Sex, Violence, and Feminism with Karyn Kusama and ‘Jennifer’s Body’

If you say you are not looking forward to Jennifer’s Body, you are a damn liar.  I know I am eager to see the horror-comedy-with-a-message starring Megan Fox as a high school hottie who starts killing boys when she is possessed by a demon. 

This article originally ran on September 2009

If you say you are not looking forward to Jennifer’s Body, you are a damn liar.  I know I am eager to see the horror-comedy-with-a-message starring Megan Fox as a high school hottie who starts killing boys when she is possessed by a demon.  I chatted with director Karyn Kusama about sex, violence, horror films, and feminism.  Yes feminism.  It’s not scary-feminism, I promise, but it does get a little academic, so you may want to grab your glasses and a jacket with elbow patches, and settle down with a nice cup of cocoa.

What drew you to Jennifer’s Body?

It was very appealing to read a script that had so much humor and, for me, a relatable horror.  But more than anything, it had a real affection for its characters, and a bracing lack of damsels in distress.  It ended up being pretty interesting for me to make a movie where the lead character runs to save her boyfriend’s life [instead of the other way around], and runs to save her own life, and makes this transformation into someone who has to act rather than sit back and observe.  There was something very appealing about that for me.

The film has a very strong feminist message, and yet is being marketed from the Megan Fox sex-object angle.  Was this the plan all along?

No, not at all.  To be honest, I am frustrated by aspects of the marketing, only because I think it limits our audience more than it needs to.  I definitely feel the movie was made by women, for women, with boys in mind, of course, because we knew it would be an appealing movie for a lot of kids.  I’m definitely frustrated by the “boy-centric” angle that a lot of the marketing seems to have.  It’s going against the grain of what the film is trying to accomplish.

Do you feel that moviegoers will leave the theatre feeling “duped?”

My hope is that they will feel refreshed that they saw a movie that had anything to say at all.  I definitely think there is a component of false advertising in a lot of marketing – movie marketing in particular.  It concerns me, because I don’t feel that this movie needed to be “falsely advertised.”  To be fair, I know the movie is tricky to present in the two-minute soundbyte that is a trailer.  I can’t  say that I know what the solution is myself, but I am definitely concerned about losing the very audience I was speaking so specifically to which, beyond young people, was young women in particular.

Were you trying to subvert the feminist film theory of “the male gaze” [where women are only placed on film to be objectified and sexualized] by turning the  object of desire into something to be feared?

I think I read the script with a sense that a canny and entertaining interpretation of the movie would require executing the movie with a certain awareness of those ideas.  I certainly have had those semiotics and women’s studies classes myself!  I don’t like to assign the concept of “the gaze” only to men because I think it gives them far too much power, in a way – I think men and women are both active participants in the act of looking and absorbing an image.  For me, what I think is really interesting is the notion that the monster is decidedly female, but she is not entirely the villain of the film.  In a funny way, it is sort of her victimization that truly transforms her into a monster.  Sometimes I wonder if that is really what drew me to the film, the idea that the victimization of femininity can easily become something monstrous in culture.  I feel like I see that now, when I see 12-year-old girls who are hyper-sexualized because they don’t know what else they have to offer.  That’s a monstrous strain of society, to me.

What influenced you, as far as the overall look and feel of the film?

I draw from a lot of influence for each of the films I make.  I draw from certain painters, certain photographers, and these broader aesthetics I see in culture.  For me, I knew this movie needed to have a rich and lush use of color and pattern, but also a kind of simplicity.  I wasn’t going for anything hyper-stylized, but I do think the movie has a very conscious visual plan.  I wanted to walk the line between a self-conscious visual style and something more subdued.  I think this movie falls between Girlfight and Aeon Flux, style-wise.

Did Diablo have much say in the visual style?

We worked great together.  Diablo was always game to have me take her script and run with it.  I had presented a look book to the producers, and she was one of them, so she had a pretty strong sense of where I wanted to take things, visually.  We talked about movies we really love, and there was a lot of overlap there.  We’re both big fans of Dario Argento.  I think it’s really interesting that he has such an interest in beauty – not just female beauty, but literal beauty: beautiful frames and beautiful design and beautiful shooting style.  But Diablo and I were both steering away from the thematic concept of seeing all those beautiful women slaughtered in a multitude of creative ways.  That was not where we were interested in taking the story.

Right.  Because Dario has infamously said – though slightly out of context – that he loves to see beautiful women killed on camera.

There is obviously a fascinating, conflicted relationship he has with beauty itself and beautiful women.  I have my own conflicted feeling towards beauty and beautiful women, I guess [laughs].  But it doesn’t result in corpses.

Did Meagan Fox have any problems or concerns with the sexualness of her character?

She really understood how that character operated, and found it humorous.  What was great about Megan was that she was able to take all those assumptions about her, and turn it into a crazy female character that I don’t think we see much of on screen.  A boy-crazy demon is a pretty funny idea to me.  She understood the comic possibilities in that right away.  Using her highly-publicized, sexualized surface actually really served the role, and I think she did a really great job with it.  She took the ball and ran with it.

Violence is notoriously easy to get passed the MPAA than sex and sexuality.  Did you have any problems with either of those aspects when you went for your rating, and especially with the strong female sexuality?

I think the movie could have had none of the violence or gore, and still would have  gotten an R because of how puritanical the ratings system is.  The language was already killing us.  The sexuality – particularly the female sexuality – was going to guarantee an R.  I find it troubling that had the language and sexuality been absent from the movie, but it had more violence, we could have probably gotten a PG-13.  It’s a really a reflection of the times we are living in.

It’s scary, but it seems like it has always been like that in this country.  “It’s better to slay on film than to lay on film.”

You’re right!  I feel like we can watch human beings shish kabob each other but you can’t see them have meaningful, awkward sex.  It’s dumb.  And god forbid it be two girls.  I’m feeling routinely disillusioned by the morays of the ratings board.

Did you have to make many cuts to even get that R?

No.  I think if we had a much, much more hard-R approach to the violence, maybe we would have been in trouble.  Or if we had more nudity.  I’ve been asked the question about nudity pretty frequently, about why the girls aren’t nude.  I am all for nudity, but what it would have meant was seeing boys in this tremendously awkward state of nakedness as well [as the girls], and I think that would have gotten us into some pretty tricky territory.

Oh yeah.  Male nudity almost guarantees you an NC-17 rating.

Exactly.  But somehow we can have women prancing around completely naked and get away with it.

You mentioned disillusionment with “the system.”  Does it make you want to make a film out of the Hollywood system, maybe even release it unrated?

That’s an interesting idea.  I have definitely been drawn to certain movies that are unrated.  But I’m not entirely sure what “outside the Hollywood system” means for American filmmakers, only because we still depend on a distribution system that is tied to the studios that are tied to the exhibitors that are tied to the theatres.  So it is a little tough for me to know what “outside the system” would be if I still want my movies to be shown on the big screen in more than one or two cities.  It’s hard.   I don’t know what the answer is.  

I like popular entertainment.  I like being in theatres with lots of people.  That experience is very powerful for me.  In some ways, I see the value in working within and trying to subvert certain ideas within the system.  I guess it’s just a question of picking my sacrifices each time out.  You lose certain things with each choice you make, but you gain things as well.  I just need to decide what the next round is going to be – I’m not really sure yet, to be honest.  Part of me wants to make a $5M movie and just be able to work through it really fast on a creative level – a short prep, a short shooting schedule, and a very fast, decisive editing period.  But a lot of those movies that you make like that are generally financed in such a way that you don’t necessarily have a guarantee of distribution.  That’s a little upsetting to me, but I guess that’s the gamble we all take, for every movie we make – even if it is through a studio.  Having made a movie like Aeon Flux that was not exactly dumped, but hardly supported, feels just as heartbreaking – sometimes more heartbreaking, because you spend a lot more of your life working on a big studio movie.

You recently said that your next project will likely be a script you wrote, dealing with body horror.  Can you tell us about that?

It’s something I am trying to raise the money for, but I have been trying for, like, eight years, so we’ll see what happens [laughs].  It’s a psychological body horror film that Rachel Weisz is attached to play the lead in.  I’m really excited about it, and if I got the opportunity to make it, I’d be thrilled.  We’ll see what happens.  If Jennifer’s Bodymakes a couple bucks and makes people happy, maybe I will get more opportunities in front of me.

Speaking of body horror, are you influenced at all by David Cronenberg?

Oh yeah.  I actually really appreciate his more recent, non-horror movies – I particularly loved Eastern Promises.  I spent college – and after college – watching Rabid and The Brood and Videodrome and Dead Ringers.  Those movies are very important to me.  I respect him so much as a filmmaker.

Will there be a special director’s cut on the DVD?

Yes.  It will be a theatrical cut and the director’s cut, in the same package.  The director’s cut is not substantially different – it doesn’t have a completely different structure or tone, but it is a more amplified version of itself, in my opinion.  I’m really excited for people to see this other cut.  I’m really pleased with the theatrical cut, but I’m even happier with the extended cut.

What kinds of things were cut?  More sex? More violence? More story?

It was a combination of story, like characters that broadened the world.  But in other people’s opinions, they felt like it was potentially  narrative distractions from the central story.  To me, it’s sort of a crapshoot.  I can see the advantages to having a leaner, meaner story, but I also think when you broaden the world, see more characters and get a more interconnected sense of the community that is being terrorized by this monstrous force, it deepened the zany emotional impact of the movie.  For the people who are already signed on to the tone and the weirdness of the movie, I think it is a slightly deeper, richer experience.  There is even more humor [in the director’s cut] than is already in the theatrical cut. For that reason, I think [the director’s cut] is a more accurate portrayal of Diablo’s script.

The film is kind of set up to leave room for a sequel.  I know that is pretty much par for the course in Hollywood, but have you at all discussed the possibility with Diablo?

We actually just had a very brief exchange about this topic while we were in Toronto.  If there was a way to make a sequel that was as fascinating and strange as the first movie, I personally would be interested.  Going back to your very, very first question, the reason I wanted to make this movie in the first place was because I imagined myself, at age 17, going nuts for it.  I felt like I was making a movie for my 17-year-old self and for the 17-year-olds out there today.  I’d love to entertain the idea of a sequel.

Do you want to keep working in horror?

I have a couple horror projects that really interest me, largely because they sort of subvert expectations, just based on its genre. So I definitely love the possibilities in horror.  I think it is really fascinating at how frequently “ghetto-ized” it is as a genre – often times unnecessarily.  I think the long-term effect of that “ghetto-ization” also leads to a simplification of the movies themselves that is often unnecessary.  I think we are game as an audience – particularly horror audiences – for richer, more complicated experiences.  As long as we are scared every fifth minute, we can accept a lot of complexity in between.  But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from an across-the-board examination of all the horror movies that are out this minute, or have been out in the past five or ten years.  Maybe that’s just the nature of the genre.  It’s always been the “isolated stepchild” of the movie industry.

It really has been, and yet if you really look at it, horror films often have a deeper message than more mainstream of “critically acclaimed” films.

Completely!  I made a comment the other day, while teaching a class at a Chicago film school, and said that I really feel strongly that that 20 years from now, or even today, if we look at the first two Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Rosemary’s Baby or Carrie or even Nightmare on Elm Street, or the Tobe Hooper Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any of George Romero’s Living Dead movies… I think any of those movies would end up in a time capsule a hundred times faster than the past ten years of Oscar-winning Best Pictures.  To me, horror movies say more about where we are culturally and socially than any genre.  In a way, horror has the most possibilities.  I love the intellectual inquiries that are possible with sci-fi, and the primal human inquiries of action movies, but ultimately, horror to me has the richest territory for mining.  The idea of monsters, the idea of the dark, the idea of the unknown… we will never lose a relationship to that.  We may turn our backs to it, but we’re always going to have a relationship to it.

Horror is an often overlooked genre – it can get away with more social commentary.  For example, Night of the Living Dead could get away with exploring issues of racial tension because it’s just a little horror movie – who is going to care?

Exactly.  I feel the politics in my favorite horror movies far, far more than in even more overtly-political films.  I feel like Texas Chainsaw Massacre tells me more about the loss of indigenous industry than a movie that is attempting to tell that literal story.  I feel like there is something very powerful behind the ideas of an American identity that cannibalizes itself.  It’s so rich to me, and so powerful.  I think the flip side to it is that there is a certain “pulp” quality to violence or monsters or shape shifters that we somehow feel we can judge or put into this disreputable category.  Maybe that says something about our own cultural discomfort with all those factors.  They are certainly part of our culture. 

I wouldn’t be adverse to making a lot more horror movies in my lifetime, only because they say so much.  They are so meaningful.  There are a lot of other movies I want to do, so it puts me in this position of maybe being different each time out, and accept that that will confuse people, or unsettle them, or disarm them each time.  But I like to keep things interesting.

Do you have your next project lined up?

It’s not, but it will be soon, because I have to just sit down and make a choice between a couple different projects.  I have a couple of small movies that definitely fall into the categories of psychological horror or body horror.  I also am looking at a couple bigger movies that are much more positive and uncomplicated in their emotional landscape.  They are more along the lines of true popular entertainment – and I don’t judge those.  Those are very hard to come by.  If I could make a movie like that, something I could take my kid to in a few years, and invite my parents at the same time and feel like we were all having a blast, that’s also an achievement.  I just don’t know where to head next.

Well I hope you do another horror movie next, so we can chat about that one, too.

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