To most of the world, spring break seems to be a lot of fun, but people who live in Miami, Fort Lauderdale or South Padre Island understand the dark side. Damn college kids pass through for a week to drink liquor, trash the streets and wear T-shirts announcing, "I survived spring break," gleefully blind to the fact that they are the very thing that makes South Beach difficult to survive.
But Harmony Korine—writer/director of Kids, Gummo and Trash Humpers—sees an even darker side. There's a lot of evil out there in the streets, and evil can be one seductive mofo.
His new movie, Spring Breakers, starring James Franco and Selena Gomez, might look like a flashy, skin-oriented good time, but below the surface, it's much more sinister.
"For years, I have been collecting spring-break imagery. I wasn't sure what I was using it for," he says. "Just pictures of kids on the beach going crazy, tearing it up. And then I started to see there was this connection in the details, almost like a hidden language or something. It served as almost like a weird poetry in it, and so I kind of liked that. Then I had this image of girls in bikinis on the beach robbing tourists, and that's how it started."
Growing up, Korine always saw spring break as a time when young people could get away with anything and be someone they weren't in a glorious haze of sweet, sticky alcohol and anonymity. "I grew up in Tennessee around the kind of spring-break culture that was something everyone looked forward to. Going to Florida and destroying things, having sex and pretending like it never happened. It was just part of the tapestry at the time," he says. "I just kind of liked the idea of it as a backdrop or even in some ways more as metaphor."
It's a metaphor one could also apply to modern pop and hip-hop music, which influenced Korine while he was writing. These things may be shiny, vibrant and colorful on the outside, but dig a little deeper, and the content can be murderous and twisted. "[Spring Breakers] is not really a spring-break film per se," he says. "It uses it as a backdrop, but it's more about this kind of mythology and the sinister nature of things. Once these girls meet the Alien character and are introduced to this whole other crime world—the world of the trap and the gangs and the drugs and the money and the sex—it's about how all the things coalesce and become in some ways like a spiritual experience for them."
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Once the spring breakers—played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine—let themselves be seduced by Alien, James Franco's thuggish, drug-slinging lead, they lose themselves in the madness. It stops being about sunshine and beaches, and audiences are along for the ride.
"It's more about what happens when you're on the back roads, past the tourist spots," he says, "the dilapidated beach houses, the drug runners, the kind of beach noir, the kind of ambiance and undertow. That was more what I was interested in, that feeling."
Korine has always been attracted to this double nature of reality. His earlier films, while highly entertaining and honest, are at times uncomfortable to watch. For sure, Spring Breakers continues in that tradition.
"I just always thought that's the most interesting thing, the most intriguing characters and story line," he says, "to have a kind of moral ambiguity or even a kind of visual ambiguity, things that you're both attracted to and repulsed by. I never felt like life was one way, that people are either all bad or all good. There's also beauty in horror. It's more confusing, but it's also more interesting."