Harmony Korine’s films about misfits, lowlives and party animals might make him seem a bit hard-edged. But in person, the 46-year-old director is all smiles, a receptive listener game to fall down any conversational tangent that arises. Taco Bell, slime, houseboats, electronic poker, that easy ocean breeze: They all define his day-to-day routine in Miami, where Korine maintains a freewheeling lifestyle removed from politics, popular media and general structure.
In between cheap burritos and surfing excursions, he found time to make “The Beach Bum,” arguably his most commercial project yet. Granted, that’s not saying much for the guy who wrote the cult smash “Kids” and directed oddities like “Gummo,” “Mister Lonely,” “Trash Humpers” and “Spring Breakers.”
“The Beach Bum” is a raucous whirlwind that revives Matthew McConaughey’s “Dazed and Confused” stoner persona. He plays Moondog, a mischief-making poet who cruises around on a speedboat and lives in a permanent cloud of weed smoke. When tragedy strikes, Moondog has to publish his next book to earn cash, inciting a series of mishaps that involve his equally stoned BFF (Snoop Dogg), his adoring and absurdly wealthy wife (Isla Fisher), a rehab escapee (Zaf Efron), his Southern-fried agent (Jonah Hill), an incompetent tour guide (Martin Lawrence) and Florida fixture Jimmy Buffett. Even though the movie boasts Korine’s signature observational debauchery, it’s unlike anything he’s done before. It is, in a word, sweet.
Ahead of the film’s release on March 29, I sat down with Korine in New York to chat about “The Beach Bum,” his fascinating career and the semi-off-the-grid life he leads.
Dare I say, after seeing this movie, that you seem happier than you have in a long time.
Yeah. Yeah! It’s possible. It’s very possible. In some ways, the movies reflect where you are, I guess. But with this film, I really wanted to make a portrait of a cosmic America that maybe exists or maybe doesn’t exist. Mostly something joyful and funny. I remember when I was a kid watching all the Cheech and Chong movies. That haze of weed smoke used to crack me up. I was like, “Wow, I should go there. We should make something that’s just hilarious.”
This must be your first protagonist who is truly contented, even enlightened, if you will. Do you see it that way?
Definitely. Moondog is trying to make it happen. He’s a poet of life. He’s an essentialist. If one joint feels good, he’s going to smoke all day. He’s gonna get blazed. He’s definitely about living in the moment. It’s an interesting character for the times because his idea of enlightenment is really checking out. It’s a disconnect. He goes to the [Florida] Keys, lives on a houseboat. It’s about the joy in the moment, maybe causing trouble and cracking up.
Do you see yourself in Moondog? Given the times, do you find yourself checking out because of the horrors going on?
There’s parts of Moondog, obviously. Maybe it’s a slight projection. But his life is so different. He’s really, really out there. But I always kind of admire this idea of a celebration of a lack of ambition. Cutting off is very seductive.
For the longest time, we could count on your movies to have a certain grainy, homemade quality. With “Spring Breakers” and especially “The Beach Bum,” you’ve shifted into a more polished aesthetic. This is a beautiful-looking movie, heavy on sunlight and elegant camerawork. How do you account for that evolution?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s really just the way you see the world at the time that you’re looking at it. I live in Florida, so there’s a lot of color and palm trees and pink skies and ocean. It’s like the actual world but pushed into something hyper-poetic or hyper-beautiful, maybe. It’s just a feeling. I don’t really question it too much. There’s just certain things I’d like to see.
You’ve said you’re hanging out with Florida lowlives these days. How do you find that your part of the world is responding to what’s going on in the country at large?
If you’re hanging in the Keys, I almost never really hear people talking about anything too political. I feel like the whole thing has become so toxic, to a certain degree, that most of the people I see down there don’t really participate. They choose to watch the sunset and smoke a joint.
Do you need that in your own life too, to distance yourself from politics?
Personally, yeah. I don’t really put too much merit in that. I prefer to just kind of do my own thing.
Merit in what?
In what’s going on. I’d rather just go fishing, drink a lot of Mountain Dew, eat some Taco Bell, go surfing, play electronic poker, drink a Cuban coffee, smoke come cigars. You know what I’m saying?
You’d rather live. What is your news diet like, if you have one at all?
I don’t really… I hear people talk about things. I hang out at a lot of Cuban spots by where I live, and sometimes I see people yelling at each other. I get little fragments here and there, but I’m honestly just not interested. It’s the anti-soul. Do you see what I’m saying? There’s no soul to it. I just don’t want to spend my time here going back and forth. Everything is so tribal and everyone hates everyone. I’m not really interested. And I don’t really care about participation.
And once you get sucked into it, you can’t divorce yourself from it.
Completely. And in truth, to me, the way that people now talk about it, it’s more along the lines of entertainment. It’s almost like this movie that subsumes everything, but there’s no joy in it.
You used to say that you didn’t want to work with movie stars. Now that’s exactly what you’re doing. But you tend, almost exclusively, to cast movie stars whose personas you can play around with. Are you only interested in working with ones whose branding and celebrity you can subvert or comment on?
That part’s nice because there can be a double meaning to things. Also, there’s something fun about being able to tweak mythology and this idea of celebrity and the pop mythology that circles a lot of these guys.
I don’t even remember saying that, but if I did say that, it was probably something I said when I was a kid. The idea of celebrity then is probably different than it is now, to some degree. I guess that’s interesting to me, but in the end, you cast who makes the most sense, who’s going to do it justice. I don’t really put restrictions on it. I’m open to whoever.
Is it possible that you started making movies that involve more celebrities, so to speak, because you yourself have become something of one and are more comfortable with the idea?
I never really thought about it like anything like that. Honestly, I don’t really know. You know, you write a movie, and as an example, you write a character for the world’s worst dolphin tour guide down in the Keys who thinks that sharks are dolphins. And then you’re like, “Who would be the greatest person to play that? Man, if Martin Lawrence would play this character, it would be the best.” It’s kind of like you just dream it all up. You have to dream it into existence.
Since you treat your scripts rather loosely, what kind of improviser is Snoop Dogg?
He’s good. He’s always blazed, but at the same time, he’s also kind of normal and equal. He’s very, like, in the zone. But he was good. He could improvise, he could move. He’s kind of amazing to watch because he just has that thing where it’s very hard to not watch it.
How much does the blissed-out ambiance of the film reflect the set?
With this film, because everyone was high — I mean, the characters in the film were zuted — to a certain extent you had to create an environment that allowed that even though they weren’t necessarily like that during shooting.
Just Snoop Dogg.
Yeah, and others also. People were partying and stuff. But you want to create an atmosphere. Especially for Moondog, Matthew had to spend six weeks in a character that always, to some degree, had some buzz on. You had to try to create an environment where that was in the air.
Since you filmed the same scenes in multiple locations and decided what to use in the editing room, you must have a ton of excess footage. What’s the thing you were most disappointed to leave behind?
Oh man, there were some funny scenes of [McConaughey] eating lobster on a hoverboard. He had a lobster bib on, and he was going around in circles around his McLaren after he buys a sheet of acid. That was a hard one to leave.
Your films often have evocative music-related moments, and one of the best scenes in “The Beach Bum” is Matthew and Isla singing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” on a pier. How did you arrive at that song?
You know, it’s interesting. That was actually Matthew, because we were doing the sequence and he had the radio around his neck. I think we were going to do it without a song and put the song in afterward. Then he was like, “I think I found something nice.” He put it on and they both just started moving and signing the words, and the words in a lot of ways narrated their relationship. That was something that Mathew brought, and we just went with that. He started playing it during the rehearsals. It felt so perfect in that moment. It goes to the heart of everything, and the song itself is so soulful. I was just going to try lots of different things later in post-production.
I know people told you this when “Spring Breakers” was coming out, but do you see “The Beach Bum” as your most commercial movie yet?
I don’t know! I hope so. It would be great if a lot of people saw and experienced it. I think that would be exciting. But I just make them. I try my best. It’s like your kid. You kiss them on the head, they love you and you put them out into the world and hope that people enjoy it.
So much of what you do, and so much of the way you talk about what you do, is about commenting on popular imagery. But you, too, have become a version of popular imagery. People know the Harmony Korine aesthetic, sensibility and M.O., which places you within the mainstream pop culture that you’ve long been reflecting on. Are you comfortable with that?
It’s strange, but I really give it zero thought. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m reminded of things like that when people come up to me and say that, but for the most part I pretty much just stick to myself. I’ll hang out on a houseboat, I’ll throw some lettuce at a manatee. And I have kids down there, so I watch a lot of cartoons and drink a couple quarts of Mountain Dew.
You’re really into the Mountain Dew.
Yeah, because it’s like you drink some Mountain Dew, eat a couple of Crunchwrap Supremes, watch some cartoons and play some computer poker, and you really can understand what bliss is.
But can you sub the Mountain Dew for, like, Pepsi?
I mean, I guess you could. I just never went there.
Dude, it’s so good. I mean, I won’t drink it nonstop. I still try to drink at least one cup of water a week.
Oh, a week. OK. That’s ambitious.
I just don’t like the way water tastes. And then I’ll have some coffee just to break it up.
As someone who grew up worshiping cinema, have you introduced your kids to certain movies? Do you sit them down and say, “We’re going to watch ‘E.T.’ now?”
Yeah, I have watched some of those movies. It’s interesting because I feel like the way a lot of young kids now react to film is the way I felt when my mom would try to make me read books.
Because they’re long?
Yeah. What I’ve noticed is they don’t like to commit to those things, so I see them prefer to watch YouTubers. That way, you can control the moment. It’s this idea that you’d have to commit to something that’s two hours long. It’s interesting to see that. When I was a kid watching films, I used to love committing. “Oh, for the next two hours, I’m in this thing.” Now I’m starting to notice the opposite is happening.
What have you kids seen?
I showed them “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” obviously, “Goonies,” “BMX Bandits,” “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
So you don’t feel like you’re missing something by not having your kids grow up with cinema as a touchstone?
No, because I just don’t know anymore. In the end, I just don’t know how important it all is in the grand scheme of things. The times are different now. It’s hard to say this is important, this isn’t important, this is real, this isn’t real. I don’t really know if any of it’s real.
Who are some other movie stars that you’re intersted in collaborating with?
Don Rickles is dead, right?
Let’s see. I love Harrison Ford. Did you ever see that movie “Mosquito Coast”? He was so good in “Mosquito Coast.” I would like to do something with Harrison Ford in that vein.
He’s a good one because he has a reputation that proceeds him and he gets typecast. He hasn’t done anything really interesting in a long time.
Yeah, he’d be great. I love Clint Eastwood, but I think he’s doing his own thing.
Yeah, I’m not sure he’s got a Harmony Korine sensibility.
[Laughs] Did you ever see “Every Which Way but Loose”? When I was thinking of movies that related to “Beach Bum,” that was a movie I kept thinking about. And “Every Which Way You Can.” Man, they were so great. He was starring in these films with this orangutan, drinking brews.
Between your movie work and art work, have you hit a point where you’re financially secure and able to not worry about your next project?
Well, you know, let’s just say, like, everything’s fine. I can just head down to the Keys and get as much Taco Bell.
That’s kind of enviable. Most people can’t bring themselves to live the Moondog lifestyle.
It’s doable, bro.
Is there any Jimmy Buffett material left on the cutting-room floor?
Yeah, actually, I was going to open the movie with him singing. We filmed this sequence where he sings a song in the very beginning, but it was hard. It was a pacing thing. He’s up there and Moondog is dancing onstage to “Volcano.” It may be in the extras. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as extras anymore. Do people buy DVDs even? I don’t think my kids have ever touched one. That’s why they make slime.
The kids are obsessed with slime. If you don’t have kids, you might not know. There’s this whole thing with slime. They make slime.
Your kids do?
All kids do. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening for years. They make it with chemicals. They sell it. It’s different colors and textures. I think it’s tactile. If you just Google search “kids slime,” you’ll see. It’s endless. It’s like a thing they put in jars, like in Tupperware. They sit there and they like the sensation.
It’s shocking that something so analog is popular.
That’s what I’m trying to say. That was my point. I feel like people still need things to touch. I think they just need slime.
This interview has been edited and condensed.