In the 17 years and 6 films since his excoriating debut "Kids," Larry Clark has gradually slipped off many radars, as detractors claimed that precisely what had so shocked and impressed in his early work (explicit sex, violence and drug taking amongst photogenic teenagers) was becoming irrelevant at best, and exploitative at worst. But perhaps his latest film, "Marfa Girl," the first in a mooted trilogy, which won the top prize at the Rome Film Festival, will change their minds (read our review here).
While the film does offer the green shoots of a new direction for the helmer, his fascination with teenage subcultures and the grungy glamour of his aesthetic are still present. Clark in person, is, as you might expect, almost truculently unapologetic about his recurring thematic concerns, and in fact proudly considers "Marfa Girl" to be "a film where I only put in what I’m interested in." We got to talk to the director in Rome about the movie, which, after the various snafus surrounding distribution for Clark through the years, he is releasing himself through his website, larryclark.com.
The Playlist: As so often with your work, one of the film's standout points is its young, often nonprofessional cast. Tell us about the casting process.
Larry Clark: I was inspired [for this whole film] by Adam [Mediano, the lead]. I was in Marfa visiting a friend of mine, Christopher…and there was a little film festival there in this little town of Marfa of 1800 people. And Christopher was going to show No Wave films from the '70s which was the reaction to the New Wave films in France. I had just discovered this little silent film I’d made in 1978 in Tulsa that had been on a shelf all these years…and Christopher asked me to come and show it. So I came to Marfa for the first time, and I showed that and I showed “Wassup Rockers” and “Ken Park.” And so the last night I’m showing “Wassup Rockers” but I’m looking at the audience and it’s not a local crowd, it’s like the art crowd. And so I go, "What the fuck, there should be kids seeing this film." So I go outside and two skate kids skate by, Adam and this other kid and I said, “Come in here, this film’s about you!” So they came in for a few minutes but they had to leave and go to supper and they came back at the end of the film and asked me for a DVD. So I gave it to them and then I’m looking at this kid Adam and I think, boy there’s some charisma in this kid and so it gave me an idea and I went back to Marfa and I photographed him and I got to know him a bit and then Mary Farley [who is also in the film], who I knew, she left town and offered me her casita, so I had her house and the chickens were there. So I wrote her in as Adam’s mother, and I wrote the chickens in. So I started writing the film there for about a month and that’s how it started.
And was financing difficult to find?
I went to LA and I got the money in like 2 days, it was incredible, I had met this kid at a party — he’s in his early '30s, but he’s a kid to me –and he was a fan and he agreed to finance the film just like that. So we went to Austin and I cast in Austin, there’s a big acting pool there so I’m mixing professional actors with the real kids like Adam and Mercedes [Maxwell, who plays Inez].
Aside from Adam, what was it about the town that inspired you?
There’s this culture clash in Marfa where it’s a small town where the locals are the native white people and the native Mexican-American people who were born and raised there. [But] now they’ve put a border patrol station there, a headquarters, even though the border’s 68 miles away, so the border patrol has nothing to do but harass the locals citizens. Plus the artists are coming in now for this art foundation that’s there…so there's a cultural conflict. The new art crowd that doesn’t really interact with the locals; the locals refer to the art crowd as the Chinati's, which is the name of the foundation, and then the fucking border patrol which are a bunch of goons out there fucking with people waiting for Al-Qaeda to come through Marfa which, you know. To get to Marfa you gotta fly through Dallas, fly to El Paso then rent a car and drive four hours. We’re talking about the middle of nowhere, this tiny little place, but it’s kind of a magical place…
It’s a very strange town because the town is like the '50s — they still paddle kids which would be a crime in almost any other state, from kindergarten up to highschool they paddle kids, plus then there’s a curfew, and if you’re brown and you’re out walking at night they actually tackle you. I added that scene because it actually happened to Adam and a friend of his.
The film features many scenes of characters telling stories from their past. How much of that was scripted, and how much improvised, because the reminiscing feels very real?
I would wake up every morning and write for a couple hours, I would dream about it and I would write, then I’d talk to the actors and tell them what I wanted them to do, and I would have them mix in some of the personal stuff that I knew about them. When I cast in Austin I didn’t talk at all about the characters they were playing, I asked about them. I was told people don’t cast that way, I dunno how other people cast. I cast more like a psychiatrist — I’m interested in the people and where they come from. And so I was able to play on that, and then during the film I would surprise them I would say, “Talk about what you were talking about then” and they were very cooperative and quite wonderful, everything was magical and just worked.
Everybody in the film has a different philosophy of life and I wanted to get their backstories and find out why they are like what they are like. And so at some point they all tell and everybody’s is different, so you see there’s kind of like a micsrocosm of America, of what’s going on with racism, with immigration and all that. And how, with the internet now, everybody knows everything and the sex and drugs.
There are several sex scenes, however we did note the difference in the treatment of the consensual and the non-consensual scenes — we really only ever linger on the former. Was that a conscious decision?
I love the sex scene between Adam and Inez because it is so tender and so real, it’s like little puppy love, so innocent and they were actually kind of falling in love on the set and it shows in the film. And the rest of the sex scenes I would just think about different ways to do it, and it was fun to make it up on the spot.
This film feels a little different in structure from your others, did anything change in your approach?
What happened was the last two films I wrote myself — "Wassup Rockers" and "Marfa Girl." I‘d been talking to writers and I found out that all these writers have these rules, there are certain ways they do things, and I probably should have snapped to this earlier but I don’t need no fucking writers, and I hate rules, and so I said I wanna make a film where I only put in what I’m interested in. And I don’t care about getting from here to there, only what I’m interested in, and I’ll figure a way to make it work. And the freedom made me so happy. Coming from the art world there are no rules, and once you start playing with rules then you’re in trouble, so this was really freeing.
I happened to mention to a writer that in my new film I’ve a character who is a masochist and likes to get beat up and I also have a kid who is kind of starting to get into spanking a bit, sexually, and he said, “Nononono, you cant have two characters with the same [thing]… that’s the rule" and right away I said "Fuck writers, fuck you people."
You once said that you wished a teenager has made "Kids," but a teenager could not have done so, because of a lack of the perspective and clarity that only comes over time. How do you feel your perspective has changed in the years since "Kids"?
I’m fearless — I think I’m much more fearless. There’s no fear at all anymore more. It’s gone completely and there [used to be] always fear, especially when you’re young. My first book "Tulsa," it was literally, I thought very seriously about burning the negatives and shooting myself. Or publishing the book, and I chose to go for it. Because no one knew about that world, I was taking a chance, I was going into uncharted territory.
I don’t care anymore I’m comfortable doing exactly what I want to do, making exactly the movie I want to make. I’ve always done that, I’ve never compromised, but now there's no fear.
"Marfa Girl" is available for download now for $5.99 at larryclark.com