A Conversation with Harmony Korine, Director of "Gummo"
by Tom Cunha
It's been about two years since Harmony Korine's screenwriting debut
"Kids" hit theaters, provoking radically divided reactions. While some
credited the film as being a strong social commentary on the decay of
lower class urban youths, others saw it as an opus of wretched
exploitation. Be that what it may, the writer of that juvenile
decadence shock-fest returns with his directorial debut, "Gummo".
Harmony's latest project is a more toned-down, visual film which places
more emphasis on image and less on plot while still remaining faithful
to the prevalent themes in "Kids" (wayward youths, excessive profanities,
drug use, etc. etc.). Set in the small tornado-stricken town of Xenia,
Ohio, the film is an eerie yet fascinating portrait of the dregs of a
lower class suburban society.
indieWIRE: When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Harmony Korine: When I was little. I just always knew I was going to
make films because I loved the movies so much, but I was never
concerned with telling other people's stories. The first time I saw
Buster Keaton's face when I was little, I knew there was a poetry in
cinema that I had never seen before that was so powerful. After a
certain point, cinema stopped giving me what I was once getting from
it. It was once to me all about life and then it became at process. I
wanted to make my own movies the way they should be made. More like a
collage or a tapestry. Something more like a feeling. Something that
you are affected by.
iW: GUMMO is a very visual film that has its own unique structure,
quite different from most films.
Korine: Movies are visual. It's a visual medium. I wanted every frame
in my film to be something and, at the same time, I didn't want anything
to seem contrived or overstylized. I just wanted it to be something
that you hadn't seen before, that was exciting to look at. Like with
the Solomon character, I knew that any way I photographed him it would
be exciting because his face was so amazing. That's how I cast,
really. It's based on two things, the way someone looks and a feeling
they put off. It's not even so much how they read lines. It's more
just a feeling.
iW: You've said that you prefer to work with non-actors instead of
Korine: I'm obsessed with realism. The only thing that matters to me
in film and artwork is realism or the presentation of realism. But, at
the same time, I realize that film can never be real and that movies are
never real, even documentary falls short. Cinema verite is a fallacy.
There is still a kind of manipulation involved. What I do is a kind of
trickery. It's a presentation of realism, an organic mode of action.
But I'm totally manipulating everything. I'm totally making things up
and that's what gets people angry, too. That's why I like to work with
non-actors because they can give me what actors can never give me, they
give themselves. When the magic comes out, they give you something
that is very personal and unrehearsed.
iW: What attracted you to make a movie about these people, about this
particular segment of society?
Korine: I always felt that Middle America was interesting. Anytime that
people do films about America, it's always this kind of romanticized
version, something that is just false, and I think it's disgusting. I
grew up in Nashville, so I wanted to make a movie with those people I
grew up with. I wanted to make the first great American film about
America, because I'm an American artist.
iW: Was there much interference from the studio (Fine Line) when you
were making the movie?
Korine: I have total freedom. If I didn't have freedom, I would walk
away. I would quit. If they were telling me to change things, I would
walk away because it wouldn't be worth it. It has to be pure. It has
to be one man's vision and if it's not, it's nothing. The only way you
can do that, at least in the Hollywood system, is to work under a
certain budget. I had designed it in a way in which I was left alone.
In fact, I never heard one word from them the entire time I was
iW: What do you think of many of the popular filmmakers today, such as
Korine: I have nothing to do with any of them. The way I make films
and the way I see films and stories and characters is in a completely
different way. It's almost like saying that if those people are making
films then what I'm doing is not a movie. I can't really put it in any
other words. I find no connections in my work and my sensibility with
Quentin Tarantino's or any younger filmmaker or any filmmaker period.
That's not to say that I'm better than anyone, it's just me saying that
I do something that is completely my own and I do it for a different
reason than most people. For instance, for me to watch Quentin's film,
it's fine, whatever, but I don't get anything from it. His movies are
what they are. They're pop culture and pop to me is funny, but it's
iW: Do you worry about how much money your films make?
Korine: My movies are so inexpensive. This was made for 1.3 million
dollars, so it's not very hard to make your money back. Working with
that much money you're pretty safe because, at least with my name and
after "Kids", by the time your done with foreign sales and rentals, it's
probably pretty easy to get your money back. I don't have very much
money. I'm poor. The only thing for me is that I keep making
[movies]. I don't concern myself with anything else.
iW: What's your family like?
Korine: My parents are Trotskyites. They used to firebomb empty
houses. They have kind of disowned me, my father more than my mother,
because I refuse to make Marxist propaganda. But they're nice people.
iW: Are film projects lined up?
Korine: I am planning on making a movie with all hidden cameras. I
want to get to the point where I never have to speak to anyone. The
dream is that I never have to talk to anyone, where I'm just constantly
working and trying things. There is so much pressure in the film
industry to make money, so the idea of failure and experimenting is
shunned. I just want to get to the point in my life where I'm just
constantly working and trying new things. But always at the core of my
work is the wish to entertain.