“I always wanted to make the teenage movie that America never made,” says Larry Clark, and from the first frames of Kids, feature-length film about a day in the intertwined lives of a handful of New York street teens, you’ll think he may have done it.
Kids opens on a next-to-naked teenage couple locked in a deep kiss, interrupted only by the young-looking seducer’s insistent rap aimed at talking his even-younger-looking partner out of her virginity. Unnerving in its studied predatoriness, his coaxing prevails. A brutally-too-few moments after the slam-bam confirmation, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a.k.a. “the Virgin Surgeon,” hits the streets, high on his conquest and boasting of his taste for “little baby girls.”
It’s Telly’s single-minded quest for virgin flesh that drives the narrative of Kids, which tracks him and his loose network of friends through 24 hours of roving exploits up and down the island of Manhattan. When Jenny (Chloe Sevigny), one of Telly’s previous conquests, discovers she is HIV positive, and Telly’s the only guy she’s slept with, the film’s inexorable logic is cemented. From here Kids unfolds with a race-against-the-clock urgency, as Jenny roams from haunt to haunt in a dazed quest to bring the bad news to the unsuspecting protagonist. Telly, true to character, is by now hot on the trail of an even younger prospect (played by the painfully fresh-faced Yakira Peguero).
Shot by cinematographer Eric Edwards of My Own Private Idaho fame (Gus Van Sant is Clark’s executive producer), Kids feels like a documentary; the surprise is that it’s scripted throughout (by Harmony Korine, a street-credentialed then-19-year-old whom Clark hooked up with in Washington Square Park). Much of Kids‘ considerable art, in fact, lies in the mesmerizingly vivid performances – are they acting or simply “hanging”? – that Clark coaxes from his largely unschooled actors.
Amid industry speculation as to how Clark’s matter-of-fact depiction of teenage sexuality and drug use will play out with Disney, parent company for Kids‘ distributor, Miramax (Disney is fervently anti-NC-17, a rating Clark’s film seems likely to receive), a midnight sneak preview at the Sundance Film Festival turned Kids into an instant cult classic. The buzz since then has steadily grown louder. Whether the movie opens in mid July, as Miramax promises, or becomes mired in a ratings dispute, Clark has more than matched the gritty intimacy he made his signature in his now-classic books of photographs, Tulsa, 1971, Teenage Lust, 1983, 1992, 1992, and The Perfect Childhood, 1993 (still unavailable in the U.S.). in fact, it seems he may have found in film his perfect vehicle.
Clark’s photographic work numbers among its longtime fans the filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose scripts include Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, 1976, and Raging Bull, 1980. Schrader has also directed (as well as written) such movies as American Gigolo, 1980, and Light Sleeper, 1992. This March, he and Clark sat down at Schrader’s New York office. They talked about Kids, and how Clark came to make it.
Paul Schrader: You’ve been working for about twenty-five years now.
Larry Clark: Yeah. Longer.
Schrader: How has your work changed?
Clark: Well, I think it changed a lot structurally. The first book is very formal in a way.
Schrader: But when you began, your work was almost a hobby – taking photographs of people you knew. It’s after the success of Tulsa that it becomes an occupation. You see that there’s interest and that there can be a second book.
Clark: When I started Tulsa I was working for my mother, who was a baby photographer, going door to door “kidnapping” – doing baby photography. I left Oklahoma when I was 18 and I went to art school, or, actually, to a commercial-photography school in Milwaukee that was in the basement of an art school, and I started hanging out with the artists, who were like beatnik kids. I think my parents had sent me with the hope – it was never articulated – that I would come back and take over the family business. But I realized I could use photography for something other than baby photographs, and I started going back to Oklahoma and photographing my friends. I vaguely wanted to be a writer, and I wasn’t a writer, but I wanted to be a storyteller somehow. When I did the early Tulsa photographs I saw them as a film, but I wasn’t a filmmaker.
Schrader: There are clips of film in Tulsa, either eight or sixteen millimeter.
Clark: Sixteen millimeter, in the middle section. In 1968 there was so much going on in Oklahoma, it was so complicated and there was so much action, I knew it had to be a film. I actually borrowed a movie camera and shot some footage, but doing it all by myself didn’t work. That’s when I decided to go back with just a Leica.
Schrader: Was that documentary footage, or was it worked out beforehand?
Clark: I was just there and I had the camera and I would raise it and start working. But it wasn’t practical, so I went back with the Leica. I was really waiting for the photographs to happen. I didn’t know how they would happen or when they would happen, but I was certainly ready when they happened. That’s why the last section of Tulsa, the ’71 section, is so on – it’s because [snaps fingers] I was really there.
Schrader: Two things strike me as I look through your books: one, they become more autobiographical, and two, they become more montagelike. There is a progressive, intentional desire to be part of the story rather than an observer. In Teenage Lust you included written biographical material and photos of yourself. I’m not sure if there are photos of yourself in Tulsa.
Clark: Yes, at the end of the book. Just one. But I’ve never been a distant observer, it’s always been autobiographical. I was just one of the people, one of the guys. I happened to have a camera because my parents had this babyphotography business. When I was out with friends, shooting drugs, I would have my equipment with me, because I would be coming from or going to work. I think Tulsa worked so well because it was a natural thing. I was part of the scene, with no motive to cap on my friends or anything.
Schrader: When I first saw it I bought two copies, which I unfortunately gave away.
Clark: Yeah, everybody did that.
Schrader: So, you’re moving along as a photographer including more and more of your life – photos in jail, photos of drugs, photos of sex, correspondence. You’re building up to an autobiographical body of work through these books. And then along comes Kids. Where does Kids stand in that progression?
Clark: Well, I always wanted to make the teenage movie that I felt America never made – the great American teenage movie, like the great American novel. When I was a kid, the teenage movies were like City across the River and Amboy Dukes. I would see those movies and I would say, Those kids don’t look like kids, they’re all like older people, like grown-ups. In the teenage movies I do like – Over the Edge, say – they actually used kids. I guess I’ve been angling toward that forever. When you asked how my work has changed, I mentioned structure: Tulsa is very formally laid out, but then the books get more complicated, with the collages and the letters – more filmlike, I think.
I was thinking last night about which of the characters in Kids I relate to the most, and it would be Casper: out of control, drugs, alcohol, drugs, out of control.
Schrader: He’s the one who’s to the side, not driving the narrative. Its Telly who drives the story.
Clark: Telly drives the story. He’s the guy who’s focused on girls: all he thinks about is pussy, which is why he’s successful. The reason the guys who really get the girls are successful is because that’s all they think about. Whereas Casper is all over the place. He’s just out getting fuckep up, having a good time, and whatever’s happening is what is, man, you know. So I was thinking last night that I was Casper. I mean all the films I’ve ever seen about teenagers, there’s a lot of bullshit in there. There’s always something that doesn’t ring true. I always wanted to make a film the way it really is, the same as I did in Tulsa. The one thing I wanted to do in Tulsa was cut through the bullshit and tell the truth.
Schrader: Yet Kids adheres to a classic structure. It’s chronological, it has a fixed time-frame (24 hours), it deals with one subject at a time. There’s some intercutting but it isn’t a collage, and you don’t enter into the characters’ thought world or fantasy world, In some ways it’s less complex that your most recent book, The Perfect Childhood, which in a way reminds me of some of Kenneth Anger’s work: it’s half in reality and half in fantasy. Anger will get lost in comic strips. He’ll portray something that seems to be off the point. When You see Scorpio Rising you have to say, Is this happening or is this some sort of projection? That seems to me like The Perfect Childhood, which is a scattershot of clips: it’s like, I saw this in a newspaper, and I saw this teen spot on television with Matt Dillon or whomever. Did you perceive the tension between that kind of association, which is where your photo work seemed to be headed, and a chronological narrative?
Clark: I realize that Kids is more like Tulsa than like The Perfect Childhood. My first film is like my first book, which I felt was the best way to tell this story. I thought a lot about it, and about ways Kids could have been edited. It seemed to need a straightforward approach, which fit better with the feeling of realism: is this scripted and acted, or is it real? There’s a blur there. Sometimes you don’t know if the kids are really acting or not.
Schrader: There are moments where you say, Oh, that person was riffing, whereas other sections you know are scripted.
Clark: There’s improv, but even the improv was suggested. A kid might say it in his own way, but he was fed the lines.
Schrader: If you look at Tulsa today, there’s almost a quaint quality to some of it. The kids seem relatively well-dressed, they seem sort of put together, and you say, Those aren’t such bad kids. That’s what time does. Have kids changed?
Clark: Well, I’m not sure kids have changed so much. When people see Kids, most of them, not all of them, will say, Yeah, that’s the way we were, that’s the way kids are. Some things have changed a bit. The relationship between boys and girls is different: everything is out in the open. The language is out there now – I mean nice little junior high school kids, well-dressed little mall kids, listen to them talk, it’s all Hey baby come suck my dick, you know. That kind of interaction is perfectly natural for them.
Schrader: Certain things have changed. The availability of hard-core pornography – big change. The availability of drugs. Youth metal culture: the music is violence. But I guess I’m asking if you could comment on your roots of identification. Arthur Miller once said that the computer is programed from age 7 to 18; after that you just keep running the software, but your computer was programed at an earlier time. Is there an editorial switch in your head that tries to program today’s kids in terms of when you were that age? Did you feel a desire to make the kids in the film like the kids you knew?
Clark: No, I accept these kids for what they are, and I think I understand them and I think I know where they’re coming from. I don’t think it’s changed much from thirty, thirty-five years ago, when I was a kid – I don’t make that distinction. I’m just trying to show it exactly like it is. I really am concerned with these kids. it’s almost as if I was one of them. I just become them – somehow that happens. Last summer I’d be walking down the street with these kids, just hanging out with them for an evening or a day, whatever, and I’d have the feeling that I knew I felt exactly like they felt. That I was one of them. And then I would realize I wasn’t a kid, you know, I’m a 52-year-old guy. But I was able to do that.
Schrader: But the private rituals are closed to you. You don’t get stoned with them. You don’t gang-bang with them. You don’t get violent with them. At a certain point a curtain is drawn and they descend into their own culture.
Clark: But I understand that culture, because I certainly am from that culture.
Schrader: Have you screened Kids for this group?
Clark: A couple of the kids in the movie have seen early cuts. But no, they haven’t seen it yet.
Schrader: How important is their approval to you?
Clark: Extremely important.
Schrader: Let’s back up: how did the film come about?
Clark: I wanted to make a film. I had an idea to make a film about skateboarders: I liked the culture, I liked the freedom, and I got to know a bunch of skateboarders in California and I hung with them and started photographing them. At the same time, back in New York, I met a lot of skateboarders through my connections in California. My son was eight or nine years old, so I bought skateboards and we started skating. It was a good bonding thing, as they say, and I also wanted to learn how to skate so I could keep up with these skaters. I had to be able to skate good enough so I could stay on the board and have my Leica with me. So I started hanging out with skaters, which is pretty funny, because one thing about skating that’s so seductive is there’s no parents. They’re totally on their own. There’s no gas money, they can go anywhere they want. It took a 12-year-old kid to figure out that the whole city is like a concrete playground. I was fascinated by that, and I started getting these ideas.
Then I was sitting at the fountain in Washington Square Park, talking to some skaters, and I had my camera and I think a skateboard. This kid sitting next to me started talking to me, and he was a talker. He asked me about the Leica and he mentioned Robert Frank – and I said, Man, this is hip for a high school kid. So we started talking and I said I’m going to make a film, I know this DP who’ll shoot it for me, his name is Ed Lachman, and the kid, Harmony Korine, who was then in his last week of high school, said, I know Ed Lachman. I worked with him on this film Light Sleeper, this Paul Schrader film. And he started telling me stories about it, and he’s making up a lot of them. I didn’t know he was making them up, but the first thing he says to me is, You know the sex scenes between Willem Dafoe and so-and-so? I said yeah. And he said to get ready for the sex scene what they did was she like blew him for about 20 minutes, you know, and they got all hot, and then they shot. And he said, That’s how they do it! He’s making up all these stories and on and on, and he says, I’m a filmmaker, I make films in high school. He tells me he just wrote this screenplay, a short film, about a half hour. I said, Man, that’s amazing. We’re talking and he knows everything about film. I think I’m talking to the next Marty Scorsese, right? And as I get up to leave he reaches into his backpack and gives me a VHS of this ten-minute short he made in class, with his name and phone number on it. And I just said, Man, what an amazing kid.
I saw him in the park a couple of times after that. Then a year later I had an idea for a film about a kid, a teenager who was known as the Virgin Surgeon because he liked to deflower virgin girls. So I’m thinking about who could write the screenplay and I said, It’s gotta be from the inside, but I didn’t know any kids who could write. And I said, Wait a minute, I met this kid a year ago at the fountain. So I called up Harmony and said, Send me that script you wrote in high school. He sent me this 35-page script and I said, This kid’s pretty good, he can write. So I asked him to write Kids. He knocked out the script in three weeks.
Schrader: Is Harmony on-screen in the film?
Clark: He plays Fidget, the guy in the club who gives Jenny a pill in the bathroom. During the filming we lost the original Fidget so I told Harmony he had to do it. He didn’t want to, but he did a great job.
Schrader: To what extent is Harmony one of these kids?
Clark: Harmony was a skater, a good skater, for five, six years. He quit skating to concentrate on writing and making films, but he was a skater, he knew the kids in the film. They’re nonactors – most of them Harmony’s known for years.
Schrader: The feeling you get when you watch the movie is, These kids are adrift, there are no role models out there.
Clark: I was gonna say something about there being a billion reasons why kids are the way they are, but I feel the main reason is bad parenting, no parental guidance. It’s really that simple. And the next film I do is about how kids survive outside the family and what goes on in families.
Schrader: Do you think there’s an element of radical chic in the interest of high-brow publications and critics in a movie like this? How would you respond to someone who says that in pursuit of the “truth,” Larry Clark panders to sex and violence, and in fact he’s exploiting these kids? Clark: I would say, This is the world, this is what’s going on. It was the same way when I was a kid: sex and violence. That’s just the way it is when you’re a kid. it’s why I started making my work, to show what’s really going on. And this is what’s really going on.
Schrader: Another criticism that will probably come up is that this seems to be some sort of racial Eden. Did you make a decision to stay away from racial antagonisms?
Clark: This is the way it is with this group of kids, skaters, in New York – it is a melting pot, it is multicultural, multiethnic, rich and poor. if you get out of New York, across the U.S., kids who hang out have to look the same. Your girlfriend looks like you. But in New York it’s different. You walk out on a Friday night, a Saturday night, you see groups of kids – Chinese kids, Chinese girls, black girls, black guys, white guys, Puerto Ricans, all together, all having fun. There’s no difference. I wanted to show that this is the way of the city – the way it is.
Schrader: Well, I think specifically downtown New York.
Clark: It’s a downtown movie.
Schrader: Did your DP operate?
Clark: He held the camera, absolutely. I had the best DP, Eric Edwards, who was fantastic. We really worked well together.
Schrader: Were the shots predetermined or could he move with the scene?
Clark: He could move with the scence, but I was pretty specific about what I wanted. We would work it out, talk about and do it. I wanted as many hand-held shots as possible, and I always wanted to get a little closer.
As far as the look of the film, I did what a lot of people do – you think of your favorite films and figure out why you like them visually. When Harmony and I were talking, I told him that John Cassavetes’ Shadows was my favorite film. We were going to make Shadows 1994, and I think we kind of did. The look of Kids comes from Shadows, and from Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which I’ve watched a hundred times.
Schrader: Cassavetes would usually keep it spontaneous by using two cameras. That way you’d never have to worry about the action not matching.
Clark: We used second cameras a lot. We would say “Bookie shot,” meaning a longer lens and a lot of foreground. Look at The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and you’ll see. And if you look at my work, foreground is so important.
Schrader: What was the relationship between prepping the set and rehearsal?
Clark: When we got the money, we had six weeks to cast and rehearse. By that time a lot of the kids I’d been going to use were too old; kids can change so quick. I had maybe two people locked in. I had to recast and rehearse in six weeks. Two days before principal photography I didn’t have Jenny. All the kids in the movie were real; Jenny was the only really made-up character. So I’m looking for Jenny, looking for Jenny, and I realized I could never find a Jenny because there is no Jenny! My producer, Cary Woods, sent me an actress from Hollywood who wanted to do the film, but she just didn’t blend in with the other kids. She was an actor and stuck out like a sore thumb. I had to fire her on a Friday evening and shooting started on Monday. I had to find jenny over the weekend, which I did. And Chloe did a remarkable job. But that meant there was no real rehearsal, especially with Jenny. A lot of the scenes we would talk about the day before, and maybe do a little rehearsal the night before, sometimes no rehearsal. Talk about directing – it was trial by fire. We’re ready to do a scene and we don’t know how to do the scene and with all the technicians and everybody there, I would have to get down on my knees with the actor and figure out the scene with forty people watching.
Schrader: What have you learned about directing that you didn’t know when you started?
Clark: I think it’s the hardest thing ever to do, every day it was like a war. And at the end of the day, it’s on you – you really have no scapegoats.
Schrader: The beautiful things is that you don’t want to do anything else. And you can live on four hours of sleep because this is all you want to do.
Clark: Exactly. No sleep. And I think I learned that this is what I’m going to do.
Schrader: After The Perfect Childhood I said to my wife, This book is about this really nasty joke that God takes these beautiful young people without hair on their face, and bad skin and insecurities, and lack of social skill and lack of self-identity, and gives them big throbin’ dicks.
Schrader: And He says, Deal with that, motherfucker! I think a lot of that comes through in the movie, that sense of the of burden of sexuality. In a tribe, codes of sexuality are brought to bear by the elders and the tribal patterns. Here, the youth have to try and figure it out on their own.
Clark: You said it good.