“Coming of Age Is a Lifelong Process”: Jennifer Reeder on Perpetrator
“I have no shame saying that on some level, I’ve kind of been making the same film over and over,” writer-director Jennifer Reeder tells me on a recent Zoom call. We’re speaking ahead of the Berlinale premiere of Perpetrator, the anticipated follow-up to her 2019 feature debut Knives and Skin, a horror-tinged teen noir that centers on the disappearance of a high school-aged girl and the reckoning that it brings to a Midwestern town’s inhabitants, particularly the girl’s mother and her teenage friend group.
Perpetrator iterates a similar narrative trajectory, this time with a distinct genre sensibility. Precocious 17-year-old Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) has a no-frills home life with her deadbeat father, supported by her after school hustle as a petty thief. Her mother has long been out of the picture, only exacerbating her feeling of isolation when she begins to undergo a supernatural transformation. Understanding that he’s well out of his depth, Jonny’s father sends her off to live with Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), a relative who has decades of experience with this fraught transitional period. Forced to attend a stuffy private school while keeping her newfound abilities under wraps, Jonny nonetheless enmeshes herself in an ongoing investigation involving missing girls from her high school. It’s not long until she’s convinced that her fledgeling shapeshifting abilities and the bewitched blood that flows through her veins just might be the key to their collective survival.
During our conversation, Reeder expanded upon Perpetrator‘s origins, the culture of misogyny it addresses and how she navigates her work’s thorny subjects as a devoted daughter and mother. Perpetrator will stream on Shudder later this year, accompanied by a theatrical window.
Filmmaker: Can you walk me through the process, creatively and production-wise, of making this film? I know you’ve helmed a few other projects since Knives and Skin, but I’m curious where this landed within that timeline and about the overall genesis of the project.
Reeder: Even before Knives and Skin, when I was touring around with shorts I made leading up to it—which feature lots of teenage girls in front of a camera—I would get asked in Q&As and by the press about the nuances, or maybe even the “difficulties,” of working with that many girls on set. After getting that question enough times, it occurred to me that people were asking with the assumption that it was awful, you know? Of course, the reason I keep making films with all of these young people is because the experience has been fantastic. So, I began to very concretely understand that although we are a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, especially among young women, we hate young women. We have built a machine to annihilate them. I wanted to address our obsession with youth and beauty among young women and our desire to literally tear them apart. I have thought so often about the language we use directly towards young women who have agency over their sexuality or have a really independent path. We often call them “wild” and “out of control,” which is not meant to amplify their spirit. It’s meant to diminish them and discourage that kind of independence.
Even while I was still in post with Knives and Skin, I thought, “The next one I do is going to be a proper genre film, not just a conceptual genre film.” I had this idea of making something that started off with a “wild” and “out of control” girl who really becomes wild and out of control, so the language and tone that’s meant to diminish her becomes her superpower. Of course, there’s a classic shapeshifting story on one hand. But I knew that I didn’t want her to be a werewolf, vampire or something that we had known before. I wanted her to be something more nuanced. A kind of super-empathetic, emotional-basket-case-as-a-shapeshifter superpower felt like the right direction. Right after Berlin in 2019, the foreign sales agent Gregory Chambet of WTFilms asked me, very candidly, “What do you wanna do next?” I said, “I keep thinking about a kind of a shapeshifter story, like a coming of age Cat People.” And he was like, “I love Cat People! I want to help you make that film.” I hear that a lot: “Let’s find something to work on together.” But less than two weeks later, my agent called and said, “OK, we got the paperwork from Greg to start making your shapeshifter story.”
We thought we were going to shoot at the end of 2020, and we all know what happened. I thought, “Let’s not rush this.” Opportunities came up, like to direct one of the sections for V/H/S/94. That train had already left the station, so I was like, “I’m just going to jump on it. It’ll be great to be a part of this really beloved franchise.” Then another project came up from a Chicago-based playwright, Night’s End. It felt like we could do this thing in one location with a very small cast and crew—a very small footprint. Over 13 days in the summer of 2021, with some great financing from my pals at Shudder, we made this little scary ghost film that was a blast to make. I did not put any pressure on myself—nobody did, we just had a really fun time doing it. I just felt thankful to make two more films—one that came out in 2021, the other in 2022.
With Perpetrator, we were just working on getting the script in shape. We had some great cast members that came on and off as the world started opening back up again. We landed on Kiah McKirnan and the iconic Alicia Silverstone, and we shot Perpetrator here in Chicago last March—a miserable time to shoot a film, but we got beautiful footage. Berlin said, “Let’s have it for the world premiere,” and here we are.
Filmmaker: Having Alicia Silverstone as that adult foil plays into this recurring theme in your work of the lives of adults and teenagers converging and being more alike than different. Especially because you play with 1980s genre conventions, it’s a contrast to the usual “us versus them” dichotomy portrayed between different age brackets during that era. Tell me about the casting process, particularly with what Alicia Silverstone brought to the project. She’s best known as a teen icon, but this film also works to ensure she’s not simply beholden to her teenage image.
Reeder: I wanted Hildie to be played by someone who was an authentic adult who had an interesting or relevant personal provenance, someone who had been introduced to us as a teenager. There were some other names that floated around on a list, but Shudder loves Alicia Silverstone. I honestly was trying to track her for Knives and Skin. I really thought she would be great as the mother of Carolyn Harper, the missing girl, so she had been on my mind to work with for a long time. So they said, “We’re going to send her the script. Will you write her a letter?” Which is not uncommon. Then the casting people called and said, “OK, she wants to talk to you.” Over Zoom, I could just tell immediately that she’s so smart. She’s such a genuinely curious person. She’s also a really caring mom, which felt like a very interesting detail. She’s also obviously an animal rights and environmental rights activist, but that extends to who she is as a woman and how she seeks justice in the world.
She loved the script, which was a huge compliment to me. She told me that her manager said, “Read the script. It’s weird, like a Yorgos Lanthimos script.” Then it occurred to me that she’s in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and she had this great part in the beginning of The Lodge. Now that I know her much better, I can see that she really curates her own roster of films. She attaches herself to things she cares about, and she cared deeply about this project. Leading up to it, she called me almost every day with questions and really broke down the script. Sometimes she would say really endearing things, like “Well, I don’t get that part, but we’re making art,” in that kind of Cher way where she’s truly forever young. She’s an incredible actor, and so professional in the sense that I could give her a whole table of props and she would do exactly the same thing with them every time. She knew exactly where her light was. She knew exactly where her mic was. These are small details, but when you’re moving fast during a feature length film and working 12- or 14-hour days, you have to be laser-focused. I felt so lucky to have her in front of the camera.
I always imagined the Miriam Blaylock character from The Hunger, Catherine Deneuve—iconic character, iconic actor, iconic film. I started sending images of that film to Alicia and said, “If you haven’t seen it, watch it.” She watched it immediately and called me: “I’m obsessed.” I was like, “Of course. We all are.” [laughs] That’s what we patterned her look after, because Alicia still looks incredibly young and gorgeous, that kind of blond Southern California girl. She gets cast to do that part a lot, so I thought it was going to be really special to make her look different. Also to give her this intelligence over the generations, a sly wryness and a little bit of duplicity. When she says, “I’ve been buried alive twice,” she says it with such pride, which is a really kind of terrifying and disgusting thing, but it’s like, “Wow, Hildie’s got some secrets!”
Alicia has been really involved in the post-production process too. She’s been curious about seeing clips and just watched [the completed film] recently and was giving me a play-by-play with voice memos the entire time and really loves it. Now I just want to make the rest of my films with her.
Filmmaker: The role of womanhood and girlhood in this film—and, more than anything, the role of motherhood—feels like an appropriate companion to Knives and Skin. This shapeshifting mother character further defies the gendered constructs and expectations of parenthood, especially for women. I’m interested in how you conceived these paternal roles and how they’re in conversation with the “right” way to raise a child and be a mother.
Reeder: I’d like to go on the record and say that I have a great relationship with my own mom, who’ll be 92 in May. I’m a mom myself and hope my children would also say that I’m engaged and a good mom, for the most part. [laughs] I love motherhood, I don’t have an ambivalence toward it. But I know that exists—a kind of loathing for motherhood—and feel very empathetic toward that. I feel very sensitive to what the expectation is of people who are mothers, and how they’re supposed to magically be fully-functioning humans with incredible instincts. That’s a very dangerous myth. This idea comes up in my films that coming of age is a lifelong process. If you’re having an evolution in your life after the age of 17, then you’re in a “midlife crisis”—which is also a way of diminishing our ability to evolve across genders after our biological adolescence.
I like moms in transition. I like adults who are learning from children. There’s a lot to be learned from young people. They don’t get enough credit for how smart and aware they are of what’s happening in the world. I like presenting adults who have made pretty triumphant mistakes and whose arc is, “OK, I’m going to try and do better, maybe starting tomorrow.” In my films, a character’s arc doesn’t have to be something redemptive that we can all see. It can be a little turn that leads into another little turn, because that authentically feels like how we become more present in our lives. I wanted to present this lineage of women, where Hildie has a rough exterior but she’s taking care of Jonny for a reason, and there’s a little tough love in there. She doesn’t want her to get in trouble, because she knows that she’s going to have these things happening soon that will make her more visible than she needs to be. Between Hildie and Jonny is the mom, Jean, who kind of disappeared from her life and—without spoiling too much—has reappeared in a different form. During that heartfelt conversation that she and Jonny have on the bed, there’s that little turn where she says something like, “I wish I could say that I did the best I could. But I’m here now and I’m going to do better.” And Jonny is just like, “Alright. You weren’t there, but let’s do it.” I think that feels like a big moment that doesn’t have to be some grand double monologue that would take place in a less nuanced coming of age story.
Filmmaker: Again, your features are definite companions, with Knives and Skin centering on a mother with a missing daughter and Perpetrator featuring a daughter who’s missing her mother. I’m curious what interrogations there have been personally on your part, if any of these themes hold significance in your life as a mother and a daughter?
Redder: Like I said, I have a good relationship with my mom now that we’re both adults. We certainly argued a bunch when I was a teenager. I’m the youngest of five. Like so many teenage girls, I felt misunderstood by her in the moment. I felt oppressed by her for having to come home at midnight. [laughs] “How dare you!” At the same time, I was a ballet dancer all through high school, and she drove me everywhere. She was at every performance. It took me a while to understand how deeply supportive she was toward things that were important to me.
Now, anyone who follows me on social media understands that I’ve become a high school sports mom. I have football players and a wrestler, which is crazy. I do the same thing: I drive them everywhere, I am there for team dinners and all of that very conventional stuff that, for me, is about supporting my children and being engaged in their lives and letting them know that I care. I have no idea what’s happening on the field. I have no problem admitting that. I’m like, “Why do they have the ball now?” But I’m there.
I know that my mom genuinely loved coming to those performances and seeing me do this thing that I loved to do. A part of the dysfunction that I write in these characters is a kind of speculation based on searching my own heart to figure out what, for instance, I’m supposed to feel connected to as a woman, a mom, an American. All of these things have become part of my identity that I just don’t feel connected to in any organic way, then I suture that into those characters.
A very old film that I made as part of my MFA thesis project, The Adventures of White Trash Girl, was about a girl superhero with toxic bodily fluids. I keep thinking about how Jonny is a different version of that with magical blood. I have no shame saying that on some level, I’ve kind of been making the same film over and over again. I keep thinking about how important it was at that point in my life to make a very iconic character whose body empowered her, which in turn empowered me. Writing Perpetrator and feeling like, “I can’t wait to see this girl’s magic erupt out of her blood,” felt very selfishly empowering to me as a person. I wanted to unleash her onto the world for audiences to feel connected to—and to feel entertained, but also empowered and inspired by.
Filmmaker: I don’t think it’s selfish at all, particularly because you’re capturing this broader cultural sentiment among women, especially American women, which honestly feels like a public service. So, obviously themes of motherhood and womanhood are prevalent in the film, but I’d like to discuss the role of men and the violence they commit against women. Can you talk about the role of men, both in this film and within society, and the cycle that diminishes the value of young women and, as you said earlier, “strips them for parts”?
Reeder: Between Jonny’s father, the inept cop and our perpetrator, this is not the first time that I’ve written adult men who are kind of despicable. It took me a long time to figure out how, let’s say, the “perpetrator” part of the story would really function—how not to over-explain it, how to make it reside in the film as an allegory as much as a “real thing.” I looked into backchannel purchases, things like human growth hormone or synthetic growth hormone—maintaining youth or even making sure that young boys grow taller. There are real exchanges for parts for non-medical purposes in varying degrees, just maybe not as profoundly grotesque as in Perpetrator. But it exists. The film is even related to what is still happening right this minute in American politics around women’s health and reproductive rights. It’s directly related to the disposable nature of women’s bodies, or wrapped up in the “mystery” around women’s bodies. One of the Instagram accounts I love to send myself down a wormhole into is called Roe v. Bros, where a woman will ask random guys in a park, like, “Can somebody pee with a tampon in?” And the guy is like, “Absolutely not.”
Filmmaker: I’ve definitely seen those on TikTok. It’s really terrifying when you realize how little men understand about cis female bodies and whatnot.
Reeder: Right? Even cis men, who have presumably directly experienced all of these holes. [laughs] Yet they still feel it’s an absolute mystery. So, Perpetrator is all wrapped up in the reality of policies that have a continuous obsession over women’s bodies. I was thinking so much about that while making this, and I certainly don’t want to have this film feel like a glorification or celebration of violence against women. I need to emphasize that. Though violence against women is a reality, not unlike the subplot of the missing girls in the film, it’s often seen as something like, “Women get beaten and go missing all the time. What’s the big deal?” There’s a little bit of that deeply dark satire around how we as a culture ignore that reality, so it was important to me that those scenes feel part of a proper genre film, but that I wasn’t creating images that are too triggering.
For instance, in Knives and Skin, there’s this missing girl who ends up dead. The same thing happens in Perpetrator, and I’ve certainly been accused by feminists of all genders of not making feminist gestures by leaning into the trope of the dead or missing girl in my films. Obviously, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s my responsibility to take on this very problematic trope. If you ignore it, then you become part of that long line of not just female filmmakers, but white filmmakers who won’t deal with these [thornier] issues. That’s not a challenge for me.