Robert Nesti / Edge / May 8, 2008

At the age of 19, Harmony Korine broke into film with quite a splash as the screenwriter for Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, the photographer- turned-director’s look at teens, sex and AIDS. The success of that film gave him the opportunity -- at 23 -- for his directorial debut: Gummo, a seemingly plotless film that looked at the lives of the inhabitants of a Midwestern town still suffering from the effects of a devastating tornado some years before. While the film had numerous admirers, others were shocked at its depiction of its teenage leads killing cats, sniffing glue, and tinkering with life support machines. Two years later came julien donkey-boy, a harrowing portrait of a schizophrenic, modeled on Korine’s uncle. For this film the director used the highly restrictive tenets of the Dogma ’95, which made the film a jarring experience for some.

It also featured Korine’s mentor and good friend German director Werner Herzog as Julien’s abusive father. While the critics dismissed his work, Werzog was a fan, as was Lars von Trier, Bernardo Bertolucci and Gus van Sant. He and his girlfriend at the time -- actress Chloe Sevigny -- became fixtures of New York’s downtime scene; magazines touted them as the 1990s Bonnie and Clyde; but then it all began to unravel. A backstage incident on the David Letterman led to him being banned from appearing on future shows. (He supposedly shoved Meryl Streep.) Next he gained notoriety by picking fights in the street while under the influence of crack and filming them (for a project that was never completed;) and spent a two-and-one-half month stint in prison as a result of the numerous arrests he received during this period.

After that he appeared to vanish (at least from the media’s eye.) There were reports of drug problems, which led to his break-up with Sevigny. Two of his homes in Nashville burnt down in which he lost most of his possessions, which led him to move to London and Paris.

"I felt pretty debased and lost," he told a reporter from the British newspaper The Guardian last fall. "I became like a tramp. I wasn’t delusional. I didn’t think I was going to be OK. I thought: ’this might be the end’. I’d read enough books. I knew where this story ended. The story finishes itself."

Movie-making, it seemed, was behind him; but a stint in rehab and the encouragement of friends helped bring him back. Now a relaxed, bearded Korine sat before me at a downtown Boston hotel to talk about Mister Lonely, his first feature in nine years that had premiered the night before at the Independent Film Festival/Boston. Typically, it went off like a scene from one of his films, with an overzealous fan with Tourette’s sitting in the front row disrupting the Q&A; which Korine shrugged and took it in stride.

Yet no jarring Dogma ’95 photography or dead cats can be found in this film. In fact Mister Lonely lays claim to being Korine’s most accessible film to date. This doesn’t mean that it’s some Juno-come-lately -- it still has the stamp of his idiosyncratic talent. Take, for instance, its two narratives: one set in Panama amongst some missionaries, and the other concerning a commune of celebrity impersonators living in a Scottish castle. The two stories unfold independent of each other -- there is no conscious connection between them. In the former a group of nuns discover they have the ability to jump from a plane and fall to earth unscathed; in the latter a Michael Jackson impersonator is wooed by a Marilyn impersonator to move to the commune, where he quickly gets involved in the day-to-day activities of his fellow impersonators (who range from Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth II to Sammy Davis Jr. and the Three Stooges.)

Korine wrote the script with his brother, Avi, which led to our first question.

Robert Nesti: Who came up the idea of the movie, you or your brother?

Harmony Korine: I hadn’t really done much of anything having to do with movies and writing or anything creative. So I called my brother up -- he’s seven years younger than me -- and I asked him what he was writing. He eats a lot of Chicken McNuggets. When we were little the only way my mom could placate him was to give him these McNuggets, which he eats to this day. But he only eats them with the honey dipping sauce they had. So at that time McDonalds had discontinued that sauce, so part of the deal to get him to come back to Nashville to work on the script was that I had to find the dipping sauce. So it took me about three months and I found a place in Maryland that produced, so that’s how I got him down.

Nesti: So you hadn’t found the dipping sauce, this movie wouldn’t have been made. Who came up with the idea of it being about the commune of the celebrity impersonators, and the second narrative, about the missionaries?

Korine: I guess the missionary story was something I had thought about even before my last film -- I’d say a decade ago. I had these images of nuns jumping out of airplanes and riding bikes in the clouds and doing tricks in the sky.

Nesti: That’s quite amazing to watch in the film. How did you shoot it?

Korine: I like to imagine that they really were jumping. And they really were jumping -- there are no special effects. But I don’t want to ruin it by explaining how it was done. But when we were shooting, I was on the ground with a monitor. We filmed that in Spain and it was 120-degrees. That was the last thing we did in the movie, and it was really very technical, trying to figure out the shots and how people would fly and where the camera should be -- all these things we had to think about. And we all we had to eat were four-cheese pizzas. And it was so hot -- and after the third day, I started hallucinating from the pizzas and the heat. There were these nuns jumping out of the sky in this place that was like the desert -- it was a strange experience.

Nesti: There was a scene in the film that reminded me of a similar one in julien donkey-boy? Were you referencing your earlier work?

Korine: No, no. Other people tell me that they see things kind-of like that they see that I never really thought of until they brought it to my attention. No. I’m sure there are things in all the films -- I hope that there were -- that connect to the other movies, but I don’t do so consciously.

Nesti: I think it was said that you weren’t a big Fellini fan, but, it’s funny, this movie is very Felliniesque...

Korine: It’s not that I wasn’t a big Fellini fan. Obviously the guy is a master -- a great filmmaker. But the thing is that for whatever reason he is someone I never referenced -- I can’t say that I haven’t seen all his movies. In fact I stopped watching movies a full year before I made this one. I occasionally went to the movie theater, but I kind-of just wanted to have my head up my own ass -- I wanted to be in myself.

Nesti: This movie is all about celebrity impersonators. Are you fascinated with the idea of celebrity?

Korine: I’m not so much fascinated with that. I’m more interested in obsessive characters, or people who live outside of a certain social setting. People who aren’t happy with what they see so they go and invent their own lives. Marginalized characters -- tramps, vagrants, stranger people. The dreamers. People who dream, people who create their own language. There is an inherent drama there, so my intent was less a social satire than it was more a film about these strange dreamers -- these bizarre drifters. These people who invent their own lives.

Nesti: Do these impersonators take on the personalities of the people they became? That is, Marilyn is emotionally unstable, Charlie Chaplin is abusive, Michael Jackson is boyishly vacant.

Korine: In picking these characters that we chose to impersonate, we chose people that I like in real life, they were all performers or show people that I thought were interesting. But most importantly they had to be iconic and have a mythology, so that their myth could bleed into the actual narrative of the story. So I could take character attributes of Marilyn, for instance, her depression, and Charlie, his sadism, and incorporate it into the storyline.

Nesti: Diego Luna is quite charming as the Michael Jackson impersonator. He’s not quite a man and not quite a boy. And he tries really hard in his impersonations, but really isn’t close to Michael Jackson. Why did you choose him?

Korine: I always thought he was always a really good actor. And then there’s this thing about Michael -- he’s without color -- he’s not black, he’s not white; he’s not man, he’s not boy. So in some weird ways I thought he should be Mexican. I don’t know why. It just seemed right to me. It wasn’t even a big deal. The truth is on what little research I did do with impersonators, most of the ones I met looked very little like the people they were impersonating. Mostly they just willed themselves -- they had this desire to be somebody else. So it made sense to have a Mexican play Michael Jackson. There’s something very innocent and boyish about Diego, something kind-of sweet.

Nesti: You also cast James Fox and Anita Pallenberg as the Pope and Queen Elizabeth II. Did you cast them because they had appeared together in Performance in the late Sixties?

Korine: No. That’s what everyone assumes because it is obvious. But Anita is a friend, someone I met a long time ago when I moved to London. And I love her and always wanted to put her in a movie. And James Fox -- he’s a great actor, and I thought it was interesting to put him together. I also was able to cast a director whose work I admire -- Leos Carax, and Denis Lavant, who is one of the great actors in the world. He’s the only person I wrote the part specifically for. And I was also able to get Samantha Morton, who plays Marilyn.

Nesti: The story of the nuns falling thousands of feet and remaining unharmed is one of that brings up the notion of spirituality -- that God and miracles exist. Is this an expression of your own spirituality?

Korine: For me as a director I just can’t talk about this because I feel I need to leave some things undefined in my explanation. You don’t want to spell it out, but also it’s the movie and something I can’t express it in words. If I could talk it away, I wouldn’t film it. I don’t want to say something that would somehow contradict or refute what you got from the movie. It’s more exciting for me to put it out there and let you guys figure it out. If someone doesn’t get anything out of it, that’s fine to. I just want to get it out there.

Nesti: This is one gorgeous-looking movie. How did you get your cinematographer Marcel Zyskind involved?

Korine: He’s really pretty young -- he’s only 26 for a cinematographer. I work with very good DPs and have a strong relationship with them. And I like to work with different cinematographer for every film so as not to get too comfortable, and not develop a shorthand. I like to come with things fresh. I had heard someone told me about Marcel and I saw this Michael Winterbottom film In This World he shot. In the same way you feel an emotion or a connection with an actor or a piece of music, it’s the same way with cinematographer. The way someone composes a shot or the way a camera moves -- you can sense a personality, or a heartbeat when you watch it -- and that’s how I felt about Marcel. The way we work together is that I go to the set with some idea of how something should be shot and I work with Marcel to see if that can happen.

Nesti: Your parents moved from the States to Panama. Was visiting them there the reason why you set the missionary story in that country?

Korine: I guess it was. I wasn’t sure until the script was written that that was where we’d go. Again, it made sense because it is where they live and I know the location. I got involved with a group of fisherman known as the Malingerers -- they were more like a cult of Peruvians and Columbians who were searching for this special fish -- this golden carp -- this Malingerer carp. And one hadn’t been photographed since the beginning part of the last century. We never found the fish and I got into an argument with this one guy Hector, one the leaders about three-or-four months into the trip. I had heard that a Japanese businessman had been offering a hefty reward-up to a million dollars-for a Malingerer, which made me feel like I’d was being betrayed. I was a little upset that their intentions were less-than-pure.

Hector’s wife, who is autistic, use to walk around with leash with an invisible dog at the end of it. She gave me the leash and I went back to Nashville, and I put the leash on the wall in my basement. Three or four weeks after I got back, I started hearing a barking sound. Then, in an instant, I began to think again of this story of the nuns in airplanes and riding bikes in the sky and started to think about making movies again.

Nesti: Were you concerned that the fact the two stories seem unrelated would be a problem with audiences?

Korine: Um, no. Even though the stories never intersect there is enough. And I knew it would be controversial or that people would turn out because people don’t like to connect things like that. But I saw a thematic connection -- like it’s an allegory.

Nesti: You also appear to show a more sentimental side in this film. I think there was a moment towards the end I actually got choked up, and it left me thinking, ’What -- I’m getting mushy over a Harmony Korine movie?’

Korine: (Laughs) Definitely. Because I felt like, yeah. It’s life. Half of the time you’re laughing and then it switches gears. I never wanted my movies to be one way -- I never want you to get everything for every scene. The movie is to be experienced. Like when I’d see a Cassavettes movie, like Husbands, so that by the end of the movie I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s about. But I felt I lived with these characters, these people, and it touched me. There was something in an emotional sense. For me I never cared to make perfect sense, I wanted to make perfect nonsense. I don’t know. It’s strange. I try not to over think things. I go with a certain amount of intuition. Images are like that -- like the scene with Marilyn and her dress blowing up while she’s standing in the woods. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a scene that evokes that image of Marilyn and her dress blowing up, and then thought wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have that in the forest. From there I let myself dream and drift in somewhat lucid way.

Nesti: How do you get your movies produced -- they’re so poetic and out of the mainstream?

Korine: For this movie Agnes b helped a lot -- she’s one of the producers and a really great friend and partner in this project. I’ve never had an easy experience making movies, at least putting them together. But as difficult as it is, I try not to complain too much because I think the problem with filmmakers are always complaining that they don’t have enough. But in the end, you have to make do. So when I set out to make a film, there’s no option to it not happening. Like the characters in the movie, I’ll just will it.

Nesti: Why did you choose the Bobby Vinton song "Mister Lonely" for the title?

Korine: I was sitting in this barbeque restaurant in Nashville eating barbeque. And this guy sitting next to me began choking on an onion ring -- it got caught in his throat. At that very moment that song -- Mister Lonely -- came on the radio. And then there was this huge black guy with a cowboy hat who came up and gave this guy the Heimlich maneuver and the thing projected out of his mouth, and the black guy dropped him to the ground. And I just watched this guy lying on the floor staring up at that sky with that song on, and I though there was something to this.

Nesti: Wow. That sounds like something right out of one of your movies...

Korine: I’ve always been a person who leads myself open to notice things like that, not that you wouldn’t have noticed something like that.

Nesti: The difference is what you took away from that experience was the song.

Korine: I guess that’s right.

Nesti: Do you read the reviews -- do you care?

Korine: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t care about your reviews.

Nesti: How did you react to the Janet Maslin review of Gummo when she called it the worst movie of the year?

Korine: That’s a famous review. It was insane. She called Gummo the worst movie of the year when it came out, and it was the same year as ’8 Heads in a Duffel Bag’ -- it was pretty crazy. It was in a time before the Internet and I would wake up in the morning and all the reviews were faxed to me, and they were sitting on the floor. I picked it up and started to read it and thought, ’this sucker got the worst review,’ and then I saw it was my movie and I said, ’What the fuck!’ Herzog called me that day and said ’This is great. This is going to be a classic.’ It was pretty outrageous.