Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” marks a significant shift in exposure for the 39-year-old filmmaker, but nobody can accuse him of selling out. The movie, which premiered in Venice and made its North American premiere in Toronto last week, stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson as a trio of young woman who rob a diner to fund their trip down south. After a series of depraved party experiences, they eventually encounter the absurdly self-involved gangster Alien (James Franco), who manages to seduce most of the girls with his materialistic obsessions.
If there’s anything tame or familiar about the spring breakers’ initial exploits, Korine tears it apart with a gloriously surreal deconstruction of pop imagery. Having secured distribution with Annapurna Pictures (but still attracting interest from larger studios in the wake of its positive reception), “Spring Breakers” has already brought Korine onto a level of popularity that the director never could have achieved in the day of “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy.” Even the filmmaker had a hard time believing it when he dropped by Indiewire HQ on Sunday to discuss the movie.
You’ve said this was the hardest production of your career. How did the experience differ from your other movies?
It was the most difficult shoot in the sense that I had very little time. The look of the film was very central to it, so there were certain things I needed, like various equipment and cameras, so I could make the visuals the way I wanted them. I had to compensate for that, which affected the schedule, which affected the pace. And then you had these girls shooting on location, mostly in real places with people around them who weren’t actors. We put them in an environment they weren’t used to being in. Obviously, very quickly people found out about that. Sometimes there were more paparazzi than crew members. It can get weird very quickly. It was a whole set of problems I had never dealt with.
Nevertheless, it’s not like you sold out and made a conventional narrative feature. Where did the concept for “Spring Breakers” come from?
Early on, I had wanted to make a film in this style, and had been trying to develop in other ways — through short films and advertisements — this idea of microscenes. The movie to me is closer to electronic music. My idea for the film is more music-based than cinema-based. Music now is mostly loop and sample-based. A lot of stuff I like is more tracey and physical. I was hoping to develop a film style with this movie that could mimic that in some way. That’s where the liquid narrative comes from, this boozy-jazzy thing.
It’s an incredible soundtrack that combines compositions by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, but sometimes you can’t tell which is which.
That was the idea. I love them both and wanted to take a certain element of what each does best and have them merge. I wanted the music to have a physical presence.
There are also a number of big pop songs. How on earth did you get the rights to Britney Spears music?
The movie was always meant to work like a violent, beautiful pop ballad, something very polished that disappears into the night. Everyone was really cool about it. I’ve gotten to a point in my life that’s pretty cool where musicians are accepting and wanting to be part of what I do.
Even more impressive is the cast. What did it take to cast these young women, who are best known in teen-oriented fare, in a movie so subversive?
When I was thinking about the cast, I was thinking about who could play these parts, and was wondering who the girls are in this generation that best represent a certain ideology. There was something intriguing about the idea of using girls primarily known from a Disney-type reality. Immediately, instinctively, I said it would be great if Selena Gomez would do this. It’s pretty crazy that they were all pretty receptive to it.
Why do you think they were receptive?
A lot of them knew my films, which always surprises me. I got an email that Selena was going to hop on a plane and come to my living room in Nashville to audition, and that her mom was coming with her, and that she would be there the next morning. It was pretty crazy. Her mom is younger than I am and she had grown up watching my films and said she had been a fan of them.
So you now have an audience that grew up with your work.
Yeah, it’s pretty weird. I still feel like a kid, but really I’ve been making movies now for almost 20 years. It’s nice also knowing that you’re accepted by the culture in some way. When you’re out in the wilderness making movies, sometimes you don’t know where you live. It can be difficult to gauge who knows what, who sees what, and I try not to think about it too much.
And yet every time you make a new movie, the media focuses on how it reflects your public persona.
That’s the other thing. I’m not sure I like that. Sometimes, when I read things, I feel like my narrative or whatever the fuck it is, becomes too prominent. Every film is not a stealth move. It’s not a game of chess. I make films because I have ideas about certain characters or images. It feels like it’s part of the moment. This movie felt like something intangible, difficult to articulate, but I had to pluck it out of the air.
Do you think you would work on this scale again?
Monetarily, it wasn’t that big of a film. But I only want to go harder and bigger. I only want to push myself and make things more spectacular. It’s exciting for me to try to do things I never thought I would do and go places I never thought I would go. I want to experiment. At the same time, making movies is so hard that it can feel like warfare. A lot of the energy of the battles are fought about things that have nothing to do with the creative element.
Do you think this is your angriest film?
I don’t know if it’s angry, but it’s certainly the most aggressive. I wanted to make a film that feels like there’s no air in the room. I never wanted the audience to be comfortable or complacent. I never even wanted it to seem like they were watching a movie in the traditional sense. I wanted it to be something different. So there’s not that much dialogue. Words get in the way. I wanted the film to have a very physical presence.
What’s your overall take on the idea of spring break?
Spring break is a rite of passage, an American pastime. In the film, it’s more metaphorical, the idea of losing yourself. I don’t feel like the soul is gone in this country but that it has morphed into something else. Everything is experienced thorough screens and through views and technology. Sometimes the act of watching is like nothing. I just wanted to show how it’s all the same.
In the opening montage, a spring break beach party starts out like some kind of reality show before it turns increasingly depraved and tribal.
And I also wanted it to involve a kind of gangster mysticism. Everything has become so corporatized and boring so real outlaw culture or criminal culture feels like the last vestige of American rebellion. These girls have grown up on world star hip-hop and Gucci Man.
How did you decide on the structure? The story itself is pretty thin.
I wanted to run all through the idea of clips, like YouTube stuff, through a filmic filter. I wanted it to seem like the images were just flying or falling from outer space. I wanted to develop a new vernacular, at least for myself. It was an appropriation of images and ideas that were familiar and iconic to people, but I ran it through this fucked-up filter that spit them out in a new way. The movie is about energy more than anything, a feeling, what happens when you get lost. It’s not about spring break; it’s about when you drive a couple of miles away from spring break and you’re out on the boardwalk by the beach in this weird, fucked up, drunk place. It’s like beach noir. I really wanted the film to be about surfaces. I told [cinematographer] Benoit [Debie] at the beginning that I wanted it to look like candy — like he had lit the movie with Skittles. It was about this dance of surfaces. The meaning is the residue that drips down below the surface.