Tuesday, March 27, 2007
2007 SFIAAFF—"Down and Dirty Pictures" Panel Discussion with Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, Jon Moritsugu and Marcus Hu, Pt. 1
A late entry into the SFIAAFF line-up was a proposed panel—"Down and Dirty Pictures"—with the "bad boys" of Asian American cinema: Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa and Jon Moritsugu, moderated by Marcus Hu. Unfortunately, a storm back East prevented Bogawa from flying out to participate in the panel, but he did email a statement, which Hu read aloud. My heartfelt thanks to Marcus Hu for forwarding Roddy Bogawa's email missive so I could include it in this transcript: "To all—It's 4:53am Saturday morning and though it didn't look good yesterday, as of last night at 2am, I packed my bags, called a car service, and had hoped to escape to sunny California. I read that it will be in the 70s there. You guys all suck. But, as the way things go, I've been silenced by either my mother or mother nature and they've won out once again.
"I was looking forward to this panel for many reasons including seeing a lot of old friends to whom I now say hey. It would have been a great stew for all of us to get together. I'm also sad I'll miss Marcus' cocktail party.
"As to my end of the bargain, well here's a few muddled thoughts as I dream of San Francisco and that great curry plate lunch I'm missing from Over the Bridge in Japan town.
"To my long lost brothers Gregg and Jon, I miss you guys. I try to never be nostalgic but I am nostalgic for a certain moment when we met and it seemed like anything was possible. I'm pretty sure this moment can't be repeated as culture and especially filmmaking have so bottomed out. I respect and admire both of you tremendously as you know and would hold up your body of work as an example of a filmmaker who makes films because they love the form and have something to say, not that they're trying to fill up their fucking day planner. That notion of filmmaking seemed like a bore then and seems like a bore now.
"Asian American cinema rode the tail of independent films, queer films, African American films and the last gasps of experimental work and we screwed up not calling ourselves the Asian American New Wave—at least in the day planner sort of way. Did we influence anyone? Sorry, Gregg, Jon and Marcus, you guys will have to field that one live. I read in an interview a few years ago that when Jean-Luc Godard was asked about his influence over filmmaking, he responded by saying he felt like the gutter of cinema. What an old fart but what a punk! Look at our film company names—Desperate Pictures, Apathy Productions, Fallen Cinema. Down and dirty pictures. I guess if a gutter is good enough for Godard, it's good enough for us.
"If I were there in body and not just spirit, I would have probably tried to re-direct the conversation here to music. If anything, this is what I think led us all to want to make films. Punk rock at one time was political, anarchistic, destructive, and most of all exciting and I think led to the idea of investigation and questioning. And in the end what was most important was the gesture—that you had an urgency to try and say something. Problem is now, most filmmakers have very little to say. I always felt we had the opposite problem . . . too much to say with either no money, time, or support. But we also saw how punk fizzled, became commercialized, and went back underground so this is all familiar. I can't speak for all but I don't think we ever set out to be 'underground', did we? 'Underground' seems to be a romantic label of feigned respect for those who keep making work and no one knows what the hell to do with it. My last film had its premiere as the closing night program at the New York Underground Film Festival and at the Q&A, the first thing I remarked was how it took me 15 years to go 'underground'. In New York City, I'm told there's 17 rats for every human in Manhattan and believe you me, they're tired of living off of scraps and have made their way to the surface. 'Terminate the mission with extreme prejudice.'
"I know this is a panel and not a lecture so I'll shut up here. There are some people that were part of our cosmos that should be propped up in my stead . . . certainly Mar Elepano who I think processed several of our films and allowed me to do the black and white of my first feature on the tab of USC. Alberto Garcia. Andrea Sperling. Daryl Chin. And of course, your beloved MC Marcus was right up in there. Sorry, once again, you guys may have to explain.
"One last thing. If Spencer Nakasako is in the house . . . Spencer, remember, we had made a pact to stage a mock fight and smash prop bottles over each other's heads next time we saw each other babbling on a panel discussion. The bargain still stands. Love and kisses from NYC. Roddy Bogawa. Over and out."
Marcus Hu: It's funny to be moderating a panel with two people that I consider my much older older brothers; but, I will ask first a bland question, which is: can you give us some background about your schooling? Your backgrounds? Where you were born? What made you decide to become filmmakers?
Gregg Araki: I was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Santa Barbara, went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I have a degree in film studies and film criticism. Then I went to USC to get my Masters in production.
Jon Moritsugu: I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, grew up there, and went to school at Brown University and studied semiotics. I created my own major and studied film criticism, cultural theory, all that jazz.
Hu: I'm curious, Gregg, what made you become interested in film?
Araki: I wasn't one of those kids like Spielberg at age 8 with my first Super8 movie. I was always an artistic kid into drawing and comic books [but] it wasn't until I was in college that it evolved into this interest in cinema. Once I was in the film studies program—which was a great foundation in terms of cinema, film language, film history—that's when I began to take film and filmmaking seriously. All of us are part of a larger generation. As we get older, [we] see that we are this specific and finite thing. Through the years, besides Roddy and Jon, I met Rick Linklater, Allison Anders, Todd Haynes, various people, and we're all sort of a high school class in a way. We all came from [a common] background. Roddy was talking in his letter about this interesting time of naïve possibility. At that point we thought this was forever, but, we were a very specific generation of film school kids that loved cinema so much and were so excited by its possibilities. Now, it's a completely different generation and the influences of auteur pantheon filmmakers that were so important to us, are not the same for the kids that are the age we were when we started making movies.
Moritsugu: When I was in Hawaii I was teaching a class and I was talking to a fellow faculty member and we were talking about the students themselves and [interestingly] the reference point seemed to be 1993. Before that, [a lot of students] weren't really aware of the classics of the indie thing. It seemed like the reference point for movies in this film school department was Star Wars, pulpy gangster movies, and maybe throw a little Blair Witch in, and those were the reference point films that I'd say 90% of the students would base their work around. Yeah, I feel it's a completely different scene out there.
Araki: I thought [our experience of independent filmmaking] was something that would continue, that there would always be these film/cinema schools that taught cinema history and I think they still do, but, I remember a few years ago I was at a film festival with Amos Poe and he teaches somewhere in New York and he was talking about how it's completely different now. It's not like kids talk about Godard, Fellini, Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hawks, all of the influences, all of those people throughout film history. It's really become so specific and literally every kid in [Poe's] class wanted to be Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, literally [someone] they saw a year ago. Do you know what I mean? Without any sense of Eisenstein or [anyone] who went beyond recent memory. It made me feel old. It made me realize [our generation] was very specific.
Hu: Back in 1987, I saw Three Bewildered People in the Night at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles and I have to say it was a $5,000 feature made by Gregg [that] changed my life. It made me realize that film is printed on the same kind of stock as Zodiac and it could be a $100,000,000 movie but Gregg was able to tell a beautiful story that moved me, that made me cry, that made me think about my life, for $5,000. That made me become interested in doing what I do today as a distributor for independent films. Gregg, can you give some background on how you put together a feature for $5,000? And what actually inspired you to think that you could do a film completely with no sync sound?
Araki: That's why Roddy's letter was so interesting. I'm also not nostalgic. I don't really look back. But just remembering that time of being 25 years old or whatever, fresh out of film school, full of ideas, and full of that sense of possibility. It was right around this period when Strangers in Paradise came out, Chan's Missing and She's Gotta Have It shortly thereafter, where these low-budget movies were getting distribution. I remember seeing Strangers in Paradise several times. That film, amongst this generation, was really important. I know Rick Linklater, Allison Anders, everybody that I've met through the years, they all talk about that movie and how it was a galvanizing moment to see this grainy, strange quasi-European art film in a theater. It didn't make Blair Witch money but it made enough money, it made enough of a splash, that it was really exciting. It was that craziness of youth. Having the passion and the love of cinema and wanting to express yourself. Looking back on it, it was this insane thing. Similar to Jon and Roddy, I did everything on [Three Bewildered People in the Night]. I cut the negative. I had no crew. It was just me and this Bolex, these three actors, and we did it literally through sheer will. Roddy basically stole [our] thunder because he summed it all up in a letter.
Moritsugu: See you guys later! [Laughing.]
Araki: Yeah, just read Roddy's letter and that's it! Because it was not only that but it was also because we were part of this punk rock generation. I was in high school when the Sex Pistols came out and that whole idea of D.I.Y. and being able to be [a] garage band and make things outside of the conglomerate corporate world, it was a very exciting time. So there was this point of feeling, "Why not?" It was very much like, "This is what I do." At that point in my life, films were all that mattered to me. So it was sort of like, "I'll do this movie or I'll die trying."
Hu: Jon, I saw some of your shorts like Mommy Mommy, Where's My Brain? , Der Elvis  and My Degeneration . My Degeneration is what really got me hooked on you. And then I saw Hippy Porn  and that's when I decided I have to get involved and help you make Mod Fuck Explosion . Why don't you give some background about the process of what got you started in film, the kind of budgets you were working with, and where you are now as an artist?
Moritsugu: I started out just like Gregg, a one-man crew doing it all myself, making short movies for under a thousand bucks. When I finally made My Degeneration, my first feature, it was also a $5,000 movie with non-sync sound, color. I would occasionally see films that would inspire me like [Godard's] Masculine/Feminine , Chan Is Missing , films where I could actually walk away from the theater saying, "I saw the tape splices. I could sort of see how they put that together. I think I can do that." I felt empowered by these few movies I'd seen but there really weren't that many out there. This was before YouTube, before stuff on the Internet, before people are burning dvds. These days there are a lot of underground self-made art, especially film that you can get inspired from, but back in the day occasional films would inspire me. As Gregg mentioned, as Roddy mentioned, music [from] the hard rock scene, the punk rock scene, was much more inspiring for me. I've always felt the music scene was more cohesive, more of a community as well as interacting with different labels, club set-ups, clubs in people's garage[s]. There was a communication network with fanzines and whatnot but I was just really inspired by the fact that this music was being created so immediately, so cheaply. I took that as an inspiration as well as reading interviews with Godard. This might all be lies but [his] riding into the street and immediately shooting stuff with scenes not being perfect but with him doing these jumpcuts to cut out the bad moments, that really inspired me. Definitely it was hard. When I met people like Roddy, Gregg and Marcus, I suddenly realized there were these pockets of likeminded people on the face of the earth. That was such a cool moment to suddenly realize [I] was not in isolation in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in my dingy apartment making my films alone, knowing that Gregg was in his dingy apartment in L.A. making his movie, and Marcus was in San Francisco….
Araki: Marcus was in his mansion having his butler bring him caviar. [Laughter.]
Moritsugu: It was this weird community. You're home editing at 3 a.m. feeling like a loser yet sort of knowing, wow, Gregg's three hours behind, it's midnight in L.A., but he's probably editing right now.
Araki: I still have them somewhere [but] we also framed letters to each other a lot.
Moritsugu: Tons of letters.
Araki: Jon, Roddy and I would communicate, basically commiserating about being poor.
Hu: The only letters I got from you guys [were], "Where's my money?!" [Everyone laughs.] Jon spoke about music influencing his work, Gregg can you talk about how music plays a part in your more current films?
Araki: Music has always been a huge inspiration for me. Even though my experience of the music industry is that it is as corrupt or worse than the film industry, it's always been inspiring to me. I listen to music all the time and have a huge collection. It was always inspiring me also in a way not only in a general, rebellious spirit, but—and I guess this is where I differ a little bit from Roddy—in the sense that I don't measure my own success against box office and Blair Witch Project and Little Miss Sunshine or whatever the hit du jour is. A lot of the bands I've loved so much and have had such a huge influence on me have never been commercially successful. To me that's a real inspiration where my work's concerned because I've never set out to be the Justin Timberlake of cinema. The bands I love the most, most people have never heard of but the fact that their work resonates with me and speaks to me, that to me is successful. I've met now a lot of these people. Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins did the score of my last movie. It's funny because they don't even realize their own importance and he is also like, "I'm poor. I can't afford to feed my kid." He's still trapped in the same kind of struggling artist world that we're all in but to me that's what's more important: the work itself as opposed to the box office figures or how many cds you sell.
Hu: It's really odd because both of you—Roddy maybe less so—both of you seem very influenced by an odd mix of Godard and John Hughes. [Laughter.] That's what I found so engaging about how odd your pieces are.
Araki: [Grinning.] Is that a question?
Hu: Just in terms of pop culture elements other than music, artists, other filmmakers, what are the ones that have inspired your work? Even as close as I am to Gregg, I really don't know what [are] his inspirations and, Jon, I'd love to hear about what bizarre influences you have.
Araki: That's too hard to chew.
Hu: Jon, why don't you [start]?
Moritsugu: All right. All right.
Hu: Mod Fuck Explosion, where did you come up with these ideas? What inspired you? Are there other artists that inspired you or is that just out of your own insanity?
Moritsugu: What inspired me for Mod Fuck Explosion was West Side Story, some Derek Jarman stuff like Jubilee , his version of a punk-rock Marie Antoinette way before its time, that inspired me. Godard, obviously, we've been talking about. Liquid Sky —a hard-to-find movie that was pretty big in its time—that completely inspired me. I remember watching that about two weeks before we started preproduction for Mod Fuck Explosion and I was blown away from that and had to watch it every night three nights in a row. I really really liked that movie. Those were my filmic influences. I had one influence who was a painter, a crazy dude named Philip Guston. He kept reinventing himself. He's passed away but he started out as a realistic public works artist in the '30s then he completely freaked out and went completely abstract overnight and people were like, "Why are you doing this? You have a following and can make money." And then he had yet another freakout and went [to a] completely cartooney-style of painting. But I liked how he was doing what he wanted to do rather than listening to his people [who were] telling him the marketing trends and what would make money. Also, I read about his working method where he would paint literally for five days in a row, nonstop, chainsmoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Back in the early punk rock days, I was like, "Yeah, man!" He definitely influenced me through his work but his methodology way put stuff together. I thought it was a crazy way to do stuff. I was immediately drawn to that.
Araki: Hmmmmm. I stalled for time. [Chuckles.] I got this from Jon's answer. I really view myself as kind of a sponge. [I] just take in all this stuff and it's hard to even say what [my] specific influences are. I make my movies from storyboards and they've always been editorially precise. That's obviously lifted from Hitchcock but I don't really list him as an influence a lot. I just absorb everything I've ever seen. Godard has always been a conscious reference of mine because of his adversarial and outside-of-the-culture nature; but, the other influences—[addressing Jon] you talk about West Side Story and Mod Fuck, it's not like you said, "Oh, I want to make Mod Fuck [because of] West Side Story." Everything you put into your head, you consumed with your eyes, be it advertising…. My films, because of their gay nature, frequently because of photography like Bruce Weber, things that you see and things that you read, stuff on t.v., or music that you hear, it all gets stuck in your brain and then when you sit down to write a script or you're directing, it kind of comes out and you don't consciously go, "I'm quoting this or I'm doing that."
Hu: But if anyone watches the first few minutes of either of your films, immediately they're going to know it's your imprint as auteurs. That's a real credit. You're not regurgitating things like Brian DePalma. You guys have a great sense of style. I know immediately when I'm seeing one of your movies. With that in mind, I want to talk about budgets: the lowest you've worked and the highest you've worked and the limitations you've had to work with within those budgets. Has that ever been an influence for you to be more creative?
Moritsugu: I made a Super8 movie in high school that was probably $20 with a bunch of friends. That's the lowest budget. But as far as legit films in my oeuvre [chuckles], I made a two-minute, two and a half-minute short film called Braindead . I shot it all in a Bolex, in-camera editing. I did scratch animations so that was where it was labor intensive, it took about a year, but that was a pretty cheap film; with the print and with the sock it was maybe under $150. My most expensive film was $360,000. I did something with ITVS for PBS broadcast. As far as problems, limitations, etc., I had been making movies in the $10,000-$15,000 range and I remember I talked to you, Gregg, right before I did the PBS thing. You were mentioning that the budgets were just going to get harder. I had this thing in my mind, "I'm going to get this $350,000, [which] is 20 times more than anything I've ever had so it's going to be a movie 20 times better and Gregg was like, "No, actually if you get a lot more money, you're going to buy yourself into a whole bunch of new issues." I was like, "Whatever, man. I'm just going to make my 20-times-better-movie-than-the-last-one." He was right. We suddenly had to deal with union issues, insurance, all these major things. So as far as limitations, I sometimes do feel that money is a limitation. Lack of money is obviously a problem—not to be all that boho and romantic and too optimistic—but I sometimes feel that lack of money creates some really awesome solutions and really interesting things in movies that people have never seen before. I want to work with a bigger budget definitely, but there's something about not having everything. Being the underdog and making a movie, I like that too, being forced into situations where you have to improvise and come up with something on the spot.
Araki: My lowest budget movie was probably $5,000; the movie Marcus was talking about—Three Bewildered People. My highest budget movie was Splendor , which was about $3,000,000. I have a new movie coming out in the summer called Smiley Face; that was $2,000,000. That's my range. I've never gone beyond that. I kind of agree with what Jon says in the sense that [with] $5,000 I was literally doing everything myself and you do have to be extremely resourceful and creative. When you're in the millions of dollars range, it's completely different. Your set of problems are a lot different. You're dealing with unions and the logistics of it that—in a way—drag you back. When I made a film like Totally Fucked Up  or The Living End , we never had location permits, we just ran out and Andrea [Sperling] the producer would talk to the security guards and keep them busy while we were trying to shoot something. It's much more guerilla, more exciting; but, when you're on a regular movie that costs millions of dollars, with the trucks and the crew and the walkie talkies and the catered lunch and there's 50 people and you have to figure out where to eat, it's all just sort of a big machine in a way. It's definitely different. The way I started out making movies with these $5,000 budget movies where I did everything and everything was so under control, all of that translates. I do these storyboards of the entire movie following the script so basically every shot's planned. Because I edit my own movies, as I always have, I know where the shots end and where they begin and where I need coverage, where I don't need coverage, and I got that from making my $5,000 movies where I didn't have enough money to shoot coverage. I had to know exactly where all the cuts came. The structure of how I actually make a movie is almost identical, strangely.
Hu: So I guess in both of your cases—since you guys are the directors, one of the producers, editors—you oversee the DP's work. Probably the editing process is the second most important thing for you?
Moritsugu: I would say it's the firstmost. The editor is like God in a movie. A bad editor can ruin stunning, great footage and performances and a great editor can resurrect mediocre footage. I love editing. Post-production is where it's at. Whenever I wrap a production, I'm relieved. The editor is the most powerful person in a movie as far as shaping it really quickly, changing it, changing the meanings, etc. I'm really into editing and I like being able to have that kind of control of my movies.
Hu: Gregg, after Mysterious Skin and actually after The Doom Generation, you've had a lot of success. Why did you decide to stick with really difficult projects and not try to sell out like other Asian American filmmakers who have had some success and try to do really bad studio projects. [The audience laughs knowingly.] Why haven't you thought about….
Araki: Are you wussing out here? You're not going to do what you said you were going to do last night?
Hu: [Ignoring him blushingly.] Why do you want to stick with making these low-budget independent movies? You obviously would have the ability to make a piece of crap like Annapolis.
Araki: I really have nothing against making a bigger movie. I get asked this a lot because I've had so many movies at Sundance and the whole independent cinema thing. Would you ever make a studio movie? Blah blah blah. I don't have anything against making a studio movie. I've been attached to a studio movie with what to me would have been an interesting movie. I don't differentiate between a studio movie and an independent movie. I differentiate more between a bad movie and a good movie. There are good studio movies and bad studio movies and there are good independent movies and bad independent movies. Every movie has its budget and it's freeing in a way. That's why every movie I've made has been very independent under the bar of the $10-$15,000,000 movies, $20,000,000 movies, $50,000,000 movies. The bigger they get, the more homogenized they need to be. They have to have a guaranteed commercial audience. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. You can make a commercial movie and make it very interesting. That's what all the auteurs of earlier times had been doing. That's what Howard Hawks did. That's what Hitchcock did. That's what John Ford did. It's possible to work within that system but it's increasingly difficult. I get sent a lot of scripts and I do get offered a lot of bad studio movies but they're bad. But I would have nothing against doing something bigger if it was good.
Hu: Jon, have you ever thought about yourself as an artist, would you ever do a straightforward narrative film that had a big budget?
Moritsugu: Yeah, sure, I definitely would consider it. I feel like my PBS project I was pretty young, punk rock, chip on my shoulder. I burned . . . I nuked every bridge possible. [Laughter.] Seriously. For instance, I'll use names, James Schamus, big wig producer dude, works with Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain….
Araki: He now owns Hollywood.
Moritsugu: Yeah, he owns Hollywood, Focus Features. He was one of the executive producers for Terminal U.S.A.  because it was for ITVS. I remember there was this really weird meeting where we were having drinks at the Clift Hotel or something and he put his arm around me and he's whispering, "Stick with me. I'll give you a career. Asia America. You're the Asian independent dude." It just got ugly after that. I ended up threatening him, telling him to fuck off, just like these personal issues. [Laughter.]
Araki: That's a do not do.
Moritsugu: Do not do. But I've since made up with him so now we can say hi. As Gregg mentioned, I have nothing against a big budget, nothing against studio movies, nothing against commercial movies. I want to make a good movie ultimately. Even with something small like Mod Fuck Explosion, I remember when I was trying to get people interested in producing it and I had given Marcus an early version of the script. This is how anti-commercial I was at that point: I was sort of like, "This movie's about these two gangs, West Side Story, it's leading up to the big rumble in the end." I gave Marcus the script and in this early version of the script I did one of these Fassbinder endings where the movie just ends before the big rumble happens. And that's it! The movie's building up to this big event and Marcus was like, "You don't have a rumble in this? You don't have the big fight at the end?" I was like, "Yeah, man. We don't have to be there. It's somewhere else in time and space. [Laughter.] That's why we're going to be an art film because we don't have to know what happens. That's not important." And he was like, "Jon, rewrite it with a more commercial ending, with the rumble." And I did and I'm so glad. [Laughter.] Even with smaller movies, punk rock movies, art house movies, independent movies, my movies, whatever, there are these issues of commerciality and it might even be something like, "Hey, make this character stronger. Make this story easier to follow." That's still definitely an issue. It really doesn't matter what budget you have, these basic fundamentals of filmmaking you're wrestling with.
Hu: I remember you had sent us out to go to a meatpacking place and get rotted meat that was going to get thrown out and we made a meat garden for a fantasy sequence. I remember that it had been sitting out for a couple of hours and I walked in and I threw up. [Laughter.]
Moritsugu: We had gas masks and 800 pounds of meat. It was over a weekend and then we had to get rid of the meat. We were sort of like, "Where do we get rid of 800 pounds of meat in the middle of the night?"
Araki: You should have just fed it to the crew.
Moritsugu: I know, right? No, we ended up . . . there's like a police station on 22nd Street and my reasoning was, "This is the safest place to dump out meat in the police department dumpster because we won't get caught. And we didn't! We got rid of two pick-up trucks full. It was like myself and two other crew members and we were the only three people on the entire movie who would have anything to do with the meat at this point because it had been there for three days. We were driving around the city all night getting rid of meat.
Cross-published at Twitch.