I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I met Harmony Korine in April of 2004 at the Coral Room in New York City when he came to see my band Sun City Girls perform. After seeing his first two films ( Gummo & Julien Donkey-Boy), we’d wanted to work with Harmony on whatever project he had coming up. In 2003 we contributed a song for the opening scene of his documentary film Above the Below, about David Blaine’s 44-day ordeal suspended in a plexi-box over London (for UK television). The next year Harmony asked the band to provide some music for his latest film, which at that time was about a boy who gets struck by lightning and then becomes obsessed with raising the largest pig ever. It sounded perfect.
Sadly, that particular film was never made. But while shooting his new film, Mister Lonely, in 2006, Harmony again requested our musical services. He sent us copies of the script which we all read immediately. Sun City Girls wanted to be a part of this film in any way possible. Over the next several months we recorded a number of musical interludes to be used in scenes throughout the film. We were in constant contact with Harmony and his crew during the shooting and when he was doing post production in London, sending discs and emails back and forth, trying to match the perfect sounds for particular scenes. The wait is finally over, and Mister Lonely will be released in the US this spring.
Richard Bishop Your earlier films have of course set the stage for your reputation as a filmmaker. Gummo painted a pretty bleak picture, though to this day I always keep some raw bacon within reach of the bathtub. And Julien Donkey-Boy was equally disturbing with its depiction of schizophrenia and incest, plus a very tragic ending. Eight years have now passed. After watching Mister Lonely I felt that it was different from your earlier work. The storyline seemed much more developed and the main characters all displayed a wide range of emotions that I found easy to sympathize with. Do you think people will be surprised with the new film?
Harmony Korine I’m not sure. I’m very bad at judging reactions. I try to make things entertaining. This film does share some common themes with my other movies although it’s probably a bit more hopeful in the end. I think some people will like it for that reason and others will not.
RB The main character in Mister Lonely, a Michael Jackson impersonator, personifies the idea of isolation; he tries to find a way to fit in while struggling to ascertain his own identity. I’ve often thought of you as an outsider, or at least as being comfortable with working in a way that kept you on the outer edges of any so-called industry, much like myself. Now that Mister Lonely is finished, where do you see yourself in relation to other more mainstream filmmakers?
HK I try hard not to think about it. I used to do this when I was younger and I was always wrong, so I don’t question it anymore. I don’t have too many friends who make movies. It’s hard to say where I fit in. In truth I’ve rarely felt a kinship to other directors here in the States.
RB Would you prefer to remain a bit outside of the system?
HK Yes, I enjoy it. I like working in a different way, making it up as I go. I like making things when no one is paying attention. When I was a kid I dabbled in arson and petty crime. This gave me a taste of the life I have now.
RB I found it easy to identify with the Michael Jackson character, at least in the way that he goes on an adventurous journey with the hopes of finding out who he is and where he belongs. Was he based on any aspects of your own life?
HK Yes, I understand him well. When I lived in Paris a few years back I was down on my luck. I lived in a tiny apartment next door to a pimp who was obsessed with Primo Levi. I couldn’t speak the language and I had no friends. I was doing many narcotics and my teeth began to fall out. My best friend at the time was an old hag who had been sent to prison for shooting her husband. I saw a man dancing on the street in the rain and made a mental note. I began thinking about nuns jumping out of airplanes, nuns in the sky dancing in the clouds. I had visions of a giant pig riding up walls. I was on the edge and very close to disappearing from it all. Somehow when I came through it I finally felt ready to make this movie.
RB Michael meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and is invited to live in a commune with other celebrity impersonators. I understand that you spent time in a commune when you were a child. Were your parents hippies?
HK No, but they did firebomb several empty houses. My parents were freethinkers and nice people. The commune was a strange place. I sucked on the milk sacks of many breastfeeding ladies during my time there. I think after a while my parents became disenchanted with the whole thing. My father had been a fur trader and I guess he felt out of place after a while.
RB Did staying there help you formulate any ideas for this film?
HK I was very young at the time but I did try to add little bits of things I remembered. For a time everyone in the commune seemed happy and genuine; everyone believed in something. After a while though, I remember the fatigue and rot that set in. There were only so many loaves of bread to be cooked.
RB The impersonators in the film seemed to be comfortable living the life of someone else but it wasn’t always clear where the impersonation began and ended, allowing the viewer to perhaps catch a glimpse of the real person behind the mask. I thought this was effective. Did you plan it that way?
HK Yes. I was most interested in this aspect of the type of personality, the person underneath the impersonator. The obsessive nature of these people has always intrigued me. I remember feeling a fondness and empathy for such people at a very early age.
RB The character impersonating Buckwheat from The Little Rascals took it in another direction…. He seemed more at home being a chicken. That cracked me up.
HK Yes. In real life I had been friends with a boy named Jimmer Clower who loved chickens so much that he would cluck to me on the school bus. Later in life he got heavily involved in cocaine and the Black Panther movement. A few years back I did a search for him and found out he owned a gay bar in Tampa.
RB While shooting the commune scenes you all lived together in a Scottish castle. What was that like?
HK It was cold and wet but it was great to be there. I liked living in a place where watching Buckwheat ride a pig and Sammy Davis Jr. smoking weed was normal. It was great to be living with all these dead icons. It seemed right. It felt like for a moment I had created a great place to live, a real home for these outcasts and dreamers. I wish it really existed.
RB Did the actors stay in character the entire time?
HK The only one who never broke character was Denis Lavant. He was always Charlie Chaplin. He would even bathe with his shoes on.
RB Everyone seemed to be having fun on the set.
HK Yes they were. There were a few tears and a little blood but this is always necessary.
RB The impersonators decide to put on a big show to display their talents. They have great expectations, thinking that people from all over the countryside will come and see them perform. When nobody shows up, their dreams are shattered; they lose all hope. It was a very sad and emotional scene—one of the defining moments of the film.
HK Often the biggest dreamers get hurt the most. They were pure in their insanity and in their isolation. They were living the dream amongst themselves and didn’t realize it. It’s when they invited the public inside their world that everything went wrong. This is the case for the nuns as well, the parallel story in Mister Lonely.
RB This secondary story in the film concerns a group of nuns who are doing charity work in a Latin American jungle. The scenes are interspersed with the main narrative about the impersonators throughout the film. I did find some similarities in the two storylines, though I’m not sure I understood it fully. What were you aiming for here?
HK I felt that the two stories speak to the same idea. I didn’t want them to intersect directly. I knew that making the film in this way (with two running narratives) would require a leap of faith. The two stories serve as an allegory of sorts or even as a poetic punctuation. Both stories are about obsessive characters, dreamers and outcasts, tramps on the fringe, people wanting to be other than what they are and creating their own world outside the system. I wanted the two narratives to dance with each other and create their own meaning. Both stories rely on the fact that there is a certain beauty in the chaos of things. It is not good for me to explain too much about this though. But I’m aware that some people will dismiss it as random and nonsensical. This is okay as well.
RB You mentioned a leap of faith. The skydiving scenes when Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog) encourages the nuns to jump out of the plane in order to demonstrate their faith in God are amazing. Should we implement this practice here in the States with all of the so-called religious leaders, especially the television evangelists?
HK This would never work because they lack the courage of their convictions. They would never jump from a plane with nothing on their backs but faith. Most of these leaders have no guts anymore, although I knew a female Pentecostal evangelist who cut off both her thumbs once to prove a point.
RB How were those scenes shot? I’m guessing you didn’t jump out of the plane with a camera in your hand?
HK I did not jump out myself. The scenes were shot with real skydiving nuns in Spain. I had met these nuns a few years ago while living in Peru. One of the nuns was related to a woman I was friends with named Torta. She was a great cook and she used to walk an invisible dog. She introduced me to her sister whom I later used in the skydiving sequence. It was 120 degrees when we filmed this sequence. It all seems like a hallucination now.
RB Do these real-life skydiving nuns do this for sport?
HK This was no sport. It was a spiritual exercise.
RB I spoke with your editor (Paul Zucker) last year and heard that there was a close call shooting one of those jumping scenes.
HK The nun on the bicycle almost died.
RB Care to comment on that at all?
HK This is best kept a secret. It was a strange experience. I lost a bet after this stunt and had to eat a bowl of dog food.
RB Were any other humans hurt in the making of this film?
HK I think Sammy Davis Jr. might have sprained his wrist jerking one night.
RB I thought that Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, and Denis Lavant were very convincing in their roles as Michael, Marilyn, and Chaplin. Did you have any of these people in mind as you were writing the script?
HK The only person I had in mind was Denis Lavant. He has always reminded me of Buster Keaton and it was a dream to put him in the film. The other casting choices came after the film was written and I had time to better conceptualize the movie in my mind.
RB You cast Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, who worked together in the film Performance in 1970. In one scene they are sharing a bed as the Queen of England and the Pope. Were you making any political or religious statement here?
HK Not really, though I originally wrote a very graphic “bone session” where the Pope caps off the evening with a mock crucifixion and an enema. At the last moment we all nixed the idea.
RB That’s too bad. Your brother, Avi, cowrote the film with you. How does that process work? Did he share your vision, or did you bounce ideas off of each other until it felt right? Working alone seems to offer a bit more freedom but it’s also good to have a partner in crime.
HK Yeah that’s very true, I like both. It’s no secret that I was fucked for many years. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to write or make films again. My little brother had started writing scripts of his own and I really loved some of the stuff he was coming up with. I asked him if he would be interested in cowriting something with me. Neither of us had ever collaborated before but once we started it was pretty easy. We would just try and make each other laugh mostly, and rewrite each other and fuck around. Avi only eats Chicken McNuggets and a special kind of honey so I bribed him with these. He helped me with my discipline problems and we did it relatively quickly. Actually, we have already written another film. I’m curious about the same thing with you and your brother Alan. Did you ever get in fights? You two have been playing together for so long I imagine it’s very natural.
RB Actually we never fight. When Sun City Girls were active, we would have the occasional argument or disagreement but nothing beyond that. The same with our drummer Charlie. It’s amazing that the three of us got along so well for 27 years. Most bands don’t last 27 days.
HK Was there ever a leader role within Sun City Girls?
RB Alan was the one who always made sure that things got done. He made the phone calls, set up the shows, put out the records, and covered the business angle. He’s good at it, so Charlie and I never interfered. On the creative side, we each brought ideas to the group and then they were either fully developed by all of us, or just left to develop on their own. Now being a solo artist, I don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of which makes it a little more challenging but that keeps me focused.
At the end of the film the former gloved one finds himself alone again in Paris, where he started his journey, with a new appreciation for the importance of identity, at least in the sense of now knowing who he is not. But we’re left guessing whether or not he has found out who he really is, or where he really belongs.
HK Yes, this is the key question of the film, if there is one.
RB It’s like the spiritual seeker who goes off to an exotic land in search of enlightenment, then realizing upon his return that he didn’t have to go there in order to be enlightened. But the adventure helps provide the bridge to that understanding. I keep going back to northern India and what I always realize as soon as I return to the States is that I want to return to India immediately. Home doesn’t seem to be here (the US) anymore. Something doesn’t feel right. Am I insane?
HK No, you’re not insane. I know exactly what you mean. I spent six months living with a cult of fisherman in Peru, the Malingerers. They were searching for a magic fish that I felt for sure didn’t exist. In the end I became disenchanted with them and left, but when I returned home to Tennessee I wanted to get back to Peru. I felt like an orphan. Actually, what I find stranger than this is when I begin to miss a place that I’ve never been to. Lately, I’ve been feeling homesick for Alaska, yet I really have never been there. I’m sure you’ve been to way more places than me, but has this ever happened with you?
RB Yes, I have a strong attraction to Romania and Hungary. I’m not sure why because I’ve never been close to either country. But that region has always been calling out my name. Perhaps it’s my gypsy nature.
HK Where do you feel the most at home?
RB Calcutta and Varanasi in India, and some areas along the Mekong River in northern Thailand. I hope to relocate soon. These places feel comfortable to me, though India is a bit more hectic and would probably require a little more preparation before moving there. Was there a reason you chose to film in Europe and Panama as opposed to the United States?
HK My parents live in the jungle in Panama so it made sense to film that part of the movie there. The other locations just seemed to fit the story. I had been living outside of America for a while.
RB You sent us [Sun City Girls] a script so we could get an idea of what type of music would fit certain scenes. I noticed after seeing the film that it veered from the original script in many ways. Does this just happen naturally?
HK Yes and no. Sometimes it is a choice and other times it is done out of necessity and survival.
RB Do you encourage the actors to make suggestions on how a scene should be shot, or do you rule with an iron fist?
HK I don’t discuss the camera with the actors. I usually have a good idea about the way I want things to look.
RB I thought the music worked really well throughout the film.
HK I always use the music that I like. There were some old African field recordings from Mali, some John Jacob Niles and some strange blues numbers. The stuff that Jason Spaceman made was really heavenly and the music you guys made for the movie was amazing. My only regret was that I could not use more of it, that there wasn’t more space in the film. Sun City Girls has always inspired me greatly. I truly believe you are one of the great American bands of all time. You guys were inventing it all as you went. When I was younger I was always thinking of you guys and how you manage to do it, you were always defying genre and logic, you were a huge influence. In the end it was Sun City Girls and the Marx Brothers that pushed me over the edge, that and all the acid I did.
RB Glad to help. How important is improvisation in your approach to filmmaking?
HK It’s very important. I’m always trying to figure it out. I want the movie to be a living thing. I like the mistakes. I encourage the actors to go off and improvise and improve upon their characters. I like it when it’s a bit chaotic.
RB So you leave a lot of open space available for those “accidental” moments to occur?
HK Yes, I am most happy documenting the explosion.
RB It seems like improvising on a film might be a little different than when playing music. For example, you could be improvising with the camera while the actors are not and vice versa.
HK Yes. I like to play around with this. It also depends on the specific scene. In some ways the content of each scene dictates its own mode of documentation. I try to think about every scene as if it were its own entity or minifilm. Each scene tells its own story. I think that even the connecting moments or isolated images should have some kind of emotional or celestial contribution, everything should contribute to the greater good, a communal narrative. In the end I work mainly with gut and intuition. I don’t question things too much. If something feels right inside then I’ll go with it. I like the chase and making things happen on the spot. The whole thing is like a boxing match or a dance. After the scene has been photographed I will then try and decipher it all in the edit. What about you? I’ve always been curious about the Sun City Girls’ dynamic. How did it work?
RB We always left room for the unknown to creep in. We would normally have a few ideas before each show that we wanted to access at some point during the set, just not knowing exactly when. It was like having a skeleton to work with. It was up to us to create something in order to give it flesh. There were also many shows that were totally improvised, having nothing but a count-in to get us started. We took chances and enjoyed taking those risks. We were very confident working off of each other. We were never afraid of screwing up. Any mistake could lead to something great that we never would have thought of. We didn’t care whether it turned out good or not or what the audience would think about it. I think that’s the reason it worked. Are you still playing any music?
HK I haven’t made music in a while but I’d like to.
RB I know you’ve directed some music videos in the past (Sonic Youth, Will Oldham, Cat Power). Any plans to do more of that?
HK Music videos are not so exciting to me these days. I am too lazy, I think.
RB Your earlier films were made with a somewhat limited budget compared to Mister Lonely. Does having that extra backing automatically make you approach filmmaking differently?
HK Like Biggie said, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” It’s not much different actually. I just try to make the film as well as I can and not worry about the eyes watching.
RB Was there a lot of footage cut from the film and will we ever be able to see any of it?
HK Yes, there’s an entire other film lying on the floor. The Panama part was greatly reduced just out of necessity of length and pace. I will include many of those scenes on the DVD, I’m sure.
RB Will we have to wait another eight years for your next film?
HK No, I don’t think so.
Richard Bishop, who performs as a solo guitarist under the name Sir Richard Bishop, is a founding member of the ethno-improv band, Sun City Girls. He is also a cofounder of the record label Sublime Frequencies, a collective dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from around the world. An intrepid traveler, he lives in Oakland, California.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee