When news first started trickling out about Spring Breakers – the gleefully debauched new movie about four sexy small-town coeds on a violent crime spree, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens and directed by indie provocateur Harmony Korine – it sounded like a classic case of mutual sexploitation. The wholesome ingénues would get their all-grown-up moment, and Korine would get to shoot cute Disney starlets doing bong hits on the beach. "Bikinis and big booties, y'all," as the movie's co-star, James Franco, says in character as a drug-slinging rapper named Alien, "that's what life is about!"
As it turns out, it's a lot more than that: a subversively conservative take on Girls Gone Wild culture, a look at the warping effects that reality TV and social networking have on kids, even in one memorable scene involving Franco and some nunchucks, a hilarious critique of late-modern capitalism. "It's a mash-up and a refiltering of all those things," says Korine. Not really one for clear-cut answers, he says he wanted the movie to feel "more like a drug experience than a traditional narrative" and calls it "ambiguous" and "post-articulation." But perhaps the best summary comes from his description of the Britney Spears ballad "Everytime," which scores the film's emotional climax: "I always thought that song was really catchy and poppy, but underneath there was a sort of menace to it."
It's a sunny morning in Nashville, and Korine is sitting at a courtyard picnic table, outside the cluttered apartment he uses for an office – not far from where he lives with his wife and daughter, half a mile from the house where he grew up, and just down the road from the park where he and his friends used to drop acid. He just got back from a week of European premieres – Paris, Berlin, Rome ("There were 7,000 kids screaming in the street. It's the closest I'll ever have to a Justin Bieber moment") – and he looks a little tired, with heavy eyes and flecks of gray in his beard. At one point he jogs over behind a tree to take a piss – a classic Korine move, one he wrote into his 1995 breakthrough, Kids – and on his way back he displays a slight limp, the lingering result of a broken ankle he suffered more than a decade ago, while shooting a never-finished movie, called Fight Harmduh, in which he picked fights with large, angry strangers while a friend filmed from across the street. "I just wanted to make the greatest comedy of all time," he says, flashing a wry smile. "There's a lot of reasons why it was a messed-up idea."
In a way, Korine has built his career on messed-up ideas – from his bizarre, polarizing indie cult classics, including Trash Humpers and Gummo, to more, um, personal matters, such as his affiliation with Leonardo DiCaprio's notorious late-Nineties "Pussy Posse"; a crack habit; taking refuge in the Panamanian jungle; and two accidental house fires. (To be fair, he wasn't even home for one of them, and he's been completely clean for more than a decade.)
While Spring Breakers features no shortage of wacked-out debauchery, either – including a bong made out of a baby doll, a threesome in a pool, a virtuosic, neon-lit shot of a violent robbery at a chicken shack, and a long, homoerotic fellating of a loaded pistol with a silencer – it also manages to be tender, even sweet, with a kind of girl-power camaraderie that could almost be called feminist. "People always say, 'Your films lack morality,'" Korine says. "But in the end I know my heart is pure. It was important to me the girls felt that too. That in the end the film was on the side of righteousness."
Korine, 40, grew up a day's drive from the Florida beaches he calls "the Redneck Riviera," but he was never one for spring break himself. "I spent my summers in San Francisco skateboarding and sleeping on rooftops," he says, "or jumping on Greyhound buses and going to Kentucky or Las Vegas." After coming up with the idea for the movie, he took several months collecting imagery from fraternity message boards and coed porn sites, then wrote the movie over 10 Diet Coke-fueled days in Panama City Beach, which happened to coincide with spring break.
"I checked into my hotel, and it was like ground zero," he says. "Kids fucking in the hallways, everyone vomiting on you, blasting Taylor Swift all night – it was unbearable. I went to another hotel and the same thing happened, so I drove 20 minutes to this Marriott on a golf course. I walk in and there's all these dwarfs everywhere. I was like, 'All right. This will work.'"
Korine got the idea to cast Disney stars after watching their shows with his four-year-old daughter, Lefty. But his secret weapon turned out to be his wife, Rachel, who also stars in the film, and who led by example and made it safe for the rest of the girls to follow suit. "I needed someone who could be bold and fearless," he says. "There was nothing I could throw at her that she wouldn't do" – including taking off her top and taunting some drunken frat bros with a singsong chant about her privates. Korine beams: "Actually, that came from her."
The movie was filmed in St. Petersburg during spring break, often on the run from paparazzi and thousands of beer-bonging extras. "The whole vibe was so furious and frenetic," Korine says. "It had a chaos to it. A kind of sinister mania." One key scene is set in a rough-looking pool hall that Korine found in the ghetto. "It was super-gnarly," he says. "Just pit bulls and cigarette butts and burnt mattresses. It was so beautiful." Mix in a trance-y, dubstep-y score by Skrillex and Drive composer Cliff Martinez, and a soundtrack featuring Rick Ross and Gucci Mane (who also co-stars as Franco's rival drug dealer), and it all makes for a looping, boozy fever dream of a movie that looks, as Korine says, "like it was lit with Skittles."
Though he's been making weird indie movies since he was Gomez's age, Korine is hoping Spring Breakers will be a turning point. "It's boring to just make films for the same audiences over and over again," he says. "I want to do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way." He says he's already started researching his next project: "I wanna go full-on. Creatively, stylistically, I'm gonna go for it. My dream has always been to infiltrate the mainstream. I always thought that was the way to do some serious damage."
This story is from the March 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.