Wassup Rockers: The Interview
Larry Clark, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943, received his high school diploma from Central High in Tulsa and attended Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. He was then drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam.
Clark’s groundbreaking first feature film, KIDS, was released in 1995. The film, based on a story by Clark and Jim Lewis, with a script by Harmony Korine — one of several teenage skateboarders Clark befriended in New York City’s Washington Square Park and later cast in his movie — was controversial even before its release, prompting the then Disney-owned Miramax to remove its name from the film and release it privately. The film screened in competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and was a cause-célébre at the Sundance Film Festival. In June 2006, Entertainment Weekly named the film as one of the most controversial films of all time.
Following the success of KIDS, Clark directed three more features, ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, BULLY and KEN PARK, before discovering the Latino skate punk kids from South Central Los Angeles who would comprise the cast of his most recent feature WASSUP ROCKERS.
Best known for his haunting depiction of teenage life on the edge in his photography volumes Tulsa and Teenage Lust, Larry Clark remains a significant figure in contemporary art. His work is included in museum collections in the United States, Europe and Asia, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Larry Clark divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.
How did you meet the kids of WASSUP ROCKERS?
I met the kids on July 2, 2003, so I’ve known them almost three years. I met Porky and Kico at a skate park in Venice Beach. I’d come out to Los Angeles with actress Tiffany Limos to do a photo shoot for the French magazine Rebel, which was doing an issue on adolescents and wanted me to shoot the actors from KEN PARK. But the guys weren’t around so I said I would photograph Tiffany with some skate kids. Porky and Kico looked out of place and different, really raggedy, wearing clothes that were too little for them, they had long hair, their boards were worn out, their shoes were falling apart. But they had this style, so I went up and talked to them. I took a few pictures of them and they told us they were from the ghetto — from South Central. We ended up taking them back to South Central and meeting their friends, Jonathan and his brother Eddie and Kico’s brother, Carlos. And we photographed them in skate spots for four days all over Los Angeles.
The magazine was going to put Tiffany on the cover and give us ten pages. When they saw the pictures they gave us 23 pages plus an interview and two covers, one of Tiffany and a second one with 14-year old Jonathan. When the magazine came out, I went to South Central to show them. They were amazed – we were all amazed. Their parents were amazed as well, seeing their kids in this slick French magazine. The kids wanted to go skating again so I took them skating again. Then they called the next Saturday morning at 9am and asked me if we were going skating again. So I took them out again and it turned into a regular Saturday thing. They expected me to show up on Saturdays and take them skating, which is what I did for over a year. I was very dependable – I always showed up. That’s when I got the idea that I wanted to do this film about them. I started working on the screenplay, learning about them and their lives. It was very organic.
How did you develop the structure of the film?
The first half of the film reflects their lives in South Central; it’s based on their stories and what happened to them. The film actually starts out as a documentary, with the four minutes of Jonathan when he was fourteen. The stories that he tells on that tape are basically the stories that we’re recreating in the first half of the film. It probably would have been the normal, logical thing for me to keep the film in South Central and continue a story about their lives there. But I kind of knew what that was going to be. Since we were always leaving South Central and going to skating spots and they were reacting to white people and people in different parts of the city, I thought I’d like to take them on an adventure outside South Central for the second part of the movie. One afternoon I sat down and made up the second half of the film.
Had the kids seen your first film, KIDS? Are there parallels between WASSUP ROCKERS and KIDS?
Every one of them had seen KIDS. It’s kind of a calling card for me now — if I want to approach somebody on the street to photograph or talk with them about being in a film, I tell them I’m the filmmaker of KIDS. And everybody has seen KIDS; every generation sees that film. KIDS was my first film; I had wanted to make a film about contemporary teenagers, so I needed to find out what was going on in their lives. I thought the skateboarders were the most interesting — from a visual standpoint at least. And also they were almost like outlaws. It seems like all grownups and authority figures hated skaters back then. Because they had this freedom, they were basically self-sufficient. It made cops nervous.
Everything that happened in KIDS was based on what had happened to this group of teenagers. KIDS was about the secret world of kids where adults were not allowed in. I was allowed access to this specific group of downtown Manhattan skateboarders. I had to learn how to skate in my late forties so I could keep up with them — with my camera in hand — which was quite a trick. It was the same kind of process as in WASSUP ROCKERS; I spent a long time getting to know these Latino kids and that’s how the process began.
Describe the setting of WASSUP ROCKERS.
WASSUP ROCKERS is set in the ghetto, in South Central Los Angeles, which is isolated by race. It’s all black and Latino; there are no white people there. These kids never even knew another white person except for a few of their teachers who were white. If you walk down the street in downtown L.A. and ask fifty white people about South Central, I bet none of them would have ever been there. And they’d say, ‘don’t go there, it’s too dangerous, you’ll get killed.’ That was interesting to me -- the racial politics of the ghetto and the dangerous environment in which these kids live and grow up, where they can be shot at any moment. There are gang-bangers everywhere and there are always drive-by shootings. There is immense pressure on these kids to be in crews or to join gangs or to simply effect the style of the ghetto — the gangster style with the baggy clothes, where you cut off all your hair and smoke pot and act ‘gangsta’ — these kids weren’t doing that, which is reflected in the film. These kids just want to be kids and have fun and grow their hair long and wear their clothes tight — they’re called ‘young clothes’ because a lot of the time they are the clothes they wore when they were ten years old. These kids have to fight to be themselves. You’ve certainly never seen these kids in films before — and I thought they should be seen and that people should know that most kids living in the ghetto don’t want to be in gangs and their parents don’t want them to be in gangs.
Describe the process of working with the kids.
I was trying to reflect this moment in time when we’re young teenagers, and trying to figure out who we are and what we like in the world. You can be a death metal kid one day, a punk rock kid the next and a gangsta the day after that. You’re just starting to grow up, you’re an adolescent, and you’re starting to think about girls all the time. But you still have one foot in childhood — you can still be a little kid — which I think is reflected in the film. When you see them walking through the park after school and they get on the merry-go-round and start spinning each other around until they’re sick… I found that interesting. I had to make the film when I made it, otherwise the kids would have been too grown up. I wanted to capture this moment in time.
The kids are actually acting in the film, playing themselves six or eight months prior to shooting. The script was never more than forty or fifty pages in length; when Kico and Nikki are talking in bed (in Beverly Hills) — it’s an eight-minute long scene — it said in the script ‘Kico and Nikki sit in the bed and talk.’ I wanted Kico to tell her about his life and I wanted Nikki to ask questions about his life. My job was to put Kico in a situation where he was comfortable enough to talk to this girl and tell her his story. He had told me those stories in private, personal conversations before. So my job was to get him to be able to convey this on camera to the young actress playing Nikki. It’s a natural scene and I wanted Kico to tell his story in his own words.
In another scene, Jonathan tells Spermball about his first time. Jonathan had told me that story when I met him. He told me some details, but he kind of blocked out the rest and moved on. The night before we were going to shoot the scene, I asked him to lie in bed before going to sleep that night and to relive the experience moment by moment – everything that happened. So the next day he came on set and went into a lot of detail with Spermball, telling him things he’d never told anyone before. In the screenplay it reads ‘Jonathan tells Spermball about his first time’ — I wasn’t going to write it out for him. There were a lot of instances where the script developed this way. I knew what I wanted them to say but I had to get them in a position where they could do this. This was very tricky, but it worked out really well.
Why did you start the film with the scene of Jonathan talking extemporaneously about his life?
This scene was not meant to be part of the film. Those stories he’s telling are the stories we recreate in the film. These were shot more than a year before we started shooting the actual film. When we were editing I thought about those scenes so I went back and looked at the tapes. They were so good, and I thought, ‘What if we start the film with these?’ What I’m doing in this film is mixing all kinds of genres. Once we get out of South Central it turns into an action-adventure or chase movie with dark humor and slapstick — it’s all over the place. But I thought it might be interesting to start the film with the documentary footage in order to mix things up.
Also interesting things happened during the year and a half when I was getting ready to make the film – a period when I was hanging out with the kids all the time. The drive-by shooting of the kid at the beginning of the film was not in the screenplay until about three weeks before we were shooting — because that’s when it happened. This kid Creeper was always hanging around Kico’s parking lot and he got shot and killed in a drive-by. The kids called me and told me so I went out there and we bought a candle and they said a little prayer and made the sign of the cross. I wrote this into the film to show you that this is the kind of tragedy and despair these kids have to live with all the time.
Talk about the scenes in Beverly Hills.
The kids had never been to Beverly Hills High to skate, but they had seen it in skate videos. So I went by to look at those steps. There are always skaters there — kids from Beverly Hills High skating after school, kids skating on the weekends etc. One morning I took the kids there to skate. When we got there, the kids started skating as usual but immediately this cop comes over and busts us. He sat all the kids on the sidewalk and wouldn’t let us go. I told him I was making a film and I’d brought all these kids from South Central to show them the location. We even had a permit for the film at that point. The cop said he’d been warning these kids for three months about skating. He kept us there an hour and a half and he gave everyone a ticket. They had to go to court at 8 a.m. in Santa Monica, which was 27 miles from where they live. These kids are mostly from single parent families; their mothers work; they all go to school… how are they supposed to get to court? I kept telling the cop that this was their first time at Beverly Hills High but he didn’t care. Then I asked him how many tickets he’d given out to other kids who skated there. He said we were the first. When he heard the kids were Latino from South Central, there was no way he was just going to leave them alone. The guy looked just like Robert Patrick from Terminator 2… that’s just Beverly Hills. It turned out to be one of the best scenes in the movie and it really happened.
On Saturdays, before we even shot the film I would take them into Hollywood to skate at Hollywood High. Back then, two years ago — way before the Paris Hilton sex tape — Paris and Nikki Hilton were in the tabloids and on TV shows every evening for doing nothing but going to clubs. So I thought, what if Paris and Nikki Hilton were driving by in their convertible and saw Jonathan and Kico skating and thought they were hot and took them up to Beverly Hills? What if their boyfriends came and there was a fight and the cops came and the kids had to escape? And what if they had to jump over a fence into somebody’s back yard… what would they find? What if they got trapped in Beverly Hills? I love the movie THE WARRIORS — it’s one of my favorite movies. Somehow they have to escape and get back home to South Central, where it’s safe for them — safer than Beverly Hills? And then I thought, who could help them? The only other people of color there would be the maids and the gardeners. And I’ll bet Charlton Heston has been sitting in his back yard with his rifle for twenty years waiting for a person of color to come onto his property so he could shoot them.
A fashion photographer contacted me after Rebel came out in 2003 wanting to use Jonathan in one of his shoots. I told him he couldn’t because I was planning on making a film. But then I thought… what if these kids jumped over a fence in Beverly Hills, all beat up and bloody, with black eyes, and there was this fashion party going on? What would the fashion world think? Of course they would be thinking about their next campaign. And then you’d see models in ad campaigns with black eyes and bloody noses and these tight, ripped-up clothes.
Even the second half of the film was organic in that way too. The actress played by Janice Dickinson — she plays the kind of older actress who gets up every morning and dresses up to the nines, with full hair and make-up, but she never leaves the house because she’s agoraphobic and drinks all day. I remember hearing the story about Mary Pickford, who became an alcoholic after Douglas Fairbanks died. She never left Pickfair; she was agoraphobic and just stayed there and drank. What if someone like that grabbed Kico and made him take a bubble bath? I was just having fun, coming up with situations that might have happened to kids like that if they’d gotten trapped in Beverly Hills.
Who performs the music in the film?
There’s a big resurgence in hardcore punk in Latino communities all over the world, and punk rock and skateboarding emerged at more or less the same time. The bands on the soundtrack are all neighborhood bands from South Central. There’s one published band called Defiance — whose tune "No Future, No Hope" plays when they’re having fun on the merry-go-round at the playground — but the rest of the bands on the soundtrack are all unpublished and undiscovered Latino hardcore bands from the kids’ neighborhood. It’s what we used to call garage bands. I found about them all through the kids — The South Central Riot Squad, The Remains, LA’s Moral Decay, The Retaliates. Jonathan himself has a band called The Revolts. These bands would save up a hundred bucks and go into some studio and record a few tunes for their own homemade cds. The kids would make homemade compilation cds, which we’d play in my car all the time. And I liked it, because I’ve always been a fan of punk rock. So I knew this had to be the soundtrack to the film.