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Interview: Harmony Korine on Manglehorn, Al Pacino, and More

Interview: Harmony Korine on Manglehorn, Al Pacino, and More

 

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One of the strangest things about David Gordon Green’s thoroughly strange Manglehorn is the appearance, in a key supporting role, of none other than Harmony Korine, the independent filmmaker and infant terrible not exactly known for his acting chops. Nonetheless, Korine shouts and rambles his way through a handful of hilarious scenes with straight-man Al Pacino, who’s apparently a fan of his work. In typical Korine fashion, his visit to the world premiere of Manglehorn at the Toronto International Film Festival this week seemed up in the air until literally the moment he stepped on to a flight, an indecision he describes as the fault of a missing passport (he found it in the end). I sat down with Korine at the last-minute interview session ostensibly to talk about his role in the film, but the conversation quickly digressed. Here we discuss Korine’s commitment to 35mm film, the insufferability of record collectors, and the scourge of compromise.

I literally just came out of the movie five seconds ago. It was interesting, and super weird. It was really hard to get a sense of the tone of the movie, but David’s movies are always like that. Are you a fan of his from way back?

Yeah, I guess we both started making films around the same time. I think I made movies a couple of years before him. I was aware of him right around the time of George Washington and heard that, like, there was this American kid who was making strange movies. So yeah. He’s awesome.

That character is totally at odds with the rest of the movie in a lot of ways. Is your performance partly improvised?

Yeah. There were monologues written and a lot of dialogue, but I didn’t really want to try and remember all of it. It was just too many words. So I just talked to David about it and, yeah. But I knew a lot of characters like this growing up, guys that ran whorehouses. And there was this guy that ran it that I was close friends with.

Was he familiar with your work?

Yeah, he seemed to be into it.

I like to imagine Pacino watching Trash Humpers or something.

I don’t think he watched that one. [laughs]

That’s my favorite of your films.

Oh, thank you. But you can always tell a deranged mind by the ones that pull out Trash Humpers as their favorite.

I was talking to someone the other day about Trash Humpers, and about how it’s weird that many people don’t shoot on old video now. I find that a lot of digital looks a little antiseptic.

I do see people using more analogue effects or video stuff, but it’s more for, like, skateboard or music videos and stuff, less, like features. I do see it more in pop-culture ads and promos, but it became more of like a stylistic tic. But, yeah, definitely. They’re like instruments, you know? They all have a specific color, and a grain structure, and a feeling.

It reminds me of how it’s become a thing for musicians to put out cassettes, as a response to mp3s. I feel like Trash Humpers is like the film version of that.

I honestly think there’s something retarded about that though. When I hear about people buying vinyl, or, like, cassette tapes, I feel that a lot of that is retarded, too, because it just plays into some kind of nostalgia. Or it’s like part of some kind of nostalgia fetish. It’s tricky.

Did you worry about that when making Trash Humpers?

No, because Trash Humpers was based in an idea, you know? It wasn’t purely an aesthetic choice, or a throwback. It was based in a concept, because it was based in something that was found. And, like, a specific time. It’s all good, but just listening to people talking about vinyl is the worst.

When I was lining up for this movie there was a giant poster promoting a record shop that said, “Vinyl is back.”

I’d love to shove some vinyl down their throats. Getting vinyl, ugh. Fucking vinyl, these people. They need to, like…get a life.

That’s a good way to commoditize your music obsession, I guess, or to assign a dollar figure to it.

Whatever. It’s just, like, listen to that shit on YouTube.

Was Trash Humpers actually shot on video, or was it just mocked up to look like it?

No no no, we shot video. We edited it on several VHS’s, tape to tape. Then we transferred it and blew it up to film. It’s kind of a funny concept…

Spring Breakers was film, right? 35mm?

Yeah, yeah.

Are you shooting in 35mm again?

Yeah, totally.

I feel like everyone I talk to at this festival, even people who will only shoot film, can’t shoot film anymore, because it’s impossible to get somebody to fund it.

It’s hard. You have to really take a stand. It’s, like, every time I shoot a movie, you know, every time I start to make one using film I always get the sense that it could be the last time. That’s not just for economic reasons; it’s also because there are fewer and fewer labs, and fewer and fewer cameras that work. I think on Spring Breakers we went through about 15 camera bodies because they weren’t maintained. It’s a hassle, but it’s also so much more beautiful. I’m gonna do it until there’s no more film left.

Is that a purely aesthetic thing for you?

Yeah, but it’s psychological too. It goes into a lot of terrain. There’s the look, the actual look of it, which has a softness and a kind of romance to it. There’s a kind of, like, psychology to the grain structure in film. It leaves room for mistakes and accidents, and for soul…you know, or for hope.

Mistakes in the image quality?

Yeah, or even with the lighting. You can break things down in a way that you can’t break down with video. Video isn’t meant to be broken. With film you can break it down, and play with it in a different way. It’s also more about, like, what’s psychological; in shooting you have to be more selective. With video now, people just leave the camera on all day, and you know, they shoot everything and then go in and make sense of it, and edit it, and then add effects later. I don’t know if I like that. I like there to be a moment where you feel like it has to happen in that second.

It’s too easy with digital?

It’s just, like, people just feel like time isn’t precious. I like there to be a slight panic in the room that it might not happen. I like the panic that film gives.

Because every second you’re wasting money?

Yeah, or because it’s gonna run out. There’s something alarming about the process that’s awesome. Do you know what I mean? I don’t like the idea of just leaving the camera on and just letting shit happen. I just love film. I also like soft edges, as opposed to hard edges. To be honest with you, film quality has gotten so good now that Super 16mm is as close to ’70s-style 35mm as you can get, really. It’s really comparable, and it’s beautiful too.

It seems like the really small, indie American directors are shooting a lot on 16mm now. As soon as you see a movie on 16mm it instantly looks better than most digital movies.

Yeah, totally. There’s this thing where people wanna add shit later. But again, I’ve always said it since I was a kid, because I’ve made movies on all different formats, on everything, that they’re all instruments: cameras, film stock, video. They’re all very specific. They’re all color palettes. They’re textural. They each have some kind of signifier. I try not to have an allegiance to any type of technology—it’s more that you use them as…like, it’s a palette.

Can you imagine yourself making a movie and deciding that digital was right for it?

Yeah, definitely, of course.

What feels like digital as opposed to film?

What movie would feel like digital? Well, it would probably be more to do with me, like if I had some disease or something, and I was dying. Like maybe if I didn’t have a lot of energy I would have to shoot digital. [laughs] If I had, like, Ebola or something.

I really like digital when it’s used to look really digital, like a Michael Mann movie or something, like Miami Vice.

He’s great. I agree with you. I think he shot that movie on Viper Cam, or something, and those are actually pretty difficult to find. But I think that was tape he was using though. Someone like Michael Mann uses digital in a way that’s really jazzy, and it seems so natural to him.

Most people shoot it to look like film, but it doesn’t look like film.

Yeah. But like the whole conversation becomes nerdy at some point, you know what I mean? The argument always exists around this idea that people don’t notice, or that people don’t want to know anyway. The truth is that you can know it without knowing it. You know what I mean? Like, there’s something more important than knowing it. It’s like feeling it. When you’re arguing it (?) with people who are paying for it, they always say that the audience doesn’t notice it, but you know the audience can feel it even if they don’t know they’re feeling it.

Do you get a lot of pushback on it, or do you get a lot more freedom than other directors?

Well, I don’t really care, because my argument stops and I just won’t make the movie. Do you know what I mean? Like those kinds of things aren’t a big issue for me because I just won’t make the movie. There’s no argument because I would rather not make films than make them in a way I don’t want to. Always in the very beginning, with everybody I’m upfront, not just with that, but with everything. There’s very specific things that I need to see or have to happen in order to make the film work, and if they don’t, then I’ll just, like, go home and make paintings, which I’m happy to do. I don’t have those huge arguments.