On Set of ‘The Beach Bum’: Harmony Korine Goes Mainstream — On His Own Terms

Exclusive: With his first movie since "Spring Breakers," Korine brings a new perspective to his work: arthouse Cheech and Chong.
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Harmony Korine on the set of "The Beach Bum"
Eric Kohn

In December 2017, five years after “Spring Breakers,” Harmony Korine finally got to direct another outrageous Florida adventure. During the last week of production, Korine gazed into a monitor as cinematographer Benoit Debie focused on the action, while Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron dashed down a Miami Beach boardwalk.

As stoner poet Moondog, McConaughey was nearly unrecognizable in a bright yellow wig and loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt. Efron was hard-rock drug addict Flicker, sporting sunglasses, a crew cut with zig-zags on the sides, and a Japanese headband. McConaughey swayed across the bright lights of the promenade as the ocean gleamed under a moonlit night, as Efron cackled and sprinted alongside. McConaughey stumbled into a table full of baffled locals, twirled around, and found his footing. “‘Scuse me, folks,” he said.

“Matthew, that was great!” Korine said. “Don’t hesitate to throw in a little shout, to take in the night air.” He hit a high note to demonstrate: “You know, like ‘Hee-hee!’” McConaughey gave it a whirl, as dozens of patrons at an adjacent bar looked on.

The screenplay for this scene from “The Beach Bum” described only one action: “Moondog and Flicker walk past throngs of drunk tourists.” On a more traditional production, that might suggest no more than a few seconds of footage. But even as Korine entered into the final week on his biggest project to date, he followed the same loose rules that defined his shaggy oeuvre.

“My other films have these violent elements,” he said. “This one isn’t sinister. With this movie, it’s nice to make something that’s just hilarious.”

Ever since he transitioned from child-prodigy status with his screenplay for “Kids” to his freewheeling directorial debut “Gummo” in 1996, Korine has followed the dictum of what he calls “mistakist art,” capturing the strange alchemy of eccentric outsiders. With “The Beach Bum,” the 46-year-old filmmaker continues to advance a nearly 30-year trajectory that finds his loopy, prankish storytelling expanding its reach into popular culture. The movie’s arrival at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, where it will have its world premiere ahead of a March 29 release from Neon and Vice Studios, marks the end of a very long journey.

“Spring Breakers” was the gateway drug; “The Beach Bum” is the first full-fledged Harmony Korine movie for the masses. As Moondog, McConaughey is a gleeful, vulgar hedonist who roams Miami and Key West with a typewriter, delivering romantic poems at grimy bars while coasting on the support of his wealthy wife (Isla Fischer), who delights in his carefree existence.

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots with Korine’s own messy trajectory, which found him recovering from a drug-fueled meltdown in the late ’90s by careening from New York to Europe and then back to hometown of Nashville. Eventually, he rebooted his lifestyle in Miami, where he has settled down with his wife, two children, and a community of creatives hip to Florida’s relaxed vibe. He said the exuberant backdrop opened up new artistic possibilities.

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“This movie’s not really super dark,” Korine said, as McConaughey and Efron marched to another setup. “Maybe some people will see it that way, because of all the debauchery, but it’s really joyous. The character’s wild, and it’s kind of a cosmic vision of America, more of a celebration than an indictment.”

This is a throughline in Korine’s career: Ostracized by society and indifferent to its broader concerns, riotous jokers invent their own rules. In the wake of “Kids,” the media turned Korine into a rebel caricature, a rambunctious 19-year-old punk who gave cryptic interviews to David Letterman and traipsed about with troublemakers like David Blaine and Chloe Sevigny, Korine’s girlfriend at the time. As a filmmaker, Korine turned that persona inside out across an expansive canvas of empty parking lots and grimy living rooms, merging a Southern Gothic aesthetic with surreal flourishes.

“Gummo” and “Julien-Donkey Boy” brought a melancholic lyricism to his angry, disturbed Tennessee loners. In 2007, he sobered up and made “Mister Lonely,” about a commune of celebrity impersonators struggling to confront their true selves. With the 2009 eerie vaudevillian found-footage experiment “Trash Humpers,” Korine took his first stab at ludicrous characters energized by insane antics.

“Spring Breakers” clarified Korine’s attraction to the fantasy of living on the edge, with his winding portrait of a Disneyfied cast discovering a new side of themselves in a deranged spring break that turns criminal. “The Beach Bum” digs deeper into that candy-colored milieu: While “Spring Breakers” centered on teenage girls liberated by a ludicrous outlaw (James Franco), McConaughey’s Moondog is the outlaw who liberated himself. He roams from sexual trysts to gate-crash his daughter’s wedding, and perpetually smokes up with his supportive rapper buddy Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, essentially playing himself). Moondog represents the first Korine protagonist completely at peace with his surroundings, no matter how much they threaten to collapse on top of him.

“I don’t really believe in anything too special,” Moondog says late in the movie. “It’s all kind of written in the stars … I just try and enjoy myself. I don’t stress it.” The only time he acknowledges the rest of civilization is a speech where he disparages “people running downhill to the next red light.” It’s a close cousin of Korine’s own improvised monologue in “Trash Humpers,” when his unnamed character cruises through suburbia after dark, disparaging all the settled families for a “stupid, stupid, stupid way to live.”

Korine has never been big on nuance. On the one hand, the movie’s collage-like assemblage of Moondog’s misadventures plays out like arthouse Cheech and Chong; viewed more broadly, it becomes an introspective treatise on the genre itself. By hovering within the boundaries of hyper-masculine lowbrow humor, “The Beach Bum” concludes that even the sophomoric man-child has a soul.

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It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. After “Spring Breakers” rejuvenated Korine’s auteur status, grossing more than three times its $5 million budget and winning him new fans, he pounced on the opportunity to bring Florida’s underbelly to a larger audience. That was going to be “The Trap,” an action-packed epic about a pair of robbers who part ways when one is arrested and the other becomes a famous hip-hop artist by stealing his incarcerated pal’s style. When the former friend breaks loose, he goes on a revenge-fueled rampage. Korine imagined it as his version of “Oldboy,” and with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures behind it, he rounded up a cast of A-listers headed by Jamie Foxx and Benicio del Toro. Complications with Foxx arose early on; after Idris Elba replaced him, Del Toro landed a role in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that threw off the shooting schedule. Four weeks before production, the financiers pulled out.

“I didn’t want to be susceptible to something happening again and losing two years,” Korine said. “Just living in that, for so long, was hard on me.” However, he didn’t sulk. “I was doing a lot of just hanging out in the Keys with a lot of ex-smugglers and quasi-burnouts,” Korine said. As the 2016 election started to take shape, Korine — never outwardly political in his art — began to contemplate the tenor of the national conversation. “I started to feel like the times were changing, things were darker, everything was feeling more intense,” he said. “I thought, maybe it’s time to laugh. I figured I’d just go for it and make my version of a comedy.” In a matter of weeks, he had the first draft of “The Beach Bum.”

Oscar-winning “Birdman” producer John Lesher, who served as Korine’s first talent agent after “Kids,” stepped in. “Harmony’s gone through his own personal journey, so he’s in a very different place than he was back then,” Lesher said. “He’s interesting in that he has such a following on the one hand, but he’s not really understood.” Yet he’s in demand: The team took “The Beach Bum” to the market at Cannes 2017, where boutique distributor Neon bought U.S. distribution rights sight unseen. Korine sent the script to McConaughey, who signed on just as easily; Snoop Dogg had admired Korine’s work since “Kids,” and hounded the filmmaker about collaborating for ages, so Korine wrote the rapper into the story.

“The Beach Bum” careens through tangents that include a bloody shark battle and a getaway plane flown by a captain with glaucoma, but plot only tells part of the story. Moondog encounters idiosyncratic figures such as wild-eyed Vietnam vet Captain Whack (Martin Lawrence) and a flamboyant Jonah Hill as Moondog’s avaricious literary agent, but the exuberant environment is the biggest star of all.

“I wanted to make a film that was like a dirtier version of a Jimmy Buffet song — a crude, drunken ballad, an ode to excess,” said Korine, who befriended the Florida singer and convinced him to appear in a handful of scenes. Korine still wants to make “The Trap,” envisioning it as capping a Florida trilogy. “I like the way Jimmy Buffet has a specific theme, where he creates a kind of world people love with beach music,” Korine said. “I like the idea of making beach movies, that create a lewd, idealistic visual template for a certain type of lifestyle.” He shrugged off the challenge of writing stoned dialogue, even though he’s sober. “It’s pretty easy to tap into,” he said.

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Earlier in the evening, Korine arrived at an apartment set overlooking the water, where McConaughey and Efron prepared for a scene in which their characters — having escaped from rehab and stolen some money — party with a group of prostitutes. The prop list included a mojito, a joint, whippets, and a “faded Bible.” A rooster wandered through the living room and, as the camera rolled, Efron grabbed it while one of the women blew smoke rings. McConaughey sat down at a typewriter and tapped furiously away, shouting stanzas to his peers.

Outside, Korine’s longtime producer Charles-Marie Anthonioz watched the monitor and smiled. “This is absolutely a commercial movie,” he said. “He’s fucking crossing over with this. It’s a comedy! But all the poetry and beauty is there. Look at this. It’s magic.”

On the monitor, the cast ventured outside for their magic-hour ritual of shooting at sundown. “Moondog’s gotta fly, man,” McConaughey said, before darting from the scene. Alone in the frame, Efron puffed on a vaporizer and stared into the distance. “Do big things, Moondog,” he muttered. “May the force be with you.” Like a lot of footage in the shoot, this exchange would not make it into the movie’s final cut.

“The Beach Bum” benefits from a process that Korine honed on “Spring Breakers”: As his quasi-documentary approach became a logistical challenge, he began shooting nearly every scene at least three different ways. The variety of setups leaves room for improvisation, which allows him to explore the movie’s rhythm in the editing room.

“It’s always a challenge to make the films you want to make in this corporate system,” Lesher said. “‘Spring Breakers’ was helpful, but I think this film will be the turning point in terms of making it easier for Harmony to have the relevance I think he should have. We want to make something that people want to see, but do it in a way that’s personal to him.”

Of course, Korine’s audience may grow, but he will always unnerve some viewers. Others are likely to jab at the movie’s unbridled lack of political correctness, from the amoral regard for Moondog’s lawbreaking ways to the scantily clad women (and at least one trans woman) who drift through the frame. Korine, who has never made a movie that didn’t face some form of backlash, said he didn’t feel pressure to conform.

“Moondog is a flawed character, but the movie is meant to celebrate everyone,” he said. “People react negatively to certain things they aren’t used to seeing, or different types of physicality that freak people out. Even though all my films seem to be somewhat divisive, I always hope that people love them. I’m always wrong. I pay attention to culture, and at the same time, I’m removed from it.”

Later that night, Korine wandered the docks with an explosives expert. “We’ve gotta blow up some boats!” he shouted, referencing a turning point in the movie’s third act. “How many takes of the big fireball do we get?” The expert shrugged. “I only got eight cans.” Korine turned to Debie. “Can you work with that, Benoit?” he asked. The cinematographer nodded, and Korine chuckled.

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Like Moondog, Korine has burrowed into his own bubble of comfort. He bought a home in Miami and splits his time between domesticity and spending late nights hanging around the city’s zanier artistic hubs. His wife, “Spring Breakers” star Rachel Korine, gave birth to the couple’s second child at home during “The Beach Bum” shoot; Korine dashed back in time for the big moment and returned to set early the next morning.

While visiting his sister in Brooklyn, Korine started hanging out with a Hasidic community in Crown Heights who have virtually no relationship to his work. “I just like it,” he said. “They’re such fun people.” That association might suggest another high-concept embellishment from an artist who made up stories in interviews for decades, but Korine whipped out his phone to share photos of himself adorned in a suit jacket and surrounded by bearded men. It raises the question of whether Korine, who tends to speak of his characters in spiritual terms, believes in a higher power. “Whenever I try to put it into words, it diminishes it,” he said. “I have faith, and always have.”

Back on the dock, the production team prepped a scene in a bar, where Moondog and Flicker brainstorm ways of getting cash. “I know where we can get some money!” Efron shouted, as the pair darted for the door. Korine cracked up. “It’s so ‘Scooby-Doo’!” he said. For years, Korine has dodged efforts to read into his work, but this time, he couldn’t help himself. “This is a bit of a ‘fuck it’ movie, trying to say that a certain amount of detachment is good,” Korine said, as McConaughey mounted a skateboard for the next setup. “Maybe it is all about chasing bliss in the end. Everyone is too connected.”

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On the set of “The Beach Bum”Eric Kohn

Korine has embraced a world far from the media spotlight that first catapulted him to fame. Passing the shoot on the boardwalk, an older woman walked up to him. “Is the main movie star here? It was in the paper,” she said. “Are you one of them?” Korine stared at her and raised his eyebrows. “Yes,” he said. “I’m Matthew McConaughey.” She smiled. “Nice to meet you!” she said. “Is Jimmy Buffett here tonight?”

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