Larry Clark’s films are shocking. There’s Kids, about drug-using, AIDS-carrying,
sexually active Manhattan teenagers; Bully, the true story of a group of teens who
murder their tormentor; and Ken Park, which was so sexually explicit, it was never released in the U.S. These films are shocking because they capture a reality most people don’t want to know exists.
Wassup Rockers, Clark’s newest film, about teenage thrasher-rock-loving Latino skateboarders from South Central, LA, is just as shocking as his previous undertakings. And that shock is also born of reality—but with very different results. While it’s difficult to empathize with the characters from Kids and Bully, no matter how “real” they may be, Wassup Rockers’ stuttering dialogues and patient camera-work make it impossible not to be moved. The sheer intimacy of Clark’s portrayal of this rowdy group of kids—who want to be just that… kids—is what’s unexpected.
Katherine Dykstra: I saw Wassup Rockers, I guess over a month ago now, and I loved it. I thought it was wonderful. I just fell in love with those kids.
Larry Clark: Yeah, the kids are quite charming, aren’t they? They’re quite appealing I should say.
KD: I read that you sought them out initially to photograph them.
LC: My last film, Ken Park, was opening in Paris, and a magazine, Rebel magazine, wanted me to make some photographs for them, and it seemed to be good press for Ken Park. So I came out to California with Tiffany Limos, the actress in Ken Park, and I was going to photograph her with some of the actors from Ken Park, but they weren’t around. So I said, ‘Well, we’ll just go out and find some skaters from the street.’ And we were driving around, and we went down to Venice Beach and met Porky and Kiko. So it was like serendipity. I ended up photographing them for four days with Tiffany. When I went back to the magazine to give them to them a couple months later, I started thinking about a film about them.
KD: And what do you think the kids thought about that?
LC: I think that it was probably a little hard to believe. I ended up hanging out with them for over a year. When I took the magazine back to them, they wanted to go skating again, of course, so I took them skating. And then the next Saturday at 9 o’clock, they called me, and they said, ‘Where are you? We’re waiting to go skating.’ So I got up, and I went out, and I took them skating all day, and then fed them, and then it kind of became our Saturdays.
KD: Did you skate with them?
LC: I learned how to skate before I made Kids. We’re talking about ’89, ’90, ’91. I skated for quite a while, but I kind of retired. My knees are pretty much shot. And going around with these kids before we made the movie, I was climbing over fences, and I jumped off roofs a couple of times. And you know, 60-year-old guys shouldn’t be jumping off roofs, which I found out.
KD: Sounds like fun though.
LC: I was going out there and picking them up, sometimes 12 kids. I had a little 1995 Toyota Camry and just stuffed with these Latino kids and this old white guy driving them around. Sometimes there would be way more kids than I could possibly get into the car. And so one day they said, ‘Well, we’ll trunk it.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, you’ll trunk it?’ And they said, ‘We’ll get in the trunk.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So I opened the trunk and like three kids got in there. They were perfectly happy to ride in the trunk, but I’d be driving, and I would think, ‘What if I get stopped and the cops open the trunk and there are three more kids in the trunk? This is going to be weird.’
KD: There’s a scene in the film where they get in the trunk, is that where that came from?
LC: That’s where it came from.
KD: Is that how you write your movies?
LC: That’s how Kids happened. For my first film, I wanted to make a movie about contemporary teenagers. And I started hanging out with skateboarders and all the ideas for that film came from reality, from things I’d seen happen and stories I knew to be true and this film was like that too. This is kind of about kids, 11 years later.
KD: Those kids from Kids are different from the kids in Rockers in so many ways.
LC: Absolutely. Kids was about a specific group of downtown kids in New York City, street kids in New York City, and this is about Latino kids in the ghetto in South Central Los Angeles, where it’s all gang bangers and gang-infested neighborhoods and very dangerous place to live and so it’s different.
KD: But that’s a little bit counterintuitive because I would think that the South Central kids would be hard, but they were so soft and sweet.
LC: They don’t want to be gang bangers; they’re just kids. There’s lots and lots of kids in the ghetto that don’t want to join gangs and you just don’t really hear about those kids. One reason to make this film is that you never see these kids in film. I said, ‘Well that’s a good enough reason.’ I wanted you to meet them.
KD: The first half was taken from their lives…
LC: The first half I’m really trying to recreate things that have happened. This kid that all of us knew named Creeper, that was always hanging out around Kiko’s house, got killed. Some gang bangers just drove by and saw him and blew him away, shot him 9 times. And a couple days later we went over to the shrine and lit a candle and they made the sign of the cross and said a little prayer. That actually happened, so I put that in the film at the last minute and kind of opened the film with that because it really shows you how dangerous it is for these kids just to get up and walk down the street to go to school a few blocks away.
KD: But then suddenly the film changes… there’s the Janice Dickenson character and the Hollywood-type guy who was throwing the party that the kids crashed...
LC: Fuck with the white people. [laughing] I just started having fun. I said, ‘You know some Paris Hilton-type girls, who just want to fuck hot boys, will see them, and then they’ll get to Beverly Hills. And then the girls’ boyfriends will come, and then there will be a fight and they’ll have to run and they’ll jump a fence and then they’re in someone’s backyard in Beverly Hills, who are they going to meet there?’ And so then I just started goofing on it and having fun. And I said, ‘Well I bet Charlton Heston has been sitting out there for 25 years in his backyard with a rifle waiting for a person to come and get caught as a trespasser and shoot him.’ That’s how that started. I just started goofing, because I don’t really want to make documentaries.
KD: Why aren’t you interested in documentary?
LC: I want to make real movies.
KD: So a documentary isn’t a real movie?
LC: Ah, I’m just joking; I want to make features.
KD: My absolute favorite scene is the one with Kiko and the girl on the bed.
LC: That is just a magical scene. When we were filming it, I was thinking, ‘This is my movie. This is what I’m trying to do.’
KD: It was so intimate, it was almost hard to watch.
LC: My job as a director was being able to get Kiko in a situation where he was comfortable enough to talk about his life that way. He had had those conversations with me, one-on-one, very personal, and I wanted somehow to recreate that. I told [the actress that played Nikki] that I wanted her to draw it out of him and to ask questions, and I told him I wanted him to tell her about his life. The big secret was having them make eye contact and not break the eye contact, and by doing that after a while it was like there were no cameras and there was no one else there and they really had this conversation.
KD: Would you talk about working with nonactors? That’s kind of your style.
LC: With good actors like the actors in Bully, you can ask them to do something and they just do it. Working with nonactors, it’s very, very difficult. It’s successful in my films because I really get to know the people, and I know what I think they can do, and they know me, and they trust me, and they know what I’m trying to do. And especially this time was difficult because I’m working with very young, we’re talking 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids, who are ghetto kids, who’s world is basically South Central. Of course they get out a bit, but they never knew any white people before. They had a few teachers in school who were white, but outside of school they just don’t have contact with white people. These kids are pretty wild too, they have this energy and this zest for life. Kids live in the moment generally, but these kids really live in the moment. To all the sudden say, ‘I’m going to make you movie stars.’ It just wasn’t going to work to say ‘Ok, come in, sit down, and be quiet while we get everything ready… now get up and be yourself.’ Their process was to just be themselves the whole time. They were wild. They were themselves. They were difficult all the time. But that was their process, which I understood. It was very, very difficult for the crew. I pretty much lost my camera crew at one point, who just kind of didn’t get it after a while, and couldn’t deal with the kids.
LC: No, no, they were still there, but I was kind of dragging them along. I was determined to make this work. I don’t think anybody knew what I was doing. I think they started looking at it as ‘Larry’s folly’ after a while. And now… some of the people who were working on the film have seen it, and they called me, and they said, ‘We had no idea what you were doing; this is really great.’ They didn’t have a clue to the kind of film I was making, I don’t think.
KD: Were you confident the whole time?
KD: You could see it?
LC: Yes, it was just difficult. I think the reason why I’m able to do difficult things like Wassup Rockers or Kids is because I have a very clear vision. You know I’ve been a visual artist for 44 years, and I know what I want it to look like, and I know the kids so well, I know what I need them to do and how I want to present them. But if I didn’t have that, it just would have been a mess.
KD: How do you get your movies made?
LC: It’s very difficult. People think that since I’ve had successful films that it must be easy to get the money. But it’s never easy to get the money. I think that a lot of people are afraid of what I’m going to do. I’m a final cut director. No one can change my films. And that’s unusual. I’ve never sold out. I’ve certainly been offered a lot of money to make a studio film, to make a Hollywood film. But you sell out, you give up final cut and then they can take your film and they can do what they want to with it. And I can’t do that.
KD: Can you talk about controversy? Your films are kind of notoriously
LC: Well, that’s not my fault. I’m trying to create a reality. Well, Wassup Rockers, the last half is pretty crazy, but generally I’m trying to create a reality that makes sense. People are afraid of reality. When I made Kids, come on, people went crazy. Saying, ‘This isn’t right. This is Larry’s fantasy. This isn’t what it’s like.’ And then all the kids said, ‘What’s the big deal? This is just what it’s like.’ It’s a secret world that I was showing you. And after Kids came out, all anyone has to do is read the papers over the next few years and I was right on, I was just early. And plus Hollywood is… there’s been films made with all of these subjects covered, but they make a joke out of it. They make these films and they can have sex and drugs and whatever you want to do. But if you make a joke out of it, it’s ok. But if you do it seriously, oh my god, some people get upset.