There isn't much to say about writer-director Harmony Korine except that you likely either love him or hate him. Personally, like some of his antagonistic contemporaries (Lars von Trier, for example), I love that there is someone like him making films even if I don't always like the work. Fortunately, I tend to like the work, beginning with KIDS, which he wrote for director Larry Clark (the two collaborated again on KEN PARK) nearly 20 years ago and still packs a punch today. Korine's directing credits include GUMMO, JULIEN DONKEY-BOY, the elegant MISTER LONELY, and the whacked-out TRASH HUMPERS, which made the festival rounds in 2009 and 2010.
Since then, Korine has been directing many short and music videos, including most recently "Gold on the Ceiling" for The Black Keys. Korine is a classic provocateur. He knows that the images and scenarios he's putting forth in his film are disturbing and often shocking, but he's attempting to evoke a reaction from his audiences that other filmmakers simply aren't bold or brave enough to attempt.
But with his latest film, the triumphant SPRING BREAKERS, Korine is making his boldest move yet and the result is the year's first movie to kick your ass artistically. He's essentially taken the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello formula and turned Frankie into a rapper/drug dealer/pimp/weapons connoisseur and Annette into a violent criminal and party girl, willing to drink or snort anything off any body part. And it works completely thanks to actors willing to throw image out the window, especially James Franco and Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens.
I've interviewed and done events with Korine in the past, and he's always struck me as both an exceptional storyteller but a man fully aware and quite keen to discuss what his objectives and processes are all about. I had the chance to have an extensive conversation with him at the SXSW Film Festival recently, the day after a near-riotous screening of the SPRING BREAKERS. Hope you enjoy it…
Harmony Korine: Hey, Steve. Hey, I remember you, yeah.
Capone: We did an event in Chicago for MISTER LONELY that was really fun.
HK: I remember it well.
Capone: I wasn’t able to stay for the Q&A last night, but I heard it was pretty epic.
HK: Yeah, it was pretty cool. It was funny, funny shit.
Capone: Were there some weird questions?
HK: There was something weird. Someone asked Selena something about being a "woman of color" or something. I don’t know.
[Korine wife, Rachel, who also stars in the film and was in the room at the beginning of our interview remembers the questions as being: “What’s it like to be famous, particularly being a woman of color?”]
HK: [laughs] That was so random. It was strange.
Capone: I have this weird feeling that even though this is Austin, and there are many film-savvy people here, I’d guess probably 90 percent of the people that were there last night had never seen one of your movies before. You've done this really wonderful thing by making this art-house film under the guise of this party movie. Was that the intention, to disguise it as something more mainstream, but really do what you always do, which is point the camera at these absurd people doing these absurd things?
HK: It became that in some ways, and there’s that exciting element to it. It started off honestly just being really interested in these characters and then the Alien character [played by Fraco] and that whole world. Obviously spring break was interesting for me as a backdrop and as a metaphor for the story later, but I was more into wanting to make something that was about the menace and the pathology of the backroads, past the strip under the palm trees and the dilapidated houses and the beach trap, almost like beach noir or something.
Capone: That’s a great genre name. Why hasn’t someone done that?
HK: Yeah exactly. Then when I started trying to figure out how it would look and feel, and I just was like, “Maybe there are these more inventive, more even slightly experimental techniques that I can filter through this pop gloss.” So it just started to develop in that way, and ultimately that was exciting, the idea that all of these new people get to see the films I make.
Capone: When I think of your films, I think of so many things, but not color explosion that you offer up in this film. Was it fun to be able to play with those neons and pastels?
HK: Yeah, it was. That became like a character in the movie with the color. I wanted the film to be almost more like a physical experience or more like a drug experience--something that was closer to a hallucination or a pop fever dream. So I started thinking about the surface of the film and the colors almost like painting or something, and so we started developing all of these neons. I told [cinematographer] Benoit Debie, we talked about lighting rooms as if you were using Skittles for lights or making everything seem like Starburst Fruit Chews.
Capone: It’s a different usage of lighting than I've seen in other beach-set movies. Even in Alien’s house, there are lots of lights tucked away in weird places and his boat has got a great set of lights.
HK: The tone starts to shift as we go from this vibrant, bright-colored neons to something tonally that’s a bit darker.
Capone: Menacing, yeah. You mentioned that you wanted the feeling of fever dream. Was part of the idea to just assault all five senses including smell? I feel like if you can't smell this movie, you're not watching it right. Was that the thing you were going for?
HK: Yeah. I wanted to be a complete and utter bombardment of the senses. I wanted it unrelenting. I never wanted the viewer to be too close to being comfortable. I wanted the film to be constantly shifting gears and having images and sounds falling from all directions. In some ways, it was like making a film that was closer to electronic music or loop-based movement with things that repeat and are almost working in these micro scenes, or even like pop music, pop songs with hooks, and choruses. There are things in the film that almost become like mantras and stuff, things that get stuck in your brain, and you can’t get rid of.
Capone: What was it that first fascinated you about both the vacationer lifestyle and then the "behind the palm trees" dwellers?
HK: Florida is such a weird place. When I would go as a kid to visit my grandparents, they lived in these backgrounds . I don’t know what it was, it seemed like everyone was trying to escape from something or everyone was seduced and lured there by the promise of sun and fun, but you could see that it became something else. It’s so beautiful and the weather is so perfect. Then there’s also when the lights go down at night. I always felt there was something more ominous and stranger. It’s hard to articulate, but there’s a weirdness there in Florida.
Capone: In casting, especially Vanessa and Selena--these Disney pop princesses--was that intentional that you wanted to go after someone who had never come close to doing anything like this and just taking their image and throwing it right out off the balcony?
HK: You know, I was writing and I was thinking about it who could play them and then I was like, “It would be amazing to get girls who are, in some ways in real life, representative of a kind of pop mythology or connected culturally to the characters in some way and are orbiting around that world. It is fun, this idea of playing against type, and people are just so used to seeing them in this one way. I like the idea of playing against expectations, and at the same time, they need to work as characters within the film.
Capone: I’ve seen Selena in a couple of things, but the scene with her and James, where he’s just touching her face, is one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen like ever.
HK: It really is.
Capone: And she plays it perfectly. There is some acting going on there that I have never seen from her. Talk about shooting that, because that seemed really legit. She almost seemed like she didn't know it was going to happen.
HK: It was legit, yeah.
Capone: Just having those people kind of randomly around them made it more menacing.
HK: I had found that location. It was a pool hall in this super hood neighborhood in St. Petes, and the location was amazing, all the people there, the colors, the whole vibe of the place. I had seen this back room there with all of these guys hanging out with pit bulls and smoking menthols. I don’t know what it was about it, but I started to dream up that scene and I started to think in the script is was written that she pretty much just leaves right after Alien bails them out--she’s just creeped out by him.
But the way he was playing it was so much more intense. I thought “It would be nice to add this kind of moment.” So a couple of months before I dreamt up that sequence, but I didn’t tell either one of them, and I called Franco up the night before and I told him what I wanted to do. I wanted to surprise her, because I didn’t want her to be thinking about it. I wanted her to react in real time, and so that’s what happened. I just pulled her by the arm when she thought she was going home, and I said, “Hey, we have one more thing waiting for you.” And she was like “What?” So I think that’s all I said, “React like you really would. Just let it go.”
Capone: So the tears were real.
HK: Yeah, she was freaked out. We did it a couple of times, and it got more and more demented as we went.
Capone: That’s evil.
HK: Yeah, his big thumb over her mouth.
Capone: There’s one point where he has his hand next to her face where his hand looks bigger than her head. It just looks like “He could crush her skull right now if he wanted to.”
HK: Yeah, it really does. It’s pretty crazy.
Capone: Let’s talk about Franco for a second, because this is the best thing I’ve ever seen him do. I thought I had an idea of what he was capable of and then I see this. Talk about, in as much detail as you can, developing that character, both the way he talks, movies, dresses, and the house that he’s in. Just talk about that whole persona and how you guys came up with that.
HK: I had been friends with him, and we had talked about making a film together for a couple of years, but I never had the right part, and I always felt with him he was capable, because there is something unhinged and insane about him in real life. So I had always thought he was capable of really going to a place that no one had seen before, like he just hadn’t had the right part. So I had called him up to explain “Hey, I have this idea.”
A lot of the character of Alien was based on kids I used to ride the bus with to school, growing up in the '80s and that classic archetypal white Southern gangster, regional gangster with black mannerisms. So for the year before we shot, I probably sent him hundreds of images, reference photos, pictures, clips, rappers, audio clips, anything from videos where people would get into fist fights in gas stations to just pictures of girls with Skittles logos stenciled into their hair cut. So I would just say to Franco, “I want your character to feel like that.” So he was a cultural mash-up, his character, like a gangster-mystic, and he just played it in this extreme way. He is someone who’s very violent and very humorous.
Capone: Even though you’ve given him all of these reference points, did what he come up with surprise you?
HK: Yeah, because he wasn’t big into rehearsing. There was a lot of discussion, but then once he got into costume with the character in corn rows and gold teeth and his accents, that’s when I was like, “Okay, I see he’s going to take it there.” Then we had him spend time with a lot of local guys that were living the life that he started to emulate in some ways.
Capone: That scene where he brings the girls into that place where people are playing pool, and there are all of those guys around, and the girls are a little scared, there’s no fear on his face--he’s at home in that scene. Pretty much from the minute he comes into the film, I started to get tense. And by the time we got to the strip club scene, which should be fun, I thought I was going to throw up, because I was so anxious that something bad was going to happen.
HK: Yeah, the menace follows him, and it becomes palpable. It becomes an energy, and the tone of it is so horrible. The tone is so intense.
Capone: We're never quite sure if you're disgusted by these people and their behavior, or if you admire them. I always thought, at least from some of your earlier work, that you know that this is going to upset people. You understand that it scares people, and that’s why you want to put it in their face.
HK: Here’s the thing, I tend to be interested in things where I feel both of those things, both an attraction and a repulsion simultaneously, and most films and most artwork seem to veer away from things that are more morally ambiguous or visually ambiguous or have some type of emotional abstraction where you’re not told what to think or you’re not told “This is bad.” So for whatever reason, those are the types of characters and the types of storylines that interest me most, the things that are both disgusting and beautiful. It’s like life. It’s like everything and nothing, and I don’t like to just strip things back to the point where it’s just one way; I to be able to dream on them.
Capone: And you don’t want to tell people what to think, either.
HK: You don't want to tell them what to think. It’s too easy to condemn. It’s too easy to judge. People love judging, and I’ll never give the people that. Do you know what I mean? People just want you to make characters pay and make people pay and judge them and say, “This guy is bad.” Well you could say, “Yeah, this guy does bad things, but there is also something kind of amazing about him. Culturally, you could say this is the most vile world, but at the same time there is maybe some kind of strange poetry in it.
Capone: Obviously, these women are committing illegal acts at gun point some times, but because they are mostly undressed, it’s kind of cute, it’s kind of sexy. It’s like young flesh doing bad things, and that is going to turn a lot of people on.
HK: Sure, yeah. Yeah, it’s nice. It’s great for me, because it’s a different type of film experience. You can be aroused and be horrified. [laughs]
Capone: We should all be in the place every day. With some of the party scenes, they look like barely controlled chaos. Did you have to maintain that? Was it more controlled than it looked?
HK: Yeah, I mean the party scenes were chaos. There were thousands of kids in abandoned hotels just destroying things. It was difficult when Franco came--and that’s the thing about chaos, it’s chaos. It’s almost impossible to control. So that was pretty intense.
Capone: Do you get a sense that the girls were playing a role? I mean the characters, not the actors, are playing a role that spring break has assigned to them, and they're pretending to be a little wilder, a little harder at first?
HK: Well as they say in the beginning, “It's pretend; it’s a video game.” I have them say that a couple of times over and over, because I want you to realize that is what’s happening. It becomes something more like a strange wormhole, like this little step from viewing and playing to actually doing.
Capone: That’s actually a conservative view of video game violence. That’s a strange thing.
HK: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess it is. What I’m trying to say is it’s more… the way that everything now is filtered, life is filtered, your social life is filtered through technology to such an extent that sometimes it just all becomes a blur.
Capone: Yeah, back to what we were talking about to some of the party scenes, the interstitial stuff without the girls? The stuff with just all the boobs and dumb guys?
HK: Yeah, we shot all that to set it up.
Capone: How do you secure the rights? Were they all hired to be there?
HK: You’d have people on the radio say, “Hey, we need you to come now.” You’d take out ads and come to colleges, fraternities. They had culled them for a couple of months.
Capone: The whole film takes on a weird tone in the back half, where it almost feels like we are building up to the end of the world. Like it really does feel…
Capone: Exactly! That’s what I wrote down. We're watching the first moments of the End of Days. Did you want to get that big?
HK: Yeah, definitely.
Capone: In what ways did you treat it in those more sort of metaphorical terms with the visuals. What did you do different in those moments where you wanted to really horrifying.
HK: You want the film to build in some way at that point. Again, it was more like a trance with some type of peak moment, and then it disappears into darkness. I wanted it to almost be some kind of strange, violent pop song.
Capone: Speaking of that, the Britney Spears song at the piano. Where did that come from? That was great.
HK: I don’t know man, it’s crazy.
Capone: That got the best reaction from the crowd last night.
HK: Yeah, it’s always fun to watch that scene with a crowd. I had been thinking about doing a sequence like that for a couple of years and I thought that song in particular was kind of amazingly delicate, morose, airless pop song, but underneath it there was this kind of violence or menace to it. I thought in some ways, it was a lot like the film. So I don’t know, I just always envisioned this violent robbery sequence under the song and him playing the piano. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s weird, you just get images and sounds and things, and you just put it together.
Capone: I thought maybe with a specific song there might be a real reason behind that, but if it’s that random, all the better.
HK: Before I wrote it into the script, I probably listened to it a couple of hundred times on a loop.
Capone: Let's talk about Selena’s escape, which it really is, it’s an escape. Was that the idea that someone was going to get out of this more or less unscathed. But it had to be her I guess, didn’t it?
HK: It was always conceived in that way, because there’s four girls, and to me they always represented a whole--a single kind of spirit and a single soul. So one by one they leave, right? So the first one to leave is Selena’s character, who is the moral compass, the faith [her character's name is Faith], and what happens once the morality is stripped away, and you’re left with the three girls. Then Cotty leaves, and Cotty [played by Rachel Korine] is the kind of in-between, and then you’re left with these two girls with almost like complete sociopathic tendencies.
Capone: The hardest of the hardcore.
HK: Yeah, exactly. They're almost beyond human and they elevate themselves in this way like pure violent poetry.
Capone: As much as I was saying before about how impressed I was with what Selena was doing, Vanessa just gave herself over. There’s just no holding her back.
Capone: Were you surprised that she was willing to go that far, or did you know that?
HK: Look, the thing is you never want to be in a situation where you are shooting something and you realize that the actor you’re working with isn’t in the same place. So a lot of knowing she was capable and where she was going to go was done in the rehearsals and auditioning process, because I was like, “Look, you need to know this is going to be way more extreme and way more graphic and intense than anything you have ever done” But she was down.
Capone: By having Rachel in the film, could you use her as someone who could coax them and push them in the right direction?
HK: Yeah. With Rachel, I’ve worked with her before, and she’s really bold and she’s amazing.
Capone: She was the one I was the most scared of.
HK: Yeah, exactly. And she can get this demonic glint in her eye, and I definitely thought…again the four of them have a relationship that’s almost chemical, so I thought that Rachel needed to be the one that throws it down to set it off.
Capone: She’s a good instigator.
HK: She really is.
Capone: Do you have any idea what’s next for you?
HK: I don’t know. I have a couple of really vague ideas of things, but I've just been making paintings and hanging out alone.
Capone: Did you just do a music video for somebody fairly recently?
HK: Oh, The Black Keys video?
Capone: That’s what it was. Yeah, yeah. That was really good. I loved that. And it features the twins from SPRING BREAKERS.
Capone: I know you’ve contributed to shorts anthologies or just done shorts on your own. Are you still doing those?
HK: I do everything. I just like making things and don’t think about them too much. Whatever it is, if it’s interesting to me and I can do it, if I can react to it quickly, I just do it. I try not to differentiate between high and low art; it’s all part of the same thing.
Capone: The coverage on this film with all of these different premieres and openings has been bigger than all of your other films combined probably. Has that been kind of strange to get this much attention? Is it bizarre that you're “Mr. Mainstream” now?
HK: It’s very strange. It’s so strange that I kind of love it. You know what I’m talking about? [laughs]
Capone: Of course. Why wouldn’t you? Well, it was so good to see you again.
HK: Yeah man, my pleasure. It was awesome. I hadn’t seen you in a couple of years.