The American filmmaker Harmony Korine is only 40, yet he’s been writing and making movies for around 20 years. He wrote ‘Kids’ for Larry Clark when he was 19, and directed ‘Gummo’ (1997), ‘Mister Lonely’ (2007) and ‘Trash Humpers’ (2009).
His new film ‘Spring Breakers’ is relatively slick by comparison. It tells of three girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who rob a diner to pay for a booze-and-sex trip to Florida with a fourth pal (Selena Gomez). Once there, they fall into a fleshy, violent, druggy nightmare when they run into Alien (James Franco), a ridiculous, clownish but dangerous gangster. It might be the most polished film Korine has ever made, but it still has a slyly subversive edge – not least the stunt casting of all-American ex-child stars Hudgens and Gomez.
So, I notice you turned 40 this year.
‘Oh shit, you bring that up! Son of a bitch! It feels crazy. I don’t know what happened.’
Was that significant for you? Is ‘Spring Breakers’ your midlife crisis movie?
‘No, there’s no crisis! In fact, it doesn’t even feel like midlife. I don’t know what happened to those years. I still feel like a kid. I don’t feel like mentally I’ve matured all that much.’
You started out in your teens with ‘Kids’, writing about people your own age. Do you find it easy to write about characters who are now a lot younger than you?
‘I don’t really struggle with it. It’s not like I’m concerned with things trying to be real. In some ways, the film is just a refiltering of certain zeitgeist, iconic moments, images and sounds. It’s never my intent to make documentary or even show truth in film. I want to make something that hovers above that – something that’s more transcendant, exciting and wild. Usually, the movies take place in the real world, but they’re pushed in a certain direction that’s more hyper-extreme, hyper-stylised.’
‘Spring Breakers’ clearly needed a tricky balance of trashy and serious, throwaway and thoughtful. Do you feel you nailed what you set out to do?
‘Definitely. I wanted to make a mash-up of all those things. At the same time, I wanted to make a film that was closer to something musical or experiential. Something that was more physical and more like music in some ways or like a drug experience. Something like a pop poem.’
How did you land on this world of the spring break as a subject?
‘I’d been collecting spring break imagery for a couple of years and was using it for artwork. I was thinking about it in terms of painting. Then I saw there was this amazing world. The details spoke to me: the colours, the nail polish, the bathing suits, the hyper-sexualised, hyper-violent subject matter, but with all these childlike, pop-culture indicators around them, like “Hello Kitty” bags. I loved the idea of all these things working together.
‘It was never meant to be an exposé of spring break or even of youth culture. It was more about what happens after that – what happens on the back roads, the criminal element of the story, the beach noir, the more sinister nature of things. I wanted it to be like gangster mysticism or something.’
How did you land on the look of the film? It’s colourful and garish at times, but there’s a beauty to it too.
‘It’s a culture of surfaces we’re exploring, so when I was working with Benoît [Debie, director of photography] and the production designer, I felt a strange pull towards the candy-coloured and the slick and poppy. I’d want to light rooms with the colours of Skittles candy or Starburst fruit chews. I’d always say: “Pull out the yellow Starburst or the red Skittle.” I wanted that to be part of the film and its language. The tone is just as important as the characters.’
How did you work with James Franco to build up the character of Alien, this crazy clown of a gangster?
‘He’s so busy, he’s impossible to pin down. So, over a year I’d inundate him with references, images, audio clips and photos. He very rarely responded, so I didn’t know if he was taking it all in. But when we started filming, I realised he’d been absorbing it all in his own way.’
Your stars, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, are squeaky-clean teen idols in the US and here they play completely different characters. Was it nice to feel you were flipping expectations?
‘Sure, it’s exciting, it’s an extra layer. It’s important they can play the character too. But on a conceptual layer, it’s exciting. These girls are representative of that culture and so there’s a connection to the pop myth that feeds into the story. I love that. I love that what you’re used to seeing these girls do is completely different. It’s fun to rail against expectations.’
This is your most accessible film. Films like ‘Gummo’ and ‘Trash Humpers’ were much more leftfield. Yet here you’re showing that the mainstream can be as weird and out-there as any other areas of culture.
‘Yeah, it’s also making sense of it all and saying that things that are culturally base, which are usually seen as being vile and without merit, can also have poetry to them too. It’s too easy to be dismissive. You can say there’s beauty in the horror of it.’
‘Spring Breakers’ opens in the UK on April 5.
Read our review of 'Spring Breakers'
What threatens to be a down ’n’ dirty tits ’n’ ass fest actually turns into a warped fairytale of the American teen dream of hedonism and crime, one that takes itself just seriously enough not to be dismissed as trashy exploitation. It’s campy and comic at times, but Korine also gives the film a downbeat, melancholic edge, with voiceovers, pointed repetition of dialogue and images, and hallucinatory camera work, sound and editing.