Kevin Ritchie / Boards Magazine / June 8, 2009

When we interviewed director Harmony Korine for the June/July issue of Boards, we were left with more bizarre stories than we knew what to do with. During an interview, a commercial director will often cite influential literary or cinematic figures as inspiration. Korine, on the other hand, name checked a family of hunchbacks, a Diet Pepsi-addicted gospel singer and a brother-sister amputee comedy team.

The Gummo and julien-donkey boy director’s love of the eccentric, surreal and unpredictable sides of life has earned him a cult following among cinemagoers and now that he’s signed with MJZ and directed campaigns for Budweiser and Liberty Mutual, the 35-year-old is hoping to hone his storytelling abilities in the commercial world.

To find out more about Harmony Korine’s advertising aspirations, Boards rang him up in a wind-swept Home Depot parking lot in Nashville to chat.

Kevin Ritchie: Where are you?

Harmony Korine: I’m in this crazy wind storm – it’s actually just in a parking lot, an abandoned Home Depot. It’s a lot of wind now. I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of a tornado.

Ritchie: Is now a good time to do the interview?

Korine: Yeah man, let’s do it in the storm.

Ritchie: Why did you decide to start directing ads?

Korine: When I was young, when I first started making movies, I would sometimes get asked to do spots but I was more focused on making movies, really. Time passed, films take so long to make and also because I write my movies, the actual process just takes a long time. I enjoy making things and so I like the idea of beginning and finishing a project and having that immediacy. It was about a year and a half ago, two years ago I bumped into a friend and started talking about it and they were involved in ads. And that was kind of how it happened. It was another director and I just said, ‘oh maybe I’ll give it a try.’

Ritchie: How old were you when you started making movies?

Korine: I was making films in high school – probably about 15 or 16, during my sophomore year. I had written a short story for my English class and the teacher asked me what I wanted to do. It was the first time anybody had told me I’d done something good. It was about a guy whose father takes him to see a prostitute on his 13th birthday. It was kind of like a Bar Mitzvah thing except that he was a Mennonite. It was based on a good friend of mine whose father was a Polish Navy Seal and his name was Jason – the kid. His dad would sometimes beat the shit out of him but I noticed they did have kind of a loving relationship so I thought it would make for a good movie.

Ritchie: Did you ever do anything with it?

Korine: [My teacher] said, ‘what do you want to do?’ and I said ‘I want to turn it into a film but I really don’t know how to make movies.’ I read up on it and talked to people and she got me a $2,000 grant from the school board. This is in Nashville. I moved to New York right after I graduated. That was how I got into college because I had pretty mediocre grades and I had blown up some toilets in high school and caused a big ruckus.

Ritchie: Why did you want to make movies?

Korine: I just loved movies. I loved films and that’s all I ever really wanted to do. When I was really young I had also wanted to be a tap dancer but my moves weren’t nearly as good as say, The Nicholas Brothers. I realized I would never be able to dance like that so I decided to devote myself full time to making films instead.

We would do things, we would steal – with this friend of mine who is now in prison – we would call it curb dancing and we would go into parking lots and we would steal these side walk curbs and put them in my backyard. It was really my next door neighbor that got me involved in all this. His father wrote all those Choose Your Own Adventure novels. We tried to invent our own style of dancing called curb dancing where we would remove the shoelaces from out tap shoes. It was pretty fun for six months or something but I couldn’t really see a future. My parents were disappointed and the backyard was pretty cluttered. I started thinking I should make films. Ads were like a cross between making films and stealing curbs to dance on them. It was somewhere in the middle, you know?

Ritchie: How so?

Korine: It just seems like if you were to take a curb dancing enthusiast and someone like, say, David Lean and cross him with a curb dancing enthusiast you would probably get a really good commercials director. I can’t really explain it better than that.

Ritchie: Can you tell me about your Thornton’s commercial? It was based on your No More Workhorse Blues music video for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

Korine: Yeah. I was in love with this girl, who became my wife, but she was younger than me and she was disgusted by me. And she’d been used to dating, I guess at that time, guys more like her age – right out of high school. So, I was trying to woo her and basically the only way I could think of doing it would be to put her in a music video – and put her in a wedding dress and have her do minstrel reenactments. So I was talking to my friend Bonnie Prince Billy and we put this little video together. It was pretty much no money. It was just a lark. There was an effect that we did, it was a looping effect that the [Thornton's] creative team had seen and thought we could expand upon.

Ritchie: How did you find the experience of filmmaking with an ad agency and client looking over your shoulder?

Korine: That part is interesting. I’m not used to that so much. In some ways, I felt like I’ve been pretty lucky. People that generally want me to do things, for the most part, would come to me because they want something specific, I would hope. I’ve been lucky that I’ve worked with people that are pretty loose. Obviously there are times when you’re like, what the fuck’s going on here?

I don’t think I’d be the person I am had I started out directing ads and gone into features. It’s like a different mentality. I like telling stories really quickly. I think there’s something interesting about it; it’s a different muscle.

Ritchie: Is there a connection between your feature and commercial work? Both the Budweiser and Liberty Mutual campaigns show a side of American culture in a way you don’t normally see it – in feature films, much less advertising.

Korine: Yeah, there’s a connection. So far I’ve been able to cast mostly non-professional actors and real characters and strange faces or people I find in basements, expatriates or just people hanging out under rocks and bridges and stuff.

Ritchie: How did you wind up casting Dave Cloud from The Gospel of Power in the Budweiser campaign?

Korine: He’s a legendary character from [Nashville] and he lives in my neighborhood. He’s a guy I’d heard about when I was a teenager who lives in his parents’ attic and had a lot of porn magazines – but it wasn’t true. I went up there and all I saw was old trumpets and empty cases of Diet Pepsi. He drank something like 35 to 40 cans of soda a day. His skin is actually surprisingly in good condition. He’s an all around great performer and a showman and a true eccentric.

Ritchie: Do you meet a lot of those types in Nashville?

Korine: I do but not like when I was growing up here. When I was growing up here it was different place, America was a different place but in the South it was different. It was definitely more of a wasteland growing up than it’s become.

Ritchie: Why did you decide to do the Liberty Mutual campaign?

Korine: I’d always wanted to shoot a whole film in anamorphic 2:3:5 and I had just never gotten the chance to. And I wanted to see how it would look in all these different situations and places… I think that [the creatives] were really bold. For an ad, it’s pretty out there in that it’s not really selling a physical product. It’s something that’s more of an idea, it’s more abstract. It was nice that they weren’t sticking a bottle in the frame. There weren’t logos tattooed onto people’s faces.

Ritchie: Were a lot of the performances improvised?

Korine: It was both. There were some things that were very scripted and other points it was like when I make films. At a certain point it’s fun to play a little bit and push the scene in different directions and see where the actors in front of the camera take it. You just create an environment, you document the explosion.

Ritchie: Do you get a lot of commercial scripts you want to do?

Korine: That’s difficult sometimes. Sometimes you’ll look at things and think I’ve done that already or I couldn’t really see anything too exciting about that. A lot of it has to do with the mood or what you think you could bring to it. I don’t want to do anything just to do it. The top thing always to me is if there’s an interesting idea, if there’s something unusual about it, if there’s something visual about it, I feel like I could say something creatively or do something with it. The scope and the size of it are secondary to the concept. And obviously, the wilder the better.

Ritchie: You also just published a compilation of zines. What’s that all about?

Korine: It was a compilation of zines I’d been making since I was a teenager. They were just scraps of distorted logic – it was like vomiting on paper. I used to live next door to a family of hunchbacks who owned a printing press and they got me into it. It was three generations of hunchbacks.

Ritchie: Is that hereditary?

Korine: I don’t know, actually. These guys would have these special chairs they would sit in, where the back of the chair would touch the floor. They never wore shoes and always had this shag blue carpet that was perfectly vacuumed. They lived on the Bowery. I guess they were also boozers. I once saw the youngest one, Stanley, drink a shot of Listerine because his dad had stolen his booze. Anyway, these guys got me into writing.

Ritchie: Why did you decide to move back to Nashville?

Korine: I had been moving around for the past decade and I’d gotten lost. 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 and I could remember how many trees were in the backyard, places in my old neighborhood where there are still remnants of sidewalk curbs that we’d stolen.

Ritchie: How has the city changed?

Korine: You see a lot more slickness, a lot more gelled hair, a lot more bastards wearing flip flops and plaid shorts. I guess you have less date rapers per square inch than any other square inch in the Union.

Ritchie: Were you getting date raped a lot in New York?

Korine: No, no, no, not me. But you’ve always got to be vigilant. [Nashville] is nice, it’s easy to live, the air is fresh and there’s a lot of beautiful women that run by my house, waving.

Ritchie: Are you as well known in town in the same way as Dave Cloud?

Korine: Dave’s a guy that goes to bars every night and hangs out in bars and in saunas and stuff. I don’t really do that. I just had a baby. Well, my wife had the baby, five months ago.

Ritchie: Any other local talents that you enjoy?

Korine: There’s a thing here at a club by my house. It’s an amputee stand-up team. I guess they were Thalidomide brothers and sisters. It’s kind of a long the lines of Richard Pryor except without arms or legs and it’s a brother and sister duo. There’s also a good country music one that I saw the other day kind of like Vaudeville that was pretty funny, it’s called “The Debbie and Doyle Show.”

Ritchie: Are you still in the Home Depot parking lot?

Korine: I’m still in the parking lot. I had to return something. It was called a ‘kitchen and bath cocina y baño.’ It’s a silicone sealant. I think my baby tried to snort it so she made me return it.