First published on 13 Mar 2013. Updated on 2 May 2013.
Enfant terrible filmmakers don’t get older; they only get weirder, and in Harmony Korine’s case, much more subversive. The 40-year-old filmmaker – who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s controversial Kids (1995) and enlightened viewers on the joys of humping trash with his art-terrorist found-footage opus, Trash Humpers (2009) – has made what’s easily his most radical work yet. Spring Breakers follows the escapades of four young college students who head to the Sunshine State to indulge in the annual rite of higher-education hedonism; the fact that the director cast a Disney Channel starlet (Selena Gomez), a High School Musical sweetheart (Vanessa Hudgens), the star of an family drama (Ashley Benson) and his own wife (Rachel Korine) as the girls gone very wild makes their bad behaviour seem that much more outrageous. And we haven’t even mentioned that James Franco shows up as a pimped-out Southern rapper with gold fronts. Korine chatted with Time Out over the phone.
From Trash Humpers to girls gone wild – can you walk us through that transition?
[Laughs] Man, I wish I could. Basically, I’d begun collecting images of “spring break” from various websites; I was using them as references for paintings I was working on. When I started looking at the images together, however, the culture seemed really interesting to me. It’s so ridiculously hypersexualized, so violent, so drunken and debauched – and then you’d catch all these odd little details that seemed almost sweet and sort of childlike. The more I’d see those juxtapositions, the more I’d wonder: Could I make a film that worked on both of those levels? I mean, I really wasn’t interested in making a movie that was only about spring break. I wanted to use that as a starting point for something a little more metaphorical.
Like the notion of going to someplace sunny and just getting shit-faced for a week can somehow be transcendental, maybe?
Yeah, exactly! Spring break is such a weird, performative rite of passage for so many American college students, and yet… that voiceover Selena Gomez’s character has about “It’s the most spiritual place on earth, I wish you were here, Grandma!” The first time you hear that, you might think it’s camp, because it’s such a ridiculous thing to say! But by the 20th time you hear her say it, you realize she’s serious. There’s no irony to that character; she’s picking up on an energy that she equates to what she’s experienced in her church group. Out of this weird primal theater of students acting out, she’s having a spiritual experience. To me, that’s such a uniquely American concept.
How much research did you do?
I stayed in a couple hotels in Florida during an actual spring break while I was writing the script, just to get the feel of it. The hotels walls would be shaking, people would be setting things on fire, couples were boning to Taylor Swift in the hallway 24 hours a day. It helped immensely.
Was it worse than actually shooting in Tampa Bay during spring break?
That was far more insane. We’re shooting in all real locations, and then you put these actors into the mix… there’s a real sense of fanaticism and chaos that follows those girls around because of their popularity, though that worked its way into the film. The characters are running around as if they’re being chased anyway, so we could use that same energy – darting in and out of places, trying to avoid the paparazzi so we could actually steal a shot. It made the film feel that much more frenetic. But yeah, it was fucking nuts.
Were you specifically thinking of casting Disney Channel mainstays when you were putting this together? Obviously, the fact that these actors are bringing a certain persona to the table that you can screw with must have been on your mind.
I mean, they had to do the work as actors and they had to get into their characters; they weren’t hired simply because they were on a Disney show. But yeah, of course I was aware of that! These are young women who are representative of a specific subset of pop culture and who are always used to playing the good girl. So to be able to let them play against type – it was very exciting.
I love the notion that a Selena Gomez fan might go see this and walk out having experienced something they might not have seen otherwise. I’m not even joking.
Good! Yeah, I genuinely love that idea too, and I say that seriously as well. I hope they have a completely new, positive experience – or at the very least, a highly unusual new experience. [Laughs]
How much did you and James Franco work on constructing Alien? Or was it more of James just showing up as this Scarface-from-Jupiter character?
Wow, that’s a great description of Alien! I’d wanted to write a character like that for a long time; he’s based on a lot of guys I knew growing up in Nashville. It’s such a great archetype, this white kid with hood ambitions, but as with everything else about this movie, I really didn’t want it to be just that. James and I had been talking about the role for about a year off and on before we started filming, and we kept coming back to the fact that there needed to be this poetic, almost tender side to Alien in addition to the guns-and-bling stuff. I sent him a lot of stuff that I’d run across, whether it was a poem or a picture of some Southern rap star that I thought would be good for it. He usually didn’t respond, so I had no idea whether he was taking any of that in. Then we started rehearsing and shooting, and I realised, Oh, he’s taken all of this in.
He’s the kind of gangster who’ll put down his machine gun to serenade you with a beautiful Britney Spears song.
I really wanted to tap into some odd, zeitgeisty currents that had been running through the air for the past five or six years with this movie, and I remember when I heard that Spears song – 'Everytime' – thought, This is like a blueprint for the movie. It’s this very poppy, airless song, with this sentimental surface. And then underneath it, there’s a pathology and violence going on that is far more interesting. It’s an innocuous pop song with something hidden within it. That really is Spring Breakers in a nutshell. It’s also kind of the perfect song to score a violent-montage scene to. [Laughs]
Please tell me there’s a three-hour cut of Franco talking about all this stuff somewhere out there.
I think we do have a 30-minute sequence in real time of him just walking through his bedroom and pointing out things... That was all him. I love that scene so much; maybe we’ll put the full, unedited scene on the DVD.
You could include a complimentary shuriken with every purchase.
Or a free bottle of dark tanning oil, totally.
What sort of discussions did you and cinematographer Benoît Debie have about the look of the movie?
From the very beginning, I knew I wasn’t trying to make a documentary or an essay film; I wanted to make something hallucinatory, something that really took that spring-break aesthetic of neon and flesh to a whole other place. So Benoît and I immediately started playing around with the idea of using color to reflect this notion of that culture as a huge piece of candy. Our conversations would be something along the lines of “Let’s use that gel that makes everything look like a Starburst,” or “This scene needs a red Skittles light setup.” [Laughs] We were both into the idea of giving the movie an ambience and a tone that was closer to a piece of electronic music, with looped elements and a very druggy, trancelike nature. If you’ve seen his work in [Gaspar Noé’s 2009] Enter the Void, you know Benoît is the master of that look – it’s a key part of the film, obviously.
Having started out writing about out-of-control youth with Kids, do you feel like you’ve come full circle in a way with this movie?
Maybe. I do know that it’s taken me 20 years to finally develop a language that is hitting on something in a way that I want it to. It’s still coming from the same place that writingKids and making those earlier movies came from, for sure, where all that youthful excitement and raw energy pushes you to try and articulate something you can’t say any other way. But I’m thinking about filmmaking in an entirely different way now – the idea of images and sounds coming from all directions yet still revolving around a certain idea. Spring Breakers is the closest I’ve come yet to capturing how I want to tell a story. Now that I've found what I've been looking for, I just want to keep going for it full blast.
Spring Breakers screens from Thu May 9.