Are sexual fluidity, existential dread and perverse punchline-driven witticisms a requirement for the millennial generation these days? In the new Starz program Now Apocalypse, it would appear so: Its Technicolor depiction of 20-somethings in L.A. trying to find love, success and themselves feels fresh and on the nose at the same time, creating a fantastical, stylized world where funky fashion, fetishism and cynicism collide.
For young viewers, the amalgamation surely feels accurate, or at least amusingly aspirational, especially since it's all reflected by gorgeous nubile youths on the show. But viewers in their 30, 40s and beyond can relate, too (if they don't watch with a get-off-my-lawn attitude, that is). This modern coming-of-age romp is filled with vaping, sexting, mate-swapping, three-ways, pee play, role play, rolling, trolling and tripping, webcams, online dating, public sex followed by ghosting and self-conscious special snowflake-esque quests to feel good and look cool. It's all pretty timeless and familiar because we've all gone through it — growing up, hooking up, hating the world as we struggle to find our place in it so that maybe one day we don't. For Generation X, this is particularly resonant, especially for those of us who've been familiar with the previous work of Now Apocalypse's creator, Gregg Araki.
Araki is like a god in the queer, punk, goth and alternative communities, especially in Los Angeles. After our interview at a Hollywood Starbucks near the home of the 59-year-old L.A. native, I posted the obligatory selfie with my subject on social media, which was as meaningful to me as a pic with any rock star or movie star I've ever interviewed. I was clearly not alone in my admiration for the filmmaker, as dozens of friends and acquaintances — gay and straight — had words of worship and praise, sharing how formative his films were, and how they expressed the darkness and decadence of their youth, both real and imagined. A huge part of this connection has to do with music, too. For Araki, music isn't just a soundtrack to our lives; his films have always been driven by a sonic script, usually of the effervescent shoegaze or dark industrial variety, and it's been nearly as important as his hyper-sexual visuals.
So it doesn't come as a surprise when we sit down to talk, sipping iced coffees, when Araki reveals something we both have in common — writing about music for this publication. He has fond memories of covering and reviewing bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and Ministry for the Weekly in the '80s under then–music editor Craig Lee, just after graduating from USC's School of Cinematic Arts. He even included a dedication to Lee at the end of his film Totally F**cked Up, he says.
"I was just this sort of underground filmmaker making my little underground black-and-white, 16mm movies, and you know I was always into music and alternative music. It was a way to get free records," recalls Araki, who answered an ad for interns just like yours truly. "Also I got into all these free shows."
Years later, when Araki gained notoriety for 1992's The Living End, he scored the cover of the paper he used to write for. "This is so L.A.," he says. "But I remember going to Tower Records on Sunset and seeing myself on the cover of the Weekly and going, 'Shit,' and like, freaking out."
When asked if he felt like he'd made it, Araki says no, the feeling was "the opposite. I felt naked, like oh my God. I just felt so visible and that made me really uncomfortable. Because I'm a filmmaker and I'm behind the camera. This was like my face on the cover." His discomfort with that, I tell him, is not exactly what many might deem "so L.A.," at least not today.
Araki would go on to make Totally F**cked Up, and two even more beloved alternative classics, Nowhere and The Doom Generation, all featuring actors who themselves went on to garner major mainstream movie fame (Rose McGowan, Heather Graham, Mena Suvari and Ryan Phillippe, to name a few). His face and especially his name became just as well known, in Los Angeles, the United States and around the world. And since his work was synonymous with shocking, angsty, queer and polysexual imagery and storylines, his most prolific period was not without controversy.
Interestingly, Araki's own sexuality became one of the most contentious topics surrounding him in those days, and not in the way some might assume. It was pretty obvious Araki was gay based on his films (which always seemed to cast an extra longing and lusty gaze on their male stars, in particular), and in interviews about his work he identified that way (he's referred to himself as a "Japanese gay American"). But when it became known that he'd started a relationship with a woman (former Beverly Hills, 90120 star Kathleen Robertson, who also starred in Nowhere) in the late '90s, many in the gay community didn't like it, hypocritically questioning the filmmaker's right to the very sexual freedom it always fought for. But Araki's bread and butter was exploring the blurred lines of sexuality and challenging gender norms, so why would he live his own life any differently?
Subsequent projects, including Splendor, the 1997 exploration of polyamory starring his then-girlfriend, and years later, the apocalyptic trip out of Kaboom from 2010, continued to celebrate bisexuality or polysexuality, a no-boundaries approach to love and sex that today is expressed with more au courant terminology like "nonbinary," "gender/sexual fluidity" and "pansexuality."
Which brings us to his latest project, Now Apocalypse. Though Totally F**ked Up, Nowhere and Doom Generation are referred to by the director himself as his "apocalyptic trilogy," the themes in Araki's films are not limited to this tempestuous trifecta. Kaboom in particular (currently streamable on Hulu) feels like a true sister project to his Starz show, aesthetically (backdrops, styling, sex scenes, etc.) and thematically (the end of the world as we know it).
"I'm so influenced by David Lynch and surrealism, of course. There's this whole aspect of the unknown and apocalyptic doom to the show," Araki says of Now Apocalypse, which is produced by Steven Soderbergh. "So we have this sort of surreal HBO R-rated millennial sex comedy. I'm really interested in relationships, friendships and who's been sleeping with who, sort of soapy drama, as seen on shows like Girls or Insecure."
Those of us who grew up admiring Araki's dark and raunchy vision, now part of what is curiously considered the forgotten generation (aka "Gen X") were the first to consume sexual content at home (porn on video and later computers) and we made explicit if less provocative shows such as Sex and the City big hits, which provided the framework for the acceptance and personal choice of today. But Carrie Bradshaw would surely blush at the situations in Now Apocalypse. And she'd be playing the mom to boot, just as the sex symbols of the past now play parents on the teen hit Riverdale (which Araki has guest directed).
While the past most definitely informs the present, providing reference points we can all relate to, Araki is obviously more interested in looking forward, telling stories of youthful hedonism right "now," which, despite his continual fascination with a catastrophic end of humanity still feels inherently more hopeful for the future, however long that may be.
The mindset and quippy snark of today, honed on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, not to mention the sexual trends, attitudes and attention-whoring seen on Instagram and YouTube, are portrayed spot-on in the new, binge-worthy show. Araki gives a lot of credit to his early-30s co-writer, Karley Sciortino (sex columnist for Vogue.com and host of Viceland's Slutever), on whom the webcam-girl character is based. The conversations between the two main characters on the phone and over meals are very Sex and the City–esque, though, with an added gay-best-friend twist.
"It was such an amazing experience to make this show," Araki says. "I'm in my 50s now and all the characters are in their early 20s. I feel like when you're that age ... it's an amazing kind of creative, beautiful world to live in. Everything's a question mark, you don't yet know what you're going to be. And then as you get older, you just really get more like comfortable in your skin, and about who you are. Which is good but kind of boring."
The story concerns Ulysses (Avan Jogia, former star of Nickelodeon's Victorious), a gay stoner/player looking for true love (maybe) and grappling with weird visions of lizardlike aliens having sex and destroying the planet. His best friend, Carly (Kelli Berglund, formerly from Disney XD's Lab Rats), is an aspiring actress who resorts to selling her urine on Craigslist and doing naked webcam chats to pay the bills (she also tries making a YouTube series re-enacting the high and low points of her Forever 21–adorned lifestyle). Then there's Ford (Beau Mirchoff, of MTV's Awkward), Uly's dumb but sweet, often shirtless roommate, who wrote a screenplay that some smarmy producer types may be interested in (or maybe they just want his body, for sex or other, more nefarious reasons). And finally there's Severine (Kaboom's Roxane Mesquida) Ford's astrobiological theorist girlfriend; a cold and robotic but super-sexy Euro-bitch type, who considers monogamy to be a form of social control and is definitely the boss in her relationship.
All of Araki's projects provide showcases for strong women (McGowan's cat-eye sunglasses–sporting, crimson-lipped and cigarette-puffing Amy Blue in Doom is iconic at this point, and in Kaboom Juno Temple's London takes the lead in the bedroom, shamelessly telling her lovers how she likes to be touched, licked, etc; even in Smiley Face, Araki's mainstream pot comedy starring Anna Faris, we see her strength behind the haze). His lead male characters, in general, tend to be less self-assured and, in the case of his longtime muse, James Duval (who starred in the aforementioned trilogy, and who makes an appearance on the Starz show), that makes them not only sympathetic but very real, no matter how unreal the situations they are in happen to be.
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It's no coincidence that many of Apocalypse's actors happen to be former child stars. There's probably no better way to shed a squeaky-clean, kid-friendly image than taking a role in an Araki project. This was true in the '90s, and it's even more true today. But no matter how lascivious his material gets, young actors will take the roles he provides because he doesn't exploit his characters even when his subject matter is exploitive. He also stresses that all the sex in his work is not meant to be titillating so much as illuminating, offering glimpses of who the person is inside.
"A lot of times when sex and sexuality are presented on TV or films, too, there's like a darkness to it and sort of an almost guilt or shame to it," Araki explains. "But with this show the sex is very joyful, and it's sort of an awakening experience, and also like a learning experience. It really makes you the person you're going to be.
"And I think of my own life, you know, in terms of being queer or sexually fluid or whatever, and I think about the sexual experiences I've had. If I wasn't sexually who I was and have been, and am, I don't know what my life would be like right now. My sexuality has shaped the way I see the world, my work, my identity. So it's not about the sex, or the genitalia, but about the truth about someone revealed in those moments."