Q&A: Harmony Korine On Skrillex, Gucci Mane, Spring Breakers, And Why Florida Is Like A Whole Other Country
It would be hard to miss the media blitz surrounding the release of Spring Breakers — the latest film from director Harmony Korine — which opened last weekend. As a fan of Korine’s earlier work, I have to admit I was a little scared by the Spring Breakers trailer. So much neon, so many guns, so many bad Club MTV Spring Break memories suddenly brought vividly back to life. Luckily, the film is much more interesting — and much, much weirder — than a simple crime caper and way more thematically tangled than a cinematic indictment of youth-gone-wild teen culture (though it’s a little of both). The film is, at least by Korine’s reasonably outré standards, a fairly straightforward narrative tucked inside what plays out like the loudest, most sun-baked Skrillex video/art-film ever made. In addition to showcasing James Franco at his most RiFF-RAFFiest and Gucci Mane at his gucciest, the movie is also an interesting treatise on female empowerment and a gorgeously filmed statement on the wonderful and often gross nature of being young, insane, and almost violently desperate to have fun. It’s also the kind of movie that, for whatever reason (perhaps because it’s such a sensory overload as you watch it), I found myself liking more and more in hindsight. It may not be brimming with the same abject weirdness so abundant in Korine’s earlier films (like Gummo or Trash Humpers), but it’s arguably the most strangely beautiful — and oddly affecting — movie he’s ever made. I had the chance to sit down with Korine last week and talk about it.
STEREOGUM: Spring Breakers opens wide this weekend and I know you just came from a screening at SXSW. Are you surprised by people’s reactions to the film?
KORINE: I mean, I’m never surprised. I’ve been making movies for so long, and the films always get such extreme reactions. I mean the thing that’s different with this movie is it’s like the other films except 10,000 times louder. But so far for the most part everything’s great.
STEREOGUM: I have to say, when I saw the trailer I was really afraid that I was going to hate it. I was like, “Oh man, I’m exhausted by this movie and I haven’t even seen it yet.”
KORINE: Ha! I think a lot of people had that initial reaction.
STEREOGUM: Ultimately, I was really surprised by it.
KORINE: Yeah, because in some ways the movie was modeled on a type of — stylistically or narratively — something closer to a kind of musical experience. Something that was more in the air, something that was more of a kind of physical experience as opposed to something based in pure cinema.
STEREOGUM: Even within the first few minutes of the first movie, it plays like it could be a really effective indictment of this particular aspect of youth culture — just bouncing tits and teenagers with booze spewing out of their faces — but as the movie goes on, it’s becomes a weird kind of celebration, not so much “spring break” culture, but of youth itself … which is beautiful.
KORINE: Right, definitely. That is something that I think will be for some people off-putting and difficult. But it’s too easy to condemn, or too easy to celebrate purely and only that. It’s too easy, and it’s not interesting, and it’s not life. So you want things to be both in some way, there are parts of that culture and that world that are worth celebrating that are beautiful and performative and insane and chaotic and wild and there are also things within the movie that are the complete opposite.
STEREOGUM: I think the movie does a really great job of striking a balance between the two. Was it hard to maintain that? I mean it could so easily have slipped into only being one way or the other. It could have easily become this ironic parody, but you don’t really play it that way.
KORINE: Yeah, I mean … it was never meant to be a documentary or an essay. It was meant to be kind of a pop poem, or an impressionistic reinterpretation. It was more of this idea of something that was more experiential, like a ride or a video game that was more manic and physical. So once we got into the edit room — as I started to develop it — the move had this really liquid narrative and this energy. This film that was closer to a sort of drug trip, more hallucinatory, with a kind of peak, a transcendence, you just disappear for a little while … and then you’re back. So once I started to figure that out, it kind of led itself. But I was never interested in being ironic or making these characters seem like a joke.
STEREOGUM: The film has such a potent soundtrack and the music itself is almost like another character in the movie — it’s so integral to the energy and the aesthetic. How did the music component come together? Was it a kind of guiding force when you were writing the script?
KORINE: Well I always thought of it, again, as something that had this physical component to it, and the movie – I wanted it to be extremely shapeshifting and bombastic and trancelike. Cliff Martinez — who also did music for Drive — is very much about a certain kind of energy that really fit with the film. There’s all these pop elements and these other elements that are almost non-musical — almost nearer to something like sound design.
STEREOGUM: How did Skrillex get involved?
KORINE: I just asked him. It took us a while because he’s so busy. He’s constantly moving, touring, making music on his laptop in some hotel bathroom at three o’clock in the morning and he’s really manic. He’s just attacking the world. So it took awhile to get through to him, and I think I was prepping the movie in Florida in a motel room and he just called me up and we talked about it, and he was up for it. That was it.
STEREOGUM: One of the big issues involved in doing music supervision for films is not only getting music that you can actually afford, but it also often involves letting the artists know what the context will be. Was that an issue for any of the music you used in the movie?
KORINE: I don’t know, that sounds like something for Randall Poster, the music supervisor. I don’t know. I actually try not to pay attention to that kind of stuff, I put in my requests and they just tell me yes or no and if they say no I just push and say, “We gotta get it somehow.” Then they say no again and I keep pushing until it’s either impossible to get, or we get it.
STEREOGUM: Not to give anything away in the movie, but the movie makes excellent use of several Britney Spears songs, particularly “Everytime,” which serves as the backdrop for one of the movie’s most amazing sequences. Was it hard to get that music? And was it hard to explain to everyone the way it would be used?
KORINE: Yeah, but I was happy that everyone understood what I was trying to do and they were willing to see it re-contextualized in that way, also excited by it.
STEREOGUM: It’s really amazing. I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t seen it yet, but that’s probably my favorite part of the film.
KORINE: Yeah! I had been wanting to do that scene for years and years and years I had been thinking about it ever since I heard that song. I thought there was something really beautiful and poppy and morose and strange about the song and also something kind of sinister … it had a kind of aggression that in a lot of ways mirrored the film with this pop gloss, but with this mythology underneath.
STEREOGUM: Franco’s performance in the movie is really fascinating. Again, it could have easily veered into this very cartoony caricature, but he keeps it very sincere. Was it hard to develop that character with him or did he get it right away?
KORINE: No, we spent a year on it. It was a lot of work. It was me sitting down over the course of a year and pulling together photographs, video clips, and audio clips, people talking, things that were just regional or felt tonally connected, spiritually connected with the character. ‘Cause I didn’t want the character to be one way, I wanted him to have all these cultural mash-up elements filtered through this sociopathic white mystic gangster. And Franco just kind of sponged it all up over the course of the year, and what you see in that Alien character is his interpretation of all that.
STEREOGUM: How was it working with Gucci?
KORINE: Gucci’s the best. I love that guy.
STEREOGUM: Had he ever done anything like this before?
KORINE: He’d maybe acted in some of his videos before. A little bit in some of the videos, but no, I don’t think he’d ever done film before.
STEREOGUM: I saw the movie in a really packed screening and whenever he popped up on the screen some people applauded … and then when his sex scene happens people …
KORINE: … Gasped?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, they gasped. Was it hard to get him to do that? Obviously he must have been pretty game to do anything.
KORINE: Yeah, he was actually. In the sex scene he actually fell asleep while that girl was fucking him. So it was … it was basically just another day in the life of Gucci.
STEREOGUM: That’s amazing. There are so many shots in the film involving hundreds of kids just going apeshit — plus lots of really over-the-top party sequences. It must have been tough to wrangle that many kids and then maintain that level of intensity while filming.
KORINE: Yeah … it was chaos. It took months of trying to get it, we were taking over abandoned hotels and I just wanted the camera to run through the rooms and just have people go on and on. So there were kids there just destroying the place, it was chaos. It was difficult. Chaos is really hard to create … and then even harder to manage.
STEREOGUM: Was there anything from your own youth that you related to as far as this kind of teen culture is concerned?
KORINE: Sure. I mean, definitely. I related to it because it was very common growing up, it was very … it was an experience that was all around at the time — wild partying. At the same time, I was a teenager who was skateboarding and mostly doing my own thing and trying to get far away from that scene. So it wasn’t until the last couple years that I started to think about it in this light.
STEREOGUM: So what was it that drew you to it as a subject matter?
KORINE: Well, I liked spring break. I like it as a backdrop for the beginning of the film. I liked that it was kind of over the top … and that people would see it as a completely base and vile rite of passage for young people. But while I was collecting imagery and photographs of that time, there was all this hyper-violent and hyper-sexualized imagery with all these innocent, childlike details … like in the nail polish, in the book bags, the bikinis, in the beer bongs, on the Mountain Dew bottles. I started to like that there was this kind of coded inner vernacular. I kind of thought of spring break as a metaphor for what happens in the rest of the film. What I most wanted to explore was Alien’s world — the trap houses, that kind of beach noir, the violence, the dilapidated rotting yachts in the backyards of these houses in Florida.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that is such a weird scene. And one you don’t see explored that often.
KORINE: Yeah, ’cause people are lured there by the sun and the fun … and then they get there and all they are left with are strip malls and oxycontin. Florida is like a country unto itself. Florida and Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, I’ve always felt like they are basically their own separate countries.
STEREOGUM: There’s a moment in the film when the girls have run into some trouble and James Franco’s character inexplicably bails them out of jail and takes them home with him. As I was watching it I was thinking, “Oh if this turns into a movie about these girls being victimized by him this is going to be really hard to watch.” I was so nervous that that was the direction it was going. But in the end it’s so … it’s so not that. It becomes this odd empowerment narrative, which I thought was one of the most interesting things about it. And so unexpected.
KORINE: Yeah, definitely. You’re not used to seeing girls doing things that these girls are doing. They are kind of these complete and utter poets of mischief. Delinquency artists. They’re almost like shape-shifters, and they go beyond anything that any of the guys do and become something almost inhuman.
STEREOGUM: After the screening I attended I overheard a couple of guys trying to dissect the race issues in the film. It was something along the lines of “Oh typical, these white chicks shoot the place up and nothing happens to them.”
KORINE: I don’t know if it’s a racial division, but that is part of that landscape in the film and I’m not going to shy away from it, because it’s politically … or I guess you could say morally abstract. I wanna go there. It’s good to talk about that stuff.
STEREOGUM: So compared to a lot of big release Hollywood movies, Spring Breakers is a very non-traditional movie, but in terms of your previous work it’s a very traditional movie.
KORINE: Hah, yeah isn’t that funny?
STEREOGUM: Were you drawn to trying to deliver a more straightforward narrative?
KORINE: Yeah, well I don’t know, I mean I had this idea…it really wasn’t a career thing, or a strategy, it was more just that I had this story. I was just playing around with these characters and have a story that’s linear at it’s core, but have these things around it that are sort of hyper-poetic and there exists a more liquid narrative, these sort of micro-scenes, these flashing, hallucinatory moments that are kind of pop poetry. So it was really just something that I had wanted to do for a while, and it fit the story and it just so happens that all the different things, the actors and other elements come from a place that’s more commercial than I usually am.
STEREOGUM: Well one thing that could possibly be the coolest outcome of this movie is that people who go in expecting it to be a comedy or some kind of super violent crime movie are going to be very surprised. If a lot of people see it thinking they’re going to simply get blood and boobs then they get this “pop poem” instead … I think that’s really cool and and actually quite rare.
KORINE: Yeah I think that too. For me that’s the real bonus.
STEREOGUM: There are also still very few films that deal with teen culture and people in their 20’s in a way that’s not somehow inherently judgmental.
KORINE: Sure, well that’s the thing. People get pissed at the film and stuff, and it’s like why does everybody need it to deliver a message about really obvious things … don’t you know that killing is bad? Why do you need me to tell you what to think all the time? Why can’t you just dream on it? Why are people so scared of going to places where they’re forced to reconcile what they know or come up with their own feelings or forge their own connections? People get pissed when it’s not all one way, when someone’s not all bad or all good. But that is not interesting to me. It’s too easy to judge people and condemn people.
STEREOGUM: The ambiguity is interesting. As a culture, I think we are geared toward the absolute opposite now. I also liked the way the film explores female friendships — or, really, just friendships — in a really honest way. I thought the scenes of the girls just hanging out together were some of the most beautiful parts of the movie. Was that something that sort of happened naturally with the actors or something you had to really work hard to cultivate?
KORINE: Luckily a lot of it really happened naturally. I knew in doing the auditioning process with them that some of them had been friends and known each other before, so that was good. I put them together and we had them spend a lot of time together in Florida before we filmed. I always thought of them as four parts of a single entity. You know what I mean? In the film, they are four components to a single personality and so they spent a lot of time together.
STEREOGUM: And so in addition to your own films, you’ve also made a lot of interesting music videos for people. Did the experience of doing that help influence or inform the way you use music in this movie?
KORINE: Yeah, I don’t know how, but I’m sure it did … if only in just the way that anything you make creatively influences or affects everything else you make later on. So in some ways, those things are all a part of this film. I don’t know how, but I’m sure they are.
Spring Breakers is in theaters now. Did you see it? Did you like it? Hate it? Comments, please.