Harmony Korine: "You Gotta Go Hard"

Movies Features Harmony Korine
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“You gotta go hard, or what’s the point, right?” This is the last thing Harmony Korine says to me before our time is up. In its brevity and simplicity, it nicely sums up Korine’s life and work. It also seems a completely sincere thought from a man who can be notoriously deflective and squirrely in interviews. His new film Spring Breakers is emerging as one of the most unexpected cinematic success stories in recent memory (breaking records its opening weekend and becoming 2013’s most lucrative limited release so far), and has quickly mushroomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The fever for the film has spread throughout the online world, with fan-made art, mashups, GIFs, celebrity tweets and themed stories. It’s not going to be long before James Franco’s entire manic “Look at my shit” monologue becomes more ubiquitous than a Borat-ism. “He’s an amalgamation of a lot of different kids I used to know growing up and rode the school bus with in junior high school,” says Korine of Franco’s character Alien. “They were those white dudes who used to rap on the bus with cornrows and gold teeth in the South. I wanted to turn it into something that was wilder and almost like a gangster mystic. Some kind of deep sociopath, with also this kind of frenetic poetry.”

What’s so strange about all this is that Harmony Korine’s filmography—and life—goes hard. Really hard. His first script Kids, penned at age 19, became an art-house sensation. Ardently flipping his middle finger to any notion of mainstream success, Korine followed the critical goodwill of Kids with his unblinking, white-trash, cat-killing opus Gummo. The strange got even more bizarre with a series of beguiling Letterman appearances combined with a high-profile tabloid romance with Chloe Sevigny and the sense that he had burned out on film altogether. Korine finally bottomed out in drug-induced oblivion in the early 2000s. With the mixed critical response to Mister Lonely in 2007 and the nearly unwatchable non-narrative visual nightmare of Trash Humpers in 2009, it seemed like the director might have run out of tricks. But then Spring Breakers came along, springing forth from the simple image of bikini girls in ski masks. The film taps into the zeitgeist of social media, Instagram and EDM music, a far cry from the VHS aesthetic of Trash Humpers. “I feel like that’s what [Spring Breakers] is,” says Korine. “The movie is about that world in a lot of ways, and it is a kind of cultural mashup. I feel like essentially it’s tied to all of that stuff, but the film itself is unto itself. It is its own thing. It’s a pure movie. But then everything surrounding it, the energy surrounding it and all the tentacles out there are a kind of conceptual umbilical cord.”

The casting of former Disney queens Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, along with Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson, seems on paper like a gimmick, but the girls shed any modicum of teeny-bop gloss (or inhibition) in Spring Breakers, committing fully to their carnal and criminally charged characters. When asked if it was difficult to get the girls’ handlers to sign off on the project, Korine chuckles. “It’s insane to think about it, but that was probably the easiest part of the whole film. You would think in some ways that there would be this corporate forcefield, and maybe there is, but it didn’t affect their decision in doing the film, or how easy it was to work with them. That was one of the great surprises for me.”

For Franco, Korine always had the actor in the back of his mind. “I had been talking to him about doing a movie for years,” says Korine. “I had always felt like he hadn’t been given his perfect part yet, and hadn’t tapped all of his energy. I still see him as a character actor. I was just waiting to give him something that he could go full blast with, and that’s where the Alien character came in.”

The soundscape of Spring Breakers, from the pounding, schizophrenic Skrillex opening, the Southern crunk/trap of Alien’s world, to the moody, pulsing Cliff Martinez (Drive) score, reflects the shuffle mentality and neon-drenched bacchanalia of Korine’s St. Petersburg, Florida. “I wanted the film to be about a kind of energy, and a physical experience,” says Korine. “I wanted the movie to be closer to something that was like a drug experience. [Skrillex’s and Martinez’s] music has that type of physicality and energy. I wanted the movie to be unrelenting and bombastic. It’s this kind of weird intersection between sound design and music. It’s like a physical, guttural and tonal experience.”

Artists who have remained firmly and steadfastly committed to their own vision tend to be polarizing, and some critics have been harsh to Korine throughout the years. That doesn’t bother him at all. “No, I don’t really pay attention to that stuff,” he says. “It’s all perfect. Good or bad, it is what it is, man. I make movies. That’s what I do.”

But regarding the critical and audience reaction to Spring Breakers, Korine lights up. “Yeah, it’s been great! It’s been like my other films, just a thousand times more.”

On the topic of the pesky provocateur tag, Korine bristles. “I don’t view myself period,” he says. “I don’t think about myself in that way at all. That all comes from other people. I live in a place where no one gives a shit who I am, and honestly, when all this is done, I’ll just go back to my life. The last thing I ever do is sit around and think about myself in the third person. I don’t really want to know why I do the things I do or where it comes from. I just don’t care. It’s bullshit. I don’t care about answers. I like the questions.”

Living a quiet life in Nashville with his wife and Spring Breakers co-star Rachel Korine, life is pretty good for Harmony Korine, and he appears to have found his own unique peace of mind. He muses on making his dream project. “It’s a movie where Harrison Ford is a dwarf,” says Korine. “But who knows if that will ever happen.”

When asked his idea of a perfect day, Korine pauses a beat before responding. “A perfect day for me is probably…um…illegal activity. Criminal mischief. Breaking and entering.”

Just don’t call him a provocateur.

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