Where did the idea for the film begin? Are you obsessed with spring break? I’m obsessed with the idea of spring break and have tried to go to as many of those spots as possible!
Oh really? So you used to go to Florida a lot?
Yeah. But I was always nervous, being a gay man in that super hetero world.
But now it’s different. When I was a kid it was much more of a white, macho thing. When I went to Florida to write the script a few years back, I was surprised at how culturally and ethnically diverse it was.
Had you visited a lot of spring break spots before writing the script?
No, I grew up in Nashville and it was something that everybody did but I was into skateboarding and was trying to get away from that scene and all those kids I went to school with. It was only a couple of years ago that I began to look at it differently. Before I started writing the script, I was collecting all this spring break imagery—these pictures of adolescent debauchery. I would take the images from strange websites, fraternity message boards, party websites, co-ed pornography sites and, at the time, I was using the images for my artwork. I thought the images were really interesting. They were hypersexual and hyper-violent but had childlike details within them—like the little socks that the girls wore, the neon bathing suits, the pink nail polish, the Hello Kitty backpacks, the Mountain Dew bottles, and the puke on the bunk beds. It was as though the images were in a coded language and I thought it was an interesting backdrop and a metaphor for what came to be later.
A lot of the girls who go on spring break are in their first years of college. It’s that weird moment when girls are becoming women. I think you depict this transition very interestingly, especially with your choice of casting…. Did you write the script with Vanessa, Selena, Ashley, and Rachel in mind?
Yeah, I liked the idea of working with girls who were also representative of pop culture and its mythology. They have a connection to that world and I thought it layered another meaning onto the film. I love the idea of their fans being introduced to this film.
Did their approach to the film and the roles surprise you?
The whole thing was a surprise. I still look at the movie and I can’t believe it exists the way it does. I live pretty far away from that reality, so just the fact that they were interested in doing this film and that they wanted to go to these extremes and much more graphic places was a surprise. I didn’t have to do any convincing, they were game from the very beginning. Once I explained to them that were no such things as mistakes, they just went for it. And in the film they’re almost like characters out of a video game. I used to say they were at this intersection between gangster-ism and mysticism. There was no difference between playing, watching, and doing. They were like these hyper-accelerated, extreme characters.
How did writing the script in Florida affect the process?
Home would have been difficult because I have a wife and kid there. I wanted to be where it was happening, to observe it all and take it all in, but it was crazy there. I had to check in to three or four different hotels because the rooms would just shake with spring breakers. It was like ground zero all night long! People fucking in the hallways, puking on your doorstep, blasting Taylor Swift, and snorting doughnuts. It was like a beach apocalypse!
And how long did it take to write the script?
It was quick because it was horrific. I wanted to get out, so it was like 10 to 12 days.
Has being a dad has changed the way you approach your writing or your filmmaking?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s hard; I try to do as little reflection as possible. The less I know about why I do things, the better.
What was it like making a full-length film after a three-year period working on other projects?
I never place more importance on one medium than another. I feel connected to all the work I do, whether it be the ‘zines, the books, the artwork, or the movies. They’re a part of the same idea. Movies are the thing I’m most comfortable with but they’re also the most difficult. I try to do other stuff because it’s less difficult, less collaborative, which is nice.
Let’s go back to your casting, because it’s always so spot-on. This is such an incredible role for James Franco. How was it watching him transform into his character Alien?
I had been talking with James about Alien for a couple of years. I had this idea for a character who was an amalgamation of a lot of people I knew growing up: this classic southern white gangster type with black mannerisms. But I wanted the character to be someone more insane and poetic. Over the course of a year, I sent James images, audio clips, and other references—of, like, girls getting into fist fights at gas stations at three in the morning—that I thought had an emotional relationship to this character. He never responded and I wondered if he was even watching them. But when we started doing rehearsals and he got into character, I realized that he had been taking it all in. He’s a madman, he really is. When he’s in character, he’s pretty fearless and willing to go above and beyond what you would expect.
Alien takes the girls back to his world, beyond the strip—was that place based on where you grew up in Nashville?
Maybe a little. I love what happens after spring break, even more so than spring break itself. In the movie, Alien takes the girls to his shadow world, filled with palm trees, guns, and dilapidated houses. I wanted to capture this idea of Beach Noir, something really sinister.
It’s a great juxtaposition. And those towns always exist.
Sometimes it’s just half a mile away.
Those scenes reminded me of the short film you did with PROENZA SCHOULER, Act Da Fool, which really broke the mold for fashion films. Is there a relationship between the two?
It’s funny, I never thought there was until someone mentioned it to me a couple of days ago. It’s true; there are a lot of similarities—the whole “girl gang living out on the fringes” thing. I think that Act Da Fool was a subconscious impetus for Spring Breakers. I’ve been getting into girl gang stuff lately.
And the ATL Twins…
Yeah, I’m the one responsible for unleashing them into society! Friends from Nashville told me about these insane scumbag twins years ago. So I drove down to Atlanta to spend some time with them. I actually auditioned Gucci Mane in their apartment.
How was it working with them?
They’re beyond what acting is. They’re so modern. They don’t want to do anything but exist and they want to be famous for just existing. I mean, they don’t drink water; they just live off of Red Bull and Vicodin. They’re almost like shape shifters. They’re these incredibly fucked-up delinquent scumbag poets.
Crazy! Doing the television circuit has always been a part of your world—like all of those incredible clips of you on Letterman. Do you use television as another artistic medium?
I try to use them all, as they’re all venues for ideas. Even in the beginning, with Kids, I tried to not differentiate between high and low cultures. A lot of people who I knew then didn’t want to be put into boxes: they thought that certain things wouldn’t allow them to try new things. They couldn’t see that there was also merit in doing things like daytime talk shows. If someone needs me to write an opera, I’ll say yes, even though I’ve never seen an opera! If someone asks me to film a car commercial, I’ll say yeah. It’s just another opportunity for me to experiment and play. Sometimes the most interesting things are the mistakes. You have to be bold.
You were banned from Letterman, right?
I’ve been hearing that for years. It’s possible. I have a foggy memory from that time. Apparently it was because I shoved Meryl Streep against a wall.
I don’t remember doing that. I might have pushed her to the side but I definitely didn’t throw her.
It’s been 20 years since Kids. What’s changed about youth culture?
People’s needs are still the same. The big difference is the way they socialize and this is filtered through technology. The way we communicate with each other, how fast things are, how noisy it is, and what this does to the syntax—that’s all changed. The characters in Kids were all outsiders. They were all about trying to get lost and disappear. They were oblivion seekers trying to get away from everyone and everything. They lived on rooftops and slept out in the parks. Now it’s the opposite—everyone is trying to be found. Everyone wants to live in front of each other. We now have a public and performative culture, where it’s all about socializing with everyone and letting everyone know where you are every second of the day—people you don’t even know! That’s what I see, for the most part. Then it was about being private and doing things that were illegal and not letting anyone know. Now even criminals want to let people know where they are! One is not better or more interesting than the other; they’re just completely different. Kids was more of an insider’s story, told from the inside out. Spring Breakers is told from the outside in. It’s about the way things look and feel, and the menacing residue that drips from the candy-coated glossy, pop surfaces. Spring Breakers is more of a fever dream, a pop poem. It’s more like a painting, an impressionistic reinterpretation. It’s not the truth; it’s more like an emotion.
What do you think of the collection we made for the film?
Dude, it is so awesome! That “DTF” stuff is unreal! Even the fact that shit exists and that it has the characters’ names on it is incredible.
We had so much fun making it!
You guys did a really good job. They’re girl gang clothes!
It’s great because we got to see the film and have our own take on the culture. We’re also obsessed with that souvenir aspect of clothing.
Yeah, like surf shop souvenir clothing. It looks like you guys have taken that stuff and mutated or warped it.
We wanted it to feel original, but still have a little flavor.
The collection goes perfectly with the movie. That shit is dope!
One of the things that most interested me in the film is the doubling, the linked images, the rhyming of certain scenes and events. For instance, one of the early couplings I noticed came during the scene where we see the girls in class and their professor is lecturing about the Civil Rights Movement. Then, later, we find them on a bus heading south to Florida, and I couldn’t help but link the two. I couldn’t help but see this spring break trip as a perverse Freedom Ride.
Some of those connections I’d thought out before filming, but other things I only started to connect in the edit. This movie is a kind of cultural mash-up, and I wanted it to work in a very physical way, in a way that was more like a video game or a piece of electronic music. In other words, something that’s just beyond simple articulation. So, a lot of the film becomes about those connections that you’re talking about. It becomes about those undefined connections.
It was my feeling that they’re not presented in a way where the audience is asked to draw conclusions about the connections. Spring Breakers feels more about possible ideas generated by smashing things together.
Yeah, it’s ideas generated, but it’s also about energy. I’m obsessed with the idea of energy and this idea of liquid narrative.
I’m curious about your video game comment. Do you see the film as being interactive?
It’s more about the film being immersive, something completely sensory. I wanted things to hit from all directions. I wanted images and sounds to be falling from the sky, this strange and beautiful pummeling. Sometimes, when you watch people play a video game, they seem lost in this wormhole, or in a trance. In some ways, I wanted the film to work like that, to work in a very physical way. And at the same time the characters in the film needed to have something, a deeper pathology and a heartbeat. The world of the film is a culture of surfaces. There’s a hardcore, graphic, hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent subject matter, but then around it, and within it, there are these childlike, pop culture indicators.
Right. So the project was to create these surfaces and these looks, and the kind of pathology and the meaning in the characters is the residue. You know what I mean? We always talked about the film as being coated in candy, or lit with Skittles, or lit with candy. The meaning is the bleed from the candy.
The resin rubbing off?
Is this an idea that’s unique to this film, or something you’ve been interested in with your other films?
There’ll always be a large segment of the audience that can’t deal with my films because I’m attracted to things that are morally and graphically ambiguous. I’m interested in confused things, things that have a type of chaos, things that aren’t necessarily one way. And so when I’m shooting a scene or developing a character, or really just thinking about the movie in general, if you can take that thing and describe it and say, “This is what it is, this is what is,” like pin it down, I’m not interested. I’d rather write an essay, some kind of cultural critique. This film is meant to be a pop poem, or some type of impressionistic reinterpretation saying, “This is the way I feel about it.” Or just how I feel about a particular character, or this world, or just in general. This movie’s a mutated zeitgeist. I’m always hoping my movies work in a way that’s inexplicable. Its not about whether you like it or don’t like it, or whether it’s fun or this—it’s a thing that takes you.
Poem, I’m excited you used that word because I was thinking it during the movie. Because of the film’s editing, we often return to moments that we’ve seen before. There’s a significant amount of repetition. Did that emerge in editing, or was that something you’d wanted to do from the start?
It’s something I thought about from the very beginning. It’s a style that I’ve been trying to develop for a while now, this idea of liquid narrative and micro-scenes, a style that’s closer to what you get with certain types of electronic music and loop-based music. So I started experimenting with the idea of loops and repetition, like how some of the dialogue repeats. You have choruses and hooks that get lodged in your brain.
EDM is a buzzword right now, but have you been listening to electronic music for some time?
Always. A long time ago, I grew bored with white guys and guitars. That style hit its peak and it can’t go anywhere. You can still make music that people love, but there won’t be more innovation. I started listening to electronic music a long time ago. But mostly I listen to rap. I think rap is the most interesting.
How do you feel about rap right now?
It’s more exciting then it’s ever been. I always hear the critique that it’s become so dumbed down and stripped of any kind of meaning. But I like this stuff best. I never liked socially conscious rap. I like rap that’s physical, that’s about a beat and bass and repetition. I feel like rap’s still the only genre that’s mutating. Like Chief Keef and Young Chop and Fredo Santana. What they’re doing with drill music is great. It’s almost like super primitive chanting. When I first heard it, I thought it was such a perfect music, so distilled and fucking bass heavy. It’s pure emotion.
Given the conversation around drill, don’t you feel it’s problematic to use a word like “primitive”?
Primitive meaning stripped down. Primitive in the way that you can take a single sentence and repeat it over and over again for three minutes and have it become something magic and violent. There’s no pretense. It’s incredible.
The conversation around Keef’s music has been so polarized. And much of it has been about who’s allowed to speak. Whether white people liking the music is problematic. Is that a conversation that interests you?
I mean, white people always ruin everything. I don’t pay attention to that shit. White people eventually ruin everything.
So what’s the role of James Franco’s character, Alien—a white person, involved in this trap-rap world?
He’s this maniac character that’s kind of an amalgamation of different kids I went to school with in Nashville. The kids on the bus who would rap, white kids with black mannerisms. It’s a familiar archetype. He’s a cultural mash-up. He’s a sociopath, and at the same time he has this strange saccharin sweetness.
Is it a character that you find funny?
Of course! I find his character hilarious, and I find him demonic. In a lot of ways, he’s super complex, and in other ways he’s super stripped down. He’s beyond definition, with this charisma and beautiful sleaze.
The white guy adopting black mannerisms, will that person always be the clown?
I think are clownish elements to Alien, but he does have a real swagger, too. But largely speaking, I’m not sure. I don’t know.
How much improvisation was there on set?
Well, I don’t do improv in the traditional sense. I do something that’s in between the script and then the ideas and energy of what’s going on in the moment. I used to call it a “mistakist art form.” Sometimes we’ll improvise off an idea or a particular line. But the idea is to make it impossible to tell what’s improvised and what isn’t.
Your films feel uncanny for that reason. You don’t know who is really preforming, or to what degree someone is performing.
I always try to make films in such a way that it’s hard to imagine how they came to be, or where they came from. I use to say, “It’s never about making perfect sense it’s about perfect nonsense.” If you can articulate something, explain something, then why actually do it? I don’t go into a film knowing what I want to say; I’m trying to find it as I go.
Do you usually find it?
I think so. If I don’t find it in a particular sequence or scene, then I don’t use it. What you finally see is what I feel hit right.
You’ve found it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you could articulate what you found outside of the experience of watching the film.
Right. When people ask about my movies, “What does this mean? What does that mean?” My response is always, “It means what it is.” What does a burning sofa mean? I don’t know. It means what it is. Everything and nothing.
What surprised you about working with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, the two stars associated with Disney?
That they were bold. Once they understood the world of the film, they never took any kind of convincing. Whatever you want to say about Disney, there was a real work ethic in them, a real gung-ho attitude. Like, “Let’s do it, fuck it all.” The fact that they’re in the film, the fact that the film exists, amazes me.