Harmony Korine, where have you been? At 19, he wrote Kids for Larry Clark. By 24, he had directed his first movie Gummo, dated Chloë Sevigny and been feted by some as the heir to cinema’s avant-garde. Now, after several years in the pop wilderness, the director has returned with Mister Lonely, a film about a commune of celebrity impersonators — featuring Diego Luna as Michael Jackson, Samantha Morton as Marilyn Monroe, and Anita Pallenberg as the Queen. Luke Goodsell spoke with Harmony about celebrity, ghost dogs and… bathing with chickens.
Hello, Harmony — you sound flustered.
No, no, no — I was just trying to get this lawnmower to start. [Laughs] I’m about to go to a chicken fest.
A chicken fest?
Yeah. Where I live in Nashville now, every year they started having this festival for hot chicken. It’s really spicy; I mean, really hot chicken.
Mister Lonely looks at celebrity impersonators. Has anyone ever impersonated you?
There was some guy that I heard about. I actually got a call from The New York Post last year about a guy who was apparently living in New York City and going to art galleries saying he was me, and taking girls back home and having sex with them — tying them up and then stealing their furniture. They called me and asked me for some comments on it, and I didn’t know what to say. I actually had a friend who confronted this guy — he heard him trying to pick up some girl at some opening—and they had an argument for an hour, and the guy didn’t break from saying he was me. The interesting thing was that the guy was apparently six-foot-three with blonde hair and Nordic-looking.
Did you ever see that film Color Me Kubrick about the guy who impersonated Stanley Kubrick, even though he looked nothing like him?
No, but I heard about that. This was the same type of thing. I thought, if I ever caught the guy I could get into a fight with him and it’d be strange, because it’d be the first time I was fighting myself — in a physical form, at least.
That might’ve made for a good episode in Fight Harm [Korine’s aborted film, where he provoked street fights with people].
Yeah. [Laughs] I think you can get away with it easier, impersonating a director, ‘cause no one knows what they look like. It’s more difficult to go around saying you’re, you know, Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio or something.
This is a very different film for you, at least superficially — more dream world than Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy.
I guess, you know, I was just feeling differently about things. About ten years ago I’d started writing a script called What Makes Pistachio Nuts?. It was about a guy who rides a pig up these walls and invents a special adhesive. It takes place during a race-war in Florida. And it was kind of like when I had lost myself, and my house burned down — and the script went with it. After a kind of long series of events I started to fantasise about, or think about, nuns jumping out of airplanes, without parachutes and riding bicycles. This idea stayed with me for a while. I later started to imagine what it would be like to live on a commune full of iconic impersonators. Then I was trying to decide which movie to write, and when I was laying them out I realised it was the same story, the same idea. And that was it, really: it was just a kind of feeling, you know. I guess my movies reflect my mental state at the time of making them and writing them.
Did the idea for the commune come when you were on the fishing trip in Panama, searching for the mythical fish?
You mean the thing with the Malingerers, the cult?
No, this came after. I had gotten in an argument with one of the [Malingerer] leaders. His wife used to walk this invisible dog — walk around with just the leash and nothing at the end of it. In the end I was packing my bags and she came up to me and handed me this leash and asked me what I believed in. I went back to Nashville and put the leash on my wall. I’d moved in to this person’s basement. I guess two or three weeks after I’d lived there, late one night I started to hear some barking coming from that direction, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I just sat there and stared at the leash. It was strange, but the idea of the bikes and the commune and everything just came to me.
Do you still have a ghost dog living in your basement?
Yeah, but then what happened was, after I got married it spooked my wife [Rachel Korine] and she put it our basement. She didn’t like it. She didn’t know how to explain a leash on a wall to her in-laws.
Didn’t you wanna shoot Mister Lonely in Iceland, before something weird happened?
We were scouting locations and on the last day we went to this woman’s house. She opened the door and she was crying, and we asked her what was wrong. She took us to her barn and there were, like, four or five black horses that were frozen solid dead with their legs sticking straight up in the air. I just thought it was a sign to get outta Dodge.
How did you decide which celebrities you were going to have on the commune?
They were people that I liked, you know. The idea was that they had to be instantly recognisable and iconic and most importantly they needed to have a mythology about their real-life personas that I could somehow bleed into the narrative of the film. So I could take different attributes of personality, like Marilyn Monroe’s depression or Charlie Chaplin’s sadism and then have that go into the actual story of the impersonators. Other things were just kinda done for comic reasons, just ‘cause I thought it’d be funny to see Sammy Davis Jr. mowing the yard or James Dean washing his socks or Abe Lincoln shaving a sheep — or the Pope stinking things up; the Pope with an awful stink.
Do you think it’d be possible to make the movie with a group of current celebrities?
You probably could but it would be, like… slut-fest. Isn’t that what reality TV is? It’s like a vomit-fest, you know.
[Laughs] Oh, it’s disgusting. I heard that you “wouldn’t be able to deal with Elvis”. You’re not an Elvis fan?
No, I think the actual Elvis, the early Elvis and even some of the later Elvis, is great. It was just the idea of having the guy there made me nauseous. I can’t explain it; what would I do? Elvis eating, Elvis gorging himself? I don’t know. The idea of having Elvis made me sick. I had an aversion to being around any kind of Elvis impersonator.
Did you meet any real-life celebrity impersonators, preparing for the film?
I did meet some in casting. The Madonna impersonator is a real-life Madonna impersonator — I’d read about a woman who was a vetinerarian’s assistant who’d gotten her arm stuck in a horse’s ass. So we tracked her down. But I wasn’t trying to make a documentary about impersonators, I just liked imagining them in a specific way.
Why choose Michael Jackson as the hero of the story?
I always found him a really interesting guy. I think in some ways he’s the world’s greatest eccentric. He’s also like a human abstraction in that he sort of has no colour, no sex, no age — he kind of exists in this strange area, in this made-up fantasy world that I find exciting.
His look in the film is Dangerous-era Michael, which is around the point where he was morphing into that abstraction.
Yeah, exactly. I thought that was the most interesting point, because like you said it was like a transition, that moment in his evolution. I also thought that he looked the coolest during that period. You know, all of those sailor suits and…
…the armbands and the military jackets, yeah — that was a good look.
The scene where he’s dancing on the rocks had an isolation that was quite sad, because it seemed to reflect how the real Michael has become. Was that a conscious move on your part?
Yeah, well I mean when I’m shooting I don’t really think about the implicit meaning of the shot, yet I’ll usually imagine something when I see an image and think, that’s interesting or I like the idea of this. Then I’ll shoot it and if it works, it makes emotional sense. I’m always more interested in emotional sense than any kind of logic. So a lot of times I’ll do things and the crew and the cast will have no idea why I’m doing it — and I won’t even really know. I’m not interested in making perfect sense — it’s always about making perfect nonsense.
Is that the way you conceived the opening shot of Michael and the toy monkey?
That’s exactly the way. I just thought it’d be nice to see Michael Jackson riding on a tiny motorcycle with a toy monkey in a fez cap and roller-skates.
You got Anita Pallenberg and James Fox together, for the first time since Performance. What was it like for them?
It was good, you know. I guess neither one of them had done a lot of acid in a while, so when we got there and we started doing that again, it brought back a lot of memories… [Laughs]
Going back a little, what was your experience like working with Gus Van Sant on Last Days?
I just flew in for a day. That was during a period where I was smoking this thing that was made of battery acid — it was like cigarettes dipped in battery acid. So, you know, doing the film seemed like a good move for my life. Gus is always doing interesting stuff.
The media love to put you into the ‘weirdo’ category. How do you deal with that?
Ah, I don’t really care. I stopped caring a long time ago. I used to when I started making movies, but you can get lost in the world and questions, like “Where do I fit in?” or “How is this film perceived?” I mean, there’s never a right way or a wrong way to understand these things. With any of the movies I’ve made, or anything I write, there’s no correct interpretation. So if someone sees the movie and thinks it’s ridiculous, then the last thing in the world I wanna do is correct them — because I’ve just never cared. [Laughs]
Did you feel pressure around the time of Kids and Gummo?
I guess so, because you’re just starting. And also I was really, really young. So I did pay attention to things more and… I was always wrong about reactions. At a certain point I just went, “to hell with that”… and started smoking up the battery acid. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Okay, now I see how it happened. What’s next for you?
I’m writing something now that hopefully I’ll be directing.
Can you say anything about it?
Nah! It’s best not to say at this stage.
You just wanna get your chicken, don’t you?
[Laughs] I just wanna get my chicken on! There’s actually this woman who lives a few doors down from me who takes baths with chickens, so we’re gonna go with her so she can tell us what the best chickens to eat are.
She’ll be able to sense them through her pores.
Yeah. She sings them songs at night sometimes; I can hear her. They go [starts singing]: “Fry that chicken, bitch, fry that chiiick-en / Fry that chicken bitch, fry that chiiiiick-en!” Just over and over again. When my wife and I first moved in it used to be a disturbance, but now it’s almost like we can’t sleep without hearing her sing “Fry that chicken, bitch!”
[Laughs] I guess you don’t miss New York, then…
Oh, hell no!
Well enjoy your chicken bath.
Thanks man. I’ll eat a breast for you.