Like how your favorite album is there for you in your time of need, the work of filmmaker Gregg Araki makes those who feel different feel a little less alone. Not to mention, all his films have the best soundtracks.
Without further ado... an interview with the iconic, boundary-breaking, Gregg Araki - who has one of the coolest music tastes ever. I'm sure you can guess what my first question will be.
Synth History: Your films have some of the best soundtracks and feature artists like Slowdive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers, Talking Heads, Ladytron and more.
Gregg Araki: Basically everybody (laughs).
Synth History: How did you come to appreciate such awesome music?
Gregg Araki: I grew up at the exact right time. I lived a very charmed life. When I was in undergraduate college and late high school, it was right when Punk, New Wave, Post-punk and all that was happening. When you're in your late teens, early 20s and at your most formative, it’s a time when your personality and your sensibility and your worldview is all being shaped, at that moment. I just happened to come of age at just the right time.
So when I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara studying film, I would see every cool New Wave band - Talking Heads, B-52s, Romeo Void, I saw X about eight thousand times. My production company is actually named Desperate Pictures for that X song, “We’re Desperate”. Santa Barbara is weird to think about because, it's just Santa Barbara, but everybody went through there - The Pretenders, Bow Wow Wow, The Clash, like everybody. Sex Pistols didn't because they didn't make it that long. But yeah, I just saw everybody.
Music is my life. It's literally my inspiration. I listen to music every day, from the minute I wake up ‘til the minute I go to bed. It's just a part of my life. It's always been my main source of inspiration and it's where my voice comes from, which is why I wanted to do this interview since this website seems to be very music oriented.
Synth History: Do you usually have your soundtrack choices picked out in pre-production or do you decide that after you've shot?
Gregg Araki: Sometimes the songs are actually in the script. For Doom Generation in particular, if you read the script at page one it says: ‘The soundtrack for this movie is going to be a double album composed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.’ (Laughs) We didn't get that, but we did get a Nine Inch Nails song to kick the movie off. I always call Doom Generation my sort of Nine Inch Nails movie. I was very into industrial music. The early 90s were my Industrial Age. Nine Inch Nails, all that Wax Trax! stuff like Front 242 and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Nitzer Ebb- I was a super Nitzer Ebb fan. All of that stuff was very much a part of my life at that point. That’s why Doom Generation out of all my films is probably the most angry, kind of violent movie because of all the mosh pits I was in around that time.
Synth History: Do you ever play music on set - play music for your actors to get them into character?
Gregg Araki: I barely remember this - this was the 90s so it was the good old days (laughs), but I remember for Doom Generation, Jonathan [Schaech] told me I made a cassette for him of music for his character, and Craig Gilmore from The Living End also said I made a cassette for him. It was really the music that was sort of in heavy rotation when I was writing the scripts, you know, it’s part of the formulation of characters. When I did Mysterious Skin in 2003-2004, based on Scott Heim’s novel, one of the reasons why Scott Heim’s voice and my voice are so, sort of, in-sync or in harmony, is because he's also a huge Slowdive fan and a huge Cocteau Twins fan - would listen to Slowdive while he was writing that book. It's why the sensibilities are so similar.
Synth History: For Mysterious Skin and White Bird in a Blizzard, you worked with Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, co-founder of the Cocteau Twins.
Gregg Araki: The legend.
Synth History: How did you meet and what was the process like working with them?
Gregg Araki: Robin actually also did music for my Starz show, Now Apocalypse in 2019. So he and I have worked together on a lot of things. He's a genius and obviously amazing. I’m trying to remember. I think we just reached out to him when we were doing Mysterious Skin. I had listened to so much Cocteau Twins throughout the years and when we were doing Mysterious Skin we just reached out to him and Harold because of The Moon and the Melodies album that they had done together. And actually, I think what had happened was I put some of The Moon and the Melodies in the movie as a temp soundtrack. Then, we reached out to them and shockingly, they said yes! I mean, we didn't have much of a budget and it wasn't a glamorous job. They were just brilliant artistic geniuses. I mean, I remember watching Harold compose something once and it was literally just like, he sits at piano and it just kind of comes out of him. It was incredible to get this music out of them. One of my proudest achievements is the Mysterious Skin score - soundtrack album. It's just such a beautiful, beautiful record and the idea that this beautiful record would not exist if it wasn't for Mysterious Skin is so gratifying. I just always loved the music so much. That record in particular, and The White Bird [in a Blizzard] soundtrack, too, is fucking incredible. I’m just so blessed to have even gotten the chance to work with them.
Synth History: Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere have been dubbed The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy. What were some of your main inspirations behind these films?
Gregg Araki: I'm actually super, super excited about The Teen Apocalypse trilogy because we just remastered Doom Generation. It’s playing in a bunch of theaters all across the US. It’s playing in more theaters now than when Doom Generation played back in 1995. We’re remastering Nowhere next, which is something that I get asked about all the time because Nowhere was never released on DVD in the US. Both movies have this kind of massive cult following. In the fall, we're actually going to screen all three movies: Totally F***ed Up, Doom Generation and the restoration of Nowhere at The Academy here in LA. So I'm really, really excited about it. I can't wait.
Synth History: That's so cool. I just saw Doom Generation at the Los Feliz 3!
Gregg Araki: Oh cool! Were you there the night that we were there?
Synth History: That screening was already sold out, sadly.
Gregg Araki: Yeah, Jimmy [Duval] and I showed up to do a little Q & A at that first screening and it was amazing. That screening sold out so fast. We’re doing another Q & A actually at the Nuart on May 12th. But yeah, that theater was amazing and the audience was crazy. It was incredible. Such a fun night.
The way the Teen Apocalypse trilogy came about was because I had made Totally F***ed Up, it was supposed to just be that one-off movie. Totally F***ed Up is very much inspired by this Godard movie called Masculine Feminine. It’s basically an LGBT version of Masculine and Feminine, about young gay and lesbian kids in LA. It was the experience of making that movie. It was being around them and hanging out with them.
It’s where I met Jimmy [Duval], it was the first movie we did together. The cast were all like, 18 and 19 years old when we made it, and it took six months to shoot. It wasn't like a real movie, we were shooting on weekends, or, you know, “What are you doing next Wednesday?” That kind of thing (laughs). It was the experience of hanging out with those kids and learning about them and really getting a sense of what they were thinking and how they were feeling and how they were living, that sort of inspired me to do the trilogy. And so I wrote Nowhere and Doom Generation after that, and then I put Jimmy in the middle of all three movies, he plays different characters in all three. That was the main inspiration behind it.
Synth History: Is there any story behind James Duval's Ministry shirt in The Doom Generation, and, throughout your filmography, what have been some of your favorite set pieces, wardrobe choices or props?
Gregg Araki: The Ministry shirt was actually my Ministry shirt.
Synth History: So cool!
Gregg Araki: There was a store called Vinyl Fetish on Melrose, a record store and they sold new wave paraphernalia stuff. I got so many of my shirts there. I used to have a Thrill Kill Kult shirt, a Nitzer Ebb shirt. The Ministry shirt was mine. The “I Blame Society” shirt that Jimmy [Duval] wears in Totally F***ed Up was mine.
The world of my movies is very, very personal and very much my world. My Movies are very much me. The This Mortal Coil box set that Amy Blue holds in the record store near the end of Doom Generation is mine. All that stuff is very, very autobiographical.
Synth History: I have a question that might be hard. If you could name three albums that you think everyone should listen to, at least once in their lifetime, what would they be?
Gregg Araki: So hard… I’m going to leave something out, I bet. Obviously I have to pick a Slowdive album. I'm gonna pick Just For a Day because Souvlaki is sort of considered their masterpiece. I love Just for a Day. I don't want to say I like it more than Souvlaki, but it's so underrated. It’s just so brilliant, so I'll pick that. I guess Blue Bell Knoll, by the Cocteau Twins. Like I said, I listen to music all the time. I guess in terms of what for me, was kind of a seminal, formative album that I used to listen to, literally every day, is Los Angeles by X. I used to listen to that album so many times. So, I’ll say those three, but there’s probably a billion more.
Synth History: Throughout your career, you've managed to create critically acclaimed films on a wide range of budgets, including projects for as little as $5k in the beginning. What's a piece of advice you can offer filmmakers or other creative people when it comes to overcoming budget constraints and do you think there are any benefits to working with limitations?
Gregg Araki: Yeah, absolutely I think that. I mean, that’s why I’ve done these movies for so long. One thing I remember, me and Rick Linkletter, he's a good friend of mine, were talking one day. When we started making movies back in the days of Slacker and Living End and all that, it was really, really hard to make a movie on 16mm. The equipment was really heavy, super cumbersome, like the sprocket holes would get torn off all the time. Making film on film was really hard. And now, the technology is so easy and so accessible. It’s really so much easier to make a film or video or whatever the art piece is, than it was back in the day. When we were, you know, when we were young (laughs). “You young whippersnappers don't know how easy…”
I mean, in terms of editing film versus editing digitally on a computer or whatever, it's a whole other world. So my thing about working on a limited budget is that I feel like when things start to get too large and too out of control, the more the thing costs, the more mainstream it has to be, like, if you're making a fucking Marvel movie, everybody has to like it or it’s a flop, you know what I mean? When you're making The Doom Generation, it can be very, very, very pure and creative and exactly what you want it to be. I always say, my movies aren't for everybody, but the people who get them, really get them. It really, really matters and it really, really resonates with them. Again, my whole life has been music and influenced by music and to me, it's very much like the Cocteau Twins. The Cocteau Twins aren't for everybody, but the people who like the Cocteau Twins really like the Cocteau Twins. That music really matters to them in a way that pop music doesn't matter. You know, it's like Friends. It’s, like, super popular, but it just doesn't seem like it has that level of meaningfulness to its audience.
Synth History: You're considered a pioneer in New Queer Cinema, often addressing themes like sexuality, queer identity and alienation. What impact do you hope your films have on those who experience marginalization?
Gregg Araki: I mean, I've always said my movies are for the punks and queers and the weirdos. My movies are about outsiders, and that's who they're for. They’re for those who feel like they don't fit in or they're just different from other people, you know? They're definitely not mainstream. I think coming from a sort of punk rock, alternative, new wave world that's kind of what that's about. You make your own space and find your own chosen family and live an alternative lifestyle. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I used to love going to Coachella back in the earlier days of Coachella, because to me, it really reminded me a lot of Nowhere. All these beautiful young people of varying kinds of sexuality and pansexuality; awesome music playing everywhere and the sun was shining. It was kind of a utopian version of Nowhere to me. And that's kind of indicative of what I think about my audience. They're just off in their own kind of world, you know, it's not really the kind of regular everyday world.
Synth History: Last question. After reading this interview, what is the first song people should go listen to?
Gregg Araki: God, I don’t know. I’ve already mentioned Slowdive. I’ve already mentioned Cocteau Twins. This is the thing about music and the fact that I have listened to music my whole life… it’s almost like a galaxy, it’s just too much to choose. So I’ll just say: something cool, that you love, and inspires you and I’ll just leave it at that.
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