Ben Reardon / i-D / May 2005
Harmony Korine's films and notorious personal life helped define the downtown New York of the late Nineties, but the pressure of success took its toll on the young auteur who retreated into the shadows. After five years away from the spotlight, the director returns to talk with close friend, mentor, and business partner, agnes b, about art, life and finding happiness. O' Salvation!
Ninties culture was a greedy old dog, stuffing its face with the newest product/personality/gadget/clothing that money could buy. Magazines popped faster than cooking corn, devouring the meaning of cool and, more often than not, feeding on the same bones as their competitors. During these heady, media-saturated days two names were seemingly everywhere and would later come to epitomise the era's cult cinema.
Chloe Sevigny and Harmony Korine were the downtown NY duo that apparently had it all: looks, attitude, talent and, most importantly, each other. Their first cinematic collaboration came in the form of the Korine-penned, Larry Clark directed Kids, a film that straight up created a white-hot furore. Its taboo subject matter and overly-intimate style acted as a wake-up call to a shocked, older generation and broke a new wave of previously unknown names. Leo Fitzpatrick, Rosario Dawson, the late Justin Pierce and Chloe and Harmony traded obscenities about sex, drugs and AIDS, exposing the way a new generation spoke, acted, looked and partied. The heavily voyeuristic attitude disgusted some, gained cult status with others, and roundly divided critics. Penned by then-unknown teenage pro-skate rat Harmony, the film documented a time in society when promiscuity amongst teens was rife and, significantly, viewed the AIDS epidemic from a heterosexual standpoint.
Working together for the second time back-to-back, the pair nailed the fiilm Gummo, with Harmony naturally slipping into the role of first-time director and writer, and Chloe credited as star and costume designer. In the days before Jerry Springer and Eminem, Gummo showed trailer life in its purest, most warped state in a beautiful, unnerving and original piece of cinema which sealed its stars' reputations. Appearing on David Letterman and fan letters from heroes Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci confirmed the fact, but whereas Chloe courted and slurped up the adulation, Harmony's shoulders buckled under the pressure. Following their next joint venture julien donkey-boy (filmed under the Dogme '95 manifesto), Chloe and Harmony split. Rumours of drug taking, arson and violence trailered Harmony whilst Chloe graduated to become an Oscar nominated actress.
Harmony's prolific output had seemingly been quashed - he had pissed on his own bonfire. In reality, however, the young auteur was unwell and feeling the pressure. Harmony realised the party was over and, like Rumplestiltskin, danced over his burning embers, flying all the way from America to the relatively safe havens of Paris and London.
...Step in agnes b. A kind, intoxicatingly-inspired figure with a distinctly French sensibility, agnes b has long nurtured and encouraged Harmony's raw talent. Hair scraped back, cigarette permanently hanging from lip, agnes has been rebelling ever since taking to the streets in '68 as part of the French capital's infamous riots. And whilst she does not engage in obvious acts of rebellion, a punk rock attitude is evident in her refusal to conform. In the way, for example, that she point-blank refuses to advertise her company. The way that she champions AIDS organisations and humanitarian projects. And in the way her clarity in clothing remains as true today as it was in '74. Tirelessly championing avant-garde art as well as producing film under her sideline company Love Streams (named as a tribute to John Cassavetes), her cultural commitment has drip, drip dripped into the subconscious of the masses - think hard and I bet you can picture her signature scrawled at the bottom of one of your favourite film posters or on the back of an invite to some great party. Unlike other designers, agnes hasn't sold out or turned her name into a brand, choosing instead longetivity and creative independence.
And so on to today, when both buddies are joining forces to launch a new production company, aptly titled O' Salvation. It's been five years since Harmony's last interview, and it's the first time they have spoken together about this new project. O' Salvation indeed.
Ben Reardon: How did you guys first meet?
agnes b: It was in Venice the first time. I went to see the screening of julien donkey-boy. Because Air France was very late to arrive I didn't see the movie but I went to the hotel and I saw Harmony. We met in the corridor upstairs and we spoke for, like, ten, fifteen minutes. That was the first time we met each other.
Reardon: When were you first aware of Harmony's work?
agnes b: I saw Gummo before, that's why I went to Venice to see julien donkey-boy. Then we produced the subtitles in France for both films. People loved the movie, both movies. They are just waiting for the next one (laughs).
Harmony Korine: God, me too.
Reardon: When was the first time you were aware of agnes' work then, Harmony?
Korine: When I first moved to New York, when I came up from Tennessee. My apartment was on Prince Street and I'd walk down the street to get coffee every morning and there were always really good posters in the window of her store. I would always ask the lady working if I could buy the posters. They always said no. They were were the kind of posters you'd never see in the States, foreign movies, really beautiful images. Also movies that weren't necessarily coming out at that time, y'know, older films like Cassavetes, Godard.
Reardon: So you first collaborated on the subtitles for julien donkey-boy?
Korine: At that point I was going to leave America and wanted to travel, maybe go live in Europe for a while and agnes and I started talking about maybe putting together a small company. To put out films, books. Basically it would as a venue to release different things I was working on. Not neccessarily my own work but if there was an interesting artist or a filmmaker...
agnes b: I very much liked this generous idea of producing other people's work. We called the company 'O' Salvation.'
Reardon Where does the name come from?
Korine: It's from an Alexander Blok poem. He's a Russian lyrical poet. I just liked the name. Plus we all need salvation.
Reardon: What project are you working on at the moment?
Korine: I have a movie called Mr Lonely that we're putting together right now. I think we start shooting in June. It's something that I wrote over five years of obsessing and near disintergration. Disintegrating under the weight of the idea and figuring out how to put it together. This will technically be the first thing that O' Salvation puts out.
Reardon: Are you filming in Europe?
Korine: Yeah, it looks like Iceland, Brazil and Paris but the majority will be shot in Iceland.
Reardon: How important is location to you when filming and searching for ideas?
Korine: It's integral. This is is all about location and ambience and stuff.
Reardon: Was it a conscious thing for you to get out of America to find a new visual expression?
Korine: Yeah and also it was because I wasn't really happy with where I was at the time. It was more just like... I had my houses burn down and it was at the time for me to go. I wasn't so healthy at that point in my life. So I guess it wasn't that I was looking inspiration, more that I was running from things really.
Reardon So how long has it been since your last film?
Korine:It's been five years. You know, I wasn't really sure if I was going to make movies anymore, to be honest with you. For a while I just stopped caring and I felt this general disconnection from things. I had to kind of figure out what it was I loved and tap into that so I could start working again. That was really important to me. I moved back to Nashville and got a house, and that's where I've been living, between Nashville and sometimes London.
Reardon: Where in London?
Korine: The snobby part of the city, with all the pregnant celebrities. Primrose Hill, land of the bourgeois celeb.
Reardon: Where did you feel the need to start creating again?
Korine: I had to get healthy again. It was probably like two years ago that I started to feel good. I started to feel like this is what I needed to do. To be honest it was the only thing I've ever been good at, so...
Reardon: Were personal film projects like Fight Harm [a documentary in which Harmony would go into bars and pick fights, resulting in a series of broken limbs] quite a carthertic release, to get rid of your demons?
Korine: Fight Harm was, I guess, a really strange time in my life where I felt the need to get beaten up on film. I thought it would be a funny movie. I thought it could make a really great comedy.
Reardon: Was it frustrating not having distribution for your work?
Korine: Not too much. Sometimes I think the idea or concept is just as good as the actual product. And the thing thing, the fight videos we'll probably put out at some point. So it's not like it'll be come out.
Reardon: What's the dynamic of your relationship? Are you business partners or friends?
agnes b: (laughs) Purely business!
Korine: She's my buddy.
Reardon: Is it quite a nurturing friendship? Do you feel maternal towards Harmony?
agnes b: Both no and yes. It was very natural the way we became friends. He makes me laugh, I love his work, he is very free. I think he is a poet. When I showing my collection Harmony was in Paris and it was a very nice time, we went out with my friends and Harmony was very very... He was dancing in the middle of the street! (Laughs) We had a very good time. He came to my place with David Blaine, right before David went into the box in London. Harmony did a reading outside. It was a great moment.
Korine: She's a real kindred spirit.
agnes b: I love his confidence. I like the way he's like, "Put these pictures on the table, do what you want??" He's like, "You do it, you do it." It's a very easy and enjoyable relationship.
Reardon: When you first saw Gummo what did you empathise with?
agnes b: I loved it. It was so different from everything else. Like when the man broke the chair, the boy eating his pasta in the bath (laughs). It was so magic. So many things. I love Harmony's vision. He'll just write stories. I'm not afraid of anything about Harmony.
Korine: I don't scare her.
agnes b: No! But you needed time. He needed some time for himself. When you came to Paris, you needed to be by yourself, to be outside. He was living in my apartment. I loved it.
Korine: I was living in her apartment and I was so out of it at that point. I started to have this phone phobia, where I was scared to pick up the phone and I couldn't remember who my friends were, or even if I had any. So I was like, writing on her walls. I was writing their names, and trying to remember their phone numbers, but all the numbers I would remember had like eigthy digits. I really destroyed the room. I had to piss in the sink because there was only one bathroom in the hallway.
agnes b: It was a very mental room. Like, animals have a place where they go and no-one will bother them.
Korine: That's how I lived for a while.
Reardon: What's the premise of your new film, Harmony?
Korine: It's basically about a commune in Iceland.
Reardon: Is it improvised?
Korine:No. This movie's not improvised, it's pretty much, for me, the most structured thing I've written since the first movie I wrote. It's an allegory. It's two stories that run parallel. It's a lot different than anything I've ever done. More ambitious.
Reardon: You both started your careers at a young age. As you grow older, do you think, feel wiser or do you worry that things will start drying up?
Korine: We'll see. You can never be too wise but, nah, not so much about things drying up, unless you are a woman. If that happened I can always just disappear.
Reardon: Is that what you love about Paris?
Korine: I don't really love any place. I like different things about different places. Obviously Paris is beautiful. It's an amazing city but I've never felt at any time that I lived anywhere that was where I wanted to be, y'know, that's exactly where I wanted to be. But Paris is nice. The world is a good place to just kind of... keep walking.
Reardon: Do you feel pressure about the next movie?
Korine: No, not so much. I'm excited to do it. Obviously there's a bit of pressure from within but I'm not nervous about it. I'm excited to try different stuff I've never done before. To push myself. I'm excited to make movies again because I wasn't sure I was going to do it again.
agnes b: I love his images, what he does, the way he transforms his movies is difficult, but beautiful. His work doesn't look like anyone else.
Korine: For a while I was making these videos of myself tap-dancing. I was doing this kind of black face tap-dance, Al Jolson type project. For a while I became really obsessed with creating a new kind of voice in tap-dance. So I made these funny videos, these tap-dance videos.
Reardon: Does your love of cinema stem from your father [documentary filmmaker Sol Korine]?
Korine: Yeah, you know that was like a huge influence. In a lof of ways the way my father communicated with me was a lot of times through movies or just through his love of films. I was always watching movies as a kid. It always seemed like an escape... growing up in Tennessee and being around a lot of people I couldn't understand so much. My Dad taking to the movies was a real escape for me. There was something magical about it.
Reardon: When did you start getting into cinema?
agnes b: When I met my first husband. I was seventeen-years-old. He was a great fan of cinema so he took me every night to see the movies in Paris. So I started my cinema education with my husband. He told me, "You are the only person I know who is scared of Charlie Chaplin." When Charlie was on the roof going down like that I was like "aaaaaargh!" (Harmony alaughs). I was scared!
Reardon: agnes, you have always championed New York artists - Harmony, Ryan McGinley, Basquiat. What is it that you love about New York?
agnes b: Many different stories but it's always the same. I met with Basquiat at the last show he did in Paris. He was next door in the the Pizzeria. He called me, "agnes, agnes", we spent two hours talking instead of going for dinner. He was calling me back in the night. I was meant to meet him in New York, but I never did. It was a great loss.
Reardon: How did he recognise you?
agnes b: I bought a self-portrait. He was so beautiful and tall with his dreadlocks, brown suit, white shirt and black tie. He had such a presence, he was so tall you know. I was happy to be able to speak to him. When I love someone's work I am never disappointed with the person.
Korine: I'm the total opposite. She's never disappointed, I'm always disappointed.
agnes b: I'm very positive.
Reardon: How important is fashion to you?
agnes b: I'm not very interested in fashion. I love people, so I think of people when I design. And I love to design, I love to do my work. It's not hard for me. I never go to any shows. I never go shopping. I love to watch people in the streets, they make me laugh a lot, it's very French to watch people. I love that. Each person has a little story, so fashion is not a word I use so much. I design clothes for people to feel happy and beautiful. I dress a lot of actors and musicians. I'm dressing Interpol right now, David Bowie.
Korine: Michael Jackson. (both laugh)
agnes b: I love Michael Jackson. I love him. I'm very disgusted by what people are doing to him.
Korine: Yeah, I think it's pretty sad.
agnes b: They are doing the same with Michael Jackson that they did with Tyson. It's a big machine that breaks people.
Korine: It's an American sport. They love to build you up just to destroy you. I think he's a strange guy. He's a character, he's probably our greatest eccentric.
Reardon: Would you like to direct more music videos?
Korine: I always turn them down, it's a real art form, to be able to think in three minutes. They're hard to do and I don't see many good ones and also it doesn't seem that many places play them. Even MTV only seems to play the same six videos over and over. At least it America. So it seems like a bit of a waste of time.
Reardon: You're also acting in the next Gus Van Sant film, how did that come about?
Korine: He just asked me. He was making this film and he asked me if I'd play this part. It's all improvised. I play this guy called Harvey with false teeth. It was just a goof.
Reardon: What's it like when youtwo hang out together? What a typical thing you get up to?
Korine: We take a lot of acid. Basically tons of acid and sheep fucking. We just love LSD (laughs).
agnes b: Silly fool.
Korine: agnes gets really good acid delivered. We kind of just go out to the pasture and trip. It's good. It's a side of her that's not often seen.
Reardon: Do you find writing easy?
Korine: When I was younger I wrote all the time and then with this film it was actually really difficult. I guess I wasn't mentally or physically in the best condition in the last five years. I'd written a script about a guy who finds the world's largest pig. And he puts a saddle on it and he puts adhesive on its hooves and he rides the pig up the side of the walls. It was called What Makes Pistachio Nuts? And when my house burnt down in Connecticut, my computer burned with it. It made me spiral out a bit.
Reardon: You mentioned your girlfriend earlier. Is she bringing you stability?
Korine: Yeah, yeah. We live in Tennessee, near Nashville. My girlfriend, she's a waitress, she serves the best food ever. She's a really good server. Yeah, yeah, it's good. It seems like a healthy relationship.
Reardon: I'm pleased for you.
Korine: Thankyou. Yeah, thanks man. I'm really happy.