Jason Rail’s role as a stylist and makeup artist on the sets of cult classics, including Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, Splendor and the 1995 cult hit The Doom Generation gave him comprehensive access to now-established actors as they prepared for some of their earliest roles. And he brought a camera.
Rose McGowan, cast as a 16-year-old misanthrope on the run, is immediately recognizable in Rail’s photos with her jet-black bob-and-bangs, red lips and ‘fuck you’ expression. Rail snapped Parker Posey in ridiculous wigs for her role as the vengeful, murderous stranger. James Duval, Marilyn Manson, Annabella Sciorra and Lisa Kudrow all feature in Rail’s candid shots, which are like a time capsule of the decade’s style.
Like the Beverly Hills 90210 dolls I threw into a box in the 1990s, Rail’s Polaroids have exponentially increased in value over 20 years. This is largely owing to the high-profile film and TV projects many of the then-indie ingenues went on to do. One of those stars was Mena Suvari, who starred in the dark comedy Nowhere, released in 1997.
Rail is at home in San Francisco when we catch up to discuss Araki, purple hair, LA earthquakes and the utter wildness of the 90s film scene. He’s worked with Suvari recently, but he first met her when she was still in high school.
“Her mother drove her to set,” he tells me. “We really got along and stayed in touch through social media. She and Ryan Phillipe were both in Nowhere, and now they are doing something together. It’s interesting to see those connections.”
While Rail was living in LA in the mid-90s, he had a client come into the salon where he was working to ask for a hairstyle befitting the punk rock film she was about to star in. The film was Jon Moritsugu’s Mod Fuck Explosion, a movie described in various places as “West Side Story meets Rumble in the Bronx meets A Clockwork Orange.”
That led to working on set—something he’d never done. He wasn’t paid, because the production had no budget for hair and makeup, but he fell in love with the whole process.
“I always knew it was more than a camera and an actor, but it was like ‘Wow! There’s a whole village here from craft services to security,’” he recalls. “It was so collaborative and people were maxing out their credit cards just to buy more film in the pre-digital world.”
Andrea Sperling, Araki’s trusted producer for Totally Fucked Up and The Doom Generation (the first two films of the director’s “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy”) noticed Rail’s cut and color work and brought him on for The Doom Generation.
“Andrea, who later won an Emmy for Transparent, produced most of Gregg’s stuff in the early days,” Rail tells me. “I’m from a working-class neighborhood, the Excelsior District in San Francisco, so I hadn’t ever imagined working in LA. It was a life-changing experience.”
It was also a stressful one. Rail experienced his first panic attack on set when up-and-coming starlet Heather Graham’s management (unbeknownst to Graham) begged Rail not to dye the star’s hair dark brown, despite Araki’s directions to do so.
“She’d become famous for her blonde hair in [the 1989 film] ‘Drugstore Cowboy’,” he explains before telling me that he dyed her hair anyway.
Until 2016, Rail’s Polaroids of the film’s cast—Rose McGowan, James Duval, Johnathon Schaech, and Parker Posey—were tucked away in a shoebox along with his photos from the film premieres and parties of the same era.
But a number of years ago, Rail began to share them on Instagram, fulfilling every weird goth-rave-punk Millenial’s dreams in the process.
Far more than the wielder of wigs and makeup brushes, Rail was a confidant to the many young actors he photographed, many of whom were at the time untrained, inexperienced and working multiple jobs to pay the bills.
Rail, now 57, works as a salon hairdresser in San Francisco, but he vividly recalls the film set life and his 20s spent in the clubbing, fashion and movie scenes he documented with his Polaroids. When started sharing them, he had something like 250 followers. After agreeing to an interview about the photo collection, he suddenly found himself with thousands. But it’s not just the 90s indie film aesthetic that appeals to people, he explains.
“So many people have messaged to say that these movies changed their lives—that they’d felt like weirdos in their small towns,” Rail shares. “They identified with those characters. It was neat to think I had been a part of those movies and the effects.”
The cult appeal of those low-budget 90s films can’t be underestimated. I had a VHS of The Doom Generation, which I watched until it was stolen in the early 2000s. An interview I did with star James Duval last year amassed the most comments and responses of nearly any story I’ve written.
At my mention of Duval, Rail is effusive about how kind, generous and genuine the actor is, affectionately calling him ‘Jimmy.’
“With Jimmy, I’d established a working relationship [before The Doom Generation], so we were comfortable with each other and knew a lot of the same people in the indie film world,” Rail says. “He always had this great energy. He’d be tired after a long day, but if he was feeling shitty he’d keep it to himself. Johnathan [Schaech] wasn’t solemn, but he was really in his own head. He’s a well-known method actor so he took measures to stay in character and he kept to himself. He didn’t engage and tell stupid dad jokes at lunch.”
As for McGowan, Rail is a little more guarded. While he admits she was “the perfect Amy Blue,” she could be prickly and defensive with others on set and seemed a reluctant thespian.
“Rose was so young, I felt like I was a big brother to her,” he explains. “She felt comfortable with me. She’d been an extra in ‘Encino Man’ and dropped out of beauty school. She’d complain about not wanting to be an actress, but I think she didn’t mind the attention… Rose didn’t really trust people, and she had a lot going on in her head. She wasn’t the friendliest.”
Perhaps she was—as Schaech had been—method acting, I suggest.
“Her character was supposed to be on speed and not eating, so she was supposed to be ‘hangry,’” concedes Rail, who stopped posting Polaroids in 2021 when he ran out. He wasn’t a hoarder, he assures me unnecessarily. There are just some things he keeps for nostalgia’s sake.
Of all the stars—and forgotten faces alike—featured in his photos, Rail is quick to identify those who had obvious star quality.
“With Johnathan, there was something weird and special,” he says. “He’d walk into a room and people would say ‘Who is that?’ He looks like a Greek God; he’s perfection.”
We come back to Suvari and Phillipe as our conversation reaches an end. The camera loves her, he says, and Phillipe was such a nice guy—so serious about acting, not all about the ego.
“He’d wrapped The White Squall just before Nowhere, but then he got called to do some re-shooting,” Rail recalls. “So after I dyed his hair a cranberry color for Nowhere we had to bleach his hair back to blonde after filming so he could go back to do some more filming.”
The post-indie film world understandably left a lot to be desired for Rail. The last movie he worked on was 2001’s The Cooler with William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello.
“I was so spoiled by the creativity and freedom with Gregg Araki that doing ‘shiny’ and getting paid more didn’t compensate for not discussing the characters with the directors,” he muses. “‘Just make them pretty’ was boring for me, so I went back to the salon. Still, if someone’s in town for a shoot, I’ll doll them up for the night.”
Rail’s intention is to find a publisher to help him craft a coffee table book of his Polaroids—a collectible time capsule of the golden era of 90s indie teen films. It’s yet to come to fruition, but there’s a ready market now-grownup cranberry-haired goths, punks and mods just waiting for it to happen.