Joseph Kahn is best known as the director of pretty much every music video ever (seriously, watch some of them here), but that's not the only thing he's done. In 2003, he released Torque, a motorcycle movie starring Ice Cube. Years later, he's back to try his hand with the comedy horror film Detention. I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview him, and he is a really awesome guy with a really awesome way of making movies. We talked a bit about his style as well as pop culture, his feelings about filming the deaths of teenagers, how he got access to a pretty amazing licensed soundtrack, and quite a bit more.
Aside from my rambling, I think there's some pretty cool stuff in there, so keep on reading and enjoy.
How are you?
I am great.
Great! So I guess my first question is, well… why high school?
Why high school? Umm… high school is discarded in movies as some sort of ghetto. Some sort of… serious filmmakers don’t make movies about high schools because they’re not “adult.” Well… duh. But I mean high school is one of the most important parts of anyone’s life, and it’s a subject worthy of discussion. So why not high school?
That’s fair. So why 1992 [when much of the film is set]? Most of the actors were barely even alive at the time, do you have some sort of affinity to then or was it just, “eh, early 90s, whatever”
No, I wanted to make a statement about youth, and one of the greatest things that Back to the Future did was, it used two different eras to compare and contrast the differences between kids today and kids back then. Now, I think it’s an easy shot to go back to 80s, which would have been like a 30 year time span, because obviously the 80s kids are so radically different from the 2012 kids that it’s almost like you’re not going to tell the audience anything new. But if you just go back twenty years ago and show how different kids are, you’re making a serious point about how fast and accelerated kids are today compared to even what people thought were sophisticated back in the 90s, you know? Because kids today are on such a completely different level than even, say, 20 years ago.
That’s true. Generally speaking, people sort of stay away from killing kids in movies, especially in domestic movies. Did that ever really cross your mind? I mean, Josh Hutcherson [who stars in Detention] is now in two movies about killing children, but did you think, “Oh, people might not like having decapitated teenagers?”
Well, I was more afraid of killing women, to be honest, than kids. Because I feel like horror on so many levels has this weird sort of misogyny running through it. And people deny it, but it’s inevitably there. There’s always a girl in a bikini getting stabbed or something like that, and I’m not a big fan of that aspect of the genre, you know? But we are making a horror movie, so people have to die. And we’re making it about high school, but I don’t think ultimately that is the main focus of Detention. It’s kind of like the nice wrapping that you think, “Oh, you’re going to get this type of present,” but you open it up and you get something completely different on the inside.
Yeah, I talked to one of my friends about it and all of the crazy things that happened, and after a while she stopped me and said, “So did people die in it?” And I said, “Yeah… but that’s not what makes it so cool.”
I’m gone to some festivals, and we had people clapping every time someone died, and I go, “Okay… you guys don’t understand what this movie is” and then by the middle of it, when we’re not killing anyone anymore and doing something completely radically different, I get a certain pleasure out of knowing that I’ve taken them off the fucking kill game and let them actually see some humanity for a second.
How big is your collection of horror DVDs on a scale of one to the collection of action movies in Hot Fuzz?
I think it’s, (laughs), I think it’s pretty decent horror collection, but again, Detention ultimately, as much as it is called a horror comedy, which I reversed to a comedy horror, is not a horror movie at the end. It’s a pop culture movie. Some people say it’s a movie about… it’s not even a movie about movies. It’s a movie about pop culture, and it used an aspect of a high school genre which is the horror movie as a springboard into a crazy adventure.
I’d agree with that. The word “meta” doesn’t even come close to describing how self-referential everything in it was. Was that right from the beginning, “I want everything to be referencing every other thing, and I’m gonna make a joke about, ‘Haha, music video director has a cocaine habit.’ ‘Haha, Torque was stupid.’” All of these things. Was that from the beginning, like “I’m going to put myself into every aspect of it? I’m going to do everything I can to be like, ‘I understand what I’m doing. Look at this. Enjoy it.’”
Well, there are a couple of jokes that are referencing me, but it’s not through the whole movie. I don’t want everyone to walk away thinking, “Oh god, Joseph Kahn made a movie about himself, you know? (laughs) You literally listed every single reference I did about myself, and the music video one is a little questionable, because it’s actually a thematic idea that everybody knows that they select music video directors to do those shitty fucking schlocky things anyway, so that joke goes beyond me, but I did put a Torque reference in about myself. I guess myself one little shout-out. Much like Hitchcock would stand in a corner, I gave myself one line.
I’m not judging you. I think director cameos are great.
I think I gave myself one of the funniest cameos by actually trashing my last movie, which I liked, by the way. But I will say that one of the main things that I wanted to do with a high school movie is, look, whenever you hear about a movie about high school and they actually talk about other movies and other pop culture references, people go, “Oh, that’s really meta,” but the reality is that the world itself today, people talk about movies, you know? People go to the movies. People watch television shows. The main topic of discussion on many different things is, “What have you seen? What have you watched? What are you wearing?” You know?
These are the fabric of life. We don’t just walk around all day long doing Sophie’s Choice or we’re on some sort of mission like Chinatown or something like that. Most of our life is based on these banal conversations about what songs you like or what clothing are you wearing and things like that. That became the core of Detention. It is an actual reflection of society. The way they talk is more real than the way that film talk is, because most film talk is structured to only service the plot. We found a way to implant the plot as a core part of the dialogue, that the dialogue becomes part of the plot, but ultimately when you see kids walking around talking about artists, that’s what they do in real life. It seems surreal, but it’s not.
Right. Was there any sort of collaboration with the teenage actor? “Would you say this?” “Does this a teenager say this nowadays?” Or was the script pretty much set by you and your co-writer [Mark Palermo].
My co-writer and I wrote it and then we did test it with some teenagers. They weren’t actual actors, just real teenagers, and I had to re-adapt some lines, and they would make a few comments and adjustments here, but for the most part we were pretty accurate. Look, here’s the thing. We don’t really use a lot of vernacular that’s different from how normal people speak just as much as teenagers don’t do that. What people think of as teen speak actually really isn’t words. It’s actually a way of thinking, you know? It’s a way of having a certain sort of irony. A certain way of making creative connections and jokes that’s a more useful way of thinking. The whole movie on a certain level is teen-speak in terms of the way it’s structured. So in terms of what you’re seeing is an actual fabric of how they communicate more than necessarily us making little clever things.
So there’s the movie within the movie within the movie, and I loved that scene… but how much of the various Cinderhella did you actually make, and was any of it cut from the final film?
No, we made all the Cinderhella stuff, and none of it was cut from the film. The movie itself was very, very specifically shot. Everything that was up there was what I shot. I didn’t do coverage. One of the reasons I can do it for such a low budget was because I was so very specific about where the camera was and what would be in the frame, so you didn’t see… there is no cutting room ground stuff of different scenes or shots or stuff like that. Literally, I was editing it as I went along, so everything you see on the screen is what was shot.
That’s fantastic. That’s an awesome way to do it.
No way to do that in Hollywood, because I didn’t shoot master shots to save time and money. I literally just placed the camera and moved on.
Good for you! Are you planning on turning this into something of a franchise or is this more of a one-off thing?
Umm… we do have an idea for a sequel, but it all just… never say never and never say whatever, but it’s not on my agenda. We’re not writing the sequel. We’re writing a completely different movie. I think it’s ripe for a sequel, because if you make a sequel for a meta-movie, that can be pretty insane.
Definitely. So… what’s that other thing you’re working on?
It’s called Saliva Lightning Cow.
And that’s all I can say.
Okay. That sounds fantastic. I’m definitely going to see that. I noticed that there was a lot of licensed music in the movie, which I thought was really interesting for a low budget indie film. Did you take advantage of your music video director thing and try to pull some strings?
I pulled more strings than you can possibly imagine. I went right straight to the top on so many different people, and I had a great music supervisor that helped me, but ultimately I cashed in every chip I’ve ever done as a music video director and my relationship with the record companies telling them, “Hey I made so many hits for you, please do me this favor.” And, you know, it’s one of those cases where they really came around and helped me, and I’m very thankful to every single person who contributed on the soundtrack.
I thought it was really great.
I’ll tell you, though, if another studio tried to do the same soundtrack, they would get charged more… it would have cost more than an actual movie.
Wow. That’s crazy. I noticed that you’ve done a lot of music videos that I really enjoyed over the years. Do you think of music videos as short films, and do feature films feel like long music videos almost?
Music videos and feature films feel like the same things to me, in that I construct stories using cinematic language, so the process in my head is exactly the same constructing for a music video or a commercial or a feature film or a short film or whatever. The actual mechanics of it are what’s different, in terms of… it’s like, when you know how to run, you know how to run, but there’s definitely a difference between sprinting and a marathon, and a movie is a marathon, and that’s as close of an approximation as I can make. It’s like an endurance test. Especially considering that you can ask any of the actors, I shot it at a pace like a music video, which is insane. You know?
My very first day, I was shooting the debate sequence between Riley and Gourd, that’s a normal piece of dialogue sequence that normally would probably put two cameras up and then roll at the same time and do a master shot and then just cut between the two. If you’ve seen the way that thing was shot, it’s shot like a music video. It’s like an angle for every piece of line. Cutaways done this way. Dollies and whip pans and things like that. I did sixty-six unique moves for sixty-six edits in that sequence, and that was the first day of shooting. My whole crew thought, “Oh my god, we’re going to die if he keeps up this pace,” and I did.
I guess we're out of time. Thanks a lot! I really enjoyed the movie.
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