Gregg Araki has been a pivotal player in the New Queer Cinema movement since his 1992 film The Living End was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Almost 20 years on and Araki continues to create provocative independent cinema, with his latest film Kaboom a mish-mash of genre, sass and visual spectacle, and won the first ever Queer Palm at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Kaboom stars Thomas Dekker (My Sister's Keeper) as Smith, an 18 year old film student whose sexual awakening contrasts with a bizarre set of circumstances involving a mysterious cult with aspirations of world domination.
Here Gregg talks about David Lynch, college life, and all things Kaboom.
What was the original spark that brought about the idea for Kaboom? Was it the sci-fi story, or the more personal story?
It’s kind of both, in a way. I wanted to make a personal story in the sense that..it’s sounds crazy to say it, because the movie is so wacky and insane, but it’s kind of my most autobiographical movie ever made, in a sense that a lot of it is kind of my recollection of being an under graduate film student in Santa Barbara, I had a best friend who was very much like Stella (Haley Bennett) who was an artist, and we would hang out and go to classes. So it was about that time in your life where everything is a question mark, your whole future is up in the air and you don’t really know who you are.
So I was interested in doing that, but I’ve been wanting for years to do dark, sort of David Lynch-ian kind of mystery, that was a paranoid thriller with lots of involving...I’m very interested in cults, and all of that. So I’ve been wanting to make a movie like that for a while, so it was a combination of both of those inspirations, and sort of putting them together and coming up with a story that was sprawling, kind of apocalyptic epic, but also gel with that time in your life when everything was sort of “I don’t know what’s gonna happen”.
This was your first original screenplay in some time. Was that a deliberate decision to not make another movie based on another writer’s material?
I love Mysterious Skin so much, and I love Smiley Face, and I’m so proud of those movies. But I was really interested in doing something that was really outside the expected genre. To me this movie is kind of a smaller movie, and I really wanted it to be limitless and just let my imagination go all in, and not worry about if this is getting too weird, or these sex scenes are going too far, and just let the characters and let the story get wild and crazy and free spirited as they would, without deluding or keeping that down in terms of what people’s expectations might be.
So that was some of the things about the movie that I tried to return to almost a place of creative naivete, where it was really about the story and the characters, and that’s why there are characters with supernatural powers (laughs), and mysterious and conspiracy theories are more and more crazy! Just have fun with it, which is what I first set out to have with this movie.
"I really had a vision in my mind of what all the charactesr looked like, and also the vibe which I was looking for everybody. This cast has to be really one of the most fantastic ensembles I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with." - Gregg Araki
You’ve referenced Twin Peaks in describing Kaboom. Was David Lynch a major influence in the more trip-tastic parts of the film?
Yeah, very much. David Lynch has been a huge influence on me on all of my movies. He’s such a brilliant, visionary director. So all of my movies have always had that influence, but this is the movie that is most related to his films, particularly the TV series Twin Peaks. I was in college when that show came out, and it had a really profound on me in the way that...sort of what I was talking about in how I approached the script, that it just created its own universe and was just true to itself. That was something that I was really inspired to do with Kaboom.
You talked about the auto-biographical nature of the film. So am I correct in assuming that Smith is your cinematic alter-ego?
(Laughs) He is in a way, but there’s obviously a lot of fictionalising. I was not involved with the occult, and I certainly didn’t have as much sex as Smith has in the movie. But there are a lot of elements of that time of my life, in terms of....you know there are heaps of moments that are very, very personal for me. I remember a lot of hanging out all of the time. Me and my best friend would always hang out in coffee shops, and just lots of going over what’s going on in our lives, and what happened the night before...just a lot of that sort of time.
The scene where Smith is in the club listening to music and the look on his face as the music is taking him to this other place, all that is very personal and profound to me.
Did that make casting the role of Smith anymore difficult, considering the personal attachment you have with the character?
Well, I wasn’t looking for me! (Laughs) But I really had a vision in my mind of what all the charactesr looked like, and also the vibe which I was looking for everybody. This cast has to be really one of the most fantastic ensembles I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with. Johanna Ray and Jenny Jue who has cast some really great movies... Johanna casted the original Twin Peaks and is a casting legend here in Los Angeles, and we were lucky enough to get them to do the movie, and they did a fantastic job in really getting the best young actors out there, and we got just an amazing group of really talented kids to be in the movie.
"I was really interested in doing something that was really outside the expected genre. To me this movie is kind of a smaller movie, and I really wanted it to be limitless and just let my imagination go all in." - Greg Arakki
One of the people in the film is James Duval. He has appeared in a lot of your movies. Can you talk about your professional relationship with James, and what it is about him that has you cast him in your films repeatedly
The first film I cast him in was Totally Fucked Up, which was back in the mid 90s, and he’s been a friend of mine and I’ve known him for years, so I kind of wrote the part of The Messiah for him, and it was such an odd character for him to play. He’s a sort of two sided character (laughs), so it was a really fun character for him to play and write for him, and we had an amazing time.
In the film Smith states off hand that cinema is dying. Is that a personal opinion told through your characters?
A lot of these characters serve as mouth pieces for me. My feelings about the sort of anxieties Smith has about questioning whether cinema these days is any good, is something that I think about pretty frequently. Because he’s a film major as I was at that age, it puts him in that position of really contemplating about the future of cinema and all that.
The films visual symbolism is curious, especially in regards to certain religious aspects. You have the cult leader who is dressed in papal garb, he carries a big red book reminiscent of the bible, Duval plays a character called The Messiah. Were you trying to express your opinion on religion?
Maybe not overtly, but there is definitely a belief in the movie in terms of cult, religion, psychology...which to some people is a religion (laughs). I have a general fear of people sort of becoming so indoctrinated to a certain belief, that they tend to lose their ability to question, and their sort of individual will.
To me that kind of happens in religious and cult situations, where people are more following then they think they are themselves. That is something that is personally a concern of mine, and it’s something that I wanted the film to sort of deal with.