Why Larry Clark tried to do “the traditional movie thing” (and why he got censored anyway).
At a critical moment in Another Day in Paradise, Melanie Griffith, who plays an aging junkie named Sid, turns to her partner, Mel (James Woods), and says, “I’m a junkie and a thief; I’m no role model.” The words could’ve come straight from the life of the film’s director, Larry Clark. Weeks before the film’s release, 59-year-old Clark checked himself into a Los Angeles treatment center after yet another relapse into his longtime addiction to heroin.
Clark’s work has always imitated his life — particularly his gritty, drug-drenched youth in the Midwest, where Paradise is set. His photography centered on the heroin addiction and raw sexuality that marked his teen and early adult years, and he gained some renown with two disturbing collections, Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983). Clark’s first film, Kids, received the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the applause quickly faded as critics blasted the film for its cynical view of an HIV-positive boy, Telly, whose source of pride is deflowering virgins. His vision of young sexuality was both violent and prurient, the stuff of pure controversy in the politically correct heyday of 1995, when it was released.
Another Day in Paradise, Clark’s second film, doesn’t pack the shock-value wallop of Kids, but it’s far from a comfortable ride. Based on a novel by ex-con Eddie Little, Paradise tells the story of two aging junkies (Woods and Griffith) who mentor two young lovers (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) in the life of crime. Clark says he chose to make Paradise because it was a Hollywood movie. “It was fun for me to do, to take something familiar and do it the way I thought it should be done.”
Clark spoke with Salon about antagonizing James Woods, incorporating real-life experience into film and his forthcoming book Heroin, a collection of his photography.
Jenn Shreve: Most directors who make movies about crime and violence have no experience with the real thing. But you do. How does your experience affect how you direct a scene?
Larry Clark: What I was trying to do was make it as real as possible. When people shoot narcotics, it becomes just like an everyday thing. It’s not a big ritual, so much. You can be in a room and someone can be sitting on the couch, sitting in a chair, fixing. And there can be somebody else in the corner playing a video game, or somebody reading a book, or somebody feeding a baby. It’s just such a casual routine, a pedestrian kind of thing. So I was trying to show that it was just something you might do.
As far as the violence, in real life, violence just happens so suddenly. It just happens and it’s over just as suddenly. And I was trying to show that, and have it happen out of the blue, which is what my experience with violence has been: Boom, it happens, and then, boom, it’s over.
Shreve: I had the feeling that you were addressing two separate parts of your life in this film. There’s the part of your life that you explored in works like Tulsa, and there’s your life now. You’re a father who hasn’t totally exorcised your own youthful demons.
Clark: I probably never will. (laughs)
Doing this screenplay did give me the chance to go back and revisit my earlier milieu without repeating myself, without making a movie out of the earlier books, which I really didn’t want to do. What I wanted to do was really challenge myself and do a Hollywood genre film that had been done and give my take on it. Try to make it more real the way I thought it should be done and the way that I thought the characters would be more realistic for me. I also wanted to work with actors, which I hadn’t really done before, because all the actors in Kids were first-time actors.
Shreve: Was it very different?
Clark: Yeah. The actors [in Paradise] had worked with a lot of directors and they were used to doing things a certain way, and I didn’t know about these ways. I didn’t know about the rules and the way things were done. Directors think like directors, and I think like an artist, because I haven’t really directed much. So I was constantly being told by the crew and the people who had made a lot of movies, and even by the actors on occasion, that there are certain ways that things are done. Because it turns out there are all these rules in Hollywood, and maybe that’s why so many films look like cookie-cutter films; they’re all the same. But I didn’t know from these rules, so I was free. And when they’d say, this is how it’s done, I would say, well, we’re not going to do it that way.
All someone had to do was tell me this is the way it’s done and I immediately wouldn’t do it that way just on principle.
Shreve: You apparently had some conflicts with James Woods, who also co-produced this film.
Clark: I think every director that’s ever worked with him has had conflicts. I heard a lot of stories about the guy. He’s notorious for that. So that was expected. But what I did was I gave Jimmy a lot of rope. I just let him out there, because I wanted to blend the character of Mel in with Jimmy’s own personality. So what you see on the screen is a lot of Jimmy, because Jimmy can be the nicest guy in the world. He’s a sweetheart; he’s the funniest, nicest guy around — so much fun to be around one second, and the next second, he’s off. It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
So I used that. I made him stay in character a lot, made him be a bitch and be very edgy and upset a lot because it was working for the character, which is kind of a crazy way to work and it was upsetting for a lot of the cast and a lot of the crew. But it worked for the movie. And if you see the movie, you can see what I did and it works well.
Shreve: When I saw that Melanie Griffith was cast as someone who was playing a junkie, I thought, No way. But she pulls it off. How did you come to the decision to cast her?
Clark: For someone playing against Mel, I wanted someone who wouldn’t try to get up to where he was coming from. Because if somebody tried to match Jimmy on the screen with that kind of intensity, I don’t think that anybody would’ve cared. I think they would’ve gotten very bored. So having Melanie, with that wonderful little-girl voice of hers, is kind of like the aging junkie. Because junk does take a big toll on women especially, and it was a very unglamorous role. I thought it was very courageous of Melanie to take on the role, because I wasn’t going to glamorize her, and I didn’t. It got pretty scary there some of the time. But she hung in there.
Shreve: You’ve said you see yourself primarily as a storyteller. What compelled you to tell this story?
Clark: It’s like everything. It’s a story about family, it’s about wanting family, the need for family, the yearning for family. It’s also about mentorship, because in almost all professions, the older people always bring younger people in and mentor them. All those things are in there. Plus, it’s just a regular outlaw, road-crime picture.
Shreve: The traditional Hollywood picture.
Clark: Yeah, which nobody understood — why I wanted to do this movie. I just wanted to give my take on this, and to do it. It was fun for me to do, to take something familiar and do it the way I thought it should be done. Because from my experience, I thought that the stereotypical Hollywood outlaw woman was not correct at all. They just play them a certain way, which I didn’t think was real. The way that I wanted Melanie to do it was more true to life — just the way that she disconnects a lot when this violence and this action and this crisis is going on, because she’s high. She’s just done like a big shot of dope, and when she’s driving in the car she’s laughing and everybody’s shot up and stuff. She’s pretty much out of it, which I was really pushing for.
That was a difficult thing to do, to explain what I was doing to the actors, that I wanted all these jokes and all this laughter and stuff going on with all the violence and blood and…
Shreve: It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition for the audience too.
Clark: I wanted it to be that way. And trying to communicate that, and having the actors trust me, was quite a feat to pull off.
Shreve: Did you have a mentor?
Clark: Yeah, and I talked to Jimmy a lot about this. There’s a friend of mine in Oklahoma named Jack Johnson, who’s gone now. He’s dead. One of my best friends, real important guy to me. So I talked to Jimmy a lot about Jack, and a lot of Mel’s character was based on Jack Johnson, so I would tell Jimmy stories about Jack that we would incorporate into the character.
Shreve: What about you? Do you see yourself as mentoring others, at this point in your life?
Clark: Well, in kind of a different way. I hope I’m mentoring my son a bit. But not in the outlaw life at all, not at all. Because hopefully I’m out of that life now.
Shreve: Many of the kids in Kids seemed hardened and distanced, detached; they didn’t seem to have a past. The kids in this film are really different. What were you trying to explore with the main boy, Bobby. How is Bobby different from Telly?
Clark: The film’s actually set in 1971, even though it’s not really clear. And this film is also a lot about child abuse. The two main characters, Bobby and Rosie, have a past of really bad abuse.
See, I was censored in this film. There was a scene that was cut out completely that gave a lot of background to Rosie’s character especially, which isn’t in the film because I was censored. The scene started and she was talking, and you get a really good sense of her past and where she’s coming from, and the scene ends in a rough sex scene that she initiates. And this scene the censors said no to.
I promised to get an R [rating]. Even with the success of Kids, you would think it would be very easy to get money to make another movie. And it was easy to get money to make another movie, but not the movie I wanted to make. I was offered so many screenplays that were Kids-like, bad Kids-like rip-offs. And I just didn’t want to do that. And I was offered some other movies to do, but I just didn’t feel comfortable doing them. I wanted to do this film, and it was very hard to get money to do it, so when it came down to the wire the only way I could get the money was to promise an R rating, even though the movie was definitely an NC-17 movie. There was no way around that. So I kind of sold out. I said, well, you know, you either throw away three years of work or promise them an R and make the movie. So I made the movie and I got censored and I knew I was going to get censored. So there were no illusions.