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I wanted to go inside their heads


At 9:17 am on a weekday, Justin Kerrigan is feeling jetlagged, jonesing for “a fag and a cup a tea.” On the phone, the 25-year-old filmmaker sounds fatigued but entirely pleased with the “wicked good time” he’s having while touring the U.S. to promote his feature debut, Human Traffic. A native of Cardiff, Wales, Kerrigan earned a film degree from the University of Wales in 1966, where he wrote, directed, and acted in six short films, for which he won several awards. Released in the U.K. last year (where it’s already available on videotape), Human Traffic — which chronicles the weekend activities of four club kids — has been making the festival rounds (Sundance, Thessinki, Oslo, Dinard, Stockholm, Brussels), winning some prizes and much critical acclaim, and is now about to open theatrically Stateside.



Cynthia Fuchs:

I have to say straight off that I was happy to see a film about rave kids that didn’t demonize them.



Justin Kerrigan:

Well, that’s why we couldn’t get any financial investment in Britain at all, because it wasn’t moralistic about the use of recreational drugs, no one dies at the end. What I was trying to do was represent an authentic weekend, based on personal experience. And in all my years of clubbing and partying with my friends, we’ve never seen anyone die, d’you know what I mean? It would have been a complete sell-out to put that in, but if we did, we would definitely have got financial investment. But like, this culture’s been going for 12 years now in Britain, and it’s the first youth culture in history ever to be legislated through the courts. Basically in Britain now, it’s illegal for more than ten people to dance to a repetitive beat. But when they shut the raves down [in late 1980s], it went mainstream, and now it’s a worldwide phenomenon and it continues to grow, and it doesn’t look like there’s anything coming up behind it to take over. It brings people together from all different classes, races, and sexualities; there’s never any violence, I’ve never seen anyone fight. It’s a feeling of together. It’s about having fun.


The irony is that nobody gave us any money, and then three years later when the film did come out, when we got independent investors from outside Britain, it wasn’t controversial. Even right-wing tabloids, which had led the anti-rave and anti-x campaigns, they were embracing and supporting [the film]. Basically they came to realize that ecstasy and raves are not a threat to society, as they’d have you believe in years previous. And that’s a general consensus across the [British] media, that x should be downgraded, so it’s not in the class of crack and cocaine, which everyone knows is ridiculous. There’s quotes in newspapers from policemen saying, “I want to see marijuana decriminalized.” Simply, the war on drugs just doesn’t work.



CF:

The U.S. is behind the curve on this; the drug war persists, especially in the press.



JK:

It reminds me, what I’ve seen in the press here and as I’m going around and checking the clubs in each city I go to, of around 1993 in Britain, when it was still underground but getting more popular. And the press was starting to give it a bad name, they called it “Killer E” and everything. And since then, like anything else, when you try to control it, it just gets bigger and bigger, and blows up in your face.



CF:

And there’s a cultural absorption mechanism, where you get the rave-lite dance videos on MTV, sometimes lumped in with “alternative.”



JK:

Absolutely, man. I mean, in Britain, every other advert on TV tries to favor a product with dance music and “hedonistic youth life,” catering to this market and yet, it’s still supposedly illegal. It’s been mainstreamed, because you can’t control it. It’s not a bad thing, because there’s never any violence. People feel a lot safer at a club where everyone’s on ecstasy as opposed to one where everyone’s on alcohol.



CF:

Can you talk more about the mixed populations at clubs? In the U.S., still, the scene is still predominantly white and costs money.



JK:

That’s kind of how it started in Britain, predominantly white kids and it was a gay scene as well. And it grew and grew, and gathered together people from all walks of life. That’s why it’s a youth phenomenon. It’s not one class system: you get people there on the dole, you get super-rich kids, the in-betweens, you get black kids, Indian kids, Chinese, right across the board, there’s no boundaries. I guess it’s like the old hippie shit, it’s about love, it’s a great thing.



CF:

So, the film is about people figuring out how to connect?



JK:

It’s all about me and my friends. Jip and Lulu, for instance, that’s me and my girlfriend. Every generation goes through the same thing, the paranoias of boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, the social insecurities, the frustrations and anxieties that build up Monday through Friday, working at McJobs, not knowing what you want to do with your life. There’s stress everywhere, whether it’s related to family or work or whatever. Everyone can relate to the Lost Weekend, no matter what drug they use, ecstasy or alcohol or whatever their cup of tea. Everyone can relate to saying, “Oh fuck it, I’m going out with my best friends, my chosen family, and I’m going to have a scream.”



CF:

In another movie, Jip’s mother might have had her story “resolved” in a morally upright way.



JK:

The only story that’s actually resolved is Jip’s sexual paranoia.



CF:

And clearly that’s the most important problem to resolve!



JK:

Yeah! But if I had been tying everything else up, it wouldn’t be a real weekend. It doesn’t build to a climax, you know what I mean? Friday night isn’t the same as Sunday afternoon. So that was the intention.



CF:

Many youth movies present parents as abusive, absent, or skeezy, but she seems pretty complex, and Jip and his mother have a mutually supportive relationship.



JK:

I based it on real people. She’s a prostitute, but I wanted to get over the cliches man. People are people, part of the fabric of society, I just wanted to break the stereotype a bit, to show how it is, rather than a prostitute who gets killed or a person on ecstasy who thinks he’s god and jumps out the window. That’s bullshit. It builds drama in the film, but that wasn’t the point. They all have drama, but it’s inside them, it’s their insecurity. I wanted to go inside their heads, that’s where the real story is.



CF:

Your movie takes several points of view: how did you think about structuring that?



JK:

I didn’t want to make a film about one person, because the whole angle of the culture brings people together, it’s about friendship and human chemistry. I wanted to show everyone’s angle, all their frustrations, all their anxieties, so we get kind of a circle of friends, that’s always the best life.



CF:

What kinds of shifts in tastes in music have you seen in your years in the scene?



JK:

The music keeps on innovating. I tried to represent in the film all the different genres of dance music which are dominant in Britain. At the same time, the music had to be there to embrace the scene and tell the story, and the characters are surrounded by music everywhere. In Britain you get genres, like house, techno, drum’n'base, and they all break down into separate genres within themselves, they keep on remixing it and remixing it. There’s nearly every genre of music being remixed into nearly every genre of dance music.



CF:

What do you make of critics who say that dance music isn’t “real music” because it’s mostly mixed instead of created on “real instruments”?



JK:

Well, I think they’re fearing they’re going to be taken over. In Britain, the DJ has replaced the rock star. People travel from all around to check out this DJ, like Carl Cox or Fatboy Slim. And all of this music comes out of like, bedroom DJs, literally kids playing around with their computers in their bedrooms. You don’t have to be able to sing or hit a chord to make a fresh tune. That’s the reason it’s massive, because you can have huge fat DJs who’re sex gods, and kids who are 14 and people in the clubs who are in their 50s. I used to go clubbing with my old man. It’s a feeling of unity, of coming together.



CF:

Have you found differences between U.S. audience responses to the film and those back home?



JK:

Well, this is the thing, we weren’t expecting so many people to relate directly to characters in the film. Even people who’ve never been a part of the culture or who’ve never taken ecstasy, 30-, 40-, 60-year old people, have said to me, I know Jip, or I’m like Koop. I never expected that it would cross over.



CF:

Did you work with the cast on the script?



JK:

It was mostly scripted, but I always like to push an actor to improvise. If I see him like really getting into something, we’ll talk about it, and because the actors all had experience in this scene, we could talk about it together, about similar situations, and if there was anything that was interesting or funny, we’d throw it in.



CF:

You seem to have a specific confidence as a filmmaker, did this evolve over time, and you always knew what you wanted at any given time?



JK:

The whole thing’s ridiculous, mate. Basically all I could do was paint and draw in school. I was all set to do a fine arts degree, and I started fooling around with a roommate’s secondhand video camera, and got hooked immediately. So I started making dodgy installations and pretentious films, and I was all set to go for it. It was like a new direction in my life. So I applied to film schools all around Britain and got rejected everywhere, so I took a series of McJobs, flipping burgers and selling jeans, and then bought a secondhand camera, quit my job, and decided to write from my experience. Based on that film, I got into film school, which was helpful, in the sense that they had equipment and facilities I could use.



CF:

It’s also unusual that a movie showing in multiplexes has been made by someone in the culture, rather than being made from a distance, packaged for mass consumption.



JK:

Right, where you get older generations trying to be young and all that. And absolutely, it was a prerequisite that all the actors had done the drugs and the extras there really are on ecstasy. And the smaller characters are off the street and really playing themselves, and they’d all done the drugs and the scene, so we could all talk the same language. It’s never been represented before in Britain. And so many people were going to be watching for that authenticity. So it was important that we get it right.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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