Harmony Korine Doesn’t Compromise When He’s Making Movies

But the Spring Breakers director is pretty chill about everything else, including acting opposite Al Pacino.

Nobody makes movies like Harmony Korine. To be honest, nobody lives life quite like the seedy visionary behind 2013’s Spring Breakers (hot co-eds become criminals), 2009’s Trash Humpers (aging sociopaths run wild), and 1995’s Kids (an HIV-positive lothario tries to sleep with teens). That much was clear when we sat down with Korine to talk about the new movie he’s at the Toronto Film Festival to promote. Was he excited to act with Al Pacino? Kind of!

Korine is aloof and honest in precisely the way most show business people aren’t, but he’s also passionate. He told Maxim about his plans to make a revenge epic, his haphazard career as an actor, and the very real pimp who inspired his performance in director David Gordon Green’s new film Manglehorn.

How did you end up acting across from Al Pacino in Manglehorn?

This happened while I was promoting Spring Breakers. I think I just got an email from [David Gordon Green] asking if I wanted to act in this movie with Al Pacino, and I was like, yeah. [laughs] I didn’t really know him and so I said, “Of course, sure. Sounds good.” But yeah, it was good.

It seems like every couple of years you show up in a movie, doing a bit of acting. Was Stoker the last thing that you were in?

Yeah. Stoker was the last thing. But, yeah, it’s funny. I guess it’s true—every two or three years.

Is it always the same kind of thing? Does someone just ask you if you want to be in his or her movie?

It seems that way, yeah. I’ve never actually really thought about it. Mostly, directors like Park Chan-Wook, or David Gordon Green, or even Gus Van Sant, they just call me up and ask me to play someone because they’re friends. I’m waiting for something really substantial now. [laughs]

Your character is totally at odds with the rest of the movie, which circles around Pacino’s charismatic locksmith. You run a brothel in the movie. Were you improvising?

I used to live right next to a whorehouse called Tokyo Sauna when I was a kid. And there was this guy that ran it that I was close friends with. It wasn’t hard for me to, you know, tap into that.

I remember at junior high school, after graduation, we all went to like a hand-job parlor in a strip mall, and it was right next to a Vietnamese restaurant. And then we all ate Vietnamese food afterwards. That was the general vibe of the film and the character.

Improvising next to Pacino. That’s crazy. Was that intimidating?

I don’t really get that intimidated because I don’t really care that much. Life is over so quickly so I’m not going to spend time with intimidation. I just go for it, you know. With Pacino, for me it was just fun and surreal. He’s a really amazing guy in real life so it was just one of those things. Being able to hang out with him and do these scenes, it was great.

Was he familiar with your work?

Yeah. He seemed to be into it. 

What’s your next big project?

I can’t go into super specifics, but it’s like, it’s gonna be my most next-level movie. This is actually the first time I’m talking about it. It’s kind of a sprawling revenge film. It’s pretty, like, full on. I’m gonna put everything I know as a film maker into it. I think it’s gonna be a pretty substantial film. I’m gonna shoot it in Miami right after the New Year.

You make uncompromising movies. How much of that comes out of an unwillingness to compromise? What are the things you fight to retain absolute control over?

Everything. Obviously with movies, they are a process and a collaborative thing, so there is always stuff that morphs. Or you have to do this, you know. For the most part, with the big creative choices, there’s not much compromise. I don’t really compromise.

Other directors definitely do. Why do you think that is?

Because it’s easy: It’s also why there are so many films that are bad and so much art that sucks. It is just like noise: People do things in life just to do them. You want to just do stuff, but you’re not bold enough or visionary enough.

It’s also because making movies is difficult, and I think directors lose their freedom in the yes, because you have people who come up to them who say, “Hey, is it okay if we don’t do this?” It seems small at the time, and you say, “Yeah, that’s okay.” Before you know it, you’ve said a million yesses and those millions yesses have just made your film a piece of blob. Do you know what I mean? You’ve destroyed yourself. The greatest word is no. When they tell you that it’s not going to work, you just stand by your no and see what happens.

Is it not totally exhausting to be fighting every single thing?

Yeah, but that’s what filmmaking is. That’s not even just movies, that’s just, like, life. What are you gonna stand for? It doesn’t mean you always want to be fighting, but you have to fight for what’s right. You have to be on the side of righteousness. 

Do the movies you make turn out exactly as you want them to?

I don’t really watch the movies after I make them, so I don’t really think about them specifically after it’s done. But I know in my heart—ever since I was a kid, I’ve been making movies—that I have put everything I can into the films. I know that I always fight the good fight. It’s not even a question of good-bad; I just know I put everything into them. I’m not leaving anything out. I feel good, y’know, about that. I feel justified. It’s a life well lived.

Are they still doing the unofficial Spring Breakers sequel?

Beats the fuck out of me. Some of the producers—or something—own the rights to the title, so technically they can do whatever they want with it, or at least use the title. I guess.

Those people…they have to live with themselves. They can control the name, but they can’t control the soul of it.

I don’t think it’s possible to replicate that movie.

Yeah, obviously. But it is what it is. You know, if that film does happen, for anyone involved with it, it’s a bad mojo.

Photos by Annapuma Pictures / Everett Collection