Harmony Korine Interview — “Get In Close”

Many years ago (okay March, 2000) as a film student, I had the pleasure to chat with one of America’s most uncompromising young filmmakers, Harmony Korine. He’d come into town for a retrospective on the heels of his Dogme 95 film, JULIEN DONKEY-BOY. We chatted over brunch.

(Special thanks to my old roommate Brandon Rhoades for digging this treasure out of the archives.)

How have your father’s documentaries influenced your own work and imagery?

It’s strange because I was really young when he made his documentaries. I grew up in East Tennessee, and when I was a kid, he was gone for long periods of time making this series on PBS called SOUTHBOUND about Southern culture. They used to shoot all their documentaries on really early video, reel-to-reel, and the cameras were really huge, like 80 pounds or so, really washed out, really ugly looking. I think as far as influence goes or when it comes to my father there’s an undeniable influence because the only time I got to see him when I was young would be while he was editing his films or wherever the subject matter was where he was shooting. By the time my youngest brother was born, he had already retired because he wanted to raise a family. That was the region where I grew up. I guess that’s kind of it.

What did you think about the reception of KIDS?

I’ve never been so interested in social commentary. That movie was really written for Larry Clark, the director. For me it was a chance, it was the first script I had gotten to write. I had just graduated from high school, and it was a chance for me to write about kids that I knew when I first moved up to New York, about people I knew. At the time, I was really into films like LOS OLVIDADOS, these realist teen dramas, Hector Bebanco’s movie, PIXOTE, things like that. So I wanted to write a movie like that, but it was never a story I was dying to tell or some kind of statement I was concerned with.

Why didn’t you direct KIDS?

It wasn’t a movie that I ever wanted to direct. It wasn’t a movie that I was dying to tell the story. It literally was like I wanted to make movies, but I only ever wanted to direct, and I have no interest in writing for other people. But I met Larry Clark in the park one day, and we started talking about movies. I hung out with him a few times, and he said he wanted to direct a film, and he asked me if I could to write a movie about some of these kids. It was really like a commissioned piece. It’s a very simple film, a structure, it’s very easy, it wasn’t like, GUMMO. It’s a different kind of thing. And that was the first movie I wrote, and I never written a script before.

…Really?

Never. I bought like a program, and I wrote the screenplay in seven days. Now I write really slow, on a schedule like if I write 3 pages a day, that’s good.

What attracts you to subject matter of people with Down’s syndrome, schizophrenics, etc. in your work?

I’m not really sure. When I make movies it’s really just about seeing the kind of things I want to see. There’s a certain kind of person I’m interested in looking at. Those people I find very intriguing. I’m not really good at answering “why” questions.

Do you approach writing photographically?

I think of everything first visually. Each movie is different. JULIEN DONKEY-BOY was different than GUMMO. Each scene begins with, even in the writing process, I start by writing each scene, there’s an image I want to see, it’s almost like looking at your parents’ photo album. There’s a picture of you and your grandmother standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, next to your sister being born, next to a picture of your parents in Costa Rica mopping the floor. Take any one of those images on their own and they are seemingly random, but when you put them all together, because the relationship is this family, there’s a kind of cohesion that builds, this kind of narrative structure that forms. For me to write a scene, or to approach a scene, it’s almost like to look at that photo and right after that picture’s taken figure out what happens. How the drama begins. I just never really saw anything in a straight line. I always felt like things with beginnings, middles, and ends rang false to me. At least in my life, I never felt like something was just beginning, and I never felt like anything really comes to a completion. I think things can more or less exist, and time just goes, so it’s more like for me to randomly begin.

I read that you said something along the lines of “cinema sustains life and captures death in its progress,” could you explain what you meant?

For me it’s a personal thing, for me, I just have to believe in something. That’s really all. You want some egg or anything? I really hate the yolk part, when it’s dried. The yolk is probably the most disgusting thing on earth, the yellow. And this bread is really horrible looking.

The image of feet keeps coming up in your films, is that a conscious or subconscious choice?

Feet? Like your feet?

…The albino with no toes. The cat was called Foot-Foot. They shoot the old lady in the foot. The guy picks up playing cards with his feet. Cassidy touches Saul with her feet. Julian washes the girl’s feet. Are you a Pisces?

No, Jewish. That’s weird, you start to figure things out about yourself that way, it becomes a kind of therapy. You’re the first person in all the interviews, no one’s ever shown me the feet thing, that’s pretty amazing. I gotta tell Chloe [Sevigny] about that, maybe I have some kind of foot fetish. That’s bizarre. That’s good, though.

Why are you interested in blurring the lines between documentary and fiction?

When I make a movie, see the thing is, nothing in my films is real. I was obsessed with this idea of truth in cinema. I think it’s impossible to be truthful in movies, and I almost think it’s secondary, it’s not that important. Anytime there’s a camera on a subject, anytime they are aware they’re being filmed, there’s a performance element involved. And also the director has to have some kind of point of view, so there’s never really an objective truth. What I think is more important than truth, and ultimately the most important thing a filmmaker can achieve is something that kind of rises above, that comes from the ashes, that has more of a poetic truth, something where you kind of, it’s hard to explain, it’s more like where you find things out, where you seek things that have a poetry, a poetic truth, I can’t really explain it any better than that. But the trick is to seem as real or as organic as possible, but in the end I’m still manipulating everything to a certain extent. It’s like a chemical reaction, I used to call it a Mistakist art form. It’s like putting chemicals in a bottle and shaking it up, and walking away and filming the explosion. And that to me is more interesting. I never understood the idea of storyboarding, that really bored me. You should know what your movie is about, what your direction is, what you want to say, what you want to do. But for me, the enjoyment is the discovery. The process of figuring it out.

Your films haven’t made a lot money. Do you care about the financial success of your films? One review described [GUMMO] as the worst of the year.

That wasn’t very good for the box office. The thing is that I get to make the movies that I want to make, and just the idea that these films exist, and I’m allowed, that people give me money, relatively large amounts of money, not by Hollywood standards…to give me two million dollars to make a movie, that’s great, because I can do what I want to do. I don’t have to answer to anyone, and as long as I get to make the films I want to make, the way I want to make them…and I’ve always felt that there will be an audience, an audience will find the film.

Do you think about music and images together?

Some scenes very specifically, I’ll think, I want this kind of music, this song over this image. With Dogme, following the Vow of Chastity, I had to approach it that way, because I couldn’t separate sound from image, so whatever music was used in the film was done live, directly to the DAT, so it was married to the image, so I had to be positive, because in post-production you can try whatever you want to try, deconstruct the image and the sound, but I didn’t really have, I wasn’t working like that. Most of the time there’s a certain music that I like, it’s like composing, there’s a set of songs I might be listening to at the time, and in the back of my mind, I’ll be thinking about them when I’m filming a movie, and I when I go in, I’ll play with it.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer

Dogme has been described as a rescue action for cinema? Is it a way to get back to a purer form of cinema?

It harkens back to a tradition of Dreyer or Ozu or Bresson. For me, it was interesting, I liked the idea of working with a set of rules, forcing myself to think in a different way, it was like a purifying process or a redemption in cinematic terms, it was a way almost to redeem yourself. At the same time, the Dogme 95, because of the constraints, there’s a liberation, I found it to be very liberating, because even though I was making films that were much like that already, you take this Calvinist approach, you have to confront something otherwise you wouldn’t have to if you weren’t following these rules. I don’t think all films are necessarily Dogme worthy, but for a specific kind of movie and telling a story, I think it’s a good thing.

What possessed you to do FIGHT HARM?

It was just a strange time in my life. It was after GUMMO, right before JULIEN. It was just something I felt like I needed to do. I don’t think I was all that healthy during that time. I wasn’t in a very sound state. It was a rough time. But it was something I was happy I did, I just wasn’t healthy then. You guys want any toast?

Can you talk about your appearance in GUMMO? Was it significant in anyway, personally?

Well, shit, it’s the summation of basically everything I’ve done. It’s another scene, like I can’t look at that scene, it disgusts me. That was the very last scene of the movie, because I had to wait until the end.

Your next project is JOKES?

JOKES is a movie that was going to be a decalogue, each film would be based on a Milton Berle joke, each like 30 minutes, like a guy walks into a bar with a parakeet on his shoulder and slips on a banana peel. But I started to think what would happen if you actually saw a guy walk into a bar with a parakeet on his shoulder and crack his head, how the humor would evolve and change when you saw that, where humor breaks, where it becomes tragic maybe, when you see it and not hear it, so I started these drawings around these jokes. Then, we filmed the first one about an albino couple, and one of the guys sees a gay guy, and it’s like seeing Jesus for the first time, and he realizes he’s gay, and he throws his wife out. I’m not exactly sure if that’s going to be the first movie or what, I’m just trying to figure it out.

Did you go to film school?

No, I went to college for a year. I took some English courses and stuff. I just felt like I loved movies, and all my life I watched films, I felt like if you understood movies, you understood pacing, the rhythm of the movie, and then it wasn’t so necessary for me. Like Werner Herzog told me, he learned to make movies from watching FU MANCHU, watching it over and over again, how they recycle shots, it’s similar, I understand. As far as the technical side, it was never so interesting for me, anybody could figure out that stuff, it’s good to know technical things, but that comes. You should know the way you want something to look and be able to translate it.

Do you do some of the shooting, the cinematography?

I always work with a cinematographer, but the last film [JULIEN DONKEY-BOY], we were using so many cameras, that I shot the whole thing, but a lot of my camera work is horrible. But I always want to shoot my movies, I always need a good camera person, but I like to hold a camera, to get in close.