A CONVERSATION WITH HARMONY KORINE
Tom Cunha / IndieWire / October 6, 1997
It's been about two years since Harmony Korine's screenwriting debut Kids hit theatres, provoking radically divided reactions. While some credited the film as being a strong social commentary on the decay of lower class urban youths, others saw it as an opus of wretched exploitation. Be that what it may, the writer of that juvenile decadence shock-fest returns with his directorial debut, Gummo. Harmony's latest project is a more toned-down, visual film which places more emphasis on image and less on plot while still remaining faithful to the prevalent themes in Kids (wayward youths, excessive profanities, drug use, etc. etc.). Set in the small tornado-stricken town of Xenia, Ohio, the film is an eerie yet fascinating portrait of the dregs of a lower class suburban society.
indieWIRE: When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Harmony Korine: When I was little. I just always knew I was going to make films because I loved the movies so much, but I was never concerned with telling other people's stories. The first time I saw Buster Keaton's face when I was little, I knew there was a poetry in cinema that I had never seen before that was so powerful. After a certain point, cinema stopped giving me what I was once getting from it. It was once to me all about life and then it became a process. I wanted to make my own movies the way they should be made. More like a collage or a tapestry. Something more like a feeling. Something that you are affected by.
iW: Gummo is a very visual film that has its own unique structure, quite different from most films.
Korine: Movies are visual. It's a visual medium. I wanted every frame in my film to be something and, at the same time, I didn't want anything to seem contrived or overstylized. I just wanted it to be something that you hadn't seen before, that was exciting to look at. Like with the Solomon character, I knew that any way I photographed him it would be exciting because his face was so amazing. That's how I cast, really. It's based on two things, the way someone looks and a feeling they put off. It's not even so much how they read lines. It's more just a feeling.
iW: You've said that you prefer to work with non-actors instead of actors. Why?
Korine: I'm obsessed with realism. The only thing that matters to me in film and artwork is realism or the presentation of realism. But, at the same time, I realize that film can never be real and that movies are never real, even documentary falls short. Cinema verite is a fallacy. There is still a kind of manipulation involved. What I do is a kind of trickery. It's a presentation of realism, an organic mode of action. But I'm totally manipulating everything. I'm totally making things up and that's what gets people angry, too. That's why I like to work with non-actors because they can give me what actors can never give me, they give themselves. When the magic comes out, they give you something that is very personal and unrehearsed.
iW: What attracted you to make a movie about these people, about this particular segment of society?
Korine: I always felt that Middle America was interesting. Anytime that people do films about America, it's always this kind of romanticized version, something that is just false, and I think it's disgusting. I grew up in Nashville, so I wanted to make a movie with those people I grew up with. I wanted to make the first great American film about America, because I'm an American artist.
iW: Was there much interference from the studio [Fine Line] when you were making the movie?
Korine: I have total freedom. If I didn't have freedom, I would walk away. I would quit. If they were telling me to change things, I would walk away because it wouldn't be worth it. It has to be pure. It has to be one man's vision and if it's not, it's nothing. The only way you can do that, at least in the Hollywood system, is to work under a certain budget. I had designed it in a way in which I was left alone. In fact, I never heard one word from them the entire time I was shooting.
iW: What do you think of many of the popular filmmakers today, such as Quentin Tarantino?
Korine: I have nothing to do with any of them. The way I make films and the way I see films and stories and characters is in a completely different way. It's almost like saying that if those people are making films then what I'm doing is not a movie. I can't really put it in any other words. I find no connections in my work and my sensibility with Quentin Tarantino or any younger filmmaker or any filmmaker, period. That's not to say that I'm better than anyone, it's just me saying that I do something that is completely my own and I do it for a different reason than most people. For instance, for me to watch Quentin's film, it's fine, whatever, but I don't get anything from it. His movies are what they are. They're pop culture and pop to me is funny, but it's empty.
iW: Do you worry about how much money your films make?
Korine: My movies are so inexpensive. This was made for 1.3 million dollars, so it's not very hard to make your money back. Working with that much money you're pretty safe because, at least with my name and after Kids, by the time your done with foreign sales and rentals, it's probably pretty easy to get your money back. I don't have very much money. I'm poor. The only thing for me is that I keep making [movies]. I don't concern myself with anything else.
iW: What's your family like?
Korine: My parents are Trotskyites. They used to firebomb empty houses. They have kind of disowned me, my father more than my mother, because I refuse to make Marxist propaganda. But they're nice people.
iW: Are film projects lined up?
Korine: I am planning on making a movie with all hidden cameras. I want to get to the point where I never have to speak to anyone. The dream is that I never have to talk to anyone, where I'm just constantly working and trying things. There is so much pressure in the film industry to make money, so the idea of failure and experimenting is shunned. I just want to get to the point in my life where I'm just constantly working and trying new things. But always at the core of my work is the wish to entertain.