When interest in experimental filmmaking was waning in American independent cinema, Harmony Korine held down the underground. At 19 he’d written the screenplay for Kids, a movie about aimless New York teens that Larry Clark turned into an arthouse hit in 1995. At 23, he directed Gummo, a discordant look at America’s eccentric, disabled and dysfunctional lower class. Many critics reviled his films, while others compared him with various European New Wave directors. A decade later, that auteur spirit is evident in his more composed commercial work.
In the eight years between his second film julien donkey-boy and his critically-acclaimed third feature Mister Lonely, Korine’s life seemed as woozy as his early films: he had two houses burn down, went into rehab, moved back to his childhood home of Nashville and got married. Last year, he turned 35, became a dad and signed with MJZ for commercial representation.
“I’d gotten lost,” he says. “I’d been living in so many places and somehow I ended up on some beach in Florida. Someone had stolen my shoes. I pretty much had no money and I was looking at a suitcase with someone else’s name on it and I thought it was time to go back to a place where I knew the back roads.”
When Fallon, London rebranded Budweiser in the UK, the agency mined that intimate, back road knowledge of Nashville’s nightlife for a campaign about musicians reinterpreting pop songs with beer bottles. Starring a cast of non-professionals, the improv performances were presided over by the raspy-voiced gospel singer Dave Cloud, a legendary local figure.
“I’d heard about him when I was a teenager: this guy who lived in his parents’ attic and had a lot of porn magazines,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t true. I went up there and all I saw were old trumpets and empty cases of Diet Pepsi.”
Cloud is classic Korine casting: a Southern eccentric who evokes the spirit of old school American variety entertainment. You can easily imagine rubbing shoulders with him at a vaudeville, tap dance, minstrel or even freak show.
Earlier this year, Korine helmed a series of ads for Hill Holliday and Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project. A mix of scripted and improvised dialogue, the spots focus on a fictional family dealing with tough life choices brought on by economic downturn. When asked how he finds having agencies and clients look over his shoulder, he thinks for a minute before conjuring a highly detailed and typically weird allegory from his teen years that reflects his original storytelling abilities more than his view of the ad industry.
“We tried to invent our own style of dancing called curb dancing. It was really my next door neighbor that got me involved – his father wrote all those Choose Your Own Adventure novels,” he recalls. “We would go into parking lots and steal sidewalk curbs and put them in my backyard. It was pretty fun for six months but I couldn’t really see a future… Take David Lean and cross him with a curb dancing enthusiast and you would probably get a really good commercials director. I can’t really explain it better than that.”