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It’s no secret that after MTV began broadcasting in 1981, music videos quickly became a breeding ground for an entire generation of filmmakers. The short-form medium not only gave filmmakers their first professional opportunities behind the camera, it helped create aesthetic boilerplate that redefined the way audiences looked at stories, both in terms of style and execution. And by the time he turned 30, Joseph Kahn had become one of the most successful directors in music video history, earning a shot at a feature after producing clips for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem and many others.
But when his 2004 debut Torque was poorly-received by both critics and moviegoers, Kahn became a cautionary reminder that not all music-video helmers were made for movies – even if he simultaneously proved that the movies weren’t quite ready for what some of them had to offer. Eight years later, Kahn returns to the big screen with Detention, a genre pastiche that bears all of the hallmarks of his earlier work, but fits far more comfortably into the current cinematic landscape. Kahn recently spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about refining the pop-culture overload of his personal style, examining the balance between movie references and emotional resonance, and taking lessons from Torque that he brought both into Detention and his future work.
The Hollywood Reporter: Because it operates on such a metatextual level, how long did it take to formalize your ideas for this movie into a functional script?
Joseph Kahn: The honest agenda was to make a standard genre flick, [but] I find that I’m kind of incapable of that because I get bored. So as we were constructing this incredibly cliched story in the beginning — like a Myspace murder or something like that — we kept layering it and layering it. And when we finally finished the structure, it was just so radically different because thematically it started changing to things that we were interested in and things I was learning about kids during the year [we wrote it].
THR: how carefully do you avoid or embrace concrete interpretations of your work? At ta recent q&a someone called it parody, which you disagreed with.
Kahn: Anybody is allowed to have any interpretation that they want. But when you talk about intent and creative intent, normally movies like this would turn into like Scary Movie or Epic Movie where it’s a mash-up and a pure parody. We wanted to actually tell a real story about a girl and have an emotional throughline, so we knew we were doing some very distinct things, like retaining a sort of naturalism in the acting, retaining a certain character logic, and motivations, things like that, which those movies are not concerned with. We wanted to ground it on that, and then go fantastic with it.
THR: You said you described shooting Detention to your crew as “think of it as 15 music videos.” How much do you think of feature filmmaking in those terms, either as a matter of practicality or conceptualization?
Kahn: I don’t go into music videos thinking I’m using a music video style. I’ve been trained as a formal director, so essentially in my music videos I apply, at its core base, the same new wave filmmaking that [Steven] Spielberg and [Martin] Scorsese use. But what I bring from music videos back into narrative is just that I have a more heightened sense of aesthetics, so when I finally make a movie, I’m really not using a music video style, it’s my style; that’s how I see storytelling. And when I talked about the 15 music videos in a row, that had everything to do with just pure production mechanics. Like, we know how to prep for a five-minute piece, so how do we prep 15 five-minute pieces over a course of 32 days, which turned into 52.
THR: How important to you is the traditional language of cinema is in terms of communicating ideas or storytelling to an audience?
Kahn: I think it’s very important. I don’t think I stray that much from it, I think I’m just more specific. What I don’t do is construct the whole scene wrapped around a master shot, and then just do insert editing, which is essentially like 99 percent of filmmaking. My hero ultimately is Steven Spielberg, who does not shoot a master shot, and people think of him as the most conventional filmmaker in terms of the narrative he tells, but he has one of the most unconventional styles. He doesn’t really use a proscenium; he sees much more from a subjective point of view on the camera. I see filmmaking as a specific sequence of events, that you will feel the master shot at a certain point, but you don’t get locked into it.
THR: Is it tough to balance indulging your aesthetic preferences with the audience’s expectations or needs?
Kahn: Absolutely, but as an artist you have to filter it through yourself. I’m not making this movie for everybody. One of the things I’ve learned from music videos and commercials is that there are demographics, and you can be very specific about it. It’s not really Hollywood’s thing, because the goal for every movie is that four quadrant [movie] that appeals to everybody and you get a billion dollars. But Detention was made for a very small amount of money. I know how to do the other version of it, but this is a very specific case where I know that the audience is very small, I know that it’s filtered through me, and so I can indulge a bit more in being very specific.
THR: You’ve said that Torque didn’t necessarily come out the way you would have wanted. In retrospect, was that because too many people were making disparate demands, or to some extent did you go into it with unrealistic expectations?
Kahn: I was unrealistic and I was naive in terms of how the studio process worked. I was coming off music videos where I can basically do whatever I wanted and I have a certain level of respect, so everybody basically listened to me. And I went into another person’s living room and tried to redecorate their couch, and they wanted their couch a specific color and I wanted another — so theoretically, what they should have done was fire me and gotten another interior director. It was a humongous learning experience. I’m happy with the movie by the way, 70 percent of what I wanted to do — it’s a passing grade. But the biggest core thing that I learned is that you have to from the beginning agree together, because Lorenzo [di Bonaventura], who was the president, left, and I was no longer working with a certain set of executives and we had two different movies in mind. They wanted to make movie A, I wanted to make movie B, and that was a recipe for disaster. And that was just an unfortunate series of events. If you don’t see eye to eye, then you should nip that in the bud right from the start — and they should have nipped me in the bud from the start.
THR: How did you decide what references you wanted to include in this film’s dense pop-culture tapestry?
Kahn: I mean at a certain point you’re being a throwback DJ — you’re sensing the imaginary audience out there and if you’re targeting them on a very specific level you know that certain things are going to tickle their funny bone. Some people will get Freejack, some people will get Hanson, and some people will get “Everybody Dance Now.” But the movie is very complicated, because the target audience that can appreciate 100% of it is going to be someone like me — but I’m a weird case, because I’m going to turn 40 this year, and yet I know tons about youth culture because of my job. I’m chained at the ankle to pop music and pop culture, [but] most people my age sort of stop listening to new music at about 25 and then lock into U2 or whatever the hell they listen to. And that will limit the audience for sure, but that’s why the movie was not made for a lot of money.
THR: The ending of the film evoked Breakfast Club to me, but in another interview you and co-screenwriter Mark Palermo said you were inspired by Raising Arizona. Where do you draw the line between evoking those comparisons and creating something genuinely resonant?
Kahn: Well, I think once you get absorbed into its wavelength I feel like there is a very solid story. I made every decision in the movie based around my central character Riley and all the decisions she makes. She has an active role and she has an active emotional journey through the whole thing. We did intend to make a very emotional movie that has a very rock solid feel. I think at the end a lot of people do feel good — like it’s a “feel-good” movie at the end. But it’s literally an issue of some people having to catch up to speed with how fast we’re running to enjoy the run.
THR: How careful do you have to be about your choices are going forward, to avoid either focusing only on yourself, or the perception that you’re focusing only on yourself?
Kahn: I would never do a movie that I had no connection to. I think that’s a recipe for failure. The only thing I can really do is try to process it through myself, and if I naturally gravitate towards a certain material, and I think it has a wider audience, then that’s a great culmination of perspectives. But if that connection isn’t there then obviously don’t do it. Like for Torque, I had a very specific idea of who that was for, and it turned out it was like a handful of people that were like me, so I know that I would never spend that amount of money to make a movie like that again. So if did a big $100 million movie or something like that, I would have to be honest with myself and say is it a movie that I would want to watch personally to justify that, and get its money back and make money. And if I can get there, then I have no problems 100% playing that game.
THR: After shopping this film around on the festival circuit, how eager are you to move onto something else? And are you thinking of moving on to another feature?
Kahn: Oh yeah, we’re writing another feature. It’s stupid to say this, but I’m a very creative soul so I have tons of ideas all the time, and I love to make movies. But it’s a tough business, so I have to be very selective of what I do. And maybe this movie will change perspectives a little bit, but right now I’m the only one who will fund my own movies. So if I have to do it again it’s going to take me a little while, because I’ve got everything invested in this one; I need to make my money back or make more money, and then maybe I’ll see everybody in 2020 if it happens this way again.
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