Following Metrograph's Members Only sneak preview of The Beach Bum, Head of Programming Aliza Ma spoke with Harmony Korine about his latest.
Aliza Ma: I feel like this might be the first time you've set out to make a pretty direct comedy.
HK: Definitely. I really wanted to make comedy that existed in that world of stoner comedy, like the Cheech & Chong movies that I grew up with. And in some ways, those Clint Eastwood films like “Every Which Way But Loose,” where he's with the orangutan. It's like the real world, but it's pushed into something, kind of hyper lunacy, and it's fun. I just wanted to make a film that maybe was within that orbit, let's say, and devoted to joy and laughter.
AM: It’s so effervescent and joyful. Even when the characters are doing bad things there is still such a tenderness and sweetness to the film. Even Minnie's funeral feels like there is an underlying joy to it. Does that have something to do with your feelings about Miami, Florida, as a place?
HK: I mean definitely, I’m super interested in the place from living there and spending a lot of time living in Miami, spending a lot of time in the Keys. I like it in the way Elvis liked beach movies. I like the idea of making beach movies. And when you hear Florida, like anything could happen. It’s like a science fiction. What I like about it is that there is a sense of people enjoying the sun, and the ocean, the palm trees, pink skies. There's a kind of, at least for me, a really happy vibe. And then you go further into the Keys and there's this kind of celebration, this lack of ambition and checking out and getting stoned on your houseboat.
AM: Location and a sense of place have always been so important in your films. They're almost like these characters. I wonder if you can talk about how the inspiration begins for you to start writing about a place and how the characters come from that.
HK:Just hanging out in the Keys you’ll see some dude in a dress walking down the street with huge joint, dancing to a Jimmy Buffet song on the church steps. Hemingway has got some six-toed cats, some guy with a pet chicken on a leash, drinking red wine on a houseboat. It felt like I hadn't really seen it in a movie and, for me, it seemed perfect for this comedy.
AM: The characters seem so steeped in this location so there's a realism that comes from that, but the rhythm of the film is so elliptical and almost surreal. I remember hearing you talk about “Spring Breakers” and how it had almost this liquid narrative to it, something that resonates more like a pop song rather than a traditional narrative.
HK: Yeah, yeah.
AM: Can you talk about the process of writing that and then executing that in a practical way on set?
HK: Yeah, I mean, over the last couple years I've been playing around with the idea that film is something that is more experiential, focusing on the experience rather than conventional narrative. It was more like trying to make a film that worked on you the way that music does in some ways and so “Spring Breakers” was like a kind of pop song, or something like a menacing pop song. And this one I wanted to do something that was kind of a stoner 70s vibe, more like the Doobie Brothers—you know, where the narrative was closer to the waft of weed smoke.
So on a technical level the way that we shoot it is more about a kind of energy rather than conventional continuity. So we're doing set-ups and the same scene in like four or five locations and then putting that together to focus on an energy and what's in front of you. It kinda creates something that maybe feels more elliptical and strange, and the world is pushed into something hyper poetic.
AM: Can you talk about working with cinematographer Benoît Debie again and shooting on 35 millimeter? The film is so painterly and I notice the intense primary colors throughout — what was it like shooting those scenes with him? What kind of conversations did you guys have in terms of the aesthetics of the film?
HK: I love working with him, he's a real artist, and thinks almost in terms of painting, with a real focus on color and movement and shadows. So we worked together on “Spring Breakers” and started to develop what I felt was a specific language and then we wanted to keep working with that but have it be its own thing. So we developed a kind of look and specific colors and it was all in a way that expressed a very kind of specific mood.
AM: And why was it important for you to shoot on 35 millimeter?
HK: I don't know. I just liked the way it looks. There's a romance to it. I also like when you're shooting in film, it's like you're just burning money. I just love to burn money.
HK: I like the sound of it too. Like, 'cause you know, every second you're just burning that shit.
AM: I want to talk about Moondog's character. Was there something that inspired the character, aside from, as you say, living and moving about in Key West? Because poetry is so important to the character and to the film, I wonder if there's a text or a song that inspired him in the beginning.
HK: I don't know, he's kind of a classic Key West archetype. I was thinking about certain characters there but then also maybe like a little bit of Richard Brautigan is thrown in, too. He's kind of a cultural mash-up. And then really we just designed him in a way that was for comedic effect and his character is really about a specific type of freedom. A kind of unhinged freedom, but a freedom.
AM: What kind of conversations did you have with McConaughey going into the prep process? And did you guys rehearse or anything? Did you send him any videos or texts in the preparation process?
HK: Yeah, we did rehearsals. But from when he first heard the script, I understood that he was tapped in. He knew characters to base it on. He was familiar with maybe some smugglers and pirates, and he tapped into the voice and mannerisms and the whole thing. And so once he was in it, then we figured out his look, and what his drink of choice is, and how much weed he smokes, the whole thing. It was, like, he kind of just became Moondog and was pretty lit for the whole film.
AM: He looks like he's on fire, like literally, he's cloaked in this overall print of flames. But he's also figuratively such a force of nature. I want to talk about the look of the character in general. At one point he's wearing this pink robe that matches the sky and then after Minnie passes away he literally puts on her sparkly shoes and by the end he's wearing this sequin dress that looks like it could've been hers. You worked with Heidi Bivens, the costume designer, can you talk a little bit about how you guys came up with the way he looks?
HK: He’s definitely based on a lot of Keys dudes. Houseboat-living guys, who just drink and smoke all day, go fishing. Obviously, I wanted his look to have a graphic nature to it and really pop. It was just trial and error. In some ways he wears this, like, uniform, and yet his character is on fire, so he needs to look like he is on fire.
AM: There's a very haunting scene in the beginning when he's doing a poetry reading and he talks about how he one day he's going to be, he says something about how he's going to take over the world, and I forget the line.
HK: Swallow up the world.
AM: Basically, it’s like something about flames, right? And then by the end, of course, everything is in flames. So I think there's a wonderful symmetry to it. Can you talk a little bit about how Snoop Dogg became involved and how the character of Lingerie came to be?
HK: Yeah, I was trying to figure out in casting it who would be in Moondog’s posse and these are the kind of like Snoop, Jimmy Buffet, these are the mythical stoners. And so I wrote the part for Snoop and he was down to do it but he didn't want to play himself, he wanted to play a variation of himself, a character name Lingerie who's an R&B singer whose smooth and silky.
I had written him for Snoop, like, in the way that Jimmy Buffett plays Jimmy Buffett. I was going to have Snoop do that. And then I got a call, Snoop has, like, notes.
AM: I don't know why that's funny.
HK: Yeah. Snoop is always lit. He's like always lit. But so then he calls me and was like, "I just got one note and I want to be Lingerie. 'Cause I'm smooth and silky." And he also wanted him to be like an R&B singer with a big dangalang.
AM: How did Jimmy Buffet come to be in the film?
HK: Jimmy is just a good friend and again the specter of him and his music and what he has created is the same kind of cosmic America, that same kind of checkout culture that I talk about.
AM: Is there a way that you're consciously, sort of playing off of the public personas of the celebritydom of the professional actors you work with? I mean thinking of also James Franco in “Spring Breakers,” obviously Matthew McConaughey has a pretty distinct idiosyncratic persona and I think you play that up very well in the film while also making it so unique to the film.
HK: Thank you. Yeah, I definitely play with that.
AM: Can you talk a little bit about the love between Minnie and Moondog? Because I find it to be an extremely, sort of, a pure love, despite the fact that they are not exactly loyal to each other. And there's that beautiful sequence after their daughter’s wedding where they just wander through the streets and beach right before her accident. There's a sort of interplay between what they're experiencing with each other, which is so sweet and tender, and the song that you chose, is that all there is? Can you talk about that love between them?
HK: Yeah, they have a real love story. Game recognizes game. She's as wild as he is, and they have a relationship that, I guess, is slightly debauched. But in the end it's a true love, they kind of complete each other in this way.
AM: The characters in the film are in contrast to your previous films, they're older. I mean, “Trash Humpers” being the exception, you usually gravitate towards working with younger characters. And also they're just absurdly rich. At one point Moondog turns to Minnie and he's like, "Oh, I forget how rich we were." Why did you choose to focus on characters of this ilk at this time?
HK: Well because part of who he is, is that it doesn't matter. He can live in Minnie's mansion, wear her dresses, get stoned out on a yacht out in the club. But once it's all gone he's just as happy living under a bridge with nothing. That's the thing, you have extreme wealth, extreme poverty, and you have everything in between. No matter what you throw at him he's going to make some magic.
AM: And after she passes away and he's sort of put in a place where he has to go back to writing in a serious way. He does make the statement that he's off to write the great American novel. I'm wondering if you think that that's possible in our day and age.
HK: Oh it’s definitely possible. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, he wins The Pulitzer.
AM: These days the discussion around bad men making good art and vice versa is such a hotbed of discussion. In the film, when Moondog’s daughter accuses him of almost ruining her wedding day, Minnie comes to his defense saying , "That's just Moondog, you just have to accept that he's from another dimension." Later on the daughter defends her father to her new husband, "Oh he may be a jerk but he's a great man." Is Moondog an exploration into the tenuous connections between artistic virtue and moral rectitude for you?
HK: You know, I don't really know. I just try to do my best, I try to make people laugh. I’m like Bob Hope, I just try to entertain the troops.