Author Unknown / Interview / November 1999

Harmony Korine's directorial debut is the fall film most likely to disturb and disgust the most people. Here Korine talks to one of his newest fans, fellow moviemaker and rule-breaker Werner Herzog

If Harmony Korine's screenplay for 1995's Kids announced the arrival of a shockingly precocious observer of teenage wasteland, his first film as a director not only confirms his precocity but establishes him as both auteur and unrepentant nihilist. The nonnarrative, super-squalid Gummo - cryptically named for the absent member of Korine's beloved Marx Brothers - is a biliously Burroughsian snapshot of post-twister 1974 Xenia, Ohio, depicted as the kind of hellhole that makes the Manhattan of Kids seem like Disneyland. Actually filmed in and around Korine's hometown of Nashville, Tenn., this fiercely anti-Hollywood "genre fuck," as Korine calls it, offers a scornful parade of surrealist images that posit the gifted tyro as a brave new Godardian, though one who has something to learn about telling (or not telling) a story.

Korine numbers among his influences the obsessive German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who interviewed him in front of an audience at the recent Telluride Film Festival. The following was adapted from their conversation.

Werner Herzog: When I met you for the first time, Harmony, I was stunned because you have a strong physical resemblance to me when I was your age. I had a great problem getting a start in filmmaking because my puberty came late, and until I was sixteen or so, I looked like a very awkward child... although I think it's the hunchbacks who make the movies. Did you have a similar experience?

Harmony Korine: My mind was very fast, but I looked like a little boy until I was sixteen, too. I grew up in Tennessee, but I didn't want to live there, and when I got out of high school I flew to New York City to live with my grandmother. I was taking photos in a park one day when I met Larry Clark. We started talking about films, and I wrote a screenplay [Kids] for him. I then went to California to meet agents, and met Cary Woods, who became my producer. I was smaller then, and must have seemed childlike. He probably thought I stepped off a school bus or something, because at first he didn't believe it was me.

Herzog: Tell me about your upbringing.

Korine: If someone asked me what my father did, I wouldn't be able to answer. He would leave for long periods of time, and sometimes my mother would disappear too. It's not that they weren't good; they were just doing something else and I didn't know where they were. But I liked them when I saw them, and when my father came home he'd bring money and presents, so that was nice. I recently asked my dad what his profession was, and he wouldn't tell me. There were other things I didn't know, so I asked my mother to send my birth certificate to me so I could find out my real age and make sure everything was legitimate. I got it a month and a half ago and it said my father's occupation was fur trader, but I've never seen him wear fur or heard him talk about it. Maybe he's embarrassed by it, I don't know. Anyway, my parents let me do whatever I wanted, and I was mostly off on my own.

Herzog: What was the first movie you saw?

Korine: I think it was Harry & Tonto [1974]. My father told me I flipped out about something that happened to the cat in it. The first movies that really changed my life were yours, Fassbinder's, Godard's, and [Charles Laughton's] The Night Of The Hunter [1955]. My father loved the movies. We didn't talk much when he was around, but every day after school, when I guess most kids would go home and do their homework, we'd go to the movies. By the time I was sixteen, I was seeing three or four films a day, including a lot of art films. I saw all your films. My dad rented them for me at first, and then he took me to the theatre to see Even Dwarfs Started Small [1968] - which is my favourite movie of all time. It was when I heard the girl screaming in the cave and saw the monkey being crucified in that film that I knew I wanted to make movies.

Herzog: It's obvious to me that you never attended film school.

Korine: I hate that shit. It's eating the soul of cinema. Filmmaking has become like a process, and it's all garbage. All these rich kids who were going to be doctors now want to be filmmakers, but they have very little life experience and they're just writing really shitty wit for each other. That's perfect for when they go to Hollywood and meet the people who finance films, 'cause those guys are fucked up too. That's why films are the way they are now and why I've largely stopped going to see them in the last two years.

Herzog: I know you've expressed some desire to get away from writing screenplays, but you have always been a writer?

Korine: I've never wanted to tell other people's stories. I'd read books,and there'd be things in them I could relate to, but it still wasn't my story, so I figured the only way for me to talk about my life and adventures was to write. Writing's a great thing. I even have a novel that's going to come out next April called A Crackup At The Race Riots. I want to do everything: It goes back to [Charles and Ray] Eames [architects, designers, filmmakers] and [Isamu] Noguchi [sculptor] talking about a unified aesthetic. You can make movies, write books, do a ballet, and sing opera, but it's all part of the same vision.

Herzog: I see Gummo as a true science fiction film in the way it shows a scary vision of the future: a loss of soul, a loss of spirituality. And yet you clearly see all that with very tender eyes. I am very interested, too, in how you show the effects of a tornado on people.

Korine: When I look at the history of film - the early commercial narrative movies directed by D.W. Griffith, say - and then look at where films are now, I see so little progression in the way they are made and presented,and I'm bored with that. Film can be so much more. With Gummo I wanted to create a new viewing experience with images coming from all directions. To free myself up to do that, I had to create some kind of scenario that would allow me to just show scenes, which is all I care about. I can't stand plots, because I don't feel life has plots. There is no beginning, middle, or end, and it upsets me when things are tied up so perfectly. There had been a tornado in Xenia in 1974, and I decided to set the film there. After the tornado, people found dogs up in trees and playing cards that had been blown through brick walls. I heard about this one guy on a paper route who was sucked up by the twister and dropped off, still on his bicycle, fifty miles away, and the only injury he had was a scratch on his forehead.

Herzog: You use the tornado in your film to shatter the narrative form. All your screenplays - not only Gummo - follow that same lack of pattern. There is no story line, no development of characters. Everybody in Hollywood would immediately ask, "Where's the development? Where's the good guy and the bad guy?" You are obstinate about that.

Korine: I guess I'm lucky, too, because I've been protected by my producer and my agents so far. They understand that I don't want any kind of relationship with that other world. Early on I said I was going to make a specific kind of film and if I couldn't do that, or if I had to soften my vision, then I would just quit. There's nothing wrong with quitting if you can't do the kind of work you want to do. What's amazing is that I got to make Gummo as a pure vision and that it wasn't touched - especially since I'm young and it's a new aesthetic. In a way,it's a miracle that this movie exists in the current climate.

Herzog: What I like about Gummo are the details that one might not notice at first. There's the scene where the kid in the bathtub drops his chocolate bar into the dirty water and just behind him there's a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall with Scotch tape. This is the entertainment of the future.

Korine: It's the greatest entertainment. Seriously, all I want to see is pieces of fried bacon taped on walls, because most films just don't do that.

Herzog: Tell me about creating a sense of dirt in the film. Those people's homes are like garbage dumps.

Korine: I grew up in Nashville, so I knew the neighbourhoods. Certain houses were just the worst people were living like pack rats. In one of the houses, I found a piece of a guy's shoulder in a pillowcase. As far as production design went, it was about taking things away to make it cleaner. At times the crew would refuse to film in those conditions. We had to buy them those white suits like people wear in a nuclear fallout. I got angry with them because I thought they were pussies. I mean, all we're talking about is bugs and a disgusting rotting smell. I couldn't understand why they had no guts. I was like, "Think about what we have access to,"but I guess most of them didn't really give a shit. But Jean Yves [Escoffier], the cinematographer, was fearless. When the others were wearing their toxic outfits, he and I wore Speedos and flip-flops just to piss them off.

Herzog: When one of the kids in the film moves a picture on a wall and all these cockroaches come crawling out, the cameraman doesn't zoom in from a distance; he moves in physically, because he's interested. The first cinematographer I worked with said to me, "Werner, don't use a long lens - just move in. Film knows no mercy." You have to be bold, you have to be curious.

Korine: I don't know how other directors work, but I wanted to create a kind of ultra chaotic environment where things were just happening, and then shoot them without thinking about it. The line producers told me the bond company was threatening to take the movie away at one point because I was shooting too much film, but I said, "Leave me alone. The film we're shooting is the movie." Jean Yves said to me late one night: "Fuck these guys! We will fire everyone. It will be me, you, a fucking lightbulb, and the soundman." That was so punk. I was so charged by that; I felt I couldn't lose.

Herzog: He has to be given credit, because in some scenes he was alone, wasn't he?

Korine: Oh yeah. He got one of the most amazing scenes on the last day of shooting. It's where those guys are arm wrestling in a kitchen. I'd written the scene, but some of the people in it had just gotten out of prison that day, and I could feel that things were going to happen that night that were way beyond what I hoped for or imagined, but I knew they wouldn't happen if I was there watching them. So Jean Yves and I agreed he'd be the only person in the room with them. We rigged a boom onto his camera, and I shut all the doors and turned all the monitors down, so even I didn't know what was going on. I would just run in between takes and get them really excited. I'd tell them to throw the refrigerator out the window or kick the door. It got really violent in there. There were pregnant women in the room, too; it was scary.

Herzog: The moment I like most in that scene is the moment of silence when nobody knows what to do next. That's not something that could be directed.

Korine: When I saw that in the dailies, it amazed me, because Jean Yves really captured that awkwardness, that sad silence; it was beautiful. Most of the people in that scene were parents of kids in the film, so it worked out well.

Herzog: Can you talk about some of the kids?

Korine: When I go to the movies, there's usually nothing on the screen that compels me, and with this film I wanted to see people who were amazing looking. I was watching an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael called "My Child Died From Sniffing Paint,"and I saw this kid on it named Nick [Sutton] who's a paint - sniffing survivor. They asked him, "Where are you going to be in a few years?" and he said, "I'll probably be dead." I loved him and wanted him to star in the film, so we tracked him down. He told me he'd been on acid on the show.

Herzog: This is the older of the two boys who go hunting for dead cats. What about the one whose hair gets shampooed by his mom [Linda Manz]?

Korine: Jacob Reynolds. I'd seen him in a small part in The Road to Wellville [1994], and he was also in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial I liked, so we cast him. He's got an amazing face. Most of the others I'd grown up with or gone to high school with or knew from hanging out.

Herzog: Who do you want the audience for Gummo to be?

Korine: I never thought about that while I was making it, but I feel it's definitely most important if young people see it, because it's anew kind of film with a new kind of syntax. Younger people have a different kind of sensibility, and I think they'll understand it. But if someone said that I was the voice of my generation, I couldn't agree with that. I'm just the voice of Harmony.