3 A.M. – A hotel in Baltimore. I just crawled into bed half an hour ago after having been glamourously bitched out by Melanie Griffith on the set of John Waters’ new movie. And I have to be up to catch a plane to Paducah, Kentucky in less than two hours. How I hate having to get up before daybreak. As a farm kid I had to rise before the sun each winter to catch the bus to school. It felt like living on the dark side of the moon. My cell phone rings. Who could be calling at this hour? Why, it’s none other than Harmony Korine, the most loved and loathed filmmaker of his generation, who never calls me. What gives? He informs me that he’s in Kentucky, that he was actually trying to call another friend with a similar area code in California, a junkie whose girlfriend has had a couple of fingers drop-off owing to a bad reaction to methadone. I knew there had to be a simple explanation.
“Listen Harm, while I’ve got you on the horn, did you know that I’ll be seeing you in about eight hours as I’m flying down to visit the set of Gus Van Sant’s movie based on your short story, Easter, which is where you are right now?” He says that no one told him I was coming, so his call is indeed a bizarre case of what I used to call synchronicity before The Police went and ruined a perfectly good word. We chat for awhile about this and that, including how the last time I saw him I almost got fag-bashed at the party for his latest movie, julien donkey-boy, at the Toronto International Film Festival (long story). Harm says he only heard about it after the fact, but that he would have kicked the guy’s ass for me had he known. Nice to know. At that same festival, the programmers asked him to present one of his favorite movies along with his own. He chose Pamela and Tommy Lee’s homemade video, but they were too lame to show that classic, so he had to settle on his second choice, Fassbinder’s masterpiece, Why Does Herr. R. Run Amok? Some people might ask the same question about Harmony.
On the flight to Kentucky, I have to ask myself why I always seem to be seated on the wrong side of the plane when the pilot announces that we’re passing some spectacular landmark or natural wonder. I can’t help but think it’s a good metaphor for the frustration I feel as a filmmaker visiting other directors’ movie sets. I compose a mental memo to stop doing these assignments, and look out my own window.
You know you’re traveling to a backwater when, on each leg of your journey, the planes keep getting smaller and smaller. Which planes crash more frequently, I wonder, big or little? The one I’m on now is definitely the smallest I’ve ever encountered, a twenty-seater that lists and jerks as we careen down the runway. Before take-off, the pilot came back and made me and another sap move to the other side of the aisle to balance the load-lest we start flying sideways.
The Paducah airport looks like a Greyhound bus station. One airstrip, and you have to walk glamourously from the plane to the terminal, ducking under the propellers. It’s surprising, considering the amount of traffic it gets as the central point between Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville. Paducah is known as the atomic city for its Nuclear Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which makes me nostalgic for my own teenage summers working at the nuclear power plant not five miles away from our farm. I’d almost forgotten that my mother worked as a waitress at a truckstop called the Atom Inn, whose counterpart must exist somewhere in this neck of the woods.
As usual, there’s no one here to greet me at the airport like they’re supposed to. Fortunately, I’ve scribbled down the number of the Easter production office in my Filofax. I’m instructed to take a cab to Mayfield, which is about twenty-five miles away ($40 plus tip). Coming from a rural area myself, I know that unless you want to considered a citified dipstick, you sit in the front of the cab with the driver. My celebrity-at-the-airport look-baseball cap and dark glasses – ironically helps me segue into the local atmosphere. The driver, who has the thickest Southern accent I’ve ever heard outside of the movies, also wears sunglasses and a baseball cap over his long greasy hair. More authentically, he has a salt-and-pepper beard and a beer gut. As he talks to me he brazenly chain-smokes in direct contradiction to his own “No Smoking” sign. His granddaddy, he tells me, was a moonshiner in these parts, and for a while he used to moonshine for him, as Mayfield County is completely dry. Gus and the crew, I later discover, purposefully neglect to mention this choice bit of information to visitors and crew alike – lest they think twice about their committments. Moonshine, of course, is fermented corn whiskey, which, he explains, can be as smoothe as silk or can blind you or even kill you, and is still readily available if you know where to look. When I ask him why the county is still dry, he explains, “Son, you are smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.” In Paducah, he continues, which is wet, there is a bar and a church on most every corner. “You can find every kind of bar for whatever ails you – country, redneck, rock ‘n’ roll, black, gay…” I’m immediately assailed by visions of Matthew Sheppard.
The driver informs me that he’s going to take a shortcut, and suddenly the roads start getting narrower. I joke about when the pavement is going to end, but it may be no joke. Then again, I grew up on a gravel road, so I’m feeling strangely at home. The countryside is suprisingly similar to the landscape of my childhood: Deciduous and coniferous trees, flat land interrupted by occasional low rolling hills, geometric fields of corn, soy bean, and tobacco. I recognize the universal design of the tobacco kilns, the square, bright rust buildings with white trim. Even the hunting here is the same-coons, ducks, geese, deer. Ceptin’ up my way, there ain’t no possums. Suddenly the driver swerves slightly to avoid hitting a rabbit. “This ain’t nothin’,” he reassures me. “The Land Between Two Lakes, down Nashville way, that’s the road kill capital of the country.” I flash back to my childhood, my father driving us home one night from one of his baseball games. He deliberately jerks the wheel sideways to hit a racoon, which we hear going under the car with a few muffled bumps, us kids lurching sideways in the back, jarred out of our sleep. Dad gets out and throws the carcass into the trunk; he’ll skin it later if the fur isn’t too damaged.
You’d hardly know we’d arrived in Mayfield, population 2,000, as this part of town is so spread out and sprawling as to be almost incoherent. I’m staying at the Days Inn, Room 111 – “Right next door to Harmony, honey,” chirps the chesty desk clerk with the bleached blonde hair, frosted pink lipstick, and deep tan, apparently the favored look for indigenous females.
After stashing my luggage, I head for the production office, also modestly situated at the Days Inn. The first person I run into is one of the actors, an albino gentleman with a shock of hair and a bushy moustache who hails from Kitchener, Ontario. I happen to know Kitchener, having done hard time one summer as a child in that small Teutonic Canadian city at the home of a quasi-abusive alcoholic uncle who worked at a meat packing plant and his Stepford wife who later ended up in the local snake pit. It’s a conservative town, and indeed the albino gentleman and his simalarly pink-eyed, white-haired wife, who now joins us, are the epitome of normalcy, he working as a parking official for the town, she a federal government employee, with two kids, eight and ten. Gus Van Sant found them through a casting call on the Internet and met with them while he was attending the Toronto Film Festival to see Harmony’s new movie. It all has a strange logic to it, considering Harmony’s script concerns a conventional albino couple who live in an all-black community; that they are also staid Canadians merely adds to their alien yet normal identity.
At the production office, I’m greeted by Robin of Miltie Productions who, along with her partner Scott Macauley (also editor of Filmmaker magazine), are producing Easter. She treats me like the kind of visiting dignitary that I am (as with julien, I’m the only “journalist” allowed on the set) – with a mixture of respect and admiration and a get-out-of-my-way-I’m-busy brusqueness. As her vicious chihuahua, Trixie, snarls and snaps at me, in bops Anthony Dod Mantle, the Dogme 95 d.p. whom I met on the set of julien. With his ginger hair, a little longer now, and freckled, mappy face, he looks as dashing as ever, fresh off a gig in England shooting an infrared Blur video. He gives me a big smile and a hug as Harmony enters the room, who does the same, but we’re interrupted by a concerned Robin who whispers hoarsely, her hand over the receiver, that the mayor of Mayfield is on the phone. Apparantly, earlier in the day, Harmony had told the Mayor to kiss his ass, and now he has to apologize profusely in order to avoid jeopardizing the shoot, explaining that he thought it had been someone else on the line. Everyone in the office starts cracking up, though, because, as it turns out, it isn’t the Mayor at all: The whole episode has been a practical joke organized by Robin. “Cocksucker,” explains Harmony, slamming down the phone. As a practical joker of the first order – he once had me absolutely convinced that Ellen Degeneres had been dispensed with by a sniper (not that I cared) – Harmful takes his medicine good-naturedly.
All right, the fun’s over, and it’s back to work. I wander into the adjacent room and there’s Gus, employing his usual cloak of invisibility. We mumble our hellos and hug stiffly like always. I haven’t seen him and Harmony together since my hotel room in Park City after the Sundance premiere of Kids. It’s inspiring to see Gus, an Academy Award-losing, A-list director, making a tiny art movie with a budget of only several hundred thousand dollars in the pure spirit of experimentalism, directly challenging the autocratic Hollywood sensibility. It’s textbook Gus.
I snag a ride to the set from a driver named Wallace, a cheerful man who had clearly been around the block a few million times. Wallace tells me he used to live in D.C., where the ratio of women to men was 12:1, so he made out like a bandit. He marvels at the phenomenom of crack whores lining the streets not two blocks from the White House, describing precisely that cusp between black disenfranchised and white affluent that is the pure alchemical constitution of American psyche. You see it even in Mayfield where, I will soon discover, crack cocaine has already gained a solid footing – solid as a rock.
At the location, Harmony tells me we have a few hours to kill before the shooting of the next scene, so we decide to tool around town a little bit in his big black rented utility vehicle. We’re accompanied by his friend Brian, a laid-back, banjo-playing young man whom he grew up with in Nashville. With his baseball cap, long straggly hair and Southern twang, he could definitely pass for a local. After visiting the drive-thru bank, we hook up with another driver who has generously consented to provide us with some of the new version of moonshine that seems to be so readily available in this town. On a deserted back street, a deal is struck.
On both days that I visit the set, the location is the home of Curly, who used to be the chef at the local country club at which Gus Van Sant, Sr. is a member. The Van Sant’s currently reside in in Mayfield, where Gus spent his summers as a child. When he decided to shoot Easter on his old stomping grounds, the senior Van Sant introduced him to Curly, who generously consented to allow the production to use his home as that of the albino couple. With its over-the-top African decor – jungle animal statues, murals and wallhangings of giant felines, leopard-print rugs and throws – it would seem the logical home for a pair of bourgeois albinos, particularly with a script by one H. Korine.
By pure chance, I’ve arrived on the day that the climactic scene in which the female albino sets herself on fire on the front lawn will be shot. As the pyrotechnical experts prepare the stunt woman for her fiery ordeal, local children hover around the perimeter of the set along with the fire chief, firemen, and an ambulance and its attendants.
It would be difficult to imagine a more democratic, less uptight set than the one I witness. Like julien, the movie is being shot on digital beta with cameras of all shapes and sizes. At various points, almost everyone, including the P.A.’s, the production manager, and the line producer, Dany Wolf, is enlisted to operate a camera. Harmony is covering the scene himself from the top of the house; everyone holds their collective breath as he clambers up the ladder with a camera and totters precariously along the roof. After the stuntwoman is completely fireproofed, the cameras roll and she’s set on fire, bright orange against the twilight sky.
After the day’s shoot, a bunch of us – Anthony, Gus, Scott, Dany, Brian – end up in Harmony’s motel room. As an ancient Richard Burton movie, Green Are The Rushes, plays improbably on the TV in the background, Harmful entertains us with Cinema Of Cruelty stories; among them a charming tale of a club bouncer whom he provoked by placing his own leg against a curb and stomping on it as the magician David Blaine videotaped it from across the street. He informs us that, as a child at school, he used to stand crying in the washroom, examining the welts on his ass from the severe strappings administered by his teachers. Ever since then, he doesn’t feel physical pain, at least not until the next day.
The conversation turns to the cinematic project at hand. Easter is to be part of a three-part omnibus movie called Jokes, each short story penned by Harmony, who will also direct one of the segments. The third installment, Herpes, is to be directed by either Claire Denis, to get the woman’s point of view, or Werner Herzog, to get the grumpy megalomaniacal German auteur point of view. Herzog, so good in julien, is one of Harmful’s chief mentors.
After everyone else retires for the evening, Harmful and Brian and I try out some of that new moonshine we had acquired earlier. As neither of them have properly done it before, I have to instruct them on the technique, something I picked up in my travels. It’s a good thing, too, because the previous evening, Harmony had attempted to apply it in the tradition of the suppository school pioneered by such luminaries as Jacqueline Susann (Nembutal division) and Lenny Bruce (Dilaudid division). When we run out of moonshine, Harmony and Brian head off to Nashville, and I go to bed.
The next day, we stop for lunch at the Midtown Diner, where everything on the menu is deep-fried – steak, mushrooms, even the pickles. I sit with Gus and Anthony as they discuss the upcoming scenes, including a delicate one in which the albino couple watches a gay porno called Black Deja Vu. Gus comes up with one of his trademark profundities on the subject of cinematic technique: “I always like to get the hard stuff over with first.” Students of cinema, take note. Before we leave the diner, a band of unruly children come in and surround the table, declaring resolutely, “We wanna be in your play.” In point of fact, many locals have already been incorporated into the movie.
The shoot is once again at Curly’s house, but as most of the action takes place indoors, I find myself exiled to the neighbor’s garage with Curly and some of his friends. He bends my ear for awhile about his fascinating life, including stories about the thirteen years he spent in Chicago, where he frequented seamy, Mafia-run transvestite bars such as the Black Cat. Curly is still known to don drag occasionally at the weekly speakeasy cum dance club he runs to pay his bills, and, presumably, to cover the payments on his widescreen TV and satellite dish. His best friend, a short black queen with eyebrows plucked to oblivion, throws in his two cents every now and then as various nephews and nieces of Curly and other youths come and go. Clearly, Curly is the neighborhood matriarch.
The lone whitey in the mix, a sullen young man who, with his scruffy beard and hunting cap, looks exactly like Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter, sits menacingly by himself in the corner. As it happens, that very movie is playing when he and I sneak into the house to watch television and drink some of Curly’s Busch, which he assures me he will replace on Friday when he gets his paycheck from the local sawmill. He tells me in his thick Southern accent about his former life as a carnie, climbing up to service the Ferris wheel, and his stint in jail at sixteen for being a “mean-ass, trouble-making motherfucker.” When I compiment him on the LOVE tattoo which graces his knuckles, just like Robert Mitchum’s in Cape Fear, he shows me another on his leg which reads LSD. Apparantly, as a teenager, he had carved his girlfriend’s initials, SD, into his thigh with a knife. Later, when he’d dropped her and started experimenting with hallucinogens, he added an L in front and had it tattooed. When I ask him if there were freak shows at the carnivals where he worked, he recounts stories of bearded ladies, midgets, and people with six fingers and toes. He confesses that he himself was born with six fingers, and shows me the scars on each hand where the extra digits were removed. He also tells me about his misadventures at the Hilltop, the redneck bar where Curly goes on his weekly liquor run. After getting into a fight over a girl with a guy who was “five feet tall and five feet wide,” he hit him over the head with a beer bottle so that the blood would get into his eyes, then wailed on him with his fists and a chair. It’s a good thing I’m leaving tomorrow, because I for one am getting extremely turned on, and I wouldn’t want to infringe on Curly’s territory. Trade doesn’t get any rougher than this. Resisting temptation, I bid everyone on the set adieu.
The next day, I head back toward civilization, if that’s what you want to call the new crypto-fascist regime that is New York. I wonder if there are any six-fingered hustlers in Gotham?