Gregg Araki “It’s about a victim of the patriarchy in the sense that she fell into this life that was not hers, but that society chose for her.”

Filmmaker Gregg Araki rose to prominence as a key figure in the New Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s and early 90s with his breakout feature The Living End, a road movie for the disenchanted, HIV positive youth with guns. He billed it as “irresponsible.” He followed that up with the Teenage Apocalypse trilogy, movies with sexual orientations (“A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki”), Jean Luc-Godard in intellect, Jackson Pollock in visuals and attitude. His films act as critiques of social mores, other films, music; they’re sarcastic and rude and brash and loud and beautiful.

His career took an unexpected turn in 2004 with Mysterious Skin, a movie that announced to the world a few things: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not just that kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Araki can create something serious and affecting and not so rude and brash and loud if he wants to. It was a tremendously sad movie about two young men who had played little league together and ended up on opposite sides of life, one a hustler and the other terrified to do anything because of his memories of being abducted by aliens. He has since made a stoner comedy (Smiley Face) and what seems to be an homage to his earlier self (the sarcastic, loud, amazing Ka-Boom).

White Bird in a Blizzard, his latest, is a straight drama, coming exactly a decade after Mysterious Skin, its closest relative in his filmography. It stars Eva Green as a woman who goes missing, seemingly without reason, and Shailene Woodley as her teenage daughter who is bewildered, emotionally out of touch, confused, and bored, trying to figure out what has happened to her mother and if there is anything inside of the cold shell that’s left of her father. Tiny Mix Tapes talked to Araki over the phone in advance of his latest film’s release.


I want to start off talking about music. Music has always been a big part of your movies, but White Bird in a Blizzard seemed a little different because so much was tied to Kat, the main character, playing in her headphones. What was it like choosing the music for this movie?

One of the reasons I wanted to make the movie is that I wanted to make a movie in this period. Obviously, I love the book and I found the book to be such a beautiful and haunting story. But the fact that it was set in the 80s was sort of a great bonus for me because I wanted to pay tribute to the music of that period, and these bands that, when I was coming of age as a filmmaker, were such a huge part of my own identity… And so that’s one of the things that I changed when I adapted the book: I made Kat and her friends those cool, outsider kids who would listen to this music. Because for me it was a big part of who they were.

I haven’t read the book; what was the character of Kat, and the characters of her friends, like in the book? What did you change?

She’s a similar character, but one of the changes was, in the scene where she meets Phil at the dance, it was actually like a school dance, or homecoming dance or something, and they were dancing to Journey or something. And for me, I really wanted to bring it a little closer to my own experience, so that’s why I moved it to that goth club, which is so much like the clubs I was in. I spent half of my twenties in clubs exactly like that, listening to that exact same music. The characters in the novel were still outsiders, and they had still formed that sort of family — it was in the book that they were the three musketeers and outside of the popular kids — but I added the other element of them being kind of “alternative” and having them listen to the cool music of the time and made them confident in themselves in the way that those kids always are, like, “We’re just cooler and smarter than other people.” And I think that was a really important part of their personalities.

What are you listening to lately? I don’t wanna put you too much on the spot, but you’ve mentioned that music is a huge influence on you, and in Ka-Boom there were references to Explosions in the Sky, and I was wondering what new bands and records you’ve been into.

I try to stay abreast of all the stuff that’s happening, and there’s a lot of really cool contemporary music. The stuff from the Ka-Boom soundtrack, I’m still listening to all of that stuff, like Ladytron and Interpol… It’s weird, though, because I do feel like, I guess that’s one of the reasons that White Bird in a Blizzard is so special is that new technology and iTunes and all of that, iPods and everything, it has changed music. In the day of White Bird, you know, it’s the late 80s; it was albums, it was records, it was liner notes. I can remember, at that time, you buy a new record and you go home and you listen to the whole record and you read the liner notes and everything else, and your relationship with music was different. Whereas, now it’s all downloaded music, and I tend to listen to music on shuffle. It’s interesting because everything is kind of together, so my iPod will just play Depeche Mode and then it’ll play Daft Punk or something more contemporary, and it’s cool because it all kind of fits… In a weird way, it’s very much like Coachella, it’s kind of a mixture of the old and the new and the relationships between the past and now, and it’s all coming from the same place but it’s from all these different eras.

The thing about directing, that cliche that it’s 90 percent casting: It really is. It’s finding these great actors, and they really do all of the work. They’re all super-serious artists, and they really are super-prepared, and their performances are theirs. I’m really just there to guide them a little bit… The performances are so special, but it’s almost like their gift to me.

One of the things about White Bird in a Blizzard that jumped out at me was that it was most similar to Mysterious Skin out of all the movies that you’ve made, not just in that it’s a straight drama, but in the structure of it, wherein your main characters in the movies are discovering things that, to some extent, the audience is aware of. Was that intentional? Did you see it as a companion piece when you were making it?

Of all of my movies, it’s closest to Mysterious Skin, and what you’re saying is true: Both movies are kind of a journey toward a mystery that is seemingly solved already. And also, both movies feature incredibly gorgeous scores by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. There are dreams and a lot of things like that. The biggest difference, to me, is, White Bird is really from a — and this is because of Laura Kasischke — it’s from a very feminist point of view. The world of White Bird is very steeped in a female point of view; it’s a young woman coming of age, and the story of Eve… To me, the Eve Conners character was a very tragic character, and a victim of the patriarchy in the sense that she fell into this life and became trapped by this life that was not hers, that it was not something that she chose for herself but that society chose for her. I think there’s that aspect to the film that’s definitely very different, but tonally, yeah… It’s very serious, very quote-unquote mature, as opposed to a movie like Ka-Boom, which was much more anarchic and crazy. It definitely has that quality to it.

The other thing that’s really similar about them is they’re both novel adaptations, and I was wondering if you drew from the experience of adapting a novel from Mysterious Skin in doing this, or if it was a completely different experience.

It was very similar in that, having done Mysterious Skin, I knew I could do a novel adaptation, and that I enjoyed doing it. It’s a different type of writing than it is doing an original script in the sense that, in a way I find it much easier, because it’s, to me, a bit more like editing, in the sense that you’re taking a large amount of material and distilling it, cutting stuff out and forming connective tissue and synthesizing all of these elements into a more unified whole. That aspect of it I found to be similar to Mysterious Skin. But obviously the books are really different. I get sent a lot of books and a lot of scripts, and it’s really finding those voices, like Laura’s, that harmonize with my own voice. It wouldn’t be possible for me to do a book adaptation of somebody that was from a completely different place, because I don’t feel like it would fit with my own sensibility.

How did you get the novel? Was it given to you or did you find it?

The novel was actually brought to me by my French producers. I’ve made four movies with this company called Why Not Productions in France, and we had been looking for a project — we did Ka-Boom together, and Doom Generation and Nowhere — and we were looking for a project to do together and they had optioned the rights to this book and asked me if I’d take a look at it.

When you were reading it, what was it about it that made you think that you wanted to make it or that you’d be the best person to do it?

It was really just such a beautiful story; it was so beautifully written, and it reminded me of Mysterious Skin in the sense that it was written in this very poetic, very lyrical language that I knew that… I wanted to take the beauty of the way that Laura uses words and translate that into cinematic images. And it really was a book that I could see in my mind when I was reading it. And I found the story incredibly moving and haunting, and it really stayed with me. When I read it, I really kinda fell in love with it.

[Adapting a book into a screenplay is] a different type of writing than it is doing an original script in the sense that, in a way I find it much easier, because it’s, to me, a bit more like editing, in the sense that you’re taking a large amount of material and distilling it, cutting stuff out and forming connective tissue and synthesizing all of these elements into a more unified whole.

This movie has an amazing cast. Everybody is so perfect in their roles. But, at the same time, your movies seem to have a kind of continuity in performances. You get actors to read lines in this way that sounds very much like you. Even though you’re adapting a novel, it very much sounds like one of your movies — they’re very identifiable. I was wondering if you could talk about the way you go about working with actors and the way you go about casting roles a little bit.

The cast is one of the most incredible casts I’ve ever worked with. I really felt so… I mean, Shailene is obviously… [laughs] extraordinary and super special and unique, and we happened to catch her at just the right time: she did Divergent and Fault in Our Stars right after our movie, and by the time we were editing the movie, she became this international movie star, but she’s so special and so incredibly talented. And I’ve been a huge fan of Eva Green’s forever, since The Dreamers, and everybody in the movie…Gabby [Sidibe], and Chris Meloni, and Shiloh [Fernandez], Sheryl Lee from the David Lynch movies… It’s really just such an incredible ensemble, and I felt so humbled on the set everyday to get to work with these amazing actors. The thing about directing, that cliche that it’s 90 percent casting: It really is. It’s finding these great actors, and they really do all of the work. They’re all super-serious artists, and they really are super-prepared, and their performances are theirs. I’m really just there to guide them a little bit, and sort of get them into the framework of the visual design of the movie, but the performances are so special, but it’s almost like their gift to me. I feel like they brought all of that to the film, and I’m so grateful for it, because the movie is so much about those performances and it obviously could not exist without them.

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