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An Icon of Angry 1990s Filmmaking Returns With a Great New Show and a Happy Outlook

Gregg Araki galvanized Generation X with searing indie dramas like ‘The Living End.’ Now in his late 50s, he talks about his millennial Starz series ‘Now Apocalypse’ and how much the world has and hasn’t changed.

Alien sex, Hollywood dreams and millennial angst collide in Now Apocalypse, the witty, risqué new Starz series from Gregg Araki. Directing and co-writing all 10 episodes, this veteran trailblazing filmmaker introduces us to four disparate individuals navigating dating and career aspirations in the City of Angels. Ulysses (Avan Jogia) is a disillusioned gay actor who’s given up pursuing his passion. His straight roommate and good friend, the sweetly clueless beefcake Ben (Beau Mirchoff), is convinced he’s written a blockbuster screenplay, which doesn’t much impress his frosty, brilliant, sexually adventurous scientist girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida). Then there’s Ulysses’ actress pal Carly (Kelli Berglund), who’s trying to get discovered but comes to realize that her coach (Mary Lynn Rajskub) may have designs on her. Oh, and Ulysses keeps having apocalyptic visions and swears he saw an extra-terrestrial raping a screaming, helpless human the other night. You know, your typical cable show.

For those unfamiliar with Araki’s work, Now Apocalypse may feel revelatory. For those who came of age in the 1990s on his anarchic, middle-finger films, the show is like seeing an old friend for the first time in forever — a little older and wiser, perhaps, but still very much him. Two decades ago, the independent writer-director crafted a portrait of Generation X far removed from the polished, audience-friendly depictions seen in Reality Bites and Singles. Instead, in films like The Living End, Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, he focused on outcasts and misanthropes, telling stories about angry HIV-positive gay men, criminals and self-destructive souls. Araki’s movies served as dark, abrasive responses to peppy twentysomething dramas such as Beverly Hills 90210, serving up homosexual and bisexual love stories during a time when such subject matter was taboo. Basically, he was a rebel simply by being himself.

In the 2000s, Araki dipped his toe into the mainstream, somewhat, with the critically acclaimed drama Mysterious Skin (which helped transition Joseph Gordon-Levitt from 3rd Rock From the Sun sitcom presence to serious movie star), and in the past few years he’s worked in television, directing episodes of 13 Reasons Why and Heathers. But with Now Apocalypse, he returns to the milieu where he once made his name — even if it’s now a different generation in the spotlight.

When Araki called me last week to discuss his show and his career, the 59-year-old Angeleno declared, “I’m in the happiest place I’ve ever been in my whole life,” which might be hard to imagine coming from the guy who produced such snarling, anti-conformist films so long ago. And so, we talked about how he got from there to here — and also how he views our current cultural moment, where younger people are more open about their sexual fluidity while living in a world that’s increasingly reactionary and bigoted. Along the way, there was also time to talk about Grindr, camming and #MeToo.

Do you feel like your work was ahead of its time? It seems like the subject matter and themes you pursued in the 1990s are now part of the mainstream.
Yeah, that really struck me when we premiered [Now Apocalypse] at Sundance a couple of months ago. The first time I was at Sundance was 1992 with The Living End, which was this 16mm punk-rock, underground movie. It was so shocking and controversial: In those days, having two guys kiss was such a big deal. That was before Will & Grace and before Brokeback Mountain. And now to be back, 27 years later, Now Apocalypse is a Starz show and we have billboards on Sunset.

I’ve obviously kind of mellowed a bit and matured over the years, but the vision of Now Apocalypse is still very pure “me” and very uncompromised, and it’s not watered-down in any way. I do think that we’ve made so much progress as a culture in the past 25, 30 years. When we were doing press, I know that both [Now Apocalypse co-writer] Karley [Sciortino] and Avan [Jogia] were talking that they were fans of my early work, and that the culture has caught up a little bit to the sort of world I was portraying 20 years ago.

For anyone who doesn’t know your work, it would probably be a shock to see Now Apocalypse and hear that you’ve “mellowed.” But how would you say that you’ve matured as an artist?
When I made films like The Living End and The Doom Generation back in the 1990s, I was very much in the middle of the forest. I was very angst-ridden and very nihilistic. The Doom Generation is a very angry movie — I call it my Nine Inch Nails movie. I was making these movies about these confused young people, but I was very much in their shoes. I feel like the older you get, at least in my case, you just become much more comfortable in your skin. Hopefully, you’re just wiser, older, more mature and you have a more levelheaded view of things.

I feel like the show really has this huge advantage in a sense that, because I’m older, I can kind of look back on that period. The characters in Now Apocalypse are all in their mid-20s, which is full of tumult and confusion that leads to sexual adventures and these crazy experiences. [Now] I can see the forest for the trees, and you’re looking at it through a different lens that’s more experienced. I still have such huge empathy and a real fondness for that chaotic period in my life, but at the same time, I’m so glad I’m not in the middle of it anymore. [laughs] I just think it’s an important perspective that the show has that my earlier films probably didn’t attempt, because I wasn’t where I am now as a person, and as an artist.

It’s funny: The show is very punk rock, and it’s very ballsy in its depiction of sex and sexuality. It has a lot of energy and a lot of chaos and craziness. But at the same time, it has a sweetness to it and flexibility to it that’s a little different from some of my earlier movies. Despite its subject matter and upfront-ness [about] sex and sexuality, it’s very accessible. I think it comes from my fondness for that experience and these characters. I’ve been sort of surprised by the number of people who have responded to the show in such a positive way — in the sense that it’s not off-putting at all. It’s very welcoming.

Because the show is about millennials, did you feel any need to do some kind of research into that generation? Just to see how their young lives were different than yours?
Not necessarily. Carly is very loosely based on Karley, who is a friend of mine. And the character of Ulysses is very loosely based on a fictionalized queer version of Avan Jogia, the actor who plays him. A lot of the crises and confusions — and the things that you’re going through when you’re becoming an adult and coming of age — are kind of universal. So those things don’t really change.

But the technology [is different] in terms of Tinder, Grindr, how people hook up. Carly tells her roommate, “Old people are just jealous because we don’t have to go to gross bars.” There’s that kind of generational divide, but a lot of the plights and the struggles are very much the same.

It was really super-fun and super-exciting to make this show, write these characters and deal with those issues. The current world of Tinder, Grindr and social media is such a rich time creatively. It’s sort of a poetic metaphor how connected everybody is and also how disconnected they are. That’s something that’s obviously very different than it was in the 1990s, and it’s one of the things that Now Apocalypse really explores and really gets into.

What these characters feel comfortable discussing in terms of their sex lives and sexual desires, it’s indicative that such conversations are more mainstream, not so hidden away as they once were culturally. Does any part of you feel sad that you missed that in your own life because you grew up at an earlier time?
No, no sadness. [laughs] I don’t really want to go through that chaos again. I’m in the happiest place I’ve ever been in my whole life, so there’s definitely no sadness there.

The world has come a long way — the culture has really come a long way — but fluid sexuality was part of those movies that I made in the 1990s, particularly Nowhere and The Doom Generation. Also, race wasn’t that big of a deal in my films. It wasn’t the exact way the world was in the 1990s, but it was my portrayal of it. So I think it’s great that the culture is more like that now.

We’ve made so much progress in the past 25, 30 years. But why I’m so proud of the show and so excited about it is that there are nefarious forces at work right now that are trying to get everybody to go backwards — to make America an oppressive, dark place again. It’s a really important time for a show like this to be seen, and to shine a light in these dark and scary times we live in.

Science fiction has often been an element of your work, and it’s central to Now Apocalypse as well. What’s the appeal for you?
To me, the show is really sort of an HBO, R-rated sex comedy like Insecure, Girls or Sex in the City. It’s really about sexual relationships. But I feel like you really can’t make that show anymore in 2019 because the genre is kinda played out. You quickly run out of story: This person broke up with this person, this person slept with this person and then what do you do? So it was always important for me for the show to have this wild-card element and this Twin Peaks-y aspect of the unexpected where you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You’re always a couple steps ahead of the audience, as opposed to the audience being ahead of you. That’s always been a part of not just the show but my movies in general.

Carly spends part of her time camming, a relatively new phenomenon. What do you make of camming?
I think it’s cool. The show deals so much with sex and intimacy and how people hook up and connect. There’s just a real cool metaphor: People are connecting in this sexual way, but it’s through a machine. And it’s not really connecting — it’s all very much this strange fantasy. It’s what makes the show really fun to make, because there’s so much stuff like that — there’s so much material [in the time] that we’re in right now. It’s a really chaotic, unpredictable and crazy age we live in.

Your 1990s films were often praised for how much they pushed the envelope culturally. Because we live in a more open-minded society — where there aren’t the same taboos — was there any concern about needing to still push?
My films are provocative, but I’ve never set out to provoke people or certainly not shock people. For me, as an artist, it’s important to be really authentic and really true.

In terms of depictions of sex and sexuality, certainly in American films and TV, I feel like there’s still a little bit of a puritanical double-standard — particularly when it comes to sex versus violence. You can get lots of violence. But Americans just have this weird, puritanical view of sex and sexuality. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of another show that has had a queer person of color as their male lead and a sex-positive feminist as their female lead. [laughs] I don’t know [another show like Now Apocalypse], but I know I’d watch it if it was out there.

Starz has shows like Outlander and The Girlfriend Experience that also have frank depictions of sex. But at least in the episodes made available to critics, Now Apocalypse doesn’t feature male nudity. Did the network put any restrictions on you?
I never felt censored: “Oh, I can’t show a penis.” I feel like the sex in the show is presented in a very joyous, very positive way. At one point, Carly says to her boyfriend, “It’s just sex. What’s there to be ashamed about?”

In American culture, there’s always this level of shame, fear or guilt. I feel that sex or sexuality is such an important part of your identity. It’s so critical to your coming of age and figuring out who you are. Everybody that you slept with — and all of the experiences you had — really make you the person that you are. When I think back on my life and the adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve known… For me as a filmmaker, it’s such an important part of the characters in the show.

I’m not interested in titillation or making porn. The purpose of the show isn’t to titillate. There’s plenty of porn out there for that purpose. It’s really about knowing these characters in a very intimate way and really getting at the essence and the truth of who they are and what makes them tick. So it’s not really so much about the specific sexual acts as it is about what those experiences mean and how they affect these characters.

L.A. has been the backdrop for a lot of your work. Now Apocalypse deals with several characters who are trying to make it in Hollywood and how they have to confront people who can advance their career — often, in exchange for sex. It seems like that narrative element’s pretty central to the show and its setting.
It was very important for me that it be a very L.A. show. Besides being where I live and the center of my universe, it’s a city of dreams. Ulysses tells someone that L.A. is like living inside a giant cartoon. It’s a very surreal, strange place where the craziest shit happens daily, and the line between fantasy and reality is always so blurry. It’s the only place a show like Now Apocalypse could be set.

We were writing this show this time last year, which is fun creatively because you can really deal with stuff like #MeToo and the whole Harvey Weinstein thing and just the world that we live in, in such an immediate way. It’s not like a movie where you write a script, get it financed and then it takes years and years and years [to get made], and then the stuff you’ve been dealing with is no longer really in the headlines.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for many years now, and I just have a wealth of experiences and crazy things I’ve seen and crazy stories. A lot of that stuff going on in those Hollywood-ish scenarios is based on things that I personally experienced.

And Now Apocalypse demonstrates that those #MeToo problems aren’t just at the upper echelons of Hollywood — it’s endemic.
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Hollywood. Working at an insurance company, the same shit happens. It’s just much more glamorous and exciting to talk about it in terms of Harvey Weinstein and movie stars.

You said earlier you’re happier than you’ve ever been. How do you account for that?
You just really figure your shit out the older you get. You turn 40, you turn 50 — and hopefully if you’re on the right track, you just get much more comfortable. You know who you are. When I was younger, I was very angst-ridden and very confused — there was just this level of uncomfortableness that, once you figure out who you are, you grow out of.

Creatively, this show is literally everything I’ve ever dreamed to do. These 10 episodes were such an amazing experience for me: We really put our heart and soul into this show. It’s really been a highlight for me in my career. It’s been one of the most exciting and one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. So, I don’t have any complaints in terms of where I’m at right now.