HARMONY KORINE, MAN OF DANGER
Tricia Kiley / Ifilm / 2001
Harmony Korine busted onto the indie film scene in 1995 at the age of 19 as the scribe of Larry Clark's controversial film Kids, a brutal, raw look at the highly sexual lives of a group of young teenagers living in New York City. Korine followed that effort two years later with his directorial debut, Gummo, a story again of teens and teen alienation. Gummo was a kinetic and fragmented mix of what looked like home video footage, a blurry acid trip and a hyper-realistic freak show. It was described by various critics as "remarkable" and "unforgettable," while at the same time earning the New York Times accolade, "The Worst Film of the Year." Despite - or because of - these notices, Gummo went on to garner Korine a cult following that includes not only young fans, but filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci, Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog (the latter playing Julien's father in Korine's latest, julien donkey-boy).
With his second film, Korine has grown up just a bit, and shifts his focus away from the purely grotesque of Gummo to the mind and life of a schizophrenic young man. Ewen Bremner plays Julien in what has to be one of the most realistic portrayals of mental illness ever seen in a feature film. Whatever one's feelings about Korine's filmmaking style, Bremner's performance is a powerful one, and will certainly earn the actor strong critical praise.
In julien donkey-boy, Korine is still obsessed with scattered images, strangely juxtaposed scenes and oddball characters, but there is more of a structure here, perhaps because he was under the strict guidelines of the Dogme 95 manifesto. Korine was, as he says, "invited to join the brotherhood of Dogme 95" by founders Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg . Dogme 95, for those who have not yet heard, is a short set of strict rules for filmmakers. For example, the manifesto forbids the use of artificial lighting or any kind of manufactured set dressing.
The guidelines are meant to return the focus of filmmaking to the pure art of storytelling, without any extraneous distractions. Although this realism can sometimes lead to the unraveling of story structure, for Korine, it appears to have narrowed his gaze on the characters and, in doing so, helped the audience to understand their actions.
IFILM met with Harmony Korine in Los Angeles to discuss Dogme 95, his use of hidden cameras and how his next film, Fight Harm, landed him first in the hospital, and then in jail.
IFILM: I want to ask you about your title character, Julien. Hollywood movies usually portray the mentally ill as either homicidal maniacs or sentimentally sweet characters. Julien, in contrast, is unsentimentally real. What are you hoping to show audiences? Is he just an interesting character?
Harmony Korine: Julien's character - at least his mannerisms and cadences - were based on my uncle, my father's brother. He's a schizophrenic who's institutionalized now, but when I was a kid and used to go stay at my grandmother's house, he was living there. I was always very much intrigued by him. I still am. Whenever I'd see any kind of mental illness in films it was for the most part, like you said, this kind of romantic, cute look at mental illness. I wanted to show it exactly the way I remembered it.
IFILM: Why did you choose to tell this particular story using the Dogme 95 manifesto?
Korine: I liked the Dogme stance, as should anyone who cares about film. I admire this idea of Dogme 95 being a rescue action. It's all about not hiding behind trickery and stripping things down. I had already made a film with a similar approach, and about a month before we started shooting julien, I talked to Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. For this specific film, Dogme 95 made sense to me.
IFILM: Did you find the rules intimidating or limiting at all?
Korine: No, it was liberating! I do want to make different kinds of movies, and different kinds of narratives, but having to deal with the Dogme rules made me have to improvise and freed things up for me. Ultimately I knew what the film would be; I just wanted to go at it in a different way. I liked the process.
IFILM: You know, some people say you broke the Dogme 95 rules.
Korine: It's like this strange misconception. I keep reading that people are saying I've broken the rules, but everything that was done was done in camera. Everything was done organically - the sound, the picture - there was nothing done in postproduction. I even shot it in my grandmother's house because I knew I had a ton of my old music in boxes in her basement. All the music in the film was from those boxes. Anyway, those 10 rules are technical rules that are written obtusely enough so that you can do whatever you want, while staying within the general structure. I do confess, however, to one of the actors making a pair of flip-flop ice skates. But the glue, the skate blades and the flip-flops were all found at the location. And Chloe [Sevigny] was not really pregnant. I tried to impregnate her myself, but there wasn't enough time.
IFILM: In the film you did something we've never seen before. You used tiny, hidden cameras placed on the actors' bodies - there's even one on Chloe Sevigny's pregnant belly - and then you filmed the actors interacting with the public. We see people who do not know they are being filmed.
Korine: I wanted to put an end to realism - people's idea of what realism is. At the same time I'm making things seem as organic as possible. I wanted to strip the realism down as far as I could and put cameras on actors and send them into situations. I'd set up a scene, and just document it. Sometimes I was not even there.
IFILM: Chloe Sevigny has mentioned that she loves the way you write and, because the entire film was improvised, she missed your dialogue. You wrote the script, and then took out all the dialogue. Do you think you will ever write another script -- dialogue and all?
Korine: It all depends. I have to figure out what I want to do next. There is a certain kind of movie that I'll completely script out, but at the same time I think that traditional screenplay format is just not exciting for me anymore.
IFILM: Werner Herzog has a principal role in the film, the part of Julien's father. How did that come about?
Korine: He actually called me after he saw Gummo and we became friends. It was wild because when I was a kid he was a big influence on me, more than any other director. I identify with his characters and with his method of making movies. I don't think anything gets in his way. He told me this: "If you ever have a part for a maniacal asshole, give me a call." And it just so happened that I did.
IFILM: Tell me about your next project.
Korine: It's called Fight Harm. I was making a movie where I was fighting people on the street - I'd make people fight me. The only rule was that I couldn't throw the first punch, and no one in the crew could stop the fight unless it looked like I was going to die. But after six fights I really got messed up. I got both ankles broken, I went to the hospital and then I got arrested. I wanted to make a 90-minute feature where it was just one assault after the next. I would fight every demographic. I'd fight a lesbian one night then I'd fight a Puerto Rican the next, then I'd fight a Jew. I'd try to get everyone in there. And they always had to be bigger than me. But I don't think it's going to work as a feature. I was also making a movie about tap dancing, where it was me trying to invent new styles of tap dancing, but after I got my ankles broken I couldn't do that anymore either.
IFILM: One last question. What's the significance of the title "julien"?
Korine: Well, I just thought, julien donkey-boy. And then I looked at the movie and thought, "julien donkey hyphen boy." It seemed to make sense.