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.
So you see them as representing tiers of moral responsibility?
The film’s look merges neon decadence and crisp, seaside vistas with lower-tech aesthetic choices that recall some of your earlier work, like the use of surveillance footage, for example. I wanted to know specifically, about the sand art-like distortion effect that’s used when the girls were arrested. How was that achieved?
Well, we were shooting everything on 35mm film, and then I was experimenting with these Japanese novelty cameras called power shovels. And, basically, we’d just buy tons of them and make what were sort of like totems, attached to the main camera. And they were all switched on to different functions. So we were filming in black and white, and sepia tones, and whatever you’d call a 1970s look, all simultaneously. I wasn’t sure how I could use the cameras, or if I could use them, in a way that wouldn’t be annoying, so my assistant editor came up with these sort of composite, morphing-image shots, and started playing around with them on an Avid. And then I thought they looked perfectly trippy, like hallucinations, and I liked them for the drug sequences. They serve as almost hallucinatory punctuation, and they look like melting film.
The way the narrative unfolds visually is also quite remarkable. There’s a lot of cross-cutting and chronological manipulation. Can you briefly describe that technique and the reasons behind it?
Well, again, I wanted to make something that was very experiential—something that was like a liquid narrative, with micro scenes, like something you’d see in electronic music. I thought of it like loop-based music, where you’d have certain things that would repeat, and come back—refrains. I even thought of pop music, where you have courses and mantras, which, in the film, almost become like catchphrases and hooks and earworms and things. So I always thought about the movie more in terms of a very physical music experience—something bombastic, with images and sounds falling from the sky. You could even say it’s something that’s close to like a drug experience.
Is there something, visually, that you’re itching to do next? Because the palettes of your filmography are very diverse. There’s a lot of DIY; Mister Lonely is very painterly; and, now, this film is a whole new beast.
I don’t know. You know, for me, it’s all about pictures, and images, and textures, and the way things look and feel. I’m just constantly obsessed with that and trying to find new techniques and new ways to make movies. I’ve been interested in that ever since I was a kid. So, how do you take something out of being just a film and make it more inexplicable, and transcendent? A lot of that comes from experimenting, which is why I do a lot of short films—they inform what I do in longer form. So I don’t know. I’ll think I’ll just keep messing around and trying new shit.
Most auteurs, even those who frequently experiment with genre, are generally able to be somewhat defined through their work. You, however, have continued to do a pretty good job of defying definition. How would you define yourself as a filmmaker?
I just want to be great. That’s all. And live beyond all those types of descriptions. I don’t want to be contained in any way. As a person and as an artist, I always feel restless. I don’t ever feel comfortable set in a specific style or function. I always want to try something even if it doesn’t work. If people consider something I do to be a failure or a mistake, I’m fine with that. Sometimes there’s beauty in mistakes, and the most interesting things sometimes come out of what people consider to be…awkwardness.
The soundtrack for Spring Breakers features Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life,” and the girls speak often about holding on to great moments in the film. Is that largely what this movie is for you? A fantasy about the impossibility of clinging to a moment?
Yeah, man. Wow, definitely. That’s definitely one of the big things the movie speaks to, for sure.
Is that something you feel often yourself? Wanting to capture a moment in time?
Sure. That’s why I used to do drugs a lot. I just wanted to isolate the moment, slow it down, examine it. I always felt life moved too quickly. But that’s the way life is.