(NOTE: This conversation was first published in the fall of 2009 when Trash Humpers screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.)
Whatever one thinks of Harmony Korine’s work, with his latest cinematic assault—the verrrry literally named Trash Humpers—one thing becomes defiantly clear: Harmony Korine is a major American artist. Based on a brash sketch of an idea—as well as being completed from first shot to world premiere in only four months—Trash Humpers seems like it would be, at best, an interesting experiment. But along the way, something happened. Korine and his collaborators managed to tap into something horrific, hilarious, poignant, and startling. Trash Humpers is more than just Korine’s ode to a specific piece of pop cultural heritage: the “found VHS tape.” It is a bona fide American trashterpiece. In our high-speed world of hyper-connectivity, which simply won’t allow for urban legends to gestate over time through word-of-mouth and secret hand-offs, Trash Humpers has the authenticity of an accidentally discovered home movie that was never meant to be seen but, once witnessed, will never be forgotten. I sat down with Korine at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his film had recently played to an admiring audience. We discussed the gestation of Trash Humpers, the uniqueness of the production, and how everyone’s attention spans are shrinking and shrinking.
H2N: Where, oh where, in the hell does an idea like this come from?
HK: The idea came from when I would walk my dog through these back alleys by my house. It’s pretty close to where I grew up. Sometimes late at night, I guess there’s a law in Nashville that trash bins have to be laid out a certain way. But sometimes I would notice that they would have fallen over, or they would be positioned in certain ways that resembled humans to me. And there are these overhead lamps, these light posts, beaming Broadway style lights down onto these fallen trashcans. There was something very dramatic about it, very human. When I was a teenager growing up there, there was a group of elderly peeping toms that used to walk around in these back alleys, and sometimes I would see them peeping into windows. We had a pretty next-door neighbor so it was really common. And, I don’t know, I just put the two ideas together.
H2N: And how did that connect to your choice of aesthetic? Was that an idea you’d been stewing on for a while?
HK: As far as making a movie that looks like a…
H2N: A pseudo-artifact.
HK: Yeah, I thought it’d be interesting to make something that resembled a found VHS tape—its logic worked as if it were found footage, or the structure of it. I guess there’s something about VHS that I hadn’t seen. I have memories of getting my first VHS camera and reusing the same tapes over and over again. You’d see certain images randomly bubble up to the surface. I thought there was something interesting in that. And then someone gave me a VHS tape they had found in a thrift store and they told me to watch it. Like six months went by and I put it on as a joke for my wife. It was just like these teenagers beating each other up or just driving in a car or, like, playing the trumpet on a shag carpet. (H2N laughs) And my wife and my friend were like, “Take this off.” I said, “Why?” And they said, “’Cause someone’s gonna get murdered.” And then it just struck me. There was this kind of strange, inexplicable sense of horror in what I was watching. And even though nothing I had seen up to that point was that horrendous, I got this idea. And also, I just wanted to make a film on VHS.
H2N: How about the quick birth of the project? When we talked not too long ago you hadn’t even mentioned it as something that was even lightly stirring.
HK: When I had this idea, I thought, “Why wait?” I raised a small amount of money and we shot it very quickly. I think it was just four months ago that we even started this. Four months ago from today when we even started shooting. I wrote down a very loose script. It wasn’t even a script, it was more scenarios and ideas, and then we pretty much threw that away and it became its own thing.
H2N: How about the production itself? It feels very real, like you guys were trespassing and going where you weren’t supposed to be going. Was that, in fact, the case? Or did you always get permission?
HK: The movie is really what you see. I mean, obviously no one was really killing anyone, but it was very much like what you would imagine. Once everyone was in their character and their costume, and I had figured out the structure of it, the randomness, the anti-aesthetic, it was really the performers, the Trash Humpers, walking around at night, videotaping each other doing these things. We would wake up under a bridge and we would film it. We would walk into some abandoned house. We did that for a couple of weeks. It was pretty intense, ‘cause there were no breaks. It was just constant. It became what you would think it was. And also because these characters are truly psychotic, they are sociopaths, they actually turn being a sociopath into an art form.
H2N: You seemed to be behind the camera most of the time. Were you in character the entire time as well?
HK: Mostly. Yeah. Like you see in the film, the camera would be switched around back-and-forth, depending on who was doing whatever they were doing. It just would happen like it would happen. Someone would just all of a sudden pull their pants down and start fucking a tree. It was these guys’ documenting this. This video for them was an ode to vandalism. I wanted to make a movie where there was only bad, where there was no morality, but you had characters who wanted to make something beautiful out of horror. So once we figured that out, then it became really fun! (HK laughs)
H2N: In taking that approach to the production, did you encounter police or angry citizens?
HK: It was weird. That was probably the most surprising thing was that we were all waiting to get in trouble. At least in the beginning. After a while when nothing happened—nobody cared, nobody noticed—I was like, “It’s a strange world we live in.” What do you have to do nowadays to get arrested? (both laugh) Do you know what I mean? It was kind of shocking in that we would be out there fucking people’s trash, raping the hell out of their trash bins, and then, like, some guy would walk out on the front porch and ask if we wanted the lights turned on. It almost took on a science-fiction element in that people seemed very accepting. Maybe it’s because the characters were old. But they seemed very accepting of what was going on. (HK laughs)
H2N: How about something as specific as when they’re rocking on that front porch at night? Was that one of your guys’ houses?
HK: No. What would happen is we would just basically wander around. We would just wander from neighborhood to neighborhood, through alleyways and things. For instance, the scene on the porch would just be that one of us got tired and wanted to sit down on the porch and start petting a baby doll. (both laugh) That’s how the scenes came about. But it wasn’t so organic that it was a documentary, obviously.
H2N: How about with the editing and assembly? I know the whole thing came together quickly, but was that also organically tied into the production process itself?
HK: I was still trying to figure it out as we were making it. It’s almost not a movie. It is a film, but it works on its own logic. I wasn’t referencing other films. It was more like referencing a home movie. The only thing I needed to stay true to was to let things be ragged and jagged and dirty. And to not overthink stuff. So, in a home movie there would be no coverage, you would never cut to a close-up of someone. Once we figured out that every scene would just be one continuous shot with a random in and out point, it really freed us up. It became more about selecting the best bits. At the same time, we became even more military in the way that we did it by deciding that it would appear in the order it was shot.
H2N: That brings up the ending, which I also wanted to ask you about. It feels like a great way to go out. Was that something you had always conceived? Or did you you know when you shot it that it was going to be the ending?
HK: It was something that happened the last day. Originally, we had a different ending, and then I realized it wasn’t right and we changed it on the last day. When we got to that scene, I knew that the movie was over. There was really nothing else to say. And also, in honesty, there’s only so much of this type of material you can take! (both laugh) I’m the type of person who could watch that stuff for hours and hours on end and have no problem with it, but I know there is only so much abuse you can inflict.
H2N: Is there a lot that was left out?
HK: Yeah. It wasn’t hundreds of hours or anything like that. At the same time, really what’s in there is to me the best bits. There were things filmed that were more obscene, that I thought were just too much. It was almost like what we were talking about the other day, about making a movie where this film consists mostly of scenes that if you were making a regular horror film, these would be the scenes you would bypass to get to the slaughter scenes. There’s not really any slaughtering in this, it’s more the moments surrounding that.
H2N: Is Trash Humpers a direct reaction to Mister Lonely? I don’t mean in an aesthetic sense, like with this film’s extreme deformalism versus that film’s formalism. I’m talking about the deflating task of trying to get a bigger movie made in the first place. You’ve always seemed to work organically and create when inspired, but feature filmmaking is a whole different asshole of a beast.
HK: Those two things are really tied up. The idea of wanting to work spontaneously and, I guess, after the long, long haul of the last film and the years it took me to make that movie—the bureaucracy involved, raising the financing, just the entire process. Creatively it was great, but maybe it’s just my disposition, it’s just the way I am, but I lose interest really quickly in things and I’ve always felt that you can talk things away. And so a certain part of me would rather just go and make something. This film was made because I had an idea that came into my head, and it felt like the way that a painter wants to just sketch something out. It was like that. I just wanted to move as quickly as my thought process.
I also feel like you make movies for different reasons. Some movies are big and try to explore big ideas. A movie like this, I wanted something that was very simple and on the surface. There are things beneath the surface if you look at them, but I wanted to make a movie that was all about surfaces.
Everything has changed. Everything is changing. The way people watch films, and even what movies are anymore is being called into question. In truth, as a filmmaker, at least in America, I’ve never felt any true camaraderie with other directors. I felt like people that were maybe trying to do the same things that I’m doing have all gone, or have died, or given up or something like that.
H2N: That question of distributors—who’s left, what are the options out there—it seems like the stakes for this, at least fiscally, aren’t nearly as high as a Mister Lonely. But it’s still something you’ve made and care about. I love the idea of you releasing it exclusively on VHS in keeping with the film’s spirit, but the reality is that you have a 35mm print and this thing should be shown in a theater.
HK: It’s a good question, but I guess I still have a slightly old-school mentality. I know everyone talks about these new modes of distribution, and I think it’s just a matter of time before it becomes the norm, before these fucking movies come out on iTunes or whatever the hell everyone’s talking about. But I grew up watching movies in movie theaters and that’s what I love. I mean, that is cinema. Watching a movie on your computer is something else. You can still have a wonderful time with it but I’ve never had what I’d refer to as a ‘cinematic experience’ watching anything on my computer. Because it’s just something different. You can have a good time, you can see something great, but it’s not like watching a movie to me. It would make me happy if this movie, if all the films have some kind of theatrical distribution. And then they go and they find their place in the world after that. But at the same time, who knows anymore? I don’t know if people want to see movies in theaters like they used to.
H2N: I’ve been talking about this a lot with friends, and the best argument I’ve heard is the hyper-interactivity of computers and video games has screwed things up for the younger generation. Movies are too ‘passive’ somehow. Not to sound like an old crank, but it feels like the idea of the 20ish-year-old movie nerd is really shrinking.
HK: I think we’re probably on the tail end of that. And at the same time, it’s almost like one of those arguments where you just get run over. It’s inevitable. It’s like the talkies. Things are changing, it’s already changed, it already is going to be what it’s going to be. Maybe even the concept of what a feature film is is gonna be different. It’s gonna be more like something that’s just a couple minutes long. Maybe 90-minute or two hour features are going to be too long for people now. I see people getting bored at movies after like ten minutes! (HK laughs) I’ve never heard anyone ask to make the movie longer. No one ever wants anything longer.
— Michael Tully