It’s been more than a decade since Harmony Korine was the 19-year-old NYU dropout who, so the story goes, turned around the screenplay for Kids in just three weeks. Korine quickly advanced his reputation as a curiously challenging young filmmaker, earning mainstream scorn and selective critical praise for his meandering, difficult profiles in human disaster, Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Despite walkouts when Gummo debuted in Telluride, the film was championed during the postscreening Q&A by Werner Herzog, who reserved special admiration for such details as a strip of bacon taped to the wall during the bathtub scene. “This,” Herzog said, “is the entertainment of the future.” Praised by Herzog, hated by Janet Maslin, defended by an ambivalent Roger Ebert — next stop: cultural underground superstardom! Korine became an unlikely director’s director, championed as an invigorating cinematic force by the likes of Gus Van Sant and Bernardo Bertolucci. Polarizing and enigmatic, no one could accuse Korine of not being dedicated: His unfinished film project, Fight Harm!, was a series of real-life fights, all provoked by Korine, who would refuse to fight back. The experiment, which, he says, he imagined as “a great comedy,” fusing the tradition of Buster Keaton and snuff films, put its maker in the hospital.
It also put Korine’s cinematic output on hold; his latest film, Mister Lonely, is the first since Julien Donkey-Boy. After assaulting the audience (and himself) for years, Korine returns to telling a story, or rather two stories — one about a Michael Jackson impersonator’s sojourn to a commune of celebrity impersonators, the other about a jungle-bound missionary (played by Herzog) and his faith-based skydiving nuns. Still enigmatic but not scandalous or provocative — no more drowning cats — Korine’s latest film is a rather beautiful collage of moments that seeks emotional answers about the inevitably futile desire to escape from reality.
L.A. WEEKLY: I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but there’s a scene where one of the nuns jumps out of an airplane on a bicycle. It’s strangely compelling, and I had the suspicion while watching it that this entire film was fueled by your desire to see what that would look like.
HARMONY KORINE: You could say that, I think. That was the first thing in my mind — just imagining nuns jumping out of airplanes. Nuns on bicycles in the clouds, floating down, doing tricks in the sky, spinning around. That was a while ago, and the image stayed with me for a while. Eventually, a story developed behind it. I was attracted to this idea of faith. The idea that if you believe in surviving a fall from an airplane, maybe you can.
And so the commune is also essentially a community of believers.
Yeah, well I thought about the commune setting because I spent a couple years growing up on a commune. But I didn’t want to make a straight hippie commune. Somehow along the way, I started thinking about what it would be like to see these iconic celebrities living somewhere together, in this slightly otherworldly castle. At first, I was thinking of them as two separate movies. And at some point they merged into the same film. They were certainly speaking to the same idea. They’re both about these obsessive characters, living outside the system. They want to create their own world, be more than who they really are.
Why stock the commune with impersonators?
I’d always liked show people. And performers. And impersonators are both. In the film, Marilyn Monroe talks to Michael Jackson about how this is the most noble thing you can do, bringing these characters back to life. It’s a misguided idea, but there’s something pure in that dream.
Also, I just liked the idea of show people in odd circumstances. I wanted to see Sammy Davis Jr. smoking a joint and Buckwheat riding a pig and Abe Lincoln operating a sit-down lawn mower. Or the Three Stooges with shotguns, killing sheep. Plus, I thought that this will give me a chance to work with the greats, you know? Otherwise, I knew I’d never have the opportunity to do a movie with Buckwheat.
Were there any impersonators who didn’t make the cut? Or any missing? Like, at a certain point, did you say, “If only we had an André the Giant”?
Right off the bat, we knew to stay away from Elvises. I wrote the screenplay with my brother [Avi Korine], and at a certain point, though, we did start getting really tweaked out and thought, What would it be like to have, you know, like multiple Sammy Davis Jrs.? Like four of them, all competing for that one spot?
Just imagine the political struggle between aspiring Sammy Davises.
Yeah, right? But then, we thought, If we go down that road, the movie might become something else.
Instead, it seems like you tried to be true to those iconic characters.
I sort of wanted to play with the mythology surrounding the celebrities. So you see Marilyn’s depression and Charlie [Chaplin]’s supposed sadism.
It’s strange, because this is not a Hollywood film by any stretch, but there are moments when the impersonators sell some of that old-time Hollywood charm. Their performance in the theater they build for themselves feels a bit magical.
Yeah, I think that’s true.
So when you said before how it may be deluded to try to bring these people to life, isn’t that essentially what you were doing?
Absolutely. Maybe it was all just an excuse for me. Like I said before, maybe I really just wanted to get a chance to work with Michael Jackson.
Diego Luna as Michael Jackson is surprisingly inspired. At times, he even shares the angular facial structure of a late-model post-Neverland Michael Jackson.
For some reason, from the beginning, I just felt strongly that Michael Jackson needed to be Mexican. Starting from there, I thought of Diego because of his boyishness. That’s what attracted me to the idea of Michael as the lead impersonator. Totally naive, symbolic of everything somehow. He’s the world’s greatest eccentric and still an abstraction of a person: without color; without sex; without gender; without age.
And on a permanent retreat from reality.
Yeah. And that’s an exciting idea if you think about it, despite the dangers.
There’s a scene in the missionary narrative, the one where Herzog as the priest is preparing to fly with his nuns over the villages to drop aid. He has this encounter with a guy on the tarmac, this stunning little scene, and it was actually inadvertent documentary, right?
That was one of those special moments. When I’m filming, I’m interested in mistakes. It’s often the mistakes that let you inside. And in that case, I was filming and saw out of the corner of my eye that Werner was talking to this guy who’s crying and holding a bunch of dead roses in his hand. I walk over and Werner says, “Quickly, put the camera on me.” So I did, and what you see there is the truth. Four or five years ago, that guy’s wife left him, and he waits every day at the airport in the jungle with some dead roses, hoping for her to return. Werner figured out his story right there, on camera, dressed as a priest, and then got him to repent. Somehow, Werner gets the guy to admit to “fornicating” and instinctively knew it was with five women. And the guy breaks down there and admits to his sin.
You have this long-standing relationship with Herzog. And, of course, he is a fan of the kind of filmmaking where you allow mistakes to speak to the essence of the film. So it’s kind of ironic that here this is happening in the person of Herzog himself.
That’s true. I never thought about it quite like that, but that is it right there.
I guess Herzog can’t help but extract some truth from the jungle. Did you always see him as the priest?
I’ve worked with him on the last two films. He has an obvious charisma, and I thought it would, in fact, be interesting to go back to the jungle with him. A Bavarian jungle priest who’s a hardcore boozer — that seemed to be perfect for Werner.