Gregg Araki has agreed to meet at the coffee shop where he does most of his writing. It’s a Starbucks in Hollywood — we won’t say which one — and frankly, it’s amazing that he can get any work done here without being recognized.
“It’s not like I’m famous,” he insists.
Try telling that to the queer kids, punks and rebels whose minds were blown by the director’s films back in the ’90s, when Araki unleashed such anarchic grenades as “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere” — movies, bright as gumballs but laced with razor blades, in which angry, oversexed teens and twentysomethings try to figure out where they fit in the world.
“More teen angst,” teases the title card that opens his 1993 indie “Totally F***ed Up” — a phrase that neatly sums up Araki’s career, even if today’s teens were not yet born when he started terrorizing mainstream values.
Now he’s about to be discovered by an entirely new generation, thanks to a project that is pure, uncut Araki: a rowdy, explicit 10-episode series called “Now Apocalypse,” commissioned by Starz and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and Gregory Jacobs. An unapologetically sex-positive super-mix of all Araki’s previous work, the series follows a handful of libidinous young Angelenos — and one rubber-suited space alien — torn between worrying about the end of the universe and caring more about who’s responding to their Grindr messages.
“I’ve been wanting to do a TV show for at least 20 years,” says Araki, who has tried several times before. After the success of “Nowhere” in 1997, he had a deal to adapt the film as a TV series. A couple years later, he wrote and directed an MTV pilot, “This Is How the World Ends,” about a similar group of slackers. Neither concept made it to air.
“TV reaches this broad cross-section of people who have never heard of Sundance, have never heard of Gregg Araki,” says the director, who finds it as difficult as ever to get a film made these days.
And yet, over the past quarter century, youth culture — with its contradictory blend of ambition and ambivalence, looming fear of disaster, and overall spirit of sexual fluidity and experimentation — seems to have caught up with his once radical sensibility. No wonder Araki has recently been in such demand, directing episodes of millennial-targeted series like “13 Reasons Why,” “Riverdale” and “Red Oaks” (the latter produced by Jacobs and Soderbergh).
“Gregg is decades ahead of the curve,” says Soderbergh, adding, “He creates characters who refuse to be boxed into one definition or another. Now we’re in the middle of a wave where people are doing everything they can to get rid of all these labels.”
Directing for TV got Araki thinking about his “ultimate dream show,” in which he could explore all his favorite themes. But first, he needed a collaborator, which he found in Karley Sciortino, a young screenwriter — and author of Vogue’s racy “Breathless” column — who’s a huge fan of Araki’s ’90s-era movies, especially “Nowhere.”
“I’d never seen female sexuality portrayed like that, where people are slutty-powerful and everyone is unapologetic,” Sciortino says.
The two met after Araki read her kinky semiautobiographical script “Sex Is Everything.” “It was pitched to me almost like a comic ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” says the director, who signed on to direct and produce. “We really bonded about the idea of sex and sexuality and what an important part it is in terms of your growth as a human being.”
Around the same time, Araki was similarly impressed by a bright up-and-coming actor, Avan Jogia, whom he cast in the short film “Here Now.” A fresh variation on such Araki heartthrobs as James Duval and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jogia got him thinking about the kind of dynamic that might exist if two edgy people like him and Sciortino were besties. From there, Araki quickly expanded to imagine their entire social circle, throwing in an alien conspiracy theory for good measure.
After hatching the basic concept, he called up Sciortino to see if she might be interested in co-writing the pilot on spec — and so began a series of brainstorming sessions at Araki’s favorite Starbucks, where they set out to subvert everything one normally sees on CW-style coming-of-age series, and to push back on so-called prestige television.
“There’s so much stuff out there now,” Araki says. “I really wanted to make a show that was fun and sexy and colorful and easy to watch, that was completely its own crazy different thing. It’s kind of like eye candy.”
Once he and Sciortino had written the pilot, Araki shared it with Jacobs, whom he’d met on “Red Oaks.” Jacobs excitedly passed the script along to longtime collaborator Soderbergh, who knew exactly where to pitch it: Starz, the network that had gotten behind the TV adaptation of his indie feature “The Girlfriend Experience.”
Back when he was first shopping that show, Soderbergh asked Chris Albrecht, who was CEO of Starz at the time, “Tell me the number where no matter how weird this thing is, you still can make money,” and then he scaled the budget accordingly. Convinced that “Now Apocalypse” could be produced according to the same model, he sent the pilot script to Starz programming president Carmi Zlotnik and told him to ring him as soon as he’d read it.
“I did,” remembers Zlotnik. “I called him and said, ‘What was that? I want to know what happens!’ For 26 pages, it’s a millennial relationship comedy, and on the last page, Ulysses turns a corner and sees a giant reptile raping a homeless man.”
The network acted fast, commissioning 10 episodes. Drawing from his TV experience, Jacobs instructed Araki on how to make a grid and map out how various story arcs extend over the course of a season. Then Araki and Sciortino cut loose, writing the first season as if they’d never be allowed to do television again.
“On movies, I’m used to telling people, ‘Don’t worry — it’s going to be R-rated. We’re going to tone it down,’” says Araki. But in this case, the director claims that Albrecht effectively dared him, “Give us all you’ve got!”
Araki proceeded to push the proverbial envelope with nudity — both human and extra-terrestrial — while innovating an open-minded approach to such still-taboo subjects as bisexuality and bondage. “I’ve always wanted to do an episode of TV where they just have sex for the whole episode,” Araki says, and so the eighth half-hour became “the sex episode,” in which the key characters’ interpersonal relationships are all advanced in flagrante delicto.
According to Zlotnik, Starz’s strategy hasn’t changed since Albrecht stepped down. “Everyone is interested in doing more with voices from the independent film world,” he says. “For us, the most important thing is to be interesting. We try to have a ‘Go for it’ attitude, to lean into the content and be brave, where the objective is to produce really high-impact, low-cost programming.”
That equation serves as the basis of Soderbergh’s arrangement with Starz. “It’s like the perfect deal for this show, where the budgets and schedules are very tight and indie, but Soderbergh has total creative control,” explains Araki, who cross-boarded the entire season like one big feature, directing the 10 episodes in roughly 40 days.
Having seen the finished product, all involved feel like they’ve created something unprecedented for TV.
“This is what Gregg’s been doing since the beginning of his career, but he’s never really had the opportunity to do it in television, or to have it be as completely undiluted as this show is,” says Soderbergh.
Certainly, Araki’s fans will recognize DNA from his previous work — “Nowhere” and “Kaboom” in particular — while newcomers won’t know what hit them. “Absolutely, the show is not going to be for everyone, and if it was, I think we would have failed,” says Sciortino.
“I’ve always thought of the show as a queer ‘Sex and the City,’ with ‘Twin Peaks’ and aliens in it,” says Araki, who was inspired by the unpredictable, nonconformist style of David Lynch’s early-’90s series — which helps to explain the origin of the supernatural element.
“To me, it’s the wild card that keeps the deck alive,” says Araki, who has been commissioned by the network to write a second season. “That’s what’s so exciting about ‘Now Apocalypse,’ and that’s how I pitched it to Starz: All those other shows run out of storylines in two seasons, tops. The idea for this one is that it’s ever-expanding. There’s just no limit. The show is kind of like my imagination unleashed.”