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Harmony Korine's 'Spring Breakers,' set in Tampa Bay, hovers between fantasy and reality

AUSTIN, Texas — "Just open your minds and take it in," Harmony Korine told the packed Paramount Theatre before the first U.S. screening of Spring Breakers here last week, "and see what happens."

What happens 20 seconds into Korine's body-shot of a movie, set firmly around Tampa Bay, is breasts. Perky, beer-covered, bare breasts, filling the screen, bouncing and shaking in slow motion. And then come girls doing bad things with Bomb Pops. And then bongs on the beach. And then more breasts.

How to say this on a Sunday morning? Spring Breakers is a black-lit coke orgy on the pull-out couch between the police blotter and the Florida dream. If your name has been on the church rolls or if you've identified as a tween in the last decade or so, this might not be your movie. It may star heretofore untainted pop princesses Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson, but it is not Dolphin Tale.

Those who know Korine, 40, who broke onto the scene with the screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids (1995) at age 19, never suspected otherwise. He's the same peculiar and talented filmmaker who picked fistfights with strangers in New York for Fight Harm, which ceased production when a bouncer broke Korine's leg. He's the same dude who dressed in an old-person mask and lurked around Nashville defiling Dumpsters for his "found" film Trash Humpers (2009). The New York Times called his movie Gummo (1997) "the worst film of the year," which prompted a call from director Werner Herzog, who told Korine, "This movie is now destined to live forever."

The inspiration for Spring Breakers, like much of Korine's work, was an assortment of pictures. He said he had been collecting spring break imagery for several years, pulling photos from co-ed porn sites and fraternity sites. He collected anything that mashed adolescent Florida debauchery against childish accessories, like fingernail polish or flip-flops or Hello Kitty bags.

"It came to me like a dream," he said. "I just liked the world and the colors of it."

He wanted to find iconic, familiar imagery on which he could hang a "hyper-poetic, hyper-warped" movie. He had also been thinking about creating a "humorous and sociopathic mystic gangster" role for James Franco, who had been a fan of Korine since he saw Kids in high school.

"It was new," Franco said of Kids. "It was about people my age, but it was not pandering." The two hit it off. "I feel like we went to camp together or something," Franco said after the Austin screening.

With a few ideas in mind, Korine decided to write on location. He flew to Daytona Beach, where his Nashville friends always went for spring break. It was dead.

"I got there and it was just, like, fat bikers," he said. "Somebody told me they ran all the kids off 15 years ago."

So he drove to Panama City.

"It was ground zero for mayhem, debauchery," he said. "People puking in the hallway and blasting Taylor Swift 24 hours a day."

The crowd was right, but the location wasn't.

"I was looking for something that was a little less generic," he said. "I wanted things that were less polished . . . something that was more of a throwback."

To find the right spot, Korine drove up and down the coasts. He considered Sarasota, Miami, the Keys. Nothing seemed right until he found Tampa Bay.

There was something dark here, he said, along the edges of the neon strips and beach boulevards. It was the right kind of worn, the right kind of weird. He used the postcard spots, of course, but he also went in search of the off-path places that would never make a travel brochure. Once, at a park in southern St. Petersburg, the suspicious locals even took him for an undercover cop.

He'd drive around and get lost and knock on doors. He said he began to discover a bent version of the American dream.

"It was almost like everyone was trying to become someone else," he said.

We hear versions of this line throughout the movie.

"Welcome to St. Pete," Alien (Franco) tells the women after he bails them out of jail. "You can change your life. You can change who you are, y'all."

"I never want to go home," Faith (Gomez) says later. "I never want to go back. I finally feel like I can be who I want to be here."

While the nudity and Skittles-colored party atmosphere is purposefully overdone, his movie is very Florida. More than that, it's a film that's specific to Tampa Bay. You'll recognize the sunsets and magic-hour light and locations like Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach and the park at Lake Maggiore.

There are smaller, almost unnoticeable, counterintuitive moments of regional purity, too. Franco's Alien meets his best-friend-turned-nemesis, played by rapper Gucci Mane, in a strip club dressing room. They're talking about how they used to be pals. "You took me to the ocean," says Mane's character, born and raised in St. Petersburg. "The only time I've ever been."

It's genuine down to the dialects.

"I wanted Franco's character to have a regional vibe," Korine said. "Not a Southern white rapper, but a Southern white rapper specifically based in that area."

He found what he was looking for in Dangeruss, a local rapper on whom Franco based his character, who drives a pimped-out Z28 and sports a shoulder tattoo shaped like Florida and 727 emblazoned on his chest. Franco copies the local's accent and odd speech patterns.

"Sprang break, y'all," he drawls throughout the film.

You'll also relate to the flecks of script that speak to why some of us wind up here.

"This place is special," Faith (Gomez) tells her grandma on the phone. "I'm starting to think that this is the most spiritual place I've ever been. I think we found ourselves here."

Though much of the movie is set waterside, Korine also drags the cameras to interesting spots, like a strip club, Hollywood Nites, on N Howard in Tampa, and to a mom-and-pop cafe on Haines Road in Lealman, where the vixens rob customers with squirt guns. He said he wanted to film in "real Florida."

The impromptu locale for one scene is particularly interesting. The script originally had Alien bailing the girls out of jail and taking them to a bowling alley, but Korine told me that the women were taking their bad-girl characters to the extreme, and a bowling alley wasn't quite right. He wanted an uncomfortable environment. He needed something scarier.

"I described what I wanted and our (location scout) said, 'Let's go to the hood,' " he said. "It was the best location ever."

They shot the scene at a now-shuttered pool hall on the 1100 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S in St. Petersburg. It was scary enough that Faith decides to go back to her nameless town up North.

"This isn't why we came here," Faith tells Alien at the pool hall.

"Why did you come here?" he asks.

"I don't like where we're from and so we came here to be free," she says.

Alien tries to persuade her to stay.

"You'll be back right where you started and you'll be thinkin', 'I missed somethin' out there.' "

Florida holds center stage in much of the dialogue, to the point that it becomes a gritty hymn to a garish fountain-of-youth paradise where you can see something different or find yourself. Or wind up broke or in jail or on a bus back to Ohio with chipped neon nail polish. Which feels Metro-section-real in a way that bare boobs on the beach doesn't.

This is the area Spring Breakers explores, the space between reality and Florida fantasy. In a way few films do, it comes down off the interstate and picks at the Wish You Were Here mirage.

"Something so amazing, so magical. Something so beautiful it feels as though the world is perfect," Faith says. "Like it's never gonna end." And then it does and she wipes a tear and presses her hand against the window of the bus as it rolls away.

Korine said he won't be surprised if people don't think the film accurately represents Tampa Bay, and it's a safe bet that many won't. But he wasn't holding up a mirror. He was trying to create a pop poem, a fever dream.

"Just open your minds and take it in," he said, "and see what happens."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Twitter: @gangrey.

Harmony Korine's 'Spring Breakers,' set in Tampa Bay, hovers between fantasy and reality 03/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 9:48pm]
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