Harmony Korine has been an unparalleled figure in the world of American independent film since his debut as the writer of Kids in 1995. With his subsequent works as writer/director – Gummo (1997), julien donkey-boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007), and his most recent, Trash Humpers – Korine has never let up in making original and provocative works while many of his indie contemporaries have gone Hollywood. His films are polarizing, challenging, and impossible to ignore, and while many critics and audiences have vehemently rejected some of his work, other major voices in the world of film – Werner Herzog, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier – have bestowed immense praise to his art. Like his films, Korine himself possesses a spontaneous, incomparable personality. I sat down for a phone interview with the filmmaker last week to talk Trash Humpers, ‘mistakist’ filmmaking, Ricky Martin, Jonas guts film distribution, and the nice rack on the state of Tennessee. You can find my SXSW review of Trash Humpers here.
Harmony Korine: Hey, how you doin’?
FSR: Doing alright, how are you?
Not bad but some bastard just stole a statue in my front yard.
Do you want to reschedule so you can go chase him?
No I already chased him. I had one of those things – what do you call them – a taser gun. He was this heavy-set Puerto Rican. I had this taser gun. Son of a bitch was scoping my place for weeks. I thought he was just wanting to do some gardening but he was after my statue.
Did you get him with your gun?
No, I tasered his – what’s it called – his bicycle tire. I couldn’t get him.
Did it have any effect on the bicycle tire?
Nothing. Well, I tried to get it back but I could only get the tire.
Where are you right now?
Were you in Austin when Trash Humpers showed there at SXSW?
Yeah, I missed the screening, but I came a day later.
What’d you think of Austin?
It’s okay. I didn’t really see anything cuz I was – what’s it called – wearing sunglasses.
[Laughs] Okay, let’s talk some about your movies. While Kids took place in NYC, most of your movies as writer-director have taken place in rural America. Why do you connect better with that area, or why do your stories need to be told there instead of the city?
Films are just like moods. You wake up and you’re pulled in a certain direction. I mean, I grew up here. I kind of understand the place. The vernacular makes sense to me. I also don’t like being away from home for that long, so I just try to make my films around where I live.
Do you feel that Trash Humpers could ever have taken place anywhere else, like NYC or LA?
What do you think it is that’s particular to more rural places that necessitates your stories being told there?
I don’t know. I’m not sure actually…It’s also good to make movies where there’s a lot of pigs. I have a friend who’s a director and his movies always have buzzards in the sky. I try to make movies where there’s a trace of pig.
Is that going go be one of your signatures in your films, pigs?
Well, no, you don’t see them in the films but you can kindof sense them.
So there’s the aura of pigs.
What compelled you to make Trash Humpers? Where did this film come from?
I always walk my dog in these alleyways by my house by where I used to grew up, and I remember there always used to be these peeping toms. They lived in this old person’s home – well, it was more like a basement that stored old people. And they had this uniform which was these black turtlenecks and white nursing shoes. Usually they would fornicate in the alleyways behind these strip malls and peep into people’s windows. It always made an impression on me, so I decided to make a film that was loosely based on these memories.
Do you think they were in cahoots with this Puerto Rican guy?
No way, this was, like, twenty years ago.
It seems that you definitely haven’t escaped an environment where people spy into people’s windows.
Yeah, well, I always like to keep at least one foot in the…the sewer.
Is that one reason you stick around home, you don’t want to lose what makes you an artist?
What is it about the quality of analog video that made you choose that to approach this film with?
Well, I didn’t want to make a movie in the traditional sense. I wanted it to be more like an artifact, like if somebody had found a cassette tape. Something that had been buried or was bloody. Something that you can imagine hiding in an attic somewhere or floating in a ditch or something like that. Or shoved up the ass of a horse. You know, something that had been hidden away. It needed to be something that had some weight, something that had some bulk. It needed to be physical, so the only thing it could be, really, was VHS.
Did you think of distributing the film in an unconventional way, like in sewers or in the asses of horses?
No, cuz then no one would see it.
Had you considered hiding the film in places?
Yeah, we considered hiding it in places. I wanted to hide it in Miley Cyrus’s –what’s her name, Miley Cyrus? – I wanted to hide it in Miley Cyrus’s closet or the guts of the Jonas Brothers.
[Laughs] That would’ve been great. Why didn’t that work out?
Well, for obvious reasons.
There have been a lot of horror movies recently that have presented themselves as found object—
What is it, whore films?
[Long pause] …Whores?
Like the genre, horror.
There’s a whore genre?
Oh, hor-ror. Okay. Horror.
There have been a lot of movies like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project that present themselves as found objects and almost try to trick the audience into thinking they are these artifacts. To me, Trash Humpers takes that concept to the logical extreme because it isn’t glossy doesn’t have a story or story structure, and one wouldn’t find a conventional story structure in a found object, unlike these other films. If you find an object like this, it isn’t going to have a narrative.
Yeah. I didn’t see those other movies, but we just edited ours on VCRs and I have an editor who is 75% blind and I’d be jamming fucking pens and pencils into the machine when it broke, and that’s pretty much the way we did it.
So you made this movie entirely without digital technology, as if you made this in 1989 or something.
Yeah…well, yeah, I was about to say “except we have speedos” but they had speedos back then.
You’ve said before that you have a ‘mistakist’ approach to filmmaking. What are the specific signifiers of this mistakist methodology in Trash Humpers?
That’s a term I started a long time ago when I first started making movies. I made it to encompass this idea of mistakes and randomness and working toward mistakes, and this idea that there was a sort of righteousness and glory in accidents. It came from this idea that perfect, or the aspiration towards perfection, is kindof empty and hollow. I wanted to find something deeper in the mimicry of life in mistakes, and something that can transcend neatness and transcend order, and that’s in mistakes. So I run towards the light, I run towards mistakes, thus rendering myself the captain of mistakism. I thought it would at one point start a kind of quasi-revolution in terms of, you know, the arts. It seems late to come, but perhaps its time is now.
Do you think perfectionism is an illusion in cinema? An unachievable goal?
Let’s just say, very simply, that I never cared about making perfect sense, I cared about making perfect non-sense.
Would you say there are any past filmmakers that are mistakists?
Yeah. The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Dom DeLouise…
Yeah, definitely some of his works. Who else? Arch Hall, Jr. That movie Out of the Blue…
I read that you think there’s so much of cinema that doesn’t take enough risks, in terms of form, style, narrative, etc.
I probably said that a long time ago, probably ten years ago or something. I think cinema is different, or what was thought of as cinema has changed. It’s exploding. This idea of narrative filmmaking at ninety minutes to two hours, or stories with a beginning, middle, and end – I think it’s over with, it’s been destroyed. It’s been obliterated, it’s been spat upon, kicked in the gutter. Somebody’s been shitting on it for years, now. I feel like movies are going to be more like moods, like moments, something that is just made and watched and felt. I don’t necessarily think it has to have some kind of ridiculous deeper meaning.
What changes have happened in that regard since you started as a filmmaker?
It’s so democratic. So many morons are making films, but every once in a while somebody’s bound to make something interesting. It’s not even film, it can be a clip you see online that someone sends you. Some of that stuff is more exciting than these big movies, these big productions.
You mean YouTube and digital media and stuff like that?
Yeah, I just think…I mean, most of that stuff is garbage, too, but the challenge is that things become noise. The challenge is that there’s so much information and everything is so accessible that it becomes more about quantity than quality, you know what I’m saying? People don’t give it any kind of a chance to resonate, but at the same time, it is what it is and people need time to find themselves. But I say fuck it. What are you going to do, drown yourself? You just have to go with it.
It’s interesting that, even though your film doesn’t use digital technology, it occupies this non-narrative realm of, not necessarily filmmaking, but media-making.
Yeah, because I’m the one pushing it ahead.
Do you think the movie theater is the ideal form for a movie like this, or is it home video because it’s supposed to be a found object?
I don’t really give a shit. Honestly, however it’s watched is perfect. If you want to project it into your toilet bowl, I think that’s great.
How have your films themselves changed with the changes in your personal life in your fifteen years of filmmaking?
I don’t know. You’re a human being, so you just make things about what you know. You just make films sometimes about your experience, other times it’s out of thin air. You just pull it out of the atmosphere.
Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers are so incredibly different in just about every way. What occurred in your life in that short amount of time that brought you to make these distinctly different films?
I don’t know, life happens. It’s like with anything. You wake up one day and you think, “I feel like fucking some girl with a huge ass today,” so you go and you pursue that, and the next day, you think, “You know, I should go try a skinnier girl.” Or maybe, “I should cut my hair in this direction,” or “I should try on those white patent leather shoes that have been in my closet since the mid-80s.” You say, “This is the way I feel,” so you pull from that direction and you act upon it.
You seem to work more from your gut than slaving over themes or what kind of meaning you’re going to exhibit.
Let’s just say I don’t question things. I just follow the truth. I just don’t question things. We all have a pull, we all have different directions. We all have a charge and we know that the energy is tangible, so what do we do? We just go with it, and if you don’t go with it you’re just lying to yourself. So I always try to go with it.
Do you think films that are over-thought lose that kind of intangible essence?
I think people that overthink things are fuckers.
[Laughs] I can agree with that, definitely…I know that you’re a fan of vaudeville. I’m wondering if there’s anything in vaudeville that specifically inspired Trash Humpers.
Well, you know, everything is just part of the air that you breathe. It’s just in you.
While one can extract revisited themes in your films, the visual style in each of them is completely different, from the Dogme 95 style of julien donkey-boy to the more polished aesthetic of Mister Lonely. Do you try to stick the style to the story? Are you trying to avoid the trappings of a repeated visual signature?
I just do what feels right. It’s something specific. It’s a concept behind it or an urge. It’s just what you do. I feel that the signifiers of it are in the shadows. It’s maybe more what’s not said. Pages missing in all the right places. It’s what’s undefinied that’s the signifier.
I know you’re an improvisatory filmmaker. How much or how little preparation went into each day of Trash Humpers?
It’s hard to put it into numbers. It’s total immersion. I try to give myself over to it one hundred percent the way a believer gives himself over to the Lord. Whatever it takes. Total immersion.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed that with this film the only people “on set” were those in front of and holding the camera. After the large production that was Mister Lonely, was it a relief to go smaller with Trash Humpers and remove those things that break the illusion within a movie set?
Oh yeah, I loved it to bits.
Do you think you’ll make more films like that?
Can you tell us anything about your next project?
It’s going to be a comedy, I think a great comedy. I can’t tell you about it, I don’t want to fuck up the mojo.
How improvisatory is your style?
I mean, I’m always thinking. It’s sometimes seems harder to make it look like it’s spontaneous…It’s like trying to bone a butch.
Do you think your films would ever return to New York or an urban area?
An urban area maybe. But it’s like sleeping with a whore, New York. You want to think you’re the only one, but in truth, everybody’s been there. Everyone’s filmed on every block. Everyone’s boned that whore to bits. I mean, she still may look beautiful, but there’s nothing she’s going to give you that she hasn’t already given anybody else. That poor girl, she’s just been screwed to death.
But Tennessee is a lot more fresh, right?
You got it. Tennessee still has big, juicy boobies.
This is a pretty generic question, but I’m curious; who are some if your major influences, inside and outside cinema?
Al Jolson, Ricky Martin, John Sinclair, Leon Redbone, P. T. Barnum…
Did you hear about Ricky Martin coming out?
Yeah, I liked it because he said, “I’m a mellow homosexual” or something.
He said he was “a fortunate homosexual.”
Yeah, that sounds like a good book.
[Laughs] Yeah. Do you think that’ll be the title of his autobiography, “The Fortunate Homosexual”?
I don’t really have any other immediate questions. Are there any parting words you want to give to the Internet? You’ve got the floor.
Keep the faith, don’t screw the pooch, remember that lockjaw is just temporary, and, you know, acid is always the way to go.
Words to live by. Thanks for talking to us today, man.
My pleasure. You have a good one.