Pervert. Pornographer. Pedophile. Larry Clark has been tagged with many unsavory sobriquets since his in-your-face debut in 1995 with Kids, a film that ignited lots of anxious adult conversation and talk-show sermonizing about drugs, parenting, AIDS, family dysfunction, and juvie sex habits. Scripted by then-unknown enfant terrible Harmony Korine, Kids depicted a day in the life of morally blunted skater punk Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who roams New York City with a boarding buddy getting high, chugging brewskis, and deflowering “young baby girls” while an HIV-positive ex-conquest (Chloë Sevigny) tries to hunt him down before he contaminates another nubie. As a raw, quasi-documentary exposé of the wayward morals of today’s youth, Kids was, at least to some hand-wringers, a potent wake-up call: The kids are not all right. And they’re screwing! Yet many were unnerved by the film’s nihilism, too, and wondered if all the gratuitous fondling and dead-end teenie sex talk made the middle-aged filmmaker complicit in his lurid depictions of underage excess.
Questions about Clark’s character have never really gone away. Despite the accusations of voyeuristic exploitation, Clark has always crabbily maintained his status as an artist, an outsider whose films align in a thematic continuum with his equally provocative photography. In his landmark 1971 photo collection, Tulsa, Clark aestheticized the gritty, back-alley depravity of Oklahoma’s druggie subculture in a series of coolly iconic black-and-white images echoed in the early cinema of both Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant. His 1983 follow-up, Teenage Lust, offered more of the same: young dopers, post-coital idlers, hard-luck cases in repose, and one scantily clad lad monkeying around with a handgun. Without a doubt, Clark enjoys ruffling feathers and riling social hang-ups with his caressive bod-cam shots of lithe young flesh and shocking depictions of fringe-world behavior. After the furor over Kids, Clark’s dark, rollicking Another Day in Paradise (1997), a semi-autobiographical film about two renegade addict couples, positioned him as a more conventional film artist, but a peek-a-boo crotch shot in his brutal, high-school true-crime thriller Bully landed him in hot water with star Bijou Phillips. Then came the ill-fated Ken Park, scripted by Korine and co-directed by Ed Lachman, with its spiky-haired-waif-boy-on-MILF cunnilingus and one prolonged, hilariously distasteful scene of autoerotic asphyxiation. No wonder the French love him!
But the question still nags: Is Clark an old chickenhawk or a canny purveyor of low-rent erotic images? He seemed to satirize that puzzle himself with his ludicrously tasteless, flesh-and-gore remake of Roger Corman’s Teenage Caveman, produced by trash-schlock king Samuel Z. Arkoff for Cinemax. (Tagline: “The future sucks.” And how!) Either way, Clark’s abiding subject is clearly the mannerisms of urban youth: how they speak and dress, how they behave, how they view the world, and yes, how they fuck. Occasionally, like Paul Verhoeven, he makes a vital movie from his recurrent motifs of sex and violence. Wassup Rockers, which tails a rambunctious crew of Latino skater kids on a slapstick adventure from their South Central L.A. ghetto into the frilly bedroom of a Beverly Hills hottie, was a departure of sorts for Clark, and earned mixed notices on its release. Yet before it devolves into an absurdist romp, there are moments of pure charm, and the opening split-screen docu-homage to pubescent skater Jonathan Velasquez, Clark’s ready-made star, has the touching quality of a religious diptych. Wassup Rockers may not rock as hard as its youthfully yowling hardcore soundtrack, but it does offer a window into the woof and warp of Clark’s unapologetic kid-mania.
Since Clark’s never really out of fashion, as a March photo exhibit at London’s Simon Lee Gallery (one of many in recent years) attests, it seemed like a good time to revisit a memorably colorful conversation I had with the old troublemaker and eternal adolescent on the eve of Wassup Rockers‘ theatrical release in 2006. I spoke with Clark about his method of working with young actors, his disreputable obsessions, and his checkered past as an artist with an intimate knowledge of his sometimes sordid subject matter.
Not long ago, you said you wanted to make a film about ethnic kids growing up in America. Did that idea morph somehow into Wassup Rockers (below, Clark and Jonathan Velasquez)?
That film is called American Girl from Texas, written by Tiffany Limos, my actor from Ken Park, about growing up in racist Texas. But the interesting thing is, I was with Tiffany when I met Porky and Kiko. Ken Park was opening in Paris, and a French magazine asked her to make some photographs. I didn’t want to do it, but it was going to be good press for the film. So these two French ladies flew in from Paris, and Tiff and I went out to L.A. I was going to photograph her with some of the kids from Ken Park. They weren’t around, so I said, We’ll find some skate kids. We went down to Venice and we met Porky and Kiko, who looked different, and a little out of place there. They were skaters, but they were wearing really tight clothes, they had long hair, their skateboards were shabby, and their shoes were falling apart. They taped them up and painted their shoes with spray paint. They had style, you know? So we started talking to them, and they said they were from South Central. They ended up taking us out to South Central, where we met Kiko’s brother, Carlos, and Jonathan and his brother Eddie. We took them all over L.A. and Hollywood for four days, photographing for this magazine. When the magazine came out, they gave us 23 pages, and they did a second cover with Jonathan, this little man-child with a moustache. All the women fell in love with this kid. So I took the magazine back to the kids, and their parents were amazed. And the kids wanted to go skating again. I took them skating every Saturday for over a year. I was always dependable, I’d always show up. I’d take them all over L.A., feed them, and bring them home. And by doing that, we really got to know each other well.
The film begins with a documentary video I made of Jonathan right around the time of this magazine shoot. And he’s telling stories about his life and his friends. Then the movie starts, and we recreate these stories for the first half of the film, which is about their life in South Central. It’s really based on their stories; it’s all things that happened. But since I was taking them out every Saturday and all around, they would talk about how white people acted different than people in the ghetto – which they really do, I can see this. [Laughs] We would go to restaurants, and they would comment on the way people ate and the way people acted, because out in South Central there are no restaurants where you can sit down. You go into a joint and they put the food through a slot in the bullet-proof glass or whatever it is. So the first time we went into a restaurant, they wondered why we didn’t have to go get our food ourselves and pay in front. They had never seen that before, so it was interesting. I wanted not to keep the film in South Central, which would have been expected of me, but I knew how the film was going to end and I wanted to take them out and have them interact with white people, which is what we’d been doing. So one day, I started having fun and I said, What if Paris and Nikki Hilton drove by and saw Jonathan and Kiko and thought they were hot, put them in their convertible, and drove them up to Beverly Hills? And then the boyfriends came and someone called the cops? And if there was a fight, and they jumped over a fence, who would they find in a backyard of Beverly Hills? So it was just a stream of consciousness one afternoon, when I sketched out this story. And I’m mixing genres like crazy: We’re going from documentary to recreating real stories to action/chase/adventure/comedy/slapstick. I’m just having fun.
Wassup Rockers is markedly different from Kids or Bully or Ken Park because of the goofy humor, certainly, but also in the fact that there is less visible flesh – and less overt sex. Was that deliberate, to make it more accessible?
It was actually very organic to the way I met these kids. I wanted you to see these kids because you’ve never seen them represented in films. They’re young, 13, 14, 15-year-old kids, and there’s certain things that aren’t appropriate to do: full-frontal nudity. But there is sex there. There’s a scene where Jonathan and a Beverly Hills girl [played by Jessica Steinbaum] kind of attack each other, and it was up to me to figure out how to do this and make it just as hot without you really seeing anything. And so I came up with those lines [of dialogue]. There’s no dirty words, but mentally you visualize what’s going on, and it’s probably better than showing it. It’s kind of old school. So it was interesting for me as an artist to figure out how to do that. And I think it’s very successful. It used to be that in the movies, after sex, everyone smokes a cigarette. But these kids eat candy. Actually, I figured that out one day. I went over to Jonathan’s house after school, and no one was home except Jonathan and his girlfriend. They were in the bedroom, and I went in. He had his shirt off, and his hair was wet like he’d just taken a shower, and his girlfriend was dressed, but her hair was wet like she’d just taken a shower, and they had all this candy lined up across the bed – like 12 different types – big lollipops, jawbreakers, sour candy. And both of them were eating candy like crazy. I thought, if I want to suggest sex, I can do this thing where they eat candy. I observe these kids, and I know how they walk, how they talk, how they act. So when they’re acting, if they do something that doesn’t ring true for me, I can tell them what to do. When I did Kids, I knew the kids a couple of years before we got to make the movie, and in this case, I knew the kids for a year and a half. So when people say, Well, how can you take kids off the streets and turn them into such good actors?, it’s a long process. They have to get to know me, too, so they can really trust me.
You met these skaters at Venice Beach, and they’re not actors, so why not make a documentary about their lives? Why did you feel compelled to write a story?
I’m not so interested in making documentaries. I want to make feature films. And I don’t think anybody wants to see docs. [Laughs] But actually, when I first met these kids, I said I think this would make a great documentary.
That’s interesting, because as a photographer, you were an avid documentarist of the drug and youth subculture in Oklahoma.
Well, my early work as a photographer was straight documentary. But I think it was successful because it had a fictive quality. People would [see it and] say, How was he able to do that? Is it set up? And I think that’s because when I was a kid, I used to see film noir with the dramatic lighting and shadows and all that. Photography back then was about light and feeling, and I recognized how light could be used for drama. You could be sitting in your chair, and if the light is hitting you in the right way, it’s so dramatic. When I was photographing my friends, I was looking for that. And I kind of made them look like movie stars. The Tulsa book is laid out like a film. So when I started making films, I’m doing fiction, but there’s this documentary quality to it. I just turned it around.
When you worked on Kids, you improvised a lot on set, and you often used two cameras to achieve a sense of spontaneity. You employed some of those same techniques for Wassup Rockers, too. How did that help or hurt you?
Kids was a scripted film, and I made the kids say the lines. The only improv is the four boys on the couch during the party scene. In Wassup Rockers, in the first chapter of the film, there’s a lot of improv, but they’re telling stories that I wanted them to tell. For example, Kiko and Nikki are in the bed (right), which is a wonderful scene when they are talking. That scene is eight minutes. And in the screenplay, I just wrote “Kiko and Nikki sit on the bed and talk,” because I knew these stories that Kiko had told me in private moments, after I got to know him really well. He was a really shy kid, and it took about eight months. And finally, we were alone one day and his mother was out. Kiko had twisted his ankle, so we were sitting at his house talking. And I’m asking questions and he’s telling me about South Central and his life and what it’s like for him, and I wanted him to do this scene in the film. So my job was to get him into a position where he’s comfortable enough to do this. And I actually asked him to do it on the day we were shooting. I took the young actress who was 14, a schoolgirl who was taking acting classes, Jessica Steinbaum, a terrific young actress, and I said, “He’s going to tell you about his life, and I want you to ask him certain questions.” We started the scene and they’re looking all over the place. So we stopped again and I made them lock eyes. That was the trick, and they really got into it. And he’s telling her his real-life stories for the first time. He’s not making anything up, and she’s really interested, going “Wow, what?” And it’s just a magical scene.
In a lot of scenes when the kids are talking about themselves and their personal lives, I wouldn’t presume to write that out. It was just getting them into position, like Jonathan telling the story about his “first time.” He had told me those stories, but not in that kind of detail. He said it was really weird, and he told me some of the things that happened, but not with that kind of detail. So we’re going to shoot that scene the next day, and I told him that evening as we quit, “Tomorrow, I want you to tell the story about your first time to Milton.” I said, “When you go home tonight, and you go to bed, I want you to lay in bed in the dark and I want you to relive that time, every moment, in real time, everything that happened.” He’s remembered all this detail. For me it was like, “How do I manipulate this kid so he can do this and he’s comfortable?” which is all part of directing.
There was some mention in the press notes about how difficult it was for you to corral this group of kids and get them to perform. What was the problem?
It was impossible. Their process was to be themselves the whole time, which was to be these wild kids, having fun all the time. I wanted that to come across in the film, which it does. But the discipline for making films is the actors sit there and shut up, and you set everything up, and they show up and do it. This isn’t what was happening with these kids. They couldn’t do that. Plus, I’d taken them out of their environment, and all of a sudden they’re the center of attention, the spotlight’s on them, they have to perform, and I didn’t want any pressure on them – like the pressure of learning lines and having to sweat stuff. So most of the scenes we would talk about on the day [of the shoot] or the day before. It made the crew crazy, because they’re ready to go and we’re under time constraints constantly, and the kids are playing jokes and hiding. They’d all show up, and one would be hiding and they’re laughing. They nicknamed everyone in the crew, using nicknames the crew didn’t like, you know, and then they’d just say it over and over and over again like kids. But it was interesting to me to see how they dealt with all this, how they handled it. And how they handled it was they stayed together as a group, and everyone else was a prop. We were all props, and they were themselves. But it was difficult, and I kind of lost my crew at one point, just dragging them along saying, “Can anybody help me?” Somehow, we got it done.
What did the kids’ parents make of you taking them out, driving them around?
They got to know me and saw that I was okay, and that I was taking the kids skating every Saturday. The kids had seen the film Kids, and then they saw Bully, Another Day in Paradise, and I showed them my Tulsa book, so it was kind of a calling card. They could see what I was trying to do with it, and all kids love the Kids movie, it just lives on and on. Every generation sees it. I was in a skate park with the kids a few weeks ago, and this little 15-year-old came up to me and said, “Are you sponsoring these kids?” And I said, “No, I’m a filmmaker and we just made a film.” He said, “What other films have you made?” And I said, “Well, I made a film called Kids, have you heard of it?” And he looked at me and said, “Everyone’s heard of it.” The parents liked me. If it wasn’t cool, you couldn’t get within a mile of these kids.
Has being a parent of teens yourself changed the way you observe teen culture or portray their lifestyle?
Yeah. When I made my first film, my son was 12, and I wanted to do a film about contemporary teenagers, which I didn’t really know about. It turned out to be this secret world of kids that adults aren’t allowed into, but I was allowed in, just by hanging out and wanting to do this. Then I wondered why I wanted to [laughs], because it’s so hard. My daughter was nine when I made Kids, but when they were young and growing up, you saw everything they were exposed to at such an early age. When I was a kid, no one knew nothing – no one told you nothing: “Shut up, kid!” Information was hard to come by. And now everything is at your fingertips with the Internet and all that, and kids see stuff on regular TV that’s shocking to you as a parent. It seemed that innocence was lost so much earlier. But having said that, kids are okay, they deal with it, it’s their world. I was curious about what was going on, so yeah, having kids is what changed everything.
Do you ever think that your portrayal of teen sexuality is narrow? Why not make a film about kids in the Bible belt growing up in traditional families?
Maybe I will. [Smiles] You know, when I started I said, Well, what kids do I want to explore? And it was the skateboard culture, because visually it was so exciting. Skateboarders were interesting, too, because back then they were treated like outlaws. Everyone was afraid of them because they had this freedom. They’re free, no one can pin them down, and it makes adults uneasy and it makes cops nervous. It’s kind of like, if you look at the whole body of work, it’s kids growing up in different environments and different situations through the years. It’s one big body of work now. It’s my turf and if someone else did it, I wouldn’t have to.
You told an interviewer once that you wanted to make the great teenage American movie. Do you think you’ve done that?
Well, I think Kids was that movie, which was also a reaction to all the films I’d seen growing up, where all the actors were much older than the kids they were portraying, and a lot of bullshit. I wanted to make a film that kids could look at and say, Well, at least this ain’t BS. Maybe it’s not me, but it’s not BS, it feels right. So I was fortunate I was able to make that film right away. And Bully was because the producer offered me the script. After I made Kids, people offered me scripts that were bad. I got every script about kids you could imagine. Then this producer, Don Murphy, sent me the Bully book, which was a true-crime novel. A real story.
Have your artistic goals changed at all over the years?
Well, I’m a storyteller, trying to make films about stories that aren’t told, or not that often. All my films are different, I think. I just try to make a good film and not get in a place where I’m doing stuff I don’t want to do. I was talking to an old girlfriend of mine from art-school days, who I hadn’t seen in 40 years, and just out of the blue, she called me and said, “What have been you been doing?” And I said, “At least I haven’t sold out.” She said, “Well, you don’t hear that expression anymore.” And that’s true, you don’t hear that anymore, it’s not part of the vocabulary. I haven’t just taken the money to make dumb movies. It’s tempting at times, but that’s not what I do. I’ve been a visual artist all these years, and that’s the only way I can work. I can only make a film if I have final cut. I couldn’t do it otherwise. I couldn’t work knowing they could change my movie. These little indie movies I make, even though they’re successful, they’re hard to get financed. To try to pitch a film like this about these Latino kids I met from the ghetto, who had never acted before – I want to tell this story and take them on this adventure – and they’re just thinking “market”: Who wants to see Latinos? Who wants to see these kids? So it’s hard, you know; you really have to want to do it.
Are there any looming figures whose visual work has influenced you or made a big impact on your filmmaking style?
Back when I was young, I was probably taken with W. Eugene Smith’s work, in the beginning, and he used light in a very dramatic fashion. He shot against the light a lot, which really wasn’t the way it was taught back then. Filmwise, I saw Cassavetes’ Shadows when I was about 19, and being this real raw kid from Oklahoma who had grown up on Hollywood movies, I’d never seen anything like that. It was very much like the way I saw, and I was amazed by that film. So that inspired me a lot. And Cassavetes’ films through the years, too. When I made Kids, I had Eric Edwards, the DP, watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie like 50 times [laughs], and certain scenes from other films, like the Elaine May film Mikey and Nicky. She was actually doing Cassavetes, using his actors, and there’s a scene where they walk into a bar and the light just keeps changing, and they go into these shadows by the jukebox. It’s just so real, and I’m always trying to make it real. The light has to come from the correct place. You see these Hollywood movies where people are in a closet with hair lights following them around, and you go, Wait a minute, what’s going on? Steve Gainer was terrific. On Bully, he was fantastic. This film was a little rougher to do, but somehow it worked out. When I saw the film, I said, man, this thing is funky. It’s interesting that most filmmakers kind of start out that way, and their films get slicker and slicker until you really can’t recognize them anymore. Mine seem to be going the other way, which I like, because it does work. And the editor, Alex Blatt, did a terrific job because we had a lot to go through.
What do you find endlessly fascinating and beautiful about observing youth over and over again?
Well, for me it was a traumatic part of my life, and I think that things that happen to us then, in a lot of cases, dictate what we’re like as adults. I’ve known people who I grew up with where things happened at that age that just fucked them up for their whole life, you know? They never got past it. It took me a long time to get past things that happened to me when I was a kid. And I started taking drugs very early – I was barely 16. This was back in the ’50s. It was a secret life, and there weren’t that many people doing it. We were kind of pioneers of the drug experience. By the time the ’60s came and everybody was taking drugs, and drugs were the answer, I already knew it was bullshit. It sucked, it was no good. And when my first book, Tulsa, came out in ’71 – which was the time when drugs were hitting Middle America – kids were all smoking pot and taking acid and starting to do harder drugs. So when the book came out, it was shocking to people because it documented what happens from beginning to end, in a ten-year period. And America was only halfway through it, so the second half of the book showed what was going to happen. I just find it such an important time of our lives. It was interesting to me – and it still is, obviously – how we grow up in different environments. I’m not Latino, I wasn’t born in the ghetto, I didn’t grow up in the kind of environment where you could be shot at any moment. And as I said, it’s my territory now. As far as the culture goes, everything is on the backs of kids. Open any magazine, it’s all naked kids or half-naked kids, selling clothes, sunglasses, food – selling everything. The culture is totally into that, and kids seem to think that everyone’s going to be a millionaire when they’re 21 years old – it’s just expected. Everyone is in for a big shock, especially since Bush is putting everybody in hock with a war that these kids’ grandkids are going to be paying for. And there’s so much information. Any question you have about history or what’s going on, you just Google it, and that’s amazing. So it’s interesting.
How do you respond to people who accuse you of contributing to the exploitative nature of the images of youth that surround us?
I don’t pay any attention. It’s ridiculous. That’s not what I’m doing at all, I’m showing a reality, and I’m showing what’s really going on. I’m a visual artist and a storyteller.
So what, to your mind, differentiates what you’re doing from pervy ads of, as you said, half-naked kids in these glossy magazines?
They’re selling fucking clothes. I’m making films, I’m trying to make art. I’m not being pretentious: I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m not making much money on this at all. I’ve been working on Wassup Rockers – it’s been three years now, since I met these kids. [Fidgeting, annoyed] Anyway.
What kind of film do you think you’re going to be making next?
I have a few irons in the fire, but it’s up to the producers to find the money. They’re trying to raise financing for three films now. And having said that, I always like to have something else ready, too. So I’m working with a writer, a guy named Evan Weiner here in New York. And I have a great idea for a story, and we’re writing it now, which will star Jonathan and Kiko because they’re so good in this film. They wouldn’t be playing themselves, they’d be playing characters. And Henry Winterstern, who financed and produced Wassup Rockers, and then bought FirstLook Studios and distributed the film, he’ll produce this next film. The working title is Wild Child. So hopefully I can make that at the end of this year [Ed. note: This film has not been made at this writing.].
Will it be set in South Central?[Big can’t-tell-you smile] I don’t want to say. It’s too good of an idea and it’s early, we’re working on it.
So you’ll stay in touch with Kiko, Jonathan, and the others?
I’m not the kind of guy who will just use them and then walk away. I worry about them all the time like my own kids, because they live in such a dangerous environment. Jonathan has had his phone jacked in the last three months – you know, gang-bangers just take it. What are you going to do if some big ‘ol black dude is carrying a gun? These kids have to be aware and fight all the time, but I’m in for the long haul, I’m in for the duration. These kids are going to be well-known after this film comes out, and I want to make sure they get everything they can out of this. Wassup Rockers explores or identifies a little bit the racial politics of the ghetto, which you wouldn’t know about unless you were there, because no white people go to South Central. These kids are first-generation Americans, but their parents are immigrants, so that’s always up front, the illegal-alien issue in the ghetto. I’m hoping that this film might make people more aware of it. It’s not all guns and shooting. They’re salt of the earth, it’s really the truth. They’re really living life in the moment, in the present, which kids tend to do. These kids seemed to be more in the present than anybody, and I wonder if it’s because of the dangerous environment, where they can disappear like smoke. [Smiles] That’s a Dylan line.
Speaking of disappearing, you’ve had your own struggles over the years with drugs and friends dying from their addiction. Are you on the other side of that?
Oh yeah, I’ve been bounced back. I’ve been in good shape for many years now, I feel good. And if I wasn’t, I couldn’t make a film. It takes so much energy and so much focus and everyone knows my story. They’re watching me anyway.