Hidden Treasure: Harmony Korine on Gummo

By Chris Darke

gummo-harmony-korine-1.jpgGummo, 1997

After scripting Larry Clarke’s notorious Kids, the Midwestern wunderkind Harmony Korine has made his first feature, Gummo. Like tuning into an all-night, underground cable TV show called Meet the Neighbours, Gummo is a film of grotesquerie and tenderness. Chris Darke talked to him at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival.

Chris Darke: First of all, let’s get a little bit of background. When did you start getting into film making?

Harmony Korine: I was eighteen. I graduated high school when I wrote Kids. I’d never written a script before.  

CD: Were you studying film or did you just come into it?

HK: I was living life, watching movies. My dad didn’t talk to me much but there was a theatre at a university that would play double features, and I felt it was always important to see a film projected. It was like two dollars to see a film. So, I would just scrape some change up and run over. I was sixteen when I started watching movies and then that was it: I knew I wanted to make them.  

CD: Were you at all frightened by the possibility of coming to make your first feature?

HK: No. I was much more frightened of writing a script and having it directed by someone else than I was of directing my own movie. There was never any question of the way one of my films would be, what it would look like. These things are hard and it’s a battle but when I’m most happy, when I’m most in love with film-making is when I’m shooting and editing. It’s the before and after that is really difficult.  

CD: Given that you gorged yourself on cinema at a certain age, were there directors that remain reference points for you?  

HK: There are many: directors like Fassbinder, Godard or Buster Keaton. When I was young and I saw Buster Keaton I knew I wanted to make films because there was some kind of poetry that I hadn’t seen before. It was just something that I had never witnessed or felt, and I knew that was what I would do, and I knew I would do it when I was young, because I didn’t want to wait.  

I knew I wanted to see things differently. When I saw Fassbinder there was this sense of pace to his films and I saw he wasn’t concerned with making one masterpiece. It was more about a body of work, about building a house. The first time I saw a Godard film I started to think about technique in different ways and to see that people had been deconstructing stories, taking things apart and thinking differently.  

If there is any British film maker that has influenced me, it’s Alan Clarke. For me he is the most important. He came out at a time in my life when I needed something like that. I think Christine, a film he did for the BBC, is a masterpiece. He has influenced me because he was taking faces and characters that weren’t usually seen projected and, even though he was using actors a lot of the time, everything seemed real. Everything he did seemed unforced and organic and there was a beauty to it. He was pulling things out but he wasn’t necessarily drawing any conclusions, he wasn’t being political. It was much more like documenting human interaction.  

gummo-harmony-korine-2.jpgGummo, 1997

It’s strange, because I was so in love with the movies and then after I made films I became disenchanted. I go to movies now and feel I don’t get much from them. There are very few films that are perfect to me, films like The Passion of Joan of Arc or maybe the greatest film ever, Night of the Hunter, which I think exist on a different level. The reason why those movies are what they are is because I can’t even begin to imagine how they came to be. I can watch Night of the Hunter and I can’t begin to think that there was ever a story or someone writing it or that there were ever actors or even a director. It just seems so organic or so divine. To me the great films are like that. You can’t even begin to fathom how they happened. A bad movie you can dissect in seconds, because you see what happened, where they went wrong.  

CD: Gummo seems to avoid any kind of formula. How did you decide on the combination of images? Did you want to make this a film which had everything in it?  

HK: I started to think of films in different ways. When I really thought about it, what I remembered about great films, what moved me most, were specific scenes and characters. I never really cared about plot or narrative drive. So, with Gummo, I wanted to make a film that consisted entirely of scenes and characters, so that you could stick your hand into it blindfolded and pull out any scene and get something from it.  

CD: It struck me that at one level you come into the film and you don’t know whether these are ‘real people’ or characters. You start to ask, ‘when does a real person on screen become a character and when does the character start to melt into the real person?’  

HK: That was one of the things I wanted to explore. I wanted it to work on that level, where you are questioning what you are seeing. The actors in Gummo aren’t professionals.  

CD: Were you writing with people already in mind or was there a long casting session where you figured this is the right person?  

HK: It’s kind of a combination. There were certain people I had written it for, like the brothers who beat each other up in the beginning. I had grown up with those kids - that scene wasn’t even written. They just did that on their own, completely without direction. Then I cast purely visually, I never make people audition or read or do any of that stuff. I know that if someone looks a certain way I want to photograph them. That’s all that really matters to me. I just want to photograph different types of people, different faces.

gummo-harmony-korine-3.jpgGummo, 1997

CD: So, you were trying to bring onto the screen some of the life that was around in that part of America?  

HK: Oh definitely, because I am a 100% American artist, a 100% American film-maker. I grew up in America - I am not talking about working in Los Angeles because that is as separate from America as London is. I feel that where I grew up in Tennessee, where I filmed Gummo, has as little to do with New York as it has to do with Amsterdam. So for me, it was really a film about Middle America, the kind of people I saw growing up, the kind of things I’ve seen.   

I don’t have any advice to give anyone. I can’t give advice to people who want to get picture deals and all that kind of stuff, because I don’t want that or care about it: that’s not why I am involved in film. What I would tell kids to do is make movies on video tape, to get video cameras and just get away from any notion of Hollywood, or of films that are out right now, and make movies that consist entirely of hidden treasures, just filming their friends or filming things by themselves on little cameras. Just shoot, and shoot, and shoot and then edit your films. Then somehow get $30-40,000 and re-photograph the movies on 35mm and show them to people. That’s what I would do. I don’t like the idea of telling people to write scripts and to try to get studios and backers. In order for those people to finance a movie it has to fit. Miramax and Walt Disney have a certain aesthetic and a certain style of filmmaking that they are going to want to produce, based on whether they are going to make their money back twenty times.  

CD: Do you think then, a film like yours is indicative that there might be a lot of similar work going on, underground, outside the mainstream that may never be heard of simply because distribution chains don’t exist?  

HK: Yeah, completely. If I’d written Gummo when I was 18 instead of Kids, and tried to get the financing to make that movie the way I wanted it, it would never have happened. People would not have even read past page three. Because, however difficult that movie is for people to watch, it’s six times harder for them to read because it is not written as a linear narrative but in a kind of collage, copy style. So, automatically, they would give up, and just throw it out of the window. It is only because I made Kids that I got to make this film. I think there are people that have eyes, a certain sensibility that is in conflict with the financiers. That is what I mean about film-making being such an elitist process and why I tell people to make films on video.  

I think there is a change in aesthetics, there has to be, because you are seeing all these old filmmakers, these ‘great masters’ who are making the most mediocre shit, these people that are being praised, and who maybe once did good work, who now are part of the problem. So, what happens is that they have to die off in order for some kind of sensibility to be born again, some kind of newness. Otherwise cinema is dead. There has to be a replenishing process. That’s why I think video is the only way. Even though video is not as pretty as film, in a lot of ways it’s more interesting. Video re-photographed is really exciting for me. I think some of the best images in Gummo were not even done by me. They were shot on video by friends of mine, or my sister. We weren’t even using good video cameras. I was purposely using a bad eighties video and just telling them to go and look at people and hang out with them and bring me back the footage to look at. A lot of that stuff, which was incorporated into the movie, was the most striking. So, some of the things that just seem to go by and are not really talked about are the most exciting.

CD: What do you see yourself doing in ten years time?

HK: Quitting.