The American Way, Gangster Mystics, & Violent Pop: Talking ‘Spring Breakers’ With Harmony Korine
Sure, Spring Breakers has an easy allure: sex, drugs, violence, and gun-toting saccharine-sweet Disney stars in bikinis. But there’s more to Harmony Korine’s neon-fueled rite of passage tale than meets the bloodshot eye. Like a candy-coated nightmare, Korine gives a raw portrayal of what at first appears to be a fun and breezy ride filled with sparkles and the promise of escape from life’s mundane ennui, but Spring Breakers cuts deep and goes dark and filthy into places that frighten, mystify, tantalize, and thrill with a mix of pure pleasure and pain.
Getting his hands dirty in just about every medium, the 40-year-old auteur has been working for nearly two decades now, creating work that’s unapologetic and uncompromising, filled with morally ambiguous and socially maligned characters that exist in a very specific world on the fringes. Although Korine’s work breathes with a mise-en-scene of the hyper-real, there’s an element to his films that holds up a rusty, all too familiar mirror for ourselves in the most unexpected way. And with Spring Breakers, this is a new side to the director who has been warping our minds ever since the premiere of the Korine-penned Kids eighteen years ago.
Like a scratched album stuck on repeat, Spring Breakers follows four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson) who rob a diner a in order to fulfill their escapist fantasies of heading down to St. Petersburg, Florida for a debaucherous once-in-a-lifetime vacation. But when their beer-soaked and sexually charged trip goes sour, it’s rapper and drug and arms dealer Alien (Jams Franco) that comes to their rescue. And that’s when the nefarious story really kicks in as the world becomes much more rough and dark. With the tone of a haunted pop song, the film evokes something physical, leaving you in a trance that’s both erotic and dangerously chilling. It’s entertainment with a bullet, cinema with a bite of fantasy—it’s fizzing and bursting to the surface with color and entirely intoxicating.
Back in December I got the chance to talk with Korine about the metaphor of spring break, reaching horror and beauty simultaneously, gangster mysticism, and making films in his own very specific way.
Can you tell me about how you began writing the film? Did it come from an image you had of these young girls looking for an escape or a specific situation that struck you?
Yeah, I think it was about two or three years ago I started collecting spring break imagery from teen sites, even from like co-ed porn sites and things. It was kind of fascinating to me. I remember when I was a teenager growing up in the south it was a big event for most kids, just a redneck riveria thing happening with everyone going to Florida for a week and going back to school after that. I just liked all the colors and that world. So then I was alone over Christmas and just stared dreaming up this idea, and it just kind of came to me.
This film is on a much larger scale than your previous films. Did you have the idea to make something different from the start, or did it happen as you started developing it further?
I mean, I don’t know, it started with the story. I had this idea about girls in bikinis, ski masks, and guns robbing tourists—it was more like an image, like a photograph. And then I started to imagine and build a story around that image. I didn’t want it to just be a pure spring break film. Spring break is actually almost more metaphorical than anything. I wanted it to start out that way and end up more on the fringes, in the back alleys, and the towns away from the tourists and what happens. It was almost more like trying to create a beach noir or something.
And it’s very specifically a female story. Was there a reason why you wanted it to be driven by these young girls rather than a guy’s view of spring break?
Girls seemed more interesting to me. Also, I like the idea of girls doing things you would normally see boys do, and doing it in a way that was even more severe and hard. It was a better dynamic. Images of, like, thick-neck jocks with guns isn’t as good to me.
I feel like if it had been a male-driven story it would have been this very macho thing, whereas with girls it does evoke a darker feeling.
And when it goes into the world of Alien and the drug culture, and the gangster culture, I wanted these girls to transcend all that stuff and go beyond any of the stuff you’ve seen male gangsters do.
Your films feel unique to themselves because there’s no sugar coating of anything, and it’s almost this hyper-reality where you feel really uneasy watching because it’s too familiar. You almost recognize yourself in the worst parts of these characters.
When I write, when I think of characters, I never see people as all bad or all good. I always think characters with moral flaws or extreme characters are the most interesting for me. I don’t feel like anything begins or ends, I don’t think anything is ever one way. I never really felt like it’s good or bad. And I wouldn’t even say it’s completely honest; it’s more of a feeling. So, like, these girls do things and they reach levels of horror and beauty simultaneously, and that makes things fun.
And personally, as someone who’s not too far off in age from these girls, it was even more uncomfortable to watch because I think of myself only a few years ago and, yeah, I could have totally found myself in some pretty bad situations. I recently found a bucket list I made for a summer and it basically read like something one of these characters would have had in mind. You know, minus the guns.
It is a very American rite of passage. There’s something awesome about the idea of it, of, like, destroying shit and blowing shit up and fucking and puking and then just going home and forgetting about it.
This film really puts a finger on that recklessness of youth and having no conscience about anything. In your films, people are able to do this kind of shit and then go home and be okay with themselves. Is that something you try and expose?
Yeah, I think that’s the American way.
Well would you say this film is even more aggressive than your other work?
Stylistically, it’s something more aggressive. It’s something I’ve been working for. I’ve been trying to get to the point of being able to make a film like this for a while. On a technical and aesthetic level I’ve wanted to try this almost, like, mania in a different type of movie. It works like music or something; it’s meant to be more like a feeling, more aggressive, something that’s difficult to articulate. I wanted it to work on you in a very physical way, to wash over, to look like it’s been lit with Skittles.
Their entire world was pure pop and pleasure, even as we see them always watching those cartoons.
When I was writing the movie, I was thinking, in terms of narrative, the film being more like a pop song—like a violent pop song. That’s why a lot of the sequences have this sort of looping effect, this trance effect.
And Cliff Martinez’s score really adds to that trance quality as well.
It was the score, the sequences, the images looping, and these micro-scenes. The idea was that maybe in some ways it could almost lull you in this weird way. I always love the physical element, the idea of the experiential element of films and people don’t explore that enough. So the movie—the girls and the whole thing—is a lot about capturing that energy of that world.
When you talk about the film being like a pop song and the looping, the repetition of that voicemail saying, “Wish we could be here forever,” feels more like music than voiceover.
It’s almost like a chorus. The dialogue is meant to be more choral, it’s almost like a hook. And so yeah, that’s what I meant about it being more like a song. For a long time, I’ve been imagining my films being made in this way, you know, like the more I make movies, the less talking scenes there are. I don’t even know what it is; dialogue is starting to seem less and less interesting. It’s just a strange thing.
The style of the film feels like it’s told in these bits, like splices from internet clips. Did you want to reflect something about this generation of kids being raised in a time when personal connection is kind of lost and your actions are so disconnected and distant from who you are and without feeling?
I never try to do anything or speak to anything specifically; I never try to prove a point. But at the same time, it’s definitely of that world. It’s the idea of that world, that sort of post-everything. I wanted the filmmaking style to be very much of that. There was no real conscious referencing of other films, just more the idea: now things just live inside of me and of people and images and sound coming from all directions and falling from the sky. I wanted the film to never stop moving; I wanted it to be floating and falling and breaking apart and coming together and then smacking the shit out of you and then disappearing. And at the same time, there’s a world that’s created—the way things look and feel—that I want people to identify with that and say, "I’ve been to those places and have experienced those things."
You’ve spoken before about being drawn to this sort of gangster mysticism.
In the film, these things in some weird way collide. There’s a collision of those two things: they’re gangster mystics. But then there’s something behind it, too. There’s something just behind it in the air, a violence and color and a swagger to it.
From the beginning, the girls are enticed by this sense of violence and power. They’re turned on by it. They started from nothing, and it just builds and builds until they fully take control. It’s a pretty happy ending for them because they get what they wanted all along, but it’s also terribly gruesome and awful.
Right, exactly. In the movie, it was meant to work on it’s own logic. It was like the real world that’s maybe slightly pushed into some hyper-reality—some mirror world or something. So I guess they are happy at the end. It’s really up to you to interpret, but it’s also difficult to say what happens to them five minutes after the film is done. A million things could happen: do they go back to school, are they arrested, do they evaporate? I like the idea of them just driving off.
One of the scenes I cannot get over or out of my mind is the Britney Spears sunset gun ballet. Like, what even was that?
That was something I was just dreaming up when I was writing. I was listening to that song and I always loved the sound of that piano in that song, it’s like this airless piano where the keys are made of candy. It’s real inspiring but there’s also something I find very aggressive and violent about it. I was writing the script and I wrote it pretty quickly in a hotel room during spring break in Florida, and I was just listening to it over and over again while writing that sequence. You know how sometimes you just pluck things out of the air?, I don’t really know why I knew it would work or why it would be so beautiful. It’s like some horrific opera or something—pop opera. But yeah, it is, there’s something really gorgeous about those images.
That pink candy sky was amazing.
Yeah, I worked hard to try to make that shit look good.
Well, good thing it worked out.
Yeah, that sequence is pretty cool.
How did you sort of form who you wanted these girls to be and also who Alien was?
A lot of them were like kids I’d grown up with in the South. The girls are composites of people I went to school with, or relatives, or my wife. And you know, Franco’s Alien character is a white drug dealer… a white gangster southern drug dealer. I mean, I’ve always loved that whole thing. And then we just went out, going to public schools here, it was a real sub-group here, a real thing here. There’s something obviously hilarious about that whole thing, but then the idea was also to make him have menace and poetry as well. It’s the most exciting thing for me to find someone like an Alien—a character who on the outside is almost laughable, but in my experience, those guys are the most interesting because what I was saying about gangster mysticism, it goes from someone that’s like and then in one second deadly and for real and thugged-out and the next second turns on a dime and becomes kind of rambling and insane.
I mean, when he’s playing a white grand piano at sunset and singing, he seems so gentle and pure.
As much as Alien is into his look and his appearance, he’s also very pure with his emotions and very un-self conscious and non-ironic.
Did you know you wanted James Franco to play him?
Yeah, that’s kind of how the movie started. I had this idea, and when I wrote it down in a quick treatment—this idea of just characters and scenes—I emailed it to James and he was like, "I’m down, let’s do it." And it just happened to coincide with spring break and I just hopped on a plane. There were all these girls dressed like Taylor Swift fucking in the hallway at the Holiday Inn where we were staying.
And in terms of the girls, did you know whom you wanted to cast? Was there always this idea of casting these people with very squeaky-clean personas and strip them of that?
That was the dream. That was the ultimate to me, to have those girls be in the film. When I was writing it, when I was trying to come up with who should do it, I was like, those girls are of that culture and of that world and I like the idea of it working both ways. So yeah, that was the dream. I wanted that.
That add to the sort of nature that it was frightening and such a deviation from these people you always see in this one way.
Of course! That’s what’s so exciting. It’s great to see people in a way you’ve never seen them. I find it’s exciting to see people you’re used to being one way going the other. Anyway, it just made sense.
And did they have any reservations about the things they had to do in the film?
I would honestly say, working with those girls and the whole Disney thing and everything, I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know how far to push them. It was one of the most surprising parts of making this movie, how bold they were and how hardcore they are. And obviously, it’s a movie and these are characters and it’s a different type of thing. I explained to them, it’s a different type of thing than you’ve ever done before and a different type of filmmaking, and the idea behind it is something you haven’t experienced, and the way I make films is something different, and the acting style is different. Once they understood that, it was pretty obvious they were excited and went for it. It was crazy how good they were and how they were always there. There weren’t any arguements about anything.
That scene in bed with James with the gun… that was the first time the girls really surprised me.
That’s a good example, because that scene came out of rehearsals. It wasn’t written like that. If I can remember, it was mostly written where they just put the gun to his head or something and they fuck with him a little bit, and then that sequence came out of rehearsals and just watching and seeing where things went. I think they just took it there and, woah, it’s good, and you think it’s going to go one way and then it goes the other. You think they’re going to freak him out but he’s actually turned on by it and they got completely taken with him. It’s almost like game recognizes game, like this slightly sociopathic sexual wink that happened.
Were you thinking about who would actually be seeing the film or into it?
I want everyone to see it. I want it to be mandatory for all schools. No, whatever. You just want people, whoever there is, to see the movie. It’s not just a film about getting their fans to see it, but it would be great. That’s exciting for me—their fans, the ones that are old enough to see it, if they can be exposed to this sort of thing it’s good.
How have you felt about the reception thus far?
It’s been awesome. It’s the movie I’ve waited a long time to make, and it’s exciting for me to be able to, you know, to be able to potentially to have a different type of audience to watch a film that I made.
The landscape of film in general has changed since you first started writing and directing, but you’ve always stayed very much in your own vision and been radical throughout. Have you ever found yourself adapting or changing at all? Or has that never been a concern?
For me, I just always do what I do. I make films in a specific way, I’ve always made them in that way. I have an idea about the way I should make films and I see images and sounds in a certain way and I’ve only ever had interest in doing what I want to do. At the same time, I just do my own shit, I just make it happen. Honestly, I don’t really pay attention to a lot of that other stuff. I make these images because no one else is.
And you seem to have a very strong attraction to these stories about a specific class of people, as well as these sort of abandoned American landscapes that are rough and cracked.
It’s probably like being a skateboarder and being very young and free and, like, "My parents are letting me do what I want to do," and spending the summer on rooftops and just floating and hanging with different characters and getting drunk in abandoned parking lots. It becomes that world, that vernacular—it just becomes part of what you know. It’s hard to say what attracts you to a blonde-haired chick with big tits—it’s just like, you go where you go.
Was that pretty much your adolescence?
It was all like that, it was all about that. It was also a different. My adolescence was different. It was pre-internet, pre-cellphones, so I could be away from my parents for a week and forget to call them and they would understand there were no pay phones where I was. It’s not like that anymore. Basically just being free, not having money, and just exploring, it was great. It was awesome.