way.
LC That’s not racism. Racism is a specific equation of power and prejudice. Ghettos like Chinatown and South Central are there because that’s where people of color have been pushed. The reason I don’t hang out in Beverly Hills is because every time I drive through at night I get pulled over by the police. It’s not because I think Asians are superior people. Our sexual choices are also informed by things like power and domination. You’re right, there are a lot of limitations to telling stories set in contemporary America that are ethnically and racially hermetic, but I wonder why you think that to tell a universal story you need to have white characters in it.
GA There are ethnic filmmakers that are making films with ethnic casts that reach a universal audience. I just don’t think that’s interesting. I would much prefer to have there be all different races in the same movie. The characters are what makes it universal.
LC But Gregg, so far there have only been white characters in your movies.
GA In a way, I’m totally naive because I don’t live in Compton. I don’t live in the South; I don’t live in a place where every single day somebody’s calling me a nip and wants to beat me up. I live in a place where anything goes. You could be gay; you can be of color, whatever, just mind your own business. (laughter) In that way, my world view is very naive.
LC You mean to say, you’ve never experienced racism in a gay bar?
GA Supposedly, scientific fact or theory says that men tend to be visually stimulated, in terms of sexual attraction. Which is why, the theory goes, heterosexual women and gay men are so obsessed with appearance and image. Whereas, the cliche is, that lesbians and heterosexual men don’t really care what they look like. They are not out to attract male gays. So, in that way, because a gay sexual connection has these two lookers, in that way, something like race and preference and type becomes doubly prominent. To me that’s one of the interesting things about gay culture. This whole thing about gay attraction is something I’d like to get more into in subsequent films. This magnetism can more so than say, heterosexual interaction—transcend a lot of boundaries, in terms of race, class, age. A really strong attraction can break through all sorts of social restrictions. The cliche is: a heterosexual marriage, same class, the same religion. Everything fits and it’s the perfect picture. To me the exciting thing about being gay is that because it is already outside what’s socially acceptable, it can transcend those boundaries.
LC Do you really think it can transcend those boundaries?
GA Transcendent in the way that it’s not necessarily accepted, but these things do happen. These interactions exist. My films are not autobiographical. However, my films are very much a representation of my life. If they’re displaced to the extent that the protagonist in my film is white, it’s still me. Because the image on the screen is not Asian, that doesn’t mean it’s not me. If the image is a white person or if the image is a black person or if the image is a Puerto Rican lesbian, it’s still me. I don’t see the color.
LC How long were you shooting The Living End?
GA Three or four months, I think. We didn’t shoot full time. Whenever the surf wasn’t up was when we got to shoot. I actually prefer to shoot that way. A couple of days on The Living End were 15 hour days and I find that my work really suffers when everybody’s tired. I like not to shoot 60 hour weeks and really kill myself. I’m just a spoiled artiste. Time is money but time is not that much money.
LC Did you shoot on your own equipment before?
GA On my first two movies I had my own Bolex. For The Living End and Totally F***ed Up, Jon Jost, who I met at the producers conference at Sundance, felt sorry for me, so he let me use his equipment—which was great. That’s how I got my first synch sound movie through the Sundance Institute. He actually gave me some film stock too that’s why it was in color. Originally, The Living End was supposed to be black and white and, you know, $5,000. It’s still really small, even by independent standards, way smaller than movies like Poison. It just became a slightly bigger movie which, surprisingly, people find very slick. The Living End and Totally F***ed Up were both shot with a very small crew. Because we were so small we had to be on top of things and communication was pretty good. So we could shoot it very much like we shot the other movies, Three Bewildered People in the Night and Long Weekend. We had no location permit. We were just winging it. When you have three people you do that. If you have fifty people you can’t just go into a coffee shop and start filming. We are still small enough and portable enough that it worked out really well. I find it a great way to shoot. It’s stressful because all these little disasters are constantly happening, but to me it’s easier than to start managing a crew. I just don’t like to deal with all those people. You have to feed them all the time. That’s the biggest problem: keeping them fed.
—Lawrence Chua is the managing editor of BOMB and a commentator for Crossroads, a weekly newsmagazine on National Public Radio.