Considered by many to be a master of cutting-edge cinema, Harmony Korine first shocked audiences and the film industry when he wrote the screenplay for Kids, which Larry Clark directed and which launched the careers of Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson in 1995. He followed that with the unconventional and controversial Gummo, earning the respect of fellow filmmakers Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant while alienating many theatergoers with graphically violent and sometimes incomprehensible scenes. Korine has continued to confound Hollywood by making movies and documentaries meant to please himself, with a blissful ignorance of the box-office consequences.
JAMES FRANCO: We’re doing this movie Spring Breakers together, about a group of college girls who rob a restaurant to fund their spring break. Where did the idea come from?
KORINE: I saw pictures of these girls, spring break girls or something, and I imagined what it would be like seeing girls in bikinis with ski masks and guns. I thought, Wow, that’s a cool image. How could that be a reality? I thought spring break would be the only place. Really quickly, over maybe just one or two days, I started writing the outline. I thought to send it to you—which I never, ever do. I never send anybody something before it’s actually written—but it was just the idea.
FRANCO: I loved the world of it. I just wanted one level of it to feel real. I loved the gloss and everything on the top, but make the murders real. Then you went off and wrote it.
KORINE: I jumped on an airplane, and it was spring break. I checked into a hotel and wrote it in 10 days or something while teenagers were listening to Taylor Swift and vomiting on my front door. I’d gone to the wrong place, Daytona Beach, because when I was a kid that’s where they all went. It was just fat bikers and lesbians everywhere. Some woman in a stationery shop or whatever—she was like a bodybuilder—said, “Spring break hasn’t been here since the 1980s or the early 1990s. It’s in Panama City.” So I jumped on an airplane, went to Panama City and checked in to the Holiday Inn. It was like ground zero for spring break. It was mayhem. It was so disgusting—people fucking everywhere and puking, music all night. It was impossible for me to write or focus. It was like living in hell.
FRANCO: Tell me about the specifics of Kids, your first movie.
KORINE: That one is such a fluke. I was straight out of high school when I wrote it. When I met the director Larry Clark, I was going to NYU. It was my first semester. I’d moved up from Nashville and was living in my grandma’s house. I was in a dramatic-writing program. I used to make short films in high school, but I didn’t want to go to film school because I understood the basic technical ideas. I knew how to make films.
FRANCO: Blockbuster refused to carry Kids.
KORINE: That was exciting to me. I loved it. I was happy because people were talking about it. Honestly, the whole thing with Kids was that I was excited it made so much noise because then I could make my own movies; I got to make Gummo. To this day I feel the same way. I don’t care all that much if you like what I do. I want people to love what I do; I want an audience. You always hope that people like it more than they dislike it, but I don’t really sit around and think about it.
FRANCO: Because your movies are unusual you’ve said, “I make it and I want people to like it, but I’m also in a place where my idea of success is not if the biggest number of people like it.” Why make movies for theatrical audiences if that’s your attitude? You’re connected to the art world, and you’ve shown movies at the Whitney Museum.
KORINE: I always make movies, all of them, for the theater because all my greatest experiences in life were in movie theaters. All my most profound moments came from being in a theater and seeing things projected. I always start with that, because that, for me, is the best.
FRANCO: If it ever became really hard to make movies for the theaters, would you just say fuck it?
KORINE: I never wanted to be part of a film world. It’s all the same to me, the artwork, the writing, the books, whatever it is, the movies—it’s all part of the same idea, and it always has been. It’s part of a unified aesthetic or a unified idea that even a scribble on a piece of paper is connected in some way. There’s a relationship between them. I want to be able to just do it. I never cared about being the best writer or the best artist or the best director. I wanted to be the best me.
FRANCO: That relates to what you told me about Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
KORINE: I remembered reading something Fassbinder talked about that made a huge impression. He mentioned that he didn’t care about making masterpieces. What he was really concerned about was making films like emotions, films for different reasons at different times in his life that correspond with emotions or things he was going through. He compared it to a house. He said some of his films were like the floorboards, some were like the chimney, some were the kitchen, some the front door and some the bathroom. The idea was that at the end of your life you’ve amassed enough work that you’ve built a house you can live in and in some way be comfortable inside. I remember that having an impact on me, because I understood what he was saying. A lot of times people are just chasing this one thing. For me, it is important that at the end of my life I’ve put enough stuff out there that it has some type of meaning and some type of an effect. It all says everything and it all says nothing. That’s the thing. What does your work mean? It means everything and nothing.