Gregg Araki made his name in the early 90s with confrontational, riotous films obsessed with teenage sex, drugs, dysfunction and violence. Since then, his work has taken different directions and he has explored various genres and moods, most recently following his acclaimed Mysterious Skin (2004), a sensitive, poetic account of sexual abuse, with the stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007). His latest, Kaboom, brings together the many strands of his work, working them into an outlandish bundle of fun.
Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a young gay college student about to turn 19, who fantasises about his idiotic but handsome surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) and has bizarre dreams that involve men in animal masks chasing and killing a red-haired girl. His best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) is a lesbian who falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a witch. Although Smith and Stella have many sexual encounters with gorgeous-looking young people, the world around them becomes weirder and weirder as Stella’s ex-girlfriend copes supernaturally badly with rejection and Smith’s place in the dark conspiracy of a secret society is gradually revealed.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Gregg Araki about teenage apocalypse, American attitudes to sexuality and David Lynch’s influence.
Virginie Sélavy: Do you see Kaboom as a return to the ‘irresponsibility’ of your early films, in particular The Living End?
Gregg Araki: I don’t know if it’s really the ‘irresponsibility’ of The Living End. I really wanted to make a film that was completely outside of the box and came from a very creatively free space of not being worried about things like, is this too weird or is this too sexy, or mixing too many genres? It was just about letting my imagination run wild and not being constrained by genres, or people’s expectations, or what’s popular in the market place right now. It was really about making an old-fashioned film that could be free of all that.
But it doesn’t seem like you’ve ever tried to make a film to please a certain audience, or according to the market rules.
That is true, I’ve never made an overly commercial movie. I’m very proud of all my movies but some of my movies have been more genre-based, more within a definable box. Kaboom is a mash-up of so many different genres, so many different tones, it has a character with supernatural powers. There’s a sort of joie de vivre in this movie and creative freedom, which for me was very liberating and exciting.
The film feels like a celebration of unbridled youthful sexuality unencumbered by any kind of taboo or prejudice. Was that a conscious thing?
Partly. It is part of my sensibility to view sex and sexuality as a positive aspect of the human experience and all the adventures and sexual escapades that the characters in Kaboom have are an important part of their growing up and it’s really important that they not be judged for them. This sort of freedom in your sexuality, that it’s not bogged down by guilt, judgement, punishment, that there is no negative baggage attached to it, is very unique, certainly in American cinema. American cinema tends to be so puritanical and hypocritical while at the same time being kind of titillating… I feel that this attitude about sexuality is not really represented in American films.
Kaboom has some elements from your early films, the teenage apocalypse and the sexuality for instance, but it revisits them from a comic, fun angle. Why the change of tone?
I’m a different person, I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The tone of Kaboom, this sort of joyfulness and playfulness, is much closer to Smiley Face, my last film, because my head is much closer to Smiley Face than it is to The Doom Generation. Kaboom shares with The Doom Generation this wild sexuality and gorgeous 18-year-olds but the sensibility is very different. It’s really a reflection of my own evolution. At a certain age I felt that I’d found my place in the world. When I made my first films I was much more angst-ridden and unmoored, I was more like those characters, insecure in my place in the world, and as I’ve got older there’s been a certain level of figuring out who you are, and this is reflected in my films.
Do you feel it also has something to do with changes in social attitudes to sexuality and to AIDS?
I think that’s had an influence on me and on my films, particularly if you watch one of my early films, The Living End, which is so much about that specific time, late 1980s and early 90s, the AIDS epidemic and the crisis of that time, and things have changed since then.
In a previous interview you’ve said that you saw Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face as fitting together as ‘yin and yang’, one being your first straight, serious drama, the other your first comedy. How does Kaboom fit in relation to that?
I couldn’t have made Kaboom without making those two films. When we were in Deauville, Thomas [Dekker] pointed out to me, ‘in a way Kaboom is almost like your greatest hits, like the best bits of all your movies put together’. And I didn’t realise at the time but it really made sense to me when he said that because there’s a lot of Smiley Face in Kaboom and a lot of Mysterious Skin too. Kaboom is definitely part of the continuum of all my movies.
And like in Mysterious Skin you also have that supernatural and conspiratorial aspect to the plot, which is connected to sexual identity, although of course in Mysterious Skin it was used to explore much more serious subject matter.
I’ve always been interested in cults and conspiracies. For Kaboom I was fascinated by Scientology and modern cults, that sort of mentality and how that works. It was a lot of fun to explore the idea of Smith living in this world of paranoid conspiracies because frequently when you’re a young person you do feel that the whole world is out to get you. It was cool with this movie to make that feeling, and the apocalyptic feelings of doom that you have when you’re younger, real and literal, take that metaphor, expand it and play with it.
I thought there was a Lynchian element to the weird dream and fantasy sequences. Was he an influence on the film?
David Lynch has always been a huge influence on my movies from the very start, and this movie in particular is my most overtly influenced by David Lynch. I’ve always wanted to make a Twin Peaks-y mystery and I’ve always thought of the red-haired girl in Kaboom as the Laura Palmer of the story, the central person in that other characters wonder what’s going on with her.
The music is very important, as in all your films. How did you choose the tracks?
Kaboom has one of the most incredible soundtracks I’ve ever been lucky enough to assemble for a movie. It has bigger bands like Interpol, Placebo and the XX, all these incredible alternative bands, and a score by Ulrich Schnauss and Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins. The movie is like Mysterious Skin in the sense that when you listen to the score of Mysterious Skin, you see the whole movie. So much of the spirit, the mood and the tone of the movie is contained in the music. And it’s the same with Kaboom, you can listen to that music and the whole world of the movie is conjured up.
The final moments of the film are very provocative. Why did you decide to end in this way?
I love the ending of the movie. It’s really one of my favourite endings of all movies. When we had the world premiere at Cannes and the movie ended, the whole audience started to cheer. To me it’s the only ending possible for a movie like Kaboom. It has that energy and it takes place in that stylised universe. It’s the ultimate ending to the ultimate movie.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy