I conducted the following interview with Knives and Skin director Jennifer Reeder for Cine-File Chicago.
Interview with KNIVES AND SKIN director Jennifer Reeder
By Michael Glover Smith
Imagine a feminist take on the Hollywood teen comedies of the 1980s, one that examines how the trauma and grief engendered by a missing person’s case can reverberate through an entire society – strengthening the bonds between some characters while exacerbating the tensions between others. Now imagine that film being lit like a giallo and punctuated by a capella musical numbers. Can’t do it? That’s probably because KNIVES AND SKIN, the splendid second feature by writer/director Jennifer Reeder, doesn’t look or sound like anything you’ve seen before. The locally made film, produced by Newcity’s Chicago Film Project, has taken the festival world by storm ever since its World Premiere at the Berlinale at the beginning of 2019. KNIVES AND SKIN will begin streaming on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight on December 6 and open at the Music Box Theatre for a theatrical run beginning, appropriately enough, a week later on Friday the 13th. I recently spoke to Jennifer in person about her cinematic and literary influences and her singular approach to editing, lighting and music.
MGS: I loved your film. Are you tired of the TWIN PEAKS comparisons yet?
JR: No, I’m not, I’m not! There are other comparisons that have not come up that I am very thankful for. But TWIN PEAKS is not one of them.
MGS: I think TWIN PEAKS is the greatest thing ever but your film is very different, stylistically and narratively. The comparison does seem valid in the sense that they both have central mysteries that serve as a narrative hook: In your case, the disappearance of Carolyn Harper allows you to go into all of these different homes and paint a portrait of an entire community. Was the concept of a missing girl always the point of origin for you?
JR: No, the starting point was actually wanting to write a story about a group of girls who had been very close when they were younger, like maybe in middle school, and had grown apart, and something happens to them that sort of forces them to be friends again, to come back together. I wanted to make a gentle, girl-power film, you know? I had made a bunch of short films leading up to this that were suggesting coming of age is a lifelong process, and sort of dealing with the lives of adolescent girls. There was often a dark element. But with KNIVES AND SKIN, I was driving back to Ohio to see my mother along this rural two-lane road – very typical of that area, or all of the Midwest, really – and sort of imagined these three goth-punk girls walking along that road – on their way to band practice, on their way to school, on their way home from school – and just knowing that there are kids in small towns all over the country who feel like misfits in their environment. They feel like misfits in their own skin but they actually look like misfits in their environment. I thought that was a great visual analogy for so many people who feel like they’re at a crossroads in life. So I started thinking about who those three girls are and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever. It’s such a typical moment in small towns: If someone, in particular a young person, goes missing, it gives the entire town an excuse to drop everything and refocus their lives – oftentimes in a way that transforms their lives, and everyone can exorcise their own psychosis and obsession through this other event. I feel like that general structure is what I liked about TWIN PEAKS: All those psychotic threads among the townspeople led back to Laura Palmer. But I was also influenced by RIVER’S EDGE, and that film did the opposite thing: That dead girl became a fissure through the lives of these young people but she was much more invisible than Laura Palmer. So it’s kind of fusing those two stories. But in terms of the world of David Lynch, I actually feel much more influenced by BLUE VELVET.
MGS: I thought about that while watching KNIVES AND SKIN.
JR: The kind of unraveling of another horrific mystery, and those two main characters trying to figure out what exactly has happened, and lots of other people are involved, and the mistrust in the town… Or even something like LOST HIGHWAY I feel has this really great way of suggesting these parallel worlds. For some people that can be a very frustrating experience but I really love how he creates this kind of plot-maze and oftentimes the plot is like a staircase that goes nowhere. It’s like a funhouse.
MGS: A puzzle with no ultimate solution.
JR: Correct. Some people don’t like it at all. I find it wickedly entertaining.
MGS: I thought about BLUE VELVET in terms of your production design. One thing Lynch does that I think is amazing, which you also do in a different and more female-centric way, is he makes films that are very culturally specific that are also universal and timeless. There are large sections of BLUE VELVET that feel like they could be taking place in the 1950s but then one little detail will snap you back into the present. Like Kyle MacLachlan’s earring will make you realize, “Oh, wait, we’re in the ‘80s.” Your film is similar because so much of it seems like it could be taking place in the ‘90s or the ‘80s or the ‘70s.
JR: I really tried to eliminate phones but there’s one scene where you realize they all have smart phones.
MGS: Right, when everyone gets the text from Carolyn. Well, it’s not very cinematic to see people spending a lot of time on their phones!
JR: Right. I did that on purpose. I wanted it to feel frozen in space and time. The ‘80s sensibility has a lot to do with my own autobiography but also the ‘80s were such a delicious time for teen films. So this is a film that sort of knows it’s a teen film. It has a kind of self-consciousness about it. And there’s something about ‘70s Italian horror, the colors of that, which felt really relevant. And then I think, certainly, there’s a kind of ‘80s club-kid fashion that exists among some of those girls.
MGS: A lot of high-school fashion is timeless: The letter-jackets, the cheerleader uniforms, the band uniforms…
JR: Correct. Yeah, and I wanted those characters to feel iconic or emblematic. Not so much like caricatures, although maybe when you’re first introduced to them you think you know them: You think you know who a cheerleader is, you think you know who a girl in the band is, you think you know who the jock is. But I also wanted for those expectations of those characters to unravel over the course of the film.
MGS: You were successful in that. Speaking of the ‘80s, I saw that someone recently compared KNIVES AND SKIN to Kathy Acker and that you were happy about that. I imagine Blood and Guts in High School must’ve been formative for you?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. It was super-cool to have a literary reference for the film. And, in that same tweet, Audra Lorde was mentioned. They’re very different writers but both, rest in peace, my queens. I feel like I’ve been deeply influenced by literature as much as by other films. And I think there have been so many female writers who have taken on the same subject matter as this film – a kind of abject approach to femininity or a kind of toppling of a patriarchy or dealing with gender and race in a very pointed way. People have asked me a lot about women and genre and “Isn’t this an interesting time for women in genre because so many women are taking it on or being handed opportunities to deal with genre?” But people forget that, in terms of literature, Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein.
MGS: As a teenager!
JR: Yes, exactly! Or Daphne DuMaurier, from Rebecca to The Birds to My Cousin Rachel and on and on. Or Patricia Highsmith. We could go on and on. There are so many women in literature who have dealt with such complex subject matter in terms of female identity.
MGS: And, in Acker’s case, female trauma.
JR: Female trauma, for sure. So that comparison, it just felt like that was exactly my audience. Not that I went into this thinking about Blood and Gutsor thinking specifically about Kathy Acker but I do feel like I have these kind of wicked angels on my shoulder when I go into telling certain stories. And Audra Lorde and Kathy Acker are both right there along with me.
MGS: Let’s talk about this film as a portrait of the Midwest. It feels very Midwestern but I couldn’t tell if you cared exactly where it was set. Is it Illinois? Is it Indiana? Is it Wisconsin? Is it Ohio? It could be any of those places.
JR: Correct. So many of the films that I’ve written – almost every single one of them – in my brain, the landscape is Ohio, which is where I grew up. However, I’ve been living at the border of Illinois and Indiana for longer than I lived in Ohio, actually. And I will never not write films about the Midwest even if it’s more of a city film rather than a rural film. There was a time when we thought about shooting this in Louisville, Kentucky. Someone who was interested in producing it was living in Louisville. And that seemed interesting to me but then it also occurred to me I know nothing about Louisville, Kentucky. And perhaps even setting it in Kentucky and thinking about it as being Southern Gothic rather than Midwestern Gothic, I didn’t really know what that world was. So I wanted to set it in a place where it’s unidentified. The high school is Big River High School and that doesn’t even identify the state that they’re in. And I don’t presume that the Midwest owns refineries or quarries, you know? But it also feels like that kind of landscape – the refinery, the quarry, a river running through a town – does feel Midwestern. And there’s something about the sort of awkwardness and stubbornness of the people in this film that also feels Midwestern. It also felt really important that this film is not a city film but yet it’s very inclusive in terms of the cast, which to me feels really authentic. Where I grew up in Ohio and where I live right now in the northwest tip of Indiana, both have small-town Midwestern sensibilities and they’re racially really diverse. I think there are a lot of films that are made for young people of color or with young people of color in front of the camera and they’re city films and I just think that that’s not completely accurate.
MGS: It feels like your attitude toward the town is ambivalent. The scene that resonated the most for me is the one where the kids go up on the roof. It made me think about where I’m from in North Carolina – because they’re all looking at this highway that leads out of town. And I’m thinking that some of them are going to leave and some of them are not. This town is a place where terrible things can happen and some people want to escape from that. Could you talk a little bit about your attitude toward the town?
JR: I was so happy to leave my hometown. There was a trail of scorched earth between there and here. But I do still write stories that take place in and around central Ohio so I do have a love for where I grew up but not in a nostalgic or sentimental way. That town is where I learned to be resilientto that town on some level, you know?
MGS: It made you who you are.
JR: It made me who I am. But what’s remarkable to me and what I injected into this film, and I don’t know how evident it is, are all the people who are my peers and even the peers of my older siblings who never left where they grew up and never wanted to leave where they grew up. So, the adults in KNIVES AND SKIN – there is the relationship between, we’ll call her the “pregnant mom,” and the clown dad, and when they are breaking up there’s a suggestion that they’ve known each other a long time. That they were actually maybe sweethearts in high school and have never left that town. And that’s just remarkable to me. I can understand growing up in Chicago, growing up in New York, growing up in L.A. and never leaving because those cities evolve on some level. I think that small towns don’t evolve. And the idea that you would yourself want to evolve but that you are literally running into your high-school friends at the grocery store just seems like a nightmare to me. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up. And when I go home to visit, I still have a cluster of friends I’ve known since elementary school who I love to see. A lot of them went away to college and came back and are doing remarkable things but they have the context of at least going away for a little while and bringing all of that evolution back to whatever they’re doing. So it’s ambivalent in the sense that I’m very happy I left, I’m very happy for the young people in this film who will leave, and I still have love for the people who didn’t leave even though that wasn’t the path for me.
MGS: The word “dreamlike” has been used to describe this film a lot, which I think is the result of the way you use lighting, color, music and, especially, dissolves. This is something I don’t think many people have remarked upon but your use of dissolves strikes me as one of your signature aesthetic moves. I’ve talked to a lot of editors who don’t like dissolves. They’ll say, “They look good on film but not on digital,” or “They look good in black-and-white but not in color.” But you use them relentlessly. What is the appeal for you?
JR: On the one hand, I love putting two ideas in the same frame. Literally, you can put two people or two ideas in the same frame. And especially with something like this where there’s this ensemble cast, it was a way for me to suggest simultaneity. And oftentimes I would shoot heads or tails knowing that there were moments I could dissolve, and that there would be this great way that I could transition from one scene to the next physically through that dissolve and I knew, “This is going to look great dissolved into that moment.” And my editor, Mike Olenik, has perfected the long cross-dissolve. He’s got a really tricky way where – it takes him a long time once we know where those dissolves are – but he rebuilds, frame by frame, those dissolves and will sort of key out faces or something like that so that faces maintain longer. If you want to do it, it’s not just slapping on that cross-dissolve filter and moving on with your lives. It’s really making a pointed decision and then maintaining the integrity of the heads and tails of both of those scenes and really being able to finesse it and nuance it. But, I say this all the time, I went to art school, I didn’t go to film school. So there’s something about that kind of layering and collaging within a specific frame that aesthetically I really like. But it’s not a split screen. I hate a split screen and I love a long cross-dissolve. I feel like Mike and I have gotten really good at figuring out what scenes need them and then how to physically finesse that material so that those cross-dissolves are quite special.
MGS: Your use of color is also extraordinary. I wanted to ask how you decide what colors to use because they can really change the whole emotional tone of a scene. I’m thinking specifically of the first scene in the English class, there’s this pink light shining on the sides of the students’ faces. I thought, “This is amazing because it’s totally unmotivated.” It’s not a realistic use of color but, in a way, I wish my high school had looked like that. Who decides on the pink? Is that a discussion you have with your cinematographer?
JR: So it’s me and Chris Rejano, who shot a bunch of my films in the past 5 or 6 years, and our gaffer, Louie Lukasik, who’s actually the head gaffer on CHICAGO PD. He doesn’t always get to drench scenes in hot pink. But I said that I wanted the lighting to feel extraordinary in the sense that I wanted the whole thing to be hovering above reality. So, yes, the local light had a tint and the local light oftentimes had an invisible source. I mean,you’re a filmmaker so you can say, “Where is that light coming from?” Then when we switch to the other angle, you say, “I don’t even see the source of that light.” But I think for an audience who’s not so filmmaking-savvy, it could just be enough to kind of off-balance, to provide a different sort of tension in a scene. Even though those pinks and purples are really lovely, just not knowing where that light is coming from, those moments create a kind of unbalance, a kind of dis-ease. And I wanted the film to feel really femme! So I was like, “It’s got to be pink and purple!” Even the yellows and cyans that we used are still sort of poppy and not so much these darker greens or darker blues in a Cronenberg sense. They still are kind of delightful. And we shot with these vintage anamorphic lenses and so we knew that those lenses would do these really special things to the soft edges of those lights. And being able to fill the whole frame sometimes with these pools of contrasting light sources would just elevate the emotional and visual atmosphere of the film. On the very first day of shooting we put a pink light in one of the kitchens and Louie came to me and said, “Is that too weird?” And I said, “Let’s just assume we’re going for weird. It’s never going to be too weird.” Then we did all the color grading in Warsaw, Poland, with a woman was so in love with the film because Polish cinema still tends to be sort of drained of color. So she really loved being able to color this film.
MGS: To do something she normally wouldn’t be able to do?
JR: Yeah. It’s definitely a film where “more is more,” and I had full creative freedom, and I just feel so thankful that it’s finding super-fans.
MGS: Let’s talk about the music. In addition to everything else you do with genre, the film is a true musical. I was delighted to hear all of those songs because it seemed like the lyrical content was expressing what was going on between the characters. I think “I’ll Melt With You” was when the two girls were each in their own bedrooms but kind of singing to each other. And “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was to me the real showstopper because you had kind of teased it in the dialogue so it was cathartic when it finally came. How did you decide which songs to use and were there any songs you wanted to use that you weren’t able to?
JR: Sure. A lot of the songs that are in there were some of the first choices: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Blue Monday.” Even the Icicle Works song at the end, “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream).” I was working with a company here, Groove Garden, to get the publishing rights because we knew that we would re-arrange them and re-perform them. I wanted all the songs, when I knew that they were going to be re-arranged as a kind of lamentation where we would really listen to the lyrics, that the lyrics had to have narrative content. It is, in a way, kind of a Greek chorus. So I had a list of songs but it wasn’t like any old list of ‘80s songs. I knew that it had to be something that, in its original form, was really infectious and poppy. But in its kind of eulogized form had to have a lot of pathos, a lot of melancholy, a lot of narrative weight. One of the first songs that was in the script that got jettisoned because we couldn’t get anybody to even answer an e-mail or phone call was Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” Which is a song that I really love and I knew that, slowed down, could be really spectacular. But we couldn’t get anybody to respond whatsoever. And I wanted to use “Don’t Change” by INXS, which is such a great, empowering anthem but it’s evidently really difficult to deal with posthumous estates. I wanted to use a Smiths song, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” even though I don’t agree with Morrissey’s current politics. But it was going to be extremely expensive even just for the publishing rights. So we were like, “Okay, that’s a hard pass.” And the same thing with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” – even though the Soft Cell version is a cover of the original – but that song is also extremely expensive. I love the “I’ll Melt With You” moment. That was always in the script – that they would dissolve into each other. And there’s a great scene in 1983’s VALLEY GIRL that also uses that song so it was kind of an ode to VALLEY GIRL. And then when I figured out how to deal with “Promises, Promises” – that sort of P.T. Anderson/MAGNOLIA moment where all of the characters sing together – that felt like a real revelation for me, if I could be like, “Oh, I did it!” Because I’ve loved that scene in that film for a long, long time and that also can be a real polarizing scene where I think that some people are like, “What was that?” Maybe even more so than the frogs in that film. But, for me, I always thought that was a really beautiful way to tie together this ensemble cast. So figuring out that song and who would sing it and – again, that’s all cross-dissolves – how I would shoot that and where people would be was complicated but I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the film.