Gregg Araki has spent his career taking a surreally intimate look into the lives of teenagers. In cult films like The Doom Generation and Mysterious Skin, and more recently in episodes of Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why, Araki bled the universality of the teenage experience for every last drop of rage, helplessness, and of course, desire — Araki’s characters are always horny.
With Starz’s new original series Now Apocalypse, the director has graduated from hyper-sexual teenage angst to hyper-sexual twentysomething ennui. The series follows a group of young Los Angelenos grappling with sex, drugs, and maybe the end of the world — it’s hard to tell when you’re that stoned. Now Apocalypse, co-written by Vice’s Karley Sciortino (Slutever) is whip-smart and refreshingly frank in its depiction of sexuality, especially queer sexuality — the gay sex scenes are the hottest on premium cable since True Blood.
In an interview with Out, Araki explains why Now Apocalypse is his “dream show” — spoiler alert, the rampant vaping and gratuitous queer sex scenes don’t hurt.
Are you a big stoner?
I'm actually not. It's funny, I made that stoner movie, Smiley Face, and people think I'm a giant stoner. Especially from my movies, too. I smoke and I drink, but I don't really do it that often. I'm like a social stoner. If I'm in a party and there's a joint being passed around, but it's not like I sit at home and get baked. I'm actually so busy now with the show that there's no time.
The main character of Now Apocalypse, Ulysses (Avan Jogia), is a stoner and it’s a huge part of the story, because you can’t be sure if what’s happening to him is real or if he’s just really high? Where did that characterization come from?
The sort of surreal aspect of the show — what's real, what's not — is such an important part of it. I really wanted it to have this kind of crazy, unpredictable universe. It's like, I'm not interested in reality. [My films have] always had this level of heightened stylization to them, and this show especially. We took that aesthetic and amped it up to 10 or 11. A lot of the hallucinogenic quality of the show comes from Ulysses and his pot smoking. It's funny, I didn't realize how Smiley Face the show was until I watched all 10 episodes. I'm like, “Oh, this is a very stonery show.”
I'm not interested in reality, I'm interested in this sort of meta-reality. It's just something that has always attracted me.
The way queerness is centered on Now Apocalypse is unusual for a show of hot young people, in a way that’s realistic and sexy. Was that important for you when developing it?
This show is kinda my dream show. I sat down one day thinking about, if I ever did a show, what would it be? A queer Sex in the City with Twin Peaks and an alien mixed in. That's kind of, for me, what the show is, but the queer aspect has always been super important. It wasn't like I was ready to make a watered-down version or a version where it's just like, “Oh, they're queer, but they're not really too queer.” This is exactly what I want to do, and this is exactly how I want to do it. It's exactly the queer vision I wanted to put out there.
In this time of Trump and “make America oppressive again,” it's more important for a show like this than ever. I feel like this show is really like a ray of light in this dark, terrible time we're living in. Just reading about young queer people in places which are not Los Angeles, in red states… I just feel like the world really needs this show right now. That's one reason why I'm so proud of it.
Since the beginning of your career, you've been making these iconic films about young people. What is it about young people that still fascinates you?
When I made Doom Generation [in 1995] which was like 25, 26 years ago, I was much closer in age to those characters than I am now, and also much closer in mindset. Now as I've gotten older, I have a perspective on that age. I still feel very sympathetic to it, but I see it for what it is, and how that period of your life is very ephemeral. Things that feel so big and so earth-shattering at that time are really not, they're just part of your growing up. When you're the age of the characters in Now Apocalypse — they're all in their mid-20's — they're just really figuring out their shit. Figuring out who they are, what they're gonna be, and their life is just a giant question mark. They don't know what the future holds.
As you get older, you get much more comfortable in your own skin. My life is really about no drama. It's really about just being happy and figuring out who you are. As you get older, you become more [of] the person that you're meant to be. At the same time, your life is not dramatic at all. That's, creatively, not that exciting, at times, to document. I think that's why I keep getting drawn back to these stories of these younger people.Their lives are much more tumultuous, because that's much more dramatic and much more cinematic, I think.
Do you think that in some kind of fundamental way, your characters now are still dealing with the same kinds of things as your characters in the '90s?
They are and they aren't. They live in such a different world with technology, Grindr, Tinder. It's a time where it's easier than ever to connect with people, even on the other side of the world. At the same time, people feel so disconnected. It's a really poetic metaphor, I think, for the age that we live in. Everything is very different now. I think that there [are] universal things that are the same in terms of people looking for love or connection or sex or whatever it is. At the same time, there [are] so many things that are different. I think it's a really, kind of fascinating era that we're living.
One of the things that I really appreciated about Now Apocalypse was how sexy the sex scenes were, and how fun and unapologetically queer they were. How do you approach writing and shooting those?
That's one of the things about me and Karley Sciortino, my co-writer, is that we're very much kindred spirits in the way we feel about sex and sexuality. I think that's why we bonded so strongly. We both are very sex-positive and feel that sex and sexuality is a huge part of life and a huge part of the human experience. We weren't trying to be titillating and we weren't trying to be leering or creepy about it. The sex and the sexuality in the show was a really important part of these characters and how they grow and how they change and who they are. The actors were all onboard. The ensemble actors that we worked with, they were all just so fantastic and really understood what we were doing, and were just kind of fearless about it.
What's so sexy about the end of the world?
I don't know if you would say it's sexy. It's really the idea that ... The world has never been more chaotic or more crazy than it is at this moment. I feel like this show, for all it's sexiness and color and pop fun, it has that element to it, that feeling that we're living sort of on the edge of the apocalypse.
Now Apocalypse premieres March 10 on Starz.