Highlands Fling

Highlands Fling
I’d been a fan of Harmony Korines since his 1997 directorial debut, the disturbingly quirky Gummo. But I had no idea that the fidgety, punky live wire I spent two hours chatting with at a London party was Korine. I never thought to ask him what work he did — we were laughing too much, exchanging ever-more-outrageous stories and comparing near-death experiences. Only when I was leaving the party did we swap phone numbers.

Within a week, as I was about to fly to Los Angeles to play in a 16-week run of The Black Rider, a theatrical collaboration of Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William Burroughs, Korine called me and announced: “Hey. I want you to play Abe Lincoln in my new movie. We film in the Highlands of Scotland, June through August. Do the dates work?” I told him they worked. So on a rainy day four months later, I and my fellow passengers — who included the actress-model-designer Anita Pallenberg and a man who looked worryingly like Larry from the Three Stooges — climbed into a minibus at Inverness Airport and rode the increasingly dramatic route across the Highlands. The rain ceased, the skies cleared, and by the time we reached our base at Duncraig Castle, in Ross-shire, the lush hills were suffused in a golden early-evening glow.

En route we had pieced together the bones of the story of Mister Lonely. We were all playing celebrity impersonators, living in an isolated commune for retired professional doppelgangers, a place where everyone is famous and no one gets old. (Sounds like Hollywood!) I was Abe, and Pallenberg was the queen of England. On arrival, we met Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), and Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant). Milling around trying on costumes, I could swear I caught glimpses of Sammy Davis Jr., James Dean, and Madonna, too.

The castle, our commune, is a solidly built edifice, constructed in the 1860s by Sir Alexander Matheson, co-founder of the Jardine Matheson banking firm in Asia. While it is, for the most part, a fine example of the Scottish baronial style, it’s more handsome than beautiful. Since Sir Alexander’s death in 1886, Duncraig has been put to a variety of uses. For some years it was rented to fashionable hosts for summer house parties. With the onset of World War II, it became a naval hospital. From 1945 to 1989 it served as a domestic science college for girls. A hideous 1969 extension of the school, more Soviet functional than Scottish baronial, still stands as a grim reminder of this era. The castle is set in 40 acres of woodland with a mile of shoreline, and the view from the tower is breathtaking. Across Loch Carron are the mountains of Applecross. To the west, on the shores of the loch, is the picturesque village of Plockton and, beyond, the distant peaks of the Isle of Skye.

It was an idyllic location to make a film in every respect except one — the midges. In the Highlands these vicious little pests, barely visible individually, swarm in vast clouds throughout the warm summer months, especially near water. In minutes they reduce their poor victim to an approximation of steak tartare. One evening, when they were especially voracious, Korine thought it would be amusing to dress the entire company in mosquito suits to shoot a scene of an outdoor tai chi class.

The director’s humor and his inspired ability to improvise were a continuous source of amusement. He relished the challenges set by the Highlands’ rugged terrain, the spartan resources, and the capricious weather. In this remote part of Scotland, nothing can be taken for granted. One evening, having finished filming early, a dozen of us made our way to the Seafood Restaurant, a small family-owned establishment at the Plockton railway station. Relieved to see a table that would accommodate all of us, we asked to be seated. “Och, nooo!” said the proprietor, aghast. “The kitchen’s closed. Have you seen the time? It’s 20 to 10!” “It’s 20 to 10” became a catchphrase for the rest of the shoot.

Although Mister Lonely is a traditionally scripted movie, co-written by Korine’s brother, Avi, he used the script as a mere sketch. Having spent an hour meticulously rehearsing a scene in which we plan a barbecue for the newly arrived Michael Jackson, Korine leaned toward me just before shooting to whisper, “You are not going to do any of that. I want you to tell them about your experience of acid and napalm in the Vietnam War.” He left the room chuckling.

He directs like a solicitous hostess of a cocktail party who makes sure all her guests have their glasses charged, then leaves the room, lobs in a Mace grenade, and locks the door. That’s when Korine shouts, “Action!”

When James Fox arrived, sometime after the rest of us, to play the pope, he said he felt as if he’d landed on another planet. For one sequence, Korine told the 69-year-old actor, “Do a card trick with your ass sticking out, then dance like you’re in a swamp.” Somehow when he demonstrated to the bemused Fox, it all made perfect, hilarious sense.

Forty years previously, Fox and Anita Pallenberg had famously ended up in bed in the Nic Roeg film Performance. Korine was delighted at the idea of reprising this coupling, with His Holiness and Her Majesty sharing a postcoital joint. He also found it hilarious to put me as pillion passenger on Michael Jackson’s motorcycle and send us into town. He handed me a megaphone and said, “Advertise a gala concert we’re doing tonight at the commune, like a fairground barker.” Giggling maniacally the whole way into town and back, he filmed the bewildered locals’ reactions to seeing Abe Lincoln and the King of Pop sharing a motorbike.

Choreographing confrontations isn’t new to him. When he made his movie Fight Harm, he walked the mean Manhattan streets verbally provoking passersby, trying to start a fistfight while his friend David Blaine filmed the resulting bloodbath. He said at the time: “It’s very brutal—I’ve already broken a collarbone and been arrested. The punches and kicks are all real; it’s one of the most disgusting things you’ll ever see.” That production was halted early on. Following three arrests, Korine had to serve a two-and-a-half-month prison sentence. His girlfriend at the time, the actress Chloë Sevigny, was, he says, totally freaked out by it. “My family tried to get me institutionalized,” he says. “They thought I was trying to kill myself. But it was just something I had to put myself through.” Not exactly Sir David Lean, then.

Korine is now married to his sweetheart, the actress Rachel Simon, who plays Little Red Riding Hood in Mister Lonely, and they live, perhaps surprisingly, in Nashville. He says he’s cleaner and happier than he has been for many years. His dark night of the soul, which tortured him in his 20s, has now passed. He neither drinks nor does narcotics, nor seems to hanker for either. This is a man who was once so physically overloaded that his body shut down and he went temporarily blind and deaf.

Despite his former appetite for life in the margins, Korine has always had his supporters. The French fashion designer Agnès B is one of the producers of Mister Lonely and threw a wonderful party at her home in Antibes after it premiered at Cannes last year. The film features performances from two leading directors of European art-house cinema, Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man). The fashion photo-grapher Juergen Teller was on hand to take stills on set. All were united in the view that Korine was a very special talent.

On the occasional days when neither Anita nor I was filming, we’d rent a car and drive off into the wilds to explore. The Isle of Skye, across the road bridge from our bed-and-breakfast in Kyle of Lochalsh, was a particularly rewarding destination. Sublime coastal views, towering hills, and the eerily humanoid shapes of some of the rock formations were constantly beguiling and thrilling. One phallic protuberance, known locally as the Old Man of Storr, is the priapic remains of a prehistoric volcanic plug.

In the busy little town of Portree, we rummaged through the Renaissance Antique Bookshop, above the Gathering Hall, for bargains. We lunched on the local fishermen’s catch on the quayside, the fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbing on the crystal blue water. Heading home, we’d take a five-mile detour merely to buy superb home-dyed wools and yarns from Eva Fleg Lambert. Lambert set up a studio in 1971 weaving rugs, using skills learned while living in Turkey. Nowadays, using her own soft-fleeced flock of sheep, she produces raw knitting yarn spun by hand. Anita would snaffle up a clutch of skeins, then magically transform them into a sweater for a grandchild or a friend.

A natural raconteuse, Anita entertained with stories of her wilder days, when Keith did this or Mick said that, laughing her hoarse laugh and lighting yet another cigarette. The fog inside the car was much denser than the Scottish mist outside. But nicotine is now her only addiction. We’re both insomniacs, and one morning, hearing her shuffling around her room, I went downstairs to make us some coffee. I took it to her in her room and found her attempting a hellishly complicated yoga asana, arms and legs contorted, eyes screwed up in concentration, with a newly lit cigarette clamped between her teeth.

After four weeks, our filming at Duncraig Castle finished on Midsummer Night, in appropriately dreamlike circumstances. Korine wanted to shoot his final scene — a heartbreaking, elegiac tableau vivant featuring the entire cast processing through the night, singing “Cheek to Cheek.” We were so far north that we had to wait until 11:30 for total darkness to envelop the valley. By the time the shot was in the can, the nighttime chorus of owls, frogs, and dogs had given way to the dawn chorus of blackbirds, cuckoos, and seagulls. The sun rose with a slash of crimson in the eastern sky. The cast and crew silently embraced, in the slightly embarrassing way that we do. By 5 a.m. we were in our beds, and the adventure of shooting Mister Lonely was over.

"Highlands Fling" originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Culture+Travel. For a complete list of articles from this issue of Culture+Travel, click here.