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Exclusive Interview: Karyn Kusama for "Jennifer's Body"

By Paul Fischer Wednesday September 16th 2009 11:33AM
Karyn Kusama for "Jennifer's Body"

It has been quite the long road for former Sundance discovery Karyn Kusama, who burst onto the screen with her fresh and buoyant "Girlfight". Then came "Aeon Flux", studio interference and her world came crashing down. Now she’s back with a vengeance, with her stylish take on Diablo Cody’s irreverent horror script, "Jennifer’s Body," about a possessed cheerleader who craves the young boys in her small town.

Original, funny, sexy and darkly comic, "Jennifer’s Body" received a rapturous applause at the Toronto Film Festival and the director can now look forward. In this frank and exclusive interview, Kusama talked horror, sex and Hollywood politics with Paul Fischer following the film’s initial premiere screening in Toronto.

Question: I guess if this had been any other writer, you may not have been as drawn to this material.

Kusama: Yeah. I mean, I have to admit, I got the script and the synopsis was something like 'cheerleader from hell' or something like that, and I just thought "why am I getting sent this?". Then I was like, "wow, after Aeon Flux, I really still am in movie jail" and then I read it.

Question: Sad.

Kusama: I know, very sad. But hopefully someday that’ll be rectified with at least a director’s cut on DVD. But in any case, I read the script and was so pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity it had toward the characters, and the sense of, even with the sort of theatrical quality of the narrative, I just felt very attached emotionally to the characters, and to the story itself. I mean, I think as a young woman who had my sort of nightmarish high school experience, I identified tremendously with it.

Question: Is this a "Carrie" for the Now Generation, do you think? Does it have that sense?

Kusama: See, for me, what’s interesting about "Carrie" is, in a funny way, it feels like a woman did direct "Carrie". You know. I mean, it’s – even today, I think it’s shocking. That was one of the movies I watched while we were making the movie. I would do a little movie night, and people could come over, whoever was free, to just watch "Evil Dead II", or "Carrie." or "Shaun of the Dead," or "The Howling". You know, any number of movies that at the time were kind of inspirational for me, but also inspirational for this movie.

The thing with Carrie that I think is so interesting, is that it just – the idea that it pretty much starts off with menstrual blood [LAUGHTER] and then just sort of moves on from there. It’s like – “Wow, that is bold.” But I do feel like there’s something about this movie that taps into what Carrie offered, which was a pretty sick sense of humor, at times, and this sort of conflicted female monster, in a way.

You know, Carrie, of course, is so sympathetic. But when she becomes the anti-heroine, you know, there’s something very tragic about her. I felt like with "Jennifer’s Body", there was this sort of – there was this coin occupied by Needy and Jennifer, that they could sort of be both sides of the coin of femininity, in a way. You know, the trap of it, the power of it. You know, the limitations and the opportunities in femaleness, I felt kind of were nicely represented by both Needy and Jennifer.

Question: Where do you think the line is for exploring the sexuality of this piece, where do you draw those lines in mainstream Hollywood?

Kusama: It’s hard and it was a very interesting process to make the movie, and to know that a component of the relationship – and it was always in the script – was this sort of worship, and love, and romantic sexual love between the two characters that I always felt was sort of driving the story. So I know I’ve been accused of sort of using that kiss for purely exploitative means. But to me, it functions as a sort of moment of revealing something about the relationship that both deepens the connection between the two of them, but also heightens the suspense because Jennifer is morally and ethically compromised. So you don’t know how she’s gonna handle that sort of moment. To me, I feel like the question of how you handle sexuality or violence should be asked every time you make a movie. How do you handle the sexuality between a man and a woman?

Question: If you made this film as a pretty independent film, do you think you could have taken this –

Kusama: Even further?

Question: Or do you think it’s necessary to?

Kusama: You know, the question has come up about nudity. I certainly had originally imagined nudity in the movie, for instance. I had always imagined that Megan’s character would be at her most frightening and powerful at her most exposed you know? So, again, sort of – the movie, to me, is filled with these beautiful reversals of expectations. Do to me, the reversal of seeing a woman who’s naked and knowing that now she’s at her most dangerous was a very appealing concept to me. I’m personally not an exhibitionist but when it comes to nudity in film, I’m not a prude at all about it. So I was very interested in exploring that. But I had to respect the wishes of my actors being less interested in exploring that. So I think I had to find sort of other avenues toward kind of examining that – that concept, of sexuality and power in sexuality.

Question: So, when you cast a film like this – I mean, obviously trust plays a vital role –

Kusama: Yes.

Question: -- in getting the right women to play these two roles.

Kusama: That’s true.

Question: You also managed to find women who you cast pretty much against type.

Kusama: Yes.

Question: What do you think you saw in these two women that made you finally realize that they would be perfect for this film?

Kusama: Well, luckily for me, Megan was already attached to the movie. Initially, perhaps, I had to go through the movie of determining who she even was, because at that point, I hadn’t seen "Transformers". But it was pretty clear right away that she had a sort of icy, porcelain façade, that once punctured, was easily sort of sympathetic and tragic, even. I think that’s something that Megan really did a beautiful job of bringing to the screen. That as much as Jennifer Check is sort of the anti-hero, or the monster of the movie, she’s also got these moments of tremendous sort of humanity, or vulnerability, particularly I think in the sacrifice scene. You really do understand that she was just a girl. Do it takes a real actor to be able to do that and to kind of traverse that range, I think, of the character.

Then with Amanda – I mean, she, to me, has a sort of Lillian Gish sort of – those eyes. I feel like she’s got an old silent movie star kind of face... she just can do very subtle things with her face, and I just feel so much emotional access to her character. So in a way, she kind of provides that emotional anchor to the film that you really need to have to take it seriously at all, because as much as the movie is meant to be outrageous, and pop, and quite funny and fun, I know I was always making it with a sense that for the people who like this kind of movie, there had to be an emotionally engaging component to it as well.

Question: How much have you learned about the politics of Hollywood – in the last several years?

Kusama: Well, a lot. I mean, "Aeon Flux" was sort of an experience I would never wish upon another filmmaker. But at the same time, having that experience so early taught me a lot about what’s at stake when you’re making a movie for essentially a corporate entity, whose film division is one of many divisions they expect to be making a healthy profit every year. So there’s a set of external demands that have nothing – literally nothing to do with the movie. And those demands also can express – particularly in Hollywood, where the regimes of people in charge can change so quickly – there can also be a sense of wanting to not take ownership of the projects that came from the last regime, essentially, which is basically what happened to my movie. And to see how much ego played a part in all of that, other people’s egos. And to see how much the movies themselves don’t always matter, that made me understand a little bit better how certain movies that feel, as you’re watching them, like they might have been good once can become not good. But also, why so many creative people in this business find themselves pretty bitter by the experience of trying to make movies. It’s – it’s not brain surgery. We’re not saving lives. But in many ways, making a good movie is probably more difficult than – you know, open-heart surgery, or something because it’s just – there’s so much that can go wrong. So I’m really learning a lot about both the – just the crazy sort of whims of chance that visit every movie. Sometimes things really kind of blow in your favor, and sometimes they don’t.

Question: So, how concerned were you when you took this on, that this experience would not be repeated?

Kusama: Oh, very concerned.

Question: How do you protect yourself against repeating that experience?

Kusama: For me, it was about having really positive relationships with my producers, and really communicative relationships with my producers. And feeling like I was always representing the reality of the movie I wanted to make. I was not ever feeling like anyone was getting the wool pulled over their eyes. And that they were able to sort of go back to the studio, and kind of communicate the movie back to the studio, and frame it in a way that protected me. You know, for me – I know there are some very, very, very successful directors, and part of their success lies in their ability to sort of keep the studio engaged, keep them interested, keep them enthusiastic, and stay in that dialogue. That is not, to be honest, one of my strengths. I feel too obsessed with the process of making the movie, to feel like I even know how to include many more people in the process. It’s just my nature. I get kind of tunnel vision. And so for me, this time, finding that really I had to – to use my producers more to protect me, was a big lesson. I’ll never go into a situation as blind as I think I was when I – when I went into "Aeon Flux". Never.

Question: How much creative control do you end up having over this film? I mean, obviously you negotiated complete final cut.

Kusama: Yes, exactly. I think even final cut can be a difficult sort of end game to be playing, only because there is this marketing machine that wants to embrace your movie, or worse, not embrace it. So if they decide, “Well, we’ll release the final cut, but we won't show it any support,” that can be a very negative sort of blowback. So in some ways, it’s important to know how to have that conversation with the studio. For me, this movie is not – it’s not my director’s cut. But my director’s cut will exist on the DVD. It’s different, but it’s not fundamentally different.

Question: So, are you able to include a director’s cut on DVD? Is it going to be an unrated version?

Kusama: I don't know if it’ll be unrated, but it’ll be a couple minutes longer. There’s sequences that just aren’t in the theatrical cut for issues of time, or – you know, arguments with the studio about what should or shouldn't be in, tonally. I think it’s – my cut is a little bit more of an accurate depiction of the script. But all in all, I feel like the cut that will go out in theaters is a very healthy representation of the movie I wanted to make. And it’s still all mine. Having been through "Aeon Flux", and experiencing that kind of creative evisceration, I just sort of feel like this is a walk in the park, you know? Sure, I made some compromises I’m not completely happy with. But I feel like it’s still my movie. You know?

Question: Is it your coming out party, do you think?

Kusama: [LAUGHTER] Maybe it is. I mean, I came out of New York, and I went to film school in New York. And I grew up on a diet of amazing art films, and spent every day at the movies, literally, for a couple years of my life in New York. There was a period where I managed to be in the movie – in a movie theater every day. And it was – it could literally be – you know, the British noir series, the Hitchcock series, the Italian neo-realism series. It could be – you know, post-war Soviet cinema. I feel like I really got an education in a lot of different kinds of filmmaking. But for me, what realized is, I’m not a snob. I make no distinction between lowbrow and highbrow. I feel like John Carpenter’s "The Thing" is as serious a movie about the nature of humanity as Elem Klimov’s "Come and See". I feel like there is seriousness – all I’m looking for is a sense of purpose, and a sense of energy, and a sense of thoughtfulness behind the filmmaking. And I think you see – I can see that in a lot of genre pictures, pulp exploitation. Like, I feel the potential for sort of subverted – subversive messages, you know? In those genres. So for me, it is kind of a coming out, because I’m sort of coming out as the – as someone who loves genre.

Question: Is this movie finally affording you a chance to get back in the game?

Kusama: Oh, yeah.

Question: -- are you now going to be able to finally put Aeon Flux behind you?

Kusama: I think so. I feel really like that was just a sort of a bump in the road. But I feel like with each movie, all you can do is just make the movie, move on, get up, start another one.

Question: Do you know what’s next for you?

Kusama: I don’t. I don’t. But I’m weighing a lot of options, and I’m considering a lot of things.

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