AND THE ASS SAW THE ANGEL
Craig McLean / The Face / July 2000
Since their last film together, actress Chloe Sevigny’s been nominated for an Oscar and director Harmony Korine’s been getting beaten up in the name of art. Now America’s most extraordinary couple are back with julien donkey-boy.
You join us as Harmony Korine is talking bollocks (Chloe Sevigny is eating sushi). “...William Blake, the marriageg between heaven and hell, in that he defines a kind of paradox between the two, and the linkage, and, uh, really I have abandoned all notions of Satanism as far as Sanism goes, um. I’m still, ah... I still kind of worship at the altar of the, of the Dark Lord. It’s just more now I’ve kind of started to, ah, trace my roots back to a kind of heathenist culture. And, um, now more or less I call upon my ancestors and pagans and worship at the feet of Odin, the Norse warrior god.”
Craig McLean: But most death metal is completely unlistenable.
Harmony Korine: No, I don’t listen to death metal, I listen to black metal. For the average ear it’s unlistenable, but for me the good stuff is as beautiful as Bach is to a classical fan. There’s a real kinda lineage from, say, a composer like Wagner to a band like Ulver or Mayhem.
McLean: Are those the Scandinavian bands that kill each other?
Korine: Yeah, a lot of Norwegians, Polish. It’s a real subculture.
McLean: But their love of black metal bleeds into a sort of neo-Nazism.
Korine: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, some of it. Someone like Burzum, from Norway, who murdered Euronymous, the singer from Mayhem, he’s in prison, he did music for my movie, for Gummo... He’s a nazi.
McLean: What does Burzum’s song on the Gummo soundtrack - Rundgang Um Die Transzendentale Säule Der Singularität - mean?
Korine: I don’t know. I don’t read German.
McLean: Isn’t it irresponsible to have a Nazi on your film’s soundtrack and not know what he’s saying? (It means, by the way, ‘Journey Around the Transcendental Column of Singularity.’)
Korine: No, not at all. I don’t really mind that he’s a Nazi as long as his music is good.
McLean: Why have you never done interviews together?
Chloe Sevigny: We never thought it would be a very good idea. I’d be silent and he’d just ramble on.
Korine: That’s what you said you wanted!
Sevigny: It is what I want. I have nothing to say...
Korine: Oooooh yeah, blah blah-blah blah-blah.
McLean: Do you adopt different roles when you do joint things?
Korine: When we smoke joints? I don’t smoke joints. Um... What was the question?
The Face (July 2000)
In a Japanese restaurant in the middle of New York, Harmony Korine is talking about his bollocks (Chloe Sevigny is rolling her eyes). Yesterday at their Face photoshhoot, Korine, dressed in an inside-out The Queen is Dead T-shirt, had hacked off his beard to aid the application of the ‘devil make-up’ that he decided he would like daubed over his face (hence the above conversation). Then he got his knob out.
“May I did,” says Korine now with a Butt-head chuckle. “It was just my testes.”
Oh yes, you wanted your nutsack shaved.
“I would never shave my testes,” he grins. “I was just threatening to have [his PR] shave them.”
“I wanted her to sit there on her knees and bite off each hair with her teeth.”
But why... Oh, never mind.
Harmony Korine is not like other directors. He and Chloe Sevigny are not like other couples ‘in the biz.’ Together they have made three films. Each has changed the language of cinema (and not just by the tactical insertion of swearwords and ‘hip’ tunes), and each in different ways. Their debut was 1995’s Kids, which Korine wrote when he was 17 and was Sevigny’s first acting gig. It showed New York skatekids hanging out, shooting the shit, smoking blunts, sucking on 40s, shagging around, infecting each other with AIDS. Sevigny ends the film being raped while zonked out on a drug given her by a nerdy dealer played by Korine. Previously just best friends, they started going out sometime around the end of filming, and have done, on and off, ever since.
The second was Gummo. It was set in the poor white trash heart of America that Korine once called home (he spent his childhood in Nashville, Tennessee). Directed by Korine, it featured a retarded kid used by her family as a prostitute, a gay black dwarf, cockroach-infested houses, bacon Sellotaped to bathroom walls, and pet-torturing boys on bikes. Sevigny played a brassy bleached-blond mullet called Dot. Gummo won film festival prizes, was called the worst film of the year by an influential American film critic, and hailed as a “revolution in cinema” by Bernardo Bertolucci.
And now, julien donkey-boy. It is, at last (thank Christ), Harmony Korine replacing the snacky sizzle of controversy with the broad sweep of artful filmmaking. Where Gummo felt cold, an exercise in Jerry Springer Show rubbernecking (‘My Kid Brother Kills Cats For Glue’), julien donkey-boy is warm and compassionate. The title character is based on Korine’s Uncle Eddie, who has been in and out of Creedmore Psychiatric Hospital in Queens for 20-odd years. Ewen Bremner is Julien, a schizophrenic living with his pregnant sister (Sevigny) and the tranquiliser-addicted dad (legendary German film director Werner Herzog). Bremner’s performance is incredible. He is unrecognisable as the goofy bloke who was Spud in Trainspotting.
You wont see a film as full of restless energy, brilliantly improvised dialogue, creative camerawork (it is the first America film to be shot under the aegis of the Dogme 95 ‘Vow of Chastity’), rappin’ black albinos and ice-skatin’ blind kids this year.
Yo till now, of course, saying, “You wont see another film like (Your Korine Film Here) this year” was the same as saying, “You wont have a hangover like that again in a hurry.”
So: nice one, funky New York artcouple.
The Face (July 2000)
They cut an incongruous dash in this upscale chopstick joint, in among the kimonos and business suits. He with his fagSevigny: and his arse - hanging out his jeans, she with her Euro-chic, luminescence and anglepoise haircut.
Chloe Sevigny can’t get the lid off her miso soup. “I can’t open this, Harm,” she will whine weakly, passing it to him. “Do I have a fever?” she will asKorine: her ‘allergies’ have hit today. And he will press a cool hand to her brow. Harmony Korine can’t understand what I’m saying, he claims. “He’ll be an asshole about your accent,” she will whisper conspiratorially when he nips off to the toilet. “Ignore him.”
When not doing time in Harmony Korine movies, Chloe Sevigny is the rising Hollywood star of acclaimed, mainstream-indie films American Psycho and Boys Don’t Cry. For her performance in the latter, she was Academy Award-tipped in the Best Supporting Actress category. Today she is a 25-year-old It-Woman in Ralph Lauren shirt, neat jeans, slip-on brown suede shoes. She is a model of some years’ standing, and some repute, having fronted campaigns for Miu Miu and Hennes, and having appeared in fashion shoots in Purple and, way back when, The Face. She is very much the Oscar nominee about midtown Manhattan. Classy.
And he is the unblinking documentarian of the Other America (poverty, boredom and learning difficulties, where life is like a box of moldy chocolates); the sole American member of the devilishly innovative Dogme 95 brotherhood: the writer of a ‘novel’, A Crackup at the Race Riots, that was a gibbering scrapbook of dialogue snatches, fake suicide notes, false letters from Tupac Shakur to his mum, and made-up rumours (‘Johnny Rotten collects baseball cards’); a fearless innovator who was hospitalised and arrested while attempting to make a comedic snuff movie called Fight Harm (in the lead role, Mr H Korine); a funny guy.
Cary Woods is a bigshot Hollywood producer. His credits include Scream and Swingers. As chairman of Independent Pictures, he has backed all of Korine’s films. Woods recalls the time four years ago that he, Korine and Werner Herzog - a hero of Korine’s who became one of his championSevigny: went to a gig in San Francisco. Woods and Herzog watched as Korine ran down the aisles with his trousers and boxers round his ankles just to see how people would react. “Well, Werner,” said Woods as they watched Korine’s bare arse wobble through the crowd, “there’s the future of American cinema.”
Today in New York, Korine is a 26-year-old man-boy in T-shirt , hoodie, shoulder-length hair and post-beard stubble. As we walk down the street later, you can see his arse-crack as he struggled to hold up his scraggy jeans. He’s a bit nasally-weaselly, a bit messy. When he talks his face twitches. When he talks, his face twitches and his head spasms, gently. He has homemade tattoos. Some people, we now know, say he is the future of American cinema. Some people say he’s an exploitative fantasist, a dick.
“Harmony is... He never had the most graceful social skills, heeurgh,” concedes Sevigny, as if indulging a naughty, but entertaining puppy. “Sometimes he gets bored and has to entertain himself.”
Chloe Sevigny was never meant to be in films: clothes were her first love. Professional actresses were tested for the role of Jennie in Kids before Larry Clark decided that Sevigny was perfect for the role. Korine, meantime, is a filmmaker who doesn’t like actors. “A non-actor can usually give you something an actor can never give you, he says matter-of-factly.
Is this why they work so well together - because Sevigny is an ‘accidental actress’? “We just grew up together,” Sevigny says. “I invited him to my high-school graduation. He was my best friend. He was my university, I never went to college. He taught me almost everything I know about movies and books and music.”
Today they live in Darien, in Connecticut, 45 minutes by train from Grand Central, she with her mother, he in a house he bought nearby. “She is my love and my muse, he will say.
She is his north, his south, his east, his west. He encourages her to fulfill her ‘many talents,’ to be more confident, talking approving of her nascent directing skills. On his next projects, a three-hander called Jokes (based on three, yes, jokes by old-school American comedian Milton Berle), Sevigny is to direct one of the stories, to accompany the segment already shot by Gus Van Sant and the segment Korine would love Chris Cunningham to shoot. She is also, sometimes, like a long-suffering mum. He, ‘Harm,’ is the boyfriend from back home who, now that she’s Made It, can be a bit embarrassing - but who, really, is a refreshing dose of reality, a stab of honesty in a suddenly inflated world.
The Face (July 2000)
Chloe - are you comfortable with your new acclaim? “No, not really. With the OscarSevigny: I’ve always shied away from going in that direction, I never aspired towards that level of fame. Or anything. It was just... I’ve never even respected the Academy. Harm and I used to joke about blowing it up and killing all the...” Sevigny gives her sea-mammal gurgle of a laugh. “... Heeurgh heeurgh, foolish filmmakers in the audience. So being there was quite surreal.”
McLean: Harmony, did you wear a tuxedo?
Korine: Of course. You have to.
Sevigny: I was wearing black, Yves Saint Laurent. And a Maltese iron cross necklace from 1820, from Astbury & Gerard, the crown jewelers.
McLean: Did you borrow anything expensive, Harmony?
Korine: Just a codpiece. From Ass-berry.
McLean: Yes, very good. Did it feel like, ‘Hey, it’s the Oscars: what the fuck are we doing here?’ Or was it subversion from within?
Korine: To be honest, I’ve already forgotten it. I can’t even remember anything that happened.
McLean: Because you were drunk?
Korine: No, it was just pretty forgettable.
McLean: What’s your fondest memory of the night?
Korine: Seeing Gary Coleman [the tiny, notoriously down-on-his-luck star of Eighties sitcom Diff’rent Strokes] in a tuxedo. He was a seat-filler, I swear to God!
McLean: He’d be a bit ineffective as a seat-filler, surely.
Sevigny: He carried a phonebook under his arm.
Korine: I also saw [Famous Film Star Who Likes Partying] with some cocaine under his nostril, and I went up... I mean, I heard someone say, [FFSWLP], you got some powder on your nose,” and he went, “Oh, I just ate a powdered doughnut!
Sevigny: Heeurgh heeurgh!
McLean: Which party did you go to afterwards? Elton’s?
Korine / Sevigny: No, No. We don’t like to talk about that. Yes. Heeurgh heeurgh! Heeh heeh
McLean: Were you surprised that a film like Boys Don’t Cry was recognised by the Academy?
Sevigny: Yeah. But it sorta makes sense that they’d give [the Oscar] to Hilary [Swank], because they love, you know, that kind of performance.
Korine: They love skanks.
Korine: Well, they do! America loves skanks. I mean, Swanks.
McLean: Is that why you didn’t get on with her on-set?
Sevigny: Who told you that?
Korine: Heeh heeh heeh!
McLean: Three people in London
Sevigny: (High pitched) Really? We got along fine. It was a very professional relationship.
McLean: Was Kimberly Peirce a hard director?
Sevigny: She was a little intrusive at times.
McLean: In the orgasm scene?
Sevigny: Ah [she says, the exhalation turning into a sigh]. I don’t like to recall that scene...
Korine: Let’s put it this way: it was a fake orgasm.
Sevigny: Very. It was her direction. She wanted it to be, you know, huge. And that’s what I did.
Korine: She wanted her to have an over-the-top lesbian org. And Chloe is very not into the over-the-top lesbo org.
Sevigny: Heeurgh heeurgh!
Korine: She is a proper woman.
McLean: Did you like the film, Harmony?
Sevigny: He’s only seen it once, Sevigny butts in. He was a bit out of it when he saw it.
Korine: Wasn’t out of it! Korine pouts. There were things about it I enjoyed. Um, I’d always loved that story. If I was to have made the movie, that’s not the way I would have made it... I, uh, huuh huuh.
The Face (July 2000)
We relocate to the bar of the downtown Gramercy Hotel. The manageress is delighted to see them again, these cool young kids who brighten up this po-faced media hang. Sevigny and Korine used to share an apartment round the corner. Korine talks in awestruck tones of Sevigny’s organised mind. “As soon as you get off the bed, the bed is made! When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is, ‘What the hell am I gonna do for the rest of the day?’ I’ll walk around the house smoking cigarettes for an hour.”
“You’re jealous of my domestic ability?” Sevigny asks incredulously.
“It’s true! She’s very much the pragmatist, and her disposition is very even. She does have her moments, these outbreaks...”
“For the most part, Harmony’s pretty frantic. But I have a very protective nature. I worry more about my friend’s happiness than even my own.”
At the end of the Gummo shoot, for example, Korine had gotten drunk in order to film himself attempting to snog the gay black dwarf: “I’m a lover of narcotics, but I don’t work under the influence of anything. But for that scene, in order to be free enough to get to go things I wanted to do, I had to be in that state of mind. But it carried over...”
A trashed Korine threw his sister through a window. “She wanted to give me a hug. Sometimes I have this propensity towards violence.”
Sevigny had to sit up all night with him. “I was afraid he was gonna choke on his own vomit,” she says wearily.
julien donkey-boy is Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh made into a film directed by Lynne Ratcatcher Ramsay: harsh social realism and claustrophobic domestic routine refracted through a flickering poetic lens. And it is Rita, Sue and Bob Too remade by Lars von Trier. “You’re getting on my nerves,” a Hassidic Jewish child tells Julien, who is trying to swap his homemade skateSevigny: two blades taped onto flip-flopSevigny: for the kid’s ice-cream cone. “If you don’t stop, I’ll have to curse you out in Yiddish.”
Aside from the blind ice-skater and black albino rapper, the cast includes an armless drummer, a man whose party trick is eating lit cigarettes, and oddball musician Will Oldham - the erstwhile Palace Brother whose eerie mix of Applachian folk and post-rock driftwood is the closest antecedent to SSAB Songs, a short, one-track album released by Korine and his friend Brian DeGraw earlier this year.
Ewen Bremner is currently in LA, filming Pearl Harbor. Budgeted at over $200 million, it is the most expensive movie ever made. He plays Ben Affleck’s co-pilot, and is currently in the midst of night shoots. His girlfriend and nine-month-old baby girl are out with him. It can’t be easy fitting it all in. He is almost pathologically shy in interviews, too, and is not a man to waste his words or spout platitudes. But he’ll do anything to help promote julien donkey-boy, he says.
“Harmony’s got unfettered energy,” he raves. “He’s fearless. And a character like Julien changes gear so freely - it was just the best opportunity I could ever have. Harmony is The Don! The Boss!”
So much so that Bremner’s baby is named Harmony. Which of his attributes would you most like her to have?
“His high aspirations and true genius.”
And the least?
Harmony Korine’s suffering reached a peaKorine: or a trough - something around two years ago, after Gummo was savaged by the American critics and before he made julien donkey-boy. Around this time, Sevigny was spending time in London (she went out with Jarvis Cocker and Paul ‘Dennis Pennis’ Kaye for a while).Korine began a project called Fight Harm. It involved him going out and provoking large strangers to beat him up. He would film this, then edit all the fights together.
He was, he reckons, “delusional” - he forgot how short a fight was, particularly if you’re fighting men who are much bigger than you. After six fights, he had 12 minutes’ footage. He would need to do another 40 fights for a feature. “Physically, I couldn’t take.”
“I was at my most unhealthy, mentally. I was getting myself into situations that were... I wanted to make the great American comedy, a cross between a snuff film and Buster Keaton.”
Did America need that?
“I felt I needed that. That was the future of humour. Comedy is the most violent [form] of all, because there’s always a victim. A guy slips on a banana skin and cracks his head. It’s a funny thing to hear. But when you see it, how does the humour evolve and translate?”
Were you doing too many drugs at the time?
Korine gives a long pause and pushes his Bloody Mary round the table. “Aaah... I don’t know heeh heeh. I don’t really like to talk about that kind of thing. There’s a kind of misconception that I was so drugged out that I wasn’t able to differentiate between my life and what I was creating. But the truth of the matter was that I was totally aware - am still aware - of what I was going for. If there were any narcotics involved, that was just to buffer the physical pain. Really, the drugs didn’t have anything to do with why I was doing that, no.”
Chloe, did you attempt any sort of ‘intervention’?
“No,” she says tiredly. “Actually, I got a call one night, really late, from a friend of ours. They said, ‘Harmony’s in hospital, and I didn’t know who to call but you. He’s been really badly injured in one of his fights.’ I didn’t even... I didn’t know what to say. We weren’t speaking during that period. Of course I felt for Harm, I don’t want to see him in pain, physically or emotionally, but I felt it was something he had to live through.”
It must have been hard not to go see him.
“It was, but there was a lot of anger there,” she shrugs. “I felt a lot of anger for him. And he probably had it coming.”
“Heeh heeh,” titters Korine.
Not for the first time do these two appear to be an old married couple.
We head out into the New York night. She hasn’t made a movie in a year, and is only just beginning to prepare for getting behind the camera for Jokes. He’s writing a script called The Rabbit Hole, “a secret kind of movie.” He’s slowing down after a manically productive few years (he had exhibited his art on both coasts, has recently had a show at the Galerie Du Jour in Paris, and has put together a thousand-copy limited edition $95 book of photographs of Macaulay Culkin, who starred in the video he directed for Sonic Youth, Sunday.
It’s downtime for both of them. Since Korine moved to Darien six months ago, he says, “I’ve never been happier.” In New York, says Sevigny, “it was really hard for Harmony. There were lots of distractions, people coming by all the time, lots of bad influences surrounding him. Out in Connecticut, he had more time to himself, and more time to focus on his work. On his calling, do what he’s here to do: write and make movies.”
Is he maturer then? Did you notice a change for the better in him?
Sevigny: (Teasingly) I did.
Korine (Not getting it) You did?
It’s Friday afternoon, and Harmony Korine is mowing his lawn in lovely, quiet, upscale Darien. His neighours are complaining about the height of his grass. He’s gotta get it done.
Another reason he and Chloe live in Darien, he had earlier explained, is because they have a big fear of ‘Hurricane X.’
“The inevitable doom of Hurricane X,” Sevigny had shivered. “It’s predicted that Hurricane X will hit Manhattan. And because Manhattan is on a right angle to one of the gulf streams...”
“...it’s the perfect target for Hurricane X,” said Korine, sagely. “The weather people have been tracking this phenomenon for 15 years. It’s not a question of if it’s gonna happen, but when.”
“All of lower Manhattan will be under water,” said Sevigny, juicily. “People will go down to the subways but they’re gonna drown. Heeurgh.”
“Basically,” drawled Korine, “we’re waiting for this apocalyptic flood to destroy the city.”
They’ve started stockpiling food, he added.
They’re built a shelter under the house, he lied. Chloe’s also buying a boat, he said, “I’m an excellent sailor, she nodded. “Whereas I,” he twitched, “get seasick getting a suntan. Heh.”
Harmony ‘n’ Chloe: they are - and they are not - like any other young couple in love. And they’re all right now.