Alien reptiles, libidinous youth, bisexual polygamy and prophetic dreams, set in dystopian LA and soundtracked by the cathartic drone of shoegaze classics, the Gregg Araki universe is as distinct as it is well signposted.
To understand his work is to understand the plight of the outsider: conflicted, alone and disaffected, shunning mainstream and the allure of normality – it’s no coincidence that Araki himself has never been interested in popular appeal. As both writer and director, his films are uncompromising meditations on human relationships and his own boundless imagination, while any concern for critical acclaim or box office earnings is fully eclipsed in the pursuit of truth and meaning.
From his bitingly political films of the early 90s – freewheeling orgies of ultraviolence, brash dialogue and dizzying plot twists – to the satirisation of teen-flicks with his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, the lo-fi production and psychedelic visuals of that decade helped establish his own cult aesthetic. Later works, including Mysterious Skin (2004) and White Bird in a Blizzard (2014), represent a more measured departure from that early radicalism, but his latest TV project, Now Apocalypse, sees Araki re-embrace his signature hyper-realism with typical inhibition.
Written in collaboration with author and host of Slutever – Karley Sciortino – the ten episodes give Araki carte blanche to produce a quintessential version of himself with all the hallmarks of his repertoire. As such, the story follows Uly, a twenty-something homosexual navigating love, life and extra-terrestrial encounters in LA.
Finn Blythe: Hi Gregg, how you doing? Have you finished shooting?
Gregg Araki: Yeah, we shot the whole show in about two months and then we were in post-production, editing, mixing, colour timing. They’re still working on the delivery of everything but I’m done with the filming part of it.
FB: And is that normal for you, for the process to be that quick?
GA: Well, this is the first time that I’ve actually ever done a series of my own. I’ve obviously made a bunch of movies and I worked on other peoples’ shows, directing episodes, but I’ve never done like, ten full episodes of my own show before, so this was all very new to me.
FB: I know you’ve directed episodes for 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, but ten episodes must feel like a larger canvas to craft your narrative…
GA: It was super I mean, what I learned from doing other peoples’ shows was that running one is just an unbelievable amount of work. You have so many hats to wear and have to be in so many places at once. I would look at these showrunners like Brian Yorkey, Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] and John Ridley and just go, “Wow, that’s so much work I can’t imagine doing that unless it’s something I absolutely loved”. That’s why when I set out to make Now Apocalypse, I just thought – if I could do any show in the world, just something that I had a burning desire to do, what would it be? And that’s kind of the way we conceived it. I just wanted it to be something completely crazy and unique that was unadulterated and uncompromised. My feeling was that if we could find somebody that will do it, great [laughs], but if not then I don’t want to do it. It’s just not worth it to do some watered-down version.
FB: And how did you find sharing creative control with Karley [Sciortino]?
GA: Karley is a friend of mine and I’d met her several years ago while working on a movie together, the first one she’d written, and I really liked her. We’re very much kindred spirits. I came up with the idea of the show, the framework and the characters, and Karley, I don’t how much you know about Karley but she’s kind of like a sexpert in a way, she’s written a book…
FB: Yeah I’ve read her stuff.
GA: Uh-huh… And the character in the show that’s loosely based on her – I kind of invented this whole world of, if there was a character like Karley..
FB: Right I’ve just put that together, Carly and Karley, I’m with you.
GA: Yeah [laughs] I mean, Karley was sort of against me calling her Carly [laughs], she wanted more separation but I mean it’s not her, it’s just loosely based on her. The character of Ulysses is common in several of my films, this sensitive, lost soul, wandering the world looking for connection. Then there’s the character that’s like Karley – that relationship is also very prevalent in all of my movies: gay guy with his female best friend and they have this bond… I mean the show is very much related to every movie I’ve ever made – I just put everything I have into it. For people who’ve seen my movies, there are parts of every single movie in it…
FB: It’s got the Gregg Araki signature all over it, which I love.
GA: It gets even crazier with each episode and nine and ten are insane, like really…
FB: Why does that not surprise me, Gregg?
FB: It was actually great to watch the show after having re-visited a lot of your films. As you say, your signature resonates throughout. Did you use the same reptile space alien costume from Nowhere?
GA: [laughs] It’s related but they made us change it because we weren’t allowed to use the same one. So the same designer from Nowhere designed us a new alien, but there’s definitely a relationship between all the movies. There’s a whole kind of Gregg Araki universe mythology that the show is definitely keyed into and that’s why, for people who have seen my earlier films, it really makes sense. So much of it is going to hark back, not just to Nowhere, but Mysterious Skin and especially Smiley Face, which is very prevalent in the show.
FB: Why did you think this story was important to tell now?
GA: It’s funny, we wrote the script offspec for the hell of it, and we started it in the tail-end of the Obama years, which is why the tone of has this utopian edge.
FB: It’s definitely a lot warmer than something like The Doom Generation.
Gregg: But after Trump was elected there was suddenly this darker tone. I actually did a revision of the script that made the darkness more pronounced. It was always there, like the scene when Uly and Gabriel are in front of a coffee shop and the fag bashers drive by. That threat of homophobic violence is in all my 90s movies, but that became more of the story, the idea that there is this utopian world where people are having sex and falling in love. But at that same time, there is a darkness in the peripheries which became a much bigger part of the story.
FB: Well your films have always held some kind of political dimension. If you go back to The Living End for example, it was a real statement of anger and protest, that has fluctuated throughout your films.
GA: I feel my films are all political in a very personal way. I’ve always felt like they are about outsiders and people who feel different about acceptance. I’ve had encounters with people from all over the world, people who feel like they just don’t fit in. My films really tend to resonate with them. Those are the kind of people I make my films for in the sense that, growing up, it was really important for me to find those voices that I felt told my story. That was very much a musical thing, which is why I was always so into punk and new wave. That’s always been super important to me and I feel that’s often been the political dimension to my films and certainly Now Apocalypse is a big part of that.
“I feel my films are all political in a very personal way. I’ve always felt like they are about outsiders and people who feel different about acceptance.”
FB: I wondered whether you had any difficulty translating your teen experience to the present day with Now Apocalypse? It’s interesting that you introduced Tinder into the show, something which has had a huge impact on relationships but wasn’t a part of your adolescence.
GA: The world we live in is terrifying but so fascinating [laughs]. To think how fast it has changed in my lifetime is kind of overwhelming but also as an artist, I think it’s a really interesting subject, because my films have almost always been interested in exploring relationships, sexuality and how people interact with each other: it’s a perfect fit. But again, when Karly and I get to hang out you know [laughs], I mean I’m obviously way older than Uly but we really have this sort of kindred nature, she’s an adventurer and unconventional and we really hit it off even though we’re from different generations. That’s a big part of what makes the show work.
FB: Her voice, her influence and also your bond?
GA: It’s also because I’ve really always been interested in feminism. The female characters in my movies have always been somewhat unconventional and strong, usually smarter than the men and more capable than the main character. That definitely came out in Now Apocalypse, I really wanted the female character to have an individuality and a backbone, whereas the male characters tend to be a little bit more lost, a little bit more vulnerable and er [laughs], frequently make mistakes.
FB: And that’s such a present theme of your previous films too, all those James Duval roles in which he embodied that alternative, insecure masculinity.
GA: I think that’s one reason why the films speak so deeply to kids who live in these weird far-flung places like Russia or Idaho [laughs]. It’s a different voice to what they’re used to which is what the movies are about. Growing up, I would idolise bands like the Cocteau Twins who were never giant commercial successes but they’re so meaningful to the people that get them. That’s always how I felt about my movies, the people that get them really get them and that’s more important to me than, “Oh yeah, you sold a billion records, people don’t really care about you.” Culture is a giant blob, it consumes everything. The mainstream envelops the edges of what was formerly underground. When punk first started out with the Sex Pistols, it was such a radical thing and such a shock to the culture. But by the time we get to the 2000s or whatever, Coachella has become this gigantic mainstream thing.
FB: It’s commodified.
GA: In a way that’s how I feel about Now Apocalypse. I’ve been working in my own independent film world for so many years and TV culture has become gigantic with so many shows – people are tired of everything, it’s like work to watch them, you know? So Now Apocalypse is kind of made for now in the sense that it’s a super watchable, fun, sexy show. I’ve been making these weird underground indie movies for so long and the weirdness of them back in the 90s that was so off-putting to people is actually their appeal now because it is so different and unlike the other stuff that’s out there. More people will see it than have ever seen any of my movies because it’s on TV, that to me is the coolest part about it.
“Culture is a giant blob, it consumes everything. The mainstream envelops the edges of what was formerly underground.”
FB: There’s a nostalgic indulgence that comes with your 90s films, they’re such an honest reflection of their time.
GA: Yeah, I think it’s also the same way you hear your favourite bands from the 80s or 90s and associate them with a certain point in your life. I just saw Nine Inch Nails and hearing that music again was like such a time machine for me because they played a lot of The Downward Spiral-era stuff… That’s another thing about the show that’s so very Gregg Araki, the soundtrack is unbelievable…
FB: And you’ve teamed with Robin Guthrie again.
GA: Yeah, Robin wrote the score, as he did for White Bird and several other of my later movies. But we also had some additional music by James Clements who records under the name ASC, it’s this super cool ambient electronic music. But the source cues are literally all of my favourites from across the years, all the way up to new bands and Frank Ocean, basically every band I’ve ever loved – and a Nine Inch Nail song for the finale that’s fucking unbelievable [laughs].
FB: Speaking of trademarks, are you someone who dreams a lot?
GA: I do dream but not to the extent of my characters.
FB: No apocalyptic premonitions then.
GA: [laughs] The notion of dreaming is very much the Lynchian side of my movies, in the sense that I’m super-fascinated by a surreal cinematic world. Cinema itself is so close to a dream state and they are a big part of all of my films, certainly the show plays with that motif and in season two it’s actually going to even more.
FB: And why do you find it useful as a narrative device?
GA: I think it has to do with my general sensibility as a filmmaker. I’m not interested in reality, my films are rooted in naturalism and reality and the way people interact, but there’s always a level of subjectivity and stylisation. Not that I have anything against it but I’m so not interested in that desaturated colour, handheld camera documentary stuff… Reality to me is kinda boring, I’m much more interested in creating a world that is based in reality but stuck with special, strange things and the idea of dreams is so much a part of that.
FB: And does that go some way in explaining the extra-terrestrial theme that runs through your work? Is that just about a fascination with the unknown?
GA: That sense of the unknown but also that sense of, “Is this really happening or is this just my imagination?” This show is very much my imagination unleashed, which is why I keep saying it’s my dream show. It’s exhausting but super exciting, just pouring everything that I’ve ever been interested in into these ten episodes. It’s a pretty wild ride.
Now Apocalypse is out now via STARZPLAY.