Interview: Harmony Korine on "Rebel"Juxtapoz // Friday, 11 May 2012
In April 2011, MOCA approached Juxtapoz with a unique project that they were producing with James Franco: Rebel, a mult-facitated, mixed-media, collaborative art installation and project loosely based on the making and legacy of James Dean's famed film, Rebel Without A Cause. In July 2011, Juxtapoz published a cover story examining Rebel, interviewing James Franco, Harmony Korine, and Aaron Young, about how the project came about.
What intially was supposed to premiere at the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2011, this May 15, 2012 MOCA will be presenting Rebel at JF Chen in Los Angeles. The exhibition will feature James Franco's
conception along with works by Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha, and Aaron Young. Here is our conversation with Mr Korine in the summer of 2011...
Gwynned Vitello: You were born in Bolinas, California, so that has to have a connection with why you’re named Harmony, doesn’t it?
Harmony Korine: Yeah, that’s right.
Have you spent much time in Bolinas recently? It’s so beautiful.
I haven’t been back in a while, I was born there, in a… I don’t know if it was a commune but…
Well it’s sort of one big commune.
Yeah. I was out on the beach when I was born, somewhere with a lot of people chanting.
And now you lead a life of no boundaries. Can you tell us how you got involved with this project?
I had been talking to James Franco for a while about making a movie. And for the last couple years we would always toss ideas back and forth, and then about 6 months ago he came to me with the concept for this thing for the Venice Biennale, based on Rebel Without a Cause. He specifically wanted me to do something that was rooted in the violence of that iconic gang fight at the observatory in the movie. When we talked about it in the beginning we talked about using real gang members, and ended up having un-simulated knife fights.
Maybe he was thinking of that documentary you started to make, Fight Harm, perhaps?
Yeah I think some of that came from there too, the Fight Harm movies where I would provoke people into fighting me.
You must have actually suffered physically…
Oh yeah that’s why I stopped. I was really out of my mind at that point. I wanted to make what I thought would be the greatest American comedy of all time. Something that was an extension of Buster Keaton or The Three Stooges; something that was just really vile and base and rooted in the lowest, purest form of humor, which I always thought was violence. You know like someone slips on a banana peel and cracks their head open.
So that’s how he approached you – the violent aspect, but there was more to it than that, because of the focus on youth…
I think that he’s specifically interested in the mythology that surrounds that film, James Dean, Sal Mineo, and the director… Something that I hadn’t really spent too much time thinking about myself, but I thought was interesting, and I liked those concepts, and I also liked the other people that were involved in the project. So it was exciting.
I haven’t seen Rebel Without A Cause in an awfully long time, it seems like you’ve watched a lot of films throughout your life. Obviously you re-watched the film before you took this on. Did it look different to you than when you had seen it when you were younger?
I guess so. It almost seemed like a comedy, so melodramatic. I always liked how most of the teenagers looked like they were in their 30s.
That’s what they did then. Natalie Wood was supposed to be 16!
Yeah, so that adds a kind of humorous element to the whole thing. There’s something that was always kind of astonishing about James Dean – it’s hard to believe he was ever was really a person. He inhabits this other domain, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t just a cartoon or a figment of my imagination.
Or a poster in a dorm room or something… he didn’t get old and fat like Marlon Brando, so he’s always James Dean. So tell us a little bit more about your film.
I just lived with it for a couple months, I took all these different elements that I thought were related to gang culture and put them together. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly where it comes from.
Has James directed any films before?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I’m sure he’s done lots of short films...
But he gave you free reign. You’re the director and he said “Do whatever you want to do.”
Yeah, definitely. He conceptualized the whole project, it’s his in that he put all these things together. The idea is his.
He wanted you to focus on gangs and violence, so did he give the other artists certain scenes to explore?
Yeah, from what I understand that how it happened. The other artists dealt with different scenes and elements of the film, and the back story.
Were you aware of what the other artists were bringing to the rebel installation? Did you get a briefing, or was it like you didn’t need to know?
I knew that Paul McCarthy was building certain things… not a lot of detail about what other people were doing. I didn’t really think about it so much. I think everybody’s still making things. Even mine’s not finished yet.
Would it matter if it was in Venice or someplace else? When I think of Venice, some of it looks kind of decayed, while some of it looks like Disneyland.
I made mine keeping in mind that it was part of an installation that’s in Venice, but I also thought about how the film segments would exist separately from that. So it’s made for this location, but it will work as well on its own.
How will it be screened there?
It will be projected on this island off of Venice, there’s this decayed house… I can’t even explain really what it is.
I was thinking about the mansion in Rebel Without a Cause… thinking there’s some kind of connection with Venice there.
Maybe so, I’m not sure.
Are there women portrayed in the gangs?
Yeah it’s all women! It’s only female gangsters. We did all the castings out of South Central and Compton. We did a lot of clips where I live. It’s broken up into two gangs, Sal Mineo’s gang and James Dean’s gang. And then also East Coast – West Coast; Tupac – Biggie, it’s like a BMX slaughter in downtown L.A.
Right, which we saw in the trailer, the scene in the parking lot. So how did you cast? Was it the same way you usually do your casting, where you just go on site and round em up?
Mostly girls that had been paroled, just getting out of prison. And people that I had heard about - infamous neighborhood girls.
Was the concept of using all women something that was part of the blueprint of Rebel, or was it something that developed along with the concept?
It was just something I thought about. It just made sense – I liked the idea of these girls with machetes on bikes. It just seemed like a natural thing to do, it was exciting. Most of them don’t have their clothes on.
Well that comes out of the original Rebel because from what I understand that was one of the first films that blurred gender roles, the men were way more sensitive than they were usually portrayed. So it’s interesting to have women fulfill a more masculine role in your film. I understand there’s also a prominent musical element - what kind of music did you choose?
Well it’s scored to the film. Also all the voice-overs were taken from the original film, from the scene that preceded the gang fight and the slideshow that they give in the scene before – that discussion on the cosmos and how small man is in relationship to the stars. I re- did that text with somebody else’s voice and added a lot of other things, I peppered ebonic-type slang and then I screwed it all. I pitched it all down so it’s totally fucked up and screwed.
Well that’s so different then than Rebel Without A Cause because even for it’s time it was using stilted gang talk, so this is a little more real.
Yeah, this is next level shit.
And you let the girls, kind of talk their own talk…
There’s actually not even any dialogue.
It’s all action and music?
It’s all slow motion. Its all shot at really really high-frame rates, so yeah it’s pretty slow.
The original Rebel Without a Cause, although it was groundbreaking, was such a sugar-coated depiction of rebellion. As you are using real gangsters, real people, do you think you guys had decided to take it to a whole other level of a ridiculous take on the notion of rebellion?
I don’t even really think about it too much like that. I just honestly don’t even think about things like that too much. It’s more about just like when you close your eyes… I just allow myself to dream and go to a certain place, that’s difficult for me to explain. If the feelings right, if I’m being pulled and the sway is right then I don’t question it I just make it. And that’s how it was with this. I just dreamt it up based on this idea that Franco had, based on simulated gang wars.
When an interviewer asks questions we frame things in a way that boxes you in to answering a certain way, and I know about your filmmaking, that it’s very linear, and it’s a slice or a look at life.
It’s also that sometimes I just feel like the best things don’t exist in words. It’s like something that’s post-logic. I don’t ever care about making perfect sense, it’s like making perfect nonsense. It exists outside that. I’ve never had any other kind of motivation other than to see something in a specific way that no one else is showing me.
It’s very much like skateboarding. You don’t go out and skateboard to score a certain amount of points, you’re just out there.
Or if you’re gonna use a skateboard analogy, you could say it’s almost like Mark Gonzales, like the first time I ever saw Mark Gonzales skating on his grip tape and I was like “wow”… you realize that there are no rules, that you can do anything.
So you still live in Nashville?
Yeah, I didn’t live there for a while, but I moved back a couple years ago.
So you were there, and then you went to New York City (because everyone’s gotta go to New York City for a while)… and you’ve got a child now.
Yeah I’ve got a daughter.
Are you in the country?
No, no I live in the city. I live right by Vanderbilt University.
So back to the project, what are you finishing up on the film right now?
I’m just doing the sound, mixing it, which is great. It’s really almost done.
You’re doing just the film or are there other projects related to the installation?
The movie of course, and then I’m making these other little loops, these images that are repeated. And then I’m taking all the props from the film, including the severed James Dean head, the prosthesis and put it in vatrines, and then the BMX bikes will hang from trees. And the Tupac and Biggie shirts everywhere, it’s all part of a whole.
MOCA presents Rebel, conceived by James Franco with Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha, and Aaron Young. Rebel will be on view from May 15 through June 23, 2012, at JF Chen, a newly emerging contemporary art and design space, located at 941 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 90038.