Before the age of 26, he had a feature labeled “the worst movie of the year” by The New York Times, yet had also been listed among such esteemed directorial company as Godard, Herzog, Fellini, Jarman, and Cassavetes by Roger Ebert. Simply saying Harmony Korine’s had an interesting career is akin to labeling Gummo just another portrait of small town America.
Eight years after his last feature, having kicked a serious drug problem, gotten married and taken a big step back from being Hollywood’s bad boy indie auteur, Korine returned to the big screen in 2008 with the critically acclaimed Mister Lonely. This time around, The Times said the film confirmed Korine’s unique directorial ability, calling nearly every frame “an image of arresting clarity and beauty.”
Critical turnarounds aside, Korine, now 35, made another unexpected move last year, signing with MJZ for commercial representation. Whatever your views on his earlier work, it’s assured that any project Korine gets behind is certainly worth watching.
His first two commercial efforts, a visually compelling yet sweet spot for British chocolatier Thorntons and an eclectic band practice for Budweiser in the U.K., didn’t disappoint. Avoiding any reference to drowning cats or Dogme 95, both spots distill the best parts of his work—earnest, sentimental photography and eclectic, quirky characters—into the commercial format. In fact, the director compares the Budweiser shoot to that of his most controversial film. “In some ways the Budweiser spot was done very similar to how I did Gummo,” he says. “Where you just have a lot of cameras everywhere and a lot of characters and you’re throwing bombs and Molotov cocktails in there and documenting the explosions.”
Of his decision to step into the ad world, Korine says it was pretty simple. “I just have fun making things,” he says.
“Another big part of it is, sometimes the sheer length of how long it takes to put a film together can be frustrating. Telling stories in 30 or 60 seconds is a lot of fun for me. It’s still filmmaking. It’s like a musician playing different instruments. It’s just about having fun and trying new creative things. The more outrageous it is and the more I can challenge myself, the better.”
Though enjoying admaking now, the director does believe that his career would have been very different had it begun on the commercial route. “I don’t think I could’ve started out making ads and then gone on to make features because I don’t think I would’ve been able to deal with a lot of the things making commercials requires you to deal with,” he says. “It could’ve fucked with my creative thought process.”
One thing that’s surprised Korine about shooting spots is the sheer number of people involved. “If you wanted to change the color of a bed sheet, the client and agency people are involved,” he says. “When I make films I’ve got a picture in my mind of how it should look or feel and that’s what we film. But in the ad world, different things represent different ideas – like the color red could be bad in that situation. So that was something I’d never dealt with before.”
Although Korine believes that the commitment to personal vision in his earlier films may have suffered had he already been through the commercial grind, starting now “allows me to take some of the things I learn in ads and apply that to my features,” he says. Moreover, he also relishes the challenge of finding ways to fit his vision into the commercials context.
“In both movies and ads, I try to pay attention to a certain tone and feeling,” says Korine, who just completed a script he hopes to start shooting this year in his hometown of Nashville. “It’s trying to get a certain feeling across in a set amount of time, and obviously making images that stay with you. With ads, there are so many of them that when yours comes on, it needs to have something that makes it different from the others. Even though it’s an ad, it should affect someone. It’s hard to speak about ads in terms of having a soul, but it’s about something that resonates. It doesn’t mean ads need to be emotionally deep, sometimes it’s the artifice and surface of these things that make them most interesting. It’s like having really good candy, as opposed to eating a four-course meal.”