When “Kids” premiered at Sundance 20 years ago, not even the cast believed it would make the splash and long-lasting impression it did. After all, how could a movie so inextricably connected to the time in which it was made hold up two decades later? And yet, the drama not only rings true today, but it also is deeply embedded in the independent cultural landscape — a visceral representation of the naiveté and sexual promiscuity of adolescents coming of age in any era.
“Kids” follows a group of directionless skaters wandering around New York City while stealing, doing drugs, drinking and having sex — all told on the backdrop of the heightened fear and seeming ubiquity of the AIDS epidemic. Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is an HIV-positive teenager who actively pursues younger virgins in order to have unprotected sex with them. Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) is one of his unknowing victims, and upon realizing she is HIV-positive she attempts to warn other girls of Telly’s danger.
At the 2015 BAMCinemaFest last night in Brooklyn, director Larry Clark, writer Harmony Korine and producer Cary Woods reunited with actors Chloe Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick and Rosario Dawson to discuss the impact the film made and its production process. Because the movie marked the debut for many involved, there was much to be said about what it’s like to see something go blasting past expectations.
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Read some of the highlights from the reunion below:
Contrary to popular belief, the film was highly scripted.
Because of the film’s hyper-realistic style, which has been compared to documentary filmmaking, many have assumed that the actors improvised a lot of their dialogue. While the improvisatory feel was intentional, the film is almost completely scripted. As Larry Clark informed, “It started out kind of as a documentary because I hung out with skaters for about three years and everything in the film had happened expect for Jennie. Everything had happened.”
The film developed from there in a more narrative style, though it was a new experience for most involved. As writer Harmony Korine explained, “I had just starting writing, so the whole movie is weird to me, because none of us had done anything before; we were all amateurs.”
“I came up with this thing about a girl getting HIV from one sexual experience, and that was what tied it together that made it into a feature rather than a documentary,” Clark said.
In Korine’s words, “The AIDS thing, it was a kind of ‘Jaws’ or something — a life that propelled it. We didn’t know anything about the disease, except that we didn’t want to get it.”
Only one scene in the film is improvised.
The scene in question is the one that depicts four shirtless skaters sitting and smoking marijuana, and it was improvised and shot in fifteen minutes. Clark explained that these fourteen year old skaters, who were all real-life friends, essentially “just walked in the door.”
Leo Fitzpatrick is not Telly, though that fast and unintelligible speaking voice is his.
When Leo Fitzpatrick was cast as Telly, he was far from the dangerous character description. He was, however, a fast-talking skater boy from New York City. His voice was so difficult to understand that producers urged Larry Clark to voice coach him, something Clark refused because it was part of Telly’s character. “Leo was fantastic. Leo was nothing like Telly,” Clark said. “He was really acting, he did a great job of acting.” It made the character “more empathetic, more interesting,” added Korine.
“I wasn’t so comfortable with my voice either,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like purgatory listening to it…this is when we were at our most awkward. This is pure puberty at its height.”
Fitzpatrick was cast because he was found skateboarding and cursing when he missed a trick.
The makers of the film emphasized that they wanted to go against the typical route of type-casting actors, regardless of their acting experience. Telly isn’t a hotshot Hollywood-ready player, for example. This was intentional. “Kids” is, for the most part, about being realistic in at times unrealistic or unthinkable circumstances.
The story is true that Fitzpatrick was found in his skater element to play the role of Telly. Korine said, “I also remember, Larry loved you [Fitzpatrick] at first — he told me about you because he saw you wearing a jersey and you were angry, skating and smashing your board after every trick.”
“Kids” got made because of the intense will and determination of its then-inexperienced creators.
As the film’s producer, Cary Woods, simply said, “It was just one of those things.” With the help of executive producer Gus Van Sant, among others, Woods helped push the film through production after finding and really liking the script and storyline. They wanted to make the film for under five million dollars, and it was an instant success at Sundance. “After the first viewing at Sundance, everybody knew that this movie was a sensation. One screening at midnight; it was unadvertised…people were flipping out after that one screening. It was a big deal,” Korine added.
This was, of course, even more of a pleasant shock after expecting little out of it. “At the time, they found me on a stoop, so I thought, ‘If they’re picking up people off the street, this is going nowhere!'” Sevigny said of her casting in the film. When Dawson was called and told that “Kids” was screening at Sundance, she had never even heard of the festival before.
Clark credits its success to its honesty. It was original, unique, temporally relevant and yet long-lasting enough to stay relevant in both plot and theme as a somewhat disturbing coming of age tale.
Even its makers are surprised it holds up two decades later.
When making a story within the context of something so gripping and startlingly immediate as the AIDS epidemic, it’s naturally hard to imagine it still being relevant many years later. And yet, “Kids” is still a quintessential tale of aimless youth, perhaps partly because it doesn’t over-romanticize the trope of being young in New York, and partly because it is relatable without being too familiar. But it’s still difficult to imagine such a film holding up so many years later. These sentiments were echoed by both Clark and Dawson: “So many kids say, ‘Oh that’s the movie I moved to New York because of.’ And you’re like, ‘This is a cautionary tale!’ These are young kids with their own scenes, but it still resonates with teenagers somehow….to me, it’s strange it still holds twenty years later,” Clark said. Dawson explained, “I used to watch it every year, and then I stopped…to see them and to see all of it is startling.”
“You have to remember,” Korine concluded, “they really were just all kids in that park. That really was just all it.”