A singular filmmaker inspired by the likes of Fassbinder and Cassavetes, and championed by modern masters like Herzog and von Trier, Harmony Korine is one of cinema's most defiantly pure and unpredictable artists, toying with genre, technique, and narrative conventions ever since penning 1995's Kids and helming 1997's Gummo, his near-indescribable directorial debut. Other highlights of Korine's mercurial career include Julien Donkey-Boy, a Dogme 95 effort about schizophrenia, among other things; Mister Lonely, a picturesque fantasy about a commune of celebrity impersonators; Trash Humpers, an ultra-divisive, documentary-like curio; and the script for Ken Park, another hot-button collaboration with Kids director Larry Clark. Evidently galvanized, Korine now returns with the paradoxical party thriller Spring Breakers, a film that, despite its maker's serial interest in untethered youth, is sure to shatter expectations, and, at this point, may just be 2013's best American movie.
Effectively deflowering the public images of Disney and ABC Family princesses Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson, Spring Breakers is a techno-fied riff on the seaside mythos popularized by MTV, telling the tale of a quartet of thrill-seeking coeds (the fourth is played by Korine's wife, Rachel) before morphing, in a dreamlike descent, into a neon-gangster mind-fuck worthy of Tony Montana. It's a watch-and-watch-again work of culture-skewering pop art, made all the more potent by the ostensible stunt casting it deftly transcends.
Korine—who, with a full, unruly beard, torn jeans, and scuffed sneakers, still shows shades of the skateboarding twentysomething who wrote what's perhaps the most controversial film of the '90s—joined me in a private New York hotel room to discuss Spring Breakers, its headline-friendly cast, and a structure he compares to pop music. Before he even takes a seat in the ornately wallpapered room, Korine makes note of the faint “unce-unce” pumping out of the house speakers. “It's like porn music,” Korine says. The scene, as they say, is set.
Spring Breakers is one of few hedonistic crime movies that very successfully balances the glorification and the sharp critique of its subject. What drew you to this subject in the first place?
I don't know—it was more of a feeling, I guess. It was the idea of starting a film as a spring-break movie that was kind of celebratory, and then having it veer off into something that's more of a crime film—something slightly more sinister that exists more in the shadows. I just thought it was an interesting idea.
While the movie retains an individualism and a certain experimental tone, one could say that it's your most accessible title to date. Is that something you thought about while you were making it?
Yeah, I thought about it. Because, obviously, you have these actors who have all these fans and fanaticism and chaos surrounding them, and who bring all this other stuff that I knew would follow the film. But also, I was mostly just drawn to the characters and the storyline, and I guess all that other stuff just happened because of that.
One of the reasons I ask is because I spoke to James Franco last year, and he said that you had advised him to keep a balance between his esoteric and commercial projects, so I was wondering if Spring Breakers represented a bit of that balance for you.
Yeah. I think, at its core, the film is linear and, in some ways, a very simple story. Then all around it is something that's kind of like a tone poem—hyper-poetic, almost like a pop song. I wanted it to be able to speak to both high and low in an interesting way.
In the film's marketing, Franco's transformation seems like one of the biggest draws, and yet, while he certainly nails the role, the performance isn't some novel distraction that leaps out from the piece. It's just another part of the film's fabric. With so many gonzo elements like that, was it tough to maintain the movie's cohesion?
It was about an energy. His character and the film itself are kind of cultural mash-ups, but you want it all to be based in something pure, something that's raw and has a heartbeat. So, yeah, I always just tend to follow my gut with the films and with the characters when I'm shooting. And if it feels legitimate, or feels like an intimate reinterpretation of that, I go for it.
And then there's the casting of the girls, of course, which is sure to launch just as many point-missing controversy articles as it is to draw unsuspecting teen fans to the theater. Clearly you're aiming for some provocation here, but these girls are running this show and, for better or worse, owning everything about themselves, making Spring Breakers, for me, an unlikely feminist film. Do you see it that way?
I won't say. I'd rather hear you say it. For me, I try not to speak too much on that kind of thing, because I'd rather let you interpret it in a way that's very personal or specific. But, I mean, obviously, these girls transcend anything that you've seen other girls do. They transcend anything that the guys in the film do. They almost become spirits—like gangster mystics.
“Gangster mystics”—I love that. And you worked with your wife, Rachel, on this film, just as you worked with former girlfriend Chloë Sevigny on films like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. What are the benefits—or, perhaps, drawbacks—to directing your significant other?
Well the drawback is that you can sometimes drive each other crazy. It's harder for her than it is for me, because I become super obsessive and all I can think about is the movie. That can be very difficult for people who are around me. But at the same time, the benefit is that there's a trust there. And, of course, you want to work with someone that you, you know, love.
The one thing that seems a bit more literal or typical that what we usually see from you is Selena Gomez's Faith and her spiritual plight. Even her name is right on the nose. I'll assume this element, and its execution, are all part of the film's yin-and-yang irony.
Sure. And also, there's no irony to her character. Her character is completely earnest and literal. I wanted to go with a name and a core that were completely honest and straightforward. Because the other girls are much more abstract and wild. Always, from the beginning, the characters were conceived and thought of as one single entity—one being. Faith's character is the first to leave and she's the morality. So once the morality is stripped, you're left with something wild and dangerous, and what happens in the film becomes the result of that. And when Cotty [Rachel Korine] goes, it gets even more wild and dangerous.