You’re never quite sure what to expect from a guy who at one point spent his career provoking people into harming him for a film project. But then again Harmony hasn’t had the same upbringing as the rest of us.
He was raised on a commune in his early years and then followed his parents along the hippie trail across North Africa.
He received his first big break at the ripe age of 19, meeting fellow director Larry Clark in Washington Square Park in New York, Clark then asked him to pen his breakthrough screenplay for the film Kids.
At one point the legendary director Werner Herzog called Korine “the future of American cinema”. His unstable movies Gummo, Julian Donkey and Spring Breakers, all experimental explorations of the American conscience. A celebration of the daydreamers, fringe dwellers, anti-heroes and at times mentally unfit communities that make up the splintered truth of America.
It’s earned him a legion of loyal fans, actors, agents and fashion designers who queue up just to work with him, his forthcoming film Beach Bum to be released in March 2019 will feature Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dog and Jonah Hill.
It’s his obsession with creativity that keeps Harmony on the move, without it, we get the feeling he’s just bored. He has fun messing with you, and it’s his way of saying, join my mischievous Willy Wonka journey.
And just like that, he proves it. Harmony tells us he’s rummaging around his neighbourhood in Nashville searching for a dead body.
Shortly after he tells us this, he’s abruptly forced to abort the call because a group of dangerous guys carrying guns are walking towards him.
Is it true? Who cares. All we know is that we’ve come for the Harmony Korine show and he’s doesn’t disappoint.
You’re busy editing your forthcoming film Beach Bum right, right? There is a lot of excitement around that project. Why did you want to make this?
I just had this idea about these type of characters. These guys that live on houseboats in the Florida Keys. Dolphin tour guides, and stoned out poets, and this strange stew of people. There’s something funny about it. And I’d never done a full throttle comedy, so I just felt that everything had gotten so dark in movies. Things started feeling oppressive, and so I wanted to make a movie that had more to do with the ‘fuck it all’ philosophy.
Do you wake up every day and think, “what the fuck is happening to my country?”
No, I don’t think about it that much. I wake up in the morning and go fishing, or go to the gun range and eat a corn dog. I don’t think about that. You can feel the weight of things, but I’m not obsessing over it.
I saw you making this word cloud poem in a YouYube video from 2010 at SXSW, and it looked so fun. You put all these words on a whiteboard and just connected them all in a spider web.
Yeah, I used to make poems like that. They were like diagrams, and I used to do them very quickly. I used to make these diagram poetry.
I love that. What’s the impetus behind it? Is that a creative method behind some of your projects?
I don’t know. I mostly do things to entertain myself, so I don’t know. I probably just had this idea. I like diagrams, I like words and would fill in the blanks quickly and create something on the spot. I haven’t done those in a while. I should probably do some more.
"I mostly do things to entertain myself."
On his forthcoming film Beach Bum
Looking back at your other work, we’re looking at such a weird climate in America, do you think many of those films, like Kids, and Gummo could be made today?
What was that? Sorry, I’m by a highway, and someone just threw out a beer bottle by my head.
Yes, I’m walking in this sketchy neighbourhood.
You’re in Nashville you said?
Yeah, I’m in Nashville, near these railroad tracks where my art studio is. They said someone dumped a body back here, and there was a reward or something, so I was taking a look.
Is that the home of where you create?
No, I’m here because a friend of mine’s kid has a Bar Mitzvah.
You have a Jewish background, right?
Yes, I’m Jewish.
It’s interesting because I’m just wondering what Harmony Korine does at a Bar Mitzvah. It’s an interesting image.
Yes, I mostly sit there.
So I was saying, the work that you’ve done, ‘Gummo’, and ‘Kids’ and stuff, it’s such an extraordinary set of circumstances right now, and everyone’s so hypersensitive, do you think you could make those movies today?
No, no, no, I don’t think there would be a way. I think you said everyone is so hypersensitive, hypercritical it’s basically moved in the direction of the corporation now. Which is true, and you get it from both political sides. At some point, all you’re going to be left with is the soul of the corporation.
There’s a lot to say about the upbringing you had; it’s so fascinating. I feel like every interview or profile you’ve done has crafted you into the same person. They always talk about the same things.
Yes, I don’t know why that is.
Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny appearing in Harmony Korine’s breakthrough Kids (1995)
There are so many interesting things from your early days. Like how you were on a hippy trail in North Africa, you grew up in a commune in Tennessee; you went searching for magic fish in South America. Are all these things true?
All of those things you mentioned are true. They’re all things from my past and my childhood, yeah.
The fish in South America sounds wonderful. Can you elaborate?
Yes, there was a small group of cult members. They were basically fishermen. A lot of Bolivians, and Panamanians, and I had heard about them. There was a lot to them, but at their core, they were searching for this fish called the Malinger fish which was a kind of semi-mythical fish. But after spending time with them, I realised Japanese oligarchs were actually funding them. There was a reward for the fish. It wasn’t really a spiritual endeavour. But for me, it was neither. I was just bored and wanted to see what would happen.
How would you describe the ‘you’ in that phase because I know you were looking for adventures.
Yes, that was probably like 15 years ago. I was just up for some fun. I’d met this girl in a bar, and she’d told me about it. It wasn’t a huge part of my life. It was just a couple of months.
Just growing up and going through all those experimental phases, drugs, experimenting with film, looking for unique stories and stuff, would you say you were a very different person back then to who you are now?
I mean, not really. I’ve always been mostly the same. I haven’t grown that much since I was a teenager. You go through phases, you enjoy yourself, try to entertain yourself, and then you look around and move on.
I like that. It’s ephemeral. You don’t hold onto things too much. You experience and then let it go right?
Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. I like to go from one thing to the next and try to create as much as possible on the way.
You seem like, besides the strip clubs, so much tamer then the Harmony Korine you’re portrayed as. It sounds like a relaxing life.
Yes, it’s true. I try to enjoy things more. I moved to South Florida to spend more time in the sun.
Would you say you were quite hard on yourself? Going through those early years?
I don’t know. Maybe I was hard on myself but it was more, I was looking for action. I was out on the street. I was trying to be in it. I was trying to find the action and if it wasn’t there I would try to make it happen. So when I was really young I would put myself out there in a different way than I do now. It was a different thing and I was creating it, and inventing it as I was going.
Mostly I was just trying to figure out the process. I never went to college or anything. Right from high school, I was making movies, so I didn’t really experience a lot of the transitional years. When I was young I felt like I was on fire. I had constant thoughts and ideas, and I wanted to make them then. I didn’t want to wait until I was a grown up.
Did you ever struggle with anxiety or depression?
No, never had it. I was relentless, and I was determined, but the difficult thing was more just figuring out how to pace myself and how to disappear.
One of the statements that’s made in this book that’s coming out in July is, they call you “the dark prince of negative impulses.” I don’t know whether you like that or not.
I’ve never heard that before. That’s funny.
"When I was young I felt like I was on fire."
Is there one scene from your past body of work that you go back to and go, “ah that’s so Harmony, that makes me happy.”
I don’t know. The movies are made up of so many of those moments, but it’s difficult to think. . . Maybe the nuns in Mister Lonely flying in the sky on BMX bikes.
And why do you like that?
For me, it’s a perfect image. It’s so out there and strange. It’s like nothing and everything. Just the image itself is almost its movie.
Are you a competitive person? Do you look at other people’s work and go, “damn that’s good.” Growing up, making your own body of work, trying to outdo people, and get more publicity and attract attention?
No, I mean I’m not thinking in that way, but when I was a teenager, and in my early twenties I was making things and figuring out what my voice was so I was thinking about it more.
I always want to experience something. I rarely do much any more but whenever I do find something that really moves me it’s great because you know it exists and there are people out there still doing it, and there are still things to find and discover.
I saw a couple of clips of you on Letterman, besides the fact that he acted like a dick to you, or I think he did, I’m just interested. Does that ever make you feel, what the hell was I doing?
Yeah, I mean, I have fond memories of it because it was exciting and I felt like we were having fun. I liked it and had a good time. I remember being on those shows and something was exciting about knowing it was live and whatever I said at the moment could be heard.
Would you call that art?
I think everything, it’s all the same thing. It all comes from the same place.
Hey, I’m in this dangerous zone right now, a couple of guys are walking up to me. Let me call you back in 10 minutes.
. . . [20 minutes passes]
Hey, what happened?
Oh, nothing. Just these shady dudes, the guy looked like he had a gun, but it’s a right to carry state so. . . It’s all good.
James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine in Harmony Korine’s 2013 Spring Breakers
Good. I was thinking, is this the last interview that Harmony Korine ever does?
[laughing] No man, I’ll be around for a while. I just saw this guy, he was wearing acid washed Levis and had a glock popping out of his waistband, but it’s an open carry state so…
Do you carry a gun?
Do I? No.
Why is America so against banning guns?
It’s hard to speak for everybody but I think it’s just one of those things that is part of the DNA here. People enjoy them, and it’s widespread. I think it’s just part of what people know.
Would you say that violence is a part of America’s DNA? It shines through in your body of work at times.
I mean, yeah for sure, but it’s also part of Mexico, Brazil, it’s everywhere. But it’s a part of the culture.
You were talking about artwork and things that excite you and that you want to celebrate. What’s the last thing you experienced that you felt giddy and excited about?
Let me think, probably music. I saw this video for these kids recently, and I thought that was pretty epic. I went to a Jimmy Buffet show, that was pretty exciting. I saw a mural the other day in Miami by Purvis Young that was pretty beautiful. What else, I rewatched Uncle Buck.
I love that film. God bless John Candy, right?
Yes, he was so good. He was even good in JFK. Do you remember that? Where he played the gay lawyer.
I don’t remember that. My favourite of his was Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I think you could have cast John Candy in one of your films today, he would fit perfectly.
Yes, I would have loved it. He’s one of those guys who it seems like would have been great to work with.
If you were to make a documentary, what particular topic do you think would intrigue you enough?
That’s a good question. It seems harder to think about because there’s so much content that exists. There are so many cell phones mixed with a content vortex, and this idea of regionalism or isolation, which is where a lot of the best subject matter for documentaries comes from, it’s been mostly exploited.
It doesn’t exist anymore because of this obsession people have with globalisation and extreme socialisation, and everybody knows everything about everybody at every moment.
You have certain people who educationally might be interesting for documentaries, but I don’t really think it’s hard to discover things because there’s no real underground culture anymore.
Yes in the past you have said, “you can’t get lost anymore. You can’t make a road movie, and that makes me sad.” So what are you trying to say?
Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that you have to invent it. You have to imagine something that doesn’t exist or expand upon something that once existed. But I don’t think it’s there anymore. I think people can’t get lost anymore because your phones have GPS. So how are you going to get lost? You’re not going to like, make a wrong turn down a dirt road and end up in a gas station and ask for directions.
"There’s no real underground culture anymore."
It seems like you have.
Yeah but not so much anymore. It pretty much feels like the tourist class has devoured everything. That’s not to say that it’s bad or good, I’m just saying it’s different. It’s transitioning into something new.
You were 19 when you wrote Kids. So how do you classify the generation growing up right now?
You’re asking how this generation feels? I don’t know. Again the lines have been blurred, so I don’t even know. You can’t experience things in the same way. You can’t get lost in the same way. Everyone lives with tracker devices now. Those movies that we made 20 years ago was because the world was different and you could get lost, and it was easier to search for a specific type of oblivion. Now it’s different. I still think for the most part kids are kids and people are people, but technology changes, people’s syntax is different, and it’s a different world.