Gregg Araki's films are the kind of guilty pleasures you don't actually have to feel guilty about. They tend to offer everything you'd want from a teen film—good-looking actors, shallow dialogue, angsty post-punk soundtracks—but without all the heterosexuality and clichéd endings. Instead, the director opts for nihilistic, disenfranchised characters (so much more relatable) and a resolutely queer approach. His most famous film, for example, is Mysterious Skin: the story of a small-town rent boy who first fell in love with a man who abused him at the age of eight.
Araki first made his name as a filmmaker in the 90s, emerging as part of the new queer cinema movement when his third feature, The Living End—the story of two HIV-positive fugitives—debuted at Sundance, in '92. He was banded together with Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, and Rose Troche—filmmakers who shared his dedication to putting a more accurate portrayal of gay characters on cinema screens.
"It was very small, like a high school class," he remembers. Araki's in his 50s now, but he talks like a Valley Girl and doesn't look a day over 35. "Rick Linklater is another filmmaker—we have a very similar method of working, doing our own thing." He compares himself to Gus Van Sant, too—another art-house auteur for doomed Gen X. "We're similar in that we all have our own voice."
Since the 90s, Gregg's films have grown less pointedly political, though, and his latest, White Bird in a Blizzard, marks a further break from what was usually, in the early days, an indignant approach to narrative filmmaking and a consistently trashy, low-budget aesthetic. It's also a murder mystery. Shailene Woodley plays suburban 17-year-old Kat Conners, who's like a slightly less self-involved version of Angela Chase from My So-Called Life. One afternoon, Kat's mother—over-acted by Eva Green—disappears without a trace. We follow Kat as she tries to unravel it all.
The script's based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, says Araki. He describes the book as "poetic," "lyrical," and "cinematic," but also made a load of changes to it. "I changed the ending," he says, "the whole third act of the movie." He also moved the location and the period slightly. "The book, I think, is set in '85 or '86. I moved it a couple of years later, to 1988, as well as moving the location from Ohio to California, so it would be a little closer to my own experience."
Growing up in what he describes as "an exciting time as far as punk-rock music and post-punk were concerned," Araki says he felt compelled to make Kat and her friends part of the same kind of alternative music culture that he experienced in high school—a little earlier, he says, around the time the Sex Pistols broke America.
"In the book Kat meets Phil and they begin their puppy love affair dancing to Journey, or something terrible like that, but in the movie I relocated it from a high school dance to a goth club and had Siouxsie and the Banshees playing. That's the look and the world that I was in—it allowed me to relate so much more to the characters."
When conversation moves onto the topic of genre, Araki is quick to defend his work as genre-less. The phrase "coming-of-age film" doesn't go down well.
"The two movies to me that are coming-of-age movies are probably Mysterious Skin and this movie," he says, "and they're both based on books—stories that I did not write. I wouldn't call Doom Generation, or Kaboom, or even Smiley Face a 'coming of age' movie. One of the things I'm really happy with about my work is that it's kind of all over the place. My movies are very different from each other. There are certain filmmakers, who I will not name, who just make the same fucking movie over and over again."
The cohesive thread, he can agree, is stories about outsiders. This is what's earned him a legion of cult fans—gay, straight, or queer. I ask him whether the impetus to make queer films came naturally, since he is gay himself, or whether he consciously thought it important to put gay characters in front of the camera. "It was very important to me personally. I always feel very gratified when people say, 'Oh, your films always meant so much to me,' or, 'They helped me when I was coming out.'
"The Queer New Wave wasn't truly a new wave in the sense of the French New Wave," he continues. "Those filmmakers sat in a room and came up with this idea that they were going to create a certain type of cinema. For us, for all of us—and I know almost all of those [queer] filmmakers because we all met at, like, Sundance, and Berlin—it was never truly a 'movement' in that sense. It was just a bunch of us who were all approximately the same age and very passionate about independent cinema."
A defining characteristic of Araki's film has been creating a true snapshot of time and place. "Because of the AIDs crisis and what was going on politically, it was very much like a war zone. Young people don't understand what that was like, but it was similar to the kind of world in The Normal Heart, that HBO thing that was just on—a very dark time, a very angry time and a time when people were agitated. It was impossible not to be agitated because, as a young person in your twenties or thirties, you were just surrounded by constant death. Your time was very limited because of the simple fact that you were gay. It was a very intense period to live through and I think the films really reflect that."
Like the work of Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, Araki's films have now moved on from purely LGBT subject matter: "We were also just doing our own thing as filmmakers back then, which is why we've all made other kinds of movies now." White Bird, however, still has a big gay moment (can't tell you what it is) and more than a semblance of the gay sensibility in terms of how incredibly camp Eva Green's performance is.
"Eva, I've loved Eva Green forever," Araki gushes. "I've loved her since The Dreamers." He is the most animated he's been our entire interview. "She's so unique, there's really nobody like her, I was just so thrilled to work with her. Another thing about Eva is that she—I mean, I love her as a person, she is just a great person, a great artist—but on set she is like Greta Garbo, she has this sort of magical aura about her."
I suggest that her look in the film is quite Jackie O and her performance is quite Joan Crawford (i.e. so gay). Araki loves this. "Well, Eva and I had a lot of discussions about the Eve character in the sense that I really wanted that her not to be a one-dimensional, stepmother-type villain. I really saw Eve as a tragic figure. Tough women—Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie O, Joan Crawford—all of those icons of that period, we decided these were the character's role models, the people she would have grown up watching as the feminine ideal, women with the perfect hair and outfits and make-up. It's almost like Eva's character is a woman playing a character," he says. "Like she's sort of been told, 'This is who you are.'"
At the end of the film it turns out that Eva's part—Kat's mother—isn't quite who we thought she was, and there arrives a spectacular twist, which resuscitates the film from average to enjoyable. White Bird lacks the insurgency of his AIDS-related films like The Living End ("Why don't we go to Washington and blow Bush's brains out!") and Totally Fucked Up ("It was government-sponsored genocide!") but we can be glad the climate in which those films were made has changed, that Araki doesn't have so much to be angry about today.
As our interview draws to a close, I ask him why he feels compelled to makes films. He compares his work to that of Scottish band The Cocteau Twins, whose music he has often featured on his soundtracks. "In America in particular, they were never super-popular—I know Robin because he's done the music now for White Bird and Kaboom and Mysterious Skin—and they were probably considered a commercial failure. But their music meant so much to so many people. It was something that was beyond music—it was really, really important to the people that got it.
"That's what I've always aspired to with my films: they're not for everybody and some are polarizing—I definitely have my fans and my detractors—but the people that do get my movies really get them. For me as an artist that's, like, the most I could ever ask for."
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