Leave it to Harmony Korine to have Al Pacino calling him a genius. American cinema’s enfant terrible, who’s churned out two decades’ worth of subversive fairytales about youth gone awry, was at the Toronto International Film Festival this week to promote his supporting turn in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, opposite Pacino. The film is an impressionistic tale of an eccentric locksmith (Pacino) who still sends love letters to a woman who left him many years ago. At the TIFF premiere, Green spoke of having an epiphany during a Q&A for Korine’s Spring Breakers. He realized the unorthodox director would be perfect to play Gary, a shady, fast-talking friend of Manglehorn’s who runs a house of trippy debauchery and pays his landlord in spray tans. Or something like that. Korine certainly proves up to the task, delivering an unhinged turn that’s a nice counterpoint to Pacino’s withdrawn Manglehorn. At the film’s press conference, Pacino was so effusive in his praise of Korine that he knocked over his water. “I was in heaven! I had never met anyone like him, and I’ve met some real strange ones.” We sat down with Korine at Toronto’s Hyatt Regency to chat about stepping in front of the camera, writing head-wound poetry, and assessing youth culture twenty years post-Kids.
You’ve rarely acted in other filmmakers’ projects. What drew you to Manglehorn?
It’s cool because I was friends with David, so when he came to me, he was like, “I’m doing a film with Pacino, you want to be in it?” I was doing press for Spring Breakers, and I was like, yeah, of course! I didn’t even really care what the script was. In life, I just take things as they come. If it’s something cool, I don’t really care what form it comes in, I just go with it. And it just seemed like such a strange idea.
I can tell why David had you in mind for the part, because your garrulous, floral print-attired pimp character would have fit right in with the Gummo gang or the Spring Breakers bunch.
Yeah, he really would! The character was already fully imagined, but I changed a lot of the lines and stuff, messed around with it. Much more crazy shit was left out.
So that’s what Pacino was alluding to at the Manglehorn Q&A, when he described working with you as “one of the greatest experiences of my film life.”
Yeah! The scenes went on for a long time when we shot them; they went to some really weird places. But working with him was so fantastic. I mean, what am I going to say about him that hasn’t been said already? He is just one of the greatest actors ever, and also a really amazing person. For me, it was just really cool to spend time with him, and experience making films from the other side.
Did you take anything away from being in front of the camera, for a change?
Not specifically, it was just a great energy with Al. Being able to play like that was fun. I mean, acting is more immersive than directing, and being with Pacino was something else.
Did he give you any tips on the Southern Gothic gangster project you’re working on?
Well actually, it’s all done! The script is written. I’m putting the cast together right now, it’s going to be my most ambitious film, and I’m really just going to go for it. It’s some next level shit. It’s a revenge movie, a sprawling, very intense… I don’t want to give away too much, but we’re probably going to start shooting in Miami after the New Year. I’m goin’ for it.
Any particular reason why Miami?
Yeah, just the way the sky looks.
And you’ve got Robert Pattinson locked down?
It’ll have a substantial cast.
You’ve also been working on a follow-up to your choose-your-own-adventure novel, A Crack Up at the Race Riots. You’ve described the forthcoming book as “the greatest thing I’ve ever written.” How’s that coming along?
It’s great. It’s being written in crayon with my left hand. If you could imagine someone with a large portion of their brain missing, but like, trying really, really hard, that’s what it’s like.
What I’m trying to say is that I tape my hand behind my back, writing with the left hand, imagining part of the brain missing, and then the book begins. It’s like message board poetry, or head wound poetry. Imagine somebody who’s just been shot in the head, and it’s just sparked something in them, creatively, and they just have to get it out on message boards. It’s probably going to be one of the greatest modern books. (Laughs)
I’ve read that you can’t get through much fiction. You’ve described the experience of reading novels as overwhelming. Does that still hold true?
Yeah. I mostly just read the first page of a lot of books. Or the synopses. I really like the synopses. Or books of lists: the phone book, Milton Berle’s joke book, things like that.
So, what happens after you read the first page? You just get bored?
Or maybe the first 10 pages. I don’t know what happens. I get distracted.
A case of the short attention span.
Yeah, I predated that whole generation.
Well, that clearly doesn’t seem to slow you down. Of late, you’ve also been dabbling in abstract paintings. I caught Shooters, your exhibit at New York’s Gagosian Gallery this past summer. Has that always been an interest of yours?
I just started showing paintings in the last year or so, and I’ve gotten more into it. It’s become more of a thing in my life now. I probably spend much more time on that than I do thinking about movies, to be honest with you. It’s been nice, because I’ve been making movies since I was a kid, and it’s awesome but it’s also draining. The collaborative part of that really gets to you.
What appeals to you about using things like masking tape and squeegees instead of more traditional painting arsenal?
It’s just exciting to me not to use brushes, because it reduces the possibilities in a way that I like. It forces something that’s kind of unconscious. I just like painting: I don’t have to deal with other people, it’s in front of me, it’s tactile, and at the same time, in some strange way, they relate to the movies. So that’s become a bigger part of my life over the past couple of years, more than anything else.
I have to ask about Larry Clark’s new film, The Smell of Us, in some ways a companion piece to Kids, but set in Paris. Have you heard about it?
It premiered to pretty scathing reviews in Venice last week. Have you kept up with his work at all?
No. I mean, I haven’t seen him in over a decade. I didn’t even see Ken Park.
Which you wrote! You weren’t curious to see what he’d done with your script?
No, I mean… man… I’ve just been busy!
I think it’s fair to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that Kids scarred a generation of teens into a lifetime of safe sex. How did HIV find its way into your script?
It was actually just kind of thrown in there because, I mean, I was a kid when I wrote it, so I didn’t have any knowledge of AIDS. It’s like, with Jaws you had the shark, and with Kids, you had the AIDS. You know what I mean? Structurally, you needed that. It was a dramatic or narrative device, as opposed to making a social commentary, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with that.
Next year will mark the film’s twentieth anniversary. How do you think it holds up as a time capsule of ‘90s youth culture?
It was just such a different time, a different era: pre-Internet, pre-Instagram, pre-social media, and the psychology surrounding that particular group of kids was much different than what you see today. Back then, a lot of those kids were seeking some kind of oblivion, a shadow culture, something that would allow them to get away from it all. It was about trying to get lost, whereas youth culture today is a performative culture. It’s about exposing yourself, posting, being hyper-present. Teens want to be connected to their parents, to everyone; it’s a more media-saturated experience. Then, it was about people not knowing what you were up to. Now, everyone wants to know what the fuck everyone’s eating.