Karyn Kusama - Interview with the Director of Jennifer's Body

Karyn Kusama - Interview with the Director of Jennifer's Body
Talking about mixed humor with horror.
Updated: 09-17-2009

Jennifer’s Body Set Visit from 2008, Staci Layne Wilson reporting


Karyn Kusama: Hi.
Q: Hi. Thank you for taking the time in the middle of directing a movie.
Kusama: Yeah. Thank you.
Q: So where did you and Jennifer's Body first meet? How did you come to be making the film?
Kusama: I read the script, gosh, like right before Christmas and really loved it and immediately put together a presentation that was sort of my idea of the movie or vision of the movie. They wanted to hire someone pretty quickly and they met with a bunch of people. I just kept meeting with them. I think honestly by New Year's Day, you know, January 2, we were in pre-production.
Q: So the process was actually a couple of weeks?
Kusama: Yeah. It was very fast.
Q: What was it that you like about it?
Kusama: There's such a distinctive voice in the writing and an incredible sort of hybrid of humor and horror and teenage experience. I was just really impressed with the mix of quick-witted surface and deeper intelligence to all of the relationships and all of the more metaphorical things happening in the movie. To me, as a movie, it's both accessible and funny and scary. It's firing on all cylinders, so I really loved the script right a way.
Q: Do you know if they were looking specifically for a woman to direct this?
Kusama: I don't know if that was a specific goal. I know they weren't talking to any other women directors, but I think that the fact that the story is driven by these very interesting female characters… I hope I came to the project with a real sense of sympathy and understanding of those characters. Maybe that came through in the way that I pitched my version of the movie.
Q: It's pretty well known that [screenwriter] Diablo Cody is a horror fan. How about yourself? What do you bring to it from a woman's point of view in the horror sense?
Kusama: I love horror movies. I think, for me, a lot of the great horror films are driven by female characters, and I would say that some of the true classics, in fact, are driven by female characters. So for me, horror films and feminism as an idea are fairly complementary. This felt like a great opportunity to be able to make a movie like this. It's just been such a blessing. Great time.
Q: Can you name examples of horror films and femininity?
Kusama: I think a movie like Rosemary's Baby or Carrie or A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I think you can even read the first Halloween as a tradition of seeing the horror of the world in how ever it's revealed through female eyes. That's actually a fairly rare device in movies. To me, a lot of those movies are really successful because they're put in a female voice and were looking at the world through female eyes.
Q: The producers were very impressed with the presentation you put together. They said, "It was art in there." What did you put in there? What is your vision for the movie?
Kusama: I try to draw from all sorts of influences. For me, what I loved about this script was that I could see it. I could see the interiors. I could really immediately understand the look and the visual approach to the film, so I put together a lot of paintings that have a sort of pastoral, but moonlit quality – a lot of Caspar David Friedrich paintings and this guy Arnold Bocklin. I put together examples of pop culture and fashion references that might influence the characters and references to horror films that I think might be interesting for this movie. I actually used some stills from Dario Argento films because I feel like he has such an attention to the female face even though he spends half his time mutilating it. I think he also has this uncertain relationship to women, but he loves a beautiful woman, and there is definitely that element of this film that there's this girl in the movie who is fetishized, but she also becomes an ambivalent villain in the movie. I tried to put together all those references and just sort of present them as a cohesive whole. I don't know how cohesive it was, but eventually I got the job.
Q: I noticed on set, when we were watching the filming, you kind of allowed the actors to work through the dialog and riff a little bit, but sometimes you put them back on book.
Kusama: Yup.
Q: So is Diablo's script kind of sacred in this sense where you guys try not to let that happen, to not let them do improv?
Kusama: Yeah, I mean it's interesting. Diablo's dialog to me is a pretty delicate piece because she has such a distinctive voice that if you go too far off book and if you let too much of that improv energy infect the set, suddenly the humor and the satire has been lost. So it's important when things get a little too lose or maybe a little too undisciplined to pull people back. I do think what's great about working in this job is you get to see what actors are instinctively trying to do. It's important to let them do that and figure out where they're comfortable, and then try to redirect them if you need them to, to deliver the line that's actually on the page. It's a little bit of a challenge sometimes, but actors are different. Some are totally about being on book and some not so much.
Q: How is it to have the writer of the movie on the set so much?
Kusama: She was here at the beginning, and she's been here at the end, and it's actually great. There're times when a line in a rehearsal or even while we're shooting something is revealed, and it's like you know what? This isn't actually completely working and we need to change it, and it's great to have the writer around particularly of such distinctive dialog. It's great to have a writer available to say, "I think we really need to rethink this," and she's available to help us do that. Instead of an actor or a director or a producer coming up with a line that may or may not be right, we can go directly to the source and get another perspective. It's always been great to have her on set.
Q: One of the producers mentioned earlier that you and Diablo had a meeting with just the two of you, before everything was settled. What was that meeting like?
Kusama: Oh, it was great. We just met in a dark, strangely dark hotel lobby now that I think about it. I realize it was like a Transylvanian castle which is why we got on so well. I just showed her the same book of images that I had shown all the producers and just talked to her about the movie in terms of what I truly responded to it as someone who loves movies; as a woman; as a girl who grew up watching a certain kind of horror film or a certain kind of genre movie or a certain kind of teenage angst movie. I felt like I just identified with the script so much, and so I was able to talk to her in a very casual way about what moved me about the script because the surface of it is quite outrageous and very pop, but there's a core there that's actually about the crisis of adolescence; the crisis of growing up and moving past childhood and into adulthood and accepting the realities and the horrors of the world. We just hit it off. It was really fantastic.
Q: With two female leads, a female director, a female screenwriter, is there a feminist message to this film?
Kusama: I don't consciously apply really any kind of message or ideology to a story I want to tell, but I think that it's certainly positive to have two lead actresses kind of carrying the movie, and they do. I personally think the movie will feel very fresh, very original, sort of crazy, a movie people will want to see particularly young people whether we understand this or not because our lead characters are female and because they don't apologize for who they are and because they don't apologize for their sexuality. All of that seems very positive to me. I wouldn't be surprised if the marketing was much more about selling the provocative elements of the story. I wish I wasn't so bored by the marketing process because maybe I'd get more involved in how that's all really going to happen, but to me I guess I sort of accept that this is the devil's bargain. They're going to use probably the sexuality and some of sort of the teenage lust element which is the very thing we're sort of skewering in the movie. I guess this is what it is to make movies at a studio.
Q: You said there's no apologies for the sexuality in this film and yet (I only know parts of what I've seen) it seems that the promiscuous character gets killed; gets sacrificed right away. It seems to be this puritanical thing that makes sense like in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Kusama: Actually, no. In fact, the twist of the movie is that it's her brazen sexuality that keeps her alive. I see why it gets messy, this thing, but it's equally puritanical to me to assume that we can't have sexualized 17 year old girls and still see them in the conventions and the drama which include becoming very powerful; include needing to be faced down by human forces. In the finished film, I hope what comes through is a celebration of these girls' incredible personality and eccentricity and teenage weirdness. I can see how it could be read like that if you read a line, but I think it's a bit more complex than that.
Q: How do the male leads fall into this theme of two girls coming into adulthood? The men are more than just meat, so to speak.
Kusama: Yes, hopefully. I like to talk about how unique it is that I think there are these two female characters/leads, but I also feel it's really important that the male characters be as fleshed out as they can be, excuse the pun, even if they are supporting characters.
Q: It's almost like you mentioned Argento and how Argento uses women, and it almost seems like that's the case here except there's a role reversal.
Kusama: Well, there is a role reversal in that the assumption of male power is questioned in the movie. I hope what we're revealing in the movie is that… all the guys in the movie are sympathetic characters. I always feel like it's not whether or not you kill a character in a horror movie. It's whether or not you feel for them when you do. It's dangerous in a horror movie when you start not caring about anyone or worse, feeling like they deserve it, and that's not what this movie is. This movie is about truly the horror of young people slaughtering each other. To me, the biggest horror of the movie when I read the script, the supernatural elements of the script are fantastic and funny and interesting, but the horror of the movie is how teenagers treat each other; how they talk to each other; how they neglect each other and dismiss each other and abuse each other and tease, and that's the horror of the movie. Then everything else sort of spirals off of that, so to me, I hope despite the fact that we're making this very pop statement, it still comes through that the relationships are already kind of terrifying, and that's a lot of how high school operates. You have friendships with people who maybe don't always treat you so well, but it's the best you can do when it's the only person in front of you. I hope the male characters come off as complex and sympathetic as our girls.
Q: Is it fair to say that Aeon Flux, your first feature experience, was not maybe the experience you had hoped for?
Kusama: Oh God, yeah!
Q: So, what did you learn from that that takes you into this film?
KusamaAeon Flux was such a difficult experience by the end because I was making a big movie for a studio that had changed regimes three times by the time I was in post. Anyone who had allegiances to the movie at the beginning was either fired, had left, or was living under a new regime and had to show their allegiance to the new regime rather than the old movie that was an expression or statement of an old regime's agenda. There was a tremendous, I think, I don't want to say naiveté, but a lack of understanding on my part as more and more people were literally having to leave that studio; a lack of understanding about how disastrous that was going to be for the movie and how damaging. To me, now I think I know a little better if people are going to get fired and replaced, there's got to be a sort of swat team of vigilantes on my part and on my representatives' parts to have a relationship with those new people that protects the movie. That being said, there's only so much protection you can do in that kind of circumstance. I still learned, though, so much about just the technical aspects of making a movie of that scale in terms of actions and visual effects and just large-scale set pieces. I feel like that was a really valuable experience and just making a movie of that scale felt really ultimately like a really positive experience. The movie that exists in the theaters is not mine. It's not a cut I feel particular proud of, but it exists. Hopefully, some day people will see my director's cut, but it will be some time.
Q: Do you think you could have made this movie had you not made that movie even though you're not happy with the film?
Kusama:   Yeah, I don't know. I hope that that's one of the sort of happy accidents of that crazy experience was that I was able to come to the table with quite a bit of confidence that I could pull of the special circumstances of this movie whether it was the action or the effects or the prosthetics or the visual effects that I felt pretty good about how to handle all that stuff. I didn't feel anymore daunted by those elements as I would any other elements of just trying to make a movie because making a movie is still this really hard kind of voodoo magic that you have to apply to it that I don't know by habit.
Q: It looks like you're perfectly suited for this film in that respect because it has the high concept genre of Aeon Flux, but it has the intimate drama of your previous work and it seems like it's almost fused in this 50-50 mix.
Kusama: I feel really like something about this movie speaks to me. I don't know if it's that I love young people and I love stories about young people, and there's something about these young people that are so sympathetic and interesting to me. I like genre when it's smart and interesting. I really do. I feel like some of the most important movies of my development are still the movies that dare to take genre or take a conventional narrative shape and then infuse it with ideas and visual poetry and humor. All of that stuff is what's possible with those kinds of movies, and they tend to be movies that are made within a hierarchical studio system, and you hope for those miracles every year that you're going to see a good, solid, accessible pop movie. Some years you see more than others. I'm hoping that this could be one of them that's smart and funny, but also relatable. That being said, of course, there's a million art films that so influence the way I make a movie, but this movie particularly it needs to have a kind of pop; like the doorway into it needs to be kind of pop, and then you get into a kind of Alice's Wonderland, I hope.
Q: There's an incredible level of violence in this movie as well when Jennifer goes on a rampage. We were talking to the producers, and they said you were kind of covering it from both ends, both in the graphic sense, but then doing a safe version. Can you talk about your approach to the violence in that?
Kusama: Sure. I would say a "safe version" is, I hope, a bit of a misnomer because to me, there's the version that leaves nothing to the imagination, and sometimes that's actually what you need. You need to see blood and guts. You need to see entrails, and then sometimes I think the true horror is actually generated in an audiences' experience of a movie by what they imagine, not what they see. It's important for me when I'm creating those horror sequences to allow myself the opportunity to leave something to the imagination of the audience, and that may in fact be more frightening. We're trying to cover ourselves because I don't want to shy away from the fact that there's a cannibal at large in this movie, and the circumstances of it are violent and funny, all of that at the same uncomfortable moment, but I also think that restraint sometimes can be more powerful that putting it all out there on the table.
Q: Do you think you'll be okay when the time comes and you've locked the picture?
Kusama: We know we have an R rated movie, so let's put it that way. I guess if we can avoid the NC-17, we're in good shape. Who knows what's going to happen with the NPAA because I think they often come down harder on movies where girls are sexualized and in charge of their own destinies. We'll have to just see. That will be an interesting part of the process at the end.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the casting because everyone is from fairly different backgrounds? What was behind choosing Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried as your leads?
Kusama: Well, Megan had always been attached. When Fox got the script, I guess they attached her pretty early on. I had never met her. I hadn't even seen her in Transformers, so initially I was just like, "Who's Megan Fox?" which just goes to show how out of touch I am in the world of teen starlets. What was interesting is that knowing nothing about her, that first day of work I was like, "Oh, she's perfect. She's perfect." It was pretty amazing. She has brought so much to the movie, so much complexity to the role that could easily be not complex or not particularly subtle. I think she's done amazing work. Amanda, she just has this soul fullness and this expressive face and this silent-movie sort of google eyes that just say so much from the most subtle little shifts of expression that to me, as soon as she auditioned for us, I was like, "That's the girl," but we went through a process and we all just kept coming back to Amanda; that she had this soul fullness that was so appealing. Adam Brody and Johnny Simmons and Kyle Gallner and Josh Emerson, all of them bring something really special and distinctive from each other to the movie. I think Adam, for instance, we expect maybe something from him, and then he departs from what we expect, so that's exciting to watch. It's just been a dream to work with everybody really. I can't tell you how great the experience has been.
Q: Is the fact that the guys are in a band incidental or is there something to be said about teenage girls' worship of rock stars and fame in the movie?
Kusama: Oh, there's definitely something to be said for it. I mean, definitely there's something about the experience of being a fan and the amount of energy and faith you give over to a bunch of strangers because you just want to be engaged in that sort of creative experience of listening to music or watching people perform or looking at movies. It's a wondrous thing to give over so much of your energy to somebody else, but it's also quite dangerous. Yes, there's something to be said for it.
Q: In real life, what's your greatest fear?
Kusama: In real life. Super-boring: To not be remembered by someone.
Latest User Comments:
would you or could you make jennifer's body 2 or in 3d if it's possible for you to direct :)
07-11-2010 by hotbabe2471 discuss