Director Joseph Kahn Gives Caliber the Inside Scoop on “Detention”by Katherine Sziraczky on Apr, 13 2012
Have you ever had a dream where you are being chased by the creature from the black lagoon, then two seconds later you’re falling into the arms of that crush who’s finally come to their senses and fallen in love with you, then you clap your hands twice and travel back in time to twist your hankie and shout for s’more at a sock hop? Director Joseph Kahn has taken this genre-blending, fast-paced eclecticism and turned it into Detention. Replace the creature with a slasher-type killer named Cinderhella, cast Josh Hutcherson and Shaney Caswell as the best friends turned lovers, and turn the 50′s into the 90′s. You’ve just landed yourself in Saturday detention!
The director of the film, Joseph Kahn, usually shoots commercials and music videos Remember Britney’s Toxic? The Offspring’s (Can’t Get My Head) Around You? Eminem feat. Rihanna in Love the Way You Lie? Yep, this is the mastermind behind these viral videos. This is Kahn’s second feature film, eight years after the not-so-hot reactions to his first, Torque. After rebuilding his confidence and his bank account, Kahn decided it was time to take the plunge with a second film. He was so sure, in fact, that he financed the whole movie himself.
Detention opens in theaters today, Friday, April 13.
So what is this movie about anyway? Well, I could show you the trailer, but it’s pretty misleading. I went into the film expecting a horror movie, and came out feeling uplifted and not entirely sure about what I just sat through. It was so unlike any other movie, it’s more of a challenge to keep up with what’s going on, but in the best way possible. You could call this a horror, comedy, romance, observation on society, sci-fi, or a number of other labels, and all of them would be correct. Starring Josh Hutcherson (You may know him as Peeta from the Hunger Games), Shanley Caswell, Dane Cook, and Spencer Locke, the movie focuses on the teenagers of Grizzly Lake, who must survive their final year of high school. High school can be hellish enough for some, but try adding a slasher-movie killer named Cinderhella who has come to life and is preying on the student body. As the killings continue, the likely suspects are rounded up and popped into detention, where they must race against time (and back in time, then back in time again) to stop the murders and save the world.
On Thursday, April 12, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Mr. Kahn about his newest film and his experience as a director. It’s a long interview, but it covers some very interesting insight into our generation (the youth of today) that we don’t get to hear very often. The conversation also reveals some of the many layers behind the movie that you may not pick up on right away. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show:
Me: Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of the movie, it was so fast-paced and genre-blending, it was unlike anything I’d ever really seen before. So I wanted to ask, what was your original inspiration for the film and for doing it in such a unique style?
Joseph Kahn: I wanted to make a high school movie for the generation today, because I feel like movies for teenagers and young people in general have been static for the last 30 years. Like if you know anything about youth culture today, music changes fast, like what the hell is Skrillex five years ago you know? It’s like things change so fast, and when it comes to other parts of pop culture, you expect the music to change, you expect the fashion to change in like three or four years. But movies have been shot exactly the same way for the last 30 years! John Hughes did all these movies in the 80′s and all they did was add some footage to it, or maybe a shaky-cam, and that is not good enough. So I wanted to do something that was advanced and challenging for young people.
So do you think young people today are in any way fundamentally different than they were?
Absolutely. They’re better. Way better.
Because you’re smarter, you’re the least racist, least sexist, least homophobic, most progressive group of young people ever to walk the planet. You’re the best human beings ever. It’s because you have the internet, you have information at your fingertips. If you ever give any human being real information, they will be a better human being. The less information you have, the more we go into the dark ages, and the more we start burning people on stakes and crosses, you know? Your generation today is an amazing generation, and people always say that you kids have ADD and stuff like that, you can’t focus, and that’s not true. If you’ve ever seen even like the worst 14-year-old play a video game, they’ll play it for like fifteen hours! Obviously they have attention spans. It’s just, what do they want to focus it on? What interests them? And the reality is, movies are so slow. And so repetitive. There are so many reboots and sequels and remakes, why should you pay attention? So I wanted to make something that made you pay attention.
A lot of people claim that this proliferation of technology in young people is detracting from our social skills, and there seems to be some hints at this in the movie. Do you think there is some truth to this claim?
I think there’s a little bit of that, but at the same time, I think it’s an adaptation more than it is an insult. I don’t think of texting as a bad thing, I think it’s an interesting flip in how people communicate. In the movie it’s more of a comedic beat. I think when people see that on screen, the idea here isn’t “oh look how horrible that is,” it’s “oh that’s so funny I do that too.” I’m not making a critique here, I’m celebrating it and having fun with it. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m saying it’s the truth, and you know damn straight that you do that.
True. How was working with the main characters, like Josh Hutcherson and Shanley Caswell?
Josh, in a nutshell, is a 35-year-old man in a 19-year-old body. He’s done fifty movies, so it’s like directing some dude that’s been around the block for many many years. He’s been outside the high school experience, this WAS his high school experience! Other than that, he’s a professional actor. Shanley, she was a diamond in the rough. I found her, she was just this real person, and what I needed was a real actress, like one that could actually emote and make that character real, because she was going to go through these crazy adventures, and that’s what Shanley gave me.
Yea she definitely performed well. I’ve read that you know how to give people exactly what they want, even if they don’t know that they want it yet. Do you think Detention will be a hard sell? Or do you think people will flock to it?
I think the audience Detention is mainly made for are young females. It’s a female heroine, it’s told from a female perspective. The problem is, young girls aren’t writing for the Chicago Tribune or the San Francisco Chronicle. A 50-year-old white guy is writing for those things, so I’ve got to pitch my movie through this old guy to get a 21-year-old girl to the theater. It’s a very crappy process. These young girls recently made a YouTube video, raving about the movie for like 12 minutes. I hope that’s the type of review people see.
That would be awesome. So what do you hope that young people take away from this movie?
The reason why I made it a multi-genre flick is because people say things like “high school is a great genre movie.” High school’s not a genre. High school’s a location. In high school, there are multiple genres going on, because genres are a reflection of how you tell a story about a particular part of life. And people in high school tend to live in their cliques. A jock could be living a horror flick. Someone else could be living a romantic comedy. Some other person could be living a sexcapade. I wanted to tell a total story about high school, and that’s why I mixed all the genres together. Everyone in the movie is kind of stuck in their own genre. When you’re in high school, you’re experiencing things for the first time. It’s the first time you probably kissed somebody, it’s the first time you fell in love with somebody, and it might be the first time you ever failed anything. Remember the first time you broke up with someone? It seemed like the end of the world. The movie, on a certain level, is simulating that feeling. From an adult perspective, you’re like, “oh, get over it, you’re gonna get dumped by tons of people in the future,” but as a kid, you don’t know that. The idea here is that people are trapped in their own problems. That’s just the nature of high school, the way to survive it is to look outside and see that other people have the same problems as you, and ultimately, you can empathize with others. Your own problems are like part of a fabric of everybody’s problems. Once you realize this, it’s a little easier to get over your own. If you graduate high school and you made straight A’s but you don’t have the ability to empathize with anyone, you have failed high school.
That’s true. Do you see any more full-length movies in your future?
I put all of my money into this thing. It took me eight years to go from Torque to this, so if this movie doesn’t make any money, I’m paying this movie off for the next eight years, so even if I wanted to make another movie, I’ll see you in 2030.
Do you have any advice for aspiring directors?
Absolutely. The biggest piece of advice that I would give is erase your fear of failure. If you’re really trying to direct, you’ve just picked the trickiest job in the world. There are more active dictators of countries than there are working movie directors. There are more NBA players than there are active movie directors. The reality is, you have already basically doomed yourself for failure. I had to tell myself very early, “if I fail at being a director, would I be happy?” The answer was, if I really really tried my hardest, the journey itself would be fun anyway. No loss. If you’re afraid of failure, get that out of your head, embrace it. Once you get rid of that fear, you can’t fail.
That’s really good advice. Do you have any personal idols or people that inspire you?
This sounds so cheesy but Albert Einstein. I thought I was gonna be a physics student when I was a little kid, so I read his biography, I studied theory of relativity, I was getting really into physics. There’s a big physics component to the movie, I am Toshiba by the way [one of the characters in the film]. I really admire his thinking and his humanitarianism, his reversal of politics. It might sound stupid, but there’s my guy.
No, not at all, he’s a great idol. Back to Detention, what is your favorite part of the movie?
I like my teen throwback sequence in the movie, where we go through the eras in detention. Who makes throwbacks for teens? Most people assume that teens haven’t lived long enough to recognize a throwback, but that scene shows you how fast society changes for new young people. Things change so fast, hairstyles, music, that little sequence just throws it in your face, this is a whole new world.
Was there any one character that was especially hard to cast?
Oh yeah. Sloane, the mother. You hear in Hollywood that it’s very hard for 40-year-old actresses to get work. I specifically wrote this amazing part for a 40-year-old actress in a comedy movie, the only problem is, they all were like “I have an 18-year-old daughter? No that’s gonna date me as 40!” Out of vanity, every single actress that was forty-ish turned the part down, simply because they didn’t want to have an 18-year-old daughter. It was insane! We eventually got a great actress, she primarily does commercials. As for getting a big name? Forget about it.
There aren’t many big names in the movie, except for Dane Cook and Josh Hutcherson, especially after The Hunger Games. How do you think this played into the movie?
I think in my ideal world, the characters should be the characters, and have no baggage whatsoever. Obviously, Dane’s gonna bring a lot of baggage, but I did that on purpose. I think it’s really fun to see Dane play against his part like that, it’s a pretty selfless role, that’s not his persona at all. It’s really fun to see him sort of simmer like that. But ultimately, I hope you walk away from the movie saying, “that was a great Riley” or “that was a great Canadian.”
Was it incredibly different to shoot a movie rather than a music video or commercial, where you’re catering to the people that hired you?
Yeah absolutely it was like painting. That’s all I want to do sometimes. I’m so used to having a constructed world where I have to answer to everybody all the time, it was just so nice one day to walk on set and say, “I’m free to do whatever I want, and now, I am my own restraint. What do I really want to do, because this is the right choice, not because someone else is telling me to.” That is a fantastic thing for an artist to have. Don’t let anyone else set your limitations for you.
So do you think it’s gonna be tough going back to commercials after this?
Nah, I’m a chameleon. I don’t need to make a ton of movies, but when I do, I need to make it count.
In this movie, there a lot of issues that you touched on. Bullying, sex, alcohol, friend drama, boy drama, drugs, homosexuality, suicide, so many issues that high school kids go through are included. Do you think you left out anything important?
I’ve never been asked this question before. I’ve been asked like fifty million questions in the last two weeks. Gosh, what have I left out? I can’t think of it. Maybe bisexuality from the female perspective? I don’t think we touched on that. (Laughs, ponders) Yeah, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that.
The trailer actually gave me a really different expectation for what I was going to see. I thought it was going to be a Scream-type horror movie.
Was it shocking when it flipped?
Yeah, in a great way though.
That was the idea! It’s bad marketing, but it’s better viewing experience, when you come in for one thing and it flips, because the movie keeps flipping and flipping and flipping.
Definitely, like the fly blood [go watch the movie to see what I'm talking about]? I was really confused about that.
I wanted to make sure that everybody had a back story, and it was kind of a taste test for what was going to be crazy for the rest of the movie. It was kind of half foot in, half foot out, because at the end of the story, he was like “and that’s exactly how I remember it.” So the audience thinks it could have been a dream, ha ha ha ha ha. But then it turns out, we get even weirder. It was like a jab, prepare yourself, things are about to get fucking weird in this movie.
It was awesome. The movie was almost like a Cinderella story though, right? How Riley was missing the shoe but then she gets it back in the end? Cinderhella, Cinderella?
That was totally meant to be a parallel story. There are many parallels in the story, there are lots of little loop parallels visually and thematically. It took me almost a year to plot this out.
It’s a very complicated movie, with all the pop culture references and flipping and everything.
Yeah, there’s almost like two versions of this movie. Like someone that’s over thirty will watch it with all the 90′s references and get every one of them, and someone under thirty will look at it and won’t get most of them, thinking that some characters are trying too hard, you know. How old are you? 21. Oh that’s perfect, right in between the two age brackets, enjoy your 20′s, time goes by so fast, enjoy every minute of it.
Definitely trying to! I read an interesting comment that you made online, when you said that our generation tends to borrow a lot from the past and remake it into our own. Do you think our generation has its own unique style or do we just piggyback off the past?
You have completely your own style. Every generation has borrowed from the past, it’s never been as overt and aware. You live in a world where almost every image is sold to you. Advertising is everywhere. This is why people always want the purity of a viral video. A big corporation didn’t sell it to you, you found it yourself. You trust another 21-year-old telling you that something’s cool more than some guy at a newspaper telling you. And that’s the value system that you have right now. Your generation is different than people before. People before would literally just copy something from the past because they thought it was cool. What you’re doing is you’re re-appropriating things, and you’re taking control of it. That’s the whole idea of a hipster. The irony. For instance, if someone wore a Coca-Cola shirt in the 80′s, they really fucking liked Coca-Cola. If you wear a Coca-Cola shirt today, you’re kind of making fun of it and making it mean something else. That’s the language and dialogue you have with fashion today, and it’s a completely different attitude than any time before. It’s smarter, it’s more interesting, maybe you can’t put it in words, I see it. You definitely have your own culture. It’s pretty amazing. If I could fucking pick any time to live, I would want to be a teenager or a young person today. It’s the best generation ever.
Well, thank you! And thank you for the interview, good luck at the box office this weekend.
Thanks, gonna need it! Tell all your friends to see Detention!
So friends? What are you waiting for? Go carpe some effin’ diem and see this film that is sure to spark a whole new generation of movies.