Exclusive Interview: Jennifer’s Body Director Karyn Kusama

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Demons, test screenings, pop songs and teenage girls

Of course, the restaurant I plan to meet Karyn Kusama on a week day afternoon in Los Feliz is closed. Of course. And, while I stand in front of the entrance, back turned to its empty bar and tables within, and wait for the Jennifer’s Body director, I rattle off in my head just how many female directors I’ve interviewed in the last ten years. I could only think of Jennifer Lynch. And that was recently, too. Yes, it’s sad but true. There have been a ton of actresses I’ve spoken to (they multiply like gremlins), the occasional producer (Gale Anne Hurd) and screenwriter. Directors? A measly one.

That’s not to say there are no female horror directors. They do exist. Hell, one brought what I consider one of the best horror films of the decade to the screen, American Psycho (Mary Harron). Alas, the genre, when it comes to the director’s chair, is without question male-dominated.

Kusama is entering the cinematic abattoir with two features under her belt. 2000’s Girlfight, which introduced us to tough girl Michelle Rodriguez, and the troubled Aeon Flux (2005), a live-action take on the MTV toon and an experience Kusama has no problem speaking frankly about. Jennifer’s Body is her return to the studio trenches and this time she’s turning Megan Fox (as Jennifer Check) into a teenage boy-eating demon with the help of Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. Amanda Seyfried plays Needy, a young girl in the town of Devil’s Kettle who, after a tragedy at a local bar and concert, has to come to grips with her bff’s possession.

On time, Kusama meets me in front of the restaurant. Bespectacled and incredibly amiable, she recommends the joint across the street so we make our way there for lunch and a candid chat about her horror-comedy, working with Fox (the actress), Fox (the studio) and more.

Ryan Rotten: Post-Aeon Flux were you so eager to jump back into another genre film or did you keep your mind open to anything?

Karyn Kusama: I looked at a bunch of stuff. I read some books. I read a couple of script. Then I got Jennifer’s Body and I just felt like so emotionally aligned with it. I just felt like, “I know those girls, I was one of those girls.” I totally understand feeling a little smarter than where you’re coming from, but not having any of the social graces to really articulate that. Just this wanting to escape and hanging onto the past. Worshiping beauty the way the rest of the world worships beauty. I just connected to the script on that level first, then found it tremendously funny. I also just found that the horror, to me, the stuff that felt was genuinely suspenseful and scary was much more kind of emotionally bound up in the relationship between the two girls. I grew up in the Midwest. I understand a sense of the small town mentality, small town social politics. I just felt like I get this world and I really, really loved the fact that it had this subverted fairytale kind of structure where in the end it’s Needy who has to save Chip, save herself and deal with Jennifer. That she really has to become an adult over the course of the movie and that was powerful to me. I know the movie plays like a crazy, fun genre film, but I hope that there’s something a little bit emotionally richer.

Rotten: Was there predominantly a stronger connection to Needy or was it Jennifer, or was it both?

Kusama: It’s both. I think it’s pretty obvious I was much more Needy as I grew up. I was much more nerdy, but I was always pretty comfortable with myself being the nerd and proud of it, which I think is part of Needy’s charm. She doesn’t apologize for who she is. She’s not completely pathetic. But, I also feel like I knew those girls who were so beautiful and so desired by everyone, but who seemed trapped by their beauty. I always felt like a lot of those girls in my high school always ended up being the ones who had four kids by the time they were 21 and married a guy who happened to gain 200 pounds between high school and college. [laughs] Somehow those girls are put on a pedestal so early that they lose their luster by the time they’re of legal age. And all of a sudden, that’s tragic. I felt like there was something about Jennifer Check that had that quality of being like, two years away from just being kind of…

Rotten: A train wreck.

Kusama: Yeah, a little bit. There’s something about the girls and the boys who just live for the moment and don’t think a second beyond their needs and the here and now that ultimately is pretty tragic. What I loved about Megan’s performance as Jennifer was that she actually communicated something of that tragedy because a girl who’s only worth her beauty is ultimately not worth very much and that’s a problem. But, our society is constantly creating this framework for girls to feel that their only worth is their appearance and it’s damaging on so many levels to so many people.

Rotten: Was Megan originally attached when you first came aboard?

Kusama: Megan was attached when I read the script and I actually knew nothing about her. I had not seen Transformers in the theater and had chosen not to do that. I met with her first, really liked her and decided, “Maybe I shouldn’t freak myself out and watch ‘Transformers.'” Not because of her, but just because the movie will overwhelm any performance she might have tried to give – which I actually think is the case with that movie. It’s not really a movie for the performances, to put it that way. When we started auditioning Needys, that’s really when I saw that Megan had it and understood the character. We were auditioning Needy, so I never had the opportunity to really work with Megan, but we had a week of rehearsal before we started shooting. I felt pretty comfortable. I felt pretty good because she was also prepared, had thought about things, had questions. I just felt like, “Okay, she’s going to be fine.”

Rotten: What kind of questions? Was there anything specific?

Kusama: Just the history of things. For instance, for young actors I think any love scene or make-out scene is a big deal. For her, she was like, “Okay, I’m comfortable and willing to do this, but is this a first time or not a first time at all?” And I said, “I think it’s important that it feel like not a first time at all,” because she wants to know, “What are we communicating, a first time seduction, or a dynamic?” And I said, “I think both are interesting, but the dynamic tells us more in the moment, unfolds something about the relationship that we didn’t know before and makes us understand Needy a little bit better. If we understand this is sort of a secret component to their relationship, well maybe it explains some of the kind of emotionally abusive dynamics of the relationship. There’s a sexual component to it.” Those questions. And, she was always thinking about that stuff. She and Amanda I think bonded very early. They were young enough for themselves while we were shooting to be still like teenage girls. Finding Amanda obviously was crucial because she’s really the anchor of the whole movie.

Rotten: What did you see in her audition that you latched on to?

Kusama: What Amanda had that I felt was so clear was a combination of naturalness and inability to make a joke. She wasn’t trying to make a joke out of anything. She was playing it real. Then when she would say things that, to me, read as jokes on the page, she would just make them seem real and that’s very hard because not everybody can kind of literally wrap their mind around Diablo’s dialogue. It’s fast, it’s very smart, it’s very funny, it’s slightly heightened at times. It’s imagining a world where kids basically speak in secret languages and they do, by the way, to the world to keep saying, “People don’t talk like this.” Well, some people do. And, I feel a little bit like the magic is finding those actors who can make that dialogue real, the same with Johnny Simmons. He took some of that stuff and never played it anything but sort of the straight guy. And it just ended up being so much funnier because of it and more touching because he didn’t even seem to realize he was funny.

Rotten: Unlike Ginger Snaps, a film this one is being compare to, you don’t play the male characters or the adults broad. They’re not cartoon characters…

Kusama: Yeah, and that was a very interesting challenge because there was a moment maybe where we could’ve taken a completely different direction with the adults in the movie and maybe made it this Charlie Brown world where Mom’s always working the swing shift and Dads are completely absent. And definitely in my DVD cut there’s more presence of the adult world, and, for better or for worse, it was definitely an issue in getting to a finished film whether we could sort of take that outrageousness of some of the language to some of the adult characters. But, I thought it was really important that we see Needy’s mother and then see eventually Jennifer’s mother kind of realize, “Oh, these people have parents. Oh, Chip has a mom.” There is a very strange absence of fathers, but I think that’s very much a kind of reverse fairytale dynamic as well.

Rotten: Off track for a minute, kudos for helping Kyle Gallner disappear into his role. I didn’t recognize him at first.

Kusama: Isn’t he great? What I loved about him was that he came in to read for Chip and I was like, “Oh, he’s not Chip, he’s Colin. He’s Colin Gray,” because he had that kind of feminine beauty that a lot of the Goth kids have. And, he had a kind of drama and I just loved those guys, those guys who wear the eyeliner in high school and have the guts to try out for the theater production of “Hello Dolly,” you know what I mean? [laughs] I felt like he was really the right guy.

Rotten: Another off track question. When we first see Jennifer feed, all of these animals come out of the woods. That was a trippy-looking fox you selected – was that real or CG?

Kusama: A real fox and very beautiful in person. All those animals were real and it’s a trip to have those many animals in one place because what I didn’t realize at the time, until I was schooled, was that those animals don’t necessarily get along in nature. The shooting schedule, we almost had to treat a little bit like, “Okay, there’s a diva fox and a diva beaver and they cannot be on set at the same time or it will be war.” [laughs] We really had to treat it as if it were two people who just hated each other’s guts.

Rotten: Now that you’re dabbling in the horror genre, can you talk about your approach to the balance between going for the gross-out and pulling back? Especially for Jennifer’s demon attack scenes…

Kusama: We really had to find a balance and maybe the balance won’t please everyone because I know that there is sometimes a desire for maybe more gore or more horror elements. But, I felt like every time we took either this scale of the prosthetic effects, the scale of the CG effects too big, the movie became unintentionally funny. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, I want this to be funny here, here, here and here and then I want to slam the audience with something that feels a little bit more real and maybe gravely serious.” But, it’s another thing to feel a little bit like the audience gets permission to laugh whenever. That’s not what the goal was. I found that when we got too big with those effects it just took us out of the movie and I found we were always trying to scale back and find subtle things that helped amp up a sense of dread or a sense of the character’s transformation, but didn’t become too campy.

Rotten: There’s a particularly great moment when we just see her cupping blood out of this torn open torso.

Kusama: I know. I always feel like that’s a really scary moment because she seems like she’s not being watched, she’s just doing something.

Rotten: And how would you say your second studio feature went, production-wise?

Kusama: After Aeon Flux I feel like I can go through anything. [laughs] This was the perfect balance between a low budget approach – where, for instance, with Girlfight I had 24 days, I had six weeks of prep. It was nonstop work, very fast and very little resources. It was a million dollar movie. Aeon Flux was a much bigger movie, much longer schedule, much more demanding visual effects and needs. Ultimately, a huge enough studio movie to completely guarantee that when things went south they didn’t just go south, they went directly into the bowels of hell. This movie, we only had six weeks of prep, but we had 42 days to shoot. To me, it felt like, “Wow, this is the perfect balance of having to move quickly and decisively,” but it felt like we had enough time. And I think I would love to be able to make movies of this level because it felt really doable. We had money when we needed it, but it never felt like we were just living in this quagmire of just an endless schedule. It was interesting. My kid turned one my second week of prep and he was up there with me. My nanny was up there and my husband would come up for three days a week every week. I mean, it was more about making it work on a personal level because creatively I felt like all that I needed was there on set for me. I really felt pretty supported.

Rotten: You entered into a family of sorts with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody.

Kusama: Yeah, Jason was very supportive, Diablo was very supportive and flexible, Mason Novick and Dan Dubiecki were very hands-on real producers. I felt really lucky because I felt like I got a lot of the support that one hopes you get while you’re doing something as sort of rigorous and crazy as shooting a movie.

Rotten: A tragedy befalls the town in your film and from that the community finds a song to unify them. Their grief is sensationalized to an extent – was this intentional? It’s a delicious satire on some of the things we see in the media.

Kusama: Yeah, a theme of mine that I will find always interesting is how we deal with grief whether it’s a sort of broader exploration like this movie, or a subtler approach that even came up in Girlfight, or to a degree at least my cut of Aeon Flux, the questions of how we incorporate loss into ourselves is always going to be interesting to me. I’ve always felt like there was something very touching and real even though it’s broad in this movie about the way a community tries to feel things. I liked the idea of memorials starting really bountiful, filled with a lot of care, and then just get decrepit and lose the sense of people really remembering. That’s something that’s very real to me. I think we don’t process loss very well and we aren’t culturally encouraged to think about it at all. It’s a moment of silence. It’s a day of remembrance, but it’s not really like, “Okay, take this inside of you and keep it there and use it to guide your life.” [laughs] No one wants to do that. I think it’s too complicated to say. What I think our big cultural, spiritual mantra is, “Let it go, let it go.” Letting it go can be tremendously helpful, but it can also be a way of losing yourself in the process because you never face the thing that could truly transform you in a positive way. I really appreciate Diablo’s sense of humor because she’s able to find a balance between something purposefully outrageous and cheeky and actually something more emotionally true. I think that’s her strength.

Rotten: Diablo take a lot of shit for her dialogue.

Kusama: But do people have the same conversation about Quentin Tarantino?

Rotten: His dialogue? They did at one time. Just like they did about Kevin Smith. I’m not so sure now. Those people have moved on to Diablo.

Kusama: It’s her interest in language that sets her apart from other writers. When people say to me, “That’s not how people talk,” it’s just like, “Oh, do people talk the way they talk in most movies?” I don’t think so. I think Diablo’s interest is in the theater of language itself and you can be down with that and accept that and see the humorous possibilities of it, the moments of trial and error with it. But in the end, I think she’s trying things the way any deeply talented writer is trying things. I don’t think we’ve gotten to a point now where there’s going to be endless blogs about what a mangling of the rhythms of the English language David Mamet has inflicted upon all of us. I think he’s shown himself time and time again to kind of create a work with a distinctive voice, his voice. I think Diablo’s going to be one of those artists who over time, we just understand her voice is really her voice. I think what I find puzzling is the attitude that there’s something inauthentic about her writing and her writing is completely authentic to her. And, that’s really all that matters to me.

Rotten: What was she like on set when she was around?

Kusama: The thing that Diablo is really open to, and this is completely to her credit as a writer, she can hear a joke and say, “You know what? That joke’s not landing. It’s not working.” She’ll come up with something funnier or she’ll find a subtler way to navigate out of a line. She’s tremendously open to whether or not something is working or not. She’s not precious. For someone who’s writing is attacked as frequently as hers is, she’s the least precious person I’ve ever met in terms of kind of taking her words more seriously than anyone else’s. She listens to the audience and she doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks which is also great. But, I feel like part of her writing style is that it’s dense. People say lines in rhythms of three lines at a time, or six lines at a time. That’s what’s difficult for actors is finding a way into that both as the person saying the line and the person listening to it that can have its own sort of emotional or comic range. That’s the tough stuff. She’s not going for a kind of kitchen sink realism and that’s her choice. I’ve been fascinated because occasionally I disastrously find myself reading the blogs and the occasional hate fests and it makes me really sad. It makes me really sad about all the people who clearly have a lot of issues with language they want to work out and they have to do it in this forum that’s so much about bashing somebody else. The hostility that you read towards Megan and Diablo in that community makes me feel like they’re a bunch of American terrorists sitting in their basement waiting for their dinner to be made by their mom. I hope it’s meatloaf.

Rotten: You experienced a bit of a changeover with this film. Because it once resided at Fox Atomic, which was aiming for edgier material, then it was completely a 20th Century Fox film. Did this change the dynamic of what you could and couldn’t pull off in the film?

Kusama: I think we were lucky because they bought the script, loved the script, saw a cut, loved the movie and knew always that the bigger challenge with the movie was going to be shaping the expectations of the movie for an audience. It’s an ongoing process. And, I think it’s a challenging movie. I’m seeing the challenges of it. I’m sort of sympathizing with our plight a little bit more than I think I would have if I had not seen it from the inside quite so much. It’s hard to sell a movie that is so many things. It’s hard to decide how much to reveal of the plot, the dynamics of the story and the tone of the story. I hope between some of their materials and some of the materials that we generated a little bit more, the audience out there can see that it’s a little bit more complicated than a straight comedy, a straight horror film, a straight high school movie, and see it for what it is which is a fresh take on all of those things. It’s hard. I think there was a sense of resistance a little bit, I think, to something about the characters being more vulnerable and out of control. I felt like that’s something that we had to manage for the theatrical cut. I will say that even though I got into my dust ups with the studio, I felt like there was still mutual respect between us and I still felt like they appreciated the fundamentals of the movie which is not always how it works. I feel really thankful that the movie that’s in the theater I feel really good about and the movie that might end up on the DVD I also feel really good about. They’re just different.

Rotten: Do you think this whole experience, furthermore the film, would have been different if it had been produced independently?

Kusama: No, I don’t think it actually would’ve been an entirely different film. I think it’s just we had a moment in which Diablo had won an Oscar and there was a tremendous, there still is, a tremendous currency to a script written by Diablo Cody. She has a distinctive voice and that means a lot. Maybe if we had made the movie independently we couldn’t have necessarily afforded to do three test screenings. And so, the movie would be different in that it would be a movie we felt our way toward the most layered and appealing version of itself. My biggest issue with the studio process, and probably a lot of what the independent process has become, is the reliance on test screenings. I feel like it can kill your movie. It didn’t kill this movie, but it could’ve.

Rotten: What was that process like?

Kusama: We tried different things. Certain things emerged that we kind of realized consistently. I would say the most consistent thing we realized, or I realized about the movie is, it’s a movie with really appealing characters and most of them die. That’s never going to test well. I don’t know how you make an audience feel fantastic about that. If you try to have any complicated relationship with those characters or to those deaths, there will be some kind of division in the testing process. That’s just what the story always was with the movie and I don’t know if the audiences who go to a movie for free and fill out a form afterwards, I don’t really know if that represents your audience. I don’t know how much you talk to filmmakers about this part of it, but I think there’s a lot of valuable stuff that you learn from screening your movie for cold audiences so much. I think there’s also a lot of information that can lead the film astray. We luckily had a strong enough producing team and a sense of faith in the movie itself from the studio side to not get too out of whack.

Rotten: One director told me he doesn’t stick around after the moderator asks to see a show of hands of how many people liked the film and how many didn’t like it. After that initial reaction, he said, it’s all bullshit.

Kusama: The way I’ve experienced the screenings is that people need a couple minutes to digest what they’ve just seen. I hope I’m not over thinking it, but I feel like the movie’s not completely like fast food entertainment. I think it actually has a little more going on. I really hope so. It’s a year and a half of my life. I feel like a test screening demands that people just assign a worth to a movie the minute the credits start. They get these forms, they fill them out and they want to get to dinner, you know what I mean? It’s hard, I think, to expect people to know how to articulate what their feeling is about a movie two seconds after the credits start rolling. That was the biggest lesson of the studio process.

Rotten: Tell me a bit about the soundtrack selection process. The choice of The Sword’s “Celestial Crown” playing over that shot of Megan swimming through the water was a nice contrast to that serene setting.

Kusama: I definitely think it was a marriage between us and Fueled By Ramen – the record company that’s releasing our soundtrack. We got work with a bunch of their artists and just hear songs that were written specifically for the movie. For instance, I feel like the Panic at the Disco song that plays right when Chip is getting ready for the prom, there’s something about that song that to me feels very kind of in keeping with like, a sort of pop youth surface of today. And then there’s songs like The Sword which I just think so communicated the power of Jennifer in that moment. And to me, I think probably some of the things I’m most proud of are things I’ve said away like, “Okay, when Colin’s driving to meet Jennifer,” we had to secure the rights to Screeching Weasel’s “I Can See Clearly Now” because I wanted him to be singing in the car. I wanted him to be so psyched and I wanted the audience to see him as this kid who can hear a song that’s basically a corny optimistic song be reworked by this ‘90s post-punk band and be joyous and have that play against what’s happening with Needy and Chip and their sort of awkward, but very exciting love affair. It’s not in the movie as a performance though it used to be. The band, after they sang “Through the Trees” at the prom, they then do a version of Blondie’s “In the Flesh” and they perform it. We ended up cutting that. It’ll end up as an extra on the DVD. We didn’t really need that performance. We used the song in the credits sequence and I think there’s something kind of ironic and funny about having them sing the song and what of course it’s playing against. [laughs]

Rotten: You mention “Through the Trees,” the anthem of sorts for the town of Devil’s Kettle. Who created that song?

Kusama: That was that song that a guy named Ryan Levine who had a band here in L.A. called Test Your Reflex and we’d heard a bunch of songs, a lot of different artists submitted songs to us. It’s hard because there was lyrics that had to be incorporated and certain meanings and eventually the song had to become one of those songs that ends up on the radio that you kind of feel like, “Ugh, I remember that song. I wish I didn’t.” It had to have a catchiness that you resented. [laughs] No one wants to live on a diet of cotton candy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good the minute you put it in your mouth. I felt like Ryan’s song was the perfect balance between that pop confection and something that could have this emotional build like, say in the bar when the girls are first hearing it. I love that moment when Jennifer takes Needy’s hand and looks at her like, “I’m just so psyched to be here.” The music is soaring and Jennifer’s emotions are soaring and Needy thinks her emotions are soaring too until she looks and realizes Jennifer’s focus is totally on the band. I feel like we needed a song to work on a bunch of levels and we were really lucky actually because it’s not easy to write a pop song that functions in this way in the movie.

Rotten: Horror is taking a circuitous root this fall back to more teen fare like the Scream era – what do you think about that?

Kusama: It’s funny, I feel like we’ve come to a new place where maybe there’s going to be a little bit more openness to a more fun version of this kind of movie. Also, something that’s not, I hope, shoving it in anyone’s face, but just a little more female. Back to a tradition of appealing female leads who you’re rooting for and hope that they make it through. I’m definitely finding that it’s not that I’m interested in girl stories because it’s a political decision, it’s just I don’t see enough of it. I want to see more of it. It’s that simple.

Jennifer’s Body opens in theaters on September 18.

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor