Alex Moore / Death + Taxes / August - September 2008

I’d heard all kinds of things about the man. There was the burning down of not one but two houses. The rumors of crack addiction. The three months in jail. There was the attempted documentary, Fight Harm, which consisted of Korine provoking everyday street guys into beating the shit out of him. Korine’s only rule for his friend David Blaine, who was filming the fiasco: Keep filming, no matter what. Don’t break it up unless I’m going to actually die. The project was eventually abandoned when Korine was hospitalized.

And then, of course, there are his films. Korine became famous as a brutally unflinching iconoclast when he wrote Kids at age 19. With Gummo and julien donkey-boy, he joined the ranks of filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Werner Herzog, whose artistic vision, while respected the world over, translated to most casual viewers as “really hard to watch.” After a series of misadventures (see above) that took him away from making movies for over five years, Korine re-emerges in 2008 with Mister Lonely.

But Mister Lonely is altogether different. It’s the Korine version of a rom-com, about a Michael Jackson impersonator who falls for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. And while I’m sure Korine would insist that there is also humor in his previous films, Mister Lonely carries with it levity as well. It’s triumphant and human. And easy to watch.

So I had no idea which version of Harmony to expect in our interview. Maybe somewhat predictably, I found both. As Korine told me, he has always been both. But as we talked over mint lemonade in the Soho Grand, it was clear he’s entered a new phase both in his life and his movies. Still unflinching, but maybe less brutal. It’s a sweet spot that makes Mister Lonely one of the most enthralling movies of the year, and poises Korine to reclaim his seat as one of the most important voices in film.

Alex Moore: When did you leave New York and move back to Nashville?

Harmony Korine: Well, there were years in between. I moved to New York at the end of 2001, and then went to Europe for a little while, and then went to the jungle with these fishermen, and then moved back to Tennessee.

Moore: Which jungle?

Korine: My parents live in the jungles in Panama.

Moore: How long have they been there?

Korine: They’ve been there for a couple of years now. They live on the ocean. It’s all the way in the jungle, but it’s a really beautiful place.

Death + Taxes (August - September 2008)

Moore: I was shocked at how stark a departure Mister Lonely is from your previous movies. Where did it come from? What made you want to do things differently?

Korine: I guess I just felt differently about things. Around the time of my last movie [julien donkey-boy], something happened, and I got confused. I was living here, and I was unhappy with my station in life. I felt like the people around me were just trying to pick my pocket, and that was part of the reason I was going out on the streets and making those films where I was getting beaten up [The unfinished Fight Harm]. It was just because I was so disgusted, by myself even, and the fact that I was stuck in this piece of shit. I thought the noblest thing to do—I didn’t want to die or anything—I just wanted to go and live a different life that had nothing to do with movies anymore. I felt like it had left me as much as I had left it.

Moore: I read that Fight Harm, despite the brutality of it, was supposed to play like a comedy.

Korine: Right, that’s all I wanted it to be.

Moore: Now that some time has gone by, do you still think it’s funny?

Korine: I’m not sure. The idea was that one fight, two fights, maybe three fights, was not going to be that comedic. But I thought that ten fights, twenty fights, maybe thirty fights—the repetition was going to be hilarious. It can happen when you loop a single movement. I don’t really know what it was, but the idea with it was that looping the sense of violence—the brutality of the loop—would be really slapstick, that it would make people laugh. I also thought there was something exciting about the idea of bleeding for the people.

Moore: Kind of like Buster Keaton—the way you think he won’t fall down again, and then he falls down again.

Korine: Right, but then you can take it a step further like in Steamboat Bill, Jr., where he actually broke his back while filming the movie. As the viewer, you’re not thinking, Wow, he might’ve broken his back. My thought was, What if I actually broke something—and you knew about it—in a funny situation. It just seemed like it was evolution of humor. I wanted to make “The Great American Comedy.” I’m not going to lie to you, I probably was a bit delusional, but I was having dreams that the movie would play in shopping malls, like, on double bills with The Shawshank Redemption - that type of Hollywood fare.

Moore: When Kids came out, The New York Times called it a “wake-up call.” When you were writing that movie, did you envision it as such?

Korine: I never, ever go into it thinking that a movie is going to get a certain reaction. I go in and I know what my intent is, but that’s it. At the time of Kids, [directing] a film, a feature film, was so far away from what my reality was. I was just a kid living in my grandmother’s basement. I knew I would eventually make movies because I had to make films, but it was the first thing I had ever written. The stars were aligned with that movie. In the way it was received and all that stuff, I never expected it. The victory was in the making of the film, for me. In the end, you just have to make it, put it out there, and then make something else.

Moore: But even within the content of the film—you yourself were a kid, hanging out with guys like Harold Hunter. That was your day-to-day reality. Yet the movie definitely expressed a perspective on these kids and what’s happening to them. There’s an interesting dialectic between being down in it and also looking down on it from above. Is that something that you’re conscious of in your movies?

Korine: I’m always conscious of that in life. I’ve always been like that. I always like being a part of it, and also floating around. It was never too difficult for me to detach myself, even when I was inside of it.

Moore: Mister Lonely is more of a traditional narrative. Is there part of you that wants to make really traditional Hollywood movies?

Korine: Eh, not so much. I have love for those films, but my mind has never worked that way. I never thought in terms of genre, or a detective movie. Maybe my vision is narrower. The same things that made me laugh and attracted me to characters and actual people when I was fifteen still attract me now. I don’t think my sensibility has evolved that much. I’ve always been attracted to the same types of characters—show people, the marginalized, drifters, dreamers, tramps—that’s what I like. When I was young, my dad used to hang out with moonshiners and carnival people, so I used to spend time following the circus and traveling carnivals. There was an energy there that I can’t explain; an energy that in some ways I’m trying to get back to.

Moore: You used to travel around with carnivals?

Korine: Well, my dad made documentaries in the late ‘70s and ‘80s for this show on PBS called Southbound. He would go and make small films, kind of like what Harry Smith was doing with music, my dad would do with video at the time with his partner Blaine. One of the things was about this guy called Hamper McBee, who was a moonshiner and also a carnie, so I spent a lot of time with him as a kid.

Moore: What places, geographically?

Korine: Florida, the south mainly, because I was living in Tennessee.

Moore: You saw lots of carnie tricks?

Korine: Of course—it’s just life there. You see a lot of stuff. But there was an energy: something kind of strange and sinister, something fun, but something bubbling beneath the surface. Something really American.

Moore: So are you one of the people who believe there’s some truth in every joke?

Korine: I do. Maybe everything good is based in some kind of truth, so a good joke shouldn’t be much different. If you didn’t laugh at it, there probably wasn’t any truth in it.

Moore: Did you know impersonators? How did you get into that for Mister Lonely?

Korine: Nope, I never knew impersonators, and in some ways I was never even curious about them. I found them visually interesting, and they’re very obsessive characters. I wanted to make a movie about a commune, but I didn’t want to make a straight hippie film, so I thought there was a lot of comedic potential in putting these dead icons together and having them live together. Like seeing the pope smoke a joint or showing Sammy Davis Jr. washing socks. I thought that something good could come out of it. I did very little research into actual impersonators. I wasn’t so much trying to make a movie about impersonators and how they live, as I was trying to make a movie about how these specific characters live.

Moore: I couldn’t stop laughing every time Abraham Lincoln would swear.

Korine: [Laughter.] Yeah, he had kind of a foul mouth.

Moore: Do you think Kids would have been different if you had directed it?

Korine: No, I couldn’t have directed it - I wasn’t ready to direct. It happened the way it should have happened. I was just starting, just beginning, and it was great for me to able to be there and watch Larry [Clark] direct at that time, and watch how he navigated it, and the troubles that he had, and also what he was good at. I didn’t have that pressure, I wasn’t ready for it at that point, but I was ready afterwards.

Moore: When you saw it were you happy with it? Were there things you would have tweaked?

Korine: I didn’t grapple too much with it. I thought it was pretty good, all things considered. It was a good interpretation of the screenplay at the time. I haven’t watched it since then, but I remember it felt pretty accurate.

Moore: If there’s one line in a movie of yours that distills what they’re about on a philosophical level for me, it’s during the voice-over at the beginning of Gummo, when he says, “There was this tornado, and my neighbor got torn in half, and they could never find his head, and I always thought that was funny.” Because there’s that tension between the terrible and the comedic.

Korine: I was always attracted to things that made you feel guilty about liking them. Like, I always thought it was too easy to feel one way. I rarely felt one way about something. You could see a bad guy, but you could still sympathize; you could hear a terrible joke, but still think it’s funny.

Most people don’t want to go there, but there’s something great about being confused, about emotions in the abstract. Like, looking at something and feeling ten different ways about it: Loving it and feeling guilty about it; hating it, but desiring it. When I feel that way when I’m making movies, when we’re in the editing room and somehow that happens, the combination of contradictory emotions, those are usually the scenes I’ll go with. I’m always trying to find things that work on those multiple levels. Of course then there’s a large portion of the audience who’ll want nothing to do with it. But I make the movies for people who get off on that.