There's a sort of amazing nexus of visibility that Jennifer's Body is enjoying as it moves towards its opening day: men and women alike are obsessed with any- and everything Megan Fox does, and critics and audiences are curious to see how successfully Diablo Cody will follow-up her Oscar-winning script for Juno. Meanwhile, director Karyn Kusama bears the burden not only of shepherding the result of their efforts and the test for those expectations into theaters, but is in herself in search of a project that can both fulfill and overcome the preconceptions of viewers familiar with her two previous films, the acclaimed independent film Girlfight and the decidedly less-acclaimed studio opus Aeon Flux.
Cinematical recently sat down with Kusama for an epic conversation about her latest film, Jennifer's Body. In addition to discussing the project's origins and inspirations, she talked about tapping into expectations without acquiescing to them, examined the high-profile careers of her collaborators, and offered a few insights into her own creative process. (Check back tomorrow for part two, which further delves into her own feelings about the film's themes and her execution of its ideas.)
Cinematical: How did you process Diablo's writing style when you were directing and maybe even editing? Because she was kind of an unknown quantity when you started working on this but now she obviously has a style that polarizes audiences.
span style="font-weight: bold;">Karyn Kusama: I think Diablo was a part of seeing what the process had to be for the movie in terms of certain dialogue, even when it was really funny, really entertaining, we either had to cut entirely just – in studio terms – to get to the story faster, or there were moments when particularly certain elements of comedy, we had to sort of dial back a little because it upset the balance of what actors were doing emotionally. I think Diablo is really interesting because she writes with a very distinctive voice, but she's not particularly precious either, so she can know that something has been cut, but judge it again without even lines she really cherishes to sort of see how it operates on the whole. So I think she's pretty skilled at letting go of certain stuff, and then saying, 'this is important to me. I want to protect this.'
If anything, I think my director's cut is more authentically representational of the script and I'm proud that there's a director's cut that exists because it's a little bit closer to what both Diablo and I had imagined the finished movie would be. But that being said, I also think she often talks about, when she would see a cut and there would be something missing, she often writes in a very interesting, kind of rhythmic style – a joke that builds on a joke that builds on a joke, so it's sort of these trios of ideas. For her, it wasn't about losing any one part of the trio, it was about losing the shape of the trio itself, so she would often say, 'if I had to choose as the writer, I would rather lose everything than retain two parts of what should be a triangle.' So it was very interesting because she was more able to articulate a sort of formal understanding of her work than a lot of people are, and she was also really willing to articulate the most important thematic ideas, and kind of give up on the ephemera.
I feel like the issue of her voice being strong and people having a problem with it is very interesting to me because I think there are plenty of writers whose work generates that discussion. I have just never heard Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet or Shane Black be called a whore in people's blogs; I am shocked sometimes by the vitriol. It makes very little sense to me. [But] I think with Diablo it will be very interesting to see because I know she loves young people and she loves youth movies, so maybe she'll stick to that, but at a certain point it would be really interesting to get Diablo's take on grown-ups, because she herself is a really interesting grown-up. I think she's got a sh*tload of very real talent, and maybe it's not everybody's cup of tea, but what is?
Cinematical: Perhaps not dissimilarly, how did Megan's own visibility affect the production? I visited the set just a few days after those photos were leaked, and I'm not interested in asking about that, but how does something like that creatively affect the set, or change the way that you direct her to make her feel comfortable?
Kusama: It's incredibly damaging to a set when one of your lead actors feels like their privacy has been completely violated and betrayed. I think she felt understandably defensive and angry and self-protective, but the problem with an actor being self-protective on a set where they're supposed to be playing a character who at certain times can't be protecting anything of themselves, it just affects everyone's ability to work. So I was trying to make her feel as comfortable as I could and give her the space she needed while still making our day. So it was a little bit of a balancing act. But her visibility in a way comments back on the movie itself somehow, and in that regard, it's intellectually interesting to me. I would think to be Megan Fox right now would be hellish – to always be looked at, critiqued, commented on. She's in a no-win [situation]. That's the problem with being put on a pedestal – there's always going to be a lot of grubby hands trying to pull you down, and I think Megan is fascinating because as much as she is able to put herself in the spotlight, she really wants to be invisible, and it's going to be a tricky balance for her to strike personally and professionally.
Cinematical: What do you think are her emerging strengths that you think she brings to this film or to the films she's in?
Kusama: I can only speak to our experience together, and I remember really vividly when we talked about the sacrifice scene and she said as a very off-handed comment, 'a lot of young girls are going to see this movie, and it would be socially irresponsible for me to do anything but play it straight.' I thought that's a pretty sophisticated take, because so much of the script is so sort of hyper-real and theatrical and walking this sort of absurdist-comic tone that she could have easily looked at her dialogue in that scene and not played it straight. I thought I was gearing up for a conversation about moving her towards this sort of more realist depiction of that event, and here she had already gotten there on her own, and she didn't feel that there was any other way to do it. I just thought, that's her strength – she has innate intelligence, and a sense of respect for the character she's playing. In a funny way, of course shooting that scene was pretty difficult and kind of uncomfortable, and here the whole dynamic of the scene is that she is freaking out while everybody else is joking around her and treating her like a thing, and so I think one of her strengths is that she can go deeper than you think, particularly if you just ask for it.
I think she's really game to go deeper and try new things; I don't think she'll ever get to play the ugly girl, which maybe is in its own way limiting. I think you just have to accept that beauty is a natural component of her because she's actually naturally beautiful, and if anything the sort of glamour girl is another kind of mask for her and a way to hide, in my opinion, but I think she has the possibility of a very bright future. It's just, will celebrity eat her alive before she gets the chance to really create that body of work?
Cinematical: My girlfriend and I agreed that the movie has an amazingly hot make-out scene between Jennifer and Needy. What is the point, to you, of the film's lesbian make-out sequence? Is it still valuable if it's a concession to satisfying audience expectations even if there isn't necessarily a deeper meaning or purpose?
Kusama: Well, there's the thing that's funny: [with] my editor, who is female, we certainly played around with the cut of that scene and we entertained shorter versions of it. It was always meant, though, in the structure of it, to be the turning point of something in the relationship; it was always part of the script that Jennifer kisses Needy and you realize there is a romantic component to this relationship that maybe we could imagine, but now we're actually seeing that gives you a little further sense of the power Jennifer has over Needy. It gives Needy a certain amount of power because she is complicit in some kind of sexual relationship with Jennifer, and at the moment that it's revealed, we've seen what Jennifer is capable of, and so the question becomes what is she using this seduction for? So narratively I always felt it was justified, but what I think makes people uncomfortable about the scene and makes people ask me about the possibility of it being something more exploitative than I would have chosen is that it's uncomfortably long, and I think when it's shorter it's more exploitative, because then you watch it and you don't engage with your own feelings about it because it lacks seriousness.
So to me even though we tried shortening that scene, and believe me it wasn't something we were telling the studio (laughs), I found that in the body of the movie, to shorten that scene but still have it meant I lost on a couple of fronts. But I think to me the fact that it goes on uncomfortably long demands that the audience experience something else beyond voyeurism, and I feel like I know as many men who have said to me, I thought it was just going to be this kiss, but it became something a little bit more like, what's going to happen? And why was it so easy to dismiss it initially as two beautiful girls kissing each other in a hot way? I say that and I hope it's a reasonable answer; it won't certainly satisfy a bunch of people who probably think I've stepped down a notch in some way, but I also think people kissing is the reason why you go to the movies! I feel like what makes it feel different to people is seeing two women, but the fact is it's watching two people who know how to kiss each other, which tells you a little bit about either a sexual component, a romantic component, or even some kind of genuine love component between these two characters.