Interview: Harmony Korine Talks "Spring Breakers" as a Pop Song, Chief Keef, and How White People Ruin Everything

Harmony Korine, the older enfant terrible, talks about how his latest film "Spring Breakers" and Chief Keef.

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Image via Complex Original
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In 1995, when Larry Clark's Kids hit theaters, there was the sense, I'm told, that teenage screenwriter Harmony Korine had arrived to report from the front lines of aimless and dangerous youth. He then got a million bucks to make his own movie, and that's where people got lost. That million-dollar movie, Gummo, is an uncanny depiction of a weird Middle America that might not exist. It's a surreal series of vignettes. It's spectacle. It's a freak show. It's maybe too real? Or not real enough? Either way, Gummo signaled the emergence of an artist.

Since then, he's continued to makes his own idiosyncratic films. Just days before the release of Spring Breakers, his fifth feature film, Harmony Korine posted up at the Crosby Street Hotel, in Soho, to speak with journalists.

In person, Korine smiles a lot, projects the air of a jovial guy. And clearly he feels at ease talking about his work. Even if the talk only takes you so far.

Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)

One of the things that most interested me in the film is the doubling, the linked images, the rhyming of certain scenes and events. For instance, one of the early couplings I noticed came during the scene where we see the girls in class and their professor is lecturing about the Civil Rights Movement. Then, later, we find them on a bus heading south to Florida, and I couldn't help but link the two. I couldn't help but see this spring break trip as a perverse Freedom Ride.
Some of those connections I'd thought out before filming, but other things I only started to connect in the edit. This movie is a kind of cultural mash-up, and I wanted it to work in a very physical way, in a way that was more like a video game or a piece of electronic music. In other words, something that's just beyond simple articulation. So, a lot of the film becomes about those connections that you're talking about. It becomes about those undefined connections.

It was my feeling that they’re not presented in a way where the audience is asked to draw conclusions about the connections. Spring Breakers feels more about possible ideas generated by smashing things together.
Yeah, it's ideas generated, but it's also about energy. I’m obsessed with the idea of energy and this idea of liquid narrative.

I’m curious about your video game comment. Do you see the film as being interactive?
It's more about the film being immersive, something completely sensory. I wanted things to hit from all directions. I wanted images and sounds to be falling from the sky, this strange and beautiful pummeling. Sometimes, when you watch people play a video game, they seem lost in this wormhole, or in a trance. In some ways, I wanted the film to work like that, to work in a very physical way. And at the same time the characters in the film needed to have something, a deeper pathology and a heartbeat.

The world of the film is a culture of surfaces. There’s a hardcore, graphic, hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent subject matter, but then around it, and within it, there are these childlike, pop culture indicators.

Britney Spears.
Right. So the project was to create these surfaces and these looks, and the kind of pathology and the meaning in the characters is the residue. You know what I mean? We always talked about the film as being coated in candy, or lit with Skittles, or lit with candy. The meaning is the bleed from the candy.

The resin rubbing off?

Is this an idea that's unique to this film, or something you've been interested in with your other films?
There’ll always be a large segment of the audience that can’t deal with my films because I'm attracted to things that are morally and graphically ambiguous. I'm interested in confused things, things that have a type of chaos, things that aren't necessarily one way. And so when I'm shooting a scene or developing a character, or really just thinking about the movie in general, if you can take that thing and describe it and say, "This is what it is, this is what is," like pin it down, I'm not interested. I’d rather write an essay, some kind of cultural critique. This film is meant to be a pop poem, or some type of impressionistic reinterpretation saying, "This is the way I feel about it."

Or just how I feel about a particular character, or this world, or just in general. This movie's a mutated zeitgeist. I'm always hoping my movies work in a way that's inexplicable. Its not about whether you like it or don’t like it, or whether it's fun or this—it's a thing that takes you.

Poem, I’m excited you used that word because I was thinking it during the movie. Because of the film's editing, we often return to moments that we’ve seen before. There's a significant amount of repetition. Did that emerge in editing, or was that something you'd wanted to do from the start?
It’s something I thought about from the very beginning. It’s a style that I've been trying to develop for a while now, this idea of liquid narrative and micro-scenes, a style that's closer to what you get with certain types of electronic music and loop-based music. So I started experimenting with the idea of loops and repetition, like how some of the dialogue repeats. You have choruses and hooks that get lodged in your brain.

EDM is a buzzword right now, but have you been listening to electronic music for some time?
Always. A long time ago, I grew bored with white guys and guitars. That style hit its peak and it can't go anywhere. You can still make music that people love, but there won't be more innovation. I started listening to electronic music a long time ago. But mostly I listen to rap. I think rap is the most interesting.

How do you feel about rap right now?
It’s more exciting then it’s ever been. I always hear the critique that it’s become so dumbed down and stripped of any kind of meaning. But I like this stuff best. I never liked socially conscious rap. I like rap that's physical, that's about a beat and bass and repetition. I feel like rap's still the only genre that’s mutating. Like Chief Keef and Young Chop and Fredo Santana. What they're doing with drill music is great. It's almost like super primitive chanting. When I first heard it, I thought it was such a perfect music, so distilled and fucking bass heavy. It's pure emotion.

Given the conversation around drill, don't you feel it's problematic to use a word like "primitive"?
Primitive meaning stripped down. Primitive in the way that you can take a single sentence and repeat it over and over again for three minutes and have it become something magic and violent. There's no pretense. It's incredible. 

The conversation around Keef's music has been so polarized. And much of it has been about who's allowed to speak. Whether white people liking the music is problematic. Is that a conversation that interests you?
I mean, white people always ruin everything. I don't pay attention to that shit. White people eventually ruin everything.

So what’s the role of James Franco's character, Alien—a white person—in this trap-rap world?
He’s this maniac character that's kind of an amalgamation of different kids I went to school with in Nashville. The kids on the bus who would rap, white kids with black mannerisms. It's a familiar archetype. He's a cultural mash-up. He's a sociopath, and at the same time he has this strange saccharin sweetness.

Is it a character that you find funny?
Of course! I find his character hilarious, and I find him demonic. In a lot of ways, he’s super complex, and in other ways he’s super stripped down. He’s beyond definition, with this charisma and beautiful sleaze.

The white guy adopting black mannerisms, will that person always be the clown?
I think are clownish elements to Alien, but he does have a real swagger, too. But largely speaking, I'm not sure. I don't know.

How much improvisation was there on set?
Well, I don't do improv in the traditional sense. I do something that's in between the script and then the ideas and energy of what's going on in the moment. I used to call it a “mistakist art form.” Sometimes we'll improvise off an idea or a particular line. But the idea is to make it impossible to tell what's improvised and what isn't.

Your films feel uncanny for that reason. You don't know who is really performing, or to what degree someone is performing.
I always try to make films in such a way that it's hard to imagine how they came to be, or where they came from. I use to say, "It's never about making perfect sense it's about perfect nonsense." If you can articulate something, explain something, then why actually do it? I don’t go into a film knowing what I want to say; I’m trying to find it as I go.

Do you usually find it?
I think so. If I don't find it in a particular sequence or scene, then I don't use it. What you finally see is what I feel hit right.

You've found it, but that doesn't necessarily mean you could articulate what you found outside of the experience of watching the film.
Right. When people ask about my movies, "What does this mean? What does that mean?" My response is always, "It means what it is." What does a burning sofa mean? I don’t know. It means what it is. Everything and nothing.

What surprised you about working with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, the two stars associated with Disney?
That they were bold. Once they understood the world of the film, they never took any kind of convincing. Whatever you want to say about Disney, there was a real work ethic in them, a real gung-ho attitude. Like, "Let's do it, fuck it all." The fact that they're in the film, the fact that the film exists, amazes me.

Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)

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