A few years back, writer-director Karyn Kusama made her debut with the independent feature about a female boxer. Girlfight went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (tying with Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me), as well as earning Kusama the Directing Award. Her next feature, Æon Flux, was a sci-fi thriller starring Charlize Theron. Most recently, Kusama directed Jennifer’s Body, which also centers on female protagonists. Written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, Jennifer’s Body is the partially horrifying, partially comical, thoroughly original tale of a possessed teenage girl who kills her classmates. Even with just three features under her belt, Kusama has drawn from varied experiences, providing her with insight on the moviemaking process— which is why we asked her to talk with us about childhood nostalgia, her experience in the industry and some future projects.
Elissa Suh (MM): It has been a while since you directed your last feature, the sci-fi thriller Æon Flux. What have you been up to since then? How did you end up directing Jennifer’s Body?
Karyn Kusama (KK): Well let’s see, after Æon Flux, I directed an episode of television, I got married, I had a baby who is now two-and-a-half. I think I was just developing some other projects and looking to figure out what I could do next.
I was ideally searching for a smaller movie than Æon Flux because the size of that movie combined with the administrative chaos at Paramount at the time made it impossible to feel like I could make a good movie or a movie that I was happy with, so I was definitely looking to do something that felt more like my own somehow—that I’d have a little bit more control or voice in.
So as I was looking at scripts, I wasn’t finding that project. I was focusing on my own things and then Diablo’s script came along for Jennifer’s Body and I was just really struck by it. I felt really close to the characters, I felt like I understood them, I felt like it activated a love I have for genre that felt really fresh and unique. It didn’t feel like just another comedy or just another horror movie or another high school movie. It really felt like a truly crazy hybrid.
MM: Diablo is already known for her sharp tongue and distinctive style. How is it directing from someone else’s writing?
KK: For me I actually think it’s easier. If it’s not your own script, I think you are looking for something with a very strong point of view and this script, in my opinion, always had a very strong understanding of the characters and a really strong sense that the horror of the movie essentially came from the relationship between the two girls.
There was a sort of external horror that you could say was the genre quality of it, but I think a lot of good horror movies start with something more fundamental and basic. In this case it was this idea of a co-dependent, toxic teenage relationship that had run its course, that was over, that had very little to give either girl back, but somehow these two girls were weirdly lonely and needy enough to need each other still, despite the fact that they didn’t seem to relate to each other anymore.
MM: The protagonists of your past two features were female, and the main characters in Jennifer’s Body are also women. Do you intentionally try to showcase strong females characters?
KK: I don’t know if it’s intentional, I think I’m just drawn to that. That’s just stuff that ends up seeming more interesting to me, particularly with genre pieces. Girlfight was ultimately coming from a certain kind of spots movie tradition, and Æon Flux was coming from a sci-fi tradition and this movie is coming from a very, very skewed horror tradition. To me, oftentimes the reason those genres can get stale is because we keep watching them play out the same story and sometimes it’s interesting to see them switch it up when the question of gender enters the storyline.
MM: Do you gravitate toward a certain genre? Was it more difficult directing comedy?
KK: The comedy is one of those things you have to sort of work with a little bit longer to actually see if it’s playing. I can watch something as an individual and say, ‘This is funny,’ but it’s pretty interesting when you put the movie in front of an audience. Then you really know how the comedy is working or not working. The process is different, I guess.
I think with genre there is no particular favorite, although I do like a certain [type of] smart horror movie or smart suspense film. The one thing I am not very drawn to or couldn’t imagine myself doing is a more traditional romantic comedy.
MM: What would you say are some movies that inspired you to become a moviemaker or your favorite movies in general?
KK: Well, some of the movies that inspired me I obviously saw when I was younger and were special in a kind of spectacle way—whether it was the original The Wizard of Oz or the original King Kong—but those movies also occupy a place in my child fantasy brain. As I got older, I was watching movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl; and eventually there was a run of Kathryn Bigelow movies during college like Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break. Those movies were important to me because I recognized the impulse toward craft at the same time the movies were occupying a specific kind of genre space.
But there are so many movies that have been intellectual to me and certain art films that were just so important to me like Todd Haynes’ Safe. And even when I look movies like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low or Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, those were movies that taught me something bigger about character and storytelling and also just the visual approach. There have been a number of movies that remind me that the visual storytelling is a crucial component to a film, at least for me. Not for everybody, but for me.
MM: So you are definitely more visual. And you also write. You wrote Girlfight and now you are working on a political movie?
KK: Yes, I did. There’s a movie I’ve been developing that’s based on a true story.
MM: So did you write it?
KK: I’m working on it now, and it’s a hard one for me to write just because finding the time right now has been a long-fought battle, but I’m trying to figure out how much I can write of my own, how much I want to and how much I also can appreciate and even enjoy getting somebody else’s work in front of me.
Sometimes you can learn a lot from figuring out how you want to depart from something that’s on the page and I just like having a relationship with the writers of any project. I feel like it adds one more quality voice to the mix if you’re working on an interesting script… But I’m open to writing my own stuff, too.
MM: What is the biggest challenge when it comes to directing?
KK: Managing a lot of personalities, I think. Ultimately the combination of your closest crew, your producers, your studio executives, your cast and just all the voices in your head about how to move forward with certain creative decisions, you have to be thinking very much in an open-minded and free way, but you also have to be willing to make decisions very quickly and be focused on those choices.
I think for me the hardest thing about directing probably is that you’re always working—unless you’re tremendously wealthy—with somebody else’s money. So you have to balance the natural anxiety that somebody else might feel about how their money is being spent or thrown away, depending on how they see it, with the very real needs of the movie that can sometimes creatively waver from where the money thinks it needs to go.
MM: That is definitely a concern of moviemakers today. In the past was it really hard to strike a balance between what you wanted versus the production company wanted? Did you have to compromise a lot?
KK: In making a movie there’s oftentimes compromises that you make that just have to be made, not because anyone is forcing you to, but because that’s just the process. There’s always going to be a moment where it feels like there isn’t enough time or enough money or the stars are not aligning in some perfect way.
In my relatively short career, I’ve managed to have three very distinct experiences: One in which I basically had very little money, but almost total creative freedom—my first movie, and I feel really proud of that movie.
A second situation, that was at a studio, in which by the end I felt no creative freedom and I don’t feel the movie even remotely represents what I wanted to do.
And then this situation, which I have to say, given the demand of the project itself, I found it to be a healthy compromise; I definitely had to make some compromises, but I didn’t feel like the essential meaning of the movie has been compromised.
I want more control next time ideally, because that’s my personality, but I can’t complain on this one. This has been a much more positive situation.
MM: You touched on this before, but how would you describe Jennifer’s Body in terms of genre?
KK: It really is a hybrid. It is a very funny horror film and a very scary comedy. It’s really a movie about a relationship that is falling apart for two teenage girls, and somehow the horror and the laughs always emerge out of that relationship and that disillusion between the two characters. It’s a pretty crazy movie but I hope people like it.
MM: How did you enjoy your film school experience? I know a lot of moviemakers are bitter toward their alma mater.
KK: I was really lucky. NYU’s undergraduate program was very comprehensive. I found that I met a couple of really great people with whom I’m still close, and I met some wonderful teachers. The school is big enough where you have to find who those people are going to be for you, it doesn’t just fall on your lap. But there was, in retrospect, a lot of wonderful stuff that I learned in that environment.
MM: What’s the best advice you can give an aspiring moviemaker?
KK: Hmm. It’s very, very, very important to actually enjoy the process of trying to get things made, because sometimes you won’t get them made. The puzzle-making process is something that you have to enjoy in and of itself, because that’s a large part of the job, trying put together the pieces of the creative puzzle. Whether it’s while you’re writing something, trying to get something financed, trying to cast, working on set and later in the editing room, it’s the process itself that has to be rewarding, because if it’s not, it’s too hard to actually go through the process, to not enjoy it.
It’s very, very important to find value in the work itself because the reward, the successes and the failures, that’s more out of our control than a lot of aspiring filmmakers understand. There’s a lot of factors that work for you and work against you when a movie is finally finished and gets out to the world. There are so many other reasons that you can feel like you haven’t succeeded, so it’s important to face each day with a love for the work itself.