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.
Justin Pierce Was Arrested After A Fist Fight And Had To Shoot Scenes With A Broken Wrist
While the casting of actual New York City skateboarders in Kids provided a sense of hyper-realism to the film, it also provided the production with some challenges. One of them came in the form of actor Justin Pierce, who inhabits the role of the chaotic, violent Casper.
"(Pierce) was super magnetic, and there was something really beautiful about him," recalls screenwriter Harmony Korine. "At the same time, he was completely uncontrollable. He went for it all of the time, and that's part of what got him into trouble."
One mid-production incident revolved around a physical altercation involving Pierce and New York police officers during off-hours. Pierce sustained a broken wrist and received two days in jail, which delayed the final day of filming. Out of concern for film continuity (not to mention the limited budget), Pierce finished shooting Kids upon his release from lockup with broken bones - and without a cast.
"I had such a crush on Justin when we did the movie," Rosario Dawson said. "He was such a mess."
Pierce took his own life in 2000 at the age of 25.
Rosario Dawson Got The Role Of Ruby When She Was Discovered On Her Front Porch
While she made a brief appearance on Sesame Street as a child, Rosario Dawson's big acting break came quite by surprise, when she was approached by director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine while sitting on her front porch stoop in Lower Manhattan. At the time, she was 15 years old.
"I was a straight-A student," she said. "I was a tutor. I was a virgin. I was boyfriend-less. I didn’t have sex until I was 20."
This didn't dissuade Korine, who felt she'd be perfect for the promiscuous, profane character of Ruby, who serves as the ringleader of Kids' female cast. Dawson accepted the role. The decision would catapult her to stardom, with subsequent roles in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Spike Lee's 25th Hour, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, among many others.
Dawson recalled of Kids: "I was playing a character that was really sexually promiscuous, but I was making a movie that was about the perils of childhood, when you think you’re going to live forever."
Of the graphic content in the finished film, however? "My grandmother was like, 'You could have warned us before we told all of our church friends.'"
After Mia Kirshner Was Fired, The Part Of Jenny Was Given To Chloë Sevigny, A Shop Girl At The Time
Now well-known for her work in American Psycho, American Horror Story, and the HBO series Big Love, Golden Globe-winning actress Chloë Sevigny made her feature film debut in Kids, as a young girl who discovers she is HIV-positive.
But Sevigny wasn't the first choice for the role. In fact, Canadian actress Mia Kirshner had originally been tapped for the part, but was let go two days prior to the start of production, as she apparently didn't quite gel with the rest of the cast.
Sevigny, who had previously met Kids writer Harmony Korine in New York's Washington Square Park, where much of the action in the film takes place, was bumped to the role of Jennie from the small peripheral part of Joy for which she'd originally been cast.
At 19 years of age and with no professional film acting experience, Sevigny recalls of her reaction to the audience response to Kids upon its release:
I remember people hugging me and thinking it really happened. Kids crying, "Oh, my God, I feel this way, too," or "I have HIV." I was happy that it was resonating with kids. It also made me wary of being a public figure and giving over your anonymity.
While Promoting The Film, Harmony Korine Was Banned For Life By Letterman For Going Through Meryl Streep's Purse
During a taping of The Late Show, Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine - who was there to promote his novel A Crack-Up at the Race Riots, and who was also at the time using crack and heroin - was caught going through the purse of fellow guest and Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep by host David Letterman.
Recalled Letterman of the incident, "I found Harmony going through her purse (in the green room). True story. And so, I said: 'That's it, put her things back in her bag and then get out.'"
Years later, Letterman would let bygones be bygones. The legendary host said he’d be happy to have Korine, who had found success with his 2012 film Spring Breakers, and who had been clean and sober for over a decade, back on the show.