The first time director Harmony Korine had Disney-developed teen queen Selena Gomez over to his house to pitch her on a role in his movie Spring Breakers, he went around first and flipped any artwork or photograph he thought might offend the hyper-wholesome star.
As the 20-year-old Gomez recounted the story to a packed press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, she could only shake her head.
“He thought I was super, super Christian,” said Gomez, clad in a strapless animal-print dress next to her co-stars and director.
“I was like, ‘If I was a Christian girl, I probably wouldn’t have done this movie.’ “
Amen to that.
Certainly, Spring Breakers is a dramatic departure for Gomez and co-stars Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, all of whom were known primarily for family-friendly fare – the 23-year-old Hudgens having graduated from Disney’s High School Musical series and Benson, 22, being best-known for her role on the teen murder-mystery drama Pretty Little Liars.
Along with Korine’s wife, Rachel, the actresses portray a quartet of bored college kids who rob a restaurant with squirt guns to fund a debauched spring-break sojourn in Florida. Their boozy bacchanal is interrupted when they’re caught by police with a bouquet of drugs in their hotel rooms — and when they’re bailed out of jail by a shady drug dealer played with sleazy panache by an unrecognizable James Franco, things really take a turn for the bizarre.
Although tamer than other films in Korine’s canon (which include Gummo and Mister Lonely as a writer-director, in addition to his 1995 screenwriting breakout Kids), Spring Breakers is simultaneously glossy and grim, descending further and further into bleakness as it runs.
But making the film was different. Shooting in Florida with hundreds of extras who really were on spring break, the cast got a taste of the out-of-control antics depicted in the film – or, as Korine put it, they certainly got their fill of “thick-necked jock dudes trying to rub up on them … trying to grind on Selena.”
“I’ve never been on spring break, and I don’t think any of us have, really,” Benson said. “It was like, insane. It definitely felt like I was on spring break for a month.”
Naturally, that led to some bonding – as Hudgens succinctly put it during the presser: “I trust these girls. I love these girls more than anything.”
They also trusted Korine, and given the film’s unflinching sex and violence, that was probably essential.
“You could probably get me to do anything – it’s bad,” Gomez said to the 39-year-old filmmaker, before later boasting about how she took to her onscreen misbehaviour.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to smoke a bong.”
But Gomez – whose long-time boyfriend is Canadian teen-pop star Justin Bieber – also betrayed some discomfort about making the transition into grown-up films.
“The biggest challenge for me is that I do have a younger generation of fans that support me and that mean a lot to me,” said Gomez, a pop singer whose three solo albums have each gone gold in Canada.
“Plus, I think it’s hard for people to take me seriously in that way because of the brand that I’ve been given, which I’m grateful for, but you know … people obviously (put) you in this little box.”
And at one point during the presser, Gomez was asked what she would tell her young fans curious about the risqué film.
“Don’t see it,” she replied, drawing a murmur of protest from her director.
“I wrote a message on my social networking sites to them, saying kids my age – my generation – I think that they should see it because it’s very real, we’re not really sugar-coating anything. (But) I put underneath, it’s rated R, so please don’t see it if you’re under 18.
“That’s as much warning as I can give to the parents and the kids. But you can’t control what kids do.”
The film is part cautionary tale, part candy-coloured MTV fantasy (Korine said he wanted the movie to look like it was “lit with Skittles”), and no character is more colourful than Franco’s Alien, an ostentatious thug with hair dressed in cornrows and teeth covered in shiny metal.
Simultaneously menacing and absurd (at one point, he brags about his array of colourful shorts), he’s the type to decorate his bedroom wall with machine guns and nunchucks.
Drawing on “everyone from Yelawolf to Lil Wayne,” Franco dissolves into the role – and that was the point.
“I think Harmony just wanted to transform me, and make it so you didn’t recognize me,” said Franco who, unlike his beautifully outfitted co-stars, dressed casually in a blue T-shirt.
The Oscar-nominated 34-year-old was put on the spot, however, when a journalist asked for his favourite Gomez song – drawing a groan from the singer herself.
“Well, ‘Love Song’ of course is my favourite. Is that what it’s called, ‘Love Song?’ ” he said, referring to Love You Like a Love Song.”
“I first heard that on New Year’s Eve, Selena sang it at MTV. I was there, and I was just taken like everyone else.”
While the press gathering was mostly an upbeat affair, one journalist asked Korine to respond to the viewers who were rattled by the grim bikinis ‘n’ balaclavas tale. He cheerfully replied that he welcomed all responses, adding: “If you’re offended by it, I think that’s great. If you love it, I think that’s great.”
But Hudgens said she hoped the film’s message did get across, that female viewers felt “empowered and fearless” after seeing the movie.
“Just to know that, if you set your mind to something, you can get it done. Whether or not it’s robbing someone,” she said with a laugh, “or starting your own business.”