Shiloh Fernandez and Shailene Woodley in 'White Bird in a Blizzard' | Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Gregg Araki still has the power to explore young psyches. The California-born auteur, now 54, exploded in the 1990s with his highly personal takes on young people on the edge, particularly The Living End, Totally Fucked Up, and The Doom Generation. In 2004, he delivered Mysterious Skin, a textured and profound film involving a teen hustler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), alien abduction, and abuse issues. And now, he’s adapted and directed White Bird in a Blizzard, based on the Laura Kasischke novel about the disappearance of a teen girl’s mother in the 1980s. The girl, Kat (played by rising star Shailene Woodley) is emerging into a ripe sexuality and is barely able to even process the absence of her very bizarre ma (Eva Green). Adding population to the teen’s so-called life are a sultry boyfriend next door (Shiloh Fernandez), an older fuck buddy (detective Thomas Jane), BFFs in the form of a gay guy and a fat girl (Mark Indelicato and Gabourey Sidibeh), and a dad with some locked drawers (Christopher Meloni). A coming of age flick? A psychological thriller? A character piece about a frustrated mother? Whatever it is, the film prompted Variety to say, “With the exception of Tim Burton, few American directors have maintained a stronger auteurial hold on their careers than Araki.” Here’s my chat with the long running auteur.
Hi, Gregg. I knew it was an Araki film when I saw a gay best friend and a hunky guy.
[laughs] Is Shiloh hunky? I don’t know. I think he’s very intriguing, and when I met him for this role, he was so perfect for it because he brought that kind of boy-next-door innocence, but there’s something a little bit off about him. He’s not your traditional Abercrombie model. Something about him is a little mysterious and different. Obviously he has loads of sex appeal, but it’s askew in a way that’s dead on.
One review said, “Shiloh is not as hot as Araki obviously thinks he is.” That was weird.
That bothered me. Every actor, I think, is amazing and has their own thing. But in my last movie, Kaboom, the Chris Zylka character is that: the Adonis. Oh my god, he’s like Apollo or something. But in this movie, Shiloh’s character is not supposed to be that. We read a ton of actors for that role and were so thrilled about Shiloh’s performance.
How did you hook up with Shailene Woodley [who became an international star while you were editing White Bird]?
Shailene I had met around The Descendants—after she’d shot it, but before it came out. Her manager is a friend of mine. He said, “Will you please have a meeting with her? She’s amazing, one of a kind, and so special, and you can really hit it off.” I met with her and fell in love with her. I hadn’t even written a script yet. Months later, we were at the Spirit Awards, the year she won for The Descendants, and I ran into her manager again, and he said, “Do you have anything for Shailene? She’s getting offered all these movies, but she wants something special. She loves you and is a big Mysterious Skin fan.” I said, “I’m working on a book adaptation.” [The rest is history.]
Is Kat’s coming into her flesh coincidental with the mother leaving hers?
I found it a really beautiful metaphor. That’s all in the book. That’s very much what the book is about—those sorts of allegories.
And having those two best friends in the film suggests that the outcasts stick together, right?
That part is very me, too—as you said! In the book, the friends are two girls. That was one thing I changed. For me, the two girls kind of blended together. I couldn’t tell them apart. Gabbie and Mark did such an incredible job. The whole outsider thing is very much part of me—my characters always tend to be that.
It seems like it’s young outsiders you’re obsessed with.
When I was in France, various journalists and critics said, “Why does he want to make a movie about teenagers?” I actually try to avoid movies about teenagers for that reason, but this one spoke to me. The movies I did in the ‘90s are specifically about being young. Those movies are the opposite of this movie. Those kids have no parents and no house—they exist in a limbo of teenage anarchy--whereas this movie does have a dance club and teenage sex and that wildness of being carefree and young, but at the same time it’s really about that family, Kat’s relationship with her father and mother, their marriage, the house, and the suburbia. It’s much more like an Ice Storm type of movie, with all the secrets and lies that are behind the surface.
Do you identify as bisexual?
I don’t really identify as anything, I guess. I have a male partner—we’ve been together for three years—but I don’t really identify. I’d probably identify as gay at this point, but I have been with women.
Where did you and your partner meet?
In a pet store.
Animals are always a good ice breaker. Would you ever do a huge franchise film?
I think about studio movies, and I don’t necessarily have anything against doing one, but I’ve made my 11th or 12th film, and everything I’ve made is something I love and am super passionate about. I also edit my movies and am so involved in the color timing and everything. I watch a movie 1,000 times [while working on it], and if it’s not something I absolutely love, it would be torture. You only get to make a certain number of movies in a lifetime. If I could find a studio movie that would fit me like White Bird did, then fine. I have been attached to studio movies in the past, but they sometimes fall apart.
Give me an example of one.
I was supposed to do a Drew Barrymore movie—a cool screwball comedy, almost like an Almódovar movie. For various reasons, it didn’t happen.
Have you suffered any fallout from being openly LGBT in movieland?
That’s good to hear. Good luck, Gregg.
Thanks for writing about our little movie.
Photo of Gregg Araki on set courtesy of Magnolia Pictures | Photo by Marianne Williams
>>> ON THE TOWN BACK ON BROADWAY & J-HUD WANTS A BLACK FUNNY GIRL
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck & Clyde Alves in Broadway's 'On the Town' | Photo by Joan Marcus
THEY CAN COOK, TOO
Musicals don’t get much bigger than On The Town, the classic 1944 musical about three frisky sailors who land in Gotham for a 24-hour spree of sightseeing and romance, though the production numbers are interspersed between moments of charm and intimacy. With music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s a pastiche that mixes shtick and sentiment, lowjinks and high art, for a soufflé that’s very much of its time, but definitely worth revisiting.
Well, it’s back. The new Broadway revival, directed by John Rando, with choreography by Joshua Bergasse (playing off Jerome Robbins’ work), is as eager to please as a teen star fresh out of rehab. The performance starts with the conductor leading the audience on the National Anthem (though I couldn’t join in because I only know the Whitney Houston version, of course). In another populist touch, a nightclub MC character led a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to a real-life retired general in the crowd last Wednesday night. (Again, if it’s not Whitney’s version, I don’t know it. Sorry!) And throughout the evening, the cast—including Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Tony Yazbeck as the sailors, and Megan Fairchild, Elizabeth Stanley, and Alysha Umphress as their lady loves—is game and willing to do everything from spin to twirl to scat to kiss to giggle to cry over lost opportunities. They even come marching through the audience at various moments, and not to make sure no one’s texting.
At first, I felt the resulting production was friskily enjoyable but lacking a lump-in-your-throat thrilling quality that would have made it soar. But Act Two is both loopier and more bittersweet, and by that point, the characters have endeared themselves, especially in the night’s showstopper, Yazbeck and Fairchild’s stunning pas de deux. (Umphress also gets big applause for her brassy “I Can Cook, Too” reprise.)
By the way, part of making the show more accessible to 2014 has been the addition of some gay material, naturally. This time around, there’s a swishy Miss Turnstiles contest announcer, an even more flaming cab customer, and two gay guys dishing about sex. (They later find themselves in a clutch, about to kiss.) And did I mention the fact that all three sailors are shirtless at some point, plus there’s an extremely phallic loaf of bread? A helluva town.
ONE NIGHT ONLY
I just shot a “star cameo”—brag, brag—in a music video for “Go All Night,” a song by the London house duo Gorgon City, featuring the vocals of Jennifer Hudson. The video recreates the 1990s nocturnal scene of New York, complete with period-perfect club kids, voguers, drag queens, and yours truly. And the song is so catchy that after one take, the ensemble of clubbies started impulsively singing the hook, only to have Hudson join us with some live scatting. I basically duetted with Jennifer Hudson!
I also got to chat with the singer, reminding her that when she first exploded as a star, I saw her sing “Easy To Be Hard” at a benefit and chased her down the street for an interview. She obliged, telling me at that time that she was dying to play Effie in Dreamgirls. Well, we know how that ended up. At the video shoot, Jennifer told me, “That’s all so amazing because at my audition for Dreamgirls, they asked me to sing ‘And I Am Telling You I‘m Not Going,’ plus do another song in the spirit of that one. So I did ‘Easy To Be Hard’.” “But it’s hardly the same kind of song,” I whinnied. “I added the subtext,” she informed me, sensibly.
Before the cameras started rolling again, Jennifer told me that she’d love to come to Broadway if the right property would arise. “If only Funny Girl was a black show, you’d be great in it,” I offered. “That’s a great suggestion!” she exclaimed, excited. I bet she could add a helluva subtext to “People.”
>>> CLICK THROUGH: EBOLA VS. AIDS: WHY THE DIFFERENCE IN REACTIONS?
The 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. | Photo via Housing Works
EBOLA VS. AIDS: WHY THE DIFFERENCE IN REACTIONS?
As of press time, only three Ebola cases have been confirmed in the U.S., but the response has been absolutely overwhelming. We’ve seen constant coverage, banner headlines, and lots of political reaction to the fact that the infectious disease—which is already ravaging West Africa—could turn into worldwide pandemic if proper steps aren’t taken. You can’t go near any media imaginable without coming across references to developments in Ebola as it threatens to become way more devastating than it already has been. The worrisome reports are everywhere, from newspaper front pages to nonstop TV updates to various press conferences and official statements. I’m thrilled with the response (at least whenever it doesn’t verge on hysteria), but it does bring me back, in a very poignant manner, to another pandemic that spread across the globe: AIDS.
In the early ‘80s, people were dropping like flies of a horrible “gay cancer”—which manifested itself in grotesque symptoms and a definite death rate—but for the most part, the coverage was bizarrely spotty and/or phobic. As the casualties kept mounting, a gay weekly called The New York Native was on top of the subject every week (sometimes with crackpot theories, but at least they were trying), but otherwise, there was not exactly a spree of enlightened reporting about AIDS, largely because the people getting the disease in the U.S. seemed to be gays and IV drug users. These “victims” were deemed to either be deserving of their heinous illness or too niche to warrant respect on the part of the media and the general public! What’s more, AIDS transmission is generally more intricate than that of something like Ebola and often involves intimate sexual contact, which added a huge “ick factor” for the puritannical crowd (many of whom are hypocrites, by the way). Caught up in obvious distaste for the matter, President Ronald Reagan didn’t even see fit to address the epidemic until 1985—four whole years into the crisis—allegedly because he just wasn’t aware of its importance, a staggering reflection of bias-laden ignorance.
Well, President Obama, naturally, has been on top of the Ebola scare—he jumped on the issue right away and provides continuing statements—and other official figures have emerged to offer regular guidance and input without wasting any precious time as the world grapples with this horror. The CDC head is even going in the opposite direction by saying: “Don’t panic. This is not a significant threat to the U.S.” That might not seem cautious enough, but at least it’s a reaction to the situation! And part of me says, Yay! We’ve moved forward. We’ve learned from the early days of AIDS and are addressing a potentially explosive health scare with serious attention. But another tiny little voice inside me wonders, If Ebola only hit gays and IV drug users, would there be all this fuss? I can only hope the answer would be, “Yes,” because we’ve come a long way since 1981 when it comes to rights, acceptance, and visibility. But honestly, you still have to wonder.