Karyn Kusama has occupied the director’s chair on both sides of the mainstream filmmaking spectrum, from the microbudget Sundance darling Girlfight to the poorly received, big-budget anime adaptation Aeon Flux. She settles somewhere between the two tomorrow with Jennifer’s Body, the breathlessly anticipated Megan Fox horror comedy that premiered to mixed reactions (including my own thumbs-up) last week in Toronto. The filmmaker sat down for drinks with Movieline on the final day of her Canadian marathon, elaborating on contemporary criticism, feminine monsters, guiding her young stars and what you might see on the Jennifer’s Body director’s-cut DVD.
So how’s your festival going?
I think my thing is that I haven’t slept in three days, so I’m like, “Whew!” I’m so tired. I think I miss my kid. He’s two and a half. He’s doing great; he’s with his grandma and nanny, but I just miss him. But I’m good! I’m good. I think inevitably these kinds of movies have to absorb some blows from the kind of people who would never get it or never necessarily like this kind of movie. It also has its rabid fans. So that’s been interesting to witness.
It does seem to be a polarizing film, which is interesting. You don’t generally get that with this genre — not that it’s a straight genre film.
Not at all. How much have you invested in the reaction?
I don’t invest that much in it, to be honest. I generally feel pretty disappointed by the critical community. I feel like the nature of discourse in terms of actual critical thinking is not particularly rich. Maybe that’s because I spent a lot more time reading critics from the past who I felt had strong opinions that were measured and considered responses to movies, no matter what they were. They didn’t necessarily bring a hidden agenda to the proceedings. And sometimes I feel like when that enters the picture, I resent it on behalf of any filmmaker. Of course you resent it a little bit more if it’s your movie. But ultimately I feel like the movie will find its audience and the people it’s speaking to. It spoke to me. I felt so connected to the material, and I felt like this is the kind of movie I would have been just so excited to see if was 18 again. Really, if I was 14 again, but just the f*cked-up nature of the MPAA makes it if I was 17 again. But there’s something about the heightened and theatrical logic of this movie that to me feels very real and relatable. Maybe it’s polarizing because to some people it’s not relatable. I get that. That’s fine.
But it’s a totally revisionist horror film. It’s very postmodern. People aren’t prepared to reconcile their expectations with the reality.
Yes, I agree.
How did that appeal to the director — as opposed to the 17-year-old — in you?
I read it several times before I decided to do it; it’s not a “safe” choice, this script. I had to consider the different things that excited me about it. I had to think about all the things that presented obstacles and incredible opportunities in the script. For me, I didn’t look at it initially as that revisionist text; I saw it very much as a relationship movie. And the more I thought about it in the context of the films I felt influenced by, I did realize that it was chock full of reversals of certain ideas. For me, one of the most interesting ideas in the movie is that the monster is female, but the villain is male. It’s her victimization that creates a monster. And that says a lot to me about femininity. That was an interesting idea. I thought that her shadow self — Needy — having to self-actualize and become a separate and independent human from Jennifer… I relate to that story. I know that the narrative tropes around it are very outrageous, but the simple story below all that is very basic and fundamentally satisfying— for me. I’ve been asked countless times, “Why are you drawn to horror films? Why do you think women are drawn to horror films?” And it’s because in a way, it’s one of the few genres that tells it like it is. A lot of times, women do feel like they’re running for their lives somehow. It’s really visceral, and enclosed in the genre blueprint. The emotion of it is very real. So what was interesting to me was that you could play with this fight for survival from both Jennifer’s point of view and Needy’s point of view. And all of that could still be punctuated with moments of discombobulating humor. I think it’s a crazy movie. I read it and I thought, “This movie doesn’t feel like other movies to me. I don’t know what this movie is.” And I felt like that’s incredibly unique.
How do Jennifer and Needy fit in the continuum of the female protagonists in Girlfight and Aeon Flux?
That’s interesting. I’m very interested in dysfunction. I kind of realized in my first film that a character with so much rage that she didn’t know where to put it was both heartbreaking and interesting to me. I love the idea of adopting a masculine stance of using your body as the battleground for those feelings. At the time I was making Aeon Flux and at the time I felt like there was a cut I felt I could have called my own — which doesn’t exist theatrically — it was very much about the sense of disconnection from oneself. That was less about femininity than it was about one’s own humanity. Initially, it was about a memory of your human self and being haunted by that, and having to reconcile that with living life as some kind of replica. Again, I’m not sure if those ideas are expressed in any way other than your typical, incoherent text of a movie that’s been f*cked up by the studio beyond recognition. This movie, to me, is also very much a kind of female dysfunction or codependency on each other, where men are ancillary to the core relationship. That idea of worshiping an ideal that you do not yourself occupy as a woman or a girl was very touching and real to me. But where it fits along a continuum…
I guess there doesn’t have to be a continuum.
I’m not exactly sure. There’s so much in the movie about the crisis of being looked at. I mean, the movie stars Megan Fox. By being in the movie, there’s almost sort of a meta-relationship between who she is in the public eye and who she is playing this character. In a funny way I feel like that’s a real tension that’s happily visiting us — where there’s a lot of power in being looked at, but it’s a limited power. It’s limited control. I guess there’s a question about female identity that has to do with figuring out how much value we can place on being looked at as opposed to looking ourselves.
Even though she was “Megan Fox” when you cast her, you couldn’t have anticipated that.
No. When we had our first meeting at the Cat and Fiddle, I remember her saying very articulately and very frankly that she’d only done Transformers, and she didn’t think I’d have any expectations that she was talented. She’s a hot girl — that’s what she plays in Transformers. I hadn’t seen the movie, so she was like, “I lean over the hood of a car. I wear belly shirts. I’m Michael Bay’s hot girl.” And I could tell that as much as she saw the opportunity on some professional level, there was a complicated, angry relationship to that being her big break. That immediately made me see in her the desire to be more than just captured, observed, looked at. And it made me think, “There’s a discomfort she feels with this process that will really work for the movie.” And now it’s just been magnified by 1,000 times because she’s become an international superstar.
She’s also known now for her public candor. She’s obviously feeling empowered, but how healthy is her demonstration of that?
I don’t know. I think being a young female star must be really, really pretty rough. I was in a conversation with her with another journalist, and somehow it came up that she was just hoping to be working 10 years from now. The journalist seemed a little surprised, and Megan said, “I’m 23. When I’m 33, I will not be a spring chicken, and this business throws you out on the street by the time you’re in your late 20s, essentially. You’re not of the same use.” And I think it was one of those hardened comments that makes you realize just how rough it can be. So there’s definitely a shrewdness and a wisdom to her. She understands there’s a very disposable attitude toward beautiful women in Hollywood — or at least that part of the moviemaking industry. I think for her, though, there was something about making a movie where even with these outrageous genre situations, she got to act. I mean, she got to try things. She got be human, exposed, vulnerable, bossy, icy, frightened. I felt like she gave a very layered performance. I’m sure for her that was a very refreshing experience.
The other young stars — Amanda Seyfried and Johnny Simmons — share that kind of watershed moment here as well. When did you recognize that potential — and especially your responsibility to help achieve it?
I was having the funniest dual experience while making this movie. My son had turned 1 during our second week of prep. Four weeks later all the actors had descended on me; I thought, “I’m basically just replicating my skills at home, but with people who can talk and walk and feed themselves.” But the actors were wonderful. They were enthusiastic, hardworking, very funny, curious about the world, didn’t have bad attitudes.
I remember one night I invited everyone over to see Shaun of the Dead. Amanda, Megan, Johnny and some crew just came over, and we literally ate bagged popcorn and crudités and watched Shaun of the Dead. And I felt like with younger actors who are still sort of getting their professional legs and still figuring out how to be in the business, I think it’s very important to take care of them the way you would if you were a responsible parent. You love them, you give them as long a rope as they can handle without hanging themselves, and you stop them when they start to f*ck up. Unfortunately, I guess I’d say that’s your relationship with your cast no matter how old they are, but in this case I felt more of a responsibility to be really compassionate to the potential for little blowups and little personal things that happen between young people. Part of the charm of the cast was that still had a sincere lack of maturity. I don’t see that as a demerit. But I do think that’s something you need to manage a little more when you’re on the set.
You briefly mentioned the experience you had on Aeon Flux. What made you decide you wanted to take on another big studio project like Jennifer’s Body?
It’s a question I’ll ask every time. Along with loving the script, the reason I did Aeon Flux was because I needed the job, and I couldn’t find $5 million to make a movie independently — after making a fairly successful movie for a million dollars. The landscape of independent financing really changed from 1999-2000 on, and I suddenly felt like, “I just want to work. I just want to make more movies. I’m not content to simply wait anymore.” And it wasn’t a realistic financial option for me either. With Jennifer’s Body, I felt like I had to do this. And crazily enough, it was being made at a studio. There’s always going to be some risk involved, and there was a lot of spirited conversation about the cuts of the movie. I think they were always very supportive and loved the movie, but they had questions, and there were certain arguments over certain sections of the movie. Those that are preserved, I’m really proud of. And luckily there’s a director’s cut of the DVD.
It isn’t fundamentally different form the theatrical cut, but to me is a slightly fuller, richer emotional experience. There’s more humor. It’s a more accurate depiction of Diablo’s script. There’s a little more of their world in the film; the parents and high-school kids have more of a presence in the movie. It’s not significantly longer — maybe three minutes or something — but I think it’s just a more cohesive rhythmic experience. The rhythms play a little better, the meanings feel a little more complete. But I don’t think the movie in the theaters is by any means a disavowal of what I was trying to do. Aeon Flux was a different situation, and I didn’t think I could claim that movie as my own. Because it’s not. And that was, in a way, such a bad experience with the studio that I realized, “OK, this is how bad it can be, and that’s pretty bad. I now have a little bit better sense of the tools and precedents when things are going south.” With Aeon Flux, I was so green to the politics of studio egos and agendas that I had no idea I was in trouble — even when I was. This was a different situation. I had people who were equipped and willing to protect me in a completely different way.
And perhaps as such, between you and Diablo and Megan in particular, it retains something of a maverick texture.
That’s cool! Look, I can only do things the way I want to do them. I have a real interest, I think, in the operatic. I feel this movie achieves that at times and has a boldness and a frankness and sense of humor at times that to me feels kind of new and fresh. And I’m really proud of the accomplishments. At the time, what was wonderful was that Diablo kind of came out of nowhere. She wrote a script that was beautifully directed by Jason Reitman and really reached people. Suddenly she was up there receiving her Oscar. The irony of that is that as much as she couldn’t have imagined anything for the ending of that story, she really has a lot of interest in pulp and genre trash; she’s never been shy about that. So in a way, this was her chance to do something very personal and not really have regrets about it. I thought, “All right, she’s taking that leap, and I’m going to take that leap.” I’d just come off of a very battering experience, and I was like, “You know what? F*ck the system.” All you can do is try to work within it the best you can and be a collaborator. But at the end of the day, if you have to fight to the death, you fight to the death, and you figure out what your next move is as far as the consequences of that go.
I got really lucky with this movie. There were some big disagreements between me and the studio, but ultimately we found our common ground. I don’t know how you make movies — and try to protect the meaning of your work that you know need to still be there — without those disagreements. When you make a studio movie, do you decide to be compliant or resign yourself to it? I don’t, and it might kill me. The system breaks you. It does. In some ways it can really make you a leaner, meaner machine. Maybe I’ll be that. Or maybe as time goes on, the harsher it’s going to be for me. But I think it’s worth fighting for your work. At the end of the life you live, that’s all there is. That’s why I do this.