“We Have a Relationship with Fear from an Early Age… We Understand What It Means to be Prey”: Jennifer Reeder on Her Female Teen Horror Film, Knives and Skin
Genre filmmaking is arguably one of the most exciting and provocative sectors of cinema right now, with fresh perspectives and elevated messaging challenging the screen and its audiences. Case in point: Jennifer Reeder’s new feature, Knives and Skin. The filmmaker, who has crafted a number of successful short films over the past few years, has a bold aesthetic and isn’t afraid to put complex characters — especially young women — in bizarre and provoking situations. “I love seeing so many women not just like reclaiming, but claiming,” says Reeder about women in horror. Women have often been the subject of so many genre films, and currently there’s a surge of female creators taking back the reins and looking at tropes and typical genre storytelling with a personalized lens.
Knives and Skin grounds its story in a trope we know all too well — the “missing dead girl.” One night in a small midwestern town, teenagers Carolyn (Raven Whitley) and Andy (Ty Olwin) meet by the lake. When the romantic adventure goes wrong, Carolyn disappears, leaving Andy with a mysterious “C” etched into his forehead with her fingernail. It glows, and it won’t seem to heal over the course of the film. The rest of the town, particularly Carolyn’s mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), is crushed. The incident opens up the wounds of both the parents and teens, with the adults seeming to spiral in their mistakes,and the young women stepping into their power. In one scene, Laurel (Kayla Carter), a cheerleader with her own fresh storyline, tells Andy, “You treat girls like shit,” repeatedly. It’s one of many moments in the film that feels refreshing. The farther Carolyn disappears into the town’s consciousness, the closer their secrets are to bubbling up and encouraging confrontation.
Some viewers have referenced the work of David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks, when looking at Reeder’s style and storytelling. Others have cited High School Musical or gothic surrealism. Knives and Skin very well may have elements of those films and styles, but when mixed together in her cinematic cauldron, Reeder’s film demands a more personal interpretation. The kaleidoscope lighting, a cappella covers of pop songs, and both self-aware and self-empowering costume design serves up an original and operatic teenage adventure.
Knives and Skin is currently in release in theaters and on digital platforms via IFC Midnight.
Filmmaker had a chance to sit down with Reeder in New York City to discuss the seeds of Knives and Skin and her approach to its making. When visiting the messaging and story of each character, Reeder acknowledges how her experience as a woman has fed her desire to tell genre stories and what skills that begets. “I say this all the time, we have a very specific relationship with blood.” And Reeder is right, her knack for crafting complex characters, especially in women, is clear. “ I just think it’s really important that female filmmakers give themselves permission to write whatever characters they want and to resist one kind of female protagonist.”
Filmmaker: People talking about the film have called it Lynchian, teen noir or my favorite — midwestern gothic surrealism. For you, where did the seed of the film really begin?
Reeder: A handful of short films I’ve made over the past five years have dealt with themes of coming of age for adults and adolescents, themes about people coping with trauma. There have been people singing, objects floating. All of these moments that I utilized still in Knives and Skin I had worked out in the short films that had been vetted through Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, London — they had been embraced through this kind of festival life. Outside of the US, short films can have actually a pretty robust life on their own. But in the US it’s hard to make a whole bunch of short films because the expectation is that your goal is to make a feature film. I like to say, short films are people too.
I was making these moves in the short films that were pushing the way that I was telling stories, both visually and in terms of how I write dialogue, or even the characters I was developing — what situations I was putting them in. People were responding in a really positive way, so I thought, I’m going to try and get away with this in a longer form.
Filmmaker: I also have to sideline and say that the fact that as women we go, let’s see if I can get away with it — do you know how many men have been getting away with things and never questioned that fact?
Reeder: They never even wonder if it’s possible to develop that voice. I just recently watched for the first time Spring Breakers, and I doubt that Harmony Korine wakes himself up in the middle of the night with anxiety, wondering what he’s done or what he’s about to do. And honestly, the reason that I had made so many short films is because I could make them cheaply, quickly, and on my own terms. I wasn’t going to be someone who sat around waiting for someone to give me permission or money to make a feature-length film. I was able to, in those short films, really develop my voice in terms of how I write dialogue and characters. And also my visual style, [as in] how I like to shoot and my pacing, the color palettes that I like and how I approach production design.
When it came to sitting down and writing Knives and Skin, the seed of it, was something visual. I was driving through Ohio to see my mom along a rural two-lane road, which there are many in the Midwest. I had this idea of these three goth punk girls walking along this rural two-lane road to school, from school, to band practice to another girl’s house or just passing the time. I thought there could be maybe no better visual analogy for a person at the crossroads of their life, just feeling like at odds with their environment, for instance. Plus, I just really love a misfit girl and a girl who is expressing herself through fashion and makeup and hair — not to please anyone but herself. In particular, my most goth punk girl, the African-American woman, Charlotte, is entirely about pleasing herself. She is not presenting herself as a desirable ingénue, although I think that she looks very desirable.
Filmmaker: And her book report in the film, that’s so good.
Reeder: That outfit is my favorite outfit of hers. And so, I started thinking, okay, who are these girls and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever? In the short films that I have done, there has always been a dark element and oftentimes a missing girl, which is just something that for me has been obviously a problematic moment in a lot of horror films. Having been a young girl and having known fear from an early age, which I think we all do, I just think that women are much better suited to be working in genre as writers, producers, directors, etc. We have a relationship with fear from an early age. We really understand what it means to be prey.
Filmmaker: We bleed, you know?
Reeder: We bleed. I say this all the time, we have a very specific relationship with blood. And I can say from direct experience, there’s something very genre about childbirth. I think in terms of, let’s say, specifically, body horror, we live that on a consistent basis. I love seeing so many women not just like reclaiming, but claiming. I also say that literarily women have sort of led genre, from Frankenstein to the works of Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier and Anne Rice. Women have been telling scary stories for a long time.
Filmmaker: I do love that you take these genre tropes and you explore why they exist. Specifically in Carolyn, your main character, with giving her magical powers. Was that a choice to reclaim or resurrect the “dead missing girl” in some way?
Reeder: Right? She’s a dead girl who won’t stay dead, but I don’t consider her a zombie or a ghost. Some of her magical powers are coming from her own life force. I’m not a spiritual person per se, but I do like thinking that our moxie lives on somehow, and can have agency when we’re gone. In the “C” that she carves in [Andy’s] head and it glows for a moment, but it doesn’t heal up over however long that the film takes place.
And with the way that Carolyn’s body moves around, part of it is I wanted her to be reanimated, but I also wanted to suggest that it was something about the vibrating worry of the people of that town are causing her body to move. So it’s really subtle, but every time her body moves it’s like someone has said her name out loud or there’s been some reference to her. It’s subtle, but there’s a way that her own body is listening to people calling for her and she’s responding to that.
Filmmaker: The film reminded me a little bit of when I read The Body, The Stephen King novella. It’s also about how death in a community can radiate to different people and how you would expect the children to react the way adults react. In Knives and Skin, the parents are pointedly a mess and the young girls really keep it together, and evolve. What were your choices in crafting this story? It felt tragic and liberating at the same time.
Reeder: It feels authentic to me. I think that young people are deeply conscious of their lives. I think that they’re actually deeply conscious of the way that culture co-opts them and sells themselves back to themselves. They are still children who need guidance and stability from their parents. We live in a world where just because someone is of a certain age doesn’t mean that they are willing to rise to the occasion of their life. I’m a mom and there’s lots of things in my life that I compartmentalize to keep my kids feeling safe and protected. My kids don’t know when I’ve had a bad day. That’s not to say too that I’m living a lie. But when my children come home and I’ve had a bad day, it’s easy enough for me to compartmentalize that. I meet them at their life, figure out what’s happening with them and what they need from me. And then revisit my bad day later on. But I do see a lot of adults really indulging in their desires and their wants. And in the course of that, ruining the relationships they have with other adults and ruining the relationship they have with their children, or asking their children to take on their baggage. I just think that that’s abusive, really.
Filmmaker: On a more macro level, this is what the next generation is dealing with, the state of our country. I don’t know if you were trying to be political about it, but I think it’s hard not to politicize a lot of films in our climate.
Reeder: I think that’s part of it, without conking it over the head. There’s the potential for any generation to fuck things up beyond repair. I would also like to think that, as the writer of Knives and Skin, that it ends in a hopeful way. All those adults, they all have arcs, some of them broader than others. But even that seems significant enough for us to understand that they believe they can learn from their mistakes. Redemption is real, forgiveness is real, and that no one has to bear the burden of the circumstance of their life if it’s all fixable and you can move on from it. I wanted to also suggest that, for so many girls, I experienced this and I’m sure that you have as well, that there’s so much to navigate as a young woman. Sometimes it’s literally just getting to where you need to be and navigating a street full of men who talk and touch. That doesn’t happen to me so much anymore. I’m thankful for that. But when I was a young person, those kinds of violations, of boundaries, happened on a daily basis.
Filmmaker: The line in the film where Laurel tells Andy, “You treat girls like shit,” and then it becomes this cadence she’s saying over and over. I thought, wow, we’ve seen these terrible characters for years, but no one has ever called them out on it on screen. Was that like a conscious choice that you were making with that moment?
Reeder: I started writing [Knives and Skin] before Me Too. And of course, I say when Me Too broke, but every single woman I know was like, yeah. It was certainly not the best kept secret in the world. But I remember a number of think pieces around that and, let’s say, friends of mine on social media or other people in that periphery having that realization like, well, no one said I shouldn’t do that, or I didn’t know that that was not, you know, blah, blah, blah. I think there’s lots of men who understand that rape is illegal. But when men were called out for telling women to smile or subtle things like complementing an outfit, men were saying, “I didn’t know that women don’t like to hear that.” Sometimes the assumption in a situation like this is that someone knows better and they’re doing it anyway. The reality is that I think there are a lot of people, and especially young men, depending on how they grow up in an environment, where no one has said, “Don’t do that. They don’t like that. We don’t like that.” Or, “You treat girls like shit.” That sentence, which is completely ham-fisted, it’s not a poetic sentence, but she’s saying it so emphatically. She really needs him to hear that. None of us as humans can assume that someone’s bad behavior is in spite of them knowing better. I think smart people can make those assumptions because it should be common sense. But for some it’s not.
Filmmaker: Sometimes the landscape we live in, with this whole “cancel culture,” can be crippling to an artist. And you’re putting art on screen with Knives and Skin where there are complex characters. You’re saying, “Decide what you will.” Do you feel as an artist ever suffocated by this culture? Where you’re having to go, “Well, I have to make sure that this checks all these boxes so I’m not offending these people.” Or are you more like, “Fuck it, I’m going to make something and you’re liberated by it”?
Reeder: I have always been drawn to difficult characters. And I don’t know why necessarily. I didn’t grow up in a household with difficult people. I’ve always really been drawn to the person in the film who is not, let’s say the villain, but just the more opaque characters and in particular, opaque women.
Filmmaker: Can you reference some of the ones that inspired you?
Reeder: A more current reference would be something like, the main character in [Lynne Ramsay’s] Morvern Callar or Carol White in [Todd Hayne’s] Safe. But I don’t look at those portrayals of those women in particular as being anti-feminist, for instance. At no point have I thought to myself, you know, a good feminist filmmaker only writes powerful, uplifting women who are just and open. And if they’re a mom, they’re nurturing and caring. It felt really important with Knives and Skin, to write specifically these women and the mothers, who are ambivalent about motherhood, whose instinct is not to nurture or to care — they are deeply selfish. Carolyn Harper’s mother, who we understand is dealing with the most unspeakable fear of her life, is also making very bad decisions in the wake of that grief. She’s taking on some intimacies with Andy. It felt really important in that moment that her ethics are murky. I’m not putting any pressure on myself then to turn in my feminist filmmaker card. [In relation to] something that you were saying at the beginning in terms of the characters male writers and male directors have taken on — there are plenty of multi-dimensional protagonists who are an anti-heroes and they are champions. No one takes those men to task for creating admirable dickheads, you know? I just think it’s really important that female filmmakers give themselves permission to write whatever characters they want and to resist one kind of female protagonist. It was ridiculous the way that Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman was held to task as though it was like a Fellini film. Nobody tried to break down Iron Man in the same intellectual way.
I leaned into the mess of it all. And the women who I had cast to be in this film are really intensely accomplished actresses who, in their own paths of their life, totally understood who these [characters] were and had experienced them in their peers, in their mothers, aunts, etc. Unlikable women exist in the world, but we still live in a world where unlikable women are invisible.
Filmmaker: I do have to ask about Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, your composer, and Christopher Rejano, your DP. The film feels so unique in its visuals and the music is such a part of the mood of the story. Did they come onboard early?
Reeder: Chris has shot a bunch of my short films, so I’ve worked with him over the past six years. He and I have a real shorthand when we’re on set. I love working with him. He’s also a really gentle, calm, steady presence. When I made the short films, they had a lot of young people in front of the camera — much younger than in Knives and Skin. I would cast a 14-year-old to actually play a 14-year-old. When you’ve got a 14 -year -old girl in front of the camera and she’s doing a scene that is provocative, what you don’t want in a DP is someone who’s going to disrupt that, or be intimidating or inappropriate. And Chris is the opposite, he’s almost invisible behind the camera. He really is very calming, gentle and trusting. When you’re making a film like Knives and Skin, you’re going, “I want to drench this whole thing in neon pink,” and he’s like, “Let’s do it.” We shot with these beautiful vintage anamorphic lenses, which he was dying to use and we really knew that could make it special and stand out. And then with Nick, Nick had scored a short film that I had done a couple of years ago, and I knew that I really liked working with him. And, obviously, he’s a really great musician. I sent him the script and he actually started working on music before we started shooting because the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were going to go on tour the day we wrapped.
He knew that he had a limited amount of time to get some music done, just based on the script and conversations we had. The day we wrapped something like 20 tracks of music arrived. When we had an assembly ready, we started dropping in Nick’s tracks to see what worked and there was so many that worked really well. There’s basically only like 90 seconds in the film that doesn’t have music in it. Working with him was really beautiful and organic.
Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you were a dancer and that’s influenced your filmmaking. I was too, so I was excited to hear that. The film does operate, especially on a second or third viewing, like an opera or ballet, where it washes over you. It’s not so plot-driven as it is lyrical. How did dance influence the way you make art?
Reeder: I like to tell the melodrama. If we go from Giselle and Swan Laketo Paquita — it’s the melodrama of those stories with female protagonists who are dealing with tragedy. I can’t resist a theatrical production design, the lighting and set decoration. That all comes from that dance world and, also, blocking is like choreography. When I’m at video village, in a way that is the stage — how are you moving bodies through that stage, the way that you would do as a choreographer or a dancer? Also the way that I really like to use a close-up. I think something that I miss when I’m watching an actual performance, that I get to make up for, is really being able to examine a body closely. When you’re watching a ballet, everything’s there and is invisible. You can’t really hear the the point shoes on the floor and those dancers’s bodies are ragged. You should see my feet — I’m sure both of our feet!
Filmmaker: Oh, I have insoles in all my shoes, yeah.
Reeder: I like getting close to people in my films, in a way to look at those bodies. I mean, I say to people that I came to my feature-length filmmaking like the impossible love child of Maya Deren and Steve McQueen. Sort of an experimental filmmaker from the dance world and someone who’s making feature-length films from the art world, that’s how it happened to me. I don’t dance anymore by any means, but the trajectory is totally clear.
Filmmaker: I think everyone right now says they want women directors in horror. But do people put their money where their mouth is? From your experience, after it’s come out, are people knocking on your door?
Reeder: I think it’s real. With Knives and Skin, it’s picked up since IFC picked it up. It got sent to distributors who couldn’t commit, didn’t know what to do with it, which, I don’t know that that’s a gendered thing. It is a little bit of a difficult film. I get that. Now they’re, seeing, oh, right, there’s an audience for this. And she does know what she’s doing. She can write a film, she can direct, she can make a feature-length films that come in on schedule and under budget. And, it’s nice. I’m getting lots of genuine questions about what’s next. I’m in full finance development for the next project.
Filmmaker: Cool. Can you tell us what it is?
Reeder: It’s called, A Girl and Other Small Stains. It’s a coming-of-age Cat People meets Fish Tank. Right now, it’s in development with What The Films, a Paris-based sales agent and production company. We’ve got a bunch of US people interested, so we’re trying to find the right partner for that. I feel really lucky.