“He’s almost at the center of this weird cult, but, I mean, good for him,” says Gregg Araki, himself a cult-film icon, referring to Denmark’s cinematic bad-boy, Lars von Trier. “I wish I was Lars,” adds the 51-year-old, Los Angeles-based filmmaker. “I don’t know where he gets all the money to fund his movies. My dream has always been to have some crazy benefactor who loves me and pays for everything for the rest of my life. I’d never have to take another meeting again.” The occasion for this meeting, from inside the IFC offices in midtown Manhattan, is the release of Araki’s latest film, Kaboom, a sex- and drug-fueled end-of-days thriller starring Thomas Dekker as Smith, a Dionysian college co-ed who, along with his friends Stella (Haley Bennett) and London (Juno Temple), is forced to contend with exams and the apocalypse. It’s surprising, given its supernatural subplot, that Kaboom is Araki’s most autobiographical movie yet.
What’s also surprising is that Araki, whose previous credits include underground classics such as The Living End, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere, turned down actor Rooney Mara for a part in the film. Luckily, Kaboom‘s two female leads are astonishing. Also lucky was Mara, who eventually landed another role in something called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Has it gotten increasingly easy for you to finance your films? Yeah, people just throw money at me. I literally have money coming out of my ass. No! It’s a struggle, the same struggle it’s always been. I still pound the pavement, trying to get people to give me their cash. It’s actually gotten more difficult given that a lot of buyers have gone out of business. Making these independent films and getting them seen gets harder and harder.
I’d assume the opposite would happen as you continue to become more established. It does help, because at least people know that if I start a movie I’m going to finish it. But indie movies, particularly ones that are outside the box, are hard to finance and distribute and get seen.
Tell me about the process of casting the film. It was just like Mysterious Skin in that we hired casting directors and held auditions. We met dozens and dozens of actors. The ones we chose were the best possible people for each part. We got so lucky with the phenomenal cast in this movie.
From Rose McGowan to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, your history of discovering new talents has been pretty incredible. It’s so exciting for me as a director to discover people and get raw, untapped talent. Thomas [Dekker] has done a lot of work, but there are other people in the movie who have hardly done anything at all. To see these people who are completely unknown, and what comes out of it, is exhilarating.
I’ve been such a fan of Juno Temple since seeing her in Notes on a Scandal. Juno’s amazing. She’s such a special, incredible actress. Originally when I wrote the part of London, it was not intended that she actually be from London. I just wanted her to have that name because I though it was cool. Every time London opens her mouth, three pages of dialogue fall out, and I don’t know how she pulled it off. Anna Faris [who starred in Araki’s last film, 2007’s Smiley Face] was the same way.
It’s a risky role. How do you gain the trust of someone like Juno or Thomas, or Chris Zylka, the actor who tries to fellate himself in the movie? [Laughs] Nude scenes are never fun to do. Something that’s really important for me as a director is to make those scenes as comfortable as possible for the actors, because by their very nature, nude scenes uncomfortable and the actors are so exposed and vulnerable. I try to make sure the set feels very safe, and I always tell the actors that I’m there for them, should they ever need to pull me aside and talk to me about something. The actors in this one are all a part of that generation that embraces challenging roles and likes taking risks, as opposed to doing the same old crap that everybody else is doing and playing it safe on some WB show. I think it’s called the CW now. I heard some rumor that Rooney Mara auditioned for a part in the film. She was one of the dozens of people who came in. We saw almost every young actor in Hollywood. Each of the actors in Kaboom won their part fair and square. We still suspect that the Rooney “story” leaked because it was planted by some angry agent or manager. It was such a weird press thing that came out before the movie was even cast. She definitely came in to read for a part, and she’s amazing. I think she might have auditioned Juno’s part, but I can’t remember. Juno was reluctant about taking the role, actually, because doesn’t see herself as the sexy girl. She associates more as a quirky art girl. That’s one of the reasons I loved her as London, because she played sexy without being slutty. London has a lot of sexual experiences but really she’s just into finding out about herself. It wasn’t like, “I’m just a slut and I want to fuck guys.” It was really important to me that her character didn’t just come across as a tramp, but that she was also an explorer, and Juno really brought that element to the character.
Thomas did, too, in that scene when he has sex with that stranger from the beach, and then says something like, “Wow, I’m a total slut.” But the audience doesn’t necessarily think so. Your college years really are about those experiences: the people you have sex with, the relationships you form, the times your heart gets broken. That’s what you’re finding out about yourself as a person, and to me those are the most important things you get out of those years. It’s not really about the calculus class you took or the midterm exam you failed. When I think back on that from the vantage point of middle age, I don’t even remember one specific lecture. I remember all of those other experiences.
How autobiographical is Kaboom? It’s one of my most wild, insane movies, but it’s also one of my most autobiographical. Thomas’ character, Smith, is very loosely on me at that age. I was an undergraduate film student at UC Santa Barbara. My best friend was an art major at the College of Creative Studies, and so much of that milieu is very specific to my experience or my recollection, of my nostalgia for that time.
Party culture—drugs and excessive drinking—is so integral to your canon. Is that a part of your life? People always think that I must have this crazy life, but I purge all of that stuff in my movies. I have a very stable—awesome, but stable—life. Now that I’m older, I don’t really go to nightclubs or bars. I do go to shows, though. I love seeing bands perform.
I remember having and loving the soundtrack for Nowhere [an Araki film from 1997] when I was younger. Back when you were just a wee tot.
Young enough that my family took issue with my listening to Marilyn Manson. Understandably. My soundtracks are always made up of my favorite bands in that moment. If you go to the Desperate Pictures Facebook page, I’ve written down the entire soundtrack. I don’t think we’re going to get a physical soundtrack made because it’s so hard to do that. But I wish we could because the soundtrack is amazing. All of the bands are incredible—everyone from Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to some really obscure nu gaze bands.
Nu gaze? Is that a thing? It’s just like shoegaze, but new.
I can’t wait until it becomes old gaze. I don’t know if someone has the objectivity about their own work to be able to answer this question, but since Kaboom is your most autobiographical film, I’m curious to know if it’s also your favorite. My films are like my kids, I don’t have real kids, so I have celluloid kids. I love all of my movies, despite their flaws, just the way other people unconditionally love their children. So I don’t really play favorites. Usually, though, my most recent film is the one I’m closest to because it’s the freshest.
So, then, this one’s your favorite? Yes, it’s probably this one.