Larry Clark
The Art of Surviving

Larry Clark’s films and photography have left an indelible mark on pop culture, not only for their shock value but also for their biting social commentary.

Beginning with 1971’s provocative drug photo diary, Tulsa, Clark has documented the darkness of youth and found beauty in places where few have dared to tread. In this interview he recounts how his torrid childhood led to a lifetime of drug abuse, as well as his experiences as a soldier in the jungles of Vietnam, a stint in the Oklahoma State Pen, and how he became an indie auteur at the age of 51 with the release of Kids in 1995. Now with 11 feature films behind him, including Bully, Ken Park and Wassup Rockers, Clark is looking forward to this year releasing the director’s cut of The Smell of Us and the follow up to Marfa Girl. A fast talking, funny and insightful man, in person Clark is every bit as brutally honest as his uncompromising art.

You started mainlining speed at the age of 15. That’s pretty hardcore. Why did you feel the need to do that?

It saved my life. You hear people say all the time that something saved their life. Well alcohol, and speed, and all the other drugs saved my life.

How did it start?

Well, I was self-medicating myself with speed before people even knew about ADD or ADHD, and now they give kids the same shit that I was taking. They’re giving kids Ritalin. I mean Ritalin was the worst amphetamine in the world when I was a kid. They would give it to racehorses and now they give the same thing to kids with ADD because speed calms them down and they can focus. If there hadn’t been drugs I would have probably killed myself. I was miserable.

Were you a lonely kid?

No one got me, my mother was out working all the time, and my father never talked to me. He was always up in his room working, supposedly. He walked through the living room one day, paused by the stairs and said to me, “You look like shit”, then walked upstairs and never spoke to me again. Something was going on but I wasn’t privileged to know. So I was a confused, unhappy child.

Did you ever resolve your issues with you father?

No. I don’t really care anything about him. He passed away years ago but I had no feelings for him at all.

You went to fight in Vietnam. Were there a lot of drugs over there?

It was only me getting high there. I’d go into a village and get a pillowcase full of weed for 50 bucks. My company was about 90 percent black and none of the guys smoked weed. When I left the unit a year later they were smoking weed because I’d given it to everyone. I went into the villages and found an opium den, which was just a shack and a guy wearing a loin cloth. I would lie down with my head on this wooden pillow, which was worn down from so many heads having lain on it, and I would smoke opium. People would come in from the village and watch me, and laugh. I would also take opium back to my base camp and smoke it. But there was no heroin then. Guys that went to Vietnam later in 68, 69, 70, they came back with big heroin habits. So many people came back from Vietnam hooked on heroin so the Vietnamese government obviously sold heroin to all the American troops.

Do you still consider yourself a drug addict?

Yes I’ll always be a drug addict.

You’ve spent your career documenting youth culture. How do you think kids from the Tulsa book in the 60s, and then the kids of those kids in the early mid-90s, compare to the kids of today? Do you think youth subculture is strong as it was?

Yeah I do, but if you look back to the 60s with the hippies, that all happened because they thought drugs were good. The hippy thing didn’t turn out so good. People who have done research have found that the kids of hippies didn’t do so well after all, and maybe a more traditional way of life was a little better, and the hippy shit was just hippy shit.

What are your views on Middle America right now?

First of all I knew Trump was going to win. I was in Oklahoma because I’d gone down to Tulsa to see some friends of mine. Actually someone from the Tulsa book, my friend Stevie Scar who in the Tulsa book was a 15-year-old American Indian, with long hair and a big toothy smile. Almost everyone I spoke to in Oklahoma, housewives in supermarkets, and cops, and fireman, they were all going to vote for Trump. Oklahoma is a red state so it was obvious that Oklahoma was a Trump state, but I realised how big his support was. I spoke to these people and asked them why they were voting for Trump and they said, “well we hate Hilary and she’s a politician. For 20 years she’s been lying to us. They’ve all lied to us over the years, so we’re going to try something different. We’re going to try anything but a politician.” So I realised he was going to win. I have an apartment in Paris at the moment because I don’t want to be in America with Trump 24/7. He’s a TV star and he wants to be in the press every day, and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Why do you think he was so successful in the election?

People are sick of politicians doing nothing. Obama was there for eight years and congress would not pass one fucking thing because it was Obama, and because of the racism in the country. It’s very clear what’s going on, just look at it. 50 percent of America is racist.

"I have an apartment in Paris at the moment because I don’t want to be in America with Trump 24/7."

Larry Clark talks about life in America today

Critics have dwelled on the fact that you love shocking audiences. Do you get a kick out of that?

The truth is that I’m not trying to shock audiences, I’m just showing the world the way that I’ve lived or seen it. People don’t believe me but it’s true, it never occurred to me that my work would shock people.

Did life in prison shock you? How did you survive that?

If you’re smart you mind your own business, you’re quiet and people leave you alone.

What is the closest you’ve come to death? 

I was having problems with these people once in Oklahoma City, and their son-in-law was an ex-convict who had just got out of the joint. They were afraid of me because of something I’d done, I can’t remember what. I was with this girl Kathy and we’d done something. But anyway they told their son-in-law that I was out to kill them and he came over to my house with another guy. They put a sawn-off shot gun to my head and told me they were going to kill me. He said, “I’ve already done ten years for man slaughter so I can do more time.” I was totally calm, even with a sawn-off shot gun to my fucking head, and over about a 30 minute period I talked him out of killing me. I reasoned with him. That was a big moment in my life where I literally saved myself from getting my head blown off. I’ve been much more careful ever since then. That was in 1974. Then I went to the joint in 77.

"The truth is that I’m not trying to shock audiences, I’m just showing the world the way that I’ve lived or seen it."

Before you made Kids, did you think you’d missed your chance to direct a film?

With Kids, I always wanted to make a film, but I was almost 47-years-old so I thought if I’m ever going to make a film it’s now or never. I was interested in what was going on with teenagers. My son was about 10 and my daughter 7, so I was interested in what their teenage years were going to be like. I saw the internet coming up, and this brand new world. I started hanging out with kids and the most interesting visually were skateboarders. So I got to know some skateboarders. I showed them my Tulsa book and said, “This is what I do and now I want to make a film.” So they took me in. I was treated just as they were, as one of the kids. I learned how to skate at 47 because you know, you can’t photograph skateboarders while running after them. I got the story for Kids just watching their lives. Everything in Kids was real except for the girl who got aids. That was the only made up thing in the whole film. When Kids came out people said, “oh this is a dirty old man’s fantasy.” But everything in the film was true.

Most of your movies feature graphic sex. Why do you feel the need to do that?

It’s just a part of life. It’s a part of what’s happening. And people seem to like it don’t they?

Your films are so rooted in the mythology of youth that it has influenced fashion over the last 20 years. You’ve recently modelled and shot a Dior campaign.

Dior called me and asked me to be a model and I said, “are you crazy? Is this a joke?” it was so far out that someone wanted a 73-year-old model. They were such nice people, and they gave me a lot money, so I did it for a goof, and they’re my friends now, the Dior people. The designer Kris Van Assche is a good friend. I never did fashion or any commercial work before that. I made it a point in my life not to sell out. I’m a post-beatnik pre-hippy, and they were all about not selling out. You never hear about people selling out anymore because everyone is racing to do it. You see people make their first film, and it’s autobiographical, and it’s the talk of Sundance, it’s the most wonderful first film. Then the motherfuckers go straight to Hollywood and sell out. They either make their first film again and make it a commercial piece of shit, or they do music videos and then Batman. But I’ll never sell out.

Do you still feel like a teenager? Do you still feel like that same kid in Tulsa?

I felt that way for a long time, but I don’t feel that anymore because I’m old. I’m fighting the good fight, but physically I feel old. I’m still getting around okay but it’s getting harder.

I look back on my work now – I’m 74 and I have quite a big body of work, 11 feature films and the first book, and I’ve done everything I wanted to do. Everything that I’ve ever thought about doing with film, or photography, or art, I’ve done. So I’m probably the luckiest guy in the world.

"I formally retired last week because I was sick of everything. You’re the first one to know."

Larry Clark

What’s next, Larry?

I formally retired last week because I was sick of everything. You’re the first one to know. But of course I’ll just lick my wounds for a year and then I’ll come out of retirement and make another film. For the moment I’m just going to kick back, straighten up my bookshelf, and ponder the future.

© Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Marfa 2 will be out later in 2017

  • Louisa K

    Wow, I didn’t know Larry Clark directed Kids. That film is timeless, ageless and I love this honest and insightful interview!