Gregg Araki

The Swoon Generation: Gregg Araki on Music as the Soul of His Films

Claire Lobenfeld

By Claire Lobenfeld

on 10.23.14 in Features
‘At the screening, I played the movie a little bit louder because I just wanna hear that music on that huge sound system and just be encircled with that sound, enveloped in this gorgeous music.’

Los Angeles indie cult film director and New Queer Cinema figurehead Gregg Araki has always been a fan of the industrial, shoegaze and dream-pop of the ’80s and ’90s. His work is rich with musical references, whether it’s Rose McGowan’s Amy White in The Doom Generation fondly remembering a My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult concert or the well-placed KMFDM sticker on the back of a pickup truck in his latest White Bird on a Blizzard, which hits theaters October 24. The soundtracks to his films are meticulously handpicked, featuring bands like Slowdive and Cocteau Twins. In fact, Cocteau Twins member Robin Guthrie, along with avant-garde composer Harold Budd, wrote the score and soundtrack for 2004’s Mysterious Skin and White Bird.

The latter film, which stars Shailene Woodley, Christopher Meloni and Eva Green, is a skewed coming-of-age story that takes place between 1988 and 1990, about a girl navigating her sexuality who comes home one day from school to find that her mother has mysteriously disappeared. The script was adapted from a novel of the same name by Laura Kasische — but the key to Araki’s adaptation is his upheaval of Woodley’s character. By flipping her from a non-descript outsider to a Joy Division-loving alt-teen who, along with her best friends (played by Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato), hangs out in record stores and industrial clubs, Araki paints the film with his musical influences.

“Music has always been important to my movies,” Araki said over tea at NYC’s Crosby St. Hotel. “It’s really just kinda the soul of every one.” The director spoke to Wondering Sound about the influences in White Bird, how he enriches his characters through his musical choices and why ended his “Nine Inch Nails movie” with a Slowdive song.

You’ve always seemed to put a premium on having original soundtracks for your films, but White Bird on a Blizzard is the first one to have one since 2004’s Mysterious Skin. How come Smiley Face and Kaboom didn’t?

[Smiley Face and Kaboom] both had scores and Robin and Harold did the score for Mysterious Skin. Robin actually did some music for Kaboom, too. It had a few composers — Ulrich Schnauss did some stuff. It was a conglomeration of composers. But this was the first with an original soundtrack since Mysterious Skin — and [it’s] equally amazing and gorgeous.

White Bird’s score has a dreamlike quality, but it soundtracks so many unpleasant scenes. I was most shocked early on, watching the younger version of Kat try to break into her dad’s porn stash. Why do you like to incorporate something so lovely with something so dark?

That was one of the things about Mysterious Skin: It was such a dark, disturbing movie, but the language in the book [it was adapted from] — similar to White Bird and that’s why the scores are similar — is so beautiful and so poetic. There’s kind of a dreamy quality to it. And Scott [Heim, author of Mysterious Skin], at [a recent] screening talked about the music he listens to when he writes. He listens to a lot of Cocteau Twins and it comes through — the way a Cocteau Twins album sort of flows are the way the words in his books flow. And I don’t know if Laura [Kasischke, author of White Bird] listens to Cocteau Twins, but I got the same feeling. Laura’s a poet, as well as a novelist, and the way she uses language is very lyrical, very elegant.

‘For the younger characters, I made them all CDs, because the music that all the characters listen to is so important to who their characters were, what they thought about, how they felt about the world, how they thought about themselves.’

That’s evident from the narration in White Bird.

A lot of the narration is literally lifted, word-for-word, straight out of the book. That’s kind of what, musically, you’re hearing — that kind of dreamy Cocteau Twins kind of music. The way Harold and Robin did the music is just incredible. I remember when I saw a piece that Harold did when Eva Green walks in the door of the house [and says], “It’s perfect” — the sound of that music is just like, [sighs]. Last night at the screening, I played the movie a little bit louder because I just wanna hear that music on that huge sound system and just be encircled with that sound, enveloped in this gorgeous music. That’s really an important part of the movie. It’s so important. I know when I listen to soundtracks for White Bird and Mysterious Skin I can just see the whole movie, the whole entire thing.

With The Doom Generation, the music choices are a lot more aggressive. The first scene is in an industrial club, they talk about Thrill Kill Kult. But the final scene of the movie, which, in total, is pretty difficult to watch, features Slowdive. Why did you choose to get so calm in that moment?

[I always call that] my Nine Inch Nails movie. It starts with a Nine Inch Nails song. I was really into industrial music when I made that movie and going to a lot of industrial clubs — like the [club] in White Bird. [The Doom Generation], to me, is a very in your face, angry, confrontational Nine Inch Nails movie. I was also super into Slowdive in the late ’80s, early ’90s. There’s such a fury in it, and it ends in such a horrific, nightmarish way, that [Slowdive] is the calm after the storm. And Slowdive is so beautiful and sorta heavenly, in a way. Slowdive is one of my favorite bands. They’ve been almost every movie. They weren’t in [White Bird], but they could have been because it was 1990 when they started out. But all the Slowdive songs in my movies have been used in a very specific way — the beginning of Nowhere, even in Mysterious Skin, there’s that beautiful use of “Dagger” when Neil is in New York.

Nowhere has a lot of interesting music choices, too. The use of The The’s “Love Is Stronger Than Death” is really impactful. In that movie and The Doom Generation, James Duval plays characters who are really obsessed with a love that ultimately, for lack of a better phrase, falls apart for him. In Nowhere, he finally finds the right person for him and it ends so surreally and ridiculously. But the music always feels deeply connected to the characters in a way most movie music does not.

For the younger characters [in White Bird] — for Shai, and Shiloh [Fernandez] and [Gabourey Sidibe] and Mark [Indelicato] — I made them all CDs, because the music that all the characters listen to is so important to who their characters were, what they thought about, how they felt about the world, how they thought about themselves. It was really important. I do that a lot. I remember for Doom Generation — in those days, it was cassette tapes — I made cassette tapes for Rose [McGowan] and Jonathan [Schaech]. I knew [James Duval], so he had all this music. But, I was like, “This music is related to your character” for actors that really like to get into it. And Jonathan is really like that. He really appreciated it and he listened to it all the time.

That’s an interesting connection because I was really struck by the industrial club scene in White Bird because Gabourey Sidibe’s character says something to the effect of, “I hate this place, I wish it would just burn to the ground” —

And you thought it was a line from The Doom Generation?


It’s true! There is definitely a reference between those two clubs. They’re not the same club, but it would have been great to have Rose in the background [in White Bird]. Those clubs are definitely related. It’s funny because when I made The Doom Generation back in the ’90s, it was that club. And now [The Doom Generation] is a period piece [laughs]. But, I spent a lot of my 20s in a club exactly like those. It was one of the things that I actually changed [in White Bird] from the book. In the book, Phil and Kat meet at a high school dance and Journey is playing or something. So that whole Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees scene is very much a part of me trying to make the story more autobiographical and more specific to my adolescence and coming of age.

There is not a lot of information about the novel or, really, where to get a copy, so I wasn’t sure if Kat was actually “alternative” or if you wrote that in.

She’s an outsider in [the book], but it was sort of part of my adaptation to [make her] the dark, cool girl. She’s sorta Winona Ryder in Heathers. I told Shai that she’d be really into Winona Ryder — Heathers and that sort of period Winona Ryder — and we modeled her look after that. I told Shai, “Do not go out in the sun. I want you as pale as you can possibly be. I’m going to darken your hair and you’re going to be one of those dark, pale girls.”

Gregg Araki

Going back to industrial clubs, I wanted to talk to you about the L.A. band Babyland and your involvement with them. How did you start working together?

They were first in The Living End, I think. 1992. And then also in Totally Fucked Up. I’m trying to remember how I first met them. They used to play a club called Club Fuck in LA. I saw them live a couple times.

Did you just say “Club Fuck”?

Well, it was called Club Fuck. I think it was “fuck” with an exclamation point. But it was the late ’80s and early ’90s [laughs] and there were clubs called Club Fuck! and I think they were playing Club Fuck! in those days — in the period of White Bird. It’s weird to me that that’s a period. “Oh yeah, I made a period movie set in a time that I remember.”

What did that feel like?

It’s a little weird. Cool, but weird. I’m grateful that I’ve been around long enough to make movies about that time.