Phil on Film Index

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"I did a lot of damage and fucked a lot of things up and I had a great time doing it" - An interview with Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine first came to public consciousness at the tender age of 22, when he wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark's controversy-magnet Kids. He followed this up with his own directorial efforts Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, distinctive and twisted pictures which sharply divided opinion. That seemed to be it for Korine, as he rapidly disappeared from view, but after eight years he has returned with the whimsical and imaginative Mister Lonely. I met the director when he was in London for the film's premiere at the London Film Festival.

You've been away from filmmaking for such a long time, how does it feel to be back with a new movie?

It's exciting for me. Like you said, I've been out of it for so long, it's nice. The best thing is that the movie exists, and I'm really happy to be here.

And during that time you were away, did you always feel that you would eventually return to cinema, or was there a point when you felt that it was over for you?
Most of the time I thought I probably wouldn't make movies again. I wasn't sure about a lot of things, so for a long time I thought I wouldn't be back doing it again.

So what prompted you to write this story about a group of impersonators?
Well, it actually started with the nun stuff. Years and years ago I just had images of nuns jumping out of aeroplanes without parachutes, on bicycles and stuff. I wasn't really sure what I was trying to say but I started to come up with a story around it; you know, this idea of faith and testing that faith. And I've always been attracted to the obsessive nature of certain characters, people who live outside the system, create their own universe, so I started to think about impersonators. I guess everything starts with visual cues, you know. I see a guy on the street with headphones and no shoes and his stomach sticking out, and I start thinking, "Wow, I wonder what his house looks like, and how does he make a living?"; so I start building the story like that.

And you wrote this script with your brother Avi, which is the first time you've had a co-screenwriter. How was that process?

It was good. I had never written with somebody else before in my life, and he was a really good writer who was just starting out. His brain works differently to mine, and I thought it would be nice to have someone there who could motivate me and who I could bounce ideas off. I hadn't made a movie like Mister Lonely, in some ways it was more ambitious than the other films, and I really wanted to do something different, so I thought it would be good to work with him. Basically, my brother is really obsessed with boxing and Chicken McNuggets, so I said, "Avi, you watch boxing as much as you want when we're not working, and I'll buy you three months worth of Chicken McNuggets and honey", because he really likes this special honey. That's what he got for helping me [laughs].

As you said, this is a more ambitious project for you in a lot of ways, including the budget. What was it like getting the film funded?

It was difficult. I hadn't made a movie in eight years, and it's like all my films, I never really make straight movies. Also, it we shot it in four countries, and it was a large cast. Even though the movie didn't really feel like an expensive movie when I was making it, because I was still dealing with the same things I've always dealt with, it was logistically difficult, just getting it all together. But it's never easy.

Are you conscious of an added pressure on you when more money has been invested into you project?

Yeah, but what I'm really conscious of is just trying to make a good movie, to make the film I wrote and the film I imagined. Yes, you always hope the film will make money, but my only real concern is making the best movie I can make.

I was interested in the fact that agn├Ęs b, the French fashion designer, was involved in the financing. How did that come about?
I met her with my last movie, she really liked that film, and she came to the Venice Film Festival, and we got along really well. We both wanted to do the same kind of things, and we decided to collaborate and set up some productions and stuff. She's a really special lady.

Are you looking to produce projects for other directors in the future?

Maybe. I don't really have any desire to produce, it's just a bureaucracy and I've never been a businessman, but I have a desire to help people make movies if I think it's going to be something cool and interesting. I would definitely try to facilitate some projects like that. If it's a director I like and it's a good project I would do whatever I can do to help make the movie.

When you came up with these characters, these very iconic figures, did you have any specific actors in mind for the roles?

It was mostly done later, except I knew I wanted to work with Denis Lavant, so I wrote Chaplin with him in mind.

He's really good in the film, and he pulls off lot of the Chaplin moves.

He's just such a great physical actor, he kind of harkens back to this vaudeville era. There's something very Keaton-like about him, something beautiful about his physicality, so I wrote that for him.

Aside from the impersonator part of this story, you have this whole other strand with the skydiving nuns and Werner Herzog as a priest. This is the second time you've worked with Herzog, how did that relationship first come about?

Well my relationship with him started when I watched his movies as a kid, you know, I watched Stroszek when I was about 13. The first time I actually talked to him was right before Gummo came out, he had seen a copy of it, and he told me to come out to San Francisco where he was living to hang out. He's a hero, there'll never be another one like Herzog.

One of my favourite scenes in the whole film was the one in which Herzog is talking to that man whose wife left him.

That was actually an amazing thing that happened. We were setting up a shot at the airport, and as I was setting up I saw Werner talking to this guy who I had seen before, because my parents live in Panama, and I had seen him walking around with plastic roses. I had never spoken to him though, and I just saw him crying while Werner was talking to him by the side of this small airport. I thought "that's weird, what's going on?", and Werner said to me "Harmony, put the camera on me right now, this is something special". So that's what we did, and that scene is actually the truth. That guy – and I saw him in the same place just two months ago – he actually waits there every day for his wife to get off the plane, with plastic roses. Every day he thinks in earnest that she's going to step off the plane, and Werner had just started talking to him, so when you watch that it's like a truthful retelling.

That's what makes it so effective, you couldn't really write that kind of scene.

You couldn't write it, and it's a long scene, but I thought there was nowhere I could shorten it. It has a kind of organic quality, starting off funny and going somewhere touching, and I felt it was nice to watch that story unfold. So that's his real story, and he's there right now, I bet you, still waiting.

Are you always on the lookout for real things like that which you can incorporate into your movie?

Without question, the most important thing is making room for that. I'm always aware of the life outside of the camera, so whenever we're on location I'm very interested in incorporating pieces of real life into the story. A big part of it is leaving myself open to that.

Another aspect of this film that is different for you is the fact that you're working with a lot of well-known, professional actors. What was that like?
It's something that presents its own challenges, you know? I felt like I needed actors, for one thing to get the financing, but also because those parts demand that kind of discipline. I mean, I don't know if anything makes me happier than working with non-actors, because it's so exciting, you never know what you're going to get. It's a special experience, and when it works it's amazing, but I enjoyed working with actors as well.

How do you work with the actors on set, do you do much rehearsing or improvisation?
What I do is, I always think of the script as a kind of model kit, or a jumping-off point, and I like to encourage the actors to make it their own. It's just words, you know, and I'm not too precious about it. Sometimes I like to see where the actors can take it, sometimes to places you never imagined. A lot of the time it doesn't work, but I feel like you always have to give it a try. For me, I feel like it's a kind of anti-Hitchcock mode of direction, where the film is a living, chaotic exercise, you know? Part of the fun for me as a director is discovering it and making it up as I go along, that's a big part.

How has the public reaction to Mister Lonely been so far?

It seems good, you know? See, I always think when I'm making a movie that it's going to end up being like the sequel to The Shawshank Redemption. I guess I'm really delusional, but in my mind I'm thinking "Man, this movie is really going to resonate with the general pop, and win a few Oscars and Tom Hanks will love it!" [laughs].

It hasn't quite happened for you yet.

Right, exactly, the movie comes out and everyone looks at me like I'm crazy. I've long ago stopped trying to predict what the reaction to my films are because I'm always wrong. The first screening at Cannes was nerve-wracking.

What is the Cannes experience like?

It's insane. Sometimes I think it's too much energy for one person to experience, it's just so intense. You're getting so much energy from so many directions, good and bad. Obviously, it's a great place to release your films and if it's well-received it can be really good.

You've been linked with a number of projects in the past few years that haven't come to fruition, have you got a lot of old ideas lying around that you might go back to now?
You never can tell, it's hard to say what I'm going to do next. I don't really know. I have a script that I wrote that I might do next, and there's something else I'm writing now, and hopefully it won't be too long.

You're not planning on resurrecting the fight project, I hope.

No, that was pretty hardcore. I don't really have the same kind of devotion to pain that I once did [laughs].

What are your thoughts when you look back at that whole period of the mid to late nineties, from this vantage point of being older and wiser?

It was a crazy time, but it was good, you know? I did a lot of damage and fucked a lot of things up and I had a great time doing it. I would say to anybody who wants to make movies, I would encourage a brief life of crime first. Seriously, go see what it's like to rob somebody, or rob a bank or just experience some sort of crime, because I think that sets you up with all the resources you need, and I think it sets you up well for making films. You know, when I was living debased, living like a bum and a criminal, I was still pure of heart, and in the end I needed to put myself through all of the things I put myself through. I knew I had to go through that, and it almost killed me, but it made me a better person.

Have you looked back at your old movies since making them?

No, I have no desire to. I never look at my films, I don't even own any of my films, or any posters, books, anything that would remind me of them. What I've achieved only serves to bring me down. You know, my walls are bare in my house and it's nice because I can think of lots of new things. I have a lot of director friends who like to have posters and reminders, and that's the last thing I want. I mean, I did it, I put it out there, and I hope it finds an audience.

I once read a quote attributed to you where you said you could see yourself making around four or five more pictures in your career, and then you would completely stop making films after that. Do you still feel that way?

Yeah, I'll keep making movies as long as I have something to say, and I don't really know how much I have to say right now. I can never see myself making genre films; you won't see me doing a horror film, or a gangster movie, or a western. I just don't think like that, it's not my thing. I don't know how much more I've got so we'll see what happens, but four, five or six pretty much seems tops.

And do you have any idea what you'd do after that?

If I stopped making movies I'd probably turn to something else, like I'd mow people's yards for $10, something like that. Seriously, I'd try being a short-order cook, see what that's like, or I always thought it would be cool to be a lifeguard. You know, that kind of thing seems really exciting to me.