At 51, Gregg Araki doesn’t want you to think he only makes movies about teenagers. After the post-punk camp of his ’90s “teen apocalypse” trilogy (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere), the L.A.-born queercore auteur believed he had exhausted the subject until a novel about abused 19-year-old boys moved him to adapt it into 2005’s Mysterious Skin. And now, for his 10th feature, Araki is sticking with the young and even returning to the style of his earliest films. Kaboom—a soon-to-be cult classic, we predict—stars Thomas Dekker as an omnisexual college brooder whose recurring doomsday dreams are coming feverishly true. I spoke with Araki about youth, experience, and what lies in between.
I’ve read that Kaboom started percolating a few years ago, after John Waters told you he wanted to see you make an “old-school Gregg Araki movie.” It’s not like he told me to do it and I did it. I had already started work on what was originally supposed to be a TV show very loosely based on my own life—the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever done. I wanted to make a film about that time when everything is a question mark. You don’t know who you are, what your sexuality is, what you’re going to be. You’re an unwritten book. You could become President of the United States or a crack addict.
From the perspective of middle age, you look back on that period as the golden years. The experiences you had are not about calculus and biology, but the people you sleep with, the relationships you have, the life you live, and how that forms you as a person. I wanted the story to go in strange and unexpected places, in a world where anything could happen. I was working on that when I had that encounter with John. It was a weird blessing from the icon of all that’s perverse and cool. He transcended boundaries and blazed trails way before Sundance or anything.
What was the most trouble you ever got into during your formative years? Actually, I’ve always been a boring, ordinary person. From my movies, people think I’ve lived a wild, crazy life. I’ve always been a straight-A student with a good, clean life. But almost everybody has these adventures, where you’re outside of your comfort zone. Those are the times that you’re really learning about yourself, especially being out gay, bisexual, or living a lifestyle that is not straight down the mainstream path, a “wife, two kids, and a picket fence” world.
After two decades as a filmmaker, do you still feel tapped into the energy and edge of youth culture? It’s funny: Kaboom, to me, is a movie of weird contradictions. On one hand, it’s dark and apocalyptic, and it’s also bright, poppy, and fun. The other contradiction is that it’s a mature movie about immaturity. That’s the biggest difference between it and, say, The Doom Generation, which is an immature movie about immature kids. I was angst-ridden and more on the level of those characters then, whereas there is more objectivity to Kaboom. It’s something I can relate to, but have moved on from.
Your previous film, 2007’s Smiley Face, is a pothead comedy, and Kaboom is clearly the work of someone who has experienced a hallucinogenic trip. What drugs will you cop to having taken? I have obviously tried a variety, but I’m not a big druggie. When I made Smiley Face, everybody was like, “Oh, my god, you’re such a stoner.” When I read that script, I said it was literally the life story of my stoner friends. They’re going to be obsessed with this movie, and I have to make it for them. One time, I did mushrooms, and it was pretty cool. The perspective from it impacted my movies a little, in the way it heightens your senses, particularly a stylized and trippy movie like Kaboom.
Is it personally a turn-on to make a movie with rampant fucking of every sexual orientation? It’s not like I’m titillated by the movie. One of the things I hate about contemporary American movies is their puritanical attitude about sexuality. I always found the interaction between characters during sex fascinating. When you see people in public, you don’t know their private thoughts. Via cinema, you’re privy to that moment of sexual contact where you find out their most intimate secrets, what they’re really like beyond the front. If you look at the sex scenes in my movies, they’re never about the genitalia. It’s the characters’ emotional nakedness that interests me. Personally, I hate shooting sex scenes. They’re really awkward and a pain in the ass. But when I see the movie, I always feel like they’re worth it because those are the moments that are fresh and honest to me.
Kaboom opens January 28 at the IFC Center. Look for a review in next week’s Voice