In 1995, photographer-turned-director Larry Clark and aspiring writer Harmony Korine joined forces to create one of the most controversial films of all time, Kids. A gritty coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the film centers around a group of hedonistic latch-key teens with a penchant for sex and drugs who while away their time skirting the law in New York’s Washington Square Park. Quasi-vérité in nature, given its unflinching depiction of "lost" 1990s urban youth, Kids created a firestorm upon its release, as well as considerable public and critical debate. Some abhorred it, with The New Yorker dubbing the film "nihilistic p*rnography." Others lauded it, with The New York Times conversely hailing Kids as a "wake-up call to the modern world."
Either way, the film's portrayal of underage promiscuity and the often-callous worldview of its central characters had a significant impact on '90s youth culture, as well as on independent cinema. It also served as a launchpad for many then-unknown actors, including Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Justin Pierce, all in their respective feature film debuts. To this day, it remains hard to look away from Kids. But how was this controversial film conceived, filmed, and released?
Here are a few behind-the-scenes stories from the movie's production.
Many Other Kids Were Cast From A Flyer Created By Clark Looking For Inexperienced 'Real' NYC Kids
First-time director Larry Clark met 19-year-old aspiring screenwriter and skateboarder Harmony Korine in Washington Square Park and tapped him to write the feature script for Kids (which he completed in one week). The filmmakers were then determined to cast people as real, and as gritty, as the world in which their story was based.
To accomplish this, the production pounded the New York City pavement, pasting up and passing out flyers in an effort to round out their cast with real New York denizens. The ploy worked, with Clark hiring mostly non-professional actors, including Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Justin Pierce.
And it didn't stop there. As Clark recalls:
The four boys on the couch at the end of the party (in Kids), those boys just showed up from San Francisco, and came over because they knew the skaters (we'd cast), and I saw them and I said, "Man, I have to do something." So, I stuffed them on the couch and said, "Talk about this, talk about this"... it was magic, probably the best scene in the film, incredible.
- Photo: Shining Excalibur Films
It's Possible Some Of The Illegal Activity In The Film Might Be Real
With much of the central cast made up of non-professional actors of a young age, the production got a little hectic - including the memorable party scene in which a group of teenage boys hang out on a sofa, chatting and getting high.
We talked for about 10-15 minutes and then I cut it (the scene). Then they (the cast) were pretending to smoke marijuana. It could've been real, I don't know. But I do know that some of the crew wanted to quit. They thought that maybe I shouldn't be filming thirteen, twelve-year-old kids smoking weed. But (it) wasn't my weed!
As production continued in public settings, many of the extra roles and general parts in the cast were filled out by real New York City skateboarders who might have brought their own "props."
"Obviously those kids (in the film) were smoking dope in the park. There's no illusion about that," says Kids cinematographer Eric Allen Edwards of some of the cast, and of one of the scenes in the film. "So, at some point that became a thing: Can we legally show kids smoking dope? And what does that mean?"
- Photo: Blind Skateboards
'Kids' Boosted The Career Of Director Spike Jonze, Whose Legendary Skate Video Is Featured In The Film
An early scene in Kids features the character of Telly and his entourage doing drugs on a couch while watching a skate video on TV. The video, titled Video Days (which, incidentally, is still considered one the best skate videos of all time) was filmed in 1991 by burgeoning director Spike Jonze.
Its inclusion in Kids would give the artist’s career a shot in the arm. Jonze would go on to become a prolific music video director in the film's wake, directing videos for such seminal '90s artists as Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and R.E.M., among others, as well as becoming a prolific feature filmmaker, documentarian, and producer.
- Photo: Shining Excalibur Films
The Producers Were Worried About Going To Jail Due To The Film’s Content
At the time of production, no other feature film came close to the racy content contained in Larry Clark's opus. Because of the ages of the cast members and the content of the film, the producers were on edge about the film and making sure everything remained on the right side of the law.
"There was some law that you cannot show a nipple if (the actress) is under 18, and if you did, it was like a criminal offense," says Kids producer Cary Woods. "So, we had to have some special effects house smooth it over. It was more expensive than anything else we did on the movie."
Regardless, the controversy around Kids would play some part in the success of the film, which went on to earn $7.4 million in the North American box office and $20 million worldwide.