Harmony Korine on ‘Spring Breakers,’ SXSW 2013’s Most Divisive Film

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AUSTIN, TX: “I had been collecting spring break imagery for a couple of years before. I was using it in paintings and artwork and stuff,” Harmony Korine explained at the SXSW panel Monday for his new film Spring Breakers. “Just pictures that I would get off the Internet, different sites, fraternity sites, co-ed pornography, anything that had that role of adolescent debauchery in Florida. The images were just hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent — the subject matter was — but then all the details, the bikinis and the book bags and the flip-flops and the Hello Kitty bags and the nail polish and the neon, just all those things were childlike, or innocent. I thought it was interesting, both those things playing together, both those things working together.”

Thus was born the film, but Korine didn’t just rely on secondhand accounts of spring break madness; to write the picture, he went down and experienced the real thing. He traveled to Panama City, “and it was all debauchery, like in the film. I wrote it in a hotel room with people blasting Taylor Swift music 24 hours a day, people vomiting on my door, snorting donuts, it was crazy.” Prompted by moderator Eric Kohn to talk about the craziest thing he’d seen on the writing trip, Korine offered, “I saw a human jawbone on a chandelier in a Day’s Inn,” but that sounds more like a scene from David Lynch’s spring break movie.

He finished the script in Florida — or, at least, got as close to finishing as he gets. “I get the script to a point where it’s, like, good enough,” Korine confessed. “It’s like the ideas, the skeleton. And I know that in the shooting, the way I develop the film, I’m gonna push it into something else.” He encourages his actors to improvise, rewrite, and collaborate on the set — and some flexibility was necessary, since he shot in Florida and cast real spring breakers as extras.

It made the actors’ jobs much easier, according to co-star Ashley Benson. “Those would be our real reactions,” Benson laughed. “Girls would just be getting naked and making out, and we would be like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy!’ So just being in that environment alone helped you out a lot.” Benson, familiar from the ABC Family teen series Pretty Little Liars, loved the freedom of Korine’s method: “I remember when I went back to my show, I went back literally two days later, and I was like, ‘God I wanna kill myself,’ because I had to stick to a script!”

As part of the panel, the audience and cast watched Korine’s very first, very rough short film.

Much of the film’s advance buzz has centered on the presence in the cast of Disney favorites Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez. On Monday’s panel, Gomez talked about the film being part of her “transitionary period” (yup, that’s a direct quote). “This is what I love to do, and I wanted to kind of step out of my comfort zone and see how far I could go,” she said. Why this project? “My mom’s my manager and she’s a huge Harmony fan.” (Her favorite Korine film, if you’re interested, is Trash Humpers.)

Everyone involved is, of course, aware that in spite of its commercial-friendly elements, they’re making a Harmony Korine film, which (to put it plainly) will never be something for everyone. Korine knows he’s not making blockbusters, but he makes what he’s drawn to. “You see a woman and she’s really curvy and you’re attracted to that, and some guys see a woman and she’s like a straight line, and they’re attracted to that. I’m just attracted to what’s in Spring Breakers.”

Now, the question is whether other people are attracted to it, too. Pointedly split reactions are nothing unusual on the film festival circuit, but opinions on Spring Breakers seem to be even more sharply divided than we’ve come to expect. In and outside of the Paramount Theatre (to say nothing of on the Twittersphere) after last night’s premiere, people are worked up about this movie. Its champions call it a brazen, stylish, and brilliant attack on capitalism; its critics call it overblown, incoherent garbage.

The intensity of these opinions makes it all the more difficult to feel indifferently towards the picture, but that’s where this viewer was left. It is a textbook mixed bag, in which every pro has a con, every clever device has a counterbalancing shopworn cliche, and every carefully dodged trope is offset by a moment of utter obviousness. It’s a good time that you feel bad about (not even after, but during), and while you can certainly imagine that writer/director Harmony Korine was going for that kind of queasiness, it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, or stomach.

The story, as you must certainly know by now, concerns a quartet of bikini-clad beauties who turn to crime in order to finance a perfect spring break trip to Fort Lauderdale. Once they land there, the party gets out of control pretty quickly; at the wrong party at the wrong time, they land in the slammer, but are bailed out by Alien, a dangerous yet comical thugged-out white kid in the mold of Gary Oldman’s Drexl in True Romance.

Alien is brought to life by James Franco, and as tiresome as his off-screen performance art can get, credit where due: he juices the movie up with his wild comic ingenuity, turning in a dynamo of a performance that is equally funny and disturbing. Korine pretty much turns the movie over to him, and the picture is better for it; you can’t take your eyes off him.

I wish the female characters that are ostensibly the film’s focus were half as compelling. Aside from Faith (Gomez), the young Christian gone wild (and the first to bail when things get wiggy), they’re barely distinguishable from each other. You feel Korine wanting to make some kind of implicit point about sexualization and media; he opens with a montage of pure spring break hedonism, with toned bikini bodies gyrating in slo-mo and topless girls getting bathed in booze. But then he hard cuts out, to the humdrum lives of his protagonists, and while the contrast between the MTV aesthetic of his opening and the casual, offhand scenes of “real life” is jarring, the characters are no more believable; they talk and act like a male screenwriter’s fantasy of hot teenage girls.

Stylistically, however, it’s a remarkable film. Korine shows real skill at building a mood and holding it, and he’s aided immeasurably by the ambient score by Cliff Martinez (Skrillex also contributed some songs). He captures some flashily memorable images, particularly in the dreamlike climax. But it doesn’t quite add up. Its peculiar mock-serious tone is entertaining to a point, but Spring Breakers ultimately seems to have no idea how the hell it feels about these people, which tends to leave an audience adrift as well.

Not that Korine is going to pay much attention to analysis of his themes, whatever they may be. “It’s funny for me to listen to it,” he said Monday. “But I don’t really have that much to do with that part of things, I don’t have a relationship with that type of analysis. I usually make the movies, and I put them together, and I put them out into the world and then I just go home and cut off as much as possible from all that. I don’t really like to know anything about myself: why I do things, where it comes from, the color of my eyes. I’d rather just continue to not know, and to try to work it out through the films.”

Spring Breakers runs this week at SXSW and opens Friday in limited release. It opens wide on March 22.