KARYN KUSAMA’S “JENNIFER’S BODY” By Scott Macaulay
Here’s the way it used to be. You made an edgy, well-received independent film, one that showed your facility to tell a story and work with actors, and the smart Hollywood scripts — quality writing that required the touch of someone outside the system — would arrive in those expensively-printed agency binders. And that’s the way it seemed to be playing out for Karyn Kusama, who made an excellent debut with her gritty, low-budget Girlfight, a female boxing movie that launched the movie career of Michelle Rodriguez. But then a couple of things happened. First, her follow-up, Aeon Flux, was an appropriately youth-centric picture produced by MTV Films… that morphed into a would-be studio tentpole movie. And then, Hollywood stopped making those smart Hollywood scripts that required an indie filmmaker’s touch.
Fortunately for Kusama, her story doesn’t end there, like it unfortunately does for so many independent filmmakers. Her third picture, Jennifer’s Body, opens in theaters next week, and it’s exactly the sort of smart studio picture that has been elevated by being directed with ambition, intelligence and a respect for the emotional lives of the characters. Diablo Cody lives up to her hype (and her witty Twitter stream) with a smart script containing not only her trademark teen-speak but also a canny reworking of horror movie tropes and feminist film theory. And then there’s Megan Fox, for whom this movie is a coming-out party designed to prove that the Michael Bay-discovered magazine and ‘net fetish object can carry a movie. She capably does, dishing out Cody’s sarcastic one-liners with deadpan zeal while also nailing quite unexpected deeper emotional notes as the movie goes progresses.
I spoke to Kusama by phone, as she was waiting her flight to attend the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Kusama: I happened to get the script from my agent. I had been getting a lot of genre scripts that were the most watered down versions [of these kind of stories], and this felt so original and crazy. The script is even crazier than the movie. I felt I had to try and land it. I realized recently, after I finished the movie, that it is one of those rare Hollwyood releases that doesn’t originate from a game, a ride, or another movie. So part of what makes it original is that it is original.
Filmmaker: When you say that you had to try and land it, what did that involve? And, specifically, how did you sell yourself as being able to handle the incredibly tricky tonal balancing act of the movie?
Kusama: Because the tone is as tricky as it is, I put together a very expensive book of images that helped people see the direction I wanted to go in so that it felt clearer. It is a tricky tonal exercise navigating between three genres: comedy, horror, and teen angst. While I believed the emotional reality of the characters and narrative is a heightened one, I also believed in the opera of the emotional dynamics. And if you can believe in that stuff, then you can commit to treating some things even with your tongue firmly in check, and you can commit to taking other things seriously. Or, to take the material seriously but then have a sense of lightness at points.
Filmmaker: Both of your films have been tough and dramatic; you haven’t been known for comedy.
Kusama: No, I haven’t! Luckily for me, I connected to a lot of the comedy. There’s a certain kind of teenage banter, [use of] teenager secret alphabets, that felt real to me. As much as I have only made two films and not proved facility with comedy, I also have a real worship and love of a certain kind of teenage movie, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl — movies that were aggressively quotable. So having the mind of a fan, like I do, the producers knew I would treat the material with a lightness when it was called for. What was interesting during the process of making the movie was finding out that quite a bit of the comedy hit the cutting room floor because it upset the emotional balance [between the characters]. A lot of the comedy was scaled back.
Filmmaker: In addition to the tonal challenges, you had others as well. One was the pressure of directing the next Diablo Cody script, the follow-up to her immensely successful Juno. How did her fame affect you and the process of making the movie?
Kusama: It was key that she had just won an Oscar and was in the very, very distinctive and unusual situation of being a “famous screenwriter.” In some ways that allowed for an internal discussion between me, [Diablo] and the producers that was very fruitful. We could make changes and rethink sequences without having a huge amount of studio interference. We could talk realistically about actors, locations, and what those factors of reality brought to the story. She had a certain amount of power so we could introduce a new idea, or alter an existing idea without executives breathing down our necks.
Kusama: I feel like you can’t consider Jennifer’s Body without addressing the crucial importance of Carrie, and that relationship was even more profound in earlier cuts of the movie, when the main characters returned to the dance to face down the band. There was a very real reference, but it was also a question of the tonal relationship. I wish I could say Rosemary’s Baby, a film I love, was a huge influence on this film, but I’d be lying. It would make more sense to say that Joe Dante’s The Howling, which as a tonal relationship.
Filmmaker:How conscious were you of some the feminist horror film theory written by writers like Carol Clover? The movie seems to reference her “final girl” theory while also scrambling it up.
Kusama: I think we were very conscious of [these ideas]. The covert feminism that I think is implicit in what we come to experience as slasher movies but which are really female survival movies was important to Diablo and me. It was interesting to be aware of how we experience the villain, the monster. We assume the villain is always Jennifer but later in the film you see her as both villain and victim. There was something interesting about holding off on revealing what happened to her, holding off on exposing her trauma — it makes you reconsider her as a villain. But maybe the trope we were more interested in upending was the idea of the unstoppable killer. Narratively you are in an endgame when you have an unstoppable killer. You can make movie after movie, but there’s not a lot of tension involving the villain. So, as much as we were playing with gender ideas, we were also playing with a more complicated depiction of the villain. Ultimately, the true villain is the band and ambition in general.
Filmmaker: Jennifer’s backstory — the origin sequence, I guess — which occurs late in the film was extraordinary in how it was both horrific but also quite painful and sad. Was it always that place in the film? Did you ever have a more linear construction?
Kusama: It was always in that place. What could have been more up for grabs, if you asked the studio, was the tone of that scene. I think luckily for everyone, Megan and I had agreed early on that the scene had to be terrifying but also, as you say, painful. You had to be shocked by how exposed and vulnerable the character was. At that point the movie steps outside the more surface humor and glibness and becomes a lot more serious, and I was thankful we could achieve that. It would have been easy to make that scene not serious when the fact is that it is very serious. You have to take responsibility when you depict violence on screen. You have to show the humanity that is being compromised in both the victimizer and the victim.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the visual design. The film is dark, with a very defined palette, and it’s quite lonely. There are bit open spaces — streets, school fields — and not a lot of people. It’s a bit more stylized than most of today’s horror films.
Kusama: For me, the visual design was pretty much based on taking a look at northern Midwestern towns and thinking about collision between wider natural spaces with the feelings of living in small towns. That helped me find those frames that were particularly stark. Even though there was that sense of loneliness and spooky solitude, I also felt it was important to pay attention the colorscape and textural landscape of the movie. Even when a movie is supposed to look low key and un-showy, it is important to me that it have a kind of form. The problem I have with a lot of genre filmmaking is that it doesn’t take its visual logic very seriously. So I tried to sneak [the stylized visual scheme] by because ultimately I think these movies are more interesting if you are able to pay attention to the style. You know, it doesn’t cost money to discuss and plan. I wanted to make these choices [in pre-production] and not to leave things looking shabby.
Kusama: We were actually pushing the color and the light when we were shooting, so the DI became a faster process. The only place we did [image] manipulation was a series of shots at the end of the movie that are very slo-mo, and these shots were done on an HD camera and required a huge amount of DI work. When converting it back to film we had to do so much work to make it seem like the same medium.
Filmmaker:That dark and ominous street that Jennifer lives on — tell me about that location. I almost thought it was a matte painting.
Kusama: That’s a real place, a terrifying housing development in Vancouver that was under construction. It’s a real scary place, with train tracks that run next door. It was freexzing when we were shooting, and we used one of their unfinished houses to shoot the interiors. Lighting it was tricky because it was such a large amount of space to even just edge light so you could see the space.
Filmmaker: Okay, so in addition to directing “the next Diablo Cody” picture, you were also entrusted with, really, the first film that Megan Fox is expected to carry. She’s been anointed as Hollywood’s next big star, and I imagine there was tremendous pressure with regards to her and her performance. What were your initial conversations with her like?
Kusama: More than anything, what Megan communicated to me, both directly and indirectly, was that she wanted to not take herself too seriously but that she wanted to be taken seriously in the process of making the movie. And I could only respect that position. She knew that she had a lot to prove with the movie, and she was really open to trying different things and talking about her character. Once I saw that, I found it really easy as a director to take care of her, which is what she needed and what she’ll need as her career gets more insane and complicated. She’s very young. That’s the interesting thing about Amanda [Seyfried], Megan and Johnny Simmons — they are young people! And then to add insult to injury, they are actors, who are removed from reality for a very formative part of their life. So part of the job of being a director was to be be den parent and to make sure that people get a good night sleep before showing up to work.
Filmmaker:The movie’s quite canny about her stardom. It starts off with her as the Michael Bay-styled uber-babe cracking the kind of deadpan one-liners that she’s great at on talk shows and on the red carpet. And then her character gets more complicated, and you deconstruct her image in scenes in which she looks completely plain and normal. How self-aware was she of the ways in which the movie is commenting on her stardom?
Kusama: She’s very self aware. She’s really smart and funny and very blunt. There’s a lot of humor that comes out of youthful frankness. And from my first meeting on, she felt that this movie was an opportunity to distort her image, which, ironically, an actress does every time she takes on a role. For Megan, though, she has this lopsided image because her image outweighs her work. There just hasn’t been enough work to prop up this image that people fetishize. So, here she was able to play with ideas of beauty and desirability and all of that. I mean, she runs into the same female insecurities that all actresses face but she was game. But when you say she looks like a normal girl — that’s a lot of makeup to make her look normal!