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December 26, 2007

Face Value

Reeler Interview: Gregg Araki on Smiley Face, Faris and the trouble with genre

All Smiley, all the time: Anna Faris and director Gregg Araki on the set of Smiley Face, opening today in New York (Photos: Lacey Terrell / First Look Studios)

In the 1990s, while other directors were making teen films about scoring with babes, Gregg Araki made movies like Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere --- films about young people misunderstood by not only their parents but by the whole world. They unfold like episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, except if Luke Perry couldn't decide if he loved Shannen Doherty or Jason Priestly and was on crystal meth.

Following his acclaimed 2004 drama Mysterious Skin, which revisited those themes with a darker, adult edge, Araki's Smiley Face (opening today in New York) marks a conspicuous tonal shift. The film stars Anna Faris as Jane F., a pothead who, after eating a tray of her roommate's pot-cupcakes, becomes embroiled in an Odyssian journey for... well, nothing really. But that's kind of the point. The Reeler recently spoke with Araki about the motivations behind Smiley Face, the magic of Anna Faris and why he'll never direct a gangster movie.

THE REELER: Being that Smiley Face is so different from your previous films, what made you want to make it?

GREGG ARAKI: It was really the script by Dylan Haggerty. After Mysterious Skin I wanted to do something completely different. I mean, I love Mysterious Skin; I'm very proud of it. But it was such a dark and serious subject matter that I really just wanted to do something 180 degrees completely different. I remember Smiley Face being one of the funniest scripts I had ever read, and I just found the vision and style of it so unique and original. It was kind of similar to Mysterious Skin in that way. With Mysterious Skin I wrote the screenplay, but I didn't write the book, and I just fell in love with the story and characters of Mysterious Skin. It was the same with Smiley Face. I really fell in love with Jane and her world, the whole sensibility of the script, and I just really wanted to do it.

R: So it was like a kind of artistic palate cleansing, then?

GA: Yeah, sort of. In general, throughout the nine or however many movies I've made, I tend to do that a lot -- I tend to not do the expected next thing. I try not to repeat myself and make the same movie over and over, so I'm always interested in doing something different and something new. I like being able to work in a wide variety of genres and tones, so Smiley Face really appealed to me. And there was something in the script that was just so weirdly wonderful. It was just such an offbeat story, and I found it so unpredictable -- it was constantly surprising me.

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R: Do you think it fits in well with the rest of your body of work? Do you see many similarities?

GA: In a way, it does, because it so appeals to my sensibility. It would be hard for me to be attracted to something that was so completely outside of what I'm interested in. There are certain things that are different, in a sense; one of the themes that go through a lot of my films is dubious or amorphous sexuality, and Smiley Face is probably my most de-sexualized movie (except for the weird fantasy sequences that people have about Jane). But that was specifically Dylan, in the sense that he wanted to make a female protagonist who was not a sexual character -- who was asexual.

But my movies have always been about outsiders and outcasts of society, and thematically, on reflection, there are so many things in Smiley Face that make it resonate with all my other movies. The way that the whole film is structured around a journey is very similar to a lot of my movies, like The Doom Generation. [And] a lot of my films are about these idealized or naïve protagonists in these hostile or antagonistic universes, and that's sort of the core of Smiley Face. So, I didn't set out to intentionally have this film be such a part of my oeuvre, but in reflection it sort of turned out that way.

R: What about with the "stoner film" genre? How do you think it fits?

GA: I've seen Harold and Kumar, Dude Where's My Car?, and a few of these stoner movies, and I like those movies. But I'm not a huge fan of them in the sense that I ever wanted to make a stoner movie. It wasn't like I said, "I have to make one of these movies" -- it was really the uniqueness of Dylan's script that attracted me to the story. In terms of when things get sent to me, I'm pretty open. I always tell my manager I'll kind of read almost anything. You know, I'd make a musical, but there're certain genres I know I'll never work in because I don't like that genre. I always tell people never ever send me a gangster movie because I'll never make one. I just don't like the genre -- I'm not interested in wise-cracking people saying "motherfucker" and shooting each other -- it's something I'm not interested in as a filmmaker.

R: Your reputation was made in the '90s making teen films. Are you still interested in the exploration of youth culture?

GA: The projects I work on are sort of all across the board. I am working on a couple things that are a little bit Nowhere- and Doom Generation-esque. One project I'm working on now is an Internet thing -- a multi-platform series like that terrible Quarterlife thing. It can exist as an Internet series or as full-length feature similar to the way Inland Empire was written. That's youth culture-oriented.

"She was the only person I wanted": Anna Faris as Jane F. in Smiley Face

R: Is Jane's character a substitute, or maybe a metaphor, for that feeling of youthful ennui?

GA: I've always been attracted to characters that live outside of the mainstream. And she's such a slacker and aimless; there're so many things about that character I fell in love with. It's such an authentically drawn character. Her voice was so dead-on, exactly how that culture thinks and feels about their place in the world. And her world was a very familiar world.

R: How did you choose Anna Faris?

GA: Jane F. is a really difficult part because she's on the screen every second of the movie, so it had to be someone you'd never get bored of watching. Specifically, I was looking for someone that was a scene stealer; someone that played the girlfriend or the sidekick but [whom] you wanted to see more of. It was really Anna's performance in Lost in Translation that cinched it for me. Everyone else in that movie is weirdly kind of sleepwalking, and when her character comes in the movie comes to life. So, when Anna's name came up I said that's it -- she was the only person I wanted. Watching the movie and watching dailies, I think there's no one else that could have pulled it off; she's really unique in her ability to carry a movie like this. I think there're so many beautiful 20-something actresses out there, but because of Anna's particular gifts -- the way she uses her face and her body -- I don't think there's any other actress out there that could have done this part.

R: You seem to be someone who likes to take a normal genre picture and push it a little bit further. Would you say that's your overall goal as a filmmaker?

GA: It's not so much pushing it. I was talking to Gus Van Sant, and he said you just need to make movies that you want to see, and hopefully other people will like them too. I've been so fortunate where I've loved all the movies I've done. Because I also edit my movies and am really involved in the color timing, I see every movie I make literally 500 or a thousand times, and if I ever made a movie only because I was getting paid I don't think I could take it. You have to love it; it has to be something that's really personal to you that you love. Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face were both projects I didn't originate, but I loved them both as much as anything I'd written myself. When it came down to it I could watch it a thousand times, do a hundred interviews about it, travel all over the world with them and be into them still, as opposed to some hack job I'm not happy with and didn't want to do in the first place. I'm really lucky that way.

R: What's your dream project?

GA: There's one project I'm working on right now, called Creeps, a horror/sci-fi movie, which is something we were supposed to make before Smiley Face, but it fell apart. [Araki laughs.] It's another genre movie.



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