Quiz any queer film buff on LA’s reigning punk-rock provocateur and they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about. Gregg Araki has been raising eyebrows and dropping jaws with his “irresponsible movies” since the late 1980s, championing the outsiders before it was the trendy thing to do while thumbing his nose at bourgeois morality.
At the 1992 Sundance premiere of his breakthrough feature, The Living End, a nihilistic road-trip movie about two queer outlaws on the lam, Araki dedicated the AIDS-themed film to “the hundreds of thousands who have died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big White House full of Republican fuckheads.” While he’s reined in the button-pushing shenanigans in the more than two decades since, his pansexual and punk-flavoured rhapsodies on teen life have continued to provide a refreshing counterpoint to all the cookie-cutter LGBT fare vying for our attention.
After rising to prominence with his “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” in the 1990s, Araki gained widespread critical kudos in 2004 for Mysterious Skin, a deeply unsettling look at how two young men (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet) deal with the ripple effects of abuse. Araki’s latest, White Bird in a Blizzard, is in many ways the closest the director has come to making an accessible drama since Mysterious Skin. Adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel and set in late-1980s suburban California, the story revolves around Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley), an angsty, quick-witted teen with sex on the brain, whose miserable mother (Eva Green) vanishes without a trace in the film’s opening section. Araki spends the remainder of the film shifting back and forth in time, as Kat tries to make sense of the shocking disappearance and her ominous dreams, in which she glimpses her mother trapped under snow and ice. Xtra reached out to Araki to chat about his suburban coming-of-age, America’s changing mores and the notion of a Queer Palm.
Xtra: Your two female leads take on characters they haven’t often been given the chance to play. Eva Green is great as a deeply troubled, slightly older Mommie Dearest type. What made you think of her for the part?
Gregg Araki: I just love her. One of Eva’s and my shared pet peeves is bad makeup or prosthetics in movies, so we worked closely with the makeup artist, who just very subtly aged her, giving her dark circles and a little bit of age in her face, but the rest of that performance was all Eva Green. She literally just turned into this other person, and it was almost shocking to see, because she would just show up wearing this grey sweater, lurking in the doorway as this sad, tragic figure. In real life, Eva is one of the most stunning creatures you’ve ever seen. I remember seeing her once in a room at Sundance, years before we worked together, and she really just lit up the room. Like a movie star.
Laura Kasischke’s novel is set in mid-1980s Ohio. Why did you shift that to late-’80s California for the film?
In adapting it, I moved it forward to cover the 1988 to 1991 period. I brought it to California just to make it a little bit more in my wheelhouse, because the music of that period is really important to the movie, and anybody who knows my movies knows that music is really central to my whole sensibility. I wanted to move it closer to me so I could have access to all this music. It served as a jumping-off point for the film, and it helped me relate to it more by setting it in a California suburb, where I’m from.
Of your time studying film, you’ve described yourself as a punk-rock kid whose movies would hinge on music in ways teachers didn’t always approve of. What role did music play in your own coming-of-age?
A huge one. For me, [Kat’s] coming-of-age is related to my own creative coming-of-age in Los Angeles, listening to this new-wave music. She’s finding herself in the same way I was as a younger filmmaker. A lot of it was through music and through my connections with my other outsider friends and the sort of hanging out that Kat and her friends do. Those moments are really important to growing up and forming who you are, so that aspect of the film is very autobiographical. Filming certain scenes, I found myself taken back to a different time in my life.
Race and sexuality have always been non-issues in your films, and White Bird is no exception. You substituted Kat’s two Caucasian gal pals in the book for a sharp-tongued African-American girl and an openly gay boy (played by Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato). How do you think mainstream cinema is handling changing attitudes about race and sexuality?
I certainly think times have changed and there is more equality and acceptance, but the issues of racism and homophobia still exist, and it’s kind of shocking to me that in 2014, they’re still an issue for some people. But in America, because we have an African-American president, it actually seems to have made the problem worse, in the sense that people are so incensed about it. It’s a lightning rod for some, bringing to the fore a lot of racist attitudes. Thankfully, the tide is going in the right direction. Young people don’t pay attention if you’re gay, black or brown. It just doesn’t matter to them.
When The Living End was released in the early 1990s, one of your producers made a comment about how you “make homo movies that gay people are often offended by.” You’ve never put your queer characters on a pedestal, even at a time when hardline LGBT activists were calling for virtuous depictions of queers in the media. How have you negotiated your relationship with gay audiences over time?
I mean, I don’t really think about things like that; it’s really just about making stories that move me, and I can’t really think about whether it will offend somebody or whether it will be controversial. When I did Mysterious Skin, I really felt as though it was such controversial material, it was a little scary, but I just loved the story so much and I wanted to make it. Same with White Bird. I approach all of my movies from a pure artistic place. It’s about a story I really want to tell, something that really sticks with me.
You won the inaugural Queer Palm at Cannes in 2010 for Kaboom. In recent years, some younger filmmakers have questioned the relevance and necessity of creating such prizes. What’s your take on it?
I was very honoured by it; any kind of accolade like that is always really nice to get. I regularly get asked about New Queer Cinema or queer cinema in general, and none of my other queer filmmaker friends (Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes) and I sit around and think about winning queer awards. We’re just thinking about what stories inspire us. Obviously, being queer really informs our sensibilities and makes us who we are, so we look at the world through a different lens. As an artist, I think that’s a huge advantage. It’s obviously a big part of our artistic sensibility. But we’re really just thinking about our next movie and making it as true to our vision as we can.