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Sex, Drugs, and Prestige TV: How Culture Came Around to Gregg Araki

The provocative and divisive indie filmmaker is bringing his first TV show, the sex-addled ‘Now Apocalypse,’ to Starz. After he spent years circling the edge of notoriety, the world has come into his orbit.

Gregg Araki and some of the characters he helped create Getty Images/Starz/Fine Line Features/Antidote Films/First Look International/Trimark Pictures/Ringer illustration

Within the first four minutes of Now Apocalypse, the new pansexual, supernatural, end-of-the-world comedy on Starz, three different sexual encounters take place: guy on guy, girl on guy, and, in a nightmare that may or may not be a vision of otherworldly things to come, reptilian alien on player-to-be-named-later. Before you can finish asking yourself questions—“What the hell was that?” or “Have I seen that on television before? Like, that position?”—the show has already moved on to another beautiful set of bodies, vigorously pounding away. Sexual fluidity is a theme on Now Apocalypse, but it’s more fire hose than stream, reinforced by the speed and variety of the couplings (or triplings). And anyone with a decent cable package can see it.

After three decades, the culture has finally caught up with Gregg Araki, who created the show and cowrites (with sex columnist Karley Sciortino) and directs every episode. Longtime fans of Araki’s work will recognize Now Apocalypse as a joyful synthesis of ideas, attitudes, and stylistic quirks that have frequently danced around his films: disaffected one-liners and provocations in the dialogue; an impeccably curated indie/punk soundtrack; a Day-Glo color scheme that’s somewhere between Pedro Almodóvar and Miami Beach; plotting cribbed from prime-time soaps like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place; and weird allusions to alien invasions, government conspiracies, and the end of days. And at their center is always the young and the reckless, free-spirited kids in their teens and early 20s who act like they don’t expect to live much longer. They always fuck like the plane is going down—and it usually is.

Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, where a couple of “spoiled” rescue dogs occasionally yip in the background, Araki giddily references a review out of Sundance, by Daniel Fienberg in The Hollywood Reporter, that calls Now Apocalypse “the Arakiest.” Indeed, what’s striking about the 59-year-old director is how little his obsessions have changed since he started making films in the mid-to-late 1980s. His career has undergone various phases and mini evolutions, but he has a true auteur stamp—he prefers to call it “my brand”—and anyone even casually familiar with his work will recognize the quirky sex-and-death vibe of the new show from the start, the latest in a continuum of rapacious horndogs on the prowl. Araki is like the filmmaking equivalent of Matthew McConaughey’s townie skirt-chaser in Dazed and Confused: He keeps getting older; they stay the same age.

When Araki first emerged on the scene, there was reason to believe the young had no future; the AIDS crisis was raging all around him. But after graduating from USC film school, which had (and has) a reputation for turning out Hollywood directors—he remembers Paul Feig as a classmate—there was no money and no market for his outré experiments in queer filmmaking. His first two features, 1987’s Three Bewildered People in the Night and 1989’s The Long Weekend (O’Despair), were self-financed to the tune of $5,000 each, and are virtually impossible to find. (The latter, when it slipped onto a double bill at Anthology Film Archives, earned a brief approbation from Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who astutely noted Araki’s “extremely self-conscious, neo-sitcom dialogue,” but wasn’t charmed by it.) It wasn’t until his third film, 1992’s The Living End, that Araki finally had an audience to reach—and even that was on the fringes.

The Living End came out of the New Queer Cinema movement in the early ’90s, after Sex, Lies, and Videotape had been a sensation at Sundance and had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the independent world. Indies couldn’t expect to be a phenomenon on that level, perhaps, but there was enough of a theatrical infrastructure to support the right film at the right budget. The year before The Living End was released, Todd Haynes’s Poison had quietly collected nearly $800,000 in theaters, and it felt like a watershed moment for gay cinema, given how challenging Haynes’s explicit and often disturbing riff on Jean Genet could get. For the most part, gays on screen had been polite to the extent that they were visible: 1989’s Longtime Companion, a heartfelt and groundbreaking film about AIDS, was nonetheless made with a straight audience in mind and didn’t get much racier than a hug.

Now the floodgates had opened for low-budget films like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Derek Jarman’s Edward II, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, and Jennie Livingston’s essential documentary Paris Is Burning—and future sensations like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and Rose Troche’s Go Fish were right around the corner. The critic B. Ruby Rich identified some of those films, along with The Living End, as “the New Queer Cinema,” and Araki remembers the time fondly, as an artistic boom that had been a long time coming.

“We were very young, dumb, and innocent,” he says when asked about the practicalities of making films for an audience that was only just becoming reachable. “The New Queer Cinema was very much a product of its time. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and as a young queer artist, you were just feeling very energized, like you need to say something. It was the time of ACT UP. There was this need to express what was going on in a way that wasn’t being expressed in the mainstream.”

Shot for $20,000—a princely sum, given the limitations of his first two features—The Living End offered itself as a radical answer to Thelma & Louise, a road picture in which two HIV-infected men go on the lam and fuck and fight until the sun goes down. One of them reads as an Araki avatar, a high-strung freelance film critic who’s drawn into this nihilistic adventure by a grim diagnosis and a hunky, gun-toting, amoral drifter who holds him hostage in desire. There’s a particularly memorable scene where the two men fantasize about holding President George H.W. Bush at gunpoint and injecting him with a syringe full of their blood. With a smile, the drifter jokes, “How much you wanna bet they’d have the magic cure by tomorrow?”

Araki says he’d forgotten about that scene, because he doesn’t watch his old movies, and when it came up in a clip reel at an awards ceremony, he was taken aback by it. “I’m like, ‘That’s pretty punk rock and intense!’” he says. “But that’s the joy for me. I’ve never been constrained by mainstream expectations, so what I do is very pure and very of the moment. Every film is about what I feel and where I’m at when I’m writing it. I’ve never had to think, ‘Oh, well, I hope this doesn’t offend somebody, or I hope this doesn’t upset this demographic.’”

Revisiting The Living End in the wake of Bush’s death in late November is a startling rebuke to the sober punditry that framed him as the last of the Oval Office gentlemen. Araki remembers the period as “a war zone.” “You just had this cloud of death hanging over you every single day,” he says. “You had all these people in the prime of their lives, just dropping dead all around you.” The Living End closes with a lowercase title card that raises a middle finger to a decade of executive inaction by Ronald Reagan and Bush, dedicating the film to Craig Lee, a bit player in the film, and “the hundreds of thousands who’ve died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big white house full of republican fuckheads.” That sentiment would surely upset a demographic.

Yet anger isn’t a prevailing tone in Araki’s films, even when he moved on to a series of reckless, violent, death-haunted provocations that were retroactively dubbed “the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy.” Other than James Duval in the lead role, often as a passive but willing object of desire, there’s not much connective tissue between Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere, but Araki gained confidence with each one and started to develop a series of longstanding obsessions. Araki didn’t grow up a cinephile—he was much more into punk and new wave music and loved comic books—but his undergrad years at UC Santa Barbara ended with a semester-long dive into the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and the experience stuck with him. The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy has that kind of spontaneity to it, as if Araki were attempting his own bicurious riffs on loose-limbed Godard classics like Band of Outsiders or Masculin Féminin but with the distinctly American potential for ultraviolence.

Araki would lose his inclination for shock over the years, but The Doom Generation bullied its way into cultural conversation, getting him into trouble with the MPAA and with critics like Roger Ebert, who gave it zero stars. The Doom Generation was Araki’s first “heterosexual” movie, an alternative Natural Born Killers where the traditional Bonnie-and-Clyde outlaw duo was reimagined as a sexually liberated threesome. Working with his first real budget, Araki expressed the angsty romanticism of aimless young people with vivid color and the loud-quiet-loud formula of ’90s rock. Even the soundtrack, ranging from the dreaminess of Cocteau Twins and Slowdive to the techno-aggression of Nine Inch Nails and Meat Beat Manifesto, reflected their moment-to-moment volatility.

“When you’re in your 20s or a teenager or whatever,” says Araki, “you’re so unformed. You don’t know what you’re gonna be or what’s gonna happen. There’s such an uncertainty there and so much confusion and you’re really just trying to figure your shit out. For me, that’s always been such fertile ground creatively and dramatically.”

Araki remains circumspect about the film’s hostile reception and the polarizing effect of his work in general. As a filmmaker, he came of age at a time when only a small fraction of people even had access to his work, much less a response to it. “I think it goes back to the music I listened to,” he says. “which was always about doing your own thing and being true to yourself. As long as I feel good about what I’ve done, if people get it, that’s amazing. If they don’t get it, that just happens.” Even now, he grouses about the “potato chip” disposability of pop stars like Ariana Grande and doesn’t mind alienating vast swaths of the viewing public if he can “find the people that take my films to heart.”

After the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, Araki’s color palette took a definitive turn to the candy-colored with 1999’s Splendor, and the tone of his subsequent films seemed to shift along with it. The campy irreverence of his early work was amplified and flush with optimism and sex positivity, and more serious efforts like 2004’s Mysterious Skin or 2014’s White Bird in a Blizzard addressed trauma with heartbreaking sincerity, even as his more eccentric touches are woven in. Others are less complicated in their zestiness, like Smiley Face, a 2007 pot comedy held aloft by Anna Faris’s stoned free association, or the genre-jumping 2010 curio Kaboom, a campus sex romp that stumbles into science fiction, mystery, and the prophecies of a secret cult.

Though Araki was part of a generation of indie filmmakers inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, it was never his intention to follow suit. He attributes his affinity for bright colors to a formative interest in comic books and visual arts, but he’s also inclined to react against the films he was seeing. “A lot of independent films are very dry,” he says. “They’re serious and ‘important’ and good for you, but also kind of bland and painful to slog through. I’ve always veered in the opposite direction. Doom Generation, Nowhere, Splendor, Kaboom, and Smiley Face all have a very poppy aspect to them. And the new show is about cranking that up to 11.”

Araki wrote Now Apocalypse on spec with Sciortino, whose popular Slutever blog was parlayed into a Viceland series and a current gig as a sex advice columnist for Vogue. The show is closest to Kaboom in spirit, a repository of Araki obsessions jammed into hectic half-hour episodes, each playing like a low-rent, sex-positive Hollyweird answer to East Coast HBO series like Sex and the City and Girls, which both look like Downton Abbey by comparison. While doing director-for-hire work on the Amazon series Red Oaks, created by Steven Soderbergh’s longtime creative partner Gregory Jacobs (Magic Mike XXL), Araki slipped the script to Jacobs, who then showed it to Soderbergh, who then got the entire season set up at Starz—all within a week. Starz has been playing the foil to HBO for a while now—Outlander is like a femme-centered, sexed-up answer to Game of Thrones, American Gods counters the dense sci-fi fantasy of Westworld—and its interest in underserved audiences (and a lot of nudity) makes Now Apocalypse a surprisingly good fit. And no one asked him to a change a thing.

Araki calls the series “the culmination of everything I’ve ever done,” and that extends to the color scheme, the deadpan performance style, a soundtrack loaded with old and new alterna-favorites (Franz Ferdinand, Disclosure, My Bloody Valentine, Savages), an alien conspiracy, an end-of-the-world scenario, and his favorite character duo, which he describes as “the sensitive, queer bisexual protagonist and his snarky female best friend.” The sensitive, queer bisexual protagonist is Ulysses (Avan Jogia), who considers himself “an ever-oscillating 4” on the Kinsey scale and fools around accordingly, and his snarky female best friend is Carly (Kelli Berglund), a would-be actress who logs time as a cam girl between auditions. Ulysses’s roommate, Ford (Beau Mirchoff), is a gullible Midwestern beefcake who’s solidly heterosexual but assumed to be gay by nearly everyone who encounters him. Ford’s girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida) is every bit his opposite, an extremely French sexpot who coldly rebuffs his earnest declarations of love and operates in secret as an astrobiologist.

What’s striking about Now Apocalypse is how readily TV accommodates Araki in the year 2019. The same sensibility that relegated the director to the margins in the 1990s is accepted enough to fill a cable niche, and a broader tolerance for sexuality across the spectrum allows Araki to mix and match to his heart’s content. Threesomes, BDSM, masturbation, live-cam kink, alleyway jerks—all of these scenarios happen in the first five episodes, all moving freely along the spectrum of sexual experience. When Ulysses comes home to find Severine and Ford getting off on the couch together, his desire for both is about a 60/40 split: He prefers Ford, but he confesses that he’s “not so totally queer that I haven’t rubbed out a few fantasizing about Severine.”

To a large extent, millennials are the perfect Araki creatures: open-minded, tolerant, sexually fluid, and comically distractible. In one scene, Severine recruits a radical Antifa activist for a threesome and the stranger jets immediately afterward because she and her boyfriend have plans to set Bank of America on fire. It may be assumed that firmer lines on consent or the barriers of technology would keep people apart, but Now Apocalypse thrives on a culture of clickable hookups, which suits Araki’s frenetic nature.

“It’s such a great time,” says Araki. “The internet is this weird paradox where everybody is brought together and connected, but people feel more disconnected than ever. The show is so interested in sex and sexuality and relationships, and how people connect and break up, and it’s all happening at such an accelerated rate. For me, it’s a really great milieu to be exploring.”

Nobody can look at Now Apocalypse and say that Gregg Araki has sold out—it is defiantly, in form and content, not for everybody—but the mainstream has finally found a place for him and his merry band of pleasure-seekers. He likens the phenomenon to the Sex Pistols playing to a couple dozen punks in some dingy club in Texas in 1978, then reuniting for a summer festival decades later. “The giant blob of popular culture eventually absorbs the most out-there movements,” concedes Araki. “That’s what stood out for me when I was at Sundance this year. I may have changed over the past 27 years. I’m older. I’m more mature. I’m a different person. But my sensibility is the same as it’s ever been.”

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.

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