“You wouldn’t ask John Hughes that,” Larry Clark replies to the inevitable question about why, for nearly four decades, his work in photography and film has been obsessively focused on adolescence. In the years following Kids, his brilliant, scandalous 1995 debut feature, and Another Day in Paradise, his admirably raw but muddled 1998 sophomore effort, Clark often feared that he would never get to direct another film. But he has made three in the past 10 months, all dealing with the same touchy subject—teenage sexuality.
Two of them—this week’s Bully and Teenage Caveman for HBO’s upcoming “Creature Features” series—are quickies. The third, Ken Park, for which Clark splits the directing credit with cinematographer Ed Lachman, is a labor of love, conceived before the release of Kids. Clark took 24 hours off from his L.A. editing room, where he’s putting the final touches on Ken Park and Teenage Caveman, to do some New York publicity for Bully.
On a pragmatic level, Clark makes movies about teens because that’s the work he’s offered by an industry that typecasts directors as well as actors. As an art-school photography major, Clark shot more film than anyone in his class, and he has a similarly workaholic attitude toward the craft of moviemaking. What seems to please him most about Bully is that he managed to shoot it in just 23 days after the money people, Canal Plus, drastically cut the budget when the cast and crew were already on location in Hollywood, Florida. Clark and his director of photography, Steve Gainer, revamped the schedule on the spot, covering complicated sequences involving more than half a dozen characters in one or two takes, throwing away chunks of the script and replacing them with improvised dialogue.
“Steve had done hundreds of music videos and a couple of contemporary Corman movies, so he knows how to make the day. I tried to educate him about what I like visually. There were 36 setups in the murder scene and we did it in one night.” The result is a film as visually ravishing as Kids, in which the limpid, eroticized quality of the light suggests the cocooned world that stoned, sexually hyped-up adolescents create for themselves. There are irksome things in Bully—in particular Clark’s moralistic attitude toward the parents—but there’s no other American director who’s as perceptive about how kids behave when they’re just hanging out or who could make us understand less through words than looks, gestures, and rhythms of movement the process whereby two teenagers’ half-cocked idea of killing a friend they’ve come to hate can evolve into an actual murder involving seven kids, three of whom have barely met the victim.
Based on Jim Schutze’s 1998 true-crime novel, David McKenna’s script wound up in Clark’s hands after Columbine made the material too risky for the big studios to handle. “I didn’t think much of the script,” says Clark. “Like studio films, it was too black-and-white—Marty was good and Bobby was evil and the gay aspect of their relationship was omitted entirely. But I thought the story was interesting, and when I went back to the book, I found enough for five movies.” Although Clark worked with McKenna on a rewrite, he was never satisfied, and in the end, he pretty much threw away the script and relied on the book as his primary source. (McKenna has taken his name off the film.)
The script wasn’t the only problem. “I knew I wanted Brad Renfro to play Marty, but Canal Plus wanted more of a name. The casting was all about trade-offs and finding actors they thought they could sell the movie on.” For Bobby, everyone agreed on Nick Stahl, who Clark likens to James Woods (the star of Another Day in Paradise). But casting Stahl meant that Clark was forced to give up a crucial aspect of the story—that Bobby’s parents were Iranian, and that his ethnicity figured as much as his confused sexuality in making him both a bully and a victim.
Indeed, Clark says his next film might be about growing up ethnic in America, which brings us back to the question of why he continues to risk the charges of prurience, arrested development, and even pedophilia that result from his focus on characters who are less than fully grown. “My two children are teenagers now,” he says, “but I’ve always been interested in that stage where we’re searching to find out who we are. So many people of all ages are still working out what happened at that time and how their parents raised them. And yeah, we’re a youth-obsessed culture and kids look good. I don’t deny that’s part of it. But when I go back to Oklahoma and I see my old friends, I realize that people stay adolescent for a long time. That’s always been the basis of my work, and I’m not finished with it yet.”