Harmony Korine in Conversation with Amy Taubin
Harmony Korine, best known for his screenplay Kids in 1995 (written in a matter of weeks when he was twenty-two) and the experimental provocation of Gummo from 1997, and Julian Donkey-Boy in 1999, has made his third feature Mister Lonely over the course of ten years. One afternoon in mid May, Amy Taubin caught up with the filmmaker at French Roast Café in the West Village to talk about the making of the film.
Amy Taubin (Rail): How was the making of Mister Lonely different from your first two features, Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy?
Harmony Korine: I had a very kind of definite idea of the way I wanted to see movies when I made the first two. I wanted to make a collage with images coming from all directions—sight and sound, a kind of tapestry. This idea was very appealing to me, and still is—kind of making sense of chaos and of moments. With Mister Lonely, when I started to think about these characters, in some ways they were less of an assault. I felt like I just needed to go with the images. I wanted to just make beautiful pictures. Visually, the way we photographed it is a little bit different from some of the other films. But in terms of the filming, the way we directed is pretty much the same. We just set up situations and encouraged and allowed things, and I kind of hoped that things would go in a certain direction. So you create an environment where you allow mistakes or a sense of awkwardness, for life to seep in, and then for the actors and the cinematographer to take it in some other direction. So it’s the same, I think.
Rail: Concretely, did you have scripts going into all three of them?
Korine: Yeah, to varying degrees. Gummo was like 50/50, in that there was a script, and 50 percent of what you saw on screen had been written. Then the other 50 percent was maybe completely improvised around an idea or something that was still connected to what was written. Julien was 20 pages long and had almost no dialogue written—it was more like a synopsis of what could happen. “Improvise” is a weird word because people have this idea that it’s like you have these actors and they just start talking and it just works. But it’s never like that. You spend a lot of time figuring out the character with the actor—how they speak, how they move. It’s just basically understanding the characters, who they are. I don’t like to over-rehearse. But once we’ve decided that this is the way they should be, this is who they are, then… there’s no right or wrong. Once they go out as that character in a specific setting and the camera is there, there’s either a good moment or a bad moment, but there’s no real right or wrong; it’s like life, you know, in that way that they just are.
Rail: Is there a difference between working with professional and non-professional actors?
Korine: Yeah, when you’re casting a non-professional, it’s more about bringing out that personality, allowing them to be free, but also not really making a documentary. Even when I’m casting for the person, I’m kind of twisting it a little bit. I’d almost say it’s like science fiction, like the real world but where things are just slightly tweaked. Most of the characters have this sense that the real world isn’t enough, or science isn’t enough. They push it that extra step, not too much but just enough so that you can believe it, really, that they exist the way they exist. And then with real actors it really depends on who they are and how they work.
Rail: So perhaps Mister Lonely is a metaphor for what you’re saying about actors—they find the characters, and then they go out into world as them.
Korine: Sure, show people, performers, yeah.
Rail: Whereas most people who work with actors would want to get under the skin of what they show.
Korine: I’m just interested in show people, a person that can go out and change themselves in front of an audience and then go back to their house and turn it off. There’s just always something that I’ve found beautiful about show people. I guess actors are show people too…
Rail: Any particular show people?
Korine: Show people, like W.C. Fields or Buster Keaton or Al Jolson . There’s a poetry or almost a strange insanity to what they did. When I was a kid, I would see their films, and I almost couldn’t figure out how they existed… it seemed like they hovered above reality. Does that make any sense? Some of those characters were so strange to me and so compelling and so funny. I was really attuned to that sensibility.
Rail: Do you mean in the sense that the Marx Brothers were always the Marx Brothers no matter what situation they were in?
Korine: Yeah, but also it was almost like they were inventing their own reality. When I was a kid, things in my life seemed so linear, and then I watched the Marx Brothers and it just changed my perception of the rules. I realized there doesn’t need to be a beginning or ending, that things could just be funny, or things could just be touching on their own, you could just build whole movies out of moments. Which is always what I loved about films, and life as well. It wasn’t plots—I never wanted to be around people that plotted life out… in my life, at least, I never felt like anything began or officially ended. I just felt like things just happened, existed, it was more like an abstraction. Keaton or the Marx Brothers in some ways expressed that in their films, I think.
Rail: So it’s like Keaton falls into a particular situation and has to figure out on the screen what to make of it?
Korine: Yeah, and also the thing about Keaton… it was almost like everything was a vignette. You were watching the scene on its own, waiting for the laugh, but you were almost never cognizant of the fact that there was a story, that there was some kind of narrative. You know in Steamboat Bill Jr., you have this sense of doom, but it’s like you’re not paying attention to it because you’re watching scenes individually, like slapstick.
Rail: And do you think that the kind of thing that you’re describing is possible outside of comedy?
Korine: Maybe. When I started making those first films, narrative for me was like when you’re looking at a book of your parents’ photos, and you would have this randomness, like there’s a picture of you standing next to your grandmother in Greece next to a picture of you being bathed by your mother when you’re three years old next to a picture of your father drinking a beer. On their own, they’re almost meaningless, or maybe just these moments, but in some weird way at the end of this photo book, there’s a narrative, there’s this inherent drama in the story of this family. But it’s also that if you peeled off the picture and took it on its own, maybe it would be its own moment… I’ve always wanted to make movies where you could just blindfold yourself and pull out a scene on its own and get something from it. I didn’t care about the middle parts, I just wanted the above and below. Movies that consisted entirely of moments and characters. So yeah, I guess it is possible that it doesn’t always have to be comedy.
Rail: What’s your life like now?
Korine: It’s surprisingly good. I get almost nervous when things seem so comfortable for me, which isn’t that often [laughs]. I got married, I found a really great girl, and after all that craziness, I left New York, which is good, moved to Tennessee, got a house and a yard.
Rail: And do you have animals?
Korine: Just got a little dog [laughs]. It’s one of those designer dogs, like a stuffed animal or something, it’s the first animal we’ve ever had. [Laughs].
Rail: Are you going to have kids?
Korine: Yeah. I think it’d be nice—I don’t want to have kids and be an old man. You know those families where it’s like the dad is like a grandfather?
Rail: Like Jonas [Mekas]?
Korine: Yeah that’s true. When I first saw Jonas I couldn’t believe it.
Rail: But Jonas defies age.
Korine: Yeah, he’s an enigma, he really is. So, yeah, I’d like to give it a try.
Rail: And you spent time in Nashville when you were young. So is it like going home?
Korine: Yeah, actually I live one street away from where I was when I was going to school there. It feels good, I have some friends there… I like to drive around the streets and just listen to the radio, and I just see characters all the time. The South changed since I grew up there as a kid, but there’s still a few streets that are really special, and great characters. Like the other day I saw this woman with curlers in her hair and boxing gloves, and she was punching herself in the face, she was walking, a black lady, and it was spectacular, the kind of thing I live for. And the other day I saw this black guy dressed up as a dollar bill, just walking down the street, it was like a stuffed animal but a full dollar bill. So that’s the kind of thing I do. I’ll see a character or a person like that and I’ll just imagine what their house looks like, and maybe they have kids, and I just start to embed a backstory. It’s good, that’s how I make movies.
Rail: Have you ever thought about why you’re so interested in American eccentricity, or American Gothic?
Korine: I actually don’t spend too much time on introspection. I just kind of go with it, but I got into this discussion with a friend of my dad—when I was growing up my dad made documentaries, he had a series on PBS in the late ’70s, called Southbound, and it was about moonshiners, kids who ride bulls, people who make music with their mouths, I guess you could call them eccentrics. One of them, “Raw Mash”, is about a moonshiner who lived in the mountains and in the summers worked at these carnivals, so I spent summers at the carnivals in Florida and traveling around. In some ways I was happiest there that I’ve ever been in my entire life. I would go around and I’d tell people “I’m with the show,” and I’d go on all the rides for free, I would hang out with the lobster boys, the fire breathers, the tap dancers. There was an energy at the carnivals, this strange chaos, that I was so drawn to, there was a mystery to those people. How they would do special things under the tent, how they would unpack and then pack up each day and travel with each other. And there was a lot of dysfunction and strangeness, alcoholics, and generations of carnies and stuff, but it was fun for me, it was a world that was different from my reality. So in some way I feel like I’m always trying to get that back. Even when we’re shooting, I’m trying to create a similar kind of sense where special things are always happening.
Rail: Where did you go to school?
Korine: For elementary school, my parents sent me to a private school, and it was awful. Everyone was white and Christian and there was one black girl and her last name was White, which I always thought was amazing. I didn’t feel like a freak there; it was more that I was bored. I would make things up and I would get into a lot of trouble because I was constantly trying to entertain myself. Then in 7th grade, I got into this really good private school, but I was thrown out the first day for jerking off a hot dog. I jumped up on this table and started wanking this hot dog— I don’t know what happened, I just got inspired. So I got sent to public school. I was 12 years old. I walked through the doors; it was all black and Puerto Rican kids. It was a different world and it was one of the greatest days of my life. In some ways, that’s when my life began. That’s when I felt that life was in color.
Rail: And it really was.
Korine: And it was. And immediately, I made new friends. At that point in Nashville, there were a lot of strange kids. It was like life was changing. The greatest thing ever was getting kicked out of private school.
Rail: And so when did you get to be a movie freak?
Korine: My dad just loves movies, not in any kind of a snob way, and my mom too. When I was little, if a good movie came to town, foreign or whatever it was, they were excited to take us. And I also would watch my dad and his partner edit –sitting together in little rooms and not agreeing on what they were doing. You just pick up on it. I was thirteen or fourteen when I actually got the thought that it might be something I’d like to do. Before I wanted to be tap dancer.
Rail: I remember when I first talked to you when Kids was about to come out, you mentioned your parents getting movies for you to watch on a vcr at night because you couldn’t sleep.
Korine: Yeah, and a satellite dish. We lived out in the country so they were one of the first to have one. Then when vcrs started getting popular, he would get movies from his film friends. I was a nervous or an anxious kid so that was a big thing—staying up watching movies.
Rail: The other night you said something about how people were going to make movies in the near future. You first saw movies on the big screen and very quickly you moved to movies on tv and then on an editing table. So you are logically a person to entertain all those possibilities.
Korine: Well, always the big screen is the ultimate. There’s no substitute. But I’ve also had great experiences watching them on television, even though there’s something underwhelming about tv. But I feel a lot of people are scared right now. They don’t really know which direction it’s all going in—movies, digital, and computers. I think it’s exciting, it’s nothing to be scared about. In the end, whatever form it takes, it’s still about stories, it’s about characters, it’s about feeling something, being moved.
Rail: Do you watch a lot of stuff on YouTube?
Korine: I definitely do. There are certain clips on YouTube that I think are better than 99% of the movies out there, or at least that make me laugh or that I find oddly poignant. You obviously don’t watch them the same way you’d watch a film, but in a lot of ways, if you look at Gummo, there’s a kind of similar sensibility.
Rail: You could take a lot of Gummo and make YouTube clips of it.
Korine: Because that’s how we were making it at the time. The idea was to give cameras to as many people as I could. Give a super-8 camera to my sister; give a Polaroid to my best friend, and just tell them this is what I want, this is what I’m aiming for—just go out there and shoot it, bring it back to me and I’ll make sense of these moments. That was what it was about. It was like a tornado—images falling out of the sky. I didn’t care where they came from, or how long they were, or who was in them, as long as I felt like they made sense within this collage of filmmaking. We shot most of Mister Lonely on super-35, but I would shoot on a camera phone, if I had a story or subject that would make sense to shoot that way. It’s all just technology, it’s all just machines, what’s interesting is the people, the characters, the images.
Rail: Gus Van Sant says he keeps wanting to go back to making movies with just two or three other people, that he can’t bear having big crews around him when he works. Did you feel that the scale of the production of Mister Lonely was encumbering?
Korine: For sure. Directing, when I was making it up with my camera and the actors were there, was terrific. But everything else was horrible. That was one of the reasons why I stopped making movies. It was hard for me to reconcile all the shit that you have to put up with. I felt like I couldn’t figure it out. I was always trying to get to some moment, to reach something that resembles spontaneity in cinema. And it was such a challenge, because everything you had to deal with—and I’m not talking about the money—the logistic, the egos, the bureaucracies, the whole thing was taking all the fun away. I wanted to go out there and just invent it as I went. I wanted to have fun. I never understood directors who work with storyboards and who stick to the scripts. It’s like the suburbs, all your houses look the same, and I’m sure they’re comfortable, but I don’t wanna fucking live with you. I don’t want to live in such neighborhoods. I wanted to throw some grenades in there and make things exciting. Mister Lonely was difficult to put together logistically—four countries, lots of actors and stuff. But I remember having a discussion with Herzog once and he said “Who said filmmaking should be easy? Maybe it should be hard, maybe that’s part of it.” Now I’m starting to understand that a little more, or maybe come to terms with it. But still, if you ask me how I’d like to make a movie, I’d always like to make a movie with as few people and as little involvement with the outside world as humanly possible. I’ve always been jealous of musicians that just could pick up an instrument and start to play. I want to be able to play with a camera like that. Julien was like that in some ways. I wanted to be able to rift on cameras in the same way a good musician could experiment with their instrument. Instead of detuning a guitar or piano I wanted to detune the camera.
Rail: So, did you ever think that in Nashville, you could just get together or a group of people would be there all the time ?
Korine:Yeah, that’s the idea now. We started a production company, just a couple months ago. We started to buy our own equipment, to get to a point where things aren’t so precious, where making movies is about just… or it’s not even just movies. I just like to make things—essays, images… and to get to a point where if I have an idea we can act on it. Also, I want to feel free to fail as well. There’s so much attention on having big openings for your movies, on making money and getting great reviews and this and that. So nobody tries anything any more. By the time most directors get to make a movie they’re so scared that they want to make it really appealing. I don’t care. I would rather try something and fail rather than not try.
Rail: So how did you start working with agnès b., who is one of the most amazing people in the world?
Korine: When I first lived on Prince Street, when I first met you, remember, her store was there. I would walk by her store and see all the posters in the window—the best poster collection ever! And I would go in and try to steal, well, I would ask for the posters and they would shoo me out. And every once in a while I’d try to go in and rip one off the wall. Then I actually met her at the Venice Film Festival at the Julien Donkey-Boy premiere. She just liked the movie and she’d flown in. I talked to her, and she was, like you said, just amazing. She’s incredible. I can’t even put into words how great I think she is. I mean she’s a great designer and she’s been around. She’s a self-made woman, she’s a poet, she has an empire, and she’s never sold out. But there’s also just more her as a person, there’s something very special about her. She does all that stuff but at the same time she remains really beautiful. You know what I mean? She has a heart in herself. Also, she loves movies as much as anyone I know. Immediately we started talking about how it would be great to make things—make films, make books, make videos. And that’s how it happened. But around that period, I was very fucked up. She helped me during that period when I was flat on my back and nobody else would, when I was just totally drained, when I was living like a tramp. When I was pretty much debased.
Rail: You were a fucking drug addict!
Korine: Yes, I was a drug addict, but also, I was pretty much like there was nothing left. I felt I was completely disconnected from everything. Maybe the drugs were, in some ways, a way for me to slow things down. Living here in New York at that time I wasn’t equipped, I wasn’t ready. All I ever wanted to do was make movies but somehow my reality changed. And I looked around and I thought everyone around me were phonies, I thought everyone was trying to pick my pocket. And I thought, man, there must be something wrong with me. It just seemed like things were too fast for me. The day just kept going and I couldn’t figure out where the time was. So I just wanted to slow time down and get a little peace in my life. But boy did I do it the wrong way. [Laughs]
Rail: Well, you nearly burnt a lot of bridges.
Korine: Some I’m sure, I know. I burnt houses too.
Rail: I heard all about that. And I always thought it was a metaphor for burning bridges.
Korine: Could be.
Rail: So is this like a collaboration you have with agnès or does she function like a producer?
Korine: She’s pretty hands off. She kind of gets things going and she steps back. She shows up on the set a couple of times, and she’s always checking in, to see how things are going. You know, I think she wants to make a movie herself.
Rail: She’s told me about that. She says she’s going to shoot it next spring.
Korine: Well, can you imagine trying to make a movie on top of everything she does …
Rail: How will she ever have time to focus on it? When you look at any of your movies now, do you feel like you made them? Or do you feel like they’re separate from you?
Korine: I don’t look at them. It’s not like I have an aversion to my own films, but at a certain point the last thing I want to do is watch my own movies. I just like to put things out there and then walk away. I don’t have my own posters in my house. I don’t even own my own dvds or books that I’ve written. I don’t have anything. You would walk in my house and you wouldn’t see anything that reminds you of me except pictures of myself and my family. I never understood going to director friends’ offices and it’s just covered with their works. It’s like living in your own asshole. I feel like you can get really caught up in some kind of history, or living in the past. I know I put myself into those movies, my ideas, and they exist almost like your children, a child would exist. But there’s something nice about putting them out there, leaving them to their own devices, and just going out there and making up something else new. I’ve been talking about this movie for 10 months, so I’m so happy it opens today so I can fucking go on with my life and make something new.
Rail: Because the idea of celebrity is such a cultural big deal—that we’re a celebrity mad culture, that our obsession with celebrity is what’s wrong with the culture—there are certain expectations people might have about Mister Lonely. But you don’t go near any of that stuff. Did you ever feel like you needed to engage all those issues about what is celebrity, or why you, yourself, became a celebrity so fast?
Korine: It was never even a thought on a conscious level. When I’m making movies it’s never about making sense, it’s about making perfect nonsense. With this film, you can say, maybe, that those characters or the celebrities or pop icons are metaphors for something greater, that it’s an allegory. But really, it was just the characters that I loved. It was the idea of Sammy Davis Jr. in the morning waking up and tending the sheep, or James Dean and the Pope washing dishes. Or Buckwheat… In all my films, what I really loved are these characters that are obsessive, that are inventing their own realities, inventing their own languages, making it up as they go. They’re dreamers. It’s the same thing with the nuns in the film—the real world is not enough. They have to make it a little more exceptional. And if you believe strongly enough that it’s possible, it’s possible. And I guess at the same time there is a kind of inherent trauma in these obsessive characters. They can get so far removed and isolated that they forget that the world is waiting.
Rail: There is a moment of enormous pathos in the movie when they realize that there’s no one in this world that they can perform for because there’s nothing but performance in the world they’ve created. And that, as far as I’m concerned, says a great deal about celebrity culture. So what kinds of ideas are kicking around in your head now?
Korine: I might do something smaller, something that I can do a little bit quicker, where I could move around, probably just shoot something in Nashville. Something, you know, with probably not such big actors. It’s like a feeling. You know, you did this, now I’d like to do something that’s the opposite of this. Then maybe after that I’d like to do something again that might get a few people angry.
Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight and Sound magazines.