Describing Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum is a lot like SNL’s Stefon gleefully listing the most outlandish attributes of the hottest new club.
The sun-soaked stoner comedy from the former enfant terrible turned grown-up provocateur behind such films as Gummo, Trash Humpers, and Spring Breakers really does have everything: a coke-addicted parrot, spatula sex, belly flops, piano demolition, a blind Rastafarian pilot, and plenty of booze and weed to go around.
There’s also a skunk-headed Zac Efron, a nautical Martin Lawrence, a Southern Jonah Hill, and a musical collaboration between Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffet. And then, of course, there’s a whole lot of Matthew McConaughey who inhabits Moondog, the big-hearted burnout poet and central force of the film, with stunning physical commitment. His wife, played by a stand-out Isla Fisher, happens to be filthy rich and while her money is ostensibly central to the film’s plot, Moondog is perfectly content stumbling his way through Margaritaville toward an all-consuming hedonistic happiness.
Shot on 35mm by Spring Breakers DP Benoît Debie, The Beach Bum unfolds with a free-floating cadence in a candy-colored Florida where there’s a Hawaiian shirt and a supersized blunt waiting around every corner.
Emma Myers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): MovieMaker recently interviewed your amazing DP Benoît Debie, who also shot Spring Breakers. It sounds like there was a lot of freedom on the set to create the kind of rhythmic imagery that makes both films so memorable. What is your process together?
Harmony Korine (HK): Benoît is a true artist, and we’re always trying to paint a picture. I want the movies to work like energy; I sometimes call it a “liquid cinema,” because it’s not about continuity, it’s about chasing a kind of energy and color and mood—something that’s more tactile and that vibrates. Color and tone are super important to the story because I want you to feel like you’re right in there, like you can smell the incense and weed smoke and feel the houseboat rocking. Benoît is my partner in this. We spend a lot of time trying to develop the style in this thing that we do.
MM: Color is so crucial to your films; both this and Spring Breakers have such a magical mix of neon-tinted artificiality and sunlit naturalism. How do you merge these two aesthetics into something so visually cohesive?
HK: We always spend at least a year before the shoot scouting locations. I try to find locations that have those components: light, color, and shadow. The idea is that the film is set in the actual world but it’s pushed into something that’s more hyper-poetic or hyper-stylized. It’s something that’s difficult to articulate because it’s more like a feeling or energy that just takes you in. I always try to find places that exist and then try and light them differently, but sometimes I’ll paint a wall. How do we make this room look a certain way, how do we make it yellow? When I’m working on paintings, it’s a similar approach.
MM: You’ve talked in the past about casting locals to populate your films as a simultaneous process to location scouting. Did you do that for this film?
HK: I’d just be down in the Keys walking through locations and would see someone and think “Wow, this guy is hilarious.” And that person lives in the place you want to film, so why not just have them live there in the background while the movie is going on? I try to put as much of that authenticity to it as possible. It helps paint a picture.
MM: Your early work was so focused on the grit of poverty, and there seems to be a clear shift here toward extreme wealth. But there’s also a kind of porousness between the two extremes in this film.
HK: I’ve never been interested in the middle; it’s the extremes on both sides that hold the secrets. That’s part of why I like Miami so much is because you see them smacked up against each other—and sometimes you don’t know which is which. There’s this strange dance that happens culturally and economically—its like a cultural mashup.
MM: There’s often a centerpiece song in your films that’s paired with the most memorable images. In Gummo, it’s Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” In Spring Breakers it’s Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” In The Beach Bum, it was Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Do you start with one must-have song and build the rest of the music around it?
HK: Yeah, I think those three that you mentioned really are the central musical moments of those films and also probably the “Margaritaville” sequence [in The Beach Bum] where he’s smoking weed under water. Music is tricky in that I’ll listen to music while I’m writing sometimes but I hesitate to actually write music into scripts, because a lot of the time it just doesn’t work. Sometimes what makes a song great is that it feels cinematic and then when you put it over an image it becomes too weighted. I’ve learned there’s a strange alchemy to sound and music and picture and a lot of it comes through trial and error and finding a specific vibe. With the Britney Spears song [in Spring Breakers], it’s a pop song—it’s a beautiful pop song, a ballad—but there’s also a kind of menace to it. I felt like there was a violence in the song that was beneath the surface and that it could really narrate that scene.
It was actually Matthew who brought the Peggy Lee song for The Beach Bum. We were doing that scene and I was just going to add music later and he said “I think I got something here” and started playing it during rehearsals. Lyrically, the film really does tell the story; it gives a heartbeat and narrates the whole thing. So I just said “you know what, let’s just commit,” which was scary in the moment, because they were singing the song on camera.
MM: How much of dream come true was it to have Jimmy Buffet and Snoop Dogg singing together?
HK: That was the best! That to me encapsulates this idea of the cosmic America that I’m always searching for. It’s something that exists—or maybe doesn’t exist—but I’m always searching for it. [Jimmy Buffet and Snoop] are flip sides of the same coin. They have a specific lifestyle that they represent that people love.
MM: Matthew McConaughey is in almost every single scene of this movie and brings such a committed physicality to the role—it must have been exhausting to shoot but it looks so effortless onscreen. Your love of silent comedies has been well documented; did you watch anything together in particular to create the physical aspects/comedy of the character?
HK: I love W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, Cheech & Chong, and The Three Stooges—that was all my favorite stuff growing up. And I especially loved [Buster] Keaton. But we didn’t watch anything together, no—Matthew just tapped into this character. We talked about it being physical—he was always somehow wobbling forward; the whole movie his character is stoned or lit to some degree. So that was the thing we focused on. The character is one of those guys in the Keys that’s always about to fall down steps. For Matthew, it was an Olympic event, for sure.
MM: There’s a moment in the film where Isla Fisher’s character says something to her slightly frustrated daughter about Moondog like “you just kind of have to accept that he’s from another dimension.” It’s the same for the audience; he has an otherworldly quality to him—he’s like a superhero that can’t be touched or affected by anything.
HK: Certainly some viewers will be repelled by that and won’t want to go along with it. I can understand that, but I really wanted to create a character who doesn’t have what you would consider to be a conventional arc. At the same time, there are obviously repercussions for things he does in his life. In the end, he’s all alone in a rowboat, penniless, with a kitten in the ocean staring up and cackling at the sky—there’s nothing left. But his soul is there, his humor is there. Moondog is someone who just never breaks. Whether he’s in a mansion or sleeping under a bridge with a two-dollar bottle of wine, he’s always happy. He says it in the film: “I feel like the world is conspiring to make me happy.” He just keeps punching forward. I was just hoping to create a character that was full of joy in that way. MM
The Beach Bum opened in theaters March 29, 2019, courtesy of NEON. All images courtesy of NEON.