Feature: A Conversation with Aaron Young on "Rebel"

Juxtapoz // Wednesday, 29 Jun 2011

This month in Juxtapoz Magazine, we did a special report on the Rebel project, featuring Harmony Korine, James Franco, and Aaron Young. Rebel, an abstraction on the life of James Dean and history of Rebel Without A Cause, will premiere at the Venice Biennale this summer. Here is our interview excerpt with NYC-based Aaron Young.

Rebel, conceived by James Franco and partnered with MOCA, also features collaborations with Paul McCarthy, Ed Ruscha, and Douglas Gordon.

For the full feature, please buy the July 2011 Issue of Juxtapoz, on newsstands now.

Evan Pricco: We should get right to the heart of it: the Rebel project. Now we’ve been hearing different bits and pieces from Harmony and James, but we wanted to know how you were brought onto the project? What did you do for Rebel, and what are your impressions of the project as a whole?


Aaron Young: I haven’t seen it as a whole yet, everybody is working independently. The Rebel project is this idea of the outtakes, somewhat of the shenanigans and abstractions that kind of go on with Rebel Without A Cause, the movie. So it gets into the personal lives of all the individuals involved in the film, and bases off the legends of James Dean and Nicholas Ray making the film, and the other actors who were part of it. We kind of pulled it together through that. Being that I had worked with motorcycle performances in the past doing, a lot of work about failure that kind of happens in the process actually becomes a success, if you can understand that. So that’s kind of where I came into it.



How familiar were you with Rebel Without A Cause prior to James Franco contacting you? We all know it’s an iconic film. I can only recall seeing it a couple of times maybe in my life. Were you familiar with some of the themes and some of the backstories or did you have to do some proper research?


I definitely had to do some research on it. I knew that James Dean was this kind of adrenalin junkie. Loved fast cars, loved his motorcycle which he’d drive around every single day on and off-sets during the making of the film. But I didn’t know much about that until I read the book Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, which gives an incredible amount of back story to the movie. Then I just started doing a lot of research for it online and tried to kind of get the underpinnings of what kind of put this thing together and to kind of develop my part in the collaboration.


Would you say that the fascination with James Dean as a person outside of the film was what informed you in the development for this?


More than the character for me. And I think that’s really how he lived and his legend was more about this kind of iconic image of him. Yes, a lot of people want to live through this kind of cool image that he had in some of those films and for his acting talent, but I think on a whole, American audiences were interested in the bitter coolness of him.



In Rebel Without A Cause, and with Dean, speed is a major theme. Of course that brings to mind those kind of wonderful things you’ve done with motorcycles and speed. I’m wondering if some of the stuff you are doing for this is re- imagination is based in that 1950’s car culture rebellion?


I made a few different short films for it; I’m not exactly sure what is going to go in at the end. But I made one film that has the exact car that James Dean collided with when he died, and we put that on the top of an eighty-foot crane and dropped it completely straight down into a twenty-foot hole. So it looks like the earth sucks it up. It was a lot of fun, actually. We actually have a herd of sheep in the background, and shot it with a phantom camera that shoots about a thousand frames a second.


So as in anything I’ve done before, yes it does have that kind of speed thing to it, the manipulation of speed, but also the tension that comes behind it. Especially when you expect this collision, and actually it captures a smooth, giant gulping of this kind of power.


Were you aware of any of the work that any of the other artists were bringing to the table as you were preparing for your portion?


No, it’s kind of more me thinking of the casting. I know what Harmony does, I know what Paul McCarthy does, most of the time I know what Douglas Gordon does, and I’m kind of balancing off what their practices are like. That’s why I kind of felt like I could fit my work into and ideas into it. So yeah, of course I was thinking of all of those guys and what they do when I was making my own. But of course you’re always got to do something that’s going to be kind of digested through your own process.



Have you ever worked with James Franco before or is this the first time you’ve ever collaborated with him?


This is the first time I’ve ever partnered with James and I’ve only collaborated one other time really and it was with the artist, Nate Lowman. I collaborate with fabricators, skateboarders, motorcycle riders, and stunt men all the time. But with another artist it’s really hard to start and try to develop some vision from two different places, from two different starting points when you don’t know too much about their practice. I didn’t know too much about James’s practice, but with everything that we shot together, we didn’t really have to speak that much. Kind of just an understanding and I don’t know if that was him knowing my practice or of just knowing that was the way it’s supposed to be and that was the way that he thought about it as well. We really haven’t discussed that.


It sounds very preferable for an artist to know that you’re partially working in collaboration and under a theme but you’re kind of allowed to take it to the direction you want without having to check in or wondering what everyone else is doing. It makes for formatted isolation, which I think will be very interesting.


I’m really interested in the way that everything is going to overlap and how Paul’s work is going to inform Douglas’s work, mine with Harmony or Paul or anybody.



We read somewhere; I think it was in the New York Times, that you were described as an art jock. We are wondering about that.


I don’t know. I guess you can take it as a compliment because it was said in the same breath as people like Richard Serra and Matthew Barney, and I really like both of those artists. So in that breath, I will take it as a compliment.


It was written as a compliment.


I don’t know, maybe the art jock thing is a dying breed; they need to kind of develop that a little bit more.

Production Stills: Rebel (2011), starring James Franco, photos courtesy of the artists James Franco and Aaron Young, photos by Adarsha Benjamin and Aaron Young


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