For many viewers and critics, Harmony Korine seems to have thrown together his latest movie, Spring Breakers, combining young nubile actresses (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and his wife Rachel Korine) with James Franco and letting them loose in Florida. Yet that was far from the case. The 40-year-old, who burst on the scene with his screenplay for Larry Clark's 1995 movie Kids, and who has since directed Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers, had put a lot of thought into his new film, even if he allowed his actors extensive freedom on set.
I wanted to make a film that was more like a feeling
In fact, Korine was keen to enlist Franco and cast him first, a year before shooting. Certainly the Oscar-nominated actor was up for the challenge as he is up for a myriad of challenges these days. With his gold dental grills and cornrows, Franco is almost unrecognisable as the white would-be rapper called Alien who loves “bitches” and guns. He even sings Britney Spears' hit 'Everytime' while playing on a white grand piano. The scene was integral to the style of the film, he says.
“Harmony talks about surfaces and that's because we're moving into a new age where people interact with each other in terms of pop culture and a lot of times it's in a very superficial manner,” says James. “Usually you think superficial is a negative term but it's actually just this new phenomena or this way that we live now. So looks are very important in this movie and it's something Harmony and I developed and something I've learned as an actor.”
Korine: “In my mind I'd been trying to develop this style for a while, this idea of motion and liquid narrative. I wanted to make a film that had very little dialogue, that was more sensory, more of an experience that you felt. I wanted it almost to be an attack of sounds and images. In some ways, it was meant to be a pop poem or something.”
Korine explains how he grew up with kids venturing to Florida during the spring break. “I heard stories of them boning, losing their virginity and coming back and forgetting about that. I never went but had this image of girls on a beach with ski masks and guns robbing tourists and then I started to build a narrative around how that would happen in real life. It seemed like an iconic, dangerous, exciting image then I thought of a cool location. But I didn't want to make a film on spring break, I wanted to make a film that was more like a feeling, more this idea of these pockets in America and what happens when you get a little lost, like when they leave the strip and end up in Alien's house. Those houses on the water with guns, it's the underbelly, but it's more of a feeling than anything.”
While at his wife's suggestion, he personally travelled to Florida for three weeks during spring break to write the screenplay, he didn't watch any teen movies in his research. “I watched Miami Vice, Michael Mann's movie a couple of times. I love that.”
As with every movie project, Franco was a keen collaborator and wanted to observe Korine's process.
“Harmony is a master at uncovering unusual inspirational images and videos,” explains Franco, “he was also masterful at finding locations and local people who were both unusual and vibrant and would add to the movie. Many ended up becoming part of the movie and added a very unusual but authentic texture to it. So with my character he sent me endless videos, songs and clips, everything from Yellow Wolf to Lil Wayne.”
During filming, Gucci Mane, who plays Alien's rival, exerted the biggest influence.
“Gucci is a rapper from Atlanta and is a hero of mine,” explains Korine. “When I asked him to play the part he was in prison. He said, 'Yes, as soon as I get out I'd love to do it', and I said, 'Don't re-offend', and he didn't. A lot of those people on his crew were in his posse. We'd shoot in places that really exist and often the places had people. So I spent a lot time prepping and hanging out with people and beginning to understand the ambience and the tone of the place.”
Real spring breakers and real beachgoers became part of the film.
“There's a scene when my character is first seen rapping on the stage, it was MTV-style, a beach stage and we had hundreds of background people,” recalls Franco. “The beach was filled with beach patrons so it turned into a real concert and it was such a rush. Maybe I'll get into the rap game!”
Happily his young co-stars weren't phased by their raunchier scenes, given they had hardly played such characters before. “Oh, they were great, it wasn't hard at all,” Franco admits. “I came halfway through filming and they'd already been shooting at least a few weeks. Harmony did an amazing job with casting; he picked all the right people, so when I got there everybody was into it. I think we all just were waiting for a movie like this to be a part of. It was sort of effortless, such fun.”
Megan Ellison via her Annapurna Pictures bought Spring Breakers for the U.S. The daughter of Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison, America's third richest man, had previously produced The Master, Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless and had personally injected considerable funds into the films. According to Box Office Mojo, Spring Breakers, which was made for $5 million, has earned $14 million at the U.S. box office and $11.5 million internationally.
For Korine, this equates to hitting the big time. Given that this is the happiest and most content time he has experienced in his life—he has a four-year-old daughter, Lefty, and seems very settled in his marriage to a willing and smart collaborator—he is finally ready for it. On his publicity rounds he said he was ready for anything, basically.
“You want to make something beautiful, you want to make something true, you want to make something that lasts. I was trying to make an amazing movie with characters that you remember forever. I put it all out there; I give it my all. I can never and never have been able to make movies for everyone. I make a very specific type of film. At the same time, this movie says a lot and it says nothing. I have nothing to prove and the movie has nothing to prove. If it makes people angry that's fine, if people love it that's great. There's no right or wrong way to interpret this film or anything that I do.
“You can't live in fear of what people are going to say or if someone's going to be offended. I try to make the greatest films I can make; I try to make films that are substantial and beautiful, that effect people. And I hope it works out that way.”
Spring Breakers arrives in cinemas May 9.