Q&A: Karyn Kusama


Illustration by Chris Morris
Karyn Kusama socked the indie world in the gut with her writing-directing debut "Girlfight" in 2000. Though she stumbled with the big-budget actioner "Aeon Flux" in 2005, Kusama is back with the horror comedy "Jennifer's Body," a Diablo Cody-penned exercise in girl-fright starring Megan Fox. Like Cody's Oscar-winning "Juno," the film premieres at the Toronto film festival ahead of a Sept. 18 U.S. release. But first, Kusama talks to THR film reporter Jay Fernandez about her distaste for the chick flick and the inarguable appeal of bewbz.

The Hollywood Reporter: You're bound to hear some criticisms about exploiting women in a genre infamous for it. Were you and Megan and Diablo concerned about that during filming?

Karyn Kusama: I feel like the characters are rich enough and specific enough that they and the relationship are allowed the pulp surface that is applied to them. If I just lived in a polemic about how girls are treated in movies, I'd never get out of bed. To me, it's really about who occupies the engines of the story and when you see a woman make choices -- even when they're the wrong choices -- I'd rather see that than see a struggle to get to a resolved ending in which everybody is happy and the girl realizes that "who she loves is standing right in front of her." I'm so not into the chick flick concept, because I don't think I identify with the politics of it. I think a girl running for her life because there's some crazy person on the loose is much more real. (laughs)

THR: There is no nudity, but there will be a certain expectation, because of the genre and because of Megan ...

Kusama: And it's the title! I mean, there's the suggestion of it all the time. But, this is the funny thing about making a movie like this. We would do test screenings, and honestly, if Megan or Amanda, if we just saw their breasts, the movie would have tested better. It's so insane. One thing that Diablo wants to frame is one of the test cards, where it's like, "If you could do one thing to improve the movie, what would it be?" And [the person] just wrote: "M-O-A-R B-E-W-B-Z." (laughs loud) It's classic. And you know what? It's honest! I grew up reading Pauline Kael's first book of criticism, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and though I will always have a love of the ambitious studio movie and the ambitious art film, I realize that so much of why we go to movies is for the violence and the sex.

THR: To what extent was there pressure put on you to include some?

Kusama: Actually, the pressure was internal. Because I felt like, this is a movie I know is for young people, and I want a lot of girls and boys to see this movie. It is a crazy movie! And it's a crazy movie for boys to be seeing and embracing. So there's a part of me that wished there could be nudity in it. We had a reshoot that was in a girls' locker room, and everyone was delighted! Because they were like, "Oh! We can do our 'Carrie' homage!" But it didn't work in the movie. So even my die-hard genre male producers were like, "Eh, it'll be on the DVD, they can get their boobs that way." Everyone knew it wasn't really integrated into the story unless it was Megan's character. That's who needed to be using that power. That's where you see that, if played right, nudity is a very powerful card.

THR: Was it important to the producers that a woman direct this, or was that arbitrary?

Kusama: It was totally arbitrary. We get so much access into the terror of (Diablo's) screenplay by focusing on the terror of girlhood and adolescence and the horror of female friendships that are intrinsically toxic. I talked a lot with her about how those relationships are so particular to women. So much of the way (women) express power is through some sort of subterfuge. I felt like she identified with what I was saying. The producers were super open to a woman, but that wasn't an agenda. But once it happened, it was like, Wow, this is kind of exciting, it's a female writer, female director.

THR: You are a rarity. You're one of the few directors of either gender to have made three movies with ass-kicking heroines that literally kill and punch and fight and devour their way through the movie.

Kusama: I never think about it. I feel very privileged to get to do this job. Honestly, I feel like I'm serving a need. The reason I'm drawn to these movies is because I would want to see them myself. Not consciously -- it's not like I say to my agents, "I only want movies about girls." It's just I find that sometimes -- particularly in movies that identify as genre pictures the way "Aeon Flux" did and "Jennifer's Body" does to a degree, and even "Girlfight" I always saw as part of a tradition of social realist sports movies -- when you put women in those narratives something about the narrative changes and becomes more worth watching. "Alien" is such a great example. It is so bold and revolutionary and fresh still because Ripley is Ellen Ripley.

THR: What are you looking to do next?

Kusama: A movie about adults. I'd be really interested in something a little more about adult lives and, no matter what the genre, the pressures and the terrors of just getting through each day. I've struggled with the desire to make movies that feel like serious statements and then also make movies that work at a much more visceral, entertainment level.

THR: "Girlfight" was a serious movie.

Kusama: It was. But I'm not sure how you make a movie like "Girlfight" right now. I don't know where the independent money is. I feel this tenuousness about the range of choices out there. But that being said, somehow "The Hurt Locker" exists, somehow "Let the Right One In" exists. These movies get made somehow. "The Hurt Locker" is just a perfect expression of the kind of movie we should be seeing every weekend in theaters, which is essentially a great genre picture that is executed flawlessly and actually has something to say by not fucking beating its meaning over your head.