Dialogue: Harmony Korine


In any complete indie film encyclopedia with a listing for "enfant terrible," Harmony Korine's photo should probably be there. At age 21, the streetwise New Yorker's screenplay for Larry Clark's nihilistic "Kids" hit the screen. His first two films, "Gummo" (featuring cat torture and a cast of freakish amateurs) and the equally disturbing schizophrenia drama "Julien Donkey-Boy" (each starring former girlfriend Chloe Sevigny) elicited mainly scathing reviews -- and acclaim among cineastes. After shooting the David Blaine TV docu "Above the Below," many reclusive dark years followed, including two reported stints in drug rehab. Korine speaks about his comeback film, "Mister Lonely," a tale of a celebrity impersonator retreat (with some skydiving nuns thrown in for good measure).

The Hollywood Reporter: Can you give me a synopsis of the movie?

Harmony Korine: That's the hardest thing for me. In broad terms, it's a movie about a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris who's down on his luck. He meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator at a commune where all these other impersonators live. They want to put on a show in hopes that the world will come see them perform. She convinces him to go to this place and things happen. At the same time, there's a story about nuns jumping out of airplanes.

THR: How much time is spent on the nuns?

Korine: I'd say like a quarter of the film. You could almost say it's really one story with this like secondary poetic punctuation.

THR: What was your inspiration for all this?

Korine: There were certain things I'd been dreaming up for a long time -- nuns testing their faith by jumping out of airplanes without parachutes and surviving and all these things. I started to think about lives of impersonators and living your life as if you were another person. There were these two stories and I wasn't sure what the connection was. I sat down with my little brother and we started to see that there was an emotional or a thematic connection. It all deals with issues of faith and identity and change.

THR: In what way?

Korine: It's more a question of faith. That's kind of it. It deals with issues of faith and identity and change.

THR: Were you also making a comment on pop culture?

Korine: I think that's in there. I've never been a person that sets out to make a grand statement, (but) there's definitely some kind of statement on popular culture.

THR: What kind of statement -- for? against?

Korine: It's neither. I always think it's an injustice to tie something down, the author's intent. I'd rather leave up to the audience.

THR: What have you been doing for the past few years?

Korine: I kind of more or less disappeared for a while. I wasn't sure I really wanted to make movies starting seven or eight years ago, and I wasn't in the right spot. I'd been working since I was young. I felt like I needed some time to get lost for a little while. I felt a kind of disconnect from the world -- like it was leaving me, as much as anything.

THR: In what sense?

Korine: I just wasn't right in the head. I wasn't in a place where I could be honest to make a film. I was emotionally drained. I didn't know if I was gonna make films again or what I was gonna do, so I just kind of traveled all over the world. I went to the Amazon and I also went to the jungle in Panama and lived there for a little bit.

THR: What did you do there?

Korine: Nothing. Actually, I went back to some of the places, and the film was shot in those same jungles. My parents had moved to the jungle, so I started to like it and I fished a lot and just kind of read books and lived life. I lived (in Paris) for a while. I only left my apartment twice. I just can't speak the language and so I was just eating the pastries, so my teeth were falling out, probably because of all the sugar. I had a certain level of paranoia when I was there.

THR: So were the Paris scenes in the film autobiographical?

Korine: Yeah, there are things that these characters do and places they've been that echo things that have happened to me. It's about being lost in a lot of these places and trying to find yourself.

THR: I was told that you had gone to rehab.

Korine: It wasn't so much anything like that. At that time, I didn't feel things were in a place where I could create. It was just because I was unhappy. It wasn't one thing that changed me or one thing that anybody did. I just needed to disappear for a little while.

THR: What made you come back?

Korine: At some point I started dreaming again, I guess. I had always had this thing where my mind gets filled up with images or fragments of people talking. I don't really know how to communicate that. The only way I can ever rid myself of images and sounds and things is with films and so, at a certain point, I started to feel good again. I started to feel again and started thinking that I was ready. It was a slow process. The other thing is I can't really do so great at other things. It's difficult to sustain a living as a fisherman or a bricklayer or something.

Were you doing that at the time?

Korine: Sure. Of course.

THR: After what you've done in the past, that's an interesting path to take.

Korine: It wasn't really seeking out an alternate identity. I started making movies pretty much after high school. I needed that time to rebuild that obsessive nature it takes to make these types of films.

THR: How did you raise the financing for the movie?

Korine: It wasn't easy. I wanted to make a movie that was much more ambitious than the other films and film it in a way that I had never done (before). So, the budget was much bigger and the cast was much larger and we shot in four countries (Paris, Panama, Scotland and Spain), so the budget grew higher (to $8.2 million).

THR: Did any of the financiers put restrictions on you because you're such an experimental filmmaker?

Korine: No. I would just rather do something else if I couldn't make movies the way I wanted to make them. I would rather have half the money that was originally budgeted and have director's cut than have twice as much money and restrictions.

THR: What's your relationship with (fashion designer) Agnes B., and how is she a part of this?

Korine: Agnes and I started a company together right around the time of "Julien Donkey-Boy," seven or eight years ago, to put projects together not just for myself but for other people. We have a really nice venue. She's a good friend, someone I really like and admire.

THR: Where did you make the film?

Korine: (We shot it in) Panama, Paris, Scotland and shot the skydiving stuff in Spain, all the flying nuns. We found this castle in Scotland that fit the story perfectly. As far as the jungle in Panama, it was because my parents lived in the jungle and I was familiar with it.

THR: How as directing a cast of professional actors like Samantha Morton
different from your previous experiences?

Korine: For me, directing actors and non-actors, I guess the big difference
is that with actors, they're always aware of the camera. So I enjoy working
with them.

THR: What filmmakers influenced you on this project? Hearing about it, Fellini came to mind.

Korine: I purposely stopped watching films like six months before we started shooting. I wanted to clear my head. This film stylistically, aesthetically, it's much more classical than the other films I've done. In the other movies I was consciously trying to break down the beauty of certain images. With this one I wanted to create the most beautiful pictures I could within the context of the story, so you could almost say this movie had more to do with (Andrei) Tarkovsky and (John) Cassavetes but at the same time, I don't really know. I was watching John Ford films and ... I guess with the movies I love and the directors I love I always think they live with me. Those are the movies that really moved me and changed me. Films become part of you in some ways.

THR: How was your experience making this movie different than your previous ones?

Korine: I guess it was more thought out, more meticulous. I felt pretty calm. I enjoyed the process more than I had ever enjoyed before. To be honest, it took so long for me to get back to the place where I was making films again that I really appreciated being there. I felt like if I couldn't enjoy the shooting and editing process, then why I would even bother making films. Because the rest of it is such a miserable experience -- raising the finances and doing all the other bureaucratic stuff, meetings and agendas. But the end part is fun, giving it to the world.

THR: What do you expect the response to be?

Korine: I'm waiting for the circus. I put everything I know, as a filmmaker and a person, into this movie. I know for a fact my films are not films that everyone enjoys. I think that might be the case with this movie.


Nationality: American; born: Jan. 4, 1973

Selected filmography: "Kids" (screenwriter, 1995), "Gummo" (1997), "Julien Donkey-Boy" (1999), "Ken Park" (screenwriter, 2002)

Notable awards: Venice Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize -- Honorable Mention, and Gotham Awards Open Palm Award -- Special Mention for "Gummo"