As a curator of chaos — and a catalyst — Harmony Korine has few equals. Throughout the 1990s, in his chemically addled youth, the Nashville-raised artist and filmmaker demonstrated an Andy Kaufman-like gift for industrial-strength media irritation: as the teenage author of the scandalous NC-17 drama Kids, as a fixture in New York's tabloid media, as an art-terrorist talk-show guest who reduced his patronizing hosts (most notoriously David Letterman) to puzzled desperation.
Critics responded to these taunts like old-timers shaking their fists at the neighbor kid in the orchard. But admirers seized upon Korine's first features — the Nashville-shot Gummo and its even more elliptical Dogme 95 follow-up julien donkey-boy — as the work of a major talent whose prankish daring and freaks-like-us aesthetic brokered a union between skate-punk anti-culture and European art cinema. Anticipating YouTube by a decade, Korine delivered the equivalent of a warped variety show: clip reels of buzzing, barely connected mania shot through with grubby black humor, sinister cinema verite and an incontestable eye for the allure of the demimonde. Werner Herzog, Bernardo Bertolucci and Lars von Trier tipped their caps; Gus Van Sant gave him a bit part in Good Will Hunting and a "jail consultant" credit.
Now straight, happily married, and a new father in a comfy central Nashville neighborhood, Korine surprised haters in 2007 with Mister Lonely, a lyrical, bittersweet fable about celebrity, the wearing of masks and the fragile bonds of community that was the closest thing he'd made to a recognizable narrative feature. Mainstream reviewers hailed a new, mature Korine. Gummo fans, meanwhile, wondered when the dude was going to stir shit up again.
They needn't have worried. Clean living has freed up Korine to make what may be the grungiest, most polarizing affront to decency of his career. It's called Trash Humpers, and it serves up just what the title says: vignettes of masked marauders in hideous old-age get-ups — played by unrecognizable denizens of the Nashville club scene, as well as the director and his wife Rachel — cutting a swath of absurdist depravity across Music City, while grinding their crotches on anything that doesn't move.
To complete the assault, it revels militantly in the cruddy lo-fi look of an all-but-extinct format, commercial-grade VHS. Korine says he intended it as a "found film" that would look like a buried artifact — a cross between a grimy grindhouse item like Cannibal Holocaust and Godard's 1967 "film found on the scrap-heap" Weekend. So how did such a "film" not only make its premiere last fall at the prestigious Toronto film festival — the traditional venue for the year's Oscar bait — but play weeks later at the even more exclusive New York Film Festival, followed by a half-dozen others and a 30-plus city release?
To Korine's detractors, it's the latest unveiling of the Emperor's New Avant-Garde Feature — described by the New York Times as something "fermented in a Dumpster, then gnawed by angry raccoons." To his admirers, it's confirmation of an original and gifted taboo-smasher along the lines of the young John Waters — "an almost blissfully weird utopia of marginalized naughtiness," the Los Angeles Times called it. Both camps raise the possibility the movie is some kind of elaborate private joke on film tastemakers.
"It would be tempting to dismiss Trash Humpers — indeed, Korine's whole career — as a prolonged stunt aimed at sparking derision, anger, charges of pseudo-intellectual, indie-hipster fraudulence, and loads of free publicity," wrote one of Korine's longest and sharpest champions, Matt Zoller Seitz, on the blog The House Next Door. "And yet to do so would not only play into the director's hands but also ignore evidence that beneath all the punkish formal affectations, Korine is a committed (though calculatedly off-putting) postmodern artist, a starry-eyed poet-prankster whose every image prompts the question, 'Is he kidding?' "
If people genuinely see something in Korine's work, does it matter whether he's kidding or not? Either way, his cast — which runs from veteran Music Row songwriter Chris Gantry ("Dreams of the Everyday Housewife") to local stand-up comic Chris Crofton — suggests the movie upholds a fine Nashville tradition of bohemian craziness. This is, after all, the city of Cowboy Jack Clement's zany home movies, of the hit songwriter who (as legend has it) disrupted the unveiling of Spence Manor's famous guitar-shaped pool many years ago by stepping out of a limo in a Gill-Man mask and swimming its length before the dumbfounded crowd.
The movie begins its Nashville run Friday, May 28, at The Belcourt, where Korine will appear opening night. The following, as pieced together from interviews with its makers and cast, is a partial account of Trash Humpers' genesis and making, told in the words of the people who lived it. Granted, Korine has mastered the art of the interview as gonzo performance piece — as when he managed to sneak a mention of the Nashville Flood into a national profile two weeks ago, telling the L.A. Weekly's Karina Longworth he was watching elephants from the Nashville Zoo float past his front porch. (They took the long way around if they did.) But in the immortal words of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. And so ... we present the Legend of Trash Humpers.
Interviews by Adam Gold, D. Patrick Rodgers, Jack Silverman and Jim Ridley.
Q. How did the project start?
DAVID CLOUD (actor): The movie was described to me as the story of people who hump trash.
“I don’t even really think that this is a film. It’s something else. It’s more like an artifact or something. It was never really conceived of in a linear way, or in conventional film terms. I just wanted to make something that was its own document.”
HARMONY KORINE (actor, director, Trash Humper in Charge): In the very beginning I wanted to make a film where the distribution would be really random. It would be more like, instead of a whole film, I had planned on just making certain segments and putting them on tape, and then delivering them to say, the front steps of a courthouse, or like a gay bar, or like CNN, a racetrack, bury it in a ditch somewhere, or send it to the FBI. I was just going to kind of see what happened. In the end I wasn't disciplined enough or didn't have the patience to try that. The original idea for distribution was just, you know, project it into a toilet bowl.
You have to understand, I didn't want to make a movie. I don't even really think that this is a film. It's something else. It's more like an artifact or something. It was never really conceived of in a linear way, or in conventional film terms. I just wanted to make something that was its own document.
And so what happened was, I used to dress up my assistant, Scott. Late at night, I'd put this mask on him, where he would almost resemble a burn victim, his face would look like a melted marshmallow, and we'd walk around late at night and I would photograph him fornicating with trash cans or telephone poles, defecating on people's yards, committing very mild acts of vandalism. And I would just document from afar using really the worst technology, the worst cameras. And I would get these pictures developed and I thought there was something there.
So from those images I made a very loose story. I started to think, what's the creepiest thing in the world? To me, the creepiest thing in the world is old people who move really well. I don't know what it is. I've been haunted by that nightmare for most of my life. Do you know what I mean? Like someone who's very old but can play basketball really well. Sometimes when I watch marathoners, or people running on my street, their face, they look like 80 or 90 years old, but their bodies are really kind of youthful. I had a science teacher once, right? He was a science teacher and a Spanish teacher. He was a bodybuilder, and he broke his arm, and he was in a cast for six months. He had a compound fracture. And when they took him out of the cast — I'll never forget — his entire body was like a steroid head's, but his one arm was like a twig. And the way that that looked, to have 95 percent of your body completely muscled out but one arm is like a bird's toe or something, those types of things freak me out.
Q. Where did the idea of "trash humpers" come from?
HARMONY KORINE: I grew up right down the street. When I was young, there used to be these people who, for like $19 or something, they would store your grandparents. For $19 a month you could let your grandparents stay there. Some of those old grandparents would walk around the back alleyways and peep into windows. And I had a next-door neighbor who was very cute, and I would see these two old dudes [watching her] sometimes. This was in the '80s.
I think they lived there. I would always hear music coming from the basement. They would always wear white nursing shoes and black turtleneck sweaters. So I used those photographs and those memories, I used them in a way, as a script, as a template.
DAVID CLOUD: Harmony and his friends saw some people behind my house humping my trash can. See, if there were cans in there they could steal, they'd cash them in. That's where he got the idea for Trash Humpers. And then he came to the house, and they were all wearing ghoul masks — Halloween masks, the kind you slip on over your head. But back behind Springwater, he saw somebody literally sexually assaulting a piece of trash.
RACHEL KORINE (actor, Harmony's wife): I think originally, when Harmony was coming up with the idea, at first he had his assistant dressing up. And it was like, "Well, should it just be this lone guy?" Maybe to make it into a film, he should have a brother, or someone. So we were trying to come up with, "What's the most disturbing scenario? Is it two old men? Would a woman involved be more scary?" So we had the idea of two men and a woman.
Q. What was the script like?
“I was like, ‘As long as I don’t have to touch Brian Kotzur’s dick or show my dick.’ And [Harmony] had to think about it! And he finally said, ‘No, you don’t have to.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ and we shook hands.”
TRAVIS NICHOLSON (actor): He gives me this book that's just a series of images, and it gets sort of more and more grotesque. It's just his assistant Scott in an old-man mask squatting over, like, air-conditioning ducts and holding baby dolls in alleyways.
CHRIS CROFTON (actor): When he showed me a script, it was only a bunch of photographs. It was photographs of people in masks shitting on air-conditioning units and stuff. And I seriously thought that there might be a hidden camera somewhere — like he was setting me up, like Fight Harm [the notorious project in which Korine egged passers-by into beating him up]. I thought maybe he's having these hapless loser actors come in and talk to him about a fictitious movie called Trash Humpers and see what their reaction would be.
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: Here and there's a little bit of dialogue [explaining] what trash humpers do — they drink wine, they break things, they go ... bowling. And it gets progressively worse.
CHRIS CROFTON: Everything was improv. I had been told to memorize a recipe to bring to the set. I had memorized chicken piccata. It turned out that I was supposed to be pitching a recipe to these masked murderer characters that they were going to use to cook a baby.
CHRIS GANTRY (actor): He showed me some still shots and gave me a brief thumbnail sketch about the story. And I had no idea what I was going to do and what I was going to be. And my girlfriend said she thought I should be a French maid. And I said, "Awesome!" So I went to the costume shop down there on Church Street and got me a French maid's outfit, and I had another friend of mine put makeup on and we were ready to rock. And I also had written [a] poem [for the movie].
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: I mean, he had very specific things he wanted to do, but there was never dialogue written, really. There were some pieces of dialogue — like, there's a play he'd written when he was 19 he took some dialogue from. It was one of the first things he wrote when he went to NYU, about conjoined twins joined at the head.
“We’d be out in the alleys doing a scene on people’s trash cans. Next thing you know, a light would pop on and we’d be like, ‘Oh, shit.’ And a little old lady would say, ‘Do y’all want the light on?’ ”
Q. How did you get involved?
RACHEL KORINE: I guess that's obvious (laughs).
BRIAN KOTZUR (actor): I originally was a marshmallow bunny humper. Harmony convinced me that it would be an easy conversion.
CHRIS GANTRY: I got involved with the movie by walking by my dog. I met Harmony on the street a little over a year ago. We live two blocks away from each other on Belmont Boulevard. We were walking our dogs. I thought he was some punk filmmaker who was just starting out. Me, not knowing a whole lot about films, I started giving him all kinds of movie advice about things to shoot and ideas. And he was very receptive. And then when we parted I said, "Go home and Google me, I'll go home and Google you and then we'll talk." And we did, and that's how we met, and we have been friends ever since.
DAVID CLOUD: I didn't make the credits [of Gummo], but you can still see me in flickers. Jean-Yves [Escoffier, Gummo's cinematographer] filmed seven hours of me going down a hall with a cast on my foot in a wheelchair, and he had railroad tracks to see my face as I was rolling my wheelchair up Cohn High School hallway. But none of that made it. They also made me eat 11 bowls of Jell-O and 11 cartons of milk trying to get the scene right while I was trying to talk to a blackface ventriloquist. They didn't use that either.
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: I was like, "As long as I don't have to touch Brian Kotzur's dick or show my dick." And [Harmony] had to think about it! And he finally said, "No, you don't have to." And I said, "OK, I'll do it," and we shook hands. But even when I shook his hand, I felt a little bit dizzy — like, what have I gotten myself into [laughs].
Q.How long did it take to make?
HARMONY KORINE: It was a two-week shoot. And we mainly worked at night and we could kind of sleep outside at night or go all through the night. And during the day I had an editor here, an editor who's like 95 percent blind actually, and we just edited it on stacks of VCRs in the sweltering heat.
Q. Was it actually edited on VCRs?
HARMONY KORINE: We edited on VCRs, and mostly with pencils. We would take the VCR (tapes) apart and glitch them with pencils. That's how you get those glitching effects.
Q. Where and how were your scenes shot?
CHRIS GANTRY: My scenes were shot out on the Old White Bridge out there on West End. Because of the way I was dressed, they asked my to wait by the car until they shot a scene. And it was out by a walking trail, and people were pulling up to go walking, and they saw me standing out in the parking lot in a French maid's outfit, all made up, and of course they called the police. And even before I made it down under the bridge, I was accosted by police. They wanted to know what I was doing there.
RACHEL KORINE: They were shot in the alleyways, just in the neighborhood at night. Everybody would meet up at a certain hour, pile into a van and drive around all night. If something looked very humpable, we would get out and film.
DAVID CLOUD: They let me improvise. I had some beer, and I drunk 45 Diet Pepsis to recover and be really on top of things. But I was a little bit nervous. Harmony came in and saw me in my room, and started taking these like carpenter levels and stuff, and these aperture viewing devices, and analyzing my room and stuff. So he told me to pull my shades and start sitting up. He gave me a trumpet and told me to sit up and say whatever I wanted to, over and over again. I had learned to say everything you possibly could that's not obscene about [CENSORED]. So that's what I did between my trumpet solos. Then he came in [my upstairs room] — the cultural capital of the world, the Pink Room — and saw me playing my three-string guitar real badly, and he filmed that. As far as I know, that's my whole scene.
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: We came across this bar out in the middle of nowhere, and there's all these day-drinkers in there. It was like noon, and we met this one guy who looked like a clichéd hobo from a '30s movie. He had no teeth left, and one of those jaws that sticks out. He was drunk out of his mind, and he came up and started hanging around with us; he just thought we were old people, he had no idea that we weren't old men. He talked to me like I was an old guy, and I was just giving him back one- or two-word answers for his stories, and he's patting me on the back and we're drinking beers together and through my prosthetics. And he got up and started dancing with Harmony's wife [Rachel] in her costume, really falling for her and getting infatuated with this grotesque old woman. And he kept saying he was going to get in trouble with his wife. Harmony wanted to push that situation as far as it would go. [So] they sat there and stared into each other's eyes.
“I realized I was in a Harmony Korine film. For me, a very proud moment.”
Q. What is Harmony Korine like as a director?
CHRIS CROFTON: It went like this: Harmony said, "Say the recipe." He didn't like how that went. He thought that was boring. So he said, "All right, sing the recipe, except don't use words, just use noises." So I did that for quite a while, for a really long time. And it was a good thing I'd done this kind of shit before, because otherwise I might have been really embarrassed. And then he said, "All right, you're a Borscht Belt comedian, but all your material is homoerotic. It doesn't have to be funny." And I said, "Well, it's not going to be funny, because you told me to do it just now. It's not like I can reach into my back pocket for a note card with all my Borscht Belt homoerotic jokes."
Then he went back to having me sing noises again. And he said, "I think we've got something." And I'd had no idea what he'd got until Michael Carter, who had seen it during the editing process, let me know what was kept. It was the stand-up part, which is the last thing I thought he would have kept.
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: OK, so Harmony hired these three prostitutes to come into a hotel room with us. They were off Craigslist — I don't know what I'm supposed to say or not say. He wanted three obese black prostitutes, and we ended up calling them Small, Medium and Large. There wasn't any, "Here's the situation, here's the scene." It was like, we're in a hotel room, and he just says, "All right, go." And these women just come into the room. I'm looking through a mask, these prosthetics, with a cigar in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other hand, and three prostitutes coming into the room, not knowing what's going to happen. So I start crafting a scene, directing them toward Brian Kotzur, who's going to hate me for this. ...
Harmony wants to see what will happen, and he wants to influence whatever happens to the fullest potential that it has. So that means if he says, "Show your ass," and you agree to it, he's going to take that situation as far as he can. He was really collaborative: he was very clear in the beginning that, hey, this is going to be a process of us all working together and contributing, and I want to hear your ideas and want you to influence these situations.
CHRIS GANTRY: Harmony has specific ideas about what he's looking for. But he gives you total freedom, in this particular instance, to invent your own character and think about what it is that you want to do. He said, "This will be the last time, more than likely, you'll ever be able to do this again in a movie. You choose the character and you choose what it is that you feel like you want to say. And we'll incorporate it into the movie."
DAVID CLOUD: He's so nice, and so kind — you just couldn't ask for a nicer guy to work with. No anxiety builds up, no emotional fatigue sets in with Harmony. He keeps things light. He was the president of Hillsboro High School, that's why!
Q. Were you hassled at all while filming the movie?
HARMONY KORINE: That was one of the things that was so surprising. Everyone in Nashville was so accommodating.
RACHEL KORINE: We were having our permits ready and preparing to get hassled, for police to come up and say, "What are you doing?" We'd be out in the alleys doing a scene on people's trash cans. Next thing you know, a light would pop on and we'd be like, "Oh, shit." And a little old lady would say, "Do y'all want the light on?"
HARMONY KORINE: (imitating an old woman): "Do you need a flashlight?"
RACHEL KORINE: They would shine their light for us. One guy even put his headlights on for us.
HARMONY KORINE: Meanwhile, we're gang-banging their trash bin. I think [Brian] Kotzur actually sprained his cock (laughs). Ask him! He got his dick bent or something. I had never heard of that. Actually I once met a Russian guy who said he broke his cock. But, uh, Kotzur actually sprained it.
RACHEL KORINE: I think that's slander.
BRIAN KOTZUR: It was a bruise.
Q. Have you seen the movie yet, and what did you think of it?
DAVID CLOUD: I saw the trailer. One thing they do is they take baby dolls and put nooses around them and drag them through the yard in circles behind bicycles with masks on (pause). I think it's going to be a real winner!
CHRIS GANTRY: It's entrancing. It pulls you in. You want to turn away from it and walk away, but you want to look at it at the same time. You don't want to think of these people having anything to do with your life, but at the same time it's strange enough that you can't take your eyes off it. ...
It's a despicable world that the movie shows. They're not nice people, and you better be prepared to look at it aesthetically instead of comparing it to something you might see in mainstream movies. Some people get up and leave, from what I understand. They either can handle it or they can't. And that's the way Harmony directs. He directs totally from this visceral sense, and he doesn't make any compromises at all.
TRAVIS NICHOLSON: There's an underbelly to Nashville that isn't really explored very much in movies. There's this crazy underground life in Nashville that's so layered and colorful that isn't explored very often by filmmakers. So I think it's really cool and important that there's people from here that are returning to Nashville to make films, because they know about all that stuff. It's really beautiful, and no one gets to see it.
BRIAN KOTZUR: I realized I was in a Harmony Korine film. For me, a very proud moment.
Q. What is the meaning of the movie?
HARMONY KORINE: That's something I don't really talk about so much, because I feel like it's in the movie. People ask that all the time.
CHRIS GANTRY: [As I described in the poem I wrote for the movie], I had gotten a vision of what trash humpers are, and I said, well, they weren't born that way. We spawned these idiots from the mess that we've made of our planet. I know that's a card that a lot of people play, but if you look at it carefully, anything that goes on, we've done it. We're like a frickin' virus, man. We eat everything, we contaminate everything we touch, we overpopulate and then we go our merry way (laughs). It's awful, man. You look at the world right now and it's almost biblical what's going on.
Harmony is like a gigantic elf. He is elfin in his appearance and his mischievous merriment. But inside that little head of his is a universe of wild, wild, wild stuff. He was created for the sole purpose of releasing that stuff and putting it into a film art form that is, maybe, not considered by a lot of people to be like My Friend Flicka or Lassie. But at the same time he shows very dark sides and very strange sides of the human condition. And it's relevant, man. For that, I applaud him. He does not compromise his head at all.
Q. Was anyone actually killed in the making of the movie?
HARMONY KORINE: It's best not to say.