Friday, May 7, 2010

An Interview with Harmony Korine on "Trash Humpers"

interview by James Hansen

After its fall premieres at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers is unearthed in New York City today at Cinema Village. I wrote about Trash Humpers in my NYFF dispatches where it was one of the highlights of the festival. Shot on lo-grade VHS in and around Nashville, where Korine is from, Trash Humpers jovially observes characters who walk around humping trash, tree branches, gates, and mailboxes. They laugh at kids who can't shoot a basketball, advise putting razor blades in apples, and smash light bulbs in empty parking lots. Trash Humpers is frightening, funny, and utterly fascinating. At the festival, I sat down with director Harmony Korine (who also portrays one of the Humpers) to talk about his approach to this curious object. We discuss his ideas, methods, and the beauty of exploding toilets.

James Hansen: When did you start working on Trash Humpers?

Harmony Korine: Yeah, it was pretty recently. I only started the movie four months ago [in May 2009]. It was shot and edited in right around a month. But I had been dreaming up this idea for close to a year. I always walk my dog through these back alleys by my house in Nashville, especially late at night. I would see all these trash bins that were all laid out with these dramatic overhead lamps and lights that would light up the sewers. The trash bins looked kind of human to me. They looked kind of like they had been mauled and molested and beaten. I don’t know, sometimes I just let my mind wander and I started to dream up these characters – these old people who just walk through these alley ways, peep into windows, hump trash, and do the most vile, disgusting deeds.

JH: And once you dreamed up the idea and came up with the images, what was your approach to actually putting it on video?

HK: I don’t know...I just started thinking it might be nice if this it could be not a movie in a traditional sense, but more like a found artifact or an unearthed object – something that was buried in a ditch or lost in some ladies attic. It was this home movie made by these kind of sadists. Once I figured that out and felt like I knew the movie would replicate a found VHS tape, it got very exciting.

JH: Was it difficult to find VHS cameras to record on these days?

HK: Yeah. It was difficult. But I also wanted to work with the lowest of the low, the worst 12 dollar VHS recorders. The hardest thing was just that the batteries were so terrible in those. We had to constantly be changing those.

JH: Was the use of VHS in any way a limitation? Or was it freeing in some ways? It sounds like it could have been a restraint, in some ways similar to the self-imposed Dogme limitations of Julien Donkey Boy, but I wonder if it really was a hindrance.

HK: No, it was really freeing. The only thing I needed to stay true to was it being a found VHS tape, so everything else didn’t matter. The aesthetics, the compositions, the lighting – none of that mattered. It was all just about documenting on this one machine and that very, very freeing. It became instantaneous.

JH: How was this approach of documenting, or creating an artifact, different from your approach to others things you’ve made in terms of making a film?

HK: I think there are a lot of similarities in the other movies, but I think this is maybe one or two steps further in that direction. I think it was different because I was an active participant in the film. It was as much a character piece as anything technical. It was really just about becoming a Trash Humper.

JH: Along with this idea of a character piece, I’m curious as to how the location informs the characters. How did The South inform the characters and the movie itself? How much were you thinking about the distinct South-ness while you were making Trash Humpers?

HK: Yeah, that’s where I grew up, and, for the characters, as a kid, those types of voices and the things being said, the mannerisms were very familiar to me. A lot of it was like trying to close your eyes and tap into that place with the voices. Some of them are very horrible and some are very exciting. And the south, and I guess most of America in general, was to me, at least, as a kid... it seemed a lot more wild than it does now. Now, everything is starting to seem the same. In the south, it seemed more regional, more isolated, and more wild. There was something more susceptible to horror.

JH: And the idea of Southern horror is definitely something that has persisted throughout horror films. It seems pretty applicable to Trash Humpers.

HK: Yeah, you could almost make the argument that it’s a horror film just because it feels horrible. You know what I mean? I wanted to make a movie where the violence erupted more in the ambiance than anything else. You see most of the violence in this movie post-action. It’s more about the mood, the feel, the ambiance. That seems a lot freakier to me. And so, I guess you could call it a horror film because some of it feels horrible. I always try and make something that lingers and can’t be talked away. It has more to do with the emotion or the tone.

JH: Yeah, and it’s interesting that, despite this horror basis, Trash Humpers just as often verges into comedy. Perhaps that relates to the performances – I mean, you are humping trash, which, at least to me, is funny – so I wonder about the relationship this “horror film” has to comedy and performance.

HK: Yeah, I’m not sure. You could make that argument, maybe, that the first half is a comedy and then it turns into something else. I don’t really know. I don’t question it too much. A lot of times I’m not exactly sure about why or where it comes from. But it just feels like there’s a force pulling me in some direction.

JH: How did you get everyone else on board to perform? I know your wife is one of the Humpers.

HK: Yeah, my wife Rachel. She’s potentially a really terrific actress. I just asked her if she would be into making this movie, but she would have to hump a lot of trash. And she was up for it. The other guys are friends of mine and characters from around where I live.

JH: I’m curious about the real characters you always seem to find in your movies. I think that’s especially interesting with Trash Humpers here in terms of creating an artifact and recording real, strange people.

HK: Well, the Humpers kind of do their thing and then the movie is series of semi-vaudeville moments of where they go. All the want is a kind of entertainment, so they just knock on doors and find performers and people who tell jokes with no punch lines or play one-stringed guitars or do neck exercises and watch nine televisions. I think a lot of the people, the real people, you see are kind of their friends.

JH: And are they people you know? Or had you just heard about them?

HK: I know them all. That was the way the movie was made. We’d wake up under a bridge or something and go to their house and knock on their door. That’s pretty much how all of it happened.

JH: There’s a sense throughout the movie, and maybe celebration is the wrong word, but there’s a sort of romantic view of anarchy. I wonder if that’s a view you have or if it’s just something interesting that you wanted to explore.

HK: It’s funny because anarchy always reminds of me of high school and junior high. I had this very good friend – we used to call him ‘The Gregler’ – and he looked a lot like Count Chocula. He was a Jewish anarchist. He had read The Anarchist’s Cookbook. We were only 14 or 15, but he would do these amazing things. He would blow up toilets, but he would do it with these chemicals and stuff. He was obsessed with blowing up toilets and I always admired that. He never hurt people, but he was just really focused on destroying this one type of object over and over again. I mean, he must have destroyed millions of dollars of toilets. Coincidentally, he’s now a State Senator! Anyways, I would say I always thought there was something just as exciting in the act of building and creating than there was in destroying and burning. Vandalism could be considered a really high form of spiritual existence.

JH: Toward the end of Trash Humpers, you get a real sense of that when you’re driving around giving the monologue about the types of people. Clearly, it’s a view the Humpers believe in, but I’m curious as to whether it’s something in today’s culture that you think is worth aspiring to.

HK: Sure. I mean, it’s difficult for me to say. I don’t really know how I feel about that. But I think there’s some truth to what he says in that speech though.

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009)

James Rosenquist's Gift Wrapped Doll No. 13 (1992)

Distant Cousins?

JH: At one point, a friend of the Humpers [Chris Gantry] reads a poem off a sheet of paper. Was any more of this scripted beforehand?

HK: No. There were ideas and things that I felt we needed to achieve maybe. But we were so focused on this idea of it being a found object. In some ways, it was like once everyone became the character and once we had the camera and once we were walking through these alleyways, there was no real right or wrong. It just became what it was. Like a home movie. It means everything and nothing. It just is what it is. It’s about documenting something and making sense of it or not making sense of it.

JH: I wonder about some of the repetitive chants and songs in the movie too, like the “Three Little Devils” song. I didn’t recognize that song specifically, but a lot of it felt like it was part of a creepy children’s fairy tale.

HK: There are some of those audio threads in the movie and that’s one of them. There’s also that breathing, the maniacal laughter, and then the “Three Little Devils” song. It’s actually a very old folk song. The song that’s sung in the movie is just a bastardized version of it.

JH: After all the chaos in the movie, I think the ending provides an interesting counterpoint to much of what we see when the Humpers get an actual baby. We see several fake babies or dolls in early parts of the movie – the kid who beats the doll with the hammer, for example – but, in the end, we feel this pretty genuine moment with the real baby and the Humpers. It gives them a little bit of a dual role, similar to your other movies where we find a relationship between the real world and something else (Julien’s schizophrenia, the stage personas in Mister Lonely). Can you talk a little about that final sequence.

HK: It was a hard sequence to film. You had to be very sensitive, obviously. I felt like it needed to be heartfelt and honest, but at the same time stay true to the intent of the Trash Humpers. I guess it’s kind of open ended what happens with the baby. But there’s something slightly loving about it. But also something a little sinister.

JH: And a final question: how can we all be Trash Humpers for Halloween? Any plans for commerce of the masks or anything?

HK: (laughs) That’s not a bad idea. I’ve got to make some money somehow!


Brandon Colvin said...

Great interview, James! Can't wait to see this.

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Joel Bocko said...

I finally got around to reading this - great stuff. Is the movie going to be available on Netflix? I saw bits of Gummo and was blown away then a little disappointed when I saw the whole thing (I can't quite remember why). Kids, however, is one of my favorite movies though the AIDS device seems a bit tacked-on and like something Korine would avoid in his later work. Excellent interview as well - I know how difficult it can be to steer these types of conversations, particularly on such a wacky film.