Tuesday, March 27, 2007
2007 SFIAAFF—"Down and Dirty Pictures" Panel Discussion with Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, Jon Moritsugu and Marcus Hu, Pt. 2
Hu: Okay, this question actually comes from Laura Kim. As Asian Americans I'm sure you get asked this question a lot. Why is it that your films generally—I mean, in Mod Fuck you actually address the Asian American issue and Gregg's film Totally Fucked Up does have an Asian lead but it's Jimmy [Duval], whatever he is, it doesn't count—have you ever wanted to, Gregg specifically, address that issue in any of your projects? Why hasn't it ever figured into any of your projects?
Araki: I say it half jokingly but Jimmy was the lead in three of my movies, the trilogy I did in the mid-'90s—Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere. Jimmy is half-Vietnamese, quarter Vietnamese, and also French and Indian, he's a melting pot kid. It's interesting because he's not viewed as Asian enough to be considered Asian American even though he was called a chink or whatever when he was growing up or whatever he was called and I think that's in a way kind of explanatory of the Asian American representation in my movies. My experience, growing up in a largely White neighborhood in Santa Barbara, which didn't have an Asian American subculture that a lot of larger cities have, I was always very assimilated in more mainstream White culture. I never really viewed myself as different. That's kind of an explanation of how race in general is viewed in my movies. The differences are not as important as the similarities.
Hu: But you pushed the button in The Doom Generation with Dustin [Nguyen] and Margaret [Cho] playing a pair of Vietnamese shop keepers that are really obnoxious and Dustin's head gets chopped off or blown off.
Araki: [Laughing.] Oh yeah. I forgot about that.
Hu: Dustin was actually the lead in your first student film.
Araki: Yeah, he was in a student film of mine. For me as a filmmaker, that seems a comment on something that's reinforcing a stereotype.
Hu: It certainly seemed like you were saying something.
Araki: It seemed like I was saying something? Everything in that film is hyperbolic. I was commenting on that stereotype in a surreal way.
Hu: Jon, in Mod Fuck, obviously you took a very different approach or a similar kind of approach that Gregg took in Doom.
Moritsugu: Making Asians look bad, right? [Laughter.]
Hu: Honestly, the thing about it is a lot of Asian Americans have asked me that question: how come you're not distributing more Asian American movies? Well, I'm not going to distribute an Asian American movie that stinks. I'm going to distribute an Asian American film that's really great. Honestly, the best Asian American film I've seen recently was Better Luck Tomorrow . That was a really great film. Really fantastic in so many ways. But there's so few of those. In fact, why don't you comment upon other Asian American filmmakers? Do you know of any young Asian American talent that are making the kind of films that you were making yesterday today?
Moritsugu: [Grinning.] We were totally original.
Araki: They'll never replace us. [Laughter.]
Hu: But honestly, I see so few vibrant Asian American filmmakers.
Araki: But that's true in general. You see very few vibrant independent films in general made in terms of the studio movies, independent movies, be it Asian American, be it Gay cinema, be it just regular Sundance independent. Most movie makers are not very good.
Hu: But why [is] that? In your opinion have the arts everywhere changed in such a way that artists are just not making that kind of work?
Araki: One thing, to rail against the Administration, the cutbacks of arts funding is a huge difference. I know that for me and Jon and I remember talking to Rick Linklater about this, those first grants that you get are so important. They're literally like $5,000, $10,000, but I remember when I got my first grant it was just the validation that you are a filmmaker and your work is supported. They were just so important and that's why it's really sad that arts funding is in such a bad state. As a young filmmaker [grants] are really the push you need. You feel validated that you really are a filmmaker.
Hu: There are still funding sources like Creative Capital. That's a really great resource for the no-budget kind of filmmaking.
Araki: And Rick has started on his own—because Rick is now a multi-millionaire—he's started film grant type organizations in Texas for Texas-based filmmakers. It's unfortunate that [resources] like the NEA and AFI grants have dried up.
Hu: Jon, where are you finding resources?
Moritsugu: I've actually heavily relied on the grants for my last few movies. My most recent Scumrock  was a Creative Capital grant. I spent my own money to shoot it. It was a cheap movie to shoot, like $5,000 in analog video for a four-month shoot, but I showed some of the rough material to Creative Capital and they gave me a bunch of money to complete it. I also got support from BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) and a couple of other organizations [like] Chicago Underground Film Fest. My movie before was Rockefeller Grant-funded. Mod Fuck, Marcus produced it and there are a couple of other producers. I also got money from NAATA/CAAM for Mod Fuck Explosion. On my last four movies grants have played a crucial part in getting them made and getting them finished.
Hu: Jon, why don't you talk about what the budget ranges are for these projects and—in terms of the grants that you're getting—how you're able to piece these things together.
Moritsugu: Okay. Creative Capital was really cool. I shot the whole project for $5,000. They gave me an extra $15,000 for post-production, editing, sound track work, getting the bands, putting the soundtrack together, all that stuff. Then after that I requested an extra $5,000. The cool thing about Creative Capital grants is they're not government-sponsored. It's a private organization so they have this bunch of money they give out to filmmakers and—in the event any of these projects make a profit—the filmmaker returns the money to Creative Capital. They recycle the money and give it someone else. So, yeah, I got $25,000 from Creative Capital. That was a $30,000 movie. The Rockefeller Grant was $35,000 for my previous movie. That's sort of been the range for all these movies. They've been $30-$40,000 features. The grants have definitely been 75% of the budget.
Hu: Gregg, did The Living End have any grants?
Araki: Yeah, The Living End, Totally Fucked Up and some of my other films.
Hu: Do you apply for grants anymore at this point?
Araki: I haven't for a while. I can't actually apply for a $1,000,000 grant. [Laughter.] Marcus and I recently remastered Totally Fucked Up for dvd release and we're just doing The Living End right now. Seeing these movies—they're now 15 years old—going back to them [has been] very inspiring to look at them and how they were made. I would love to do a small film just because the mode of making them is so different, as Jon was saying, it's a different set of creative challenges.
Hu: What has stopped you from doing that?
Araki: This actually ties in to the question of why I haven't done a big studio movie. There's only so much time in the day and you only get so many movies to make. Every movie you make, particularly a really low budget independent movie where you're doing everything yourself is three years at least out of your life. I've made nine movies now. You can only make so many movies in your lifetime so that's why I haven't done a bad studio movie because I don't have the three years to spare to make something I hate or don't care about.
Hu: I'm sure you have it in you to make a bad studio movie. [Laughter.]
Araki: It's really finding the time. People say, "Why isn't such and such of your movies on dvd? Why don't you do this?" I do everything myself. I don't have a huge office and building assistants like you do.
Hu: Excuse me, who is your assistant? [Laughter.] Who is your assistant?
Araki: I don't have people to take care of my day so my days are spent developing my next project, writing my next script, now I'm working on this Living End remaster. There's always a lot to do.
Hu: Since Roddy isn't here, I would like to devote a little time for you to discuss your thoughts on Roddy's work.
Moritsugu: I remember when I saw Some Divine Wind , that was the first Roddy movie I had ever seen, and I think at this point Gregg and I had met in an Asian circuit, our films were being played at the Asian fests and we were the three freaks there. I remember seeing Roddy's film and being impressed with the fact that it approach[ed] these Asian topics but it was done in an almost European artsy way rather than a documentary style or styles that had been familiar with Asian films, having certain formats, so I was impressed with that. After I met him, I thought, "Wow. This guy's really fun." Some Divine Wind, definitely, just the way it was shot, the voiceovers, the structure of it; it was very Godardian, a very conceptual movie. It definitely stood out in the whole Asian scene in a cool-but-this-doesn't-fit-in way. That's why I really liked it.
Araki: Yeah, I agree with that. Both Roddy and Jon, I saw their work as very inspiring because they were dealing with these issues in a cinematic way. It wasn't exactly my style but it was a style I appreciated [that] spoke to me.
Hu: This comes from Laura Kim….
Araki: Laura writes all the really hard questions.
Hu: As long-time veteran filmmakers, do you think it gets easier for you?
Araki: No. [Laughter.] That's an easy question. To me, sadly, it gets harder and harder. There are more and more filmmakers. It's harder to get money. People always think, "Oh, people just throw money at you." But it doesn't work that way.
Hu: Here's another typical Asian American question from Laura Kim, what do your parents think about your work? [Laughter.] The kind of edgy work that you guys have done?
Moritsugu: Gosh. My early stuff was much more radical that my more recent work because there's no narrative, no characters. My early stuff is collages of sound and imagery. My parents are really open-minded. Especially my mom, she's like, "Hi. I'm very Western. I studied JFK and his family so we're going to be like the Kennedys." Sort of freaky stuff. She was very open-minded about my movies but not getting them. I knew they weren't really into my filmmaking because I'd still get the phone calls—this was when I was first starting out—like, "Hey man, there's law school. We'll pay for it. You can go to law school. Why are you doing this film stuff?" I made it a point of doing what I wanted to do. I remember at one point they even offered to produce one of my movies, Mod Fuck Explosion, just before we went into production my parents were like, "Hey…." It was a weird meeting. It was in San Francisco. They were passing through town. I was in their hotel room at Fisherman's Wharf and they're like, "We're going to take you out to dinner. Get a nice meal somewhere." It was probably a few weeks before we started shooting Mod Fuck Explosion. It was surreal. My dad reached into his coat and hands me this thick envelope. I'm like, "What is this?" It's full of money. I'm serious. I'm like, "I didn't know you had money like this first of all. Secondly, what is this for?" And they said, "Well, we hear you're going to make the new movie so we wanted to give you some money." Now I'm regretting it, but at the time I had my monologue, my manifesto, and I was like, "You guys absolutely don't understand what I'm doing. You're not supportive of me. So screw you. Take your money back." [Laughter.] I returned the money given to me by my parents! I was like, "I've got other people in the community who are actually putting money into this movie and they believe in this project, unlike you guys who are doing this out of guilt or something." So yeah, it was like a really weird relationship with filmmaking. Finally when I did Terminal, U.S.A., my big budget project, they were passing through San Francisco and this was a turning point because that was my only movie where I actually had a crew of lots of people, Panavision equipment, and I invited them to the set for an evening. They saw everybody there. They saw I was running the show. They have completely chilled out ever since then. I've tried to give them the impression that all my movies have been shot that way since. They haven't but, yeah, they're off my case now and it's cool. But they haven't offered me any more money like that, envelopes with cash. I don't know if that even really happened, it's so surreal.
Araki: It's great for the myth, the legend, of Jon Moritsugu.
Hu: So Gregg, tell us about what your family thought?
Araki: My whole family and my parents in particular have always been super supportive of me. They don't necessarily understand my films. I usually recommend that they don't watch them. [Laughter.] I always tell my family not to watch my movies because it will upset them. I remember in particular with The Living End, probably one of my most upsetting movies, I told them not to see it and they actually drove to Los Angeles…
Hu: And I was at the door.
Araki: Wait. You were…?
Hu: Yes, I was at the door and I looked at this Asian woman. I go, "And you're here for…?" And she goes, "I'm Gregg Araki's mother." I go, "Mrs. Araki, I'm Marcus!" And she goes, "Oooooooooh."
Araki: Was this the showcase?
Araki: I haven't heard that part of the story. I heard there was a manager or someone at the theater.
Hu: No, I was there.
Araki: Did you see the manager tell my mom that she shouldn't see the movie?
Araki: The manager said, "Mam, I think you're not here for the right movie." [Laughter.] She said, "No, no, I really want to see it" and he's like, "Ooooookay." So, they've always been supportive of me in general in terms of they know this is what I want to do and so it makes me happy. They've been great to me throughout the years. Very moving actually. When I got my lifetime achievement award from the L.A. Outfest people, my family was in the audience and it was nice to be able to acknowledge them in public.
Hu: Can you guys talk about what projects you're working on now and where they're at in terms of development?
Moritsugu: Projects. Right now I re-released one of my movies Fame Whore  on dvd from 10 years ago. So I'm right now in the process of going back to a lot of my old movies and early features and re-releasing them. I want to release a couple more this year. I have an aborted script. I finished a script when I moved out to Hawaii. I wanted to shoot a big budget movie in Hawaii. Everything got chaotic and fell through and I left Hawaii. I don't live there anymore. That script I put on a back burner because right now it would be difficult logistically to try to make a movie in Hawaii. It's never happened to me before I've actually finished a script. I like it and I've put it aside. I'm working on a brand new script. I'm almost done and I'm really excited about this. My movies have been sort of like punk rock/art house artsy, semiotic, whatever, and I feel my movies have walked this line but with this new script I'm definitely pushing things more towards the left. I'm trying to go all out and make a crazy ass action-packed almost exploitation type of movie. A lot of people through the years have come up to me and said, "Y'know, I like this movie but I like this one scene, that scene." I've been looking at all of my movies that way, picking out moments with a lot of energy. I think it's going to feel like my really really early work where the music and energy is totally fucked up.
Araki: I have a question for Jon, speaking of music. What do you do about your music and music licensing?
Moritsugu: Oh man, I try to work with bands on small labels rather than hiring lawyers and doing the eight different contracts you need for music release. I have one generic music release Andrea and I wrote years ago. I work with a lot more indie underground bands. My last soundtrack had groups like The Gossip.
Araki: Do they all own their own publishing?
Moritsugu: Yeah, a lot of small record labels are sort of like, "We'll put the band's record out but as far as publishing and copyright, the bands will do whatever they want." K Records is like that. Dischord Records is like that. You can actually talk to the band and get the rights from the band. They own everything, which is really cool.
Hu: Didn't you have a relationship with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon?
Moritsugu: Yeah, I assimilate a lot of Thurston Moore's stuff on Hippy Porn actually. I have a lot of New York stuff. Matador Records was supposed to put out this really cool soundtrack. They kept delaying and lying to me so I went to the office and I burned the contract and tore up all the art work. [Laughter.] They're a really small record company and I heard that, after this happened—my performance piece, I made a scene in there and I was like, "I don't want you guys to put out my record anyways because it's too late"; I destroyed all the masters and everything there—apparently, the next day the head of Matador Records was so freaked out that he installed a high-security system. He was like, "We can't have any more freaks in here." I've worked with a variety of bands.
Araki: Jon really is the bad boy. I'm just a mild-mannered Clark Kent guy. I've never done anything like that.
Hu: Gregg, tell us about your current project.
Araki: As I said, I'm a one-man operation so I always develop a lot of things. I have about six or seven things I'm working on right now. The worst part is trying to raise the financing for them. I have this horror/sci fi thing I'm working on. I'm actually working on this one idea right now of a low budget t.v./internet thing and it ties into something that we can talk a little about here because it overlaps with the next panel. One of the really exciting things right now is that filmmaking has become so accessible and so cheap. Jon and I when we started out making $5,000 movies, it was torturous to make a movie for $5,000. The only way I could make my movie in 16mm B&W film for $5,000, besides doing everything myself and nobody getting paid and the actors driving themselves to set, whatever, was through Mar Elepano, who Roddy mentioned, because Mar would process our stuff for pennies. It was like a nickel a foot. Whereas if we were processing it in a normal house, it would have 50 cents or a dollar a foot. Mar would do this labwork basically for us for free. That's how I made this $5,000 movie. If I had to pay a real lab to make something on film, it would have been $50,000, which I never could have afforded. But now with Final Cut, and these digital cameras that keep getting cheaper and cheaper, the tools to make interesting movies are more accessible than they've ever been. It seems to be the tools are now there but there's a lack of inspiration or ideas. That's something that can't be given. People just have to be really inspired or have great ideas. I agree with Jon, I really love editing. Particularly with the digital editing systems. It's such a creative process. You can go back and try things. It's so easy to go back to where you were or you can just try any idea. The interesting thing about digital editing is you edit more whereas when you're cutting film, the splices are so precarious that, literally, if you get it to work once it's like, "Okay, don't touch that anymore." Whereas with digital editing, you can go back and, "What will happen if we start with that shot instead of this shot? Move this shot over there. Cut this whole scene in half." You can play around with the footage. It's so creative and you don't need any assistants. I just literally sit there in my apartment and play around with the stuff. It's great. I love the writing and the editing. The production I didn't use to like at all because it was so chaotic; but, I've gotten better with it. I guess I've gotten used to it.
Moritsugu: I agree with Gregg completely about everything he's said. I'm trying to figure out a way—since I love the writing and the editing—I'm trying to figure out a way to shoot the entire movie in a weekend somehow.
Someone from the audience was curious whether maturity and experience had changed Araki's rebellious spirit? Or not?
Araki: I couldn't have made The Doom Generation when I made Mysterious Skin. I couldn't have made Mysterious Skin when I made The Doom Generation. As a person, and a filmmaker, you're continually evolving, continually changing, and hopefully getting more mature, better. I know with each film I definitely feel much more technically competent. You learn so much on every movie, especially when you do so much of it yourself, like what works, what doesn't work. Also, as you get older as a person your viewpoints shift and change. That's important as a filmmaker, to not make the same movie over and over and over again.
Impressed with the aesthetic threshold of Mysterious Skin, another audience member wondered how Araki inspired the trust and elicited the quality of performance he obtained from his lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt [currently in The Lookout]?
Araki: I get asked about that a lot, particularly Joe's performance in that movie and Anna Faris is in my new movie [Smiley Face] and she gives this amazing performance. People ask, "How did you get such a great performance out of her?" The cliché is that directing is 90% casting. I'd say it's 99% casting. I love actors. I love working with actors. You need to establish on the set a sense of a safe place. Not a chaotic place. A place where the actors can work and there's not bullshit going on. I hate people that fight on sets or people that cause friction on my set because it's really about creating a safe place for the actors to be able to do what they do. Joe's performance in Mysterious Skin is his. He brought that to set. It's not like I did that for him. As a director you tweak them ever so slightly—say this line a little bit faster, do it again in this way—you just give [them] nudges here and there but as actors they come prepared to set. They know and they have made choices. It's not like playing mind game method things. One of the quotes I love about acting and directing is something Julianne Moore said when she was talking about acting in movies. She said, "I don't want a director to tell me how to act. That's my job. It's their job to keep everything else in control around me." It's not like [I] say, "You're a kitten in a box." [Laughter.] That's not my style. It's just casting great actors and letting them do their job.
Hu: Jon, do you have anything to add to that?
Moritsugu: Okay, yeah, just three really quick things. [With the regard to the] question: How does Gregg make $5,000 movies? Three funny stories, really quick. One: Someone told me that Gregg was feeding [them and] their meal was microwave popcorn. In his early movies. The other story I heard was [that] Taco Bell used to have the 99¢ meal deals and Gregg would take cast and crew there and be like, "Okay. One item for each person."
Araki: That was the hardest thing about Totally Fucked Up because those kids were 18-19 years old and all they ever really thought about was food. They'd show up on set and go, "What are we eating?" Is this the third story? About Andrea and I used to go to the 99¢ store and literally buy pounds of cheap, crappy chips and cookies by the crate.
Moritsugu: The third funny story I heard—I think from Andrea—she was producing one of Gregg's movies and they're driving around L.A. running errands in preproduction and everywhere they're stopping there's parking meters. Gregg's like, "I've got to run in there and talk to somebody. Andrea, you wait out here with two quarters. Only use them if you see the meter maid coming." So Andrea said, "I spent the whole day sitting in a car holding two quarters keeping my eyes peeled and at the end of the day Gregg said, 'Give me my money back.' " [Laughter.]
Hu: Working for Gregg, he's the cheapest person I've ever worked for. Pathologically cheap.
Araki: That's how you make a movie for $5,000.
Moritsugu: I remember a story about Marcus! This is good. Bad boys time. He's the bad boy up. We're in preproduction for Mod Fuck Explosion and we're doing production charts and some of these production charts and boards, you have a lot of pens you use and liquid paper and sometimes on our production boards we had like ten different colors of liquid paper. We were just trying to save money so Marcus and Andrea go into a store on Haight Street and they come back out of there, "We got the liquid paper." "How much was it?" They're like, "Free for us." [Laughter. Marcus blushes charmingly.]
Araki: Isn't this being recorded?
Moritsugu: Isn't there a statute of limitations? I was like, "I'm the bad boy, man" and after Marcus did that I was like, "Whoooooa."
Cross-published at Twitch.
03/28/07 UPDATE: Sujewa Ekanayake, who identified himself in the comments section of the first part of this panel transcript as the artist behind one of the portraits of Jon Moritsugu, likewise has a September 2005 interview with Moritsugu for his Wild Diner Films blog, as well as a review of Moritsugu's Fame Whore.