The word “transcendent” doesn’t necessarily come to mind when pondering the films of Harmony Korine. Maybe “transgressive,” or “offensive,” or “incomprehensible” would be more like it.
For example, it doesn’t seem quite the word to describe his screenwriting debut (Larry Clark directed), 1995’s “Kids,” about an HIV-infected skateboarder whose dream is to pass his disease on to as many virgins as he can. Nor does it do justice to his directorial debut, “Gummo” (1998), in which feral teenagers sell dead cats to the local grocer for money to sniff glue and pay for the services of the town prostitute, or “Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999), the tale of a teenage schizophrenic abused by his father, played by Werner Herzog, who is a fan of listening to bluegrass music while wearing a gas mask. You could make a case that “Mister Lonely” (2007), which is about a sweet-natured Michael Jackson impersonator, has the potential for transcendence, but probably not “Trash Humpers” (2009), a film that features, in its more restrained moments, the title act.
But transcendence is one of the words Korine most frequently resorts to when discussing his new film, “Spring Breakers.” And he may be right. In mere practical terms, such as size of release (1,000 screens in its second week) and cast (James Franco, former Disney Channel favorites Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens), it transcends the indie limitations of his previous films. But it also aspires to transcendence in a more traditional sense, elevating its tawdry subject to a higher artistic, even spiritual level. Set during the bacchanal referred to in the title, the film
follows the fortunes of four girls who finance their trip to St. Petersburg, Fla., by holding up a restaurant. Once they hit the beach, however, they get more than they bargained for. And so does the audience.
We spoke with Korine by phone recently from his home in Nashville.
Q. You turned 40 a couple of months ago. Happy birthday. Did you do anything fun?
A. I went to a bowling alley. It was pretty fun. It was a neon bowling alley. I found a $100 bill on the floor so I figured it was going to be a good year.
Q. It seems to be, so far, since the movie made $270,000 on three screens on its opening weekend. How did you manage to make such a high-profile movie with such a stellar cast after “Trash Humpers”?
A. I don’t know. I just had this idea. An image that popped into my mind of girls in bikinis and ski masks robbing tourists on the beach. From there I dreamed up the story line and characters and I was thinking about who could play the parts and what the ultimate dream movie would be. So I put the word out there and to my surprise those girls [Gomez and Hudgens] and [James] Franco wanted to be in the film and we just made it happen.
Q. So the girls came from an image; where did their Svengali, the white gangsta played by James Franco, come from?
A. I had this idea for a character who would be something incredible, almost a gangster/mystic, a sociopath with the heart of a poet or clown, but it’s all charisma and swagger. I spent about a year before the shooting just talking about things, sending [Franco] images, audio clips — I wanted his voice to be very regional and come from this very specific part of Florida. And he filtered it in this strange way and it manifested itself in this Alien character. Pretty spectacular. I think he is in some ways the embodiment of a culture, a living breathing cultural mash-up. At the same time he has a soul. There is a deep energy to him because of all the things that have filled him up inside. He’s like a spirit.
Q. Is a he a violent version of Mr. Lonely, who takes on a pop cultural persona to make his life meaningful?
A. Maybe. But more than that you have these characters in their search for transcendence. These girls are obviously misguided and extreme, but still, at their base level, at their essence, they’re trying to transcend, find something beautiful, something magical. Almost more than human. Like gangster shape-shifters.
Q. Some of them are traditionally religious, like Faith [Selena Gomez], who is torn between her evangelical beliefs and the liberation of the gangster life. Do you think pop culture and religion fulfill the same needs?
A. It’s difficult to talk about because it sometimes feels like if I tell you that this or that was my intention, it’s like I’m too much completing the act. What I will say is that I sometimes see the girls as a single entity, one being. The Faith character, with her name being Faith completely without irony, is wholly earnest. She’s the moral center, the core of morality in the group. And once that’s peeled away and she leaves and Rachel’s character [Cotty, played by Rachel Korine, the director’s wife] leaves, you’re left with these almost animalistic, sociopathic, full-on girls who go through life with abandon.
Q. You’re not worried that some might think the film encourages violence, especially recent tragedies like the one at Newtown?
A. My movie had already premiered before that happened. I’m not sure if it will be an issue. The film hits on a lot of [that topic] and it is very much about that fabric of the American psyche. The relationship between sex, and guns, and drugs, how it is this spiritual experience for these characters. These characters relate to it in that way. [The film] is almost an impressionistic reinterpretation of that culture. The history of violence is the history of movies.
Q. And the women have the power and aren’t the victims. Is this a feminist movie?
A. Of course! You can see in the film they transcend everything: sex, race, economics. But it’s too easy to make simple judgments that this person is all good and this person is bad. I want the films to be more like an experience, a feeling, an energy. It is a reinterpretation of that world. I’m not saying that the film is one kind of truth. I’m trying to do something that is more like a drug experience. A physical element that changes you. Or entertains you in a way that you’re not exactly sure how it’s working. It goes through you and has a transcendence, peak moments, and then it very quickly fades away and disappears into blackness.
Q. Would you say the film has a structure that’s more musical than narrative?
A. Yeah. I wanted to make this film more like a piece of music, like electronic music or trance-based music or even pop music. Something rhythm-based which lulled you into this physical experience and then worked on you in a sensory way, the way a pop song has hooks and choruses and refrains. I wanted to have a liquid narrative, sequencing micro-scenes, scenes that would come back and forth and repeat and you would forget about them but then come back, in which sounds would serve like cinematic hooks, like ear worms, like mantras that would latch themselves onto your brain.
Q. This film looks like it will be a breakout for you. Have you had periods in your career where you felt like things weren’t going to work out, that the world was against you?
A. Are you kidding? Ever since I was a little kid, that’s all I experienced. I never had any kind of connection with the industry in any meaningful way. Even when I was in high school, any time I tried to do anything outside the realm of what’s been done before or what’s accepted or what’s this or that, everyone discourages you, everyone tries to stop you, you know what I mean? Early on I realized that this was just going to be how it was. I stopped caring, really. I just realized at some point, like [Werner] Herzog says, that ultimately you just had to be a soldier of cinema. That I would make films regardless of the good, the bad, the support, the non-support. It’s always hard. I’ve never had an easy time. So in the end I just do my thing. I just go for it.
Q. Do you think success might spoil that?
A. I’m up for anything as long as I have director’s cut and complete control. If I’ve got that I’m open to all experiences. Without that — no conversation, really. Regardless of money or anything. It’s not going to happen. [Otherwise] I’d do it all. Because regardless of where I am in life I’m still going to [expletive verb expletive noun] up. I’m still going to light the fire.Interview was condensed and edited. Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.