Interview: Joseph Kahn on His Self-Financed “Detention,” Dream Space, and Film Critics as Filmmakers

After his feature debut "Torque" crashed and burned, the innovative director of such music videos as Britney Spears' "Toxic" heads back to school for a high school comedy unlike...
Shanley Caswell and Josh Hutcherson in Joseph Kahn's "Detention"

Even if his latest film “Detention” didn’t include the apocalypse as a plot destination, the case could be made that Joseph Kahn is destroying cinema to save it. Hailing from the world of 30-second spots and candy-colored music videos, it might appear to be as easy to dismiss the director as he does images, the status of being an ADD-addled anarchist seemingly cemented by his first feature “Torque,” which sent up the steroid era of action filmmaking with most slow to catch up with the joke.

With “Detention,” Kahn has made yet another film that seems to be ahead of its time, its destiny as a cult classic predetermined by the presence of a time-traveling bear, a football player who sprouts wings and a serial killer on the loose all in the service of a high school-set satire. But if “Torque” distanced audiences with its frenetic pacing and heavy application of gloss, the intentions behind it perhaps garbled after Kahn’s well-chronicled fights with the studio, “Detention” will invite them in as a clearly personal mashnote to movies and pop culture in general, with an emphasis on the mash part.

Done with such skill and verve it’s both dizzying and dazzling, Kahn creates an experience with “Detention” that’s better seen than described, but takes the premise of a group of students looking to survive another year at Grizzly Lake High to a literal level once its believed that “Cinderhella,” a villain from a popular torture porn series has come to life and descended upon the suburbs. However, the tiara-crowned villainess that steps out from the screen is the only way in which “Detention” allows for pop culture to be a force for evil, its texting-happy teens nostalgic for the ‘90s, per the 20-year cycle rule, and without the guidance of a defining event or tragedy, they’re far less able to relate to each other through what has happened to them as much as what has happened around them in the free flow of music, movies and multimedia that flood their consciousness.

As the director of clips for Britney Spears, Moby and countless other artists, Kahn has had a hand in shaping such a culture, but he’s also found a poetry in it, unlimited in where he can place his camera or how he can augment reality with special effects in order to make things pop in every sense of the term. In the case of “Detention,” that freedom came with a price tag for Kahn, who dipped into his own pocket to maintain the uncompromised fun that it is, and yet he was in deservedly good spirits when I spoke to him earlier this week about some of his visual signatures, preparing audiences for “Detention” and how he came to work with a film critic as a co-writer on the film.

This film premiered last year at SXSW and has played festivals around the country in the months leading up to its release this week. As someone accustomed to see their work typically launched and received reaction on a widespread scale, has it been interesting to see this build word-of-mouth over time?

Yeah, I think the discussion’s being framed more every time I go out there because it’s a film you have to be a little bit warned about. Some people can walk into this movie very cold and get on its wavelength immediately, but other people [you] need to be like, “Okay, it’s going to scare you a little bit. They’re going to do some things you’re not aware of. Don’t touch it this way because it’ll bite.” They have to be positioned properly, then they’ll appreciate the movie. I think word is getting out that this is not a typical slasher film and to prepare yourself that way and maybe it’s a combination of that and weeding out the people it wasn’t meant for anyways.

You’ve said in your career as a commercial and video director, you’ve been a chameleon since your point of view came from “what the artist wanted and how do I go through the artist’s eyes?” Working in film, has that made it tricky to find your own voice?

The trick is I put myself in the client’s head, but filter it through myself. I find what part of myself is in the client and then I glom onto that and it’s always honest. That’s the trick because when you sell commercials or music videos, it can be very, very fake and you can’t believe it. But the trick is I always believe in what I’m doing and to find a piece of that that I believe myself in whereas most people, I think they find an agenda for themselves in a commercial or music video and then literally just wrap the work around that.

So when I do [a film], it actually works on a very different level. On a greater scale, it’s like what do I want to see and what do I want to say, but more importantly, the client now becomes the characters and the story — what does Riley Jones [the lead heroine played by Shanley Caswell] want? What does Clapton Davis [Josh Hutcherson] want? Every one of those people, I’m looking through their eyes and the exercise is less about trying to sell to a teenager, it’s literally like what do those characters want and think. That’s where that energy level I normally have starts becoming relevant to the actual story.

I recall something you said at SXSW about how different audiences might process this film and that you made a film built for distractions such as texting, so one could come back to it without missing a beat…

Oh no, no, no, no. That’s absolutely not the thing. What I do imagine is that this is a movie you’ll have to watch multiple times. And the movie is so energetic and colorful, it can play in the background for sure at some point and it’ll probably just be there in the corner of your eye. But to enjoy the movie, I specifically made it to challenge the audience because I believe that a young person when they go into a movie theater and text, it’s not just the fact that they need to text, but people are so informed these days that like the minute you start slowing down and showing them things that they’ve seen before, they get disinterested. That texting is a sign of disinterest.

What I wanted to do is make a movie that’s paced and structured and is complex and fun enough that you have to put down your text, that if you look away for 10 seconds, you’re going to get lost. I saw people walk out to the bathroom and I know when they’re going to come back, they’re not going to understand a single fucking thing that happened. They’ll miss major plot points because a major plot point happens every five minutes in this movie. So I specifically wanted to make a movie that you can’t text through because I wanted to compel you to put that pager down or that phone.

I can’t believe I got that wrong. Is that part of the process of building scenes for you – literally building on top of them after you’ve established a premise to add more and more layers?

There’s a certain level of creative dream logic that happens where you’re interconnecting things that you may think are completely irrelevant and turn into the most epic things later. That’s “Detention.” One of the things I think freaks people out is that all of a sudden they’re paying attention to something very tiny like a shoe in a trophy case and that becomes a gigantic plot point later in the movie. If they’re looking at one side of the screen, somebody’s body falls apart [on the other]. The film is so textured and layered in every shot, I think people mistake as editing rhythm, it’s not actually that. It’s literally the level of information packed into the film is what’s overwhelming people.

You seem to counter that with some very fluid camerawork, where you’ll pan over to someone in a conversation when most filmmakers would use a cut or follow a character with the camera in a way that would seem impossible to set up. How did you develop that as a shooting style?

On a certain level, I have so many film theories that are very technical and very, almost like quantum in terms of how I view movement and composition that I’ve broken down the essence of it – it goes beyond what’s an edit, what’s a cut, what’s a move. It gets into very deep theories of dream space and things like that. So when I approach each shot, I don’t use the limitations of the camera. I almost imagine there’s not camera there and I imagine there’s no proscenium. I imagine there’s a dream space that’s going to be a memory in your head and what’s the most subjective way of telling that story. So I have no limitations of what I want to do with a camera, although I’ll put limitations to contain the idea in a weighted way.

Do your ideas typically start from images?

It’s completely different. The equivalent question that people always ask me is how do you come up with your ideas in music videos? The reality is I challenge myself to come up with ideas in a million different ways. I might read a book, I might see something on a wall, I might hear a sound, I might have a conceptual idea — all the ideas are ideas. They come from a million different things and you cinematically tie them together, so those ideas literally come from a million different sources and that’s good for creativity, not to be locked into one way of thinking.

A tangential question to that is whether it’s surreal for you to be spitting back out some of the pop culture that you had a hand in creating?

I can’t gauge the surrealness of my life because it is obviously surreal because of the things I do. I know it comes off as surreal on screen. But I’m literally just playing with pop echoes and making a statement with it. It just happens to coincide with things I’ve done and it’s unavoidable.

Would you and your co-writer Mark Palermo talk about what references you would include in the film, like maybe why “Torque” would be namechecked?

We had a nice dialogue going between each other in terms of all the pop references. The entire script was so fused together by both of our thoughts, it’s almost impossible to extrapolate any line of dialogue and not see both of our fingerprints on it, so that includes all the pop references.

Mark was actually a film critic for the Canadian weekly The Coast who you met through a positive review of “Torque,” and you’re routinely engaging with film writers through social media, which seems rare. Do you think that relationship is healthy for you as a filmmaker?

I think the way media works was bifurcated in the past. There would be writing over here and film over here and music over here. But today with the way that technology and the Internet is, everything gets mixed together. A filmmaker now has access to ProTools and blogging and things like that. Especially the younger generation, the ones that are 17, 18, they do everything. They don’t see media as one thing. They see it as control of everything. They may have a graphic arts background and they do music — “Detention” is made for those types of kids.

My perspective on a personal level is I don’t just make films. I blog. I tweet. I analyze. I criticize. So it’s not a matter of even looking at it as a film critic, it’s looking at it as a person in totality and guess what? If you’re making a movie, why doesn’t it make sense sometimes to work with somebody who actually analyzes it for a living and is passionate about it. A film critic is a perfect writer [for a film] on a certain level. If the internal person there has a great inner story of his backlife and has the right perspective and then on top of it, he’s spent his whole life analyzing films up and down, what an incredible writing partner.

Do you actually see your filmmaking as a form of film criticism?

Filmmaking is film criticism. Actually, on a certain level, I think that film critics are filmmakers in their own right, depending how good they are. For instance, Armond White, who’s very controversial, I think of him as a filmmaker because he literally changes the dialogue on a film. He can warp your perspective if he can get into your brain and change your perspective of how you see a movie. That is filmmaking as much as an editor or a cinematographer. Just because they actually touch the film doesn’t mean that’s the limitation of how you affect the filmmaking. You can affect filmmaking by affecting how people filter it too.

Throughout the press tour for this film, you’ve said you emptied out your bank account to make “Detention.” Has it been worth it?

Yes, it’s completely worth it. I had an idea for a type of filmmaking that I felt was more current and more relevant today and I wanted to see it happen. I would just sit there after we beaded out the story and I [thought], I would pay millions to see this movie. And I did. And here’s the thing: this Friday, it may completely crash and burn. It might. People don’t know about this movie. They really don’t on a relative level and if it did, I still would go to my grave smiling with nice bright white teeth as a skeleton because I’m so happy with it. It exists. I put a dent in cinema somewhere.

“Detention” opens on April 13th in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Halifax. A full listing can be found here.

One Comment

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  • SJP
    12 April 2012 at 4:58 am -

    EVERYONE GO AND SEE THIS MOVIE THIS WEEKEND. JK IS AMAZING AND HIS FILM IS AMAZING. Give him your coins! Girl PLEASE!

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