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Spring Breakers Director Harmony Korine on James Franco, Selena Gomez, and Britney Spears

Harmony Korine. Photo: Getty Images

Harmony Korine is best known as the director of resolutely uncommercial art flicks like Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers, but his oeuvre takes a seriously giddy turn with the colorful new babes-in-bikinis crime flick Spring Breakers, starring James Franco and Selena Gomez. “In the way that it was exciting for those stars to come to my side, it was exciting for me to go to that side as well,” confesses Korine, who’s made the most mainstream film of his career in Spring Breakers. Still, don’t get it twisted: This is still an utterly insane, psychedelic, art-movie fantasia. And though barely legal Florida debauchery may seem like an unlikely subject for Korine to tackle, it’s actually a key strand in his DNA. “Growing up in Tennessee, spring break was just part of the culture,” he says. “In high school, everyone would jump in a car and drive from Nashville to Daytona Beach. It was the Redneck Riviera!

Selena Gomez told me that her mom is a superfan of yours who was instrumental in making her do the role.
Yeah, Mandy! It blew my mind, you know. It actually still blows my mind that her mom is younger than I am! Selena was my first casting choice for the girls and I just threw that out to the casting agents, and the next day they said, “She is going to fly in with her mom to audition for you at your house.” And I was like, “What?!” And I got nervous because I didn’t know anything about them personally and I figured they might be very religious because of the Disney affiliation and I didn’t want to scare them away, so I started flipping over a lot of artwork and photographs and things in my house that were maybe more graphic. Then Selena walked in and her mom was just like, “Hey, I love your movies! I grew up on your films.”

What do you do to push the actors out of their comfort zones on a movie like this?
In the beginning, you might be trying to talk someone into something … and personality-wise, maybe they’re never going to get there. I don’t just mean the super-graphic stuff; there are places of honesty for an actor, and some actors don’t want to go to those places, and that’s fine. The thing is, I go for it. I always go for it. If I see something that’s morally ambiguous or ambiguously beautiful or has some pull in some way, I won’t censor myself; I always run towards the light. And so I explain that to them. I say, “Look, the script is not where this ends. The script is kind of where it begins.”

There’s a scene where Franco takes Selena Gomez to a pool hall that you’ve populated with real-life criminals and lowlifes. I could feel that she was genuinely unsettled there. It wasn’t just acting.
I know her so well, and I knew if I’d told her that scene was going to happen, she would be thinking about it and preparing for it, but I wanted Franco to try and fuck with her head to see what would happen. I called him the night before and told him what I wanted him to achieve, and with her, she thought the shoot day was over when I took her by the arm and led her to this room where we had the camera and Franco waiting. I said, “Hey, we’re going to do something that’s not in the script and I just want you to react to it and go for it.” She was freaked out. [Laughs.] I could also tell that she was a little bit exhilarated. I think the best acting she’s ever done is in that moment.

A lot of young actresses these days worry about their “brand,” so I would imagine that makes things trickier.
I don’t even think about it. To be honest with you, I just say to them, “I’m not going to make something that’s conventional. I’m chasing something that’s more like a feeling or a drug experience, and you want to do this with me.” And the truth is that these girls are at a place in their lives and in their careers where I think it’s important that they push themselves and show people that they’re able to do things outside the realm of what is expected of them. I hate corporations, and I don’t give a fuck about brands, so that actually was one of the things that was a really nice surprise, that they were willing to go for it with me.

Franco was clearly 100 percent committed to his wild Spring Breakers character Alien, which didn’t necessarily seem to be the case on a movie like Oz the Great and Powerful. Was he still busy doing all his artistic side projects during the making of the film?
Not when he was shooting. He does do all those things on the side — he is a lunatic; he really is — but what I think he is greatest at, at his core, is acting. Once he was there on set, that was it, there was nothing else that interfered with the process. Before and after shooting, that’s Franco World, but during the shoot he is 100 percent committed to the craziness and he pretty much lived that character, within reason.

Let’s talk about the crime montage set to the Britney Spears song “Everytime.” I should note that the sequence begins with a shirtless Franco, seated at a white piano on the beach, playing Britney as the girls cavort around him.
I’d always loved that song, and in some ways, it was like a condensed pop version of what I was wanting to do with the movie. I thought there was something really eerie about the song, something kind of glossy and airless and haunting. I probably carried around that idea of using the song in that way for a couple of years, and when I wrote the sequence, I remember being really excited, like, “This is going to work!” So I probably listened to that song about 500 times, because I had it on loop while I was writing that sequence.

Tell me about all the spring break research you did beforehand.
When I knew Franco wanted to play the part, I jumped on an airplane with my computer and went to Daytona Beach and checked into the Holiday Inn because I wanted to be around spring breakers while I was writing it … and that was the most disgusting place in the world. When I looked out the window, all I saw were, like, fat bikers and disgusting kids, but no spring breakers. So I went downstairs and there was a lady who was selling postcards — I guess she was a bodybuilder or something, with these massive muscles and bleached blonde hair — and I said, “Where are all the spring breakers?” She said they were in Panama City now, so I took my computer and got a car and drove to Panama City and checked into another hotel, which was basically Ground Zero, filled with just thousands of spring breakers. Everybody was having sex on the patio, puking, burning shit down, and blasting Taylor Swift nonstop. I mean, it was fucking unreal!

Would you wade through all the debauchery, or were you more of an observer?
I was fully dressed. They were like, “Who is that Jewish guy in corduroys?” But I couldn’t take it. I realized after the first day that I was never going to be able to write there; I mean, there were kids trying to kick my door down and jumping off of the terraces; it was nuts. So I drove away for twenty minutes and checked into a Marriott on a golf course, and I walk in, and it’s a sea of dwarves. I ask the concierge what’s going on, and he’s like, “Hulk Hogan is filming a reality show.” That seemed all right. I thought, I can finish this here.

Harmony Korine on Franco, Gomez … and Britney