Harmony Korine on Spring Breakers

Oliver Lunn

Harmony Korine may have missed out on spring break when he was younger due to his obsession with skateboarding, but he more than makes up for it now with his hilarious college-kid crime caper Spring Breakers.

We sat down with the 40-year-old filmmaker to talk rappers, hairstyles, unfinished films and, of course, skateboarding’s influence on the director’s unique approach to filmmaking.

James Franco as Alien in 'Spring Breakers'.

GFW: Hey Harmony.
Harmony Korine: I’m gonna stand up because I’ve been sitting down a lot today. I need to stand up.

What was it about spring break that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
I kinda grew up around spring break culture, y’know, like those kids every year in high school who wanna drive down there and destroy things, burn motels, f*ck each other, do drugs, and then drive home and pretend like nothing ever happened. I thought it was a nice metaphor for the film and these girls and the characters.

I heard that you were too caught up in skateboarding to do the whole spring break thing when you were younger. Is that true?
Yeah. It was like, everyone that I was around was kinda like that anyway so I was trying to get away from that sh*t.

Were you jealous or resentful in a way?
No, I probably didn’t even think about it. I didn’t know if I wanted to drive like, ten hours from Nashville and be stuck in a car full of goons.

So you wanted to be a professional skateboarder back then?
I mean, if I was good enough, yeah, I probably would have. I wasn’t good enough to make a career out of it – I got to a place where I was a pretty good skateboarder and I was around all the pros and stuff, and then I just started getting more into movies.

You’ve also cast skateboarders in your films before, like Mark Gonzales in Gummo. Is there a connection between skateboarding and what you do, creatively?
Completely. I think skateboarding is probably, for me, culturally or whatever, it was probably the most important time in my life. It completely shaped, warped and distorted my worldview. Y’know, it changes the way you look at things – all of a sudden you’re looking at walls differently, stairwells differently, I still do it now. And that kind of perspective carries on into other things.

Mark Gonzalez (aka The Gonz) in Korine's 'Gummo' (1997). 

The first time I saw Gonz was on the cover of Poweredge doing a darkslide – sliding on his griptape down a handrail – and I was like, ‘What the f*ck is that?’ It changed everything – you just think anything is possible, like you could do it upside down or something.

Do you think you approach filmmaking with that sensibility?
Of course! When I look at locations and characters, y’know… at that point too, in the 80s and 90s, it was before it [skateboarding] had become corporatized. Back then you were really hated on. Where I lived especially, you had to fight everyday, people would spit on you – you really took an outsider stance just to exist.

Visually, Spring Breakers seems like a new direction for you (especially compared to the lo-fi aesthetic of Trash Humpers). What led you to use Gaspar Noé’s cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void)?
Well I wanted to make a movie that was inventive, something that was more magic and inexplicable, that felt more like a drug experience, something that was transcendent and based in a kind of energy. Benoît is like a painter – he can visually translate hallucinations in a way that, visually, is kind of exciting.

What directions did you give him?
I’m very specific. I’d say, ‘Let’s light this room as if we’re using skittles for lenses’. So you start to develop a specific vernacular and a language based on colours, tones and grain structures. Also, Gaspar is a good friend of mine and I needed to work with somebody who was really inventive and who could translate these ideas in that way.

James Franco said his character was based on underground rapper Dangeruss. How much did rap culture inspire Spring Breakers?
A lot. The whole film is kind of an impressionistic reinterpretation of that culture. I didn’t want his character to be just a rapper, I wanted him to be like, a gangster-mystic. I wanted him to be a sociopath and a clown who’s just all charisma and violence. He’s kind of a cultural mash-up in a lot of ways. The year prior to shooting I would send him clips of rappers – it was based in something that was very southern, very regional – so I’d send him clips of old Three 6 Mafia songs. Dangeruss was from there [the South] too and he’s a legitimate character, and so I felt Franco needed to be around authenticity and pick up on some of those things.

Did Franco meet Dangeruss, then?
Yeah, because I didn’t even know who Dangeruss was until a couple of weeks before shooting. He was in that area and I was meeting those rappers because I wanted Franco to have a white posse, a kind of white gangster rap posse. 

What was the source of inspiration for Franco’s amazing hairstyle?
It’s based on kids I used to ride the school bus with. White kids with gold teeth that would, y’know, make up elementary, dirty-ass rhymes on the school bus. 

The self-destructive teens aspect of the film harks back to Kids (1995). Did you draw on your own experiences as a teen again for this?
Yeah, sure – definitely the chaos and the violence of that. Like when I was a kid it was pre-cell phones, pre-internet, and very free and kind of unregulated. It was some dangerous sh*t [laughs]. You were just trying to keep yourself entertained.

Kids is still considered a legendary film. You also teamed up with Larry Clark for Ken Park (2002)…
Well, even before Kids was made I wrote Ken Park, so after Kids was done he asked me to write another script based on those characters, and that happened later.

Will you be working with him again?
Probably not. I don’t really see the point.

I mean, it seems like there are some parallels with the self-destructive teen skaters that he’s always focusing on.
Right, right. I think he’s a great artist, but for the most part he does his thing and I do mine.

Another filmmaker you’ve worked with is Werner Herzog (as an actor). Are his films still an influence on your work?
Sure, of course. His movies, when I was growing up, made me wanna make movies. He’s one of my closest friends and someone that really helped me since I was a kid, and so I always support everything he does.

Is there another collaboration in the pipeline?
Nothing right now but I mean, y’know, I was with him just last week and he’s someone I always look forward to doing stuff with.

Korine with legendary director Werner Herzog on the set of Korine's 'Julien Donkey-Boy'.

You have an unfinished film called Fight Harm (directed by street magician David Blaine), in which you got beaten up pretty badly. Will that ever see the light of day?
It’s possible [laughs]. It’s pretty intense and disgusting. And so it’s hard for me to get myself in a mental state where I can go back and view the fights. There’s like nine fights in total and David was there for all of them. I’m always thinking ‘Is the idea of it better than the experience of watching it?’. It’s also like, I have a wife and kid now and I don’t necessarily know if I want my daughter to go back and find that. I’m happy that the film exists and happy to have gone through the experience, but I don’t know if it’s something I can ever deal with again [laughs].

I was wondering how your initial ideas for projects evolve – do you start with one image and work from there?
Yeah, it usually starts with pictures or sometimes a dream or something. Then very quickly I start to imagine a story based on that. For Spring Breakers, the central image was girls in bikinis on a beach wearing masks, robbing fat tourists with guns.


'Spring Breakers' is out now.

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