[FILM] Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin"
- Just making the movie that he wanted to make
With 'Mysterious Skin,' indie director Gregg Araki shocks with a
different kind of story. But don't worry; it's not like he's all
By Mark Olsen, Special to The Times
Gregg Araki insists that he never went away, never stopped working.
It has been several years since the release of the writer-director's
last feature film, and many of the reviews for his
latest, "Mysterious Skin," have hailed Araki's comeback.
"Everybody thinks I took a vacation" since the last
feature, "Splendor" (1999), he says, laughing, "but I've just been
working the whole time. I did a TV pilot, which turned out really
great, but like 99% of pilots, it didn't make it to series. People
think you haven't been working, when really you've spent all this
time doing this thing nobody sees."
"Way back in the mid-'90s," as he says, when he burst onto the
scene, Araki was the bad boy of the ascendant "Queer New Wave" group
of gay-themed filmmakers. Now in his mid-40s, he has perhaps
mellowed some, and "Mysterious Skin" certainly is devoid of the self-
conscious irony and candy-coated pop culture saturation that were
hallmarks of such earlier films as "The Living End," "The Doom
Generation" and "Nowhere." Nevertheless, Araki balks somewhat at any
notion that he's "matured" during the prolonged interval between
features. He orders a tofu scramble for a recent late-afternoon
lunch, and proceeds to add brain-scrambling amounts of hot sauce.
Elaborating on the time elapsed since his last feature, Araki
says, "I'm a true indie-indie. It's just me. I don't have a company.
I don't have any employees. So I'm always developing a bunch of
stuff at the same time. I'm always working on five projects at once.
And when one project becomes active, when things start happening,
everything else stops and I become focused on just the one thing."
An adaptation of the novel by Scott Heim, "Mysterious Skin" tells
the story of two young men in the small town of Hutchinson, Kan.,
and the ways in which sexual abuse at the hands of a beguiling
Little League coach many summers before has scarred them in
distinctly different ways. For one of the boys (Joseph Gordon-
Levitt) the abuse becomes a crucial marker in the process of his own
coming out; however, he has emotionally hardened into a ruthless
street hustler. The other boy (Brady Corbet) has sublimated his
experience so completely he believes he was abducted by aliens.
Araki came across the novel in 1995. After that, he kept crossing
paths with the project, such as when he recommended Heim to the
Sundance Writers Lab. Although he was keenly interested in bringing
the book to the screen, it wasn't until that ill-fated television
pilot that he solved what he saw as very specific problems in how to
shoot the film, in particular how to present the scenes involving 8-
year-olds in a way that was emotionally powerful and darkly
disturbing on screen while innocuous and harmless to the young
"It helped me doing the pilot because I was working a lot with
subjective camera and point of view and eyelines," explains
Araki. "It was through the visual planning of that, that I figured
out a way to shoot 'Mysterious Skin.'
"It was really important to me to keep the scenes with the small
children, because for me that was one of the things about the book
that made it so unique. It was really important to me to do those
scenes, but I didn't want to traumatize a child actor. I figured out
how to shoot those scenes using subjective camera, so the kids could
basically be protected from what the movie is about."
As editor of his own pictures, Araki was able to precisely modulate
between the dramatic demands of his script and the practical demands
of his production. "It was very tricky," he says. "Obviously, the
parents knew what was happening. I storyboard all my movies very
carefully, so it was all very controlled and very planned out.
"It was almost like shooting two different movies. I wrote this
whole alternate script so the boys' lines had a motivation, and
moment-to-moment had the right emotional beats, but I knew as the
person shooting and editing it exactly what I needed from each shot,
and I knew exactly what parts of what shots I was going to use.
"It was all carefully planned to keep the kids protected."
The story changes his style
While many viewers may see "Mysterious Skin" as the first film from
a "new" Gregg Araki, for the director himself any perceived changes
in his filmmaking style were simply in service of the story.
"I loved the book so much, I really wanted to make a faithful
adaptation of the story. I really wanted to bring this story to the
screen in a way that was true to what the book was about. It wasn't
like I wanted to make a Gregg Araki movie and throw in a couple
things from the book."
As for those reviewers who have used the occasion of even positive
notices for "Mysterious Skin" to bash his earlier work, the director
"It's a little weird for me, that certain reviewers, who will go
unmentioned, feel the need to embrace 'Mysterious Skin' at the
expense of my other movies. I'm just happy for 'Mysterious Skin,'
but if people don't like my other movies it's not like I lose sleep
Those earlier movies were filled with depictions of fluid sexuality,
cartoon violence, drugs, stylized sets, and in-joke cameos from such
tabloid-infamous figures as Heidi Fleiss and Traci Lords, as well as
actors plucked from retro pop-gems "The Brady Bunch," "The Love
Boat" and "Three's Company." If the overall effect could sometimes
be likened to downing too many Pixy Stix too quickly, the
affectation of ironic nihilism and despair in the films now seems
Though he is hesitant to use the "m" (for mature) word, Araki can
see the ways in which audiences may be shocked by the emotional
wallop of "Mysterious Skin," and, not surprisingly, he enjoys the
"I like that it was a real departure for me, and that people didn't
expect it. I really appreciate that aspect of it, that I've never
done a serious drama before. I do think that the film totally makes
sense with all my other movies, there is a thematic similarity and
the sensibilities of Scott and myself are really attuned to each
other. It's not as if I've directed 'Chicago.' "
And though he is "at peace with it," Araki hopes the day will come
when he will be seen simply as a filmmaker and leave the "Queer
Cinema" tag behind. "All of us at the time Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes,
myself we always said this is not a movement, we never planned
this. A true new wave, like the French New Wave, they sat around and
planned to change cinema. Whereas we were just independently doing
our own thing.
"It's stayed with us to this day. Literally every interview
for 'Mysterious Skin' has asked about the Queer New Wave. And it has
been a huge benefit, but it's also sort of insulting, like I have to
exist only as this identity. I understand why it happened, the
dynamics of how it happened, but what I've always said is it's
something we never came up with, it's not our idea."
Following one more forkful of hot sauce to stoke the fires, Araki,
with slight exasperation, says, "I'm just the wrong person to talk
to about these things. I remember when 'The Living End' came out, my
producer at the time said, 'You're this gay punk filmmaker that
really [upsets] gay people.' "