"I can just kind of tell — I don't know, it's just a talent that I have," Larry Clark says, via video chat from his Tribeca apartment. In the background, the screen saver on a large Apple monitor is cycling through photos of lithe young teens. "I can tell when the camera is going to like somebody and I can tell when people have a charisma that translates to film or photographs because I've been doing it so long."
Clark, now 70, is famous — and famously controversial — for identifying future stars among unknown teens, like the time he commissioned a 19-year-old skater he met in Washington Square Park named Harmony Korine to write the screenplay for Kids. That film also marked the debuts of Chloë Sevigny, 20 years old at the time, and 15-year-old Rosario Dawson. (While he says he's kept in touch with Sevigny, Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick, he says of Korine, "I haven't spoken to him in a while." He hasn't seen Spring Breakers either, he says, "but I want to see it.")
When Kids came out in 1995, the Village Voice asked, "Is this art or exploitation?" — and some version of that question seems to trail Clark, whose work is almost exclusively focused on youth and some combination of sex, drugs, and violence.
As was the case with Kids, Clark's latest project, Marfa Girl, was inspired by chance meeting with a teen skater. He was invited to tiny Marfa, Texas, to screen a few of his films at small festival. He was getting ready to show Wassup Rockers, his 2005 film about skaters in South Central L.A., when Clark says he saw 14-year-old Adam Mediano and a friend skating down the street and invited them inside.
Clark would later tell a festival employee about meeting Mediano. "They said, 'Oh, we know Adam — he has a 28-year-old girlfriend who is pregnant.' I said 'What? This little 14-year-old kid has a 28-year-old girlfriend and she's pregnant?' I said, 'What do the parents think about this?' They said, 'Oh, they're fine with it. It's a very Christian-Catholic town and there is no abortion.' I said, 'Boy this is really strange,'" Clark recalls. "And then I found out that the story wasn't true at all."
Nonetheless, Clark began working on a screenplay based on the story the festival worker told him about Mediano and developed a sort of fascination with both the teen and the town.
"I went back and I photographed him. I met his parents, his mother, and his brother, and I made some photographs of him, and he told me some stories about the town," Clark says.
Marfa, Clark says, "is a fascinating place. It's in the middle of west Texas, in the middle of nowhere." After the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd moved there in the '70s, Marfa became a destination for artists. "I saw Marfa as a kind of microcosm of what was going on in the United States," Clark says. "There was all this racism, and there was this culture clash because the artists were moving down there."
Within a matter of months of first visiting the town, Clark had secured funding for a film and cast Mediano to star in it. He self-released the film on his website back in November, shortly after it won the Golden Marc'Aurelio award for Best Film at the Rome Film Festival. The response wasn't overwhelming, so Clark is retroactively releasing a trailer for Marfa Girl with the hopes that it may bring in a larger audience.
It remains to be seen whether Marfa Girl will be the same launching pad for Mediano and his costars that Clark's films have been stars in the past — though that might be just as well for them if it's not.
For every Dawson and Sevigny who has gone on to a successful career, there is a Brad Renfro or a Nick Stahl whose fame has brought with it serious struggles. Renfro, who appeared in Clark's 2001 film Bully, died of a heroin overdose in 2008. Stahl, who also appeared in Bully, struggled with drug abuse as well and was picked up for lewd conduct earlier this year. Korine, too, has spoken openly about his addiction to crack and heroin.
Are their self-destructive tendencies part of what attracts Clark to young people he casts?
"I'm not sure if it goes that way. I'm not sure if it's that or if it's the actors are attracted to the roles because they can relate to them or just they're good roles, they're good parts, because they've liked some of my past work," Clark says.
"It is difficult, and I do feel bad, and I am concerned about them. I am still kind of in shock from Brad, and you know, it's been a few years now. It's very tragic, a very talented young man who could not get the addiction thing handled at all."
The kids from Marfa Girl will likely do at least one more film — plans for Marfa Girl 2 are already in the works, Clark says.
Clark says the actors, many of whom are still in high school, are on board. Asked if he thinks they have ambitions to continue acting, Clark says, "I think they would probably do almost anything to try to get out of Marfa, Texas."