Few filmmakers can claim to have successfully fluctuated between highbrow and lowbrow, mainstream and indie, queer and less queer, stoner comedy and supernatural suspense. Gregg Araki can. It’s been over two decades since film critic B. Ruby Rich first coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ to celebrate a ragtag group of young filmmakers—Araki included—whose bold storytelling offered a radical counterpoint to Hollywood’s asepticized portrayals of queers. From The Living End to Nowhere to Kaboom, Araki’s angst-ridden, disillusioned teen characters have always raged against the machine by way of one-finger salutes, gnarly hallucinogens, ambisexual shagging and lines like, “Dude, it’s a vagina, not a plate of spaghetti.” The filmmaker’s teenage wastelands are full of foul-mouthed rebels, prone to wisecracking about Clay Aiken, worrying about alien abductions, raving about shoegaze, and asking the Big Questions.
White Girl in a Blizzard, Araki’s latest, casts Hollywood’s reigning girl-next-door Shailene Woodley as Kat Connors, a sex-starved seventeen year old living in late ’80s, suburban California. When her miserable, borderline hysterical mother (Eva Green) disappears without a trace in the film’s opening minutes, Araki sets the stage for a tonally adventurous mystery that finds Woodley trying to fill in the blanks through fateful flashbacks, sinister dreams and, of course, shagging the detective. We recently chatted with Araki about his fascination with teen slang, his new wave idols, and California as a surreal, film-noir wasteland.
This is only your second book adaptation, and the first since 2004’s Mysterious Skin. What was it about White Bird?
It reminded me of American Beauty and The Ice Storm, dark movies about American dysfunction that don’t really get made anymore. It also reminded me a bit of Mysterious Skin, in the sense that the book was really beautiful, haunting, and poetically written. It really moved me.
Whether it’s L.A. or suburban California (as in White Bird), your films offer these fever-dream renditions of the Golden State. How much of that is a reflection of your own upbringing in Santa Barbara?
I set [White Bird] where I did—in Loma Linda—because of that. I wanted it to be close to Los Angeles, but not too close. I didn’t want the kids growing up in Hollywood and going to clubs all the time. Just like the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character from Mysterious Skin, I wanted to echo my own adolescence, that feeling of entrapment in a small town, of feeling so bored and frustrated in a California suburb. That restlessness is such an important feeling; being young and stuck somewhere where you probably won’t get in too much trouble before you can handle it. That California suburb is the tragic environment of White Bird.
Talking about entrapment, Eva Green is phenomenal as the tragic, emotionally volatile mother longing for a more exciting life. It’s a significant departure from what we’ve seen from her.
I’ve been a huge fan of hers since The Dreamers. When we were casting the part of Eve, we had this dilemma: Eva in the movie ages from her thirties to her forties, so we needed an actor who could do both. We thought of going with an older actress and making her younger with make-up and effects, but I was so excited to work with Eva that we figured out a way to make the age thing work. She’s this gorgeous femme fatale, so for her to play this sad character was one of the huge delights of the film.
In White Bird, the friends played by Shailene Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato one-up each other in witty banter and snark—two Araki trademarks. What is it about teen lingo that’s always fascinated you?
I’m not sure where it comes from. I’ve always been interested in slang and the creative ways in which people talk to each other. That’s the thing I changed most from the book. Kat’s friends were originally two white girls, whereas one is now a gay boy and both are non-white. Shai and I had a lot of conversations about Winona Ryder and how she would have been a huge influence on a character like Kat, because it was around the time of Beetlejuice and Heathers. That’s the world I saw Kat in: an alternative, New Wave girl who’s an outsider at school but forms a very strong bond with her friends. That’s of course a running theme in almost all my movies, especially The Doom Generation, Nowhere and Totally Fucked Up.
You’ve always made it a point to include minority characters while not drawing attention to their ‘Otherness’ in your films. America’s come a long way since your AIDS-themed road movie The Living End (1992), which certain theatres refused to carry. What do you make of how depictions of minority and queer characters have evolved?
I think things have really changed. When I was younger, back when we made The Living End, the idea that gay marriage would become this big social issue—that we’d reach this tipping point where over half the country would support gay marriage—was unthinkable. It’s changed so quickly. That’s a real cause for optimism.
You describe indie filmmaking as a struggle and you would know given that you made your first feature, Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987), on a $5,000 budget. Would you still describe filmmaking as a struggle?
The challenges are different, but it’s still a struggle. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that felt luxurious; indie filmmaking is always a challenge. Obviously, we got super lucky with White Bird in terms of casting, because as you say, I’m more of a known filmmaker now. Shailene, for instance, was a big fan of Mysterious Skin and really wanted to work with me. That helps a lot.
You also got great input in the music department, with Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and avant-garde composer Harold Budd contributing an atmospheric score. As always, the music cues in White Bird are pivotal to the unfolding story. When writing scenes, do you already have the songs in mind?
Absolutely. I really wanted to include the artists that were huge influences when I was an artist coming of age. When writing the film, I had a White Bird playlist in my computer and I would listen to this very specific set of a couple hundred songs; most of the songs are included in the script. For this movie, it was really cool to pay homage to the artists who were so instrumental to my creative adolescence. We had Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, Cocteau Twins – basically, all of my idols of that period.
There’s a dreamy, otherworldly mood that has always permeated your work. What draws you to flirting with the supernatural?
For one, David Lynch has always been a huge influence on all of my movies, from The Living End onwards. The sci-fi elements are really about [creating] a reality that’s more of a meta-reality. I’m not interested in documentary or everyday reality. Even in White Bird, which is set in this mundane, middle-class suburbia, it might not have the stylized, sci-fi craziness of Kaboom or Nowhere, but I’m still looking for a certain kind of formal beauty, this dreaminess and mood. Mysterious Skin is the same—taking the ordinary and making it meta-ordinary.