Harmony Korine on dynamiting the zeitgeist with the druggy Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine on dynamiting the zeitgeist with the druggy Spring Breakers

When word first surfaced that director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely, Trash Humpers) was planning a movie about spring break with a pair of former Disney starlets, it seemed like a conceptual prank, and about as likely to surface as the movie of him picking fistfights with strangers. But Spring Breakers is no joke, or at least not that kind of a joke. Surfacing last fall to slack-jawed acclaim—and a scattering of baffled boos—Korine’s candy-coated Russ Meyer homage breezed past awards heavyweights to become one of the most talked-about, and incessantly quoted, movies on the fall festival circuit. Then it evaporated like a cough-syrup hallucination, until opening in New York last week, where on a handful of screens, it quickly outgrossed all of Korine’s previous films combined. The hoopla generated by casting Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as gun-wielding bank robbers in hot-pink ski masks offers plenty of ammunition to those who see Korine as an opportunistic fraud, but Spring Breakers is very much for real.

The A.V. Club: You must have known, especially when you cast Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, that there was going to be a substantial audience for this movie. What has this been like for you? This has got to be the most attention a movie you’ve been involved with has had since Kids.

Harmony Korine: It’s crazy. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It’s like throwing a stick of dynamite into the zeitgeist or something. It’s strange, the whole experience. It’s nice that people who don’t normally get to see my films might get a chance now. I’m still figuring it out. Usually I make films, and it takes a while; the feedback is cumulative over years. This is the first movie I’ve made where it’s happening in real time, the reaction. It’s cool to watch.

AVC: Did you start with the idea of making a movie about the spring-break scene? 

HK: I’d just been collecting imagery for a while of spring-break stuff, teenagers going crazy in Florida, beach debauchery and whatnot. I never wanted to make a film that was like an essay or documentary or a summation of that world. It’s meant to be something more impressionistic, like a pop poem, a reinterpretation, or a cultural mash-up or something. I wanted to make a film that was more like a drug experience. I just thought of it as a nice backdrop. But I was more interested in what happens when they meet Alien [James Franco’s character] and he takes them into his world—the criminal element off the tourist drag, into the trap houses and the shadows of the beach.

AVC: It’s almost like the structure of a horror movie. These young women come to Florida to “get crazy,” and then they discover what crazy really is.

HK: It was like the idea of spring break represented a dream for these characters. So the actual film really kicks in after the disillusionment of the dream. They leave spring break, and they enter Alien’s world.

AVC: What were your impressions of that culture growing up? It doesn’t seem like something you’d have been interested in.

HK: Actually, growing up in Nashville and being in high school in the early ’90s, it was very common. Every year, this was what kids would do. These trips, the Redneck Riviera, where you would go and destroy everything and come back home and go back to school and see your parents and pretend it didn’t happen. At that time, I didn’t see anything exotic about it. It seemed pretty normal in some ways. It wasn’t until the last couple of years I started thinking about it in a different way. 

AVC: When Spring Breakers had its North American première in Toronto, there were people going insane for a glimpse of Selena Gomez. Did you have someone like her in mind for the role—someone with that kind of pop-cultural profile?

HK: When I was writing the script and I was thinking of who could play that, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have them in the film, because they are representative of a type of contemporary pop mythology?” In some ways, it’s connected to the world of the film. There was another kind of conceptual layer to the story that I could play with, and at the same time, they were perfect for the characters. It really worked out that everything coalesced.

AVC: In real life, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens represent a very different side of Florida: the sunny Orlando of Disney World and The Mickey Mouse Club

HK: That’s funny. I’d never thought about that. I bet there’s criminal activity way closer than even a hundred miles to Disney.  I bet there’s criminal activity within a hundred feet of it.

AVC: For Gomez in particular, this movie is like a Howitzer aimed at her Disney princess image. Did you talk about that with her?

HK: My focus was the film. At least on my part, there wasn’t like some big strategy session or something. You’re making a film. I guess people can think like that for a while, then ultimately, the character and the storyline take over. I never got a sense that it was a stunt for her, or for any of the actors, as much as it was a chance to try and push themselves in a different direction.

AVC: There are always people who see what you do as calculated provocation. For them, this movie seems like an excuse to dress four nubile young women in bikinis and get them to make out with each other.

HK: Look, it’s all good. I’m not telling anyone what to think. I’m not trying to even defend it in that way, or say that this is my intent or that’s my intent, or that’s what I’m trying to say. That’s not for me to argue. I’m trying to make something that’s amazing, something that’s beautiful, something that lasts. Since I was a kid, I stayed to myself, and I was always just paying attention to the light at the end of the tunnel. There can be all those types of interpretations, it’s all part of it. I enjoy it. There is purposefully a large margin that’s left undefined. If it was something I could just articulate or explain or say this or that, I probably wouldn’t do it anyway. But I also wouldn’t make the film like the film is.

AVC: Your films have a loose, sometimes chaotic feel, but Spring Breakers is at least a little more tightly structured.

HK: This one was storyboarded from beginning to end. Storyboarded the entire movie. It doesn’t mean in the end it was exactly as the storyboards were, but this was the first film I storyboarded completely. 

AVC: Did you want that, or was it your cinematographer or someone else?

HK: No, I did it. I needed to see it, because I was trying to figure out how to make a film that worked in these kind of micro scenes and liquid narrative, and these very quick physical flashes. I was trying to imagine it in pictures before I shot it.

AVC: It seems generally like part of the way you make movies is to orchestrate a situation, then just let things roll. But this movie isn’t Trash Humpers

HK: Right. Definitely. I try to play with all the things. I really hope it’s impossible to tell what’s scripted and what’s not scripted. You want to make films that deal with a type of magic, or something beyond a simple articulation. You try to conjure up images that have that kind of aesthetic ambiguity.

AVC: The look of Spring Breakers is striking, with these bright, almost psychedelic colors. It’s the polar opposite of Trash Humpers. What were your conversations like with your cinematographer, production designer, and so on?

HK: It worked out. That was part of the look of the film. The subject is, in some ways, what you would consider culturally based, and something that pretty much thrives on surfaces. It deals with a culture of surfaces. In that way, I wanted to represent that and make a film that looked like it was lit with candies, like we were lighting it with Skittles or we were using Starburst Fruit Chews. I wanted all that kind of pop gloss and tone, and I wanted all the mythology and the meaning to be the residue from the surface, to kind of bleed from it. A lot of it was about all the neon colors, the candy colors. The tone is something kind of physical. I wanted you to be able to feel like you could touch it or lick it.

AVC: What makes Spring Breakers interesting but also risky is that it’s easy to miss the joke. You know people are going to be quoting Alien’s “look at my shit” monologue unironically, in the same way they do Scarface—especially people whose only thoughts are, “Dude, those chicks were hot!”

HK: Yeah, I actually hope that people do. I hope that there’s people who watch the film and only get that. I don’t think there’s only one way to get the film. I tried to make a movie that had several layers and several things going on that were working in tandem. At the same time, I wanted to make a film that was entertaining in a way that you didn’t have to necessary qualify yourself for. It was more trying to make something that was experiential, that you could just somehow enjoy and live with and feel. I didn’t want to make anything that was like an in-joke.

AVC: You ended up with two Britney Spears songs in the movie. How did they make it into the film?

HK: I thought the songs in some ways had a connection to the storyline, and again, it was this kind of pop mythology. Something just felt right. The montage sequence with Britney’s song [“Everytime”] was something I had been wanting to try for a long time. I’d been waiting for the right movie to put it in.

AVC: Especially with smaller films, music licensing particularly can screw people who aren’t careful. How did you go about clearing those?

HK: I think everyone was excited to have it in the film. It wasn’t that difficult.

AVC: So they just found the money somewhere?

HK: Exactly. Made it happen.

AVC: How much of James Franco’s Alien was in the script, and how much came from him? He seems thoroughly immersed in the part. 

HK: I’d been working with him for a year before, sending him imagery, sending him pictures, video clips, music clips, audio clips—things I thought related to the character in some way. Then we would drive around Florida, drive through the neighborhoods late at night, and [I’d] say, “This is where you're from. This is where you grew up.” He would just take it all in and kind of sponge. We wanted the part to be wild, and for Alien’s character to be charismatic and kind of a sociopath, but also sweet and strange, like a gangster mystic. Franco took all that in, and that’s his interpretation. That performance is wild and pretty awesome to watch.

AVC: You shot in the middle of spring break, and added to that the chaos of shooting with pop idols and movie stars. How does a film production function in the middle of that?

HK: It’s hard. It was a really difficult shoot. Those sequences were chaos. It’s impossible to tame chaos. They were nuts. It was probably the hardest shoot I ever had to deal with, for that reason. 

AVC: Were there things that turned out better or differently than you imagined because of the circumstances, where it got away from you and you went with it?

HK: Yeah, it was great. It was hard, but it was the way it should be. We were shooting in all real locations. The movie was kind of frenetic in that way. It was about that. The film became a lot about that type of energy, like we’re always being chased in some way and trying to escape in some way. 

AVC: Is there a moment or a scene that wasn’t in the script that came of out just being in that environment?

HK: Like being there and making things up? Yeah, that whole scene in the parking lot where the girls re-enact the robbery, that was all done—we were shooting something else, and I had this idea. I liked the way the light was in the parking lot, the glow of the donut shop. I kind of pushed the girls out there, gave them a couple lines and ideas, and that’s what happened. It became a pretty pivotal part in the film.

AVC: You must have had to shoot quickly, almost guerrilla-style, before a mob had the chance to gather.

HK: That happened anyway. I kind of just went with that, all the paparazzi, Instagram shit. I’m like, “What are you going to do? There’s nothing I can do.” In some ways, I thought there were two separate movies. There was the public film that was all that stuff, and there was the movie I was making. That’s just the world. 

AVC: When you talk about there being two movies, it sounds quite a bit like Franco’s short film “Interior. Leather Bar.,” which is both a scripted film and a documentary of its own creation. Did you talk to him about Spring Breakers on that kind of conceptual level?

HK: No. I didn’t want it to be. Maybe it has some of that, but ultimately, I wanted it mostly to work purely as a piece of filmmaking, as a pure movie. All the other stuff is secondary. With him, it was pretty much only about his character. That’s all I really wanted him to be thinking about. 

AVC: How did you help Franco find the character of Alien?

HK: We’d just say stuff like, “You’re a cosmic gangster,” or, “You’re a gangster mystic.” I would just throw things at him, or would show him a videotape of girls in a gas-station parking lot getting in a fight at 3 a.m. on the side of the road, and say, “That’s the way I want this scene to feel.” He would kind of smile and be like, “You got it.” That’s how we made it happen.

AVC: Is it hard to find actors who communicate that way? 

HK: Definitely, it is.

AVC: How different is it for you to go from something like Trash Humpers, which is not designed to be widely seen, to this kind of mass attention? Does it make you want to do something smaller and more abrasive next?

HK: No, not at all. I always want as many people as possible to see the films and enjoy the films. I never purposely set limits on them. It’s just that that’s what always happens because that’s the way the films are. But I’m always hoping they’re commercially successful, or that people get to see them. I always want them to play in the shopping malls, but it doesn’t always happen. So it’s cool that it’s happening with this one. 

AVC: It would be amazing to see the reaction of some unsuspecting Selena Gomez fan who stumbles into Spring Breakers without knowing anything about it.

HK: That’s exciting for me. I love that idea. I hope some of their fans will walk in not knowing what to expect and see something, see the movie. That’s the whole idea. I’m sure people will be pissed at that. 

AVC: Do you think “Mission accomplished” if some people come out of the movie angry?

HK: All the reactions are good. I make the movie. I try to make something great. I put everything I have into the film, and I put it out in the world. Hopefully people respond well. In truth, there’s no right or wrong action. It’s all good. It’s all perfect.