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Interview: Rocking With Larry Clark

by Peter Sobczynski

The controversial filmmaker discusses his career and his latest work, the skate-punk odyssey "Wassup Rockers."

For several decades now, Larry Clark has been provoking audiences with his sometimes seedy, oftentimes shocking depictions of untamed youth–first as a photographer (most infamously in his 1971 collection “Tulsa”) and later as a filmmaker (a career change that began with 1995's ultra-controversial “Kids” and which also includes 1998's “Another Day in Paradise,” 2001's “Bully,” the 2002 cable film “Teenage Caveman” and “Ken Park,” a film shot in 2002 and released everywhere in the world but the U.S. because of legal complications). With his latest work, “Wassup Rockers,” he once again trains his camera on a group of kids living on the fringes of society–in this case, a group of young Latino kids who just wanna ride their skateboards and play punk-rock music. Featuring a cast consisting largely of real-life kids, the first half of the film takes a documentary-style look at their lives as they goof off, flirt with girls (with varying degrees of success) and get hassled by various groups of people. In the second half, a skating excursion into Beverly Hills goes weirdly wrong and the kids are forced into making a weirdly harrowing journey home–including encounters with a pervy art dealer, an aging gun nut and Janice Dickinson that all end badly for some of those involved–that transforms the film into a strange riff on Walter Hill’s “The Warriors.”

What separates this film from Clark’s other work is that for once, the central characters are not vile and unpleasant sleazos but ordinary and likable kids who are interesting enough to follow their adventures for 90 minutes. While the film isn’t perfect–the oddball second half doesn’t quite jell with the more naturalistic opening–it is easily Clark’s best and most accessible work to date and the first film that he has made where you don’t leave the theater desperate for a drink and a shower.

Recently, Clark sat down to discuss “Wassup Rockers,” the challenges of shooting a film with untrained actors and the sometimes virulent reactions that his films have inspired from some critics over the years.

I’d like to start by asking about the origins of “Wassup Rockers.” Did you have devise the concept of the film first and then come across the kids or was it the other way around?

I met the kids through pure serendipity. I was photographing Tiffany Limos, an actress from my last film, “Ken Park,” for a French magazine because the film was opening in Paris in the summer of 2003–they wanted me to do some photographs and it would be good publicity for the movie. So Tiffany and I went to California to do the shoot and I was going to photograph her with some of the kids from “Ken Park.” They weren’t around so I decided to find some skaters to photograph her with and we went down to Venice Beach and there was Porky and Kiko. Kiko was just about 13 years old, this little kid, and Porky was 14 and they just looked different–they had this style. They were poor kids–they had on clothes that were too little for them and long hair and shoes that were falling apart and boards that had no pop to them–but they had this style to them that was interesting. We started talking to them and made some photographs of them with Tiffany. Then they took us out to South Central L.A. and we ended up photographing them for four days all over L.A.–these two French women from the magazine, Tiff and I. When the magazine came out, I took it back to them and they were amazed by all the pages they were on. The deal with the magazine was that they were going to do a cover of Tiffany but they did two covers for the same magazine and the other one had Jonathan, this 14-year-old kid.

After I took them the magazine, they said that they wanted to go skating and so I took them skating. The next Saturday morning, they called me again and wanted to go skating. Every Saturday for over a year, I took them skating and they really got to know me and I really got to know them. That was how it happened–they really had to trust me and I really had to trust them. Over that period of time, I got to know them really well and all of these stories began to come out. The first half of the film is basically all their stories–I wrote it but I didn’t really write it because it was all their stories and we were just recreating things that had happened to them. At the same time, I was taking them out of the ghetto every weekend and going all over Hollywood and L.A. to skate spots and they would see white people and how they acted. South Central is all black and Latino and they would be talking about the funny way that white people acted and how you couldn’t act that way in the ghetto. I took them to restaurants and they had never been in a restaurant before where you could sit down and have the food brought to you because in the ghetto, it is all shoved at you through a plastic hole.

The initial story was that the peer pressure in the ghetto was so enormous that if these kids didn’t conform to the gangsta lifestyle--dressing in the clothes and smoking pot and listening to rap–they would have to fight to be who they were. They were just these kids who wanted to play punk rock and grow their hair long and wear tight clothes–they call them “young clothes.” We’d be walking down the street and a girl would say “Why you wearing that young shirt?” which means a shirt they have had since they were ten years old. Like I said, there are no white people in South Central and I was seeing the way that they lived in a way that you wouldn’t really know about if you were black or Latino in the ghetto.

Did these kids have any sort of knowledge of you or your work? How did you introduce that to them?

Some of the kids knew the movie “Kids”–all kids seem to know that one. Every generation seems to see that film. I was at a skate park the other day doing some press for the film and this 15-year-old kid came up and asked what was going on. I told him that I was a filmmaker and when he asked what films I had done, I said “I did a film called ‘Kids’–maybe you’ve heard of it.” and he said “Everybody’s heard of that one.” They knew that one and then I showed them “Bully” and “Another Day in Paradise” and the “Tulsa” book. I do have these calling cards so they were able to know who I am.

In directing a cast of kids without any formal acting training, does that require a different approach from you as a filmmaker that the one you apply on films like “Bully” or “Another Day in Paradise” that do contain trained actors? Obviously, these kids do bring an energy to the proceedings but it might not necessarily be the kind of energy conducive to the filmmaking process.

Well, they certainly have energy. It was very, very difficult and very hard but it worked with “Kids” and it works with “Wassup Rockers.” Both were similar situations–I met some street kids and decided to make a movie about what their lives are like growing up the way that they do. It is difficult but I think it works because I got to know them so well in both cases and they got to know me so well. I knew what they could do and what I wanted them to do. I knew the way they walked and talked and reacted, so if anybody wasn’t doing that, I could tell them that it wasn’t the way that they would do it. It was total immersion and becoming a sort of method director.

Did this factor in your decision to shoot “Wassup Rockers” on digital video instead of film?

I’ve always shot in 35mm and I never even considered making a digital film. This was digital and we blew it up to 35mm and it looks great but it was never a consideration until we met these kids–I needed to be able to run-and-gun and I thought that if I had something more structured like 35mm, it wouldn’t work. Then we did all these tests and we found out that it turns out to be just like doing it with film–you have to light like crazy or else it looks shitty and muddy. The only good thing was that we could run tape for an hour instead of being stuck with 10-minute mags of film–that was important for this so that I could keep rolling to get what I wanted. Other than that, it really isn’t cheaper.

The structure of “Wassup Rockers” is kind of interesting. Roughly the first half of the film has the general feel of a documentary–especially the first scene in which one of the kids is being interviewed–and then the second half, in which they make their perilous journey from Beverly Hills back to their own neighborhood, has a more recognizable narrative that evokes the likes of “The Swimmer” and, especially, Walter Hill’s “The Warriors.”

The first scene–that four-minute scene with Jonathan–was done when I took the magazine back to him. He was 14 then and when the movie proper starts, he is a year older when he wakes up. The stories he tells introduces the characters before we meet them a year later and recreate them. It starts out as straight documentary and goes to a recreation of their lives for a while.

The normal thing would have been to stay in the ghetto and make the entire movie there but I wanted to take them out and have them interact with white people. I made up this adventure and began mixing genres like crazy. It turns into this action-chase-comedy-slapstick-adventure and everything that can possibly happen does happen. It’s “The Odyssey” meets “The Warriors” meets John Cheever.<

Did the story change or evolve in any significant way during the actual shooting process?

Absolutely. The beginning of the film, as I had originally written it, just had them waking up but about three weeks before we started shooting, this kid that we all knew got shot. They called me up and I came over with a candle and we went over to this shrine that was set up. I decided I wanted to write that scene out and include it in the film to right away show the dangerous environment that they live in where they can get shot at any time.

Also, the scene with the Beverly Hills cop really happened. We went skating at Hollywood High one day and I was trying to figure out a way of getting them there in the screenplay. At the time, Paris and Nicky Hilton were in the news for going to clubs–this was long before the sex tape–and they were in the paper and “Entertainment Tonight” every day. I thought, what if Paris and Nicky were driving by in a convertible, thought that Jonathan and Kiko were hot and picked them up and took them to Beverly Hills? That was how that started and the way I had written it was that they went to Beverly Hills High to skate, there were some white boys skating there as well and the girlfriends of the white boys became fascinated with Kiko and Jonathan. There would be a conflict and then a cop would pull up and everyone would run.

I took them to Beverly Hills High to show them the location. There are always skaters there but when I took them this one morning, a cop busts us. He says “I’ve been warning you people–didn’t you see the signs?”–there are no signs–“I’ve warned you skaters for three months!” I told him that these kids were from South Central and that we were going to make a movie. As soon as he heard “South Central” and saw that the kids were brown, forget it–he sat them on the sidewalk and did everything that is in the movie. He wouldn’t let us go and he gave us tickets. I even showed him my DGA card and told him that we were going to be shooting there, we were permitted and I was only showing the kids the location but he didn’t want to hear it. The cop looked just like Robert Patrick from “Terminator 2.” Finally, I just said “You’ve been warning skaters for three months–how many tickets have you given out?” He said, “You’re the first.”

They had to go to court in Santa Monica–which is 26 miles from where they live–at 8:00 AM. They live with their mothers and their mothers are going to work then–how are they supposed to get there? The cop says “You take them.” He didn’t care–he was just a nasty guy. So I took them to court to pay all these fines and the court wouldn’t let me do it because I wasn’t a parent or guardian, so they had to reschedule and their mothers had to take off work and bring them back. It was a real hassle to pay their fines but it made for one of the best scenes in the movie. The tickets were $180 apiece but they were knocked down to $120. I paid them but it was ridiculous–it was so obviously racist.

As I say, it was a very organic process. Things happened throughout the process of finding funding for the film just by hanging out with the kids and sketching it out with them. It all worked out and it was actually good for the film. We actually had financing eight months earlier but we lost that money and the film was dead but I told my agent and manager that I wasn’t doing anything until I found the money and made this film. We found this gentleman named Henry Winterstern who paid for the movie–a stand-up guy–but if everything had worked out eight months earlier, I wouldn’t have met Henry and a lot of the things that happened wouldn’t have happened. I guess it works out the way that it was supposed to.

One of the things that you touched on a little earlier was the importance of punk rock in their lives. Did this aspect of their lives come as a surprise to you? Obviously, the sight of a 15-year-old Latino kid playing punk music and wearing a Ramones T-shirt goes against any number of preconceived notions one might have.

I was. There is a big resurgence in punk rock in Latino communities throughout the world. When The Casualties did their last album, they did it in English and in Spanish. In South Central, you see these Latino kids dressed like the kids in the movie having these gigs every Saturday night–these backyard parties in Compton where someone charges two bucks a head and all these local punk bands come. They’re all dressed in black and have the black lipstick and spiked hair–all these Latino kids having a hell of a time–and seven or eight bands will play until the cops come and close it down because of the noise. It was fascinating for, especially at that age. I listen to it and like it a lot but at that age, it is a lot of fun to play. I knew that had to be the soundtrack.

Starting with “Kids,” you have been working as a film director for about a dozen years now. During that time, how do you see yourself evolving as a filmmaker? Do the same things that drove you at first still concern you as a director today?

I am still driven. I’ve been a visual artist for 44 years and I have always made work, no matter what I have been doing. When I started making films, I thought it was just a bigger canvas and when I walked onto my first set of my first film, I said to myself, “I’m home” I felt so comfortable because it felt like such a natural thing to me. Every film is a learning experience and an education and each one is different and a struggle. You’ll have something planned and then everything gets fucked up that day. For me, that is like new territory and I wouldn’t be here if things hadn’t gotten fucked up. I think I’m getting better.

You mentioned “Ken Park” earlier, a controversial film that you made a few years ago that has been released all over the world except for America. For a while, there was talk of it being distributed here but that apparently fell through. Can you shed some light on the current situation surrounding the film?

We have clearance issues–the producer didn’t clear some of the music that he said he did. It was all cleared and then we found out that he didn’t pay for some of the music. I spent a lot of time clearing that music–this conservative country music from people like Lefty Frizzel that was hell to clear–and they didn’t pay for it. I’ve got to reclear some of the music and we are trying to get it out. I don’t know if we will but we are trying. It wasn’t censorship–it was clearance. However, once we get the clearance, maybe then we will get to the censorship–we just never got that far.

The other film that you did that I was curious about was “Teenage Caveman,” a remake of an old American-International Pictures film that you did for Showtime as part of the “Creature Feature” series of similar contemporary takes on past drive-in films. I thought you were an interesting choice because they were remakes of old exploitation films and your works, in a way, fit into that tradition–there is a clear connection between a past film like “High School Confidential” and something like “Kids” or “Bully”–and I was wondering as to how you became involved in the project in the first place.

Those were the movies that I grew up with–I saw “Teenage Caveman” when I was a kid! I was asked to do it and it looked interesting. The deal was that they had all these Sam Arkoff films and you could do anything you wanted as long as you used the title. I grew up with those movies and it was an homage to those films–it was like making a B movie and I had a lot of fun doing it. Also, it was a 19 day shoot and I wanted to see if I could make a film in 19 days. We were making it up as we went along–the writer was on the set every day and we were always changing stuff. It was like a stream-of-consciousness made-up film and the only thing was that I had to have a monster in it because it was a “Creature Feature.” It wasn’t a traditional one but that is the one that they still play on cable all the time late at night on Showtime.

In the last few months, there has been a debate going on surrounding the value, if any, of film criticism in the world of contemporary cinema. Since your films are the kind of smaller works that require critical commentary to get the word out in lieu of a massive publicity push and since your films are also the kind that tend to split critics down the middle–some love them passionately while others loathe them just as passionately–I was wondering about your personal take as to the value of film criticism today.

I think it is important and relevant. I think that this is my most accessible film but for most of them, it has been a love or hate thing. For artists, that is a good thing because if everybody likes your work, it usually means that you are doing something wrong. I don’t quite know how to answer the question because if people get it, I like it but if they don’t get it but write interestingly about it, I also like it. However, there are some people who are good critics but they just lose it with my films and lose all perspective. They don’t even write about the film–they just write about me! It is interesting the reaction that I get from some people–they lose all professional bearings. When A.O. Scott reviewed “Bully,” he wrote his whole review just about me. He had the names of the actors wrong–he had Nick Stahl starring in “Kids”–and he just went crazy. That happens sometimes and if you are able to make people that crazy, I guess that can be good.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1877
originally posted: 06/30/06 00:07:57
last updated: 07/23/06 19:01:05
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