Few contemporary filmmakers are as provocative – and divisive – as Larry Clark, the 75-year-old photographer-turned-director whose grimy aesthetic and offhand style are getting the full-on retrospective treatment at Metrograph, beginning August 25. The Oklahoma native first came to national prominence with the 1971 publication of his photo book Tulsa, which he followed in 1983 with a volume whose title is also a frequent subject of his film work: Teenage Lust. He was 52 years old when he released his first feature film, Kids.
The story of Jennie (Chloë Sevigny) and her desperate attempt over one long NYC night to track down the notorious deflowerer (Leo Fitzpatrick) who infected her with HIV, Kids was an immediate cause célèbre upon its release in 1995, its frank treatment of teenage sexuality and drug use earning it considerable furrowed-brow press and an NC-17 rating. (It went out unrated, from a one-off Miramax subsidiary, because that distributor’s deal with parent company Disney prohibited the release of unrated or NC-17 rated works.)
The films that have followed — including Bully, Wassup Rockers, Marfa Girls, and the (still) basically unreleased Ken Park and The Smell of Us — have continued his explorations into fringe cultures and extreme personalities, and, yes, young people having sex.
Flavorwire: When did you decide that you wanted to make the transition from photographer to filmmaker?
Larry Clark: I always wanted to make films. I wanted to make Tulsa as a film, but it wasn’t possible to do that, but I made the book, which is like a film. So I decided to make a film. And I had to clean up, because no one’s gonna give money to a junkie, so I cleaned up for the purpose of getting money to make a film. I had done so much autobiography, so I wanted to do something that wasn’t about me at all. I wanted to find out what was going on with kids then.
I decided the most interesting idea cinematically was skateboarders. So I started hanging out with skateboarders, and I hung out with them for like three years.
You and Jim Lewis are credited with the “original story treatment” of Kids; Harmony Korine wrote the script. How much of what the movie became was in that treatment you brought him?
I told him the story, just the basic story, that simple. And he was a kid and he knew kid-speak, and wrote this brilliant screenplay. But I gave him the story…
The elements of the deflowerer, and the ticking clock, and all that.
All of that. But that’s all I had, was the story. And then he wrote this script, all the dialogue, which was incredible. And if you look at Kids, you may think that it’s a lot of improv, but I made them speak the lines.
Obviously the style you had developed as a photographer carried over to the look and feel of the movie.
I had to teach the D.P. and the lighting guy and everybody what I was doing. They had no idea what I was doing. Some of the production team just thought I was crazy.
In what way?
That I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I knew exactly what I wanted the film to look like: I wanted it to look like you were eavesdropping on this world, and you wouldn’t have a chance to know about it otherwise. And so I wanted it shot like that. I had to fight and contend with everybody — the producers, the D.P., everybody.
What were their concerns?
They just had never done anything that real before. I was doing things differently.
You cut the film, it premieres at Sundance, it has one of these sensational Sundance premieres —
A midnight screening, yeah. The screening was, I dunno, 350 people, maybe? But probably 10,000 people have told me, “I was there.” It’s one of those. Incredible.
And then the Weinsteins buy it. They had contemplated getting involved before, right?
They were involved. They were gonna give us the money, and then at the very last second they pulled out, because they had just been bought by Disney, and they were afraid of Disney. But then they came back after I made the film, and bought the film, and created a company just for the film, but it was really Miramax doing it all. But they created a company called Shining Excalibur, as a goof on Disney, The Sword and the Stone kinda thing. And bought the film – for much more money than it would’ve cost them to make the film.
But then, incredibly, we couldn’t get a rating. So it went out unrated which really hurt the prospects of it at the box office. But y’know, it’s 2018, everybody’s seen the film, everybody sees it.
I heard somewhere that part of the reason it’s kind of hard to see now — it hasn’t had a proper American Blu-ray release, the DVD’s out of print, it’s not streaming anywhere — is because they maintain an ownership, through that one-off company, and especially in light of recent events, that could keep it unavailable for a while. Is that gonna change anytime soon?
I have no idea.
Okay. But is that accurate, that that’s why it’s hard to get your hands on?
I do not know. Everybody’s seen it, but it’s not really around, huh?
Not really! So it comes out, it’s this big sensation, and it doesn’t do huge numbers, but it’s very profitable. What kind of things were getting pitched to you after? Was it all just Kids rip-offs?
All Kids rip-offs. I turned down a lot of money. The first movie that I turned down was American History X, right after that. And all kinda films, right after, the same film over and over and over. I didn’t do it.
You did Another Day in Paradise instead. That was the first time you made a movie with “Movie Stars,” like above-the-title people?
Right, and the reason I did it was because, as I said, nobody in Kids had ever acted before. And so I wanted to make a film with actors! So I went to Hollywood and I made that.
James Woods stars in that movie. He’s become quite the colorful personality as of late. What was that working relationship like on that film?
[Long pause] Melanie and Jimmy were both difficult. But somehow we got it done… but it was hard, to make that film.
Just in terms of how you liked to work versus the way they worked?
Yeah. Nobody ever thinks I know what I’m doing, and I know exactly what I’m doing.
When you go through the filmography, there are definitely some recurring themes and motifs. One is teens having sex, which happens often enough that some of your critics say that your films cross a line from art into this sort of lascivious exploitation of young flesh. Do you think that’s a valid criticism, and when you get that criticism, how do you respond to it?
Well, kids have sex! I don’t usually respond to it, I don’t have to respond to it – this is the work, take it or leave it. Pretty simple!
One of the other big through-lines is you’re always interested in outsiders, people on the fringes, who are living in extremes.
All of my work, my photography and my films, it turns out as I look back on everything, I’m showing a small group of people that you wouldn’t know about otherwise. Every film, every bit of work, you would not know about these people if I didn’t make the film.
Is that anthropological interest what keeps you going back to those types of stories?
It would seem to be what I find interesting.
Do you think you could make Kids today, in the same way and through the same channels you did then?
No, because everybody has cell phones now. Jennie would just call him over the phone!
Metrograph’s Larry Clark series August 25 to September 1.