Photographer and director Larry Clark chatted with Rotten Tomatoes staffer Michael Campos-Quinn about his new film, "Wassup Rockers," which opens in limited release later this month. Read on for Clark’s take on pleasing the MPAA, getting to know his real-life skater-punk subjects, and more.
Despite the controversy surrounding almost everything he touches, the influence of Larry Clark‘s subject matter and style can be felt across the converging worlds of art and fashion photography and (as he likes to point out) his keen sense of what is relevant — and also cool — in kids’ lives remains on the cutting edge. Images of teenage boys mostly out of their underpants and of teen subcultures saturated with drugs and violence have earned a Clark a wary eye from many, but his position remains firmly that he is revealing the usually hidden truth of American youth. With 1995’s "Kids," Clark made his first foray into relatively mainstream film and came out with a feral and difficult-to-stomach warning about AIDS and an exposé of New York skater subcultures.
Clark’s face resets itself several times during our interview, with the same intensity, to the gaze that followed my entry into the room. Maybe the furrowed brow, sunken eyes, and gaunt cheeks are the lasting traces of a difficult and wild early period in a well-known director’s life. Just as likely though, Clark, who is 63, keeps this mask as a reminder that he isn’t "bull****ing." For "Wassup Rockers," he jumped off a roof and did just about everything his real life skater stars did. For all his toughness, this is also part of a tangible enthusiasm that Clark has for his subjects and for his work. His laughter is cigarette-rasped and takes over his entire body. His affable and vibrant air brims with self-assurance without self-absorption. One has the feeling that he genuinely believes in what he does.
Which throws a complication at the many condemnations of his work. Clark’s lens in both art photography and in film displays with often baroque lavishness the energetic pursuit of drugs and sex that are the dark side of America’s teenage fantasies. Like Werner Herzog gone wild, Clark’s process always has him dive into the reality he attempts to portray and dig around to find a beating heart with some kind of truth he can bring to the audience. The jury is still out on whether the audience wants that truth, or the images of teen sex that come with it.
I spoke with Clark about "Wassup Rockers" (which has opened to street parties in New York and L.A.) his relationship with the kids in the film, and of course, Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson).
Rotten Tomatoes: At what point did you decide to make a film with these kids [from "Wassup Rockers"]?
Larry Clark: I was photographing Tiffany Limos from "Ken Park" for this French magazine and I was supposed to photograph her with the kids from "Ken Park" and they weren’t around. And I said, "OK, let’s find some skaters." So we went down to Venice Beach and we saw Porky and Kiko. Kiko was like 13 and Porky was like 14 and they just looked interesting, you know? They said they were from South Central, from the ghetto. They just had style, they were poor, really, really poor. But they took us down to South Central and I photographed them for about four days with Tiffany. We went all over L.A. and Hollywood and got to know them a bit.
RT: Was everyone at ease?
LC: I was getting to know their story, what it was like for them in South Central and I found out there were no white people in South Central. It’s all Black and Latino. No white people go there, they’re afraid to go. The peer pressure in South Central, in the ghetto, is to act gangster, to dress in baggy clothes, cut off your hair, smoke pot, listen to gangsta rap, and act tough, act gangsta and all that. And these kids didn’t want to do that. They liked punk rock and they had a little punk rock band…well, they didn’t even have that yet, that started a few months later.
RT: How did they get into punk?
LC: Jonathan’s brother Eddie, who was a little older, was into punk rock and Jonathan started listening and got into it. So they were punk rockers in tight clothes and really long hair.
RT: Are they part of a scene?
LC: There’s an incredible resurgence of [Spanish-language] punk rock in Latino communities all over the world. And there’s more and more now. It’s great music to listen to and play, especially at that age. And older, too. I like punk rock. I listen to it all the time.
RT: So the kids stick out.
LC: I wanted you to see these kids, you know. My first thought was, "You should see these kids." You don’t see them in film. They’re good kids. I was going to their house and they were having more fun than anybody and they weren’t getting high yet and they weren’t smoking weed and they weren’t drinking. They seemed to be having more fun than anybody and this energy and living in the moment, living in the present, being poor, with no money, with nothing. And these kids knew how to live, man! They were that age when they were growing up and they’re interested in girls, but they have one foot in childhood, firmly planted. So they can be both. They’re like little kids and then growing up at the same time and I wanted to capture that moment.
RT: What was it like hanging out with them?
LC: I was taking them into Hollywood and L.A. all the time and they would talk about the white people who would act different from people in the ghetto, and they’d say you couldn’t do that in the ghetto, you wouldn’t survive. Just the difference. Like the first time I took them to a restaurant, they’d never been in a restaurant where you didn’t have to pay first. In South Central there are no restaurants to speak of. The food comes through a slot in the bullet proof plastic and you pay upfront…I still spend a lot of time out there. I see them all the time. A couple of them can drive now…well, they can all drive, but a couple of them can actually drive, they’ve got licenses. I still take them skating all the time, especially now that the film’s coming out.
RT: What do they think of it?
LC: They like the film. And they’re happy with what’s happened. They’re starting to get excited and into it, but they’re grounded, they know who they are, you know, they’re ghetto kids. They have a real understanding of reality because of their situations, and where they live and where they could get killed at any moment.
RT: In the film it seems like there’s nothing they can do at certain points.
LC: Except try to figure out how to navigate it, which is what they do. There’s a certain way to act and react in the ghetto, which is why it’s so interesting for them to see other people and how they live and just be astounded by a different world.
RT: Is politics part of why you made the film, especially since immigration has been a hot topic recently?
LC: We do get into the racial politics of the ghetto. Which you wouldn’t know unless you were Black or Latino and living there. We do get into the racism of L.A…When something happens to one of the kids the cops say "He’s probably Mexican, undocumented, we can cover this up and no one will miss him." So everything is there, it’s like a real "Crash." It’s a movie about racism, too. But I’m mixing so many genres, especially documentary. We’re recreating their lives and we take them on this crazy fantasy adventure which is like a chase, action, comedy, slapstick, dark humor, drama movie, so I’m mixing all these genres which is interesting for me as a filmmaker. I think the [racism] is in there.
RT: Did you want it to be explicit?
LC: It kind of happens that I have a knack to do this kind of film. I did "Kids" and all the adults and grownups said "This isn’t real! This is fantasy!" And the kids who saw the film said "What’s the big deal? This is the way it is, even if it’s not me, I know kids like this or it feels right." And it’s real! All you have to do is read the paper for the next year or two and everything in that film is true and everybody knows it now, so I was just early. And it’s the same with this film. It took an old white guy to go into the ghetto and do this.
RT: Who do you want to see this film?
LC: [laughs] Are you kidding? I want everyone to see the film! Are you crazy? God damn! No, I want Latinos to see the film. I want every Latino possible to see the film because it’s about them. And I think this film will be really accessible. I mean, I got a rating, I got an R rating! I was so proud of myself, I finally got an R, right? I couldn’t believe it!
RT: You’re in with the MPAA now.
LC: F***ing MPAA, those c***suckers…
RT: The film is definitely lighter…Everyone’s having so much fun all the time. It feels like a skate video sometimes.
LC: It’s not a skate movie, but there’s that skate sequence in the middle of the film which is real skating. That’s what happens when you skate. You might crash and burn 100 times before you land the trick once, but it’s all about landing that one time.
RT: Did they try to get you to skate?
LC: Yeah. I learned to skate when I was in my 40’s. When I made "Kids" I had to learn how to skate because I couldn’t keep up with the kids, I couldn’t run after them with the camera. Now I’m retired and my knees are shot, but I’m working on it. [The kids in "Wassup Rockers"] tried to get me to do everything. I jumped off a roof with them. A couple of times.
RT: What do you think of the "Warriors" comparison? It seems like a different situation, since they’re not a gang exactly.
LC: When I was making the second half of the film, I saw "The Warriors," but it isn’t based on it. If you want to look at it that way, "Wassup Rockers" is based on "The Odyssey." Especially the Beverly Hills girls are sirens, Janice Dickinson is a siren. After I wrote it I wasn’t thinking about "The Warriors," but "The Swimmer" [1968 by John Cheever] where the guy is swimming home pool by pool. He goes through backyards and interacts with different people. It’s like "The Odyssey" meets John Cheever.
RT: And the whole process is like a documentary.
LC: It’s not a documentary, but it’s based on real peoples’ lives. Maybe I should just tell everybody "This one day I was reading Homer and I was listening to punk rock…"
RT: You’d get some serious cultural creds.
LC: But the creative process is never like that. It was all very organic that way…from seeing the kids, hanging out with them, getting the ideas and then having some fun, you know.
RC: The lecherous fashion photographer, André [dressed in a pirate costume and cornrows]. How much of that was self-reflexive and how much was just another character in a back yard?
LC: It was one of those things where after I photographed the kids there was the magazine, and they did two covers with Jonathan, this 14 year old man-child. And fashion photographers called me. A couple of them called me. And they said [throwing his voice] "Jonathan, he’s so beautiful. We want to photograph him, we want to photograph him." And I said to this one photographer, well I’m going to make a film with him, you know…and I don’t want you to use him for fashion, you can’t, you can’t…you know. And the guy said [throwing his voice again] "Oh, can I have him when you’re finished with him?" It was just like that, right.
He was so upset he cried almost and I though, well, one of these backyards they go into, there’ll be a fashion party. I said, "How would the fashion world react if these kids came over the wall dressed like they are, all poor and raggedy with their tight clothes, with bloody noses and black eyes, they’d say [with the same voice], "My next campaign!" And then you’d see a campaign with models with bloody noses wearing jeans like Kiko and Porky have on where he’s drawn all over them. Now it’s funny because in the last 8 months designers are making jeans just like that and selling them for $300, $500 and signing their names. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to an interviewer and she said with dead seriousness, "If these kids are so poor, what are they doing wearing $300 jeans," and I said ok [trails off]. It was all real.
RT: Where did they get their clothes?
LC: They get jeans and they mess with them. Like they don’t go to Fred Segal’s, I can tell you that [trails off again].
LC: Thank you. Rotten Tomatoes, that’s a good one.