Billy Chainsaw / Bizarre / July 2008

We speak to the genius behind Kids, Gummo, and Mister Lonely. Ever since Harmony Korine picked up a camera he’s bemused and outraged audiences with his honest, raw and emotionally individual filmmaking. The US director’s latest feature, Mister Lonely, follows dual trajectories that, while contextually similar, couldn’t be more visually diverse.

One plot strand concerns a disillusioned Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who hooks up with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). And the other plot’s about skydiving nuns. As uplifting as it is tragic, you won’t see a more original film this year. We quizzed Korine about what makes him and his movies so extraordinary.

Billy Chainsaw: What did you want to express when you were making Mister Lonely?

Harmony Korine: I hadn’t made a film in a long time, so I wanted to do a film about where I am in my own life right now. More than anything I always try to go with an emotion, to set up an ambience and not be too literal. I like to leave a story open-ended, leave it marginally undefined. When I’m making movies it has to be more about capturing the feeling for something I can’t really say with words. I think people pay too much attention to sense – I want my film to make perfect nonsense. To a lot of people that’s very off-putting but that’s always what I’ve tried to do with movies.

Chainsaw: Do you like viewers to develop their own trains of thought while watching your films?

Korine: Yes, in whatever way they please. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. I don’t think that there’s necessarily a single point to this film – it’s pointless. I try to make a movie that breathes, that has its own life you can interpret.

Chainsaw: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

Korine: When I was really young I wanted to be a tap-dancer and I tried to invent my own moves and routines. It didn’t work out so well. But I always loved films, so when I was 15 or 16 I started making movies in high school. One of the first ones I made was about this kid whose father takes him to see a prostitute on his thirteenth birthday. The kid’s fucking this whore in the backseat and his father’s talking him through it.

Chainsaw: Had you had first-hand experience of that kind of thing, or just read about it?

Korine: Some of the stuff came from first hand experience and a lot of it from friends. Growing up in Tennessee I began skateboarding at an early age and hanging out with some real characters. My parents were always kind of loose and let me do what I wanted to do. A lot of it was seeking that stuff out.

Chainsaw: The kids in your first movie, Gummo, were mainly non-actors – how did you find them?

Korine: I saw one of the main guys, Nick Sutton, who played Tummler, on an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael [US chat show] about glue-sniffers. He was a paint and glue-sniffing survivor. So we tracked him down. That was a strange experience trying to raise money pitching a paint-sniffer as the lead in your first film.

Chainsaw: Was the mentally challenged lead in your next feature, Julien Donkey-Boy, really based on a family member?

Korine: Yeah. My uncle. He lives in a hospital in New York.

Chainsaw: Is he aware of the fact that you used him as a character?

Korine: No. Originally I wanted to actually use him, but I couldn’t get him released.

Chainsaw: No matter how strange any single one of your characters appears on screen, that person exists in reality somewhere.

Korine: Of course they exist – I’m not making science fiction. I can’t say that I don’t enhance or tweak, but they’re all based on someone I know or have met or experienced in some way. Otherwise I’d be making cartoons.

Chainsaw: I get the impression you like going right inside the cracks within the cracks.

Korine: I’ve always liked going to those places. When I was a kid my parents said stuff like, “whatever you do, stay away from the stove when it’s on” - and I had to put my hand on there, I had to get burnt. I just wanted to know what it was like. I needed to go there to experience it.

Chainsaw: Why is there such a strong vaudeville aspect to Mister Lonely?

Korine: I always loved old school entertainers. The way they’d walk up on stage alone and bleed for the audience. They could sustain a living and make it through the day putting it all out there, doing a little tap-dance or stand-up. It was a great art form.

Chainsaw: What’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever filmed?

Korine: I once spent nearly six months filming a woman who lived near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was a voodoo tap dance priestess. She was able to do a series of moves that would send the viewer into a very deep trance. Her husband was from Haiti and was reputed to be able to turn himself into a goat. They were an amazing couple. Once, I saw her make a man vomit up six whole eggs.

Chainsaw: Your incomplete ‘fight’ movie had a particularly out-there concept.

Korine: I wanted to make a great American comedy. I thought you should boil comedy down to the essence, which for me is ‘a guy slips on a banana peel and cracks himself on the head’. So I thought I should film myself getting beaten up, because it wouldn’t be funny if it was me filming other people getting beaten up. I’d take a bunch of Quaaludes and drink and other drugs, go out with a camera crew and provoke fights. I’d never throw the first punch, but I’d go up to people much bigger than I was. One day I’d go to Harlem and fight a huge lesbo, another day I’d fight an Arab guy who would smash me in the head with a mandolin. Over the course of a few months I got arrested, went to jail and got my bones broken. People were really worried about me. They thought I was losing it and couldn’t tell the difference between a healthy reality and the fantasy world I was creating – which was wrong. I’m not disputing the fact that I was unhealthy, but I was fully aware of what I was doing.

Chainsaw: Can you tell me about the hospitalisation and incarceration?

Korine: A bouncer at a strip-club was standing next to a stripper with a balloon. I popped the balloon and he flipped out. So I started provoking the guy. He smashed me in the face, so I picked up a trashcan and went to throw it at his head, but it was chained to a light-post.

Chainsaw: A vaudevillian moment?

Korine: Right! He knocked me out. My left foot was on the sidewalk so he jumped up and snapped the back of my foot. Then the cops arrested me. I was in a holding cell for three hours, I was so out of it and I don’t think they realised the extent of my injuries.

Chainsaw: Back to Mister Lonely… it seems, in part, to be about creating your own world because you don’t fit into the one you were born into. Was that something that inspired you to make the film?

Korine: That is definitely one of the points. I’ve also always been intrigued and attracted to characters with really obsessive personalities, or an obsessive nature. This idea that if you’re dissatisfied with the world around you, you can in some way change your environment – that you can go somewhere and create your own world. It’s interesting for me to watch these characters because they can sometimes go so far out and become so isolated they begin to lose themselves… they can disintegrate very quickly or strange things can happen. Both the stories [in Mister Lonely] spoke about this idea of faith, change and identity.

Chainsaw: Where do you stand on faith and belief?

Korine: It kind of changes from day to day. But in the end I have a great faith in the hope that this world, and the chaos and the horrors in it, still have a beauty when there is some kind of poetry to things. I went through a particularly bleak time in my life and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get out of that. I know there’s something out there. I think there can be beauty amidst all the rubble.