The first thing you notice about the filmmaker Gregg Araki is his hands. It is two weeks before the premiere of his first foray into television, “Now Apocalypse,” and he’s sitting on the walled-off patio of a Starbucks in North Hollywood as unseen cars whiz behind him. While he describes the show as the “culmination of every movie I’ve ever done,” his legacy is tattooed across his knuckles: “NOW HERE.”
The tattoo is a reference to “Nowhere,” his seminal 1997 portrait of Gen-Xers raised in the shadow of the H.I.V.-AIDS crisis: having sex, getting high and getting obliterated by an unexplained reptilian menace. Films like “The Living End,” “Mysterious Skin” and “Kaboom” further cemented his preoccupation with, in Araki’s words, “sexually confused young people” in End Times America.
“Now Apocalypse,” a half-hour comedy that begins Sunday on Starz, shows the years haven’t changed him. Written by Araki and Karley Sciortino, a sex columnist at Vogue, the series picks up where those films left off. Avan Jogia (TV’s “Caprica”) plays Uly, a 20-something slacker who can’t tell if doomsday is upon us or he just smoked too much pot. The show shares the trappings of Araki’s earlier work — alleyway hookups, three-ways with Antifa protesters, alien lizards — but his trademark obsessions are especially timely in this politically charged cultural climate.
In a recent interview, Araki discussed what it took for one of the key figures of the New Queer Cinema era to make a show so fitting with the Trump era. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“Kaboom” was initially envisioned as a TV show before it became a feature film. Why did you feel it was time to take another crack at a series?
I’ve been wanting to do a TV show like this for at least 20 years. I’m really excited about the idea of TV because you can tell this longer story, and you develop a different relationship with TV than you do with a movie. Because it comes into your house every week, these people become very much like your friends. My friends and I talk about “Sex and the City” like they’re friends of ours.
“Now Apocalypse” reminded me of that doomsday paranoia you were tapping into back in 2010 with “Kaboom.” It felt even more relevant today. Do you feel the world has become more like a Gregg Araki movie in the past nine years?
When Karley and I first wrote [“Now Apocalypse”], we started during the twilight years of the Obama administration. That’s why the show has that almost utopian quality of free love — these kids having sex and figuring themselves out. Then 2016 happened. There’s always been that darker, Lynchian aspect of the show, but that became more pronounced. The specific example I give is Episode 1, when Ulie and Gabriel are in front of the coffee shop after their date and they’re kissing good night, then the fag bashers drive by. That was actually added after 2016 because it was that feeling of the world being a little more dangerous than it used to be.
It’s interesting that you describe the show as a utopia because of the furtiveness of male-male relationships in your previous work. There are all these scenes in “Doom Generation” of the male characters looking at each other with such longing but never knowing quite how to articulate it. In “Now Apocalypse,” there’s so much sex. How has your own relationship with depicting sexuality onscreen evolved?
The political world we live in right now is all about “Make America Repressive Again.” We’ve made so much progress since I started making films. The world has changed so much — for the better — that it’s really upsetting to me to go backward after we’ve come so far. The overriding message of the show is that people should be able to just be themselves and live their lives without fear of violence or oppression.
In “Now Apocalypse,” one of the characters says sexual fluidity is a “requirement” for the new generation, but your depictions of adolescence have always shown different facets of queerness. Did that feel more true to your own experience?
When we were at Sundance, Karley said: “I saw ‘Nowhere’ when I was 18 and I had blue hair and was living in London. That movie changed my life. I’d never seen a depiction of sex, sexuality and fluidity like that before.” I believe that sexuality is on a spectrum. There are people that are 99 percent straight and 99 percent gay, but there’s a lot of people in between. The world — and particularly young people today — are much more open to that.
What has it been like for you to see the movement that L.G.B.T.Q. people have made in the past couple of decades?
I think it’s fantastic. I do think that we live in a little bit of a bubble here in L.A., New York or San Francisco. It’s not so easy for kids in Idaho or North Dakota — these places that are not as accepting and open-minded. That’s one of the most exciting things for me about “Now Apocalypse.” Because it’s TV, it’s not something like “Kaboom” or “Nowhere” where it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to figure out where to see this if there’s a theater anywhere within 100 miles of here.” Some closeted kid in some faraway town somewhere can watch this show, and it’s really rewarding for me as a filmmaker that it could give a kid like that hope.
It must feel surreal for you because preservation has been so unkind to many of your movies. For a long time, one was stuck with mostly VHS copies with terrible audio, if you could find the films at all. Now you have the resources of a multimillion dollar cable network.
My first film at Sundance was “The Living End.” It was this 16 mm punk rock movie, and we made it for $20,000. It was so wild, however many years later, to be back at Sundance with this show that’s on Starz. [My work] started out in the early ’90s as something that was so far out of the mainstream — just this weird indie movie — but now you drive down Sunset and there’s a billboard [for “Now Apocalypse”] next to the billboard for “A Star Is Born.” It’s really mind-boggling for me.
If you had a Season 2, what would you hope to tackle?
Everything. The model of the show is very much like “Girls,” “Insecure” and “Looking” — HBO R-rated sex comedies. But the problem with those shows in 2019 is that you really run out of stories. By Season 2, everybody’s [expletive] everybody. Everybody’s cheated on everybody, and there’s nowhere to go. Those shows die on the vine really quickly. This show has always had this other layer, which is this sci-fi, surreal aspect of it.
For me, that’s the wild card that keeps the show alive. I always wanted the show to be really unpredictable. I hate shows where you feel like, “I know where this is going.” That’s what happens in these millennial comedies is that you already know what’s going to happen. I love “Insecure” to death, but the last season, I wanted something to happen. I’ve seen it all already.
When we started the scripts for Season 2, I told [Gregory Jacobs, an executive producer], “I just don’t want to repeat Season 1.” We’re about six scripts into Season 2. It’s going to be amazing. I hope we get to do it.