Gus Van Sant / Official Website for Gummo / 1997
Venomous in story; genius in character; victorious in structure; teasingly gentle in epilogue; slapstick in theme; rebellious in nature; honest at heart; inspirational in its creation and with contempt at the tip of its tongue, Gummo twists across the screen like an antic fried chicken wing. If the cast of cute and creepy southern high school parking lot legends were asked, "What happened to this year's cinema?" they would say "it's okay, it's in here with us," with a Children of the Damned glow in their eye.
Harmony Korine has come up with a completely original creation, as far as I can tell. To categorize it would be hard because it is so new, there would have to be a new category. There are so many influences running through Gummo: Herzog, Cassavetes, Arbus, Fellini, Godard, Maysles, Jarman - that a chainsaw couldn't cut it. There are also anti-influences like MTV, movie censorship, blockbuster movies, middle-class life - that linger as remnants in the rubble of the tornado-like Gummo.
I think that the people who are really going to become attached to this film are the young because they will be the ones who will understand where Harmony is coming from. Made by a young person speaking to young people through a sophisticated and refined cinematic dialogue of modern cultural influences.
Like Larry Clark did when he made Kids, Harmony causes us to wonder, "what are we watching exactly? Are these real people, is there a script? What is that, who are they?" Made in Cassavetes-like improv-seeming-but-with-script style but using Herzog-like non-actors almost exclusively, the point of view of the characters and the point of view of the camera are a blur in the same way that the script, actors and director become a blur when the film was created, so I assume. In this way Harmony has picked up some of Larry's tricks. The viewer becomes more than a voyeur, but a participant, or a mute presence among the characters.
As a twenty-three-year-old it is interesting that among Harmony's favorite writers are James Thurber, S. J. Perleman and Flannery O'Connor. He is also a Godard-nut having seen every Godard work. He is a popular culture know-it-all as well. He might hand a friend a copy of a Shags recording and say, "listen to this, it may change your life," knowing that indeed an obscure recording of a strange rock band experiment can in fact change your life - in the same way that Gummo has changed my life after I have seen it.
A good film makes me rethink the very process by which I think films are made. It is a very good film that makes me want to emulate it - and Gummo both makes me rethink the film making process and makes me want to create a film that is just like it. I feel somewhat the same way that middle aged pro golfers must feel when they watch the twenty-one year old Tiger Woods play the game of golf. They want to go out and play like that too!
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
An electrifying succession of images -- startling, hilarious, strange, tender, poetic -- fills the screen in Gummo, the directorial debut of Harmony Korine, the 23-year-old screenwriter of Kids. Demonstrating again his sure grasp of the language of teen life, Korine has created with Gummo a suburban companion piece to Kids: a portrait of small-town Middle American life that is both bracingly realistic and hauntingly dreamlike.
Gummo is set in present-day Xenia, Ohio, a small town that never recovered, economically or psychically, from a devastating tornado that struck some twenty years ago. Xenia is a place of grimy poverty and numbing boredom, of drunken parties and summer rainshowers, of casual cruelty and surreal beauty. Life goes on as it has for years and years, but hobbled.
Fine Line Features is proud to present Gummo, written and directed by Harmony Korine, produced by Cary Woods for Independent Pictures. Co-produced by Robin O'Hara and Scott Macaulay, the film stars Jacob Reynolds, Nick Sutton, Chloe Sevigny, Linda Manz and Max Perlich. Jean Yves Escoffier was director of photography, and Christopher Tellefsen the editor. Gummo is being released by Fine Line Features in North America and by New Line International in the rest of the world.
"I thought it would be good to make a film about America - Middle America, not New York or L.A.," says Korine, who was raised in Nashville. "I had this idea of a town that a hurricane had hit." Along the way, the hurricane became the tornado that struck the real-life town of Xenia in the mid-1970s, and Gummo became something quite different from conventional films. Korine jettisoned traditional three-act plot structure in favor of a collage-like assembly of scenes to tell the story of Xenia and the people who live there. He cast the film almost entirely with non-actors (out of forty speaking parts, four are performed by SAG members), frequently improvising from the script and creating new situations for his characters. Lastly, Korine shot Gummo in real, untreated locations near Nashville, Tennessee, and used a wide variety of filmmaking techniques, from the sophisticated to the hands-on, to convey the emotional truth of his characters' lives.
"I care about making new kinds of dramas, new ways to watch films," Korine explains. With that in mind, he felt that Gummo "didn't necessarily have to have a traditional narrative; it could still entertain and tell stories. I felt that if I took scenes that were interesting, that felt like slices of life, and put them together, then Gummo would become a narrative. It didn't have to be A-B-C."
Producer Cary Woods acknowledges that Gummo was something of a gamble, but one he was happy to take in today's cautious filmmaking climate. "I think the best hope for cinema is allowing people who are artists to make a movie that isn't wholly ruled by screenplay structure. This film is exhilarating for the challenge that Harmony took on, just for the bravery of it all." Woods has known Korine since he produced Kids. "I'm betting on him. I think he's a very good writer and, now, director. He's a storyteller, and he's gone out of his way to put images that are moving on the screen, and meaningful in some way."
With Gummo, Korine has developed a film aesthetic that is original and uniquely his own. Though Korine and his crew discussed various films and photographs, he notes, "we tried very hard not to reference other films. We wanted Gummo to set its own standard."
'Xenia Ohio. A few years ago a tornado hit this place. It killed people left and right... Houses were split open and you could see necklaces hanging from branches of trees... I saw a girl fly through the sky and I looked up her skirt.'
Those few sentences, spoken at the beginning of the film, suggest the tragedy, mystery and humor that ping-pong throughout Gummo. The speaker is Solomon, a skinny adolescent who, with his friend Tummler, spends his days and nights searching for any distraction to mask the boredom of everyday existence. They ride their bikes, drink milkshakes and tell jokes. They kill stray cats to sell to a local restaurant supplier, and spend their meager profits on glue for a cheap and effective high. They are heavy metal Holden Caulfields, funny and observant, with nothing but a lot of time on their hands.
Solomon and Tummler are juxtaposed against numerous other Xenians to show just how "everyday" their experiences are. Among the characters we meet are Solomon's mother who pays homage to her late tap dancer husband with a little soft shoe; Cole, who pimps out of his suburban split level; Bunny Boy, a half-naked teen who skateboards around town; and finally Dot and Helen, two awkward, white-haired teenage sisters who dote on their little sister Darby and their cat Foot-Foot.
Co-producer Robin O'Hara (who, with her partner Scott Macaulay, produced the acclaimed Tom Noonan dramas The Wife and What Happened Was ...) sees a connection between the often skewed events of Gummo and the tornado that turned everything upside down years before and relocated a television set in a tree. "These normal, everyday things are kind of displaced. You have all the ingredients of ordinary life: you have the family, you have pets, you have brothers and sisters, you have friends -- but one of them is in the tree."
Korine wanted Gummo's look to compliment its particular perspective on the world. To help him achieve that vision, he went after French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, whose reputation as a prodigious talent was cemented by his groundbreaking work on Leos Carax's Les Amants de Pont Neuf. That film, the most expensive French film ever made, made a tremendous impression on Korine. "It was like life, but it was more beautiful." Korine began taking steps as early as 1995, while he was at the Cannes Film Festival with Kids, to get in touch with Escoffier. "I just had to work with him."
The cinematographer, who has worked with such esteemed European directors as Lars Von Trier, Luc Besson and Agnes Varda, ordinarily commands a high fee, but worked on Gummo for a fraction of his usual rate. O'Hara has a simple explanation for why he took the assignment. "He really liked the script and he loved Harmony. There was no other reason for him to do this. And he was great."
Korine wanted Gummo to present the viewer with a succession of scenes with different visual looks and styles. Escoffier used banks of Kino-Flos (fluorescent film lights) to give Gummo a tone that is simultaneously beautiful and haunting. Many scenes are shot hand-held in a documentary style while others feature more pre-planned Steadicam work. And throughout the film are passages featuring some secondary characters in private moments. Still shots drawn from ordinary Polaroid photos, grainy Super-8 footage shot by Korine during pre-production, and acquired video contribute to the film's collage style, giving it an emotional punch and lifelike texture.
Korine's explanation of his approach to filmmaking underscores both his artistic vision and his discipline. "I wanted it to all come from different directions, to kind of fall from the sky. But at the same time, it's very constructed."
Korine shot Gummo in just four weeks during the summer of 1996. To double for Xenia, Korine chose the suburbs of Nashville: "This is where I grew up. These people are interesting to me, and I'd never seen them represented on screen in a true way."
'Tummler sees everything. Some say he's downright evil. He's got what it takes to be a legend. He's got a marvelous persona.'
Some of Gummo's characters are based on people Korine knew in his youth, and others are purely the products of his imagination. Whatever their provenance, Korine took care to ensure no one fell into simple good guy/bad guy categories: "Each character had to have dimension, there had to be certain aspects that were totally contradictory."
Korine stumbled upon his two central characters, Solomon and Tummler, by accident. He spotted Nick Sutton, who plays Tummler, on a drug prevention episode of "The Sally Jesse Raphael Show." Recalls Korine, "I saw his face and I thought that was the boy I dreamed of, that was my Tummler. There was a beauty about him." After weeks spent tracking him down, Sutton was finally flown to New York for a series of screen tests, and Korine cast him.
Macaulay, who in addition to being a producer is also the editor of the national quarterly Filmmaker, finds parallels between Gummo and the anthropological cinema of Werner Herzog, certainly when it comes to Sutton. "He's this person that Harmony sort of found and put in the middle of this movie, which is at times realistic and at times magical. I think of Nick as being Harmony's equivalent of Herzog's Bruno S."
The character of Solomon is described in the script as looking "like no other kid in the world," hardly an easy bill to fill. One night, Korine was watching The Road To Wellville on cable and he noticed Reynolds, who had exactly one line in the film ("Meat and potatoes!"). "He was so visual, and that's what movies are," Korine reasons, adding, "I never get tired of looking at his face."
Gummo shot in some of Nashville's poorest neighborhoods, places that are a far cry from the tourist's eye view of Nashville as simply the home of the Grand Ol' Opry. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Gummo is its realistic portrait of poverty and class division in "suburban" America. One location, only semi-affectionately dubbed by the crew "The Bug House," was a small home which housed fifteen people and several thousand cockroaches; bugs literally crawled up and down the walls as Korine shot his scenes.
"In Gummo, we're essentially seeing the kind of poverty that we're used to seeing in Third World countries when news crews are covering famines. Well, we're seeing that in the heart of America, five minutes from downtown Nashville," Cary Woods points out.
In a queasy coincidence, he notes that while Gummo was filming, there was a spate of cat killings by a gang of kids. Having witnessed the deeply entrenched poverty, boredom, and hopelessness of the area, he found the murders sadly less than surprising. "If you were out in those neighborhoods - and I think you get a pretty good sense of what they're like from the film - you could imagine those kids growing up and doing virtually anything, given the lives that they've led and the lethargy that surrounds them."
A party can turn from giddy to ugly and back in the blink of an eye; a smart, sensitive kid can enthusiastically roll off old vaudeville routines and hunt stray cats. Nothing is simple, and no one is simply defined.
'All right, we're rolling! I love this crowd!'
Lots of old friends were eager to help Korine make his first movie, like the two skinhead brothers who appear early in the film, champion skateboarder Mark Gonzales, and Bryant Krenshaw, the midget who demonstrates his physical strength during Gummo's volatile party sequence. Other cast members were recruited during the film's lengthy pre-production period in Nashville. Korine often approached people on the street, in bowling alleys and in fast food restaurants and asked them to play a part in his movie.
Not everyone was immediately responsive, notes O'Hara, recalling one particular instance when a married couple reacted quite negatively to Korine's initial overtures. "They told me if Harmony came near them or their kids again, that they were gonna shoot him. They would do me the courtesy of calling the police on me, but Harmony, they would shoot." Ultimately, though, O'Hara says that even they were won over, and the entire family - mother, father, and children - are in Gummo. "They ended up almost being crew people. We were with them all the time."
These non-actors easily mixed with acclaimed pros like Max Perlich and Linda Manz, the Days of Heaven star making her first screen appearance in 25 years. Korine encouraged everyone involved to improvise. As he puts it, "The script is like a kit for a model, and the fun is in making things up off the script, taking things a little further and being spontaneous. That's where the unexpected comes in, and for me, that's exciting."
Macaulay believes Korine's improvisational methods yielded deep results for everyone involved. "For a lot of the non-actors, you sensed that it was a very emotional experience for them, and that they were tapping into something important."
'Hand me the shampoo. That's the conditioner. Hand me the other bottle.'
Korine found Xenia in the details. During the months of pre-production, he took a video camera when he scouted for locations, filming whatever caught his eye. He rooted out unusual and distinctive homes and exteriors to shoot in, making as few changes to the locations as possible. The furniture stayed where it was; whatever was piled on the floors stayed piled on the floors.
"That was all part of the story: the things that were hanging on the walls, the toys on the floor," Korine affirms. He continues, "I wanted the whole movie to be layered with labels. I wanted you to see the posters and the T-shirts. If the kids were wearing Nike T-shirts, then that's what they should be wearing in the film." Co-star Chloe Sevigny designed the costumes for the film, mixing pieces that people already owned with items bought at local thrift stores. Gummo's music also canvasses American popular culture, ranging from the Hoosier Hotshots to Madonna's "Like A Prayer," from Almeda Riddle's field recording of the traditional children's song "My Little Rooster" to the death metal of the California band Sleep.
'Life is a mystery. Everyone must stand alone.'
Korine realizes that some will find his first film puzzling, though that was not his intention. "I just wanted you to see these things that no one else would show you. And if you get something emotional from one scene in the film -- if there's one image you can take away from the movie after you leave - then it's a success."
People will naturally look for points of reference to describe Gummo. Names like Diane Arbus and John Cassavettes have cropped up, along with Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog. But Korine's art really is his own, says Robin O'Hara. "The thing that's stunning about Harmony is he is an original, in every sense of the word."
"I've thought about the movie a lot, and it's a very difficult movie to describe. You have to experience it," Cary Woods comments. He notes writer/director Korine is just 23. "I think we're all waiting to see where Harmony's going to be in a couple of years. But I believe what you're seeing, with Gummo, is the birth of an important and original new American filmmaker."