Photo by Michael Dunaway
Harmony Korine has certainly made his mark in the indie film world over the last couple of decades, but it’s mostly been as a writer/director. His controversial 1995 debut Kids introduced audiences to Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and possibly the most frighteningly predatory teen protagonist ever. His followup, 1997’s Gummo doubled down on the grime, dysfunction, and just plain weirdness, while moving the setting from New York City to rural Ohio. After a few years of hit-and-miss filmmaking, he returned to the spotlight last year with Spring Breakers, which sharply divided critics and audiences alike, with some disparaging it as trash and others hailing it as a trashy masterpiece. But nothing in his previous career, even his occasional small acting parts, resembles his most recent turn—a wonderfully quirky performance opposite Al Pacino in David Gordon Green’s latest film, Manglehorn. We sat down with Harmony this week at TIFF to talk about Pacino, Manglehorn and Korine’s childhood.
Paste: Let’s talk about getting the call, kind of out of the blue, from David Gordon Green to be in this movie, when you’re not really actively pursuing acting right now.
Korine: It was trippy. It was actually an email. I was doing promotion last year, for SpringBreakers. And he was like, “I’m making this movie with Al Pacino. Do you want to act in it?” And I was like “Fuck yeah!”
Korine: I thought it sounded cool, and I was like, “I’m in.”
Paste: Speaking of Pacino, by my count yesterday he called you a genius, a Picasso, and a young Al Pacino.
Korine: Yeah, then there was like a Tolstoy reference.
Paste: Oh yeah, and Tolstoy. That’s right.
Korine: I’ve never even read Tolstoy. So, I don’t even know what that means, but I like it.
Korine: Yeah, that was great. That was really special when he said that. I want to get that transcript and show that to my wife.
Korine: Al’s a pretty amazing guy.
Paste: So, I know this is a question you’re probably getting a lot, but, has this sort of kindled the fire in you to do more acting?
Korine: I mean, I love it. But, I love movies, and I love all parts of movies and moviemaking. So it’s just like an extension of everything else. But it’s exciting. It’s so much less stressful; it’s something more immersive. Whereas something like directing is the opposite. You’re thinking in very technical terms. So it’s very fun. It’s nice being on that side.
Paste: Kind of letting someone else be in charge. Not worrying about how everything’s going to fit together.
Korine: It’s no stress for me. Like being here at TIFF is great, but when you have a movie, it’s a different thing. When you’re directing a movie.
Paste: You grew up, at least part of the time, in Nashville, Tenn. I’m a Georgia guy, and I went to school in Sewanee, which is not far from Nashville.
Korine: In Mount Pleasant, or where is it?
Korine: Monteagle. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Paste: Right next to Monteagle.
Korine: It’s funny, because I live in Nashville now. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in Monteagle because my dad made documentaries.
Korine: And there was this guy. They made a film about this guy. He was a moonshiner. His name was Hamper McBee, and he was from Monteagle. He was the last, kind of like moonshine kind of storyteller that lived in the hollow. So, I remember I was there a lot as a kid.
Paste: It’s a pretty magical place.
Korine: Yeah. The mountains and shit.
Paste: And I just love, speaking of your dad, this picture of your dad taking you to all these amazing films when you were young. I’ve started trying to do this with my kids. One has a little more patience than the other one does for that sort of thing. I would love to hear your talk about what that meant to you at the time and now.
Korine: Well yeah. It’s a big deal. I mean, it’s a different time I guess. Well, obviously it was pre-Internet, and in the really early days, before cable television and stuff. So, I think my parents, they both really love movies, and so they always just took me to films. I don’t think they really censored it much. I think it was they just sort of took me along. I grew up in a commune, and, when we’d leave, then we’d just go into the city and go to the movie theaters. It was a big deal for me. It is almost hard to articulate, but I would just dream about them. And then, as I got older, I lived in Nashville, and I lived close by Vanderbilt University. And they had this movie theater called Sarratt Cinema, which is still there, but back then in the ’80s and ’90s they used to play different double features every day. It was like $2 or $3 for a student, and I would just go there after school and watch films, and that was kind of how I got into it.
Paste: Yeah. There’s something about the breadth of that experience that seeps into your subconscious and creates this whole sort of, I don’t know, bedrock.
Korine: It’s hard to say if it still works in the same way now, because now people can just probably just download stuff on their computer. There’s an immediacy now. It’s with everything. Even with music then, if there was some band that I wanted to hear or some strange hardcore band from the ’80s, I would have to send some money into a record label, and it would arrive on your doorstep like three or four months later. You’d have to wait and anticipate what it would be like. And movies were like that, too. You’d wait for some film to open and see it a couple of times. Whereas now it’s like you can curate. People can curate their own destiny. Then, there was kind of a randomness to it, which kind of forced its will on you. And I, it’s just interesting that that part, when I was getting into movies, I was that last part of old school film culture. You know?
Korine Where you would see people revolve around theaters.
Paste: Chuck Klosterman talks about this in regard to music. How that lack of information actually added to the mystery of the experience, but also to the communal-ness of the experience. Because if you were a big Replacements fan and one of your friends tell you Paul wrote that song because his dad was killed in a car accident when he was six-years-old… Well now, you can look it up on Wikipedia and see if that’s right or not. But back then, you’d spend six months talking to all your other friends who like the Replacements, trying to figure it out, analyzing the lyrics.
Korine: But in truth, you know, I’m not even saying it was better then.
Paste: It’s just different.
Korine: Yeah, I mean, I kind of prefer it now, to be honest with you. I like being able to access things quickly. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m not saying it was a better time. The film culture then was different and revolved around things mostly in the theater.
Paste: In the theater, right.
Korine: And that part is something I miss.
Paste: Somebody told me the other day, because they know I’m a huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia, they said, “I finally watched Lawrence of Arabia”. And I said “Really?” And they said, “Yeah, I saw it on my iPad”. And I said, you still haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia.
Korine: I thought you were going to say on their iPhone.
Paste: No, that’d be even worse!
Korine: iPad is not so bad, but the phone is more, uh, that’d be crazy.
Paste: “I don’t know what the big deal is about the cinematography.”
Korine: Yeah. It’s a different thing man. You’re old school, dude.
Paste: But I agree with your idea now that now there are tradeoffs. There are advantages and disadvantages. But I love the idea now of a 14-year-old kid discovering a Cassavetes film and then over the next two months seeing every Cassavetes film. They can do that. That’s pretty amazing. Right?
Korine: I mean, if it’s happening, that’s cool. I don’t know how many 14-year-olds are watching it, but I hope there’s some.
Paste: I think there’s some. I know a couple actually. I know a couple who are cool enough to be doing that.
Paste: Speaking of which, I read that Cassavetes was someone you discovered relatively young. Are there other specific directors or films that you remember early on sort of really hitting you? Maybe you didn’t fully understand them when you were young.
Korine: Sure. There were lots of them: The Outsiders , Brewster McCloud , Rumble Fish, Mad Max (laughing)
Korine: What else?
Paste: How could you not love Mad Max?
Korine: Let’s see. Really early, like Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin’s films, I was trying to think of when I was really young like Star Wars was a big deal. It was mostly, like BMX Bandits, movies that made me really like film. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
Korine: Those are a big deal.
Paste: Still one of the best all-purpose punchlines for a film joke. “Take Shelter meets Electric Boogaloo.”
Korine: Beat Street, remember there was…
Paste: Oh Beat Street of course. Well, that was seminal for hip-hop culture.
Korine: The ’80s had all those kind of—they were almost gimmick movies. They were awesome.
Paste: Were you a hip-hop fan early on?
Paste: Yeah. Me too. That’s interesting too, being white southern guys. I’m a little older than you, but not much. Did you have a band of friends who were hip-hop fans early on, or did you feel very isolated?
Korine: No, no. I always went to public schools, and it was the music that was big when I was a kid. It was the music that I loved. As a kid growing up in the South, it was always like Too $hort, Three 6 Mafia, and 2 Live Crew. I wasn’t really too much into, like, socially conscious rap music. I don’t really like lyrical. I like things that are more about, you know, more bass. I wasn’t trying to like listen to the news. I wanted to hear about, like, pussy.
Paste: I love socially conscious hip-hop, but, it’s funny, I also love, like, the very earliest hip-hop. The very earliest hip-hop was just all about partying, and it was very bass heavy. With a few exceptions, the theme of the first hip-hop was “I’m the greatest MC ever” and “All the women love me” and “Shake your ass.”
Korine: It’s good. It’s good. What else is there? Really?
Paste: Which is actually like James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers. That can kind of be his motto, too.
Korine: There ya go, man.
: “I’m the greatest ever. All the women love me. Shake your ass.”
Korine: It’s true.