interview OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits JUERGEN TELLER
Harmony Korine is back, his demons conquered, his humor intact. His latest film, Mr. Lonely, is a masterpiece, the summum opus of his career to date, a synthesis of his trademark imagery and his profound questioning of the current status of film. Through the loving portrayal of old-world icons – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, among others – he contrasts a present driven by novelty alone, suggesting that the disappearance of celebrities parallels our loss of artistic community. And still he longs to hear the music of the golden-scaled fish…
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s good to see you again, Harmony. We’ve all been waiting for your return to film. We missed your voice, which many consider the voice of your generation. Maybe that’s too great a weight on your shoulders, to speak for a whole generation. Maybe your personal vision is more what you try to express.
HARMONY KORINE — It’s all about just surviving, really. That, and feeling comfortable enough to be able to create again, to make movies again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you finished Mister Lonely on time for the Cannes festival. You worked for it for about two years, right?
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah. Two years of actually working on it. But I’d been thinking about it for another five or six.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about it.
HARMONY KORINE — (Laughs) That’s good, man! I can see you really did your homework! I like that!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, I never read other journalist’s opinions of a work, or other interviews with its creator, because I don’t want to be influenced by them. I want it to be fresh when I meet you.
HARMONY KORINE —Yeah, yeah. I understand that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did the original idea of this film come from?
HARMONY KORINE — Well, almost a decade ago I started having these daydreams of nuns jumping out of planes on bicycles — I mean with no parachutes! — and spinning and dancing in the sky, and then landing gently back on earth. (Laughs) I wanted to film that for some reason. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say with it. But I put that on the back burner and started writing a script for a film I called What Makes Pistachio Nuts?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful title. It has a little puzzle in it.
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah. It’s about a guy in Tennessee with a pig he names Pistachio. Pistachio is so big the guy can put a saddle on him and ride him around. Ride into town on his back. This guy is obsessed with making the world’s stickiest glue. He finally produces a glue so sticky that he can apply it to the bottom of Pistachios hoofs, and ride him right up the sides of walls, and across the ceiling, up side down, without falling down. He charges admission for people to watch all this. But I was feeling pretty unhealthy when I finished the script. It was around 2001. I was living alone in a house in Connecticut, after I left New York. Nice old house, down by the water. I came back home one day and found the house had disappeared. Burn down to the ground. There was nothing but ashes left. Everything I owned went up in flames. I mean everything, including the Pistachio script. It was like the hand of God had struck me. I still have no idea how it happened. Plus, I had no money, so it was really tough. I ended up moving to Paris. After a while I started thinking about the nuns again, and working on ideas for the story I wanted to tell of Mr. Lonely and the impersonators. It’s different from previous movies, where breaking down the image, breaking down beauty, and deconstructing the narrative were important to me. Maybe because the chaos in those films was a reflection of my mental state at the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was this ideology of storytelling a reaction against the typical Hollywood storytelling conventions?
HARMONY KORINE — Yes, I was after something more. Plot didn’t concern me. It was more of an abstraction. Emotion and feeling were the important things. But Mr. Lonely is different again from all the previous ones, in that it’s actually more classical. I felt differently inside about things, and I just didn’t want to fight that anymore. I just wanted to make the most beautiful picture I could make. It isn’t a conventional film, but there is a real story. Actually, there are two stories running in parallel: the story of the nuns, and the main story of group of iconic-celebrity impersonators living on sort of a hippy commune in Scotland. Although actually, the story begins in Paris with a Michael Jackson impersonator making his living dancing in the street.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne.
HARMONY KORINE — I like that movie a lot, too. I actually lived on a commune for a few years when I was a kid. I’ve never seen that world properly portrayed in a film. Anyway, my film is more about a society of fake celebrity icons: Sammy Davis Jr.; Marilyn Monroe, married to Charlie Chaplin, with Shirley Temple for a daughter. But you see them living normal lives: Abraham Lincon mowing the grass; James Dean shearing sheep; The Three Stooges going fishing! (Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a meta-comedy. You’re showing your playful side, Harmony. Perhaps for the first time. Although I do remember you on David Letterman’s television show, dressed like Charlie Chaplin! Or was it Harpo Marx?
HARMONY KORINE — Harpo. I was taking all the style cues from Harpo at the time! But yeah, with this film I really went with it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it sounds like you really went pretty far! (Laughs)
HARMONY KORINE — Why do you think it took me eight years to make?! (Laughs) It wasn’t easy making a movie like this.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you use actors, or real people in the roles?
HARMONY KORINE — Both. Samantha Morton plays Marilyn Monroe. Diego Luna is Michael Jackson. Denis Lavant is Charlie Chaplin. Anita Pallenberg is The Queen. She’s great. A real character and a very good actor. Really funny. Not much vanity left about her looks. Very honest about who she is and the life she’s led. And what a lot of life that is! Werner Herzog plays an alcoholic priest, in the jungle with the nuns. Leos Carax plays Michael Jackson’s shy French agent.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A shy agent: that’s a rarity!
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah! (Laughs) The part was written for Jean Pierre Léaud, but his teeth fell out a week before he was supposed to start! He couldn’t talk! The agent, as he was written was really boisterous. A mad French agent, totally over the top. But Leos played him as being depressed. An odd take on the guy, but I really liked his performance. It was really interesting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s unusual that you have other filmmakers – Werner and Leos – act in this film.
HARMONY KORINE — I think certain directors do make good actors. Plus, these guys are my friends, and I saw something in them I thought would be interesting on screen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you act in it too?
HARMONY KORINE — No, it was enough just to direct it, without having the added pressure of acting in it. My wife acts in it. She plays the part of the Little Red Riding Hood impersonator.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m reminded of The Society of Spectacle by Guy Debord.
HARMONY KORINE — Yes, I guess it has a bit of that in it, too. There’s actually no mention of time in the film. When you see the Michael Jackson impersonator dancing in the streets you do get the sense of what decade it is, but there isn’t a real reference to time. It’s like science fiction in the way that the real world is just slightly tweaked, slightly messed with. The laws of nature do exist, but amazing things can happen. There is a story that has a definite arc. Things don’t occur randomly. But, at the same time, I think it flows in what I feel is almost a musical way, a lyrical way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It sounds very exciting. Why did you shoot it in Scotland? For the landscape?
HARMONY KORINE — My brother and I actually wrote the script with Iceland in mind. So we went there looking for locations. On the last day we saw an interesting house — kind of remote — so we knocked on the door. A woman opened the door just wearing a nightgown with nothing on underneath. Her breasts were totally exposed. She was crying — all this makeup was streaking down her cheeks. The Icelandic guy we were with asked her if she was OK, and told her that we didn’t mean to disturb her, that we just shopping locations for a film. She said no, it’s alright, and invited us in. She kept on crying, and when we asked her if she was sure she was OK, she said, “Yes, but I have to show you something.” She took us out back to the barn. We went inside. There were ten dead horses on their backs, with their legs sticking straight up in the air! Frozen stiff. She said, “I just wanted to show you my dead horses.” What an image! A half naked woman, crying. Ten dead horses, their legs reaching for the sky. When I asked the woman how the horses died she said, “You must leave! You must leave Iceland right now!” I’m dead serious. I said, fuck this, we have to get out of here! I’m not making a movie in a place with so many dead horses! Took it as a bit of a bad omen. So I said, fuck it, let’s shoot in Scotland! (Laughs) That’s what happened!
OLIVIER ZAHM — What exactly was the phrase that the characters said about imitation and sincerity, because this seems to be a key statement for the whole movie.
HARMONY KORINE — I have forgotten exactly but I know what phrase you are talking about. I think the queen says something to the affect of ‘there are no truer souls then the souls of those who impersonate because we live through others so that we may keep the spirit of wonder alive.” yes, this sentence is key to their philosophy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you want to say by using impersonators like Marilyn, Michael Jackson, and Sammy Davis Junior? Does it mean that our generation is not able to produce or create our own true stars?
HARMONY KORINE — No not really. In general I just wanted to create an environment where watching buckwheat give the pope a bath seemed like normal behavior.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the community of impersonators directed by Denis Lavant and his wife Marilyn? Is it a metaphor for the community of artists in general? More precisely, is it a metaphor for the failure of the idea of “avant-garde” (if we agree that avant garde is always produced by a small group of visionaries who share and partake in the same movement whether it be in art or whatever)?
HARMONY KORINE — I am not sure about this but I will try and find out soon.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you explain to me why you chose the genius Werner Herzog in the movie as the priest?
HARMONY KORINE — He always reminded me of an alcoholic priest. When you listen to him speak he sometimes sounds like a drunk whose head is filled with scripture and strange text. When he arrived in the jungle for filming, the first thing he asked for was to be taken to where there are vultures flying overhead, once he saw that there were plenty of vultures in the area, he told me he was ready to go. No one else could play this part.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve never seen Leos Carax in a film before? Was it his first role as an actor? How was it to direct a director from your own generation, especially being the shy, secretive guy that he is?
HARMONY KORINE — it was great. Leos is a special guy. We’ve been friends for many years. He smokes a lot of cigarettes, in fact I would call him a smoking artist, a nicotine artist, he is also one of my very favorite directors. He is shy, and wise beyond his years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why, after the actual suicide of Marilyn Monroe, do you kill her character again in your film? Is it to be loyal to the character or is it about the failure of love?
HARMONY KORINE — yes, in some ways the lives of the impersonators mimic the lives of the icons their impersonating. It was my intention to play with their myth a bit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you choose Denis Lavant to play one of the main characters? Is it homage to Leos Carax? Why is he the most appropriate actor to play Charlie Chaplin in The Dictator?
HARMONY KORINE — I always loved Denis. He is one of the greats. No one else could play this part. He is from another era. The way he moves his body. He lived as Chaplin the entire shoot and slept in a strange pair of leather socks and ill-fitting shoes. He should be considered a French national treasure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you intend for your films to be seen as a kind of reaction to the industrialization of Hollywood films?
HARMONY KORINE — I rarely set out with any kind of agenda. Of course, people are free to read anything they like into my films. But I don’t even know exactly what I’m trying to say sometimes. I just know that I would rather speak to a feeling than to address an issue.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I sense in your films a feeling of beautiful innocence, and one of profound sadness. Is Mr. Lonely any lighter in tone, or less sad than your previous films?
HARMONY KORINE — It’s like life to me, in that things are never just one way. I always felt that everything come at a price. Things that feel funny to someone might come at the cost of pain to another person. It’s a lot of different emotions, often at the same time, and I do play with that in my films, to some extent. But I think this one is actually pretty funny, to be honest with you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me a bit about your life. You left New York, to the sadness of your friends and the artistic community you belonged to. Then you disappeared from Paris. Not that there was much to disappear from in Paris, actually! (Laughs)
HARMONY KORINE — That’s true.(Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you went to London…
HARMONY KORINE — Well actually, disappear is a good word for it. Because that’s what I wanted to do. I’d lost interest in things. Although actually, even to say that I’d lost interest in things–in life, or in film–is giving me too much credit. It was more like they left me. I just become sick of the things around me. The places I was living in, New York and Paris, and the people living around me. And sick of what I felt I was in danger of becoming. Things began to feel more and more phony to me, and I began to hate it. It was fake. A fraud. I didn’t want to make films anymore; I just wanted to live my life. I was feeling suffocated, and I did just want to disappear. Go somewhere where people didn’t know or care about me. I started traveling to different places. I lived in the jungle for awhile, in the Amazon. I met a kind of fisherman’s cult. They worshiped fish! They were always trying to capture the baboon fish, their prize fish. They’d only caught three of them in seventy-five years. A spectacular fish! Golden scales, three of which sound like a piano if you touch them. But they don’t really play a song. More like Bartok in reverse! (Laughs) Something to do with the positioning of the gills. You can hear the music through the water. Apparently there are guys in China and Korea who’ll pay upwards of six million dollars for one of these fish.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not just making this up, are you? (Laughs)
HARMONY KORINE — No, no. I’m dead serious. This is around 2003. I hung out with these guys, living in a hut for six months. Never saw the fish! Yeah yeah, promises, promises! It became my Holy Grail. If I can just find that fish! Didn’t happen. So, fuck it, let’s make a movie. Strange atmosphere, but it was good. They talked to me and helped me get my head back on straight. It was a slow climb back.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you actually stop thinking about making films.
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah. I didn’t care anymore about film. The important question for me was whether I was going to go on living. I mean, the last time I saw you in Paris, right around then, two of my teeth fell out when I bit into a sandwich. I said to the guy, “Hey motherfucker! I spend three bucks for your sandwich and I get bones in it?!” He looked at it and said, “That’s not bones, that’s your teeth!” (Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — Oh, no! (Laughs)
HARMONY KORINE — I took another look at my sandwich and said, “Oh yeah, you’re right!” That’s when I realized I was starting to fall apart. I left Paris pretty much within a month after that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For London?
HARMONY KORINE — No, I lived in London before Paris. Paris was the end. After Paris, I decided to try and get better. I needed a place to go, a hospital or whatever you want to call it, where I could rest and get myself back together. Then I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I live now. I met the girl I’m married to. I grew up in Nashville, and I have friends there. I wanted a place that was a little quieter, and I like the music scene there. It’s easy to live there. I feel comfortable. I started to write again. I called my brother with an idea, and said, hey, let’s try and write something. I started to feel good. To feel the sun on my shoulders again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You came back to your roots. Country music…..
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah, I live three doors down from George Jones! (Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know you had a brother. Is he younger than you?
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah, he’s in his mid-twenties. He’s a really good writer. I felt I needed his help because the last thing I had written was the Pistachio script. His name is Avi.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah, nice name. So, you got married! I can’t believe it.
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah, I got married three months ago in the living room of my wife’s grandmother. My wife is from Nashville, too. She’s a very good actress. I really got lucky with her. I met her when she was seventeen. Now she’s twenty-one. But I disgusted her when we first met. I was always coming on to her, and I was really fat at the time. She told me I’d have to clean up my act if I wanted a chance with her. No more dirty fingernails!
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were the pig in this story!
HARMONY KORINE — Yeah! And she was riding me! (Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your last film expressed so perfectly the mood of it’s period. It was so dark. A very important film.
HARMONY KORINE — Well, it was a reflection of the times. A black hole.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We missed you, and always expected you….
HARMONY KORINE — To die! (Laughs)
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, to come back! I’m just happy to talk to you because I respect you so much as an artist. A true artist is a rarity. Not just in the film world, but anywhere. It’s great that you’re back.
HARMONY KORINE — Well, thank you. You know, my life back home is so simple now, and it’s pleasurable just feeling the days more. I have peace inside. I’m calm. I’m ready for this now because I rested for awhile. My mind is clear. I went through a really dark patch, but I came out alright, and I’m grateful for that, and for the chance to try to create again. I was ambitious in making this movie, trying things I’d never tried before. It was hard. Like digging myself out of a hole. But, hard as it was, I was happy once we got going on the set. Not just happy that I secured the money, or the actors, or that the film world had embraced me, but just that I survived. Just to be on set everyday, and have a camera there waiting for me. A camera that would be saying to me, Come on, let’s have fun today. Let’s play. I mean, if it’s not fun I may as well go back to the jungle and keep searching for the golden scaled fish! (Laughs) I just might do that anyway. I’m telling you, that fish was really something!
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