There’s a weariness about Harmony Korine as he stands against a urinal in the Soho Grand Hotel. I suggest to him that we have the interview out in the garden since the hotel’s lounge is as hot as a proofing oven. He straightens himself up, says, “Fine, man, whatever.”
Life for Korine has been swirling downward after Julien Donkey-boy came out in 1999. After the meltdown he walked away from filmmaking, bumming around Europe before ending up in Paris. Well, everyone’s rock bottom is different, they say.
Korine is back to work with a new film. Mister Lonely, which he wrote with his brother Avi, is all poetry and bliss, bringing Fellini, Wim Wenders and Matthew Barney to mind. American cinema hasn’t looked this original in a while. Diego Luna plays a Michael Jackson for-hire impersonator making a living in Paris. In a strangely predictable way Michael meets a Marilyn impersonator (Samantha Morton) who takes him to a commune where other impersonators put together their own variety shows.
Korine’s early work (Kids, Gummo, Julien Donkey-boy) about folks living on the wrong river’s edge seemed to follow the same enraged narrative. With Mister Lonely, repression is out. Although Diego Luna’s character suffers from bouts of melancholy, the commune of impersonators he joins has a definite lust for life and a jones for showbiz. Michael Jackson (Luna) was the missing link; once he shows up, everyone works on putting a nightly show on for the town with a renewed sense of purpose. Korine talked with us about his tribulations, faith and an ever-corruptible younger brother named Avi.
Screen Comment: You totally disappeared after Julien Donkey-boy. What happened to you?
Harmony Korine: I went traveling and ended up in France after I burnt out all my other countries. I started falling apart, I wanted to live a life that was separate, I didn’t want to have anything to do with movies, anymore. I ran out of money, I ran out of friends, and I ran out of hope.
How long did you spend in France? Do you even speak French?
[Smiles] No. I wasn’t listening. I spent just under a year there. During that time I only left my apartment four times, I think.
So the inspiration for Mister Lonely came in part from your experience there? How did you enlist your brother Avi’s help in writing the screenplay?
Yes, partly. Avi was living in Philadelphia in someone’s attic. He was only eating chicken McNuggets and watching boxing matches. It’d been long since I had written anything and I figured I liked the stuff that he had written, especially the less pornographic stuff. So I asked him if he wanted to come down and do this with me. His only special condition was that I find him the special honey that had been discontinued from McDonalds. So I tracked down this farm and got a bunch, and he came down and we just sat in a room for three months and came up with the concept.
Are you very close to your brother?
We hadn’t been so close physically because he’s so much younger and I was out of the house a lot when he was growing up. But we have a lot in common–we share the same kind of humor, find the same characters interesting.
So what was the dynamic like between you two?
I had images and ideas and specific characters, and we started riffing, talking about different things, what about this idea, etc. Usually, if we’d both laugh at it, then it’s good to keep. It took about a month of talking about it and writing our little notes, and then another month of actual writing.
Are you very picky when it comes to the finished screenplay?
I usually write just one draft. As soon as the script is finished, I’ll reread it and clean up the dialogue a little. I don’t know what a perfect script is. I don’t ever spend too much time to get a script perfect, I just don’t really care if it seems OK.
There are two plots in Mister Lonely. The impersonators and the flying nuns. Do you think that some people might have a hard time connecting the nuns to the others?
They’re not there just randomly. The nuns represent a different way of saying, “Look at this estranged group of people.” I felt like that even though the stories didn’t intersect in a concrete way, they spoke to the same idea, it was allegory showing how the characters paralleled each other. They were both groups of marginalized, displaced dreamers that were living outside of the system. And in a way the nuns have this hope that if you believe strongly enough in something you can survive. You can ride bicycles in the clouds and do tricks and land and survive.
A little like these impersonators believed they could become the greatest stars the world has ever known!
Right, just like that, just like these impersonators believed that you could be someone else. There’s an emotional sense in there, but I never really cared about making perfect sense, I’ve always wanted to make movies that were nonsense.
Could Diego Luna and Samantha Morton’s characters (Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, respectively) thrive in the real world?
Well, all the characters are show people and they really come alive when they perform. Performance is everything. And dreamers that they are, they hope that the whole world will come to see the show.
But they’re in for a surprise…
Right, reality always has a way of intruding on dreams and the truth of their situation becomes obvious. There they are, living in a remote commune in the Scottish Highlands. They are delusional but I think they had a beautiful dream, a pure dream and sometimes the purest dreams are the ones that get hurt the most.
Upon seeing Werner Herzog in priest habit admonishing the laborer who cheats on his wife, I thought what an astonishing scene. You and Herzog have been friends for a while?
Yes, right after “Gummo” came out I got a phone call from him. We have a good relationship.
Do you believe in God?
Belief is an important part of my life. I won’t say too much about this, but I need to believe in something to get through the day. But that’s my own thing.
Do you believe in Agnes B, then?
[Laughs] Well, I have a production company with Agnes B. She had been waiting for me to get my act together. When I was ready, I called her up and told her I had a script, let’s go. That’s where it came together.
Agnes B. is the patron saint of the New York arts scene.
Yes! […] She’s great.
Now that you live in Nashville, do you miss New York City?
Not really, no. That’s part of the past. My life in Nashville is great. Moving there was my saving grace. That and meeting my wife Rachel [she plays Little Red Riding Hood in Mister Lonely]. It’s been terrific. When I get off the airplane my heart rate goes down, you know you’re in the right place. I can just drive around in my car and dream up scenarios.
You’re not a very prolific filmmaker. Are we going to have to wait a decade for your next movie?
I hope to God it won’t take me a decade until the next film. I’ve already written another one. My mind is in a better place. I won’t be so precious about things. I’d like to make a movie by the end of the year.
Gummo is available on Youtube in its entirety–click here. Also, check out this must-see video of Korine curb dancing.