The ACVF Interview: Joseph Kahn Round Table

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with three local area critics for a round table interview with the wonderfully loquacious and energetic Joseph Kahn to talk about his latest film, the genre-blender Detention. Without hesitation, I’ll say that this happens to be one of my favorite releases of the year to date, and if I see 15 other movies in 2012 that I like more than Detention then I’ll be surprised. It’s propulsive, totally singular, uninhibited, unafraid to speak its mind, and thought-provoking on numerous tiers, and while I can’t say more than that until its release (expect my full thoughts on April 13th), it was fantastic getting to pick Joseph’s brain on both the film, from the challenges of production and financing to how his background as a prolific music video director helped shape his vision, and also pop culture in general. Read away!

Bob Chipman: So, I’ll start by asking you the question that I think a lot of people will ask when they first see the movie: what the hell did I just watch?

Joseph Kahn: You just watched a horror/science fiction/time traveling/high school comedy with kung-fu in it.

Andrew Crump: Detention’s got a lot of cynicism, there’s a lot of dark humor, there’s of course the slasher violence, and there’s a lot of sharp cultural commentary in it, but for me there’s always this through line in it that felt like legitimate sweetness and a lot of love for both the ideas that the film takes some jabs at as well as the characters. Could you talk a little about that?

(At this point, all of us get somewhat distracted by the music being played in the background of the hotel lobby where we did the round table.)

JK: Okay, so you’re talking about the sweetness of the movie?

AC: Oh yeah.

JK: Well, what I wanted to make was a high school movie for kids today, you know? And I think that works on two levels. That’s not completely the truth because I think it works for older people, too, but in a different way than someone who’s 18 to 25. But my biggest agenda was that I felt like I wanted to make a high school movie that felt like high school today, and I don’t think being a kid is all as negative as Hollywood portrays it to be. Obviously on the drama you’ve got to bring in the negativity in order to overcome it, but you know ultimately I think being a kid is fun. That’s what I think. There’s a joy when you’re young. So for the film to be accurate, even though it has all of this big gravitas that you have in these movies, I feel like when you’re youthful there’s an optimism and the world is open, and the older you get it kind of fades a little bit. So it was a nice sort of moment to get in there and try to capture that.

Jason Harris: I was wondering, your first movie Torque was in 2004 and now Detention is in 2012. Why such a big gap between?

JK: I could have made a movie before Torque, but I’m just really picky. I don’t believe that I need to make 20 or 30 movies in my lifetime. I feel like every time I make a movie, one it’s such a big time consuming effort , because this took me five years to do, I feel like if I only make a handful of movies but each one counts, I’ll be happy. I don’t feel like I need to make 50 movies, like if I make a handful I’m happy with, that’s good enough for me.

BC: You paid for this movie on your own, right?

JK: Yeah, it’s a combination of me paying out of my bank account and taking loans. So people gave me loans, but I owe them, so if this film doesn’t do well I’m just going to be spending the next couple of years paying that off.

Josh Stadtner: What would you say is the central theme?

JK: The central theme…okay, that’s a very good question. I think the central theme is that, and I’m not sure if it’s exactly a theme, but the meaning of it is that you have to look outside of yourself, and outside of your own problems to just understand other people and move to the next level. Because if you look at the sort of way that Detention is structured the reason why it’s got so many genres in it is basically that every kid is living their own genre. I feel like in high school, like they say that there are high school movies, right? But the reality is that in high school, yeah, you’re in a high school movie, but what genre are you in? Some people are living out a horror film, some people are living a comedy, some people are living a sexcapade, some people are living some sort of party thing, some people are living the most depressing movie ever, you know? And so ultimately, if you look at high school, high school is a series of genres, and whenever you make a movie you usually pick one genre and say “that’s my high school movie”.

But what I wanted to do is sort of take a macro view of it. So I put everybody in their genres, and let those genres play out, and then ultimately the central character is this girl Riley, who’s living her own depression and she’s that  typical girl who’s in that isolated thing, and if you really look carefully at what we do with these genres, every person is in their genre but they flip. Even the bully has a back story, everybody has a problem, you know? Once you get to detention, you find out that all these genres have these flipped versions of it because that’s the reality in high school. You think in your own genre that you’re the only special one, but everybody has their problems, you know? So ultimately at the end of the movie, if you really look carefully, the person that’s the killer is the one with no genre. He’s the one that has no back story essentially. In fact I actually glaze over it. And where that came from was actually Columbine. I know that’s a very strange thing, but I read this book on Columbine because the biggest story they always told about Columbine is that these kids were bullied and that they went  out and killed everybody. And the reality is that is that if you read all the back story behind Columbine, those two boys had dates, they came from good families, you know? And it’s not like two serial killers just hooked up. If you look at the core of what they did they felt so entitled to their own problems that they felt their problems were bigger than anybody else’s. There was this inability to see outside of their own world, and it became psychotic.

The one fear I have about living in the modern world is that we live in our own bubbles—our own Facebook universes, our Twitter universes, our own little walled universes of our own genres. But if we fail to look outside of it, we become a little less human. So that’s the big struggle of the movie.

BC: So as I was processing the movie after watching it, because this isn’t a movie you forget after watching it, it struck me that this is the first movie I’ve seen that’s a meta movie about the 90s, which was the meta decade. It’s a self-referential movie to an era where everything was tired and self-referential.

JK: Well, look, there are two things going on in this movie. If you’re over 30, you’re going to see the movie from a completely different point of view. If you’re over 30 you’re going to see all of these 90s references, and you’re going to get all of them. You’re  going to go, “Oh my god, they’re doing all of this hipster Diablo Cody speak”, and you’re either going to think it’s the hippest movie you’ve ever seen or you’re going to wonder, “Who the fuck are these people writing this thing?” If you’re under 30, especially 18 to 25, a lot of these 90s references are going to fly right over your fucking head, but the reality is those are the two views of the movie, and it’s on purpose. If you watch carefully what the teenagers are saying in the movie, the people who are saying all of the 90s references are characters like Ione, who happens to have been swapped out, and Clapton, who happens to be a music critic. So if you look carefully at how all of the other characters react, they’re like, “You’re weird”, you know? So, the kids of today are supposed to look at these characters like they’re really odd and dated and trying to be hip, and if you’re older maybe you don’t get all of the modern references.

But you know, it’s an interesting thing because I truly believe that the kids today live in a completely different world than, say, ’92. In 1992 there was no Internet, you know? In 1992, Urban Outfitters didn’t even exist, or Hot Topic or things like that. The entire concept of the retro T-shirt is a modern thing. Back in the early 90s, if you wanted a retro T-shirt you actually had to buy a retro T-shirt and go somewhere and find it. Now you can just go to the mall. The entire idea of how pop culture is recycled is at such a heightened state so there’s comment in Detention about that.

JS: Maybe this is for my own edification, but do you get all these insights from the music videos that you direct?

JK: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been making music videos for 20 years, so I’ve always from a very early age been tied into music and pop culture. But the difference is that a lot of people, by the time they turn 30, they kind of hop off and they stay in their own thing, but just by the nature of my job I’m constantly being sent new music and I’m constantly aware of all the new music. So I’m an old guy who understands what everybody else has because I sell it. [laughs] So music and pop culture are chained to my fucking feet, you know? So if I ever made a movie and I’m going to be honest about it, this is the way I see the world.

BC: It’s definitely a more tonally relevant movie than I usually see, because usually there’s a five or ten year delay before movies get to anything, and I see with this one and even Torque at the time it came out, that this is where the narrative energy is right now.

JK: There’s another aspect to it too that I felt like I wanted to really try and experiment with in this movie, that I wanted to be really tied into a specific date. If you notice in most Hollywood movies, they’re so afraid of locating it. You walk into a high school movie and there’s this nebulous world where people where blank shirts or stripes, and you don’t really see it exactly, but one, it’s hard to get the labels and stuff like that, but two, it dates it, and people are always afraid of dating it. I’m like, why not, you know? It’s going to be obvious in five years and your movie’s going to be dated one way or another, and even right now my movie for the next year my movie is right on the verge of becoming retro again, you know? [laughs] In like, 2014, a lot of the music in this film is going to be so completely dated  anyways, that’s why it’s locked specifically into now and this point in time. The T-shirts they wear, the fashions they wear, it’s just locked in, and I’m putting my foot in the sand, saying, “it’s about this time right now, and in 5 years it’s going to be completely whack, in 20 years it’s going to be vintage and cool.”

AC: If we can go back to the music video comment, I wanted to ask about that, because I feel like a lot of filmmakers who come from music video backgrounds act like they don’t. They kind of drop that when they move on to making full-length motion pictures. But I don’t feel like you do. I feel like Detention really is informed by the sensibilities you bring from directing music videos. What process do you use to reconcile the elements of both music videos and a full-length feature film?

JK: Well, here’s the thing, I am a music video director for the most part but I went to film school. I went to NYU for a year and a half; I grew up watching tons of movies. It’s just that a lot of people seem to discount music videos as a negative toward feature filmmaking. It’s almost better to be a waiter and go to Sundance and never have made a movie before and open with your first movie about whatever and they give you a lot more credibility. But if you’ve shot like 500 music videos like me all of a sudden it’s like a negative, which is really strange to me, because you know, for the last 20 years all I’ve been doing every day is shooting and editing and learning the process. I feel like it’s more it’s more about the process of what the individual person learns off the experience than necessarily that.

But it is true that music videos have affected the way I see things. One, it keeps me very relevant in pop culture because I’m so close to it, and two it does affect the way I perceive information. Here’s the other thing: I think kids today see information a bit differently than kids 20 years ago, because if you look at the way information is processed, it’s so much faster. It’s not just like saying that in the 80s, “MTV’s cutting so much faster”; if you watch an MTV video today, you’re like, “Oh my god, that thing from the 80s is so fucking slow”, right? But kids today have texting, motion graphics, websites, all these after effects things, and all these flash HTML things going on wherever you go. In my movie you have texting all over the place, and you know, that may seem surreal in a movie in a conventional sense, but the reality is that when you’re walking around in life, you might as well be walking around with graphics everywhere, because you live in a world where graphics and texting and things like that are everywhere. So I feel like on a certain level, it’s calibrated for the real world as you are today, so I think that by being truthful and bringing my music video tech that I use all the time to the movie, you’re actually processing it on a realistic level instead of on this fabricated Hollywood standard that you have. What I wanted to do was make a movie literally how you see the world.

BC: The kids who are used to watching their movies with a browser tab open and a few other things going on, this is not going to be hard for them to follow at all.

JK: Absolutely. I think the vast majority of movies today you’re going to download, and you’re going to watch it on one tab while, like, texting your friend or Skyping, right? Hopefully, if Detention is done right and it grabs your attention, it may be the only movie that you really have to sit down and watch. It won’t let you text. It grabs you and says, “Okay, all that other stuff going on in your life? Here’s a real reason why you need to stop. Watch this.”

BC: The most obvious comparison I think people are going to make, probably erroneously, is to Scream. How do you feel about that?

JK: I mean look, to be honest, when the writer, Mark Palermo, and I wrote it together, initially we were saying, “Okay, let’s make a slasher film, because we haven’t seen anything like this before”. But just due to the nature of who I am and how I see things, it morphed into whatever as we developed it over three years. And we make a comment about Scream; we know people are going to compare it to Scream, but after you watch the movie you know it’s not like Scream. We’re making a comment about it.

JH: I think I also heard a Torque comment in there as well.

JK: Hey, I love Torque; it’s actually turned into a weird-ass fucking cult movie now. People really dig it. I think again, it came out a little ahead of its time. I remember when it came out in 2004, people were really into this pop-punk legitimacy thing, because we were just coming off of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and all of that stuff, and all of a sudden everybody was thinking that Sum 41 was real and Avril Lavigne was real—remember that era? And everybody thought they were so fucking cool and real because they were listening to pop-punk. So, Torque came out at a time when everyone wanted “real” movies, and I made this weird sort of hyper-real pop movie, and everybody was so serious back then, going “Look at that Pepsi logo he put up there, we’re obviously being sold to, the man is selling to us”. And I was obviously making a joke about it, and like 8 years later, everyone’s like, “Hey, look at all those fucking funny jokes”. The thing about Detention is, I don’t give a fuck. I made it for so little money. Whoever the audience is, I’m just going to make it full-blast for them, and the people that don’t get it, that don’t like Torque, whatever man. You’ve got other movies. This is mine.

JS: What was the most fun part? I’ve gotta ask.

JK: Spending my own money and getting to do whatever the fuck I want. Honestly. I had no studio. On Torque, every time I set up something, some script supervisor would say, “Joseph Kahn is putting the camera at a weird place, and we’ve got to report this to the studio because it won’t cut together”. I mean, literally I would get those types of things every day and on Detention, I’d place a camera and no one said anything. It was just me and kids. And by the way—kids are the best fucking actors because they’re not jaded. They don’t have managers and agents. They don’t know to act like divas yet. So I got real performances out of these damn kids because they’re just liking the script, you know?

JH: How did you go about getting Dane Cook into the movie and how was it working with him?

JK: Well, I put him in his first major picture—Torque. He has a cameo in that movie, and the studio fought me about putting him in because they didn’t know him at the time. I said “Look, Dane is funny, he’s got a lot of fans and he’d be great in it”. They wanted some other guy who didn’t do anything didn’t do anything, and Dane popped, right? And then I went back to Dane a couple years later and showed him the script. He liked it. He was resistant to doing it, because one, it was low budget, and two he was at a weird place in his life. I don’t know if you know anything about the Dane Cook story, but it’s very complex. He was resistant about playing a high school principal, because it dates him, and it’s so outside of his box. He plays the cool guy that has sex with a lot of girls, and here’s a guy that basically is crushed by life and is resentful and hates all the kids, and is basically the most uncool guy in the movie which is against his type. So, I got him to do it, and look man, that’s a selfless thing for him to do. It’s so against his imaging and I think it’s fun to see him in that role.

JS: Would you ever go back to doing big studio things with someone looking over your shoulder or is it independence from here on out?

JK: No, no, I just want to make movies. I don’t know what the next step is, honestly, I just look at it one film at a time. I have some ideas in my head that are really expensive, so they would have to be done through a studio to get them made. I just hate that part of the business that’s political, and realistically I get it. You’ve got to pay back your investors, and you can’t make a hundred million dollar movie without having to answer to somebody. That’s the realistic aspect of the business. The immature part of me says, “Why can’t I just fucking do what I want?”. So I haven’t really figured that part out yet. I don’t know what the answer is, but I had a blast doing Detention, that’s all I know.

AC: We were talking about Scream not too long ago, and it occurred to me that as time has gone on, horror has become much more self-reflexive and a lot more self-aware, and between last year’s Scream film and now this year we have Detention and the upcoming Cabin in the Woods, I feel like that sort of meta sensibility is becoming a lot more prevalent in horror. Do you think horror’s reached a point where the genre has to reinvent or at least reinvigorate itself?

JK: Well, I want to be very clear—I don’t think Detention is ultimately a horror film. When I say it’s a multi-genre film, I mean it, you know? I think horror is what starts it off and what frameworks it, but big chunks of the movie have nothing to do with horror. We’re Back to the Future for about 40 to 50 minutes of the movie of a 93 minute movie.  So in terms of horror, my intention to answer your question is that I’m not talking about horror on this movie. It’s not a movie about movies. That’s the trick about the meta behind Detention; it’s a movie about pop culture. It’s a pop culture rush. It’s about fashion, it’s about music, it’s about language, it’s about texting, and it’s about the way that you live your life. It just looks like a movie about movies because that’s what we’re used to processing it through. But it’s not. It really is not a movie about movies. I could give a shit about movies in this movie, you know? In fact, when we even talk about movies, we’re not really talking about movies. The movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie sequence is about Internet downloading.

AC: Fair enough!

JS: I wanted to back to short attention spans and how the movie reflects our generation’s short attention span. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing? What are your personal feelings about that?

JK: Going back to your talk about the positivity in the movie (referring to question #2), I like the kids today. I like the kids today better than ’92. Period. You’re the least racist, the least sexist, the least homophobic, the least everything. You fucking love a black president. You’re the most progressive fucking people ever on the face of the planet, you know? Am I positive about you guys? Absolutely. So, short attention span? No. I call it multi-tasking. You guys are smarter, you guys are more put together, you’re hipper, and you’re more aware of the media. You’re superior on every fucking level. It’s only a short attention span only because you’re so educated you get bored really easily, sort of like a genius back in 5th grade who does really poorly until they get moved up to a 9th grade level. Same thing with you guys. You need something that’ll really challenge you or else you’ll be bored as fuck with it.

AC: I felt like if I’d been watching Detention, and if it wasn’t a Joseph Kahn film, if it was someone else’s film, I don’t know how much I’d love these kids. But it’s really clear throughout the movie that these are really good people, these are people you want to spend time with, and I like that bit of anti-commentary on the whole “short attention span generation” comment.

JK: (laughing) Trust me, if I could live with you guys, I would do it. I had hell in the 90s and you guys have it so much better. It’s so good what you guys are doing.

JS: I definitely think we live in a more accepting time, for the most part, and I embrace that short attention span as much as I possibly can. I saw Detention and I said, “Yep, that’s high school”. And I just came out of high school two years ago. For all the ridiculousness, there’s a prominent streak of truth here.

JK: Yeah, and also I was very careful to cast people that age. They’re all 17, 18, 19 years old. Most of the time, when you see high school movies, they’re 25 or 26 year olds. It’s not just the writing. I think what you’re sensing is the reality of those characters actually getting along with each other because they’re real teenagers, really emoting with each other. It’s not like a fucking 30 year old emoting with a 17 year old Josh Hutcherson. [laughs]

BC: So I have to ask—in the process of writing this up, how soon did the bear come into it?

JK: Oh man. The bear…it’s such a blur of things. It took about a year just to structure the movie out. But it wasn’t like a solid year, because I was working on so many music videos and commercials, so every once in a while I would just go back there and work with my writer, and the bear just popped up somewhere. We were trying to figure out how the fuck we were going to get her to get back in time because we knew we wanted her to go back in time, but what the fuck does she go back in time with? We just had this mascot, so we thought, “Well, why don’t we just put her in the mascot?” How the fuck does that happen? [laughter] And I said, “Alright, well, I’ll put her inside it”, and trust me, it took a lot of serious thinking to make that work.

JH: So was the setting always in Grizzly Lake, or did Grizzly Lake come about after you thought about the mascot?

JK: No, Grizzly Lake and the mascot were always together, because it’s a play on the high school I went to which is called Jersey Village, which is about Jersey cows in the village. So we had Grizzly Lake, Grizzly bear in a lake. It’s just creativity. Every time you have a couple of ideas and you start making sense of it, and you have two random things that you try to make sense of, it’s this weird organic process where you just start shaping. You find that piece of clay, but instead of clay you’re using concepts and plotting and imagery. It was a really, really serendipitous thing where everything just flowed together.  I don’t know how it happened but over the year that story really locked together. When you watch it again, you’ll even see—the way that I placed it—Riley’s boot in the beginning in the case, you’ll see pictures, you’ll see how embedded and thought-out the whole movie is, and when you watch it a second time you’ll suddenly see—because of the Ione character—how everything locks together in a completely different way.

AC: That’s what I noticed. It’s really cool that there are all of these little details and all of them have a pay-off of some kind, and it’s really great watching all of that blend together, like the first time we see Elliot Fink as he’s looking out the window—you have no idea who he is! But then finally it clicks, and it definitely didn’t occur to me right away.

JK: And I have to say another thing—it was kind of designed that way, because coming from music videos I’m used to making art that you have to watch 50 or 60 times, and I know that somebody is going to buy this thing and if you really love the movie you’re going to watch it multiple times. And the reality is that a lot of studio films are calibrated for the first viewing. Like, we’re in a movie theater, and a joke happens and everyone laughs, but then you get home and you watch the same joke again and you’ve already laughed, but that beat’s still there for that laughter that’s not there anymore. It does hurt the theatrical experience a little bit for sure, because you’re going to be laughing over other people’s jokes, and lines that you didn’t hear before with a live audience, but once you have it at home you can watch this film 50 or 60 times and you’re still going to have this different calibration to it. Those jokes—you don’t have to wait. It’s structured like a really great viral video or a music video, so that the timing isn’t paced out for something you watch once. It’s for something that you’ll watch multiple times. That’s a weird thing, but it’s the way I see media, you know?

AC: I definitely think it’s a film that benefits from being seen more than once.

JK: Thanks!

BC: It will be, though, it’ll be a cult movie.

JK: That’s the thing that scares me. When people say “cult movie”, that means “small audience”! [laughter]

BC: Do you know what kind of release it’s getting?

JK: Here’s the thing, I don’t think the studio really understands what movie they have. The guy that liked it that hired it, I showed it to him a year ago, and then he left and now everybody else…theoretically this is one of those “pump and dump” things where they just put it out into ten theaters and then they try to do VOD at the same time. And I said, “No fucking way, no VOD at the same time!” because to me the VOD thing is just a way of them marketing all the money at the same time. So what I did is I actually made them show the film only in theaters, and I spent my own money doing all the stuff here in Boston. I flew myself, I hired the agency and all that stuff, this is all my cash, and I’m going to try to give it a shot in theaters. Hopefully, if enough people come it’ll force them to expand it more, but if it doesn’t it goes to VOD and DVD and all that, which I’m actually not too terribly upset about because I think that’s the way I’d probably watch the movie anyways. But I think it should have a shot at being seen on a wide screen because it’s a different experience. When you actually see the compositions in wide screen it’s pretty fucking intense, and with the sound flying around your head and stuff. It’s also fun to watch other audience members to see where they laugh, you know? It’s funny because I’ve had certain screenings where it’s been completely dead, and then some where everybody’s laughing at everything, and it really depends on the makeup of the audience. You get the right person in the audience that laughs really loud, and everybody else starts laughing; but if everybody’s hung up, and can’t laugh, then they won’t. Comedy’s fucking weird.

(At this point our time runs out; Joseph permits us to edit his “fuckings”—his own words—if we so choose, we all have a final great laugh and parting fist bumps before each of us heads off on his merry.)

Special thanks to Joseph for taking the time to speak with all of us, and of course to Allied for setting the whole thing up!

3 thoughts on “The ACVF Interview: Joseph Kahn Round Table

  1. I’m kind of impressed that Kahn doesn’t shy away from his music video past – like too many other filmmakers would.

    Lets hope DETENTION does well – hopefully I can get a chance to see it – and then discuss it with you.

    • I was almost worried that he took my question as something of a slight, but I really think his experience with that platform informs his cinema in really positive ways. And like you note most filmmakers from that background kind of skirt around it.

      It’s no secret that I’m a huge supporter of Detention— not after how much I’ve been promoting this piece on both my Twitter feed and my Facebook wall. It’s one thing for a movie to excite me as much as Detention does, but another entirely to come across a movie I also believe in. More than any other release this year, I believe in Detention (though The Grey and Kill List aren’t far behind), and I want it to do well and find an audience and get the love it richly deserves.

      But I’m cutting myself off there so I don’t sound like a huge shill.

  2. Pingback: GoSeeTalk Review: Detention, 2012, dir. Joseph Kahn « A Constant Visual Feast

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