One might have thought that at the ripe old age of 70, the director of Kids and Ken Park would have calmed down a bit. But the scandalous Larry Clark continues to disconcert with his new film The Smell of Us.
One might have thought that at the ripe old age of 70, the director of Kids and Ken Park would have calmed down a bit. But the scandalous Larry Clark continues to disconcert with his new film
The Smell of Us. Interview by Olivier Joyard, portrait by Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello
When Larry Clark’s first film, Kids, came out in 1995, he reached a much wider public than had previously followed his photographic work, such as Tulsa (1971) or Teenage Lust (1983). Set in New York’s skate parks, Kids was a stylistic tour de force thanks to Clark’s raw yet sentimental take on the torments of youth and his extraordinary instinct for finding new faces on the underground scene. Harmony Korine, the scriptwriter who was then aged 22, Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson and other members of the cast and crew all went on to have major careers after this first try-out. For his part, Clark spent the following two decades catching up on lost time, making six new feature films, among which the magnificent Ken Park (2003) and Wassup Rockers (2006). Today aged 70, he still hasn’t slowed down and this summer was filming his first movie in Paris, The Smell of Us (partly financed by crowdfunding), which was written by Mathieu Landais, alias Scribe, a 23-year-old poet from Nantes. And just before, Clark had made Marfa Girl exclusively for his internet site. In a difficult climate for auteur films, Clark is forging ahead with all the fury of a survivor. His projects include two films he would like to make next year, one in Texas and the other in Italy. Numéro met him near his temporary Parisian home, just after he’d stepped off a plane from L. A.
Numéro Homme: You’ve just got back from L.A. – what were you doing over there?
Larry Clark :
I was taking part in a shoot for a Japanese firm. Usually I don’t do that kind of work, but the models were actors from my film Wassup Rockers. They were being paid, which will help them go on tour with their band. They’re all between 22 and 26 now. I’ve known them for exactly ten years. Most of them still live in the same neighbourhood in South L. A. Jonathan still plays guitar and Eddie is the drummer. Their style is a mixture of rock and blues that’s different from the punk rock you heard in my film, and it sounds great. Around their houses, things have been renovated. Lots of young Blacks have been coming to skateboard with them for the past three or four years. In the neighbourhood, the Blacks and Latinos are supposed to hate each other; it was even the subject of Wassup Rockers. Today they coexist. Socially, it’s great. The cops let them have their way because they know they’re having fun. They smoke a lot of grass, that’s all. [Laughs.]
Staying in touch with street culture has always been your credo?
Nearly all my films are based on this idea. My new feature, The Smell of Us, was inspired by this method. During my photo retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010, I met Scribe, a young poet, at the Trocadéro, which is a Parisian skateboarding mecca. What was going on there reminded me of the atmosphere of Washington Square Park in New York in 1992, where I filmed Kids. There were teenagers from all over the world…
Did the idea for your new film come from watching them?
Absolutely. But wanting to shoot in France goes back further. It all started in 1995, on a beach, during the Cannes Festival. I was walking along with Harmony Korine, when we ran into a bunch of teenagers carrying skateboards and invited them to the showing of Kids in the official competition. Massed around the red carpet were all these well- dressed people waiting, while these skateboarders went up the steps. It was great. It gave me the idea of making a film about French teenagers, the way they grow up in society… I mentioned it to the producer Vincent Maraval, but he was convinced it wouldn’t work because I’m not French. The problem is, I’m not the kind of guy you should “challenge” like that: here I am motherfucker, in France 18 years later, ready to shoot!
Will there be a theatrical release for The Smell of Us?
I’m asking because your last film,
Marfa Girl, came out exclusively online.
Marfa Girl was made for my website larryclark.com. I wanted to make a film only for the internet, to get closer to the generation that watches movies and T.V. series in that way. The other reason was that I wanted to work totally independently, without the restrictions you get with the unions. The film cost around $800,000, whereas it would have been nearly $3 million if I’d wanted to do it the traditional way. My salary would have had to be much higher, for example. But there is a drawback: I can’t release Marfa Girl on DVD.
Did the shoot take place in guerilla mode?
Marfa Girl is rather unusual in my filmography. I really made it with my own hands, it was entirely written and shot without outside help. Everything came to me when I spent time in this amazing Texan town. It’s my favourite of the films I’ve made, the best I think. I put all my life into the characters. I started by jotting down ideas in a notebook, which became 20 pages of a basic script. During production I would get up at 5.00 in the morning to write out the day’s scenes in more detail. Things took shape according to my mood. I’m more efficient in urgent situations. Sometimes a scene I’d imagined fell apart on the shoot and had to be completely redone because it didn’t work. But I don’t let myself get
over-whelmed. I like being forced to find a solution on the spot. I get stuck in a corner and try to get out – it gives me extra freedom.
Does total independence make you a better director?
As a director, I insist on having the final cut. I remember that with
Ken Park Vincent Maraval explained to me that if I wanted to find a distributor I’d have to accept his cuts. But I held fast because I knew there was a public for this film, a public desperate for good cinema. In the end, Ken Park was selected by the Venice Film Festival and sold in many countries – Italy, which is very Catholic, followed by Russia and France, where the film did well, even if the rating certificate meant that under-16s weren’t allowed to see it.
The story’s not over…
A month after it came out, a far-right extremist filed a complaint, challenging the film’s classification. It was given a new rating, and all of a sudden you had to be over 18 to go see Ken Park because of its sexual content. Does that happen often?
I’ve never heard of anything like it.
And how often here in France have you heard about an exhibition being prohibited to under-18-year-olds like mine was in 2010?
It’s very rare.
All the fuss about this retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris was hard to take. I make films and photos intended for people who are the age of my characters. They understand them. So if you ban them from seeing them…
Why was there such a long gap between Wassup Rockers, which came out
in 2004, and Marfa Girl last year?
Sometimes my films take years to get made because they’re not easy to finance. When a director makes a successful film he’s always asked to remake the same thing all the time. But I don’t work like that. My films are all different and unpredictable, at least I hope they are. I don’t give anyone the chance to spoil them. The French producer of Wassup Wassup Rockers Rockers asked me to cut some of the skateboard scenes and to add a sex scene. As if I had that up my sleeve! As if it wasn’t my film! I told him to get lost. I don’t make films for money, I’m not rich, I think like an artist. The concessions that I do make have to do with the legal issues of releasing a film. If I can avoid them, so much the better. One of the reasons I made
Marfa Marfa Girl Girl for the web was that I didn’t want to deal with the censors again and find myself X-rated for some harmless little scene.
Your first book of photos, Tulsa, was a shock for a lot of people.
The book came out in 1971, but the first exhibition was held in New York in 1979. No one wanted to show those photos.
Where were you during those eight years?
I was far away, man… I went into a spiral, like a crazy, drugged-up nutcase. I was taking photos but I was still a junkie. I sank very low. I spent some time in jail. Then I moved to New York, where I finally managed to get an exhibition. Since then I’ve been working and not asking myself too many questions. People can take or leave my work, I’ve never sold myself. I have the impression that today artists are trying to sell their souls, as though it weren’t a problem.
It’s a different world.
I was born in the 1950s and I grew up with beatnik culture. The youth slogan was: “Don’t sell your soul!” Today the opposite seems natural. Before the economic crash and the crisis, most 15-year-old Americans thought that before they’d reached 22 they’d all have become famous or millionaires.
How did you imagine the future when you were 15?
I didn’t think I’d live long. I’m shocked to have reached this age, shocked to still be alive at 70. For a long time I thought my punishment would come early, like it did for my friends who died of overdoses. But here I am, still standing. I’m pretty happy. The only advice I can give is that you must keep fighting, never give in, even when you’re beaten down by depression. Last winter I was supposed to start shooting my new film but at the last minute there wasn’t quite enough money. I started hating myself and having suicidal thoughts. The depression just hit me: I hated who I was and no longer had the strength to work. I didn’t leave home for weeks and I started drinking. But I’ve been through enough to know that if you can get along without completely sinking, things will get better. You hang on to life by your fingertips, and the crisis ends up going away. I’m still angry to hear that friends or teenagers killed themselves. Look at me: four months ago I was in the seventh circle of hell, and now I feel in great shape.
The fact that you’re working in France isn’t an accident. Many foreign
directors come to the land of the “cultural exception” because the most
ambitious films can’t be financed elsewhere. There are Asians, Americans…
What happens is that everything is a question of money. Most people in the film industry no longer make movies but interchangeable products for profit. Under those conditions, discussion can be over pretty quickly… In the U.S., high-school kids go to the movies on the weekend so they can talk about them at school on Monday – they consume films like fast food. Experimental and art-house cinemas have almost disappeared. The studios bought up independent cinema. In an industry like that, my freedom is a problem. I’ve been offered a lot of money to work in Hollywood. If I thought I could do it, perhaps I would. But I don’t think I’d be good at it.
Still, I would have been curious to see one of the Twilight films directed by you.
Me too. The woman who wrote the books [Stephenie Meyer] is a Mormon who’s a bit embarrassed by sex. I know some of the actors who were in the films. They told me that she’d come on set and complain if they spoke badly between scenes, she couldn’t stand it if they used bad language. The underlying issue in the Twilight saga is sexual repression.
Some directors of your generation have managed to work within the
system without losing their soul. I’m thinking of Gus Van Sant, who was one
of the producers of Kids.
He accepts commissions and manages to make good movies. I like him a lot. There are still good people in show business, even if I don’t have many friends there. I know painters and sculptors in New York, but I don’t really hang out with photographers or directors because I almost never go to premieres. My only happiness is in my work. Lately I’ve been working in my studio on some fairly extreme, very large-format photos and collages that I’ll be showing soon.
Your new film,
The Smell of Us,
is about teenagers and the internet...
When Scribe started writing the script, we spoke about kids who are around 18 years old today in France. He himself is a bit over 20. I explained to him that I wanted to make a film about the internet and the way technology influences our lives. Young people document their daily lives themselves, on Facebook, they become friends with people they don’t know. I wanted to explore this reality by having people of different generations involved. Every day you read stories about kids who get into trouble because of an image they posted online or someone they met. With the internet, you can find yourself in a weird situation in a mouse click. Scribe wrote the whole thing in a year, I just suggested ideas. I’m happy, because it didn’t drag on too much. I make films about particular moments, and I’m always afraid those moments will evaporate.
Will Pete Doherty be in the film, as was announced?
No, not in the end. We were supposed to have dinner together one evening and he didn’t show up. We were supposed to have dinner together another night and he didn’t come, and so on. I didn’t fire him for the simple reason that I never hired him. It’s hard to work with someone who doesn’t show up. But there is a rock-star character in The Smell of Us. [After the interview took place, Michael Pitt was cast in the role.]
Today, would you say you’re more a director or a photographer?
I don’t feel that I’m either a photographer or a director, I’m an artist who takes photos and makes films. Labels bother me. If you go into a bar in New York today and ask everyone what they do, 75% will say that they’re photographers. Everyone’s a photographer nowadays! If my films are visually exciting it’s perhaps because I was a photographer, but even in my photographic work it was never a question of simply producing striking images. My primary goal was to tell stories. Tulsa was conceived like a film, I followed people over the long term…
You started making films quite late.
I was 51 when I made Kids.
Why did you wait so long?
It’s simple, man. In the 1970s, no sane person would have given me money to make a film, because I was an outlaw. But I wanted to direct when I was a teenager. I saw Shadows by John Cassavetes in 1961 in Milwaukee. I’d left Tulsa to study photography, at the time I only knew John Ford’s films with John Wayne, or Doris Day’s comedies. It was then that I discovered Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard. But it was on seeing the first Cassavetes that I got it. One of those moments that make everything clear. I had the impression that I saw the world like him. My favourite film of his is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I always insist that my chief cameramen see it.
Do you sometimes hold the camera on your films?
My operator sorts out the framing, but I always look through the lens before the clap. I always ask that we get closer to the actors; I want to get as close as possible. What, for others, is a medium shot is a long shot for me. I’m a director of intimacy.
Before making Kids, did you try to make it in Hollywood?
Not at all. I started the research that went into Kids towards the end of the 80s. At 47 I learnt how to skateboard. I got really into it and smashed myself up quite a lot. What a brutal sport! But it was fun, because the world I was exploring wasn’t mine. My photos had always had an autobiographic element and I was becoming sick of them as a result. I started making films in order to get some distance. Skateboarding interested me because, from a pictorial point of view, it’s magnificent, and because the kids who were skateboarding at the time were real punks. They came from messed-up families, and skating saved their lives, like rock ’n’ roll saved mine in the 50s. They were rich, poor, Black, White, Brown, Asian. They frightened the middle classes like the Hells Angels did and lived on very little money, eating a burrito from Taco Bell. People didn’t understand their freedom. Today, kids who’ve never put a foot on a skateboard can dress like skaters.
Your films never portray youth in a nostalgic way. Did you start filming other
people’s people’s adolescence adolescence to to forget forget your your own? own?
I didn’t have a happy childhood. Had I had a choice, I would have become a writer, a painter, or a sculptor… But my mother was a baby photographer and put a camera in my hands. It’s the only legacy I received from my parents. But yes, my films reject nostalgia, you’re right. That doesn’t have anything to do with my own adolescence, even if I might have thought so for a long time. The real reason is that I like to film in the present. My characters live in the moment, without past or future. Because to my eyes, kids will always be innocent.