JENNIFER’S BODY WEEK: INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR KARYN KUSAMA
Jennifer’s Body opens today (Sept. 18) and we have to say, it’s well worth seeing. Attribute much of that success to director Karyn Kusama. While her last film was the big-budget sci-fi adaptation of the Aeon Flux animated series, Jennifer’s Body seems a much more intimate story, one better suited to the filmmaking abilities shown on her debut, the acclaimed Girlfight. We spoke to Kusama on set last year.
Why did you agree to do this film?
To me, I felt really connected to the story. It’s got the elements of pop accessibility with truly interesting human drama, complex characters, a ton of humour, a ton of truly intelligent wit driving it. It was just less of a beast. The same with Aeon Flux, it was just a big movie at an unstable place, and that’s a really hard movie to make I realized in making it. This is a story I can relate to, that I wish when I was 16 I could have seen. And that felt like a good gauge, that it excited me on this emotional level and made me think about the movies I loved when I was a teenager. And that just seemed exciting.”
Is it easier to make a smaller film?
I think when you make a big movie, you’re just tortured by the pressures of a corporation that needs to make its money back and doesn’t care at all about your movie. This felt a little more intimate.
What is the film’s dramatic thread?
I think there’s something about young women at a sort of precipice in their life having to recognize their essential solitude. I think that’s actually a theme I’d like to revisit and a theme I find interesting. Ultimately it’s very similar to classic themes of classic narratives, except most of those classic narratives don’t have any girls in them as the archetype of the story. And so to me this is interesting because the girls are driving the story, and there’s not really any question or overt commentary about that. It just is.
Kusama bonded with screenwriter Diablo Cody through talk of movies, their high school experiences, and how they see the world:
I don’t like having to be pokerfaced all the time, and I do feel that’s a huge component of being in this business, trying to restrain one’s self from talking about who they really are or what excites them in a movie. Or to really transmit their enthusiasm somehow is really dorky. And yet it’s that very dorkiness that creates the energy to actually make a movie, which is tremendously draining, hard work. So to me there was a lack of apology between the both of us about who we are, that even though she and I are so different, that I just thought I’m going to get along with her and we’re going to work together and it’s going to be great.”
Talk about the film’s short schedule:
It’s still so much pressure. It’s personal pressure. I don’t want to diminish how much I worry about this movie. I do. I want it to be as great as it can be. I just think when you get beyond a certain budget level, when you get past 30, 40, 50 million dollars, people start thinking about the money as an abstract entity that gives permission for a huge amount of creative – or non very creative – discourse. I’m not saying I’m left alone on this movie – I have a very collaborative relationship with all the people I’m dealing with – but I just feel like there’s a little more of a sense of people not feeling like there’s a monkey on their back, which is to defend their choice every day, like ‘this movie was worth making.’ Even in this schedule, I feel like basically I’m able to do what I need to do, and I really like limitations. I like it when somebody says, ‘Okay, here’s your time limit. Here’s the problem today, here’s the obstacle.’ I find it helps me to get to the core of what it is I need to do for the scene and really think about it in a very clean way and then execute it.
On the influence of adolescent films like Valley Girl and Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which were huge successes and directed by women:
I just remember being in the theatre and feeling like everyone was kind of identifying, and just the fact that everyone was watching the movie pretty much told through these female perspectives is kind of interesting.
About the film’s monster:
What’s interesting to me about the movie is that there is this sort of examination of female experience and the female psyche, I suppose, or assumptions about the female psyche certainly. What to me is truly the monstrous thing in the movie is how young people treat each other, boys and girls alike. And this is a real examination, particularly how girls treat each other. And that sense of innate kind of worship, competition, attachment, love, hate – the cauldron of emotion girls particularly can bring to their female relationships. There is a monstrous quality to that.
But I think that there’s a larger monster in the movie. I don’t know if it’s pop culture or adolescence itself, but to me, there is something about the female perspective that has been a perfect match with horror films and I wonder if that’s because it still feels like uncharted territory in narrative.
About beauty, and how women are both feared and worshipped by men:
Megan’s beauty is a central element to the surface of her character. She is meant to be interpreted as a surface, and then, over the course of the film, revealed to be human, in a funny way. That’s what I think is so interesting about her is because she… It’s a sort of meta-casting moment, because as an actor, I think she is fetishized and worshipped, and then there’s this incredible desire among the very people who fetishize and worship to sort of destroy her with words. And I just find that fascinating, that there’s that paradox and that kind of insecurity that comes from the person who looks – and just looks and gawks and gazes.
But there can also be that sort of jaw-dropping sort of insecurity. It’s been really interesting to think about, that there is a burden to being a sort of icy beauty. Because you are a very lonely character in a way. That’s what I think Megan does such a beautiful job of exposing in this role, is that there’s a loneliness to being just looked at.
On the influence of Hitchcock:
A lot of his movies are so great to look at again because they take their time and because they are open to the idea that the audience doesn’t know who to place their sympathies with. I guess he’s such a major filmmaker that I almost forget to bring him up because he’s too gigantic.
On how this is a Karyn Kusama film:
I hope that I help create out of this script and out of this dialogue a world that has a fairytale quality. I hope that there’s some part of the movie that has visual poetry and a sensitivity to the characters that is distinctive and that is distinctive to me and my understanding of the story, but also of movies themselves. That’s what I’m drawn to, are movies that can operate on a pop surface and still manage to go deeper, is something I’m really interested in trying right now.
On juxtaposing comedy and horror:
Particularly with this movie, because there are so many tonal shifts and challenges to it, I think it’s really important to have a lot of choices. Because I think on the page the movie sort of reads like a comedy that can be kind of scary, and the movie we’re making right now is generally a pretty scary movie that can be kind of funny. I need to be sure that once we get the movie all in one piece and start showing it that I have the ability to tilt the tone a little bit in one direction or another.
Goriness is a bit question. In general, I find that my favourite movies hide the horror or delay the horror as a way to make it much more scary and much more anxiety-provoking. I find that the movies that do just put it all out on the table right away tend to be the funnier movies or just simply the true kind of hard horror movies. I’m curious to see where it all ends up. I’m open to restraint and I’m open to a moment of uncomfortable violence if it helps the movie, helps the story.
On her love of “pure” horror films:
There is an element to a horror film that is distinctive from other genres, which is you can delay gratification in every single way and still get away with it. And so those are the true horror films for me.
That’s often the definition of an art film also, and so for me I just tend to go for those older horror films that really build on the suspense and really kind of hold back in delivering satisfaction to the viewer, whether it’s seeing the violence or escaping the scene. It somehow traps the viewer with its aesthetic. So in that regard I think I have true love for the genre, and a true love of the concept or horror, the idea that there are horrors in the world. I believe it, I think we live it, whether we want to look at it or not, and that’s what’s so wonderful about the genre is that you can actually take this theatrical leap into a place where you assume there are dark forces in the world, and then you can start telling your story.
Is Jennifer’s Body an art film?
I don’t think this would be perceived as an art film because it’s too outrageous. I hope that people see art and craft in it. I hope people see there is a tremendous amount of attention to detail, a tremendous love of the characters and love of the world that’s been created. So I hope there is that kind of art to the film.
On why women need horror films:
I think part of the power of the genre is that it assumes an unknown. It assumes a mystery in the world that maybe is either unspeakable or kind of impenetrable, and I feel like that mystery is central to female experience in terms of how we are taught to interpret our bodies, how we are taught to interpret our relationship to the world. We are somehow both mysterious and shameful in a lot of ways. And there’s something about horror and women that seems like a natural fit in my mind. And maybe there’s an assumption of vulnerability in the female experience that actually makes us open to the idea of the horror in the world, and that’s why so many of those great horror films have female leads in charge of the narrative.
Does she have final cut?
I think I’ll be very protected because I’m working with other filmmakers who are producing the movie. I think final cut is a dicey proposition because you alienate a lot of people if you use the concept of final cut to dominate people. That’s not what I’m looking to do. I just want to make a good movie, and I think I know how to do it. And given my last experience, I don’t want to be in a situation where a lot of people who don’t give a shit about the movie are cutting the movie. To work with people that actually like the movie as much as I do every day is a joy.
Could there be a sequel?
I do wrestle with the idea that if the movie works, you sort of fall in love with the villain of the movie. If you’re going to go out on a limb and say that Jennifer is a villain, you do fall in love with her. It’s sort of like Dracula. Do you really want to see Dracula die? Not really. So there’s a quality to the movie that creates so much sympathy for her, I think, or so much interest in her. It will be interesting to see if we truly make this a oner.
Do Jennifer’s victims deserve to die?
Absolutely not. And that’s a really important part of the movie. There are horror movies where you’re really meant to not like the characters who die, and I don’t understand what the pleasure eventually is in those movies. Unless there’s a reversal or a deeper examination or a shift in the tone, I don’t know what we gain from those movies. I don’t know what as audience members we gain from feeling like someone deserves to die and then watching them die. I just don’t get that. I think this is more tender and uncomfortable because the characters who do die we feel something for all of them. I hope. I like the horror movies where you kind of can’t believe that the characters you like the most are actually going to die. That’s horror.