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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

May 24, 2005

Mysterious Skin tells the story of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), a pair of teenagers whose lives are tragically altered by an experience they shared when they were eight years old. The incident imprints itself differently upon each of them, and their paths take divergent downward spirals: Neil ends up turning tricks as a local hustler living in denial, while Brian becomes obsessed with the notion that he was abducted by aliens.

Though the subject matter is unsettling, the movie is beautifully shot and the story is told in a compelling fashion that never resorts to cheap sensationalism. The entire cast turns in strong performances--especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet in the lead roles. Based upon the novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is directed by Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation) and also stars Elisabeth Shue and Michelle Trachtenberg.

In this interview, director Gregg Araki and writer Scott Heim talk about the story's transition from the written word to the big screen.

The Interview

MEDIA: What inspired you both to tell this particular story?

GREGG: I made the movie because of the book. I read the book in 1995 and it was really this incredibly powerful experience to read it. I really appreciated the way Scott told this very dark, very unsettling story, but told it in this incredibly beautiful and poetic way. So the book really had a huge emotional impact on me and really haunted me for years. So I knew that if I ever did do a movie out of a book, that this would be the book that I want to make.

SCOTT: I was actually writing two short stories. I had written a short story that is sort of about the Neil character, and then I started writing something about a kid remembering what he thought was a UFO abduction. And I realized that someone speaking under hypnosis about what they thought was a UFO abduction was so similar to the things people say when they're under hypnosis remembering sexual abuse memories. So I thought, "There's something here that's longer than a short story." And I had always been kind of afraid of the idea of writing a novel, but I realized that there was something bigger [and] decided to make these parallel stories. Also, I'm from Kansas, so I like writing about Kansas. I think it's a place that people sort of always see as serene and safe, and I kind of like turning that around and showing that bad things actually happen in this place. That's one thing I love so much about Gregg's movie--I think he took that idea and translated it in the sense of you're experiencing these horrible things, but the movie's so beautiful in a way. And I think that makes it more disturbing because you're seeing these beautiful images, but it's something horrible that's happening.

What was the hardest thing about adapting the novel for the screen?

GREGG: There was really not a hard part. There was a tricky part in the sense that I loved the scenes in the book and in the film that deal with the very young boys, so I knew that I really didn't want those just to be some little flashback. I knew that was such an integral part to the story, so I knew that I wanted to keep those scenes in the film. On the other hand, I knew the difficulty of working with child actors, so I [had to figure] out a way to shoot those scenes in such a way that the children could be protected from what the actual subject was. So the kids actually didn't know the whole story--they didn't really know what their characters were doing most of the time. [laughs] They just acted their scenes bit by bit, moment to moment, in a very simple and direct way. And I had been advised early on that child actors actually don't like to have the whole picture, unlike an adult actor who wants their character motivation and "Where was I born?" and "What's my whole history?" The kid actors really just want to know "What am I doing in this take right now?" It all had to be very carefully storyboarded, very carefully edited. But it was a matter of figuring out how to keep those scenes in the movie but shoot them in a way so that the kids don't have to necessarily know what the movie's about. And once I cracked that mystery, the rest of the adaptation was really easy.

How did you keep the child actors who play the young versions of Neil and Brian oblivious to the movie's subject?

GREGG: It was all very elaborate in the sense that there was actually a different script written. [laughs] The kids would have their own script and we're sort of making an alternate movie. And, for instance, the actor who plays the coach, Bill Sage, would have to shoot the movie with the kid, and then his own half of the scene that was actually the real movie.

How did the parents of the child actors feel about the shooting demands?

GREGG: Obviously, the parents had read the whole script. So it was all very elaborately explained to the parents exactly what the kid would have to do and how the kid would basically not know what was going on, but that I would get, emotionally, what I needed for the scene. And I promised both sets of parents that the kids would have a really great time making the movie, and they wouldn't be, in any way, traumatized by what they're having to do. And the kids were really wonderful. And they did have such a fun time. Like George, the kid who plays little Brian...the last day of filming, he started crying because he didn't want to stop filming. [laughs] The kids were great and the parents could not have been more wonderful or supportive.

Did the film's subject matter make it difficult to obtain financing?

GREGG: There's always difficulty. I mean, it's the worst part of making movies. [laughs] With this movie, we were pretty lucky, actually. So it was hard, but it wasn't any harder or easier than any of my other movies.

Scott, were you on set to offer your input during filming?

SCOTT: I actually wasn't on set until the very end when they filmed some scenes in New York. I live in Boston now, but I came down for that. And that was really exciting and fun. But I think my input was more before filming. Gregg and I were friends, and when he was writing the script, he would just ask me questions about certain things in the book--how I envisioned them, or what the interior of the house would have looked like, that sort of thing. And then there were times when they were filming that the set designer would call and ask me a question or something.

GREGG: Scott was the Kansas specialist, because I had never been to Kansas.

SCOTT: The big part is [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] actually met me before they started filming, and he actually wanted to go back to Kansas where the book is set. So he and I went back and just drove around and met my family and friends, and I took him to some of the places I based the book on. And he took his video camera and taped people's accents, and we even were driving across the fields of Kansas and saw a dying cow on the side of the road, which was really interesting, because there's that scene in the book that's very similar to that.

GREGG: It was an omen!

SCOTT: [laughs]

GREGG: When I was doing the adaptation, it was important to me that the film be very faithful to the book because I love the story so much, and I thought it was such a powerful story and such a beautiful story. So we didn't actually physically work on the script together, but I had the book with me the whole time I was writing. And I'd just lift whole passages out of the book. Particularly, Scott has a really very poetic and sort of eloquent style, and that's one of the things I loved so much about the book--how the words were put together. So I would incorporate a lot of the prose from the book into the movie as voice over in the scene description. So there was that atmosphere that's in the book. The mood of the book was very, very much in the script.

How did you come to cast the actors featured in the film?

GREGG: The casting was done in a very standard way. We just met dozens and dozens of actors for each part and we just got super lucky. Everybody in the movie, down to the smallest parts...they're all so perfect. It doesn't always happen that way. The cliche about directing is that it's 90% casting. [laughs] And in this case, it was really true in the sense that everybody was so perfect and they were so prepared and so serious about what they were doing. It was really just a delight to come to set and work.

Scott, how did Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet match your vision of the characters?

SCOTT: Really accurately. Surprisingly, almost frighteningly so. There are shots in the film where Brady looks a lot like I looked at that age. It's kind of frightening. I think maybe it's just a testament to the friendship that I made with Gregg and how much we talked about the characters and the scenes and specific images from the film, because he just got so many things exactly right and how I envisioned them. Maybe the one character that wasn't very close to the way I imagined it was Jeff Licon's character, Eric. But if I were to pick up the book right now and read a scene, I wouldn't see the characters how I initially saw them in my head when I wrote them. I would see Gregg's characters and the actors. It's funny, they've just replaced the images that I had in my head when I wrote it. But that's totally fine with me, because I'm so happy with the movie. [laughs]

GREGG: I had a really clear idea when I was casting what Brian looked like, what Neil looked like, the way they talked, and the way they moved. It was really, for me, just so in the book. It was very clear to me the way Brian was and the way that Neil was. The book is very visual and very cinematic in that way.

What was your ultimate goal in making this film?

GREGG: The producer asked me that same question after we started making it. My goal with the movie was really to just devastate people, in the way that the book was just devastating for me to read it. I literally was crying when I finished the book. It had a really pure, emotional impact on me, and I really wanted the film to achieve that, because I think that it's such an important and extraordinary story. I've never really encountered a story like it. So I really wanted to do the story justice. Most movies, you see them and they have no impact on you. And this movie, I really wanted to make an impact on people and give them something to think about. And for the most part, we have been really successful at that. I mean, the best thing anybody's ever told me in terms of the reaction to the movie was that when it was over, they were literally speechless and just had to be by themselves and think about what they had seen. And as a director, that's all I could hope for.

Scott, did you have a similar goal while you were writing the novel?

SCOTT: Yeah, I think my goal was pretty similar to what Gregg's goal was with the movie. And I wanted the reader to realize that these were two pretty damaged people, and maybe by coming together and learning each other's sides of the story, they had made a step toward becoming a little more whole. But I didn't want there to be some sort of Hollywood ending where you think, "Oh, they're fine again, now they'll go on and live better lives" or something. I don't think anything's ever that simple or black and white. But I did want there to be some sort of feeling of redemption at the end, and I think Gregg did such a great job of doing what I hope I tried to do with the book.

Related Material

Interviews with Michelle Trachtenberg
Interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet
Movie Coverage: Mysterious Skin


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