Harmony Korine has grown up, but the wild kid inside hasn’t gone away

Spring Breakers. Picture: Contributed
Spring Breakers. Picture: Contributed
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‘IT WAS like a special ops mission,” drawls Harmony Korine. The maverick filmmaker behind Kids, Gummo and Trash Humpers is referring to his new film Spring Breakers.

More specifically, he’s referring to the challenge of shooting a low-budget, experimental heist film while the assembled paparazzi and bloggers tried to get a handle on why former Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens were making a film full of gun-wielding college girls in day-glo bikinis and My Little Pony ski-masks.

“I’d never worked with anyone who has that kind of chaos and fanaticism surrounding them,” marvels Korine of Hudgens and Gomez (the latter brought an extra level of tabloid scrutiny courtesy of her relationship with then-boyfriend Justin Bieber).

“We’d jump out to shoot the scenes and before you knew it there would be 100 people with cameraphones and long lenses blogging about it. At some point I started to get interested in the idea that there were two separate films being made. There was the one being made by the paparazzi and the bloggers, and there was one that was completely separate that I was making.”

As it happens, that schism dovetailed nicely with the theme of Spring Breakers. Set against the backdrop of the debauched American college ritual, Spring Break – in which students arrive en masse at beach resorts across the US for a hard-partying week of alcohol and other drug-fuelled hedonism – the film, which also stars James Franco as a gold teeth-wearing, cornrow-sporting “gangster mystic” (Korine’s phrase), reflects the way vacuous surface details can often mask something much darker.

It’s something Korine says he first noticed a couple of years ago when he began collecting Spring Break imagery for a possible art project. “The depictions of it were all hyper sexual and violent, but around it were all these details that were really childlike. There was lots of nail polish and Hello Kitty bags and flip-flops; I just found there was this really interesting duality at work.”

Fascinated by the underlying criminal aspect of this childlike impulse to cut loose and escape reality, he abandoned the art project and instead fashioned a story about four college girls (played by Gomez, Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel) who rob a fast-food outlet to fund their trip to Florida and end up embroiled in a violent world of drugs and guns. If it sound like every cautionary teenage tale ever told, it’s not. Korine eschews conventional narrative, easy-to-glean morality and spelled-out explanations, and presents a world that is, in his words, “more of an impressionistic reinterpretation of everything in it” than an attempt to hold a mirror up to a debased culture.

“I wasn’t really interested in doing a documentary” insists Korine, whose debut script for Kids – written when he was just 18 – gained notoriety precisely because it was a raw, unfiltered, documentary-like reflection of his then-peer group.

“I wasn’t even really concerned with the idea of truth in Spring Breakers,” he continues. “It’s more of a feeling I’m trying to get at. I wanted to create something that was a hyperreality, something closer to a video game. ”

Needless to say, in lieu of an explicit social message, much of the commentary surrounding the film has focused on the violent or explicit nature of the images Korine has chosen to deploy – as opposed to, say the feverish and poetic way he’s juxtaposed them to create the overall mood.

Korine, though, is unapologetic about the way he makes films.

“From the beginning, I just imagined movies differently,” he says. “I’d always imagined images and sounds coming from all directions and liked the idea of liquid narratives that explode any idea of logic and story.”

If Spring Breakers proves anything it’s that even after 22 years of making films, Korine’s work is no less provocative, even if he is. Having gone off the rails in his late twenties and disappeared from filmmaking for eight years (returning with the plaintive, Scottish-set Mr Lonely in 2007), these days he says he cares about the reaction to his films and just wants people to enjoy his movies.

Which is still a surprising thing to hear from someone who once tried to harness audience hostility by goading strangers into beating him up on film for his long since abandoned opus, Fight Harm.

“You know, it’s weird, that’s something that has followed me everywhere” he says when I bring up the now infamous project. “I was probably not in the most healthy place, psychologically. I ended up in hospital and in jail and was having to take a lot of drugs, so after about nine fights I abandoned the project.”

He still has the footage, although he’s never screened it publicly and isn’t sure he ever will. “I don’t know if the idea, in and of itself, is maybe better.”

As we wrap up, I ask if, now that he’s 40, married and a father, he feels much different from the filmmaker he was back then. “Sure, I still feel pretty connected to him,” he says. “It’s just that in the beginning I was a kid and I was just wild and I had no buffer. I had no way of containing my thoughts so I was just putting it out there in every way imaginable. That’s also part of what got me into trouble, because I couldn’t be contained.

“But you know what?” he says. “I’m grateful to that kid back then. He was living a life.”

• Spring Breakers is released on 5 April