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PROVINCETOWN – “October is early, but not too early to acknowledge Harmony Korine’s Gummo as the worst film of the year.”
So wrote Janet Maslin in her 1997 New York Times review of Korine’s first feature. In many ways that notice set the tone for his renegade anti-art career, which busted out of the extreme margins of noncommercial anarchy this year when his latest film, Spring Breakers, became an unexpected indie hit.
A worldwide gross just short of $32 million might be small potatoes compared with some breakout successes. But for a director whose previous work has barely scraped the $100,000 mark in domestic release, the multiplex traction of Korine’s nihilistic bikini bong blast was major news.
PHOTOS: ‘Spring Breakers’ L.A. Premiere
That made it good timing for the 15th Provincetown Film Festival to knight him with its annual Filmmaker on the Edge Award. It also gave audiences at the Cape Cod event the chance to hear two filmmaking outlaws swap stories during an onstage conversation on June 22 between Korine and P-town fixture John Waters.
Korine joins a list of previous Filmmaker on the Edge honorees that includes Waters, Christine Vachon, Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Darren Aronofsky, Todd Solondz and last year’s recipient, Roger Corman.
“He’s the only director who ever made me leer at half-naked Disney stars,” said Waters, referring to Spring Breakers cast members Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens.
Waters made no secret of his admiration for Korine’s bad-boy reputation, right down to envying him the Maslin pull quote for Gummo.
“Werner Herzog called me up after that review and said, ‘This is the best thing that could happen,'” recalled Korine, mimicking the German accent of one of his early mentors. “‘In ten years you will understand.'”
STORY: 10 Things to Know About ‘Spring Breakers’ Director Harmony Korine
It’s now 16 years later, and Korine, 40, seems happy to own the self-described “mistakist cinema” label, even if he backpedals on past statements claiming he had zero interest in a filmmaking career.
“I’ve made movies since I was a kid, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing that,” said Korine. “You know, those years are hazy. I probably meant it on that day, but I’ve said a lot of things that were probably only true that day.”
He similarly shrugged off the infamy of having supposedly stolen Meryl Streep‘s pocketbook many years ago during an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. “I’m not judging,” said Waters. “I’ve done worse.”
In addition to dipping into his tote bag for a rare copy of Korine’s 1998 photobook The Bad Son, a collection of portrait shots of Macaulay Culkin in his underwear, Waters also grilled the honoree about his abandoned human punching-bag feature, Fight Harm.
Korine described the film as “a cross between a Buster Keaton comedy and a snuff movie.” The aim behind the unorthodox project was for the director to pick fights with representatives of different random demographics — lesbian, albino, Jew, nightclub bouncer — always with a producer standing by with a release form to sign.
“The amazing thing was that they were always happy to sign,” said Korine. “But I didn’t have enough stamina to do a full feature. By the time we edited them down it was like three minutes of slapstick each. I got into nine fights total, but the film was less than an hour.”
He also confessed that Quaaludes were an essential part of the prep for that ordeal. “Where do you even get Quaaludes today?” asked an intrigued Waters.
Q&A: Selena Gomez Doesn’t Want Tweens to See ‘Spring Breakers’
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the director who made his name on such bad-taste classics as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble was most fascinated by Korine’s 2009 feature, Trash Humpers, a VHS-shot odyssey about a collective of refuse fetishists on the outskirts of his adopted hometown of Nashville.
“I had an idea to make a film that was more of an artifact,” Korine explained. “Something you would find buried in the dirt or shoved up in the guts of a dead horse.”
“It’s like a C.H.U.D. film,” added Waters, referring to the 1980s cult-horror acronym that stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. “I’m a big fan of C.H.U.D.“
Korine touched on his collaborations with director Larry Clark on Kids and Ken Park but mostly focused on his own features, confessing his surprise at the exposure Spring Breakers has earned him.
“Just to be in 90,000 theaters was strange, because before that I’d never had more than 100,” he said. “It was shocking, but while I was making it, the movie seemed destined for it — like we were tapping into something.”
“I wanted to make a movie that was like a drug hallucination experience, that was transcendent, like music,” he continued. “I wanted it to be a pop spectacle, a pop poem with sounds and images coming from all directions. Normally I wouldn’t stand for actors texting or Instagramming during shooting. But here that was all part of the movie’s surface.”
Korine still shakes his head in disbelief about the coup of landing Disney kittens Gomez and Hudgens for the hyper-violent sexploitation movie.
“I’m amazed they did it,” he admitted. “But they were definitely at a place where I could tell they wanted to break out and do something new.”
He also added that the Disney girls showed little fear of crossing boundaries. “There’s so much fanaticism with teen stars, more than regular movie stars,” he said. “So when people heard we were shooting in places and they’d come around, that was the only thing that tended to freak Selena out a bit.”
Waters shared that a Swiss acquaintance had referred to Spring Breakers as “the most irresponsible movie ever made,” another accolade he gladly would have embraced for one of his own films. When he asked Korine what he would consider the most irresponsible movie ever made, the Spring Breakers director replied without hesitation: Forrest Gump.
“I respect that there are people who make films for entertainment, but that’s not me,” said Korine. “I put a lot of myself into my movies.”
While Korine did not reveal plans for his next feature, he is working on a new novel and will continue spreading his creative energy in whatever direction inspires him.
“I just like making things,” he said. “All I ever wanted to be was great.”
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