Much time has passed since Larry Clark discovered Harmony Korine skateboarding in Washington Square Park and hired him to write “Kids.” In its wake, Korine exploded into the mainstream as a radical artist with a bad boy streak. His first two features, “Gummo” and the Dogme ’95 entry “Julian Donkey-boy,” divided critics and furthered his reputation as a fiercely independent figure. Just when his world seemed to be moving too fast, Korine left New York City for his native home in Nashville, got married and made a new movie to reflect his comparatively happier state of mind.
“Mister Lonely” stars Diego Luna as a disillusioned Michael Jackson impersonator whisked off by a faux Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) to a strangely fascinating commune of like-minded characters. In a separate storyline, Werner Herzog plays a priest whose team of nuns inexplicably learns how to fly. In e-mail exchanges over several months and during an interview last week in New York City (where “Mister Lonely” is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival prior to its May 2 release), Korine discussed the themes of the movie, his general filmmaking philosophies, and the dubious case of the Malingerers. IFC First Take opens “Mister Lonely” in limited release Friday.
indieWIRE: Have your expectations for the way the film is received changed since last year’s Cannes premiere?
Harmony Korine: I try not to think about it too much. I have never been good at gauging reactions to my films. I remember thinking “Gummo” would be embraced by the public in much the same way as “Bambi” was when it first came out. I am always wrong about such things.
iW: There’s a point in the film when the story gets significantly bleaker. Did you always intend to have reality intrude on the movie’s surreal sense of beauty?
HK: Yes, this is one of the central themes of the film. Reality always seems to trounce the dream. Nothing too good lasts too long. Fuck it and enjoy while you can.
iW: Are there specific surrealist filmmakers you admire?
HK: I do like [Luis] Bunuel, but there are not too many others who would fall into this category. Obviously, the Marx brothers are the great America surrealist act, and they have always been my favorite.
iW: In some interviews, you claim to have to have spent time in between your last film and “Mister Lonely” traveling with an Amazonian tribe called the Malingerers and searching for a mythological fish. Did you make this story up?
HK: Of course, this is the truth. In fact, I’m planning another trip back there soon. One of the members just gave birth to a twelve pound baby with a fully grown tooth, and I am the godfather. Apparently, the child has been given my name.
iW: Isn’t a “malingerer” someone who fakes insanity?
HK: That is correct.
iW: You haven’t been telling that story as much these days.
HK: I figure everyone’s already heard it. Actually, Rachel, my wife, she’s the one that said I’m repeating myself too often.
iW: I think it’s fascinating…
HK: What? A fantasy?
iW: No, I didn’t say that.
HK: It’s just a long story. It eats the whole interview. Enough people have read about it.
iW: Anyway, it’s yet another example of your off-the-cuff nature as a storyteller. There’s at least one scene in “Mister Lonely,” when Herzog talks to a man about his marital infidelity, that’s clearly improvised.
HK: That scene was somewhat improvised around the man’s actual story. He is referred to locally as the “village idiot.” Herzog struck up a close friendship with him. In reality, this man does wait every day for his wife to fly home to him. He spends seven hours a day standing on the airport runway with red plastic flowers. He has been waiting for three years now. I’m not sure exactly what he thought was going on while we were filming that scene with him, though.
The thing about the improvising is that, in some ways, the idea of it is misleading. Maybe it implies that you let actors stand there and they just make shit up. That’s almost always awful. I try to create an environment where you encourage and hope for things to happen above and beyond what you imagined. For instance, filming the commune with all those people, you try to have all these people in costume always there, staying in character to some degree. I came up with things on the spot. The trouble with filmmaking that I always had was that it lacked this sort of spontaneity. I felt like everything was so thought out, because it has to be. I try to approach scenes in a more musical way, putting different elements together and riffing off them. I toss grenades into the scene.
iW: For example?
HK: I can’t even say. It’s everything.
iW: Do you coach your actors?
HK: I won’t coach a performance if I don’t like it, unless it’s something like — most of the time I’ll cut and start over. What I’ll do is throw out ideas. I’ll go to Lincoln and say, “Tell me that story about Vietnam. Tell me that story about the melting Jane Fonda dolls. Tell me that story about doing acid with Hanoi Jane.” Then, he’ll laugh and break into that story. Sometimes it creates a mood or an idea that hadn’t existed before.
iW: I spoke to Herzog a few weeks back and asked him if he saw any parallels between the priest he plays in your film and the Michael Jackson impersonator played by Diego Luna. Herzog said, “Who’s Diego?”
HK: [laughs] He had no idea about the other story.
iW: Did anyone else?
HK: Aw, that’s a secret I don’t like to tell. I don’t want to get anyone upset out there. But, no, it depends on the actor.
iW: Woody Allen says he never tells his actors anything other than what their character knows.
HK: I don’t go to that degree, but sometimes I give actors different screenplays. [laughs] Sometimes, I might have five or six different endings that I give to five or six different actors.
iW: Has Herzog seen the movie now?
HK: Yeah, he saw it like two days ago. We did something together in Los Angeles at the Egyptian. It was pretty funny.
iW: He said you view him as a mentor.
HK: I don’t even know if “mentor” is the right word. I don’t really need a mentor. Werner is somebody whose films make me believe. Watching his films when I was young, I felt very similar to the way I felt when I first saw Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill Jr.” I just felt there was something old and deep in what he was doing. Some kind of poetry that wasn’t like anything I’d felt before. I couldn’t imagine the mind of a person who would invent such scenarios. When I first saw “Even Dwarves Started Small,” I couldn’t believe a human being could make that up. It seemed like it was coming from such a strange place. Who would have thought about crucifying the monkey? Why was that car rolling around in that circle for so long in “Stroszek”? There are moments where it’s something inexpressible. It’s something you can’t say in words. It goes through you.
iW: You once said that you don’t believe in “the idea of exploitation.”
HK: There are degrees, like if you’re filming someone who’s blind and not telling them. As long as people have their faculties about them…
iW: What about the guy on the runway in “Mister Lonely” confronted about his marital infidelity?
HK: He knew what was going on. I’m not, like, filming people that have been lobotomized. It’s all up to interpretation, I never felt like I’ve crossed any boundaries. Actually, I’ve always felt like everything seemed justified and beautiful. It almost seems like the reverse is disgusting–like, why wouldn’t you put these people in? They should be celebrated. Fuck it, life is too short. I’ll let all the academics argue those points, but it feels right, I don’t care what anybody says. I’m going to go there.
iW: Have you ever felt like you’ve had to compromise something in any of your films to guarantee a release?
HK: There are definitely times where I’ve felt like there’s something pushing it, but it’s different for me because it’s never like sex or violence — the normal things: “Oh, there’s an erect dick in this picture,” or “There’s too many people dying.” My movies don’t really have that. It comes from something being too real. Usually, I’ll go with that if it makes sense in the story.
iW: Are you comfortable with people reading “Mister Lonely” as an allegory for the transitions you’ve gone through in your life?
HK: Sure, why not? I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way. I’ve had the same reaction to almost every film I’ve done. It’s like there’s no middle. I hate being bored. I always wanted to be entertaining. I either wanted to make films that rose above or fell down below. However anyone reads it is fine with me. I’m sure a big percentage of the audience won’t even care about reading it. They’ll just want to walk out and think nothing about it. Hopefully, there are some people out there that will get a good laugh.
iW: This movie is opening the same weekend as “Iron Man.”
HK: What’s that?
iW: A Marvel Comics character.
HK: Oh, right. [laughs] Is somebody worried about that? If I made as much as money as they’ll probably make in concessions, I’ll be happy.
iW: You do still have a connection to popular culture, right? In your book A Crack Up at the Race Riots, you mention your affinity for celebrity journalism. The various people imitating pop icons in “Mister Lonely” — you’ve got Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Charlie Chaplin in there — seem like your way of deconstructing these personas.
HK: That was something I was very conscious of trying to do when I was first writing this with my brothers. I was definitely interested in them as icons. I was mostly interested in the obsessive characters underneath, doing the impersonations. Also, I thought it would be fun to take the mythology of these icons and have them bleed into the actual narrative.
iW: You wrote this film with your brother, Avi. How do the two of you collaborate?
HK: Well, I’ve written two scripts with him, this one and another we just wrote. We kinda take turns. We talk about it, and I try to stay loose. I’ll write something, and he’ll read what I write. Then he writes something. It’s just a game we play. It’s like acting. It’s fun to write with him, and then there are some things that are too hard to express to him that just require me sitting down.
iW: Do you have a timeline for finishing your next project?
HK: I’ve got this other, strange idea I’m going to write pretty quickly and hopefully I’ll be making a movie by the end of the year. I’ll work with any financiers as long as I have final cut.