ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Harmony Korine

Interview by
Alex Gartenfeld
From Issue 34 – SS 2019

Having first attracted critical attention as the writer of American independent film ‘Kids’, directed by Larry Clark and released in 1995, artist, director and photographer Harmony Korine talks with Alex Gartenfeld about his practice and the sensory element often involved in his movies—an alternate reality outside of the conventional plot structure.

ALEX GARTENFELD  Hey Harmony. Your new movie, The Beach Bum, is the second of what I understand to be a trilogy dedicated to Florida and its various subcultures.

HARMONY KORINE  Yeah, I said after Spring Breakers (2012) I was going to do a proper Florida trilogy—that was before I moved here. I started thinking about how Elvis did all those beach movies. There’s something I like about that type of commitment, you know what I mean? A trilogy is good; there will be at least three, but I could just make movies here forever.

AG  For much of your life and career, you have lived and worked in Nashville, where you keep a home and studio. What was it that brought you to Miami?

HK  I love Nashville, but it really changed. It became cosmopolitan, and a lot of the things that I remember growing up are no longer there. I guess economically the city is thriving, but all the authenticity is eroded. All of the bars I used to go to as a kid, all the hole-in-the-wall hangouts, all the restaurants and steak houses and denim shops—all of it is gone.

AG  Is that what you would say drew you to Miami? In making films here, do you pursue this authenticity? I’m asking because Spring Breakers seems to pivot on fantasy—false hopes of adolescence and a reprieve from daily life that goes awry.

HK  Sure, but the Florida thing is different for me, because I feel like it’s this strange and magical place, especially when the lights go down. I used to come here as a little kid to visit my grandma, who lived in Fort Lauderdale. There was something that I’ve always found intoxicating about South Florida—it just feels like another world. There is a sense of always being on a strange vacation. Every day I wake up and I look out of my window and I see the water, the palm trees, and I’m like, “Is this real?”

AG  You’ve chosen to live in South Florida and Miami, which is very different from North Florida in terms of the impact of immigration, and its identification with South America and global culture as opposed to the American South.

HK  When I was a kid, Daytona Beach was where we’d go. We’d jump in cars from Nashville and drive to Daytona for spring break—it was this Redneck Riviera vibe. For Spring Breakers, we did look to shoot here in South Beach, but it was too vast for the situation and the characters of that film. I felt that the setting needed to be more localized.

AG  More out of place and out of time.

HK  Yes, that’s right. I wrote the movie in Panama City. I checked in to a Holiday Inn during spring break and the whole hotel was rocking, there were so many kids there destroying it. At some point I was in my room, I felt the whole place shaking and I couldn’t write, so I got a car and drove out twenty minutes to a hotel in a golf course.

AG  In a sense, you’re in a kind of deep cover as you make these films, embedding yourself and encountering the people who inspire your characters.

HK  For The Beach Bum, definitely. I try to make films that are experiential and have a sensory element to them. The mood is the star. There isn’t really a conventional plot. Mostly I want to make films where you almost forget about the plot and feel like you’ve stepped into this alternate reality—which is like the actual world, but pushed into something hyper-extreme and tactile.

AG  A number of your movies, at least since Mister Lonely (2007), used surreal deviation from plot as a device. With these recent films, you’re working directly out of and against conventional narratives. Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum both begin with an archetypal story, but then they break and become like a dream. Does that come out of a certain motif or interest in surrealism?

HK  I don’t know if it’s really even surrealism, it’s more like a magical realism. It’s its own thing. It’s a kind of liquid narrative, jumping back and forth through time, breaking it down in ways that are beyond the continuity of your standard way of thinking, so that the film can take you into another realm.

AG  In both Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum, music is key to the ambience and the movement of the plot. In each, you’ve engaged a different type of pop music—either from DJs or from the bar circuit—to set the mood.

HK  You know, the films have become more musical, in a way—their rhythm functions almost like a pop song. The Beach Bum is like a Jimmy Buffet song gone bad—a yacht rock ballad. It’s a stoner film, so it moves like weed smoke, and a lot of the songs are tied into that culture.

AG  The music sets the tone for a film in which consequences are suspended.

HK  The logic is humor—it’s a comedy. I consider this a full comedy. It was about laughter and following Moondog was about just watching him get in trouble. I grew up on movies like Weekend at Bernie’s, Caddyshack and Police Academy—those types of films.

AG  Those movies came at the twilight of the Reagan ‘80s: a time when the Hollywood picture of America supercharged—beyond baroque, to a kind of absurd, supposedly benevolent dissolution represented by Bush 1.

HK  I think it was a really cool moment in comedy in the late ‘80s. I like the idea of guys pushing around a dead body, but it’s a comedy! I like all those Chevy Chase movies like Fletch. We had a satellite dish at my parent’s house in the country and they had all these movies on Cinemax.

AG  The Beach Bum is escapist cinema. Yet there are key moments, as when Zac Efron’s character knocks over a man in an electric wheelchair, that violence brings you to the real world and the fantasy of freedom undertaken by the characters reaches its limit. It reminded me of the shocking treatment of violence in Trash Humpers (2009)—it was a real break in the storytelling where the fantasy comes apart a little bit.

HK  It goes into something darker for a moment, and I’m sure people have issues with that, but I felt like it needed to be there. They had to rob that guy, they had to take it to that place.

AG  Were you already living in Florida when you were making this trilogy?

HK  No, but I had a house here for about ten years, just down the street, and I used to come in here alone to write scripts.

AG  What originally brought you here?

HK  I don’t know, the psycho-geography?

AG  You’re renowned for your casting, and your adventurous and ambitious sourcing of characters continues into the new movie, and also in your shoot for this publication. Obviously with Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), which you wrote the screenplay for, you broke new voices in terms of acting and independent cinema, from Chloë Sevigny to Rosario Dawson. With the casting of Selena Gomez and Vanesssa Hudgens, and even your wife Rachel, for Spring Breakers, you’re playing with certain exterior narratives relating to Hollywood and your personal life. The Beach Bum is a stoner movie, and so you’ve obviously deployed stoner icons like Snoop Dogg, Matthew McConaughey and Jimmy Buffet.

HK  I wanted to give my version of a Key West stoner—dudes living on houseboats, just people living for the moment and celebrating a lack of ambition, which I admire. I think there’s something amazing about that life—that someone can just spend their days drinking wine and watching the sunset and pissing into the ocean, fishing or whatever. I always gravitate towards subjects or ideas in culture that I find difficult to articulate. If I can’t really define it, it attracts me. Matthew’s character lives on a houseboat and he’s super rich, but you can’t really tell at first. I’m attracted to people that live outside the defined margins, that invent their own reality. There’s an inherent comedy and a true tragedy that’s also tied into a notion of freedom.

AG  And it brings about different forms of perversity—social, behavioral, ethical.

HK  Yes, everything, anything. It’s always fun to look at that onscreen.

AG  None of your movies are morality tales. They’re more immorality tales, which really comes through in The Beach Bum because the allegory is so complete. I was wondering if the history of early 20th century movies about marijuana was relevant—films life Reefer Madness, which started out as the opposite of this movie, in that it’s a morality tale that becomes an exploitation movie, while this is an exploitation movie that may or may not become a morality tale.

HK  I never really thought of that. But it’s like life: the best characters have that moral ambiguity, and it’s exciting to watch that and get what you get from it. Mostly it was meant to be a celebration of ultimate freedom, this idea of a search for a cosmic America, and so morality for him is a moving target.

AG  My favorite line in the movie is Jonah Hill’s, when he says that the best thing about being rich is that you get to be horrible to people and they have to take it. Class is omnipresent in the movie: Moondog starts with money, and then of course he lives without it, yet when he returns to his wife, he feels the difference. He is a creature of the extreme wealth that dominates Miami.

HK  Yeah, that’s the thing about the location: you have extreme wealth, and then the other side of that, and they’re smashed up against each other. But I see them both as taking from each other. In some way, they’re intertwined. It’s not really a classist place. You don’t necessarily get the sense of old money; it’s more of hustler culture.

AG  How did Jonah Hill’s character come about? He’s a literary agent out of the mercenary vein of Hunter S. Thompson—and he’s also a Hollywood character, too.

HK  That was really Jonah’s take on it. It wasn’t written like that. In the script, he wasn’t a southern dandy hanging out in tranny bars—it was just the way Jonah interpreted him. Once we heard the accent, it was just so hilarious that we really pushed it into that world.

AG  This collaboration with very strong actors who you’re using for their iconic qualities—to what extent did it influence the course of movie? You co-wrote with Matthew McConaughey, for instance.

HK  Well, in every movie you write the script, and the script is really just its own thing, this inanimate object that just exists. It’s ink on a page; there isn’t really life in it. I mean, there’s an approximation of something, of ideas and characters and things. But then what’s fun for me is casting actors who really want to inhabit the role in a way where it goes full tilt. I don’t really call it improvisation; it’s more like riffing in the moment. But then on the day, the locations are so specific—you’re on a houseboat, there’s other people hanging out, drinking wine—and you’re like, “Why doesn’t he say it that way?” Then the guy says something else, and then you just begin to riff like a musical thing. You add all these elements and people start playing, and it takes off.

AG  It also seems, in terms of the characters, like Matthew McConaughey went full method with it.

HK  I think he had known people like that in the Bahamas, and we spent time in the Keys. His character is always stoned to some degree, and it’s almost like a physical-type thing for him: he would be stumbling, falling down, always in some kind of inebriated state. So Matthew had to figure out how to do that for two months, and it was fun to watch.

AG  So it was about physical comedy—a return to slapstick comedy and Buster Keaton.

HK  Yeah, definitely.

AG  In Spring Breakers, you played with the expectations of Selena Gomez’s naïf character. In The Beach Bum, you include a great long cameo by Zac Efron as a kind of hyper-masculine character with all of this bottled-up frustration. His body is super present, as is the notion of control: he’s a narcissistic, sociopathic pyromaniac.

HK  I always thought he was hilarious, and he has this amazing intensity, but he’s also a matinée idol. I just loved the idea of him playing this super Christian, strange, sociopathic raver. I just thought he could do it justice. Also, I was watching him vape, because he is a vaping master—he can shoot a stream of vape smoke a quarter-mile long, he’s like an Olympic vaper—and I thought, “This character has to be doing that.”

AG  Was there anything about the arch of his career, being more of a matinée idol, that you were tapping into?

HK  He was already that, and it was interesting. He has this specific fan base, which is huge and really devoted to him. I thought it would be fun for them to see them play someone like this.

AG  Snoop Dogg’s character is one of the most complex. His name is Lingerie, and he ushers in Moondog’s gender transition.

HK  Originally he was just supposed to be Snoop. But then he called me one night (I think he was stoned) and his one note was that he didn’t want to be Snoop—he wanted to be Lingerie, ’cause he’s smooth and silky.

AG  He’s the most prominent black character, and the only one in the movie worried about getting caught—all the rich white kids don’t care.

HK  Yeah, there’s this one moment where the cops are coming, and I forget exactly what he says, but he’s like, “This is going to be like the old days.” So he was already in that position.

AG  I hesitate to say that the movie kind of maps out Miami—it mostly takes place on the Beach and Star Island—but you mentioned psycho-geography, and that’s probably the best way to put it. What are the locations that inspired you for the movie?

HK  The International Inn. It has this iconic Miami-ness to it, because it’s gorgeous but also run down. And then the Keys, where I wrote the script.

AG  In the movie, Key West is represented as a pretty utopian place. Moondog walks down the street with a wheelbarrow full of marijuana and no recourse.

HK  There’s hints of that in real life, but we definitely pushed the utopian aspect of it. It’s this kind of magical realism that I was talking about, emphasizing or exaggerating the lawlessness of the place. What is cool about it is that it’s the southernmost point of the United States, kind of the psychic run-off. There’s nowhere else to go after that.

AG  You’re always telling me about the huge gay scene in the Keys.

HK  Yeah, for sure. Down the streets, you see guys in G-strings and gay bars everywhere, it’s super out and accepted. Towards the end of the film, Moondog dresses up as a woman as a disguise because he’s on the run from the cops. He looks exactly the same, so it’s a pretty useless disguise, but then he just likes the way the dress feels and rolls with it for the rest of the movie.

AG  It reminds me of the masking element in Mister Lonely, and also in Trash Humpers. There’s this weird, not even really androgynous misgendering that’s happening, which sounds like deliberate confusion of gender binary.

HK  Yeah, exactly. But for him, it’s not even any of that—it’s just very simple, just feels good. There’s no shame.

AG  He inhabits any role that he wants. It’s almost about privilege, in a way.

HK  Maybe—privilege or freedom, depending on how you look at it. He’s a libertine.

AG  You referred to Florida as this place where things happen “at night.” The cinematography in both Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum is from the same person, Benoît Debie, who also works with Gaspar Noé and whose approach to ambience and light is hyper-emphasized. That certainly speaks to your interest in depicting a nocturnal experience, while also pushing this kind of ‘90s aesthetic in how it depicts nightlife here and the entertainment industry.

HK  Yeah. With Benoît, you talk about the visuals, and it’s closer to making paintings in some way. A lot of it has to do with the colors and the grain structure and the movement. I want the films to be super vivid and really push the saturation. It’s about a specific vibration, and I guess that’s why I’m attracted to Florida.

AG  That brings us to your painting, which until recently was a repressed or lesser-known part of your practice, although you have a long-standing relationship with Larry Gagosian. How does visual art exist alongside your work as a filmmaker?

HK  I was always making art, even as a kid. I started showing work from my early twenties at a couple of different galleries, especially Patrick Painter gallery. I met Patrick through Mike Kelley, who was really close to him back then. Then movies started to consume me; I kept working on the art, but more as a private thing. It wasn’t until around ten years ago that I really got into it, and that’s when Larry and I got together.

AG  A few years ago, you made a small group of paintings that reference Miami and the vulgarity of boating.

HK  Everyone here has yachts with names, so I thought it’d be interesting to make watercolor paintings of yachts with names turned to porn titles, specifically porn titles with references to movies, like Boom Raver or Star Whores. I think I made fifteen of these and never really showed them, I called them “Adult Boating,” because only douchebags have boats. I just think it’s funny.

AG  Was that the first group of paintings inspired by Miami?

HK  Yeah, I think so! You’re always seeing boats here. I saw this one named Easy Rider, and it just kind of cracked me up. With my most recent body of work, at first I construct images on the phone using different art apps, and then I remake them with oil on canvas. They all revolve around this cosmic light-form little bastard Twitchy who just jumps around, kind of sexless, opaque. It’s something I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. It’s the easiest thing to draw, but I don’t know what it is—it just gives me comfort.

AG  It’s hysterical you call Twitchy “cosmic light-form.” He appears to me almost like an evil doll, like character or a specter, and he pops up in all these domestic Florida scenes around your house and life. There’s something menacing or esoteric about him, no?

HK  It’s weird you think he’s scary—I thought he was kind of funny. I guess he could be. You know, that also happens with movie sometimes. When I was making Gummo (1997), I thought it was a 50% comedy. But for the audience, those first movies were very severe.

AG  Obviously Kids and your first three movies—Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Mister Lonely—have a tragic quality, but they’re not capital-T Tragedy. I would say they are—I don’t know if you’d use this word—a “punk” kind of tragic form. Kids is a punch in the gut.

HK  And I liked that at the time. It was a reflection of how I was feeling, the anger, and as a kid, I enjoyed the element of provocation. I felt like I was feeling so much, and I wanted to put it out there. I was excited to get a reaction. I wanted to make things that were hard-hitting and inscrutable in some ways. At that point, I was really just starting out and trying to figure out what my idea of narrative was, how I could play around this idea of images falling from the sky.

AG  So those are your cold-blooded movies and these are your warm-blooded movies.

HK  Yes! There you go, Alex. I like that, never thought about it that way. It’s all about the weather. Well, the cold is good for the intellect and the warm is good for the heart.

AG  That’s a cliché that in aggressive forms was once used to defend eugenics.

HK  Yes, but it’s true. Your mind slows down in the tropics.

AG  Oh, no!

HK  No, but it’s a good thing. It stops racing. I don’t even watch many movies anymore—I watch the sunset now!

Harmony Korine (American, b. 1973) is an artist, director and photographer who lives and works in Miami.
Alex Gartenfeld is Artistic Director at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Photography and creative direction by Harmony Korine.
Published by KALEIDOSCOPE, in partnership with Gucci.

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