One of the posters for Starz’s upcoming series Now Apocalypse is as sexy as it is bizarre. Set against a neon maelstrom, you can see its four young stars. Naked. Next to them—and equally eager to cover its private parts—is a lizard-like alien. It’s no surprise that the tagline above this eclectic grouping reads, succinctly, “WTF?”
When I ask creators Gregg Araki and Karley Sciortino to describe the series for me, they chuckle knowingly. They admit they’ve been coached on what to say. But the official synopsis offered ahead of Now Apocalypse’s Sundance Film Festival debut (“While on various quests to pursue love, sex and fame with his friends in L.A, Ulysses’ premonitory dreams make him question a monstrous conspiracy”) doesn’t quite get at the half-hour series’ unique sensibility. “It’s like a queer Sex and the City meets Twin Peaks. With an alien,” Araki tells me, arguably painting a more concrete picture of the wild ride ahead. Then again, any attempt at describing Now Apocalypse threatens to flatten this genre-mixing take on everything from open relationships and conspiracy theories to alien sex and pot-smoking vloggers.
Paste sat down with Araki and Sciortino at the Sundance Film Festival, where they discussed everything from their cable TV influences and on-screen nudity to Lynchian dreamscapes and L.A. nightmares. [Editor’s note: The following interviw has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]
Paste: Let’s talk about how the idea for this hard-to-describe show first came about.
Karley Sciortino: The show is really an extension of the world that I feel Gregg has been creating since the early ‘90s. We met a handful of years ago because I wrote a feature script that he was interested in directing and we were trying to get it made for a couple of years. (We’re still trying to make it.) But we were working together on that and we really liked working together. Then he came to me like, “I have this idea where it’s these four twenty-somethings and they’re in L.A., trying to figure out their lives, and there’s this conspiracy theory component.” It was a rough sketch of what the show is. He asked if I wanted to write it with him. I write a lot about sexuality and relationships and that’s a big component of what the show is. We wrote the pilot on spec. Then he gave it to Greg Jacobs, who he’d worked with on a show called Red Oaks. And then it was insane: We wrote the pilot and he was like, well Starz wants us to pitch the show. So we did, then they bought it and within a few months we were making. It was the rarest television development story. It was hugely because Steven Soderbergh really liked it and attached himself as an EP and he’s really helpful in selling the show.
Paste: One of the things I love about the show is that it is so interested in sex and intimacy and relationships in ways that want to do away with shame. It really tries to uncouple how we think about sex and nudity. I wanted to hear you talk a little bit about what drives you tell these stories.
Sciortino: “Overcoming shame.” That makes me feel good. Because that’s, hopefully, how people are interpreting that. I love these characters because they’re all sexually adventurous, and sexually resilient. They’re super curious people. Avan [Jogia], the main [actor] who plays Ulysses, in interviews he keeps describing Ulysses as a sexual astronaut. Which I think it’s a very funny and accurate way of thinking about him.
Gregg Araki: Oh, yeah, that’s cool.
Sciortino: Two of the characters are exploring non-monogamy. One of the characters, Carly [played by Kelli Berglund], is a cam girl and is exploring BDSM, and Ulysses is figuring out his sexuality in his sexually fluid, love-obsessed, Grindr-obsessed way.
Araki: He’s just having fun. Having adventures. Like you do when you’re young.
Sciortino: Some people have looked at it and been like, “Oh my God, all these characters are insane sluts!”
Araki: Who would ever say that?!
Sciortino: But counterintuitively, I think they’re real role models. Because they’re so sexually resilient and they take risks. You hear all these things about how these days young people are having less and less sex because they’re scared of it, because they can’t communicate because they’re always on their screens.. These characters are the opposite of that. They are so in touch with their sexuality.
Araki: We’re very much kindred spirits in that way. Of course, I’m older, and we’re a generation apart. But we both very much feel that sexual adventures and confusions and all the hookups and mistakes you make when you’re young are a super important part of growing up and becoming who you’re gonna be. I don’t think of the characters as promiscuous or slutty, but as being young and figuring out who they are. Sexuality is such an important part of that. I’m older and I have the benefit of hindsight. I just think about being gay and my life, and where my queer identity has led me through the years, and it’s led me on this adventure to become the person I am in a way that’s completely different than a lot of other people. It’s very much made me who I am today. We started to write Season Two—we don’t have a green light yet, but we’re starting to write it. And there’s a scene where Ulysses and Carly are at a diner and they’re talking about like, “Have you ever thought about how many dicks you’ve seen in your entire life? So many dicks!” But you think about that: even the briefest, most meaningless hookup you’ve ever had. All of those experiences make you who you are. If you didn’t have that bad night or that thing you regret—all of that stuff is important. And the thought of young people being afraid of that and not embracing it, and missing out on that? Like turning 40 or 50 and [having] never fully experienced life in that way? I think it’s a terrible thought. That’s one of the reasons Karley and I so bonded. We really do feel like sex and sexuality are such a big part of your identity.
Paste: And that is not something you can bracket off or just pan away from.
Araki: That’s why all my films have been very sex and sexuality-oriented. As a filmmaker, I’m very interested in characters and getting at the truth of who people are. The example I give is: You reveal things about yourself in sexual encounters that nobody ever knows. They’re like secrets, the most intimate things about yourself. To me that’s what’s fascinating about sex scenes. It’s not about the titillation or nudity. But it’s about the super character-revealing stuff. If you think about your friends—you know them on a certain level. And also, in public, you’re presented with a certain persona. You present in a certain way. But someone who’s slept with you knows you very differently. And that’s why, I’ve always been drawn to that. Because that’s what you get at the truth about who these characters are. It’s what’s so cool about the show: You really get to know these characters so well. By the end of the 10 episodes you’re so invested in them. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
Sciortino: That’s so true. I’ve never heard you say it exactly like that. That’s why people, I hope, will feel so intimate with the characters. Also, the actors are amazing because they’re so vulnerable. They have to do so many sex scenes! It’s not about surface-y, titillating like, “Hey! Here’s some tit!” They’re very emotional, heavy sex scenes. There’s a lot of sex and crying.
Araki: It’s funny. It’s a very weird show. I watched the full 10 episodes together and I was very struck by how so soon you don’t really think about them being naked. You know what I mean? That’s weird for sex scenes. Like, whenever Nicole Kidman does a sex scene, you’re like, “Oh wow, she’s naked! She looks great for 45!” You’re always so interested in the nudity. But you think of the scene in episode two when Carley and Jethro [Desmond Chiam] are having their scene, you know? And they’re naked for a long time—the first spanking scene. It’s really about the interaction and what they’re characters are going through, and the funny things they’re saying. It was interesting to me, that scene. They’re naked for a long time. But you forget about it. In a way that when you’re having sex with someone, you’re lost in the intimacy of the moment.
Paste: You’re not constantly aware of the nakedness. And then the other component of the show—aside from the sex and crying—is this conspiracy theory/apocalypse/sci-fi aspect of it. I’m curious how did that come into it?
Araki: You know, I love those HBO shows. Like Sex and the City is a big influence on the show, obviously. And Girls and Insecure. I’ve always been interested in that R-rated HBO sex comedy genre. I’ve always gravitated towards it. But then again, it’s hard to do that show in 2019 because it’s been so done. It’s hard to do it for more than like, two seasons. Because you quickly run out of stories.
Sciortino: Everybody’s fucked everyone by then!
Araki: Everybody fucks with everybody. Everybody’s broken up with everybody. That was one of the things when we pitched the show to Starz. I’ve also always been very influenced by David Lynch and Twin Peaks. Like, you’re in this world where anything can happen. Just this element of the unknown and sometimes the supernatural or the extraterrestrial forces you to ask, “What is happening right now?” And then I also did this film called Smiley Face, which is this big stoner movie. And it turned out to be a very big part of the show because Avan’s character is a big pothead. You’re never quite sure if he’s hallucinating this stuff. It all comes together in this kind of dream reality, which, for us, writing the show, opens the doors. I always wanted to set it up like anything can happen. It makes the universe of the show just so unpredictable and it gives us so much more directions to go with. Versus so-and-so fucks so-and-so.
Sciortino: I also didn’t think of this until right now, but I feel like the show really challenges genre. It’s a thriller and it’s sci-fi and then it’s comedy and then it’s drama. And I feel like that’s very of the time. I feel like there’s a lot of television now that—like Killing Eve, I was like, is this a murder-mystery, or a thriller, or a comedy? We’ve gone beyond, in the world of television, “This is a half-hour comedy.” It’s a product of the times. And the network didn’t question that. Like, “What kind of show is this?”
Paste: In speaking of the show’s genres, one of the things that’s very obvious is that this is a Los Angeles story. What makes L.A. such a perfect place to set this surreal sex comedy?
Araki: One, I’m based in L.A. I love L.A. L.A. is so much a part of my part of my films. Also, L.A. is that place where dreams and reality and fantasy blend together. The world of the show is very surreal, like anything can happen. And that’s what L.A. is. The Ulysses character says at one point in episode seven, I think, that “Living in L.A. is like being in a bizarre cartoon.” And that’s kind of exactly it.
Sciortino: It’s deranged. It’s the kind of place where these young characters are trying to make it in Hollywood. And it’s the kind of place you move to because it seems so shiny and glamorous. And then you get there and you realize it was all a delusion and you live in a shitty apartment in North Hollywood with eight roommates and cockroaches and you’re eating ramen noodles. I feel like a lot of the characters are going through that. They’re dealing in the space between their dreams and the reality.
Now Apocalypse premieres Sunday, March 10 on Starz.
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter based in New York City. His work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla, where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and has monthly film columns at Electric Literature and Catapult. He has a Ph.D. but doesn’t like to brag about it. Follow him on Twitter: @bmanuel.