5 Questions for Gregg Araki, Writer/Director of “Totally Fucked Up”
by Eugene Hernandez
I discovered the work of Gregg Araki while living in L.A., seeing his third feature “The Living End” when it was released in theaters and then catching the first installment of his teen angst trilogy “Totally Fucked Up” (or “Totally F***ed Up” as it is apparently now known) at Sundance ’93. Opening with the title screens “More teen angst” and “Another homo movie by Gregg Araki,” the low-budget film begins with video camera confessional interviews that are part of a project by a character who wants to “show things the way they really are” for a group of gay, bored, and disenfranchised L.A. kids. “I guess you could say I’m totally fucked up,” explains Andy, played by James Duval in his first lead role. Araki and Strand Releasing unveiled a restored and remastered version of the film on DVD this week, inspiring us to email five questions to Araki about the movie. Those questions, and his answers, follow below.
indieWIRE: I re-watched “Totally Fucked Up” recently, the DVD looks really terrific and the film holds up very well (even if I personally get a bit nostalgic for my days at UCLA in the late 80s and early 90s after watching it). How do you feel when you look back at it now? And technically, was it a challenge to restore it in any way?
Gregg Araki: Talk about nostalgic! It was totally a trip back in time to a whole different era in my life and a whole different way of making movies. It actually made me want to dust off my old 16mm camera and make another guerrilla style film again (something I’ve been threatening for years and will definitely do one day).
In those days there was virtually no crew — I did my own camera, there was maybe a sound person, the producer/PA, and whatever actors had scenes to do. We all just met at my old apartment, loaded up in my beat-up old car and shot stuff at various locations all over town, no permits, nothing. Then at the end of the night, my producer and I would drive out to the boondocks of Burbank to drop the film off at the lab. It was always so cool to watch dailies and see the fruits of our labor. It was really exciting to see these great-looking images knowing that they were created with virtually no money, just sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness. Some night scenes I remember were lit with the headlights of my producer’s old car! But they looked like a million bucks. When I went back to digitally remaster and remix the film this year, I hadn’t seen it for at least ten years and I was really impressed how well it held up. The imagery looked amazing, especially when you consider it’s 16mm color negative that’s almost 15 years old. And it was really awesome to use state of the art HD transfer rooms and digital mix stages with all the bells and whistles to tweak and fix stuff in ways that weren’t even possible twelve, thirteen years ago.
iW: “Totally Fucked Up” is considered part of your “angst trilogy.” I no longer remember if that was something you intended at the time or if after the fact you (or critics) decided to group the film with “Doom Generation” and “Nowhere.” Can you offer some insight into this idea of an “angst trilogy.” What sorts of reactions do you get from younger people who see the films for the first time today?
GA: “The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” as I so grandly called it back then was the direct result of making “Totally F***ed Up.” I originally wanted to do that as my sort of Masculin-Feminin, exploring the issues faced by gay/lesbian teenagers in a pretty hostile sociocultural climate (the days of the AIDS epidemic, homophobic a-holes like Lyndon Larouche, etc). It was the experience of making “TFU” – working and hanging out with a cast of non-professional actors who were all around 18-19 at the time, that inspired me to write the next two films, “Doom Generation” and “Nowhere,” focusing on that subjective state of mind of being a teenager, having no idea what your future might hold, experiencing life as one big question mark.
As to why it was a trilogy — I have no idea, but it seems things are always done in threes — no one ever makes a quadrology or just two films, three’s some kind of magic number. To this day, it amazes me the way those films touched people and really meant something to audiences who feel estranged from mainstream culture and Hollywood in general. I’ll have people, some college age, some younger or older, come up to me at festivals or whatever and tell me how “Doom” or “Nowhere” or “TFU” got them through a tough time or changed their life in some way and that is so phenomenal and moving to me. As a filmmaker you really can’t ask for more than that. And there’s a whole new generation of kids accessing the Trilogy via DVDs, etc. Its kind of mindboggling. Brady Corbet (one of the stars of “Mysterious Skin“) for instance, was only 6 years old when “Doom” came out, but cinephile types like him can go back and watch the movies all over again on DVD. That’s why I’m so thrilled about the “TFU” remaster, and why I eventually want to remaster all my old movies (“Nowhere” and “Living End” have never been properly released on DVD and the “Doom Generation” DVD is not letterboxed, or very well transferred).
iW: You’ve been asked a lot about your part in the whole “New Queer Cinema” movement of the early 90’s and you’ve rejected being called a “poster-boy” for that movement, saying that you didn’t want to speak for anyone. But your films clearly spoke to a lot of people, especially younger gay and lesbian kids and certainly filmmakers. Looking back at the period, what were the accomplishments of that generation of filmmakers and how do you think your work and the films of others might have influenced the next crop of young directors, if at all?
GA: That was one thing when I rewatched “TFU” again, I was kind of surprised by how political and angry the film was. It really was a reaction to the sociopolitical climate of the times and it did specifically speak for and to this audience that had no voice at all in those days — young gays and lesbians who didn’t fit into the cultural stereotype of the “gay community.” I knew a lot of kids like that back then and the film was very specifically for and about them.
As far as my influence on other filmmakers is concerned, it’s funny. I remember at Sundance a few years back, Rick Linklater and I were talking about how all these 20 year olds were coming up to us on Main Street saying “You’re my inspiration, I love your films.” It made us both feel like such grandpas of indie film! But honestly, I think that’s great. Just as the previous indie generation inspired us when we were trying to make our first films — Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Gus Van Sant, etc — and before that, the Godards and Fassbinders of the world. It’s an important part of the cycle that there’s someone out there doing interesting work that inspires others.
iW: You must be quite pleased with the response to “Mysterious Skin.” When we spoke at the Toronto festival last year you said that people you wouldn’t expect to see at an Araki movie were having emotional reactions to the film. Having had some time now to gauge reactions to “Skin” can you offer a bit more insight into the differences you see in the way viewers perceive you and your work now as opposed to then.
GA: The whole “Mysterious Skin” experience has been crazy and kind of overwhelming. The response from press, even the more mainstream press like Ebert and Roeper, People Magazine, etc. has been over the top and the public response has been so moving and unbelievably gratifying. I had a woman in her thirties come up to me in Seattle at the festival there, who was clearly so shaken by the film she had a hard time speaking, but she wanted to thank me for the film’s truthfulness. Which is what I think I responded to so strongly when I read the book. The powerful emotional reaction to the film comes I think from the source material, because the story really puts you through the emotional wringer. It’s an intense journey but ultimately really rewarding.
iW: An easy one, I hope. What are you working on next?
GA: I’ve got several things cooking but I’m hoping that its going to be this horror-SciFi film I’ve been working on called “Creeeeps!”. Whatever it is, it’s going to be another change of pace and hopefully a surprise.