As we boarded the flight from London to Inverness, it seemed perhaps that shooting for Harmony Korine's new film, Mister Lonely, had already begun. A 6ft 2in, bristly chinned, barrel-chested "stewardess" announced, in a booming baritone, "Good Morning, My name is Sarah. Welcome aboard."
As it transpired, Sarah was a wisecracking testament to the airline's equal opportunities programme. (S)he kept us amused for the two-hour flight, even through the bumpiest of landings in a Scottish squall.
I had been a fan of Korine since his 1997 directorial debut, the disturbingly quirky Gummo. However, I had no idea that the fidgety, punky livewire I recently 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 exchange phone numbers.
A week later, as I was about to fly to Los Angeles for a three-month run of the Tom Waits/Robert Wilson/William Burroughs theatrical collaboration The Black Rider, 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?" They did.
And so, in June I headed north. Among the passengers were the actress Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards's ex-partner, and a man who looked worryingly like Larry, the shock-headed klutz from The Three Stooges. From Inverness airport we drove the increasingly dramatic roads to Duncraig Castle, in Ross-shire.
En route, we had pieced together the bare bones of the story of Mister Lonely. We were all to play impersonators, living our dream in an isolated commune for retired impersonators. A place where everyone is famous and no one gets old. Hence I was Abe, Anita was the Queen of England and, on arrival, we were introduced by Korine to Michael Jackson (played by Diego Luna), Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) and Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant). Trying on costumes, I could swear I caught a glimpse of Sammy Davis Jnr, James Dean and Madonna, too.
Watch the 'Mister Lonely' trailer
The castle, our commune, was constructed in the 1860s by Sir Alexander Matheson, co-founder of the Jardine Matheson banking firm.
Set in 40 acres of woodland and with a mile of shoreline, the view from the castle tower is breathtaking. To the north across Lochcarron 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 aspect except one – the midges. In the Highlands these vicious pests swarm in vast clouds throughout the summer, especially near water. In minutes they reduce their poor victim to an approximation of steak tartare. One evening, when they were especially voracious, Harmony thought it would be amusing to dress the entire company in mosquito suits to shoot a scene of an outdoor t'ai chi class.
The director's humour and his inspired ability to improvise were a continuous source of amusement. He relished the challenges set by the rugged terrain, the spartan resources, and capricious weather. In this remote part of Scotland, nothing can be taken for granted.
Although Mister Lonely is scripted, Harmony used the script as a working sketch rather than the finished painting. One day, having rehearsed a scene in which we are planning a barbecue for the newly arrived Michael Jackson, Harmony leaned towards me 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," and left chuckling.
His directorial style is akin to that of the solicitous hostess of a cocktail party who makes sure that all her guests have their glasses charged, then leaves the room, lobs in a mace grenade, and locks the door. That is the point at which Harmony shouts, "ACTION!"
When the actor James Fox arrived to play Pope John Paul II, 10 days after the rest of us, he confessed that he felt like he had landed on another planet. For one sequence, Harmony 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 ended up in bed in the Nic Roeg film Performance. Korine was delighted at the idea of reprising the coupling in Mister Lonely, with His Holiness and Her Majesty sharing a post-prandial 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 are doing tonight at the commune, like a fairground barker." He filmed the bewildered locals' reaction to seeing Abe Lincoln and the King of Pop sharing a motorbike from a car, giggling maniacally.
Setting up confrontations is not new to him. When he made Fight Harm, he walked the mean Manhattan streets verbally provoking passers-by, trying to start a fist-fight, while his friend David Blaine filmed the resulting bloodbath. He said at the time, "It's very brutal – I've already broken a collar bone and been arrested. The punches and kicks are all real; it's one of the most disgusting things you'll ever see."
He went around with a camera crew, and the only rules were that he couldn't throw the first punch and that the person he was confronting had to be bigger than him. "Because that's where the humour comes in," he told me, "and no matter how bad I was getting beat up – unless I was gonna die, that was the rule – they [the camera crew] couldn't break it up."
After each street brawl, Harmony would explain the points of the exercise to the unsuspecting participants, who, remarkably, in most cases agreed to sign a release.
The production was halted shortly after it began, with Korine having to serve a mandatory two-and-a-half-months prison sentence following three arrests. His girlfriend at the time, the actress Chloë Sevigny was, he admits, totally freaked out by it. "My family tried to get me institutionalised. 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.
Harmony is now married to the actress Rachel Simon. He is cleaner and happier than he has been for many years. The dark night of the soul, which tortured him in his twenties, has now passed. He neither drinks nor does drugs, nor does he seem 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.
His conversations with Pallenberg, herself no stranger to over-indulgence, were candid and darkly amusing. "Keith Richards is responsible for more deaths than Vietnam," he told her once. "Kids think: 'if he can do it, so can I', and they try it, but they can't hack it. It's genetic. And the kids die." He continues, like a chemistry professor relishing a lecture to his students. "Synthetic drugs stay in the system longer than opiates. Methadone, Valium, temazepam sit in the fat tissue and have a massive half-life."
Harmony has seen two houses he has lived in burn down around him, due in part to his own substance abuse. Of his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor he says, "He didn't go out for four years," Harmony told me. "He stayed in a room, and shat in pizza boxes. He felt bugs under the skin, and used a 100-watt light-bulb to burn them out. Then poured disinfectant on the burns. If you want to know what pain is, try that." Again, the maniacal giggle.
Despite his former appetite for life in the margins, Harmony has always had his supporters. The French fashion icon Agnès B is one of the producers of Mister Lonely. The film features performances from two of European art house cinema's leading directors – Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and Werner Herzog. The top fashion photographer Jurgen Teller was on hand to take stills on set. All were united in the view that Harmony was a very special talent.
Shooting a scene from a helicopter in which the Queen inaugurates our new theatre by smashing a bottle of champagne against the door, Harmony was like a child in a sweet shop. On landing, he was all adrenalised enthusiasm. "The pilot has just come down from a three-day ecstasy bender. THREE DAYS! Respect!!"
After four weeks on set, our filming at Duncraig Castle finished on midsummer's night, in appropriately dream-like circumstances. Harmony wanted to shoot his final scene – a heartbreaking, elegiac tableau vivant featuring the entire cast processing through the night, singing "Cheek to Cheek". We had to wait until 11.30pm for the darkness to envelop the valley. By the time the shot was in the can, the night chorus of owls, frogs and dogs had given way to blackbirds, cuckoos and seagulls. The sun rose with a slash of crimson in the eastern sky. The cast and crew embraced, in the embarrassing way we do. By 5am we were in our beds and the adventure of shooting Mister Lonely was over.
'Mister Lonely' is out now on limited release