From left, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and Vanessa Hudgens in a scene from "Spring Breakers."
AUSTIN — Among the most anticipated moments of the South by Southwest film festival was the U.S. premiere of Spring Breakers.
Directed by provocateur Harmony Korine, the movie is a sun-soaked, head-spinning look at four college girls who fund their spring-break trip with a crime spree. The film has a good-girls-go-bad angle with young actresses Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson, along with the director's wife, Rachel Korine, playing the girls — as well as a wild performance by James Franco as a rapper/gangster named Alien.
The line for the screening, twisting around the block outside the Paramount Theater, was described by one veteran festival-goer as the longest he had ever seen at SXSW. With Gomez, Benson, Franco and the Korines in attendance, it made for quite an event Sunday night. There was a raucous after-party as well, and Franco hosted an off-festival late-night screening and Q&A for his film "Interior. Leather. Bar."
By Monday afternoon, Franco was said to be back to California to teach a college course, so it was Harmony and Rachel Korine, Benson and Gomez who sat down for a panel discussion moderated by Indiewire film critic Eric Kohn.
There was a first-time public screening of Harmony Korine's very first short film, "A Bundle a Minute," made when the director was only a Nashville high school student. An impressionistic reminiscence of an oddball upbringing, narrated by Korine, it laid out with remarkably close proximity much of his work to come — work centered on outsiders, family and exploration of what binds people together. Among the voice-over lines are, "I'm the world's most stupid genius."
Korine returned to his sometime guise as a post-punk Mark Twain Americana fabulist when he spoke of how he wrote "Spring Breakers" while visiting Florida during spring break. There he saw "people blasting Taylor Swift music like 24 hours a day, vomiting on my door, snorting donuts. It was crazy," he said. "I saw a human jawbone in a chandelier at a Days Inn."
Much of the press around the film has circled Gomez, Hudgens and Benson putting their images as clean-cut starlets behind them to make this ambitious, edgy film, and the extent to which they even completely understand how Korine is using them and their media images as part of the movie itself.
"If anything, it was just more liberating to work with someone like Harmony," said Gomez, "and I can probably speak for Ashley too, we're used to more of a fabricated way of making a TV show or movies, where it's about the hair and the jewelry and the makeup. Harmony didn't care, we didn't wear make-up, we just had whatever we wore. It was really just inspiring that he guided us through it and the playing of these girls."
"I've definitely never done anything like this before," said Benson, star of the TV show "Pretty Little Liars." "I think my favorite part about doing this movie was being able to improv and have your own input into certain things. I remember when I went back to my show, I went back literally two days after and I was like, ‘God, I want to kill myself.' I had to stick to a script and I didn't get to say what I wanted at that time. I had trouble memorizing my lines because I was just used to Harmony saying ‘go' and then we'd make up the scene."
After questions from the audience that included whether Korine had been influenced in making the film by Agatha Christie or "The Big Lebowski," one person asked Gomez whether she had gotten any response yet from her own fans regarding this new direction for her work.
"To be honest, I don't really know what people are saying," she said. "I don't really necessarily want to know what people are going to say or think. I think it's just better that way.
"If people like it, awesome. If not, at least we made them feel something."
Kohn, the moderator, then asked if the actresses would disprove rumors that they lip-synched a moment in which the girls in the movie sing the Britney Spears song "... Baby One More Time." Gomez and Benson immediately shot down the idea of "rumors" as a cheap ploy to get them to sing, and then obliged. Gomez and Rachel Korine sang a verse or so of the song, with Benson boogieing in her seat, while the audience became a sea of cellphone cameras and iPad screens.