Adam Green's 'Aladdin' Is A Psychedelic, Star-Studded Trip
Adam Green is a fantastic New York figure, one of those multiple-hyphenate creatives who manages to strike gold across a number of industries. He’s an artist, a successful musician (most notably as one half of the indie band The Moldy Peaches), and a filmmaker, who seems to have hit it big with his wildest project yet. In the past few weeks, you’ve likely seen his surreal trailer for Adam Green’s Aladdin floating around on the Internet. It’s a retelling of the classic legend, with Green in the titular role. His Aladdin is a musician who stumbles upon a genie that 3-D prints whatever he wants, leading to some wild hijinks. It’s a totally surreal film. Starring turns from celebrities like Zoë Kravitz, Natasha Lyonne, Macaulay Culkin, Alia Shawkat, Devendra Banhart, painter Francesco Clemente and blogger Bip Ling (who was cast in part due to her reputation as “princess of the Internet”) are tempered by the psychedelia of the film, in which all of the sets and props were handmade from papier mâché.
I met Green at The Hole, the intimidatingly cool Bowery gallery currently playing host to his own art show, which focuses on the sets from Aladdin. He’s both friendly and a little bit shy, talking effusively while choosing his words very, very carefully. Green has garnered a ton of attention for his surreal project. But even after a seemingly endless press cycle, he still has an enormous amount of passion and excitement for it. He worked on the film for over four years, doing everything from writing, directing, and starring, to building those wonderful sculptures and even composing the music.
“It’s an attempt to show an interior landscape, the insides of a person.”
The film was a real family affair—besides all the friendly stars, Green’s wife, Yasmin, managed to produce Aladdin while both pregnant and working full-time at Google. And now their baby daughter, Zeba (who they joked might have been born with PTSD from all the stress of the film), loves to watch her dad onscreen. But it’s truly Green’s vision, through and through. “I guess it’s an attempt to show an interior landscape, the insides of a person,” he said. “It’s me flipped outward.” Read on for more about the film’s crazy production, the inclusive music world vs. the exclusive art world, and the symbolism of 3-D printing.
What was it like on set? You had all these incredibly famous people milling around.
Honestly, that’s why it was inspiring for a lot of people to work on the movie. To be hanging out with all these interesting people in the warehouse, I think that made it really fun. Because it was really hot in the warehouse [set], and you’re pouring glue into water, and taking pages out of phone books and building things. But they were surrounded by all these amazing people, like Devendra Banhart and Zoë Kravitz.
I think a lot of the artists would really love it when Francesco would come around. I personally learned to draw by looking at his stuff, so I was really happy that he would do it. I met him through Alia Shawkat because I told her that I thought he seemed like a genie. I went to his studio, and was basically super intimidated, and I just basically convinced him to be the genie. And he was super great to work with, he came every day to the set, talked with everybody, and just chilled out. I think that more than anything built the morale up for the people making props, because how cool is that, to just be chilling with Francesco Clemente, painting stuff.
How did you make all of the sculptures?
I had a crew of people that were mostly volunteers. We were in a very small studio at first, a little space in the corner of Dustin Yellin’s studio, so we had a very limited amount of space, so as it filled up we had to move across the street to a warehouse. And it just kind of snowballed. At some point we had like 20 people working on the movie. The one thing I made sure to do was to paint all of the black lines in the movie. Because I wanted it to look like my drawings, and that was the only way to ensure it.
People’s lines are like their signature. If a different person had painted the lines, it’d look completely different. If Francesco Clemente had painted the lines, it’d look like a Francesco Clemente painting. These are my lines. So that’s an important part of the aesthetic to me.
People aren’t looking at a photograph when they’re making one of these things. So you get to see a very human idea of what’s a very average version of something. You’re gonna make a pot, or a pan, or a poster, this is what it looks like to you. So in a way, all the props are just ideals.
In your own words, what is the movie about to you? Every writer has interpreted it in a different way.
The movie is a version of Aladdin. It’s like a modern interpretation of the Aladdin myth, and I liked it because it’s about love. It’s kind of about how love trumps material possessions, even when the lamp is offering the promise of unlimited material wealth for free. I thought that’d be a cool message to explore in the current state of the world. I had personally wanted to tell a story about love out of my own life. Most of the movie is pretty autobiographical. I wanted to reinterpret the symbols of Aladdin to be about modern times. So in my life, the lamp is the 3-D printer.
I read that you were nervous that Aladdin wasn’t getting into film festivals.
I’d been led to believe that that’s the only way the movie could come out. I applied to every festival, and I got rejected from every single one. I was really disappointed, but then I made the decision that I was just going to self-release the movie. When the trailer came out, all of a sudden it blew up, and within a week everything changed for me. I got offers to have screenings in all these different places, and it enabled me to have a show here [at The Hole]. It was almost like everyone was like this close to saying yes to it and then they said no, and now it’s like the other way around.
It’s gotten a very populist response.
I really identify with that. I find being in the art world a bit of a vacation from being in the music world. The art world is pretty exclusive, and the music world is actually really inclusive. You go around to people’s towns personally; if people want to buy your album, it’s just like ten bucks or something. The musician is not really at the service of rich people; it’s very egalitarian. But the art world is kind of run by the rich, so for me I’m kind of a tourist in it.
The movie kind of premiered in a museum. The world premiere was at Pioneer Works, but there was a screening first at Foundation Baylor at Basel. It’s cool, because my approach to it is a little musician-like. I’m an outsider when it comes to film. My movie is really more like folk art, so it doesn’t have the same goals that other movies have.
And what are those goals?
I think that the movie is really like a piece of artwork more than a piece of entertainment. I think, as a stage performer, I have this impulse to entertain people. So my approach to artwork is mixing feelings with the impulse to entertain. I guess the goal is to just make something that was inside of my head, the exact same way in the outside world. I felt like I had this really distinct idea, and I wanted to really feel it really hard, and I wanted to push it outside of my skin and have it be real. I thought that film was the perfect medium for me, because it allowed this kind of alchemical combination of music that I wrote, lines that I wrote—which I approached kind of like lyrics—and then visually, to make sculptures. So I thought that if nothing in the movie is real, if I’m making everything, then it can be the ultimate version of whatever I can think of.
Did you ever get sick of it?
And what do you think of Disney’s Aladdin?
I really like it. I saw it in the movie theater maybe twice, I really really enjoyed it. It really became Aladdin for a lot of people.
I felt that we’re a generation of Aladdins. We are sort of 3-D printing out our successors, and everyone more than ever has this feeling that they’re creating all this stuff, you know? The 3-D printer thing is probably going to be realistic, the idea that people will go to a store and print out their bikes, print out their things. The environmental message behind that movie is: where would they put all that stuff?
Photos of Adam Green shot exclusively for Milk by Ben Taylor. Film stills via Adam Green’s Aladdin.
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