For much of the 1990s, writer-director Harmony Korine was readily identifiable as the enfant terrible of the American indie scene, a twisted prodigy with a penchant for drugs, drama and artful rebellion. Now, after a lengthy hiatus, he returns with his most surprising work yet: the tender, warm-hearted Mister Lonely, a comic parable of love, loss and the importance of faith.
Tom Huddleston: The writing of Mister Lonely coincided with you pulling yourself out of a long dark period. Can you talk about how you ended up there?
Harmony Korine: Well, I guess about ten years ago, during my last movie, something happened to me. I was living in New York and I wasn’t very happy. I started to feel disconnected, it’s no secret I was very much into narcotics at the time, and it started to fall apart. I started to feel like most of the people around me were phonies, crooks and idiots. And then I began to question myself, like, if these are the people that are around me, I must be putting off that as well. So then I wanted to do nothing but disappear, just get out of that world. Basically I just kind of more or less disintegrated.
TH: Did you honestly consider quitting the movie business?
HK: Definitely. Absolutely. And it wasn’t just quitting. I mean, I’ve had fantasies about quitting almost since I began. It was a weird thing, because all I ever wanted to do was make movies, and then when I started making movies all I wanted to do was quit making movies. It wasn’t the films, I loved making the films. It was everything that came before and after.
TH: Mister Lonely is about a character rediscovering companionship and happiness. In that sense is it a very personal story?
HK: Definitely. There are all these ideas about faith and hope, wanting to be someone other than who you are. Being in beautiful places and feeling awful. A lot of searching, inventing your own reality.
TH: There seems to be more of a sense of joy here than in any of your other movies.
HK: Well, the truth is… It’s no secret I’m not a big fan of plots in films. I mean, I love stories and I love characters, but with anything I’ve done I’ve wanted to create a mood, a tone, and a feeling. I felt this movie would succeed or fail based on me getting across this sense of hope and happiness. Or at least the idea that in amongst all the horror there’s still some beauty, there’s still a kind of poetry to it all. The film before, Julien (Donkey-Boy), in some ways was very bleak, like a dark hole, and it reflected my mental state at the time. But I was feeling differently with this, and I wanted to make people laugh, and do something different.
TH: You seem to have a poet’s ability to encapsulate very distinct feelings in single shots or brief scenes.
HK: Sometimes I don’t really know where they come from. I try not to question it too much, it’s good when it becomes an intuitive thing. Certain images speak. I can say more in images and music than I can in actual conversation.
TH: What made you want to tell a story about celebrity impersonators?
HK: Visually, it was interesting to me. I like the way they look. And I like obsessive characters. It seems such an odd way to make your way in the world, this bizarre existence. Living as someone else, living as an icon. But at the same time I thought it would be interesting to see, you know, Sammy Davis Jr. mow the yard, or Abe (Lincoln) tending sheep, or James Dean washing clothes. Those were just things I wanted to see.
TH: Were you concerned that it could become kitsch, or seem to be making fun?
HK: Definitely, that was something I was always aware of. Obviously, I didn’t want it seem like a joke. I didn’t want people to be doing impersonations the whole time, you’d get tired of them. I was more interested in the human underneath.
TH: Your father was a tap dancer, and there’s always this vaudeville influence in your films. What do you think it is about that era that fascinates you?
HK: More than anything, I’ve always admired show-people. I always had a great affinity for people who can walk on stage and do a little performance, give their blood, sweat and tears for the people out there, make ’em laugh, change the mood. People that live by their wits and their creativity. So I think I’ve always just loved those elements of performance and show-people, that carnival nature.
TH: It seems in your films that dancing, or any unconscious movement, signifies happiness and release.
HK: Man, it’s fun watching people dance. Sometimes I just sit on YouTube… you get a lot of these almost novelty dancers, with hip-hop and stuff, you get a lot of these strange dances that I really love.
TH: Conversely, do you think you mistrust intellectualism?
HK: It’s like what Herzog says, it’s false currency. I would rather you feel something than for me to have to explain it to you, intellectualise it. It’s not the way I work. It’s why I love Cassavetes’ films, because they just are, you just feel it. You sit through a movie like Husbands and it’s more than a movie, it’s like a life experience that you’ve just shared with these characters. And that’s not to say that all films should be like that, because I also really enjoy movies like Knocked Up, really debased comedies I enjoy as well, those just aren’t the kinds of movies that I make.
TH: You seem closer, more sympathetic to your characters here than in either Kids or Gummo, do you think that’s fair? There doesn’t seem to be any artistic distance between the camera and the subjects. You’re with them all the way.
HK: Yeah, I think so. But I think, in Gummo, at the time I didn’t feel that far away from some of those people either, I just think maybe they were more extreme, so it was more of a provocation. With this, I guess that some of the characters are maybe less sadistic.
TH: Do you think that’s a sign of growing confidence as an artist?
HK: (laughs) I hope not. I don’t know, as soon as people start saying things like that I start to get nervous. I don’t ever want to get that confident, or too mellow. But with this movie, after going through so much shit in my life, I really wanted to push myself. I wanted to do things I never thought I would do, and express ideas and feelings that I hadn’t before. I think it was important for me to try that.
TH:Do you feel like it’s perhaps more traditional as well, in terms of its character development and narrative?
HK:Yes, without question. Those movies were more deconstructed, they were more about breaking down image and language. Julien and especially Gummo were more about how I wanted to see films, in a kind of fragmented, random, chaotic order. With this story, I didn’t feel like it needed that. It needed something simpler.
TH:Obviously the key eccentricity in Mister Lonely is the parallel story. What do you think the importance was of telling these two stories simultaneously?
HK:Even though they never intersect, I thought that they both spoke to the same ideas, the same philosophy. This idea of wanting to be someone other than who you are, change and faith and obsession and identity. And in some ways I thought that the nuns’ story served as a kind of poetic punctuation, or an allegory of sorts.
TH:Did you at any point consider cutting the secondary narrative, issuing it as a short, or as a prelude to the main narrative?
HK:Definitely. Because they started out as two separate ideas, but I thought they’re very similar, they’re both saying something very close.
TH:Inasmuch as this is a film about faith, you seem in the end to be saying that such faith is essentially misguided, that it all turns bad. Do you think that’s fair?
HK:I think there’s a few ways to look at it. I don’t really have an intention, so maybe that is what it says, I don’t really know. Sometimes, to me, it seems like the people who are the biggest dreamers, and the most pure in heart, in the end get hurt the worst. Society and the real world, I’ve noticed, have a way of kicking your ass at the end. But I also think that, for me, there’s nothing more important than the dream. The dream sustains us. It’s not about a person’s individual successes or failures it’s about the dream. At least for me, it’s the dream that always helps me make it through the day.
TH:Do you yourself have faith in anything?
HK:Of course. I think it’d be awful to walk these streets without it. But, you know, faith in anything. I have faith in the trees. I have faith in the belly-dancers.
TH:Did you ever consider giving the movie a happy ending?
HK:I think it does have one.
TH:Not for the nuns.
HK:Right, right, right. Yeah, maybe not, but who knows? Maybe they’re in some other world right now.
TH:How has the film been received so far?
HK:So far, so good. With my movies, in some ways, I’m delusional. In the back of my mind I always think it’s going to be, you know, a sequel to The Shawshank Redemption, or that I’m going to have these massive commercial successes. Then when the film is shown people tell me how insane that is, and how misguided I am.
The conversation then turned to Harmony’s earlier career, where the success and notoriety he earned writing Larry Clark’s infamous Kids quickly translated into mainstream fame, late night talk-show appearances and his own debut directing gig, Gummo.
TH:How was it being thrown into the spotlight so young? I saw you on Letterman (look on YouTube for these ridiculous interviews). You seemed to be playing with him a little.
HK:I was a kid, I was having fun. Making it up as I was going. I didn’t get in it for a lot of the reasons that most people get in it, so I figured if I was going to do it, I was going to make it my own. It was fun. I did a lot of stuff that caused me problems later in life, but I was enjoying it.
TH:Is it fair to say you were something of a nihilist as a young man? Life seems pretty bleak for most of your characters, even if they do have a little fun along the way.
HK:Sure. I’m sure there’s a lot of that in there.
TH:How much of Gummo came from personal experience?
HK:A lot of that movie was filmed with people and friends that I knew growing up, in locations that I was very familiar with. But it was kind of both, it was things that I was making up and manipulating, mixed in with straight documentary. That movie was really just trying to get images from all directions, wanting to create a tapestry.
TH:Do you think it’s fair to say you had a tendency at that stage to pick the most grotesque aspects of the world you were exploring?
HK:I don’t know. Those are things I’m interested in, those were the types of pictures that I wanted to take, and those were the types of people and characters. It’s what I loved, those were people that I loved, and found interesting. Some of them, yes, you could say that they were bizarre, you could refer to some of that as grotesque, but for me that’s what I loved, that’s what was exciting to me. Those were the types of images that I hadn’t seen on screen. And I still love it. It’s still what it is.
TH:We know what happened to the principal cast of Kids, but what happened to the cast of Gummo? Are you still in touch with any of them?
HK:A lot of them didn’t fare so well. A lot of my friends are in prison, a few of them died from, you know, sniffing paint. It was a rougher road for those guys.
TH:How was it directing Werner Herzog the first time on Julien Donkey-Boy?
HK:It was great. When you see him, that’s how he is. He’s always exciting to work with. When you explain the character, when he gets in and understands it, you kind of just let him go. Yeah, Werner is a real performer.
TH:How much improvisation did you do?
HK:Improv is based on ideas. Improvising, for me, comes with the script, and letting the characters, actors leave their lines and take it in some other direction. With someone like Werner you can do a lot, but there are some people who are horrible at it.
TH:You talked a lot at the time of Julien Donkey-Boy about finding a new cinema, about finding new narrative directions in film. Do you still harbour those kinds of ambitions?
HK:I guess it depends. With this movie, it wasn’t about that. It was because the story seemed, to me, like it needed to be told in a simple way. And so I think it changes with each film. I have no interest in doing straight movies, I just don’t care about it, it’s not my thing. I don’t think like that, so I think my movies will always have something to offer in the form of non-narrative or, you know, something different. But I’m not staying up at night trying to discover new forms of cinema. It’s not like a science project. It’s not a math equation.
Interview by Tom Huddleston