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Clean Off the Dirt, Scrape Off the Blood: An Interview with Trash Humpers Director Harmony Korine

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Clean Off the Dirt, Scrape Off the Blood: An Interview with Trash Humpers Director Harmony Korine

Filmmaker Harmony Korine’s latest experiment is called Trash Humpers, and feels like a home movie made by anarchist youths who wear old age make-up and seem to be living like the mutants out of The Hills Have Eyes. Shot on VHS camcorders, complete with tape glitches and tracking lines, the project seems more like a found object than a movie, or a series of amateur vaudeville sketches that lead to murder. Shot in Nashville and released theatrically last year in a limited art-house run, the project re-emerged as a traveling art show where stills from the movie were sketched and painted over by Hungarian-American artist Rita Ackermann in their show “Shadow Fux” and accompanied by footage from the movie. Korine’s latest work seems more specifically geared for being projected on the sides of walls. Few people will see it, but I’ll take Korine’s mad, Herzog-esque DIY aesthetic over mumblecore any day of the week. You don’t “like” a movie like Trash Humpers, but I’m very happy such films exist. Korine touched base over the phone about his latest endeavor, sometimes taking the conversation seriously, other times veering into delightful hyperbole.

Did you shoot Trash Humpers around your home in Nashville?

Yeah, and some on the outskirts, like out in the countryside all within an hour or two.

Did you just drive around and figure out where you wanted to film?

We would drive around in different areas and get lost, or go through alleyways and fields, dirt roads and abandoned strip mall areas. I began to get a good sense of the geography, because the location is almost as much a character as the actual characters. A lot of times we would actually sleep out there, like making a nest in some old tractor tires or something, then wake up and start wandering around through the woods and under bridges just kind of filming it.

Were the fluorescent lights and TV sets that you smashed up stuff you found, or would you bring stuff in?

Yeah, some things were more spontaneous. A lot of stuff we would just react to, the way vandals or arsonists would react to their environment. But we brought the fluorescent light. It was stuff I remembered from growing up, when we would spend hours smashing fluorescent lights into the ground. For some reason, that became really hypnotic for me.

Those fluorescents smash in a really spectacular way.

Smashing fluorescent lights is a uniquely American emotional outlet or hobby.

How did this project come about? It seemed to happen really fast after your previous film Mister Lonely, which seems unusual for you.

It was a concept, an idea that popped into my mind when I was walking my dog around these back alleys late at night behind my house. I was looking at these trash cans and these spotlights that were very dramatic, and I was just daydreaming and imagining things and got this idea. Mister Lonely took me so long to make and in a lot of ways was very painful, so I’ve always wanted to get to a place where I can make films as quickly as I can think them; so I can go try things and it doesn’t always have to involve constant people and lots of money and there can be a kind of aloofness to it that I can get off on.

Who did you assemble around you as your collaborators? A couple guys and a girl were playing the trash humpers. Were they friends of yours from Nashville?

Yeah, my wife Rachel was the main humper. There were four of us, my friends and me, and that was it. Once we got into character and figured out technically how we were going to do it, it became more like what you see, more like a visual diary—an artifact.

You seemed free to shoot in much the same way people make home movies. But I assume it was in post that you did the VHS auto-tracking and tape glitches and so on.

We were all using VHS cameras, so a lot of those glitches came from—we edited using VCRs, just running the footage through stacks of VCRs, so a lot of the accidents happened while we were making it. We were re-using tapes and over again, so that’s what you see.

But the audio is pretty good for a VHS camcorder.

The picture was one thing, but the audio—we pushed it to the front. We had a sound person following us around.

Did you think about trying to get real old people to act in the movie instead of you guys in masks?

I did think about that in the beginning, but I don’t know that many old people; and what they had to do was mostly physical. I couldn’t imagine 80-year-old people humping trash cans without dying. The work was going to require a great deal of physical stamina.

You’re in the film yourself; was that out of convenience? You were going to be operating the camera a lot, so you had to become one of the characters?

The invisible cameraman needed to be a participant if it was going to seem like a piece of found footage or a home movie. The person behind the camera had to be a member of the group. If it was going to be someone, it needed to be me. It also meant I could maybe—not direct scenes, but I could help things or be an instigator and participant. It was good that the actors saw me doing those things; it made them more fearless.

But it’s fun, though. I would imagine you guys felt good afterwards, after all of this running and shrieking.

Yeah. I was happy the movie had finished shooting, though, because I felt they were enjoying themselves too much. I guess I was also worried for myself.

What were some of the first things you guys shot to figure out what it was going to be like?

I don’t even remember. The first day was probably when they were forcing the twins to eat the pancakes with the dishwashing detergent on top.

How did you figure out what the trash humpers would do? Was that something you figured out when you were walking around thinking about the movie, or did that just happen?

A lot of times things just pop into my mind and they feel right, so I had—not a script, by any sense, but I had a rough idea how the film would work, and certain things I wanted to see. But the songs and sounds and cackling laughter that repeats throughout the film, I found that nice. It had an audio-connector that seemed an interesting through-line. But it was all kind of making it up on the spot really.

Do the trash humpers freak you out, or are you curious about them—or what?

Growing up, I had this next door neighbor. She was kind of pretty. I used to see two or three guys, including this old person from a retirement home in that area. They would just escape or climb out their window and do that. Every once in a while, they were found in the neighborhood; they almost took on a sense of horror for me as a child, even though what they were after was looking at young girls. Every once in a while when I was getting ready for school in the morning, I would look and see them outside my window staring at my next door neighbor.

What about the guys in the movie? They’re not just the peeping toms you saw as a kid; they do things that you like. Every now and then they do vaudevillian routines.

I have a great love and fondness for these characters. Not necessarily the horrible things they do, but the way they approach it with such glee and abandon. They’re like artists of vandalism. They want to turn bad into something amazing. I enjoy the idea that they’re not tied down; they’re not sorry for what they’ve done. They don’t know what sorry is. They just dance through it all

You don’t shy away from their doing horrible things. There’s a weird connection between discomfort and jokes.

That’s what true horror is. It’s so confusing. You just wind up having to laugh nervously.

You don’t have characters per se, but there are clearly people in the movie that seem to interest you. Like the kid in the suit who has a crazy laugh.

I first met him at a 7-11. He was standing on an egg crate, holding a plastic snake and quoting bible verses. He’s a child Pentecostal preacher, and I was impressed he has most of the bible memorized. Oddly enough, his mother had been a modern dancer with Twyla Tharp, and I guess they found religion. They seemed interested in their son being in the film, and he turned out to be really easy to work with.

Who is that guy that the trash humpers encounter that always tells bad jokes?

He’s a local comedian in Nashville known for telling hours and hours of stand-up with no punchline. He only tells the beginning parts of jokes. He had a radio show at one time that he was thrown off of.

You had some very large women in the hotel room entertaining the trash humpers. Were they professionals? They seemed like they knew what they were doing.

They definitely know what they’re doing. They, like, uh…they’re…yeah, like, they’re…real pros, those women. (laughs)

Did you just bring them in and let them do their thing?

That particular scene was more about setting up the situation. We got everyone drunk. Once the woman started having sex with one of the humpers in the wheelchair everyone loosened up. After that, we could let the party happen and film it. Those women were out for a good time, and I knew most of the humpers were as well. My wife wasn’t in that scene. She didn’t want to be around.

It reminded me of the scene in Gummo when the guy wrestles the chair. You seem to think of it as putting various chemicals in a bottle, shaking it up and seeing what explodes.

It’s great when things get completely out of hand and it becomes something you never could have imagined it could become. You push and prod, manipulate a little bit and let it unfold in real time. I absolutely live for those moments.

Did any pedestrians ever walk by and react to what you were doing?

That was one of the most surprising things. We all expected so much more interaction with the public, or trouble with the police. We thought we’d have guns pulled on us. But it wasn’t like that at all. There was a moment where we were all humping these trash cans, and this guy just walked out of his house, asked what we were doing and when we said we were filming a movie he asked if we wanted him to turn his back porch lights on for us. People would go out of their way to either ignore what was going on or help us. Nowadays it seems easier to get away with murder than any other time because people are so isolated and have a shield around them.

This wasn’t your first attempt doing something like this. There was that fight movie you never finished where you’d film yourself going out and picking fights with people. Have you made other projects like this?

This movie came from photographs I’d taken on these awful disposable cameras I’d buy at the grocery store. That became a prototype for the movie. But this was the first time I’d completed a feature in this way, and it was a really good thing for me to do because I can see how it is possible to make a movie like this at a certain pace.

Would you consider working this way again?

Sure, which is not to say all the films would be like Trash Humpers, but I’d like to get to be able to make a movie a year as quickly as I can. This can become a larger discussion—what are films anymore? Are feature films on the cusp of something different?

The face of distribution is changing as well. What are the ideal circumstances for getting Trash Humpers out there?

The ideal circumstance would be for people to find this movie buried in a plastic bag, and they’d have to clean the dirt off the VHS tape, scrape a little blood off the label, then stick it into the VCR and watch it on a bad television set in your grandmother’s basement.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.