Nothing’s Shocking: Gregg Araki On His “Mysterious Skin”
by Brandon Judell
Michael (“The Hours”) Cunningham has insisted Scott Heim, the author of “Mysterious Skin,” “is a serious writer who’s unafraid to swim in the darkest waters.” Put director Gregg Araki into a pair of Speedos, and the same could be said of him.
From “The Living End” (1992) to “Totally F****ed Up” (1993) to “The Doom Generation” (1995), Araki has always nuzzled perverse, taboo subject matter. This father of New Queer Cinema has spotlighted HIV-positive gay lovers who ape Bonnie and Clyde; relentlessly trendy, Ecstasy-popping teenyboppers who deport themselves as if they own the world; and a bisexual threesome whose flip behavior inspire a castration. These are just a smattering of the groups populating his edgy cinema.
Now, for the first time, Araki’s not working from original material. Instead, he has adapted Heim’s novel, and one could hardly think of a better match. Who else wouldn’t flinch from Heim’s subject matter? Perturbed eight-year-old boys, pederasts, hustlers, aliens, abused cows, sadists, and sex with cereal.
Dialing up Araki two days before his film officially opened in New York City (it’s already had a few highly successful festival screenings including Tribeca), indieWIRE was confronted with a rather calm helmer.
iW: Pardon my French, but there’s an academic article on you titled “Auteur/Brioleur/Provocateur: Gregg Araki and Postpunk Style in The Doom Generation.”
GA: I take it it’s a French publication.
iW: Surprisingly no. It’s from the Journal of Film & Video, March 2003.
iW: So do you agree with the writer that you have a postpunk style?
GA: I don’t consider I have a postpunk style. It’s funny. I was talking to Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, who did a possibly amazing score for our film with Harold Budd. We were talking about, because we’re approximately the same age, how he really felt like the Cocteau Twins were in their own way like a punk rock band because they were brought up with like the Sex Pistols and that whole punk rock, DIY [do-it-yourself] mentality.
I was in high school and college when all that was happening. So I don’t really think of my movies as punk rock style in the sort of clichéd safety-pin-through-your-nose kind of punk rock way. But I do think the punk rock spirit in general, the sort of DIY idea of creating this music in your garage, was an uncompromised expression of sort of being true to yourself. That definitely was a huge, huge, huge influence on me when I was growing up. Just the idea of being an individual and doing your own thing and not toeing the line that everybody else toes.
iW: You’ve said, “I’m much more into buying CDs than I am into keeping up with current movies.”
GA: That’s true.
iW: Independent films, too?
GA: It’s not that I’m saying that I never go to the movies because I go to the movies all the time. I’m just saying that I’ve always been much more inspired by music and what’s going on in music. I listen to music every day all day long, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed. I have thousands and thousands of CDs. I get a huge inspiration from music as does Scott Heim, the author of “Mysterious Skin.” I think that’s another reason why I responded so strongly to Scott’s book. We have a lot of the same interests, and our sensibilities are very similar. I think that he likewise is very into this certain type of alternative music that I’m into. This kind of “hoogays” alternative music.
iW: It’s called what?
GA: It’s called “qgays.”
iW: “Q hyphen Gays”?
GA: It like shoes that you wear on your feet, and gaze. Not like “gays,” like homosexual gays, but “gaze,” like you are gazing at your shoes.
iW: Oh, “shoe gaze.” Okay.
GA: It’s a term that was coined in the early nineties out of Britain. There were a batch of bands that would play this kind of dreamy, ethereal guitar music that had a certain sort of hypnotic, spacey quality to it. Scott would listen to a lot of that music when he wrote “Mysterious Skin,” and that is what I think created the certain dreamy, poetic quality of the book which was so resonant with me.
I wanted to sort of duplicate that style. I wanted it to be this kind of very poetic and very beautiful movie along the lines of like a Wong Kar-Wai movie or a Terrence Malick movie. I wanted “Mysterious Skin” to have the sort of visual poetry to it that that book does, which is very dark and very unsettling.
iW: This film is bringing you a whole different level of critical acclaim. You’ve gotten brilliant performances from your actors. It will probably be up for a lot of awards and appear on ten best lists at the end of year. A few studios might even throw money at you. Are you prepared for it?
GA: I just love this movie so much, and I’m so proud of it. I’m just thrilled that people are responding to it in the way that they are. Certainly when we started, Mary Jane (Skalski), the producer, asked me like what do you want to accomplish with this movie? I just wanted the film to have an emotional impact on people in the way that the book did. “Mysterious Skin” just devastated me when I read it. I was crying by the time I finished it.
The most flattering thing anybody’s ever said to me about the film is that after it’s over, they literally just cannot even speak. They just have to leave the theater and be alone for a while and sort of process what they’ve seen. That for me as the director of the film, that’s the highest compliment because that’s what I wanted.
I really wanted the film to just give people something to think about and sort of feel this kind of empathy for these boys. For me that was really the power of the book. I never really had any sort of abuse in my childhood. I had a very normal and a very happy middle-class childhood, but I felt like for the first time I really got a sense of what it must be like to have gone through the trauma that these boys go through.
The whole issue of child abuse is so sensationalized and so kind of saturated in the media today. The Michael Jackson thing and the Catholic priests. It’s all over everywhere. It’s also become such a cliché in terms of like TV movies and just Hollywood dramas. There’s just sort of like “Oh, I was abused as a child” and the violins start playing. But you don’t have any kind of empathy for what these kids have actually gone through and the emotional aftermath of what’s happened to them.
iW: How hard was it to cast this film? Did thespians run the other way?
GA: It wasn’t hard in that sense. It was a really very straightforward casting process. We just read dozens and dozens of actors. Lots of meetings. It was very typical in that way, but we just got so unbelievably lucky that the cast we got, everybody was just so perfect. Everybody in the entire cast was so emotionally invested in the project that they really just went all out. It was really such a gratifying experience, and it was such a great environment to work in. Everybody . . .down to the grips and the PAs . . . sort of like everybody really felt the project was important, and they really wanted to make their contribution. People like Elizabeth Shue, who kind of was in semi-retirement at the time she read the script, was so moved by the story, she just really wanted to be a part of it. That was pretty much down the line how everybody felt.
iW: Are you afraid the right wing will use film as a fundraising tool?
GA: Not really. (Laughs.) I know where I am with this film in terms of I know what my intent is. My intent is really very pure and very much just wanting to bring that story to the screen. My intent is to tell this very compelling, very provocative, very powerful, and, to me, really, really important story. I know that that’s why this film was made. If people want to try to twist that or distort that or try to turn it into something that it’s completely not, I have no power over that, but I’m not worried about it certainly.
iW: You said at one time that you were convinced this film “would be unrated like Larry Clark‘s “Kids,” but curiously the film is not as shocking as I thought it would be.”
GA: For me, the really most shocking thing about “Mysterious Skin” is that it’s not shocking. I have had 65-year-old grandmothers come up to me at screenings, saying how much they loved the film and how much it moved them. It’s like the last thing I really expected. With Neil being a prostitute and the sort of rougher parts of the film, I really didn’t think that this certain audience would be able to handle the movie.
But the movie’s not hard in the way of like a Larry Clark movie or Gaspar Noé‘s “Irréversible” or like a movie that’s really tough to sit through. I think it’s really a testament to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet because I think that they did such an amazing job portraying Neil and Brian respectively that they really sort of pull you into the story. They really kind of draw you in and sort of lead you through the kind of rougher parts of it. There’s tough stuff in the film but none of it is gratuitous. None of it is there for any sort of shock value. It’s really all about this emotional journey of these two boys.
iW: Finally, what about your next film? It’s called Creep?
GA: It’s called CrEEEEps! with four E’s and an S on the end and an exclamation point. It’s more of a kind of a horror/sci-fi kind of movie. I mean I really loved “Mysterious Skin,” but after doing something so kind of dark and serious I was looking to do something a little more pop and a little fun. So it’s my first kind of foray into a true genre film. I’m excited about it. It should be really interesting.
iW: Is it already cast or is it in the process?
GA: We’re still working on putting it together.