Just by virtue of her gender, Karyn Kusama is considered a feminist director; while the subject matter of her three films has certainly revolved around strong and interesting women, however, their stories certainly transcend the condescending and reductive designation of being called "women's movies." This is especially true of her latest, Jennifer's Body, which is an examination of teenage female sexuality that should certainly have considerable mainstream (i.e. male) appeal thanks to the person playing the body in question, Megan Fox.
Cinematical recently sat down with Kusama to talk about her career, the themes that have run recurrent in her movies, the impact of studio politics and feedback on her films, and how much she thinks her gender plays a role in career and the creative choices she makes. (Make sure to check out Part One of this interview, where she discusses her collaborations with Megan Fox and Diablo Cody, and gives fans a first-person account of the film's infamous make-out session between Fox and co-star Amanda Seyfried.)
Cinematical: Were there any specific elements of the different relationships, both personally and socially, in the film that you knew you wanted to explore or examine? There's the interaction of the two girls with one another, and Jennifer with her victims, but there's also the idea of this being a sort of monstrous version of teenage girls exploring their sexuality.
Karyn Kusama: it's funny because people ask me 'what attracted you to this script?' I keep thinking about reading the script, more than once, and every time cracking up over the line, 'these things are like smart bombs [refers to chest]. Just point them in the right direction and sh*t gets real.' What I loved about that line was that it was so funny to me, but what I think is a deeper sort of undercurrent to that line and to the movie in general is that on the one hand, this is a world where girls are not victims necessarily. Of course, Jennifer is a victim, but it's revealed that the way she is being victimized is actually sort of unexpected; we're assuming sexual violence, but in fact there's yet another layer to it. but in general, Jennifer's relationship to her sexuality is extremely confident – it's this power she knows she wields and she understands she's being looked at all of the time. But, there is a very limited shelf life to that state of being that I think the movie sort of, in its own sort of extrapolated genre way, explores, that there is only so much value to a life of being looked at, one, if you don't want to be looked at any more, or two, if you don't feel you are the thing being looked at even.
It's the classic sci-fi horror trope of what happens if you're not actually human anymore, but everybody assumes you are. I feel like that's just interesting, to tell that story from a female perspective, and to see a girl become hollow, literally, I mean more beautiful after she feeds, but less human, and then, to see the girl who recedes in her shadow become more classically self-actualized and heroic. I sort of feel like that's the story of femininity, sort of having to find your own definition of what being female is, and what strength is, and what having a voice is. I know it's a crazy movie about demon possession, but I take the metaphor pretty seriously.
Cinematical: What level of realism were you going for in the film? Is this a world where a girl transforming into a literal man-eater is outrageous, or one where even if it's unusual, it could happen?
Kusama: I think there was an emotional reality that was always sort of heightened about the movie, which is that Amanda's character, Needy, accepts a lot of unacceptable stuff from her so-called best friend. So when this concept of literal man-eating is put on the table, even that isn't something Needy is capable of shutting down immediately. The movement of the story is towards that revelation that she alone has to sort of stop Jennifer. I think there was always the assumption in the movie, although I will say as an aside in my director's cut I think it's a little clearer, that there was always an assumption that there was a male killer on the loose – an insane, psychotic male cannibal ripping these bodies apart with his bare hands. To me it reinforced this helplessness that Needy felt, that no one would believe the story that Jennifer was the killer. So I think that in the theatrical cut you feel that heightened emotional reality more because there aren't as many factual pieces of information that sort of reinforce the idea that Needy doesn't know if anybody would believe this story. But we always knew that the comedy and the emotional crux of the movie rests in the audience accepting that Needy doesn't stand up to Jennifer – even if it's heightened, hat's the sort of world we're entering.
I think the issue or part of the tension surrounding any dialogue about Jennifer's Body, and let's hope there is some, is 'is it even a horror movie?' The studio, and I don't think they would disagree with this, from their perspective they have to sell something defined, so I feel for the most part they've decided to sell a horror movie. But I think there's a lot more grey area in the movie in terms of its defined genre, the space that it might occupy. That's a nightmare for a studio's marketing department, but for me it's a more interesting experience because there are sequences in the movie I find genuinely scary, but I don't have the sense that the mission of the movie is to keep you in a state of high anxiety the entire time. I kind of feel like when you look at a Carrie or a Rosemary's Baby, there's all kinds of movies that define themselves as horror movies, but really horror is a device that gets you closer to a bunch of characters and to a bunch of social situations, and so I think it's an interesting time because we had a spate of films that are very much about the exercise of torturing and killing people, and I of course as a grown up just wonder, what does that do to young minds.
Something that was really fascinating when we did test screenings of the movie, more than one person, and often it was females, which I find bizarre, said I just wish there was more variety in the kills, like different ways that she obliterated her victims. I feel like 20 years ago, we wouldn't even have that as a criteria, and I wonder if there's this concept now of variety in the methods and hardware of hurting people.
Cinematical: Is test-marketing a valuable part of the filmmaking process for you?
Kusama: Insofar as the film had comic elements, it is important to see what made people laugh. It's always important to feel the energy in the room, [but] I think those cards are basically a load of crap. I think it's designed to keep a lot of statisticians in business. I know what some of my problems are: I don't like tidy endings, and I think that expresses itself in endings that have beginnings, middles and endings within themselves, and I know that's a problem. Or, I know that's what somebody would call a problem with my filmmaking. I value the absurd and I value kind of ridiculous emotional heights; to me, girlfight was a social-realist experiment to make a movie that sort of felt real but ultimately had a very amplified emotional landscape. So I kind of understand that I kind of go for the operatic. But I think when you screen a movie, it's really important when people say to you 'I really don't care about these people,' or 'once that happened, I really stopped engaging with the movie itself' - which is hard, because not everyone is even aware of that while they're watching a movie, so not everyone can articulate a kind of useful critical assessment of your movie.
I do think it's always helpful when people say 'oh, I didn't realize they were brother and sister.' Stuff that should be clear, and you shouldn't ever trip up on, it's important for an audience to tell you that kind of information. But I think the most important information you get is about the sense that your audience is having its own relationship to the work, and I think when you're just at a distance all of the time, that's when I get really scared, for myself or for another person's movie, if you never feel engaged enough to sort of lose yourself a little bit in the logic of the movie.
Cinematical: How does genre convention either help or hinder you as a filmmaker? In both this and Aeon Flux, you are operating from a certain blueprint but you're obviously trying to explore larger, more universal themes.
Kusama: For me, genre offers the opportunity for what I call classical storytelling and an opportunity for grey area in classical storytelling that I actually don't think you get to see all of the time even in serious fare these days. To me, two of the best movies this year were The Hurt Locker and District 9, and it's basically an amazing action movie and an amazing sci-fi movie, but both leave you with a very unsettled sense of the world it's depicting, and it makes you walk out of the theater going, okay, what's the world I live in? What is this saying about the world that gave birth to this vision? I just feel like maybe part of it is those are movies I got to see with audiences; I just feel like there's something about the last shot of District 9 in a sold-out theater and the collective thing that happens when they see that alien hunched over the flower. I just get chills thinking about it, because I feel like it proves to me that popular entertainment still has the room to explore ideas, and in fact, its mission should always be to explore ideas, because I think there's just a lot of space for it.
I think there's a cynical attitude that if you work in Hollywood, you just have to make these like sh*tty programmers that are generic pieces of trash, and I feel that less from the public that goes to see movies than the entities that make the movies. That's hopefully not an across-the-board generalization, but I do think there's a real cynicism about storytelling and about audiences and a lack of love of movies; I guess it's my roundabout way of saying when I grew up, Wizard of Oz and King Kong are still mystical entertainments to me, [and] I feel like big entertainment still can be awe-inspiring, and not awe-inspiring in the spectacle way, necessarily, but in the way that it just lights up your brain. Part of me believes you've got to bring all of your ideas in through the back door and do your best to also execute the form; I hope every now and then I'm lucky enough to make a movie that makes some money, because that's all that anybody cares about in this town. Like if Jennifer's Body actually makes some money, I might have a little freedom to either make another movie that makes a, lot of money, or maybe gives me more freedom down the road. But in the end, it's all one big crap shoot, it's the most expensive high-stakes gambling there is, but I just have to hope one day I hit the jackpot.