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Larry Clark—Wassup Rockers—06/26/06

Larry Clark's first feature film, Kids, was recently ranked the twenty-third most controversial film of all time by Entertainment Weekly. Though Clark hasn't necessarily courted controversy, he has frequently found it with his frank depictions of sexuality and violence among teenage characters. Clark followed up Kids (1995) with Another Day in Paradise (1997), Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002), and now Wassup Rockers. Clark first made his name as a photographic artist, collected in books as notorious as his films: Tulsa (1971), Teenage Lust (1983), 1992 (1992), and The Perfect Childhood (1993). I spoke with Clark at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel on June 26, 2006.

Groucho: It seems to me that your watchword as a filmmaker is to be different, to do something different in terms of style and content. How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker and what you're trying to do?

Larry Clark: Well, I've been a visual artist for forty years, and I'm a story-teller. In my films I'm trying to show reality—I'm trying to show—you know, I make social comment. I try to capture reality and pull you into that reality for an hour and a half, and I think that's what the best cinema does.

G: Wassup Rockers, when I watched it—I felt that maybe this film is the closest to any you've made thus far to a photo essay, in that it has a very—it's almost docudramatic, right? They're playing themselves, and it has this anthropological feel. Did you ever consider making it as a documentary?

LC: Well, the first thought when I met the kids was about their lives in South Central. And their struggle just to navigate this really difficult environment every day, which is so dangerous—it's all gang-bangers and a lot of drive-by shootings. I thought about a documentary, but I didn't really do a documentary because in the end I wanted to do it as a feature or as a "real" movie, as I say. But, you know, it's interesting because I'm mixing so many genres in this film. The film actually starts up with four minutes of documentary work where we meet Jonathan when he's just fourteen, and I'm talking to him and he's telling me some stories about himself and his friends. And then when the film starts—the actual movie starts—we recreate some of the stories that he tells and then we recreate a lot of stories that have happened to the kids—it's all based on reality. But in the second half of the film, I take them out of South Central on this crazy adventure where they meet some rich, white Beverly Hills girls and want to have sex with them. And they go up into Beverly Hills and they meet all these white people from Beverly Hills. And it was kind of fun to goof on who might be living in Beverly Hills. So it starts out, as you say, as kind of a docudrama and it turns into some wild-adventure, Hollywood-chase, action-slapstick film. But it works.

G: There's also a kind of "what if" there, too. You encountered the kids in Venice, and they had taken a couple of buses out there, so there's maybe something of extrapolating what might have happened if these cultures clash in that moment.

LC: Yeah, I met Porky and Kiko about—almost six years ago in Venice Beach, and they took me to South Central—the ghetto—where there are no white people. It's all black and Latino. And L.A.'s interesting that way, or funny that way or weird that way—is there are these, you know, South Central is a big area of L.A. that's isolated by race. No white people go there—and are afraid to go there. And so, even though these kids are Americans, you know—first-generation Americans, their parents are immigrants. They're isolated that way. And I found that this was really interesting. Plus, the peer-pressure to conform in the ghetto, I think, is stronger than anywhere else. The ghetto style is hip-hop gangster. Gangster dress, gangster with the baggy clothes—you cut off your hair, you smoke pot, you act gangster and listen to gangster rap. These kids didn't want to do that. They liked punk rock—they listened to punk rock. They wear tight clothes, they grow their hair long, and they have a little band—they play punk rock, and they just have fun. And they just want to be kids and have fun, and they have to fight to be who they are. And I thought this was really interesting. And also, we get into the racial politics of the ghetto, which I didn't know about. So it was really something that I wanted you to see.

G: Yeah. Now, when you say "the racial politics of the ghetto," what do you have in mind?

LC: Well, there's—young blacks and Latinos, there's kind of a war going on. It's interesting that Jonathan and Kiko, one day, didn't got to school, and I think it was spring break—I think it was the day before spring break—the last day of school. And I said, "Why aren't you going to school?" and they said, "We don't feel like fighting today." And I said, "What?" and they said, "Traditionally, every year, on this day, there's a gang fight between blacks and Latinos." And everybody knows it. The school knows it. It's expected to happen. And they line up and then they fight. And Jonathan didn't feel like fighting that day. And I don't know why this happens. Maybe it's just human nature—there's only blacks and Latinos there. And this is what's happening. And that's in the film. When Kiko says—when the young Beverly Hills girl, Nicky, says, "What people?" and Kiko says, "Black people," it's so honest. I mean, I've had black people who've seen the film come to me and really like that scene because they say, "You never see that, and that's the way it is and it's so honest that someone would show that"—to actually show what was going on.

G: Did you, with this film, as in the past, kind of shoot the script first and then start improvising, or was it really built to be improvised based on those stories that they told you?

LC: Well when the kids are telling their own stories, I wouldn't presume to write that one—Jonathan talks about his first time—and when Kiko and Nikki are on the edge of the bed talking, and Kiko is telling her about his life in South Central, it's so honest. I mean, I knew the stories, and I wanted them to be able to tell it on film, and it was just getting them in a position where it was comfortable enough to do that. In the one scene with Kiko and Nikki on the bed, it's just a great scene. It's just magic. In the script, I just wrote "Kiko and Nikki sit on the bed and talk." And then Jonathan's scene, I just put "Jonathan tells Milton about his first time." So that was the improv—it was suggested. I knew what they were going to say generally, but I wanted it to be in their own words—from the heart. And that happens in the film, and it's really amazing.

G: Yeah, one of the things that leapt out at me in that scene between Kiko and Nikki, is that he intuits that talking about being from the ghetto is a kind of pick-up line too, in that situation.

LC: Uhh-huh.

G: That comes across as a very genuine moment.

LC: Kiko's a smart kid, yeah.

G: Talk a little about the process of shooting this film. Obviously, it was difficult. I wonder what your approach was. You've always shot with two cameras, haven't you?

LC: Yeah.

G: To get what you're looking for?

LC: Yeah, because you always have somewhere to go. You have an edit if you're shooting with two cameras. You try to do that all the time. That's what Cassavetes did, and Cassavetes talked about that a lot. Cassavetes is a big inspiration for me.

G: You've talked a little bit about how it was difficult to wrangle these kids, and that made this a difficult shoot.

LC: Oh, well the kids were so wild, you know, and I mean, think about you get seven street kids from the ghetto and turn them into movie stars, and how are they going to handle that? How are they going to be able to do this for me? And their process was to be their selves. And just to be wild and to be their self. And that's what I wanted on the screen. And for that to translate on the screen, they had to be their selves. And their process was to be their selves all the time.

G: I suppose it would be dangerous for you to rein them in too much, really.

LC: Yeah. I couldn't really do that. So I just let them run wild. And their process was, as I say, to be themselves, and everybody else was a prop. And if you think about that, that makes sense. That's how they would handle this. But they are acting and they're incredible young, natural actors. I mean, Porky, Kiko, Jonathan—they have scenes where it's just startling what they're able to do.

G: The ramp-up to the film is also interesting to me in that you spent, what, about a year and a half with them before you actually got to shooting the film?

LC: Yeah. Mmm-hmm.

G: And you shot skate videos with them—kind of hung out with them and built trust—?

LC: I took them skating every week for about fourteen months and was out there all the time, and I was very dependable. I always showed up, and we developed this bond, this trust, where they really trusted me, and I really trusted them. And without that, I couldn't have made the film, and the film couldn't have been made.

G: It had to have been really nerve-wracking to watch them aging as you were trying to secure funding.

LC: Yeah, trying to raise financing for the film. Finally, I was fortunate that the producer, Henry Winterstern—I said, "Henry, we can't wait any longer. The kids are growing up." You know, I'm trying to capture this moment in time where they're growing up—they're teenagers—they're interested in what teenagers are interested in. They're interested in girls. But they still have a foot firmly planted in childhood. And they switch back and forth. And that's the moment in time I wanted, and we were able to get that. And it's just great. I'm so proud of this film and happy with this film. And the audiences are really responding, and this is my most successful film. I got a rating. I got an "R" rating right off the bat. I didn't have to appeal or anything. I was turning cartwheels. I said, "I got an 'R.' Are you sure? Are you sure they're not going to take it away from me?"

G: There's a lot more coitus interruptus than usual in this film.

LC: Yes. There was. But that was based on a real story—what happened to Kiko. The first half of the film, I kept—I mean, Porky's terrific, and they're all great. But the first half of the film is mostly Jonathan. And the second half of the film is Jonathan, but it kind of turns into Kiko—because Kiko's such a good, natural little actor, I kept giving him more and more to do. He's so funny and so aware, and he's like that in real life on the street. He's always the one—when I first met him, I was hanging around with him—like if all of them are standing on the corner, talking or doing what they're doing, skating or talking to girls or whatever they're doing, Kiko was always the one who was aware of everything that was going on—every car down the street, everybody coming. You know, it was almost like he was from New York, where I taught my kids in New York that you're always aware of what's around you. You have to be aware for safety, in order to survive. And in the ghetto, you really have to be aware too. But he was the most aware. He was aware of everything at all times, and a smart kid.

G: And they're all resilient kids, obviously, facing all manner of trouble. What do you suppose happens to them when they grow into adulthood?

LC: You know, that's a mystery. I think that their world was a few square blocks of South Central. And now they have a much bigger world. They've met so many people. Doing this has opened up everything for them. I mean, they can see that they're okay. They have a lot of self-worth. Their self-esteem is much, much better now. And they can see that maybe they can do anything. Which is the American dream anyway. Now, whatever hopes and aspirations they have, they have a chance to achieve those. I'm not going to walk away from the kids at all. You know, I see them all the time, and I'm involved in them, and I want to make sure that they have all the opportunities that is possible for them.

G: I was going to ask—since you've worked with a lot of young actors and, in some cases, introduce young actors, do you feel a kind of responsibility for them when a film wraps?

LC: Oh, absolutely. I do. And I worry about them all the time because the environment is so dangerous with drive-by shootings and all that stuff that happens. The soundtrack of the film—the punk rock music from the ghetto—these are like local bands; these are unpublished bands, like neighborhood bands, garage bands. And The South Central Riot Squad...and then Jonathan and Carlos' band, The Revolts, who play in the movie, But the guitarist for...[a band that has] four songs in the movie—three or four—got shot the other day. He was at a taco stand eating a taco, and there was some gang-bangers started shooting at each other, and Edgar got caught in the crossfire and took a bullet in the eye. Put out his eye. It's lodged in his brain. He's paralyzed on one side of his body. Luckily, he's still alive. I just saw him the day before yesterday. But I mean it's so crazy, man. So crazy what happens there. Right after we were finished filming at Lock High School, which is two blocks from where the kids live, and where they go to school—coming out of school at 3:15 one afternoon, the gang members drove by, was going to shoot somebody and missed—shot a fifteen year-old girl and she died two weeks later. This is a reality of living in South Central. It's just crazy.

G: Yeah. And it's not even just in South Central, of course. We have it here, too.

LC: Yeah. I'm sure.

G: Putting your films aside for just a moment, do you think the portrayal of teens on screen has experienced any growth? Has it improved over the years?

LC: My films have. Well, you know, when I started making films—when I made my first film Kids, it was a lot about a reaction to all the films in my life that I had seen about teenagers were—where they didn't use real kids; they used older actors—they used 37-year-old actors and actresses playing kids. And I used to see those films and say it doesn't look like my friends, the way we look. And so many of those films—you could talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll—whatever you want to talk about—but it had to be stupid. It had to be a joke. Like nobody dealt with it realistically. And so that's what I'm trying to do. I'm just trying to create a reality that is based on what's really going on. And I make social comment. That's kind of what I do.

G: When and how did you decide that you could make a living as a photographer?

LC: Well, I never really made a living. I didn't do commercial photography. I've been an artist. And my parents had a little mom-and-pop baby photography business. And my mother would photograph babies door to door—it was called Kidnapping. She would drive around and go into small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas, and you would see who has babies in the neighborhood where you see diapers hanging on the line. And you go up to the church and ask the preacher who has new babies in town. Then you go knock on the door, and you talk your way in and do, like, home portraits. So when I was a kid, I had to do that to help my family. And I put a camera in my hand, and I had to photograph babies, which was nuts, which I didn't really enjoy, but it put a camera in my hand. And then when I decided—when I started photographing for myself, it was like a means of expression. And I think I always wanted to be a writer—a filmmaker—but I happened to have been a photographer. So I kind of feel that's why I was put here: to do this. I just did it, you know, as an artist. And now, making film, I've always been a story-teller. But it was never done for commercial reasons at all. I'm stupid.

G: What?

LC: (Chuckles.) I'm stupid, I guess. It was never about making money. And it still isn't. I do these films because that's what I do. I always make work no matter what I'm doing.

G: How did you navigate from being a photographic artist to being a filmmaker?

LC: Well, I always wanted to make film and I just had to get myself in a position where I was able to do it. I had to kind of clean up my act and get myself together. And it took awhile—because you have to have so much energy to make film. You know, you really have to be at the top of your game. And you have to be healthy...and so forth. So I just said, "It's now or never: I'm going to do it." And I made my first film when I was like fifty-two, I think.

G: So you had to kind of like redirect your hell-raising energies into the filmmaking process.

LC: Exactly. I had to clean up my act completely. Which I did.

G: Tulsa, your seminal photo book, was a strong inspiration for Another Day in Paradise. Did you kind of go back to that, and did you almost treat it like production art for that film?

LC: Well that film was—a start at it—was based on a manuscript by an ex-convict who was a good writer—Eddie Little. And I optioned his manuscript before it was published as a book. And then worked with a writer to do a screenplay that was based on that plus people that I knew in Tulsa. So the characters—so it's a mix of Eddie's life and my life in Tulsa. Which was an interesting thing. Because I made that film after Kids, and I wanted to work with actors—because no one in Kids had ever acted before. And so I came to Hollywood to make a film and see what it was like to work with actors.

G: Did that put you off of actors?

LC: No. Actors are amazing. Just amazing. I worked with some really, really fine actors. Jimmy Woods and Melanie Griffith and Natasha Wagner and Vincent Kartheiser. No, it was interesting, but it was difficult because it was Hollywood, and I had to kind of train everybody into what I wanted to do that was different. I don't come at it as a director. I come at it as an artist. And there are certain ways that things are done in Hollywood, and that's why all the movies are like cookie-cutter movies. They're all the same.

G: Well, a lot of Hollywood directors are for hire, and on your film, they have to meet you.

LC: Yeah, exactly. I had to re-train everybody. I would say, "Now, we're going to do this" and "I want it done like this," and they'd say, "Well, that's not the way it's done. This is the way it's done." There are rules, you know. They said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, we're not going to do it that way. We're going to do it backward." We're going to do it sideways. They would get all confused. I'd have to show them, you know?

G: Were there filmmakers that you looked to as sort of convincing you that it could be done that way, like say Gus Van Sant? Or did you feel you were always kind of trailblazing in your method?

LC: Well, I have a—I just had a very clear vision. I knew what I wanted to do, you know? Well, I first walked in my first movie set, I said to myself, I went, out-loud to myself, "You're home." I felt so comfortable. It's exactly where I thought I was supposed to be. Totally comfortable—because, as I say, I do have a very clear vision. And I know what I want and that really helps a lot. That's why I'm able to do this.

G: Do you feel welcome in the indie-film world?

LC: Yeah.

G: Even with low budgets, raising money is still a chore.

LC: Right, because I'm a final-cut director. No one can ever change my films. So, when you make studio movies, the studio has control and they can change it or do whatever they want to do with it. And I just couldn't work that way. I wouldn't be able to. A lot of people can, which is fine. I just can't do that. But it is difficult because no one quite knows what I'm going to do and if you go pitch—if you want a million or two million bucks, and you go up to the people and your pitch is "I met these seven Latino kids—they're like just these little kids and I want them to star in this movie about their lives"—and then tell them the film and what it's going to be—and I had like a thirty page script or something which turned into a fifty-page script. And I think it turned into that because I reformatted it—you know, it's tough to get the money. Even though my films are successful and people like the films, they're always different. But I won't give up. I mean I wanted to do this. I told the kids—we spent a lot of time together and I guaranteed them I was going to do this. And I don't know if anyone really believed me or not until we actually started. But I wasn't going to let them down. I wasn't going to be some old white guy who goes to the ghetto, makes all these promises and then doesn't do it. I mean, I persevere.

G: Your last film, Ken Park, is a very striking film. And I wonder, are you sort of sanguine with it being an underground film? Is there an upside to that, or do you think those rights issues will ever be resolved and it will get a proper release?

LC: I would hope so. It'll be out. I mean it's out all over the world. It's just clearance issues here—the producer didn't clear some stuff he said he did. So we had a crazy producer and what not.

G: Is there movement, do you think, on resolving those issues?

LC: There's people working on it, yeah. Hopefully that will get out. But I mean, I just have to keep moving forward. That's the trick. You just keep moving forward.

G: Have you found your projects are really—you take them as they come or do you have certain projects in mind and kind of dream projects?

LC: Oh, I have irons in the fire. I have like three films ready to go—which are bigger films. The budgets are much, much bigger. But those movies are all cast-driven. The way those movies get made is you have to cast them first.

G: Attach someone.

LC: Yeah, exactly. So, that's what we're working on now. But I'm also writing—working with a writer and I have a great story idea. And we're writing a film for Kiko and Jonathan because they were so terrific in Wassup Rockers, so I want to make another film with them. And they'll be really playing characters, they won't be playing theirselves. So hopefully I can make that film. And I think Henry Winterstern, who produced this film, will produce that film and finance it also. So that's gonna happen. And then I have a couple of screenplays that Tiffany Limos wrote for me. And she was in Ken Park. She was the star in Ken Park. And one of them is called American Girl from Texas—which is her autobiography. It's about a young ethnic girl growing up in Texas—from kindergarten to age 14. It's terrific, and I hope to make this one. This will be a great story.

G: Well, I'm getting the hook here, but it's been wonderful to talk to you.

LC: And Wassup Rockers—go see this film. You're really gonna have a lot of fun. It's a great ride, and you won't be so depressed when you come out of this one like maybe some of my other films.

G: Very energetic, yes.

LC: Thank you very much.

[For Groucho's review of Wassup Rockers, click here.]

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