Jennifer Reeder’s revelatory new film Knives and Skin is the best film I saw at Fantasia Film Fest: a sumptuously melodramatic, dryly funny story of a small town grieving over the loss of a young woman named Carolyn Harper, who continues to haunt the film in surprising ways after her death. Its characters and moods are as strikingly multicoloured as its gel-coated lighting, and its fluidity of genre and tone is matched by the fluid dissolves that guide the viewer along. In this conversation, Jennifer Reeder goes in depth on the material challenges of independent film production in Chicago, the themes of sexuality and female friendship, and the way that a classic Hitchcock film (with some striking parallels to Knives and Skin) engaged her cinephilia at a very young age.
I actually think that there is a kind of punch line in every scene, and I know that some of those scenes get interpreted by the audience is unexpected, and I don’t always expect knee slapping humour. Sometimes the punchline is “did that just HAPPEN?”
Funding shorts and features at an indie level is always a bit of a struggle. Can you tell me about the process for funding this film and specifically the Newcity Chicago Film Project?
Newcity Chicago came out of Newcity the magazine which is a cultural magazine in Chicago. In 2016 they were anticipating their 30 year anniversary, and to celebrate the 30th anniversary they thought they would make a film that was a Chicago-based story with a Chicago director and a Chicago writer. They found a script by Fawzia Mirza and asked me to direct it. Fast forward to 2017, we released Signature Move at SXSW (which also played at Imagination here in Montreal). They’d had a good experience making that film, and wanted to make some more.
They were realizing that Chicago was an untapped resource for both film funding and filmmaking. It’s not New York or L.A., it has its own jam and it’s got a lot of people who’ve never invested in a film but could, and it’s got a lot of good filmmaking infrastructure. So they came on board for Knives and Skin and we shot it all summer. And now they’ve created a Chicago film fund out of Newcity to fund projects set in Chicago.
There are lots of working character actors in the film but also, from what I’ve been able to find, a lot of first time performers, or perhaps people who’ve only been in one other film before. Can you tell me about the casting process?
So we cast the whole thing out of Chicago, which we didn’t necessarily originally intend to do, but wanted to see how many people we could get out of Chicago. That actually helped the budget, because it’s an ensemble cast and it gets expensive to bring people in from out of town. The city has this intensely vibrant, very well respected theatre community, so even though on IMDB most of the people in the film only have one other film and television credit, their theatre CV goes on forever. Four of the adults in the film are Steppenwolf Ensemble members, all of the young people in the film have extensive theatre backgrounds. Which I kind of like: I needed these performances to be believable and grounded, but it was also okay if they weren’t experienced in film.
Did you alter your approach for directing the teens vs the adults?
Not at all. I felt so deeply lucky that everybody came to set with their A-game, and everybody wanted to be in this film because they loved the script. The script is kind of as weird and nuanced as the film; there was no improvisation, everything in the film was in the script. So everyone who came to this film came ready to embody their characters and all their idiosyncrasies. The direction that I gave everybody was that I wanted them to err on the side of deadpan rather than melodrama, because the film itself is so stylized and melodramatic (in the lighting, for instance), so I wanted the performances to be really deadpan and kind of drained of that melodrama. And because all these people are such good actors, there’s a repression to the performances that feels believable, it doesn’t feel like bad acting.
I wanted to write a character who was an unravelling woman, a grieving mother, an inconsolable human, who is making these crazy mistakes as she’s indulging in the particularities of her grief.
There is an interesting balance between comedy, but there are also things in the film that begin funny, but go on long enough that there is an uncovered emotional depth to the humour. Were you concerned about making too good of a comedy?
No, not at all. I personally am drawn to moments like that in other films, but especially moments like that in real life, where you’re watching something unfold over here while something else goes on over there, and the synchronicity of those two very serious and funny things colliding is like magic in the real world. So the way that I write a scene, I know that there will be a point where the whole thing shifts in a different direction. Sometimes that shift will be prompted by a line of dialogue or sometimes by a more visual, physical thing that disrupts; like humour and drama disrupting each other. I actually think that there is a kind of punch line in every scene, and I know that some of those scenes get interpreted by the audience is unexpected, and I don’t always expect knee slapping humour. Sometimes the punchline is “did that just HAPPEN?”
Particularly the behaviour of Carolyn’s mom, who you’re always sympathetic to, even as she does things that you can’t believe.
Yes, and for her in particular, I wanted to write a character who was an unravelling woman, a grieving mother, an inconsolable human, who is making these crazy mistakes as she’s indulging in the particularities of her grief. Grief is deeply personal, and people cope with trauma in very eccentric ways, so I really was trying to push her as far as I possibly could. Actually the actress, Marika Englehart, was the last person that we cast, because there were a lot of people that we offered that part to that didn’t want it, that didn’t know if they could do it, that didn’t want to make out with a teenager (even though he’s in his twenties). But she came in and she understood Lisa Harper, and she loved the script. The performance she brings has this kind of pathetic-ness and she’s sort of unlikeable at some parts, but at the same time you’re really rooting for her. She drags this sympathy out of you, and maybe even empathy.
Her relationship with the teenage boy is one of many relationships in the movie that you’re very conflicted about. The film runs the gamut between very upsetting and bad sexual encounters, and then some of the sweetest things you’ve ever seen in a teen film. Did you consciously try to tread new ground, or were you only concerned with writing a story that was as real as possible?
I did want to try and do something new, especially with Lisa’s relationship with a teenage boy. We see a lot of films that represent a problematic relationship where a man is much older than a woman, and sometimes it’s not addressed, and we assume that everything is consensual and everything is fine, and then sometimes that content is revealed to be problematic, but we almost never see the other way around. I remember watching Notes On A Scandal, and being just astonished at my own reaction to the moment when they break up, and really feeling like “I don’t think they should break up, they seem like a good couple,” and then I was like “wait a minute!” And I thought, how interesting it is to make a film where the relationship is deeply unethical but maybe we can still understand it, and maybe it’s even a little sexy.
I wanted to present these different ways that people deal with intimacy, and the kind of particulars of intimacy. We also have the relationship with the track star and the cheerleader, and that scene in the bathroom that isn’t so much about sex and sexuality but intimacy, and how one might pass a love note to their crush in a very specific way. So I was trying to be inventive with how I presented desire, and also to suggest that we are all such loveable weirdos with these things that we like and we don’t like, and you have to find a person who taps into that.
This film is, for me, about a theme that I’ve used in my other short films: that female friendship is a survival strategy.
It struck me that contrary to a lot of other teen films, in this film there is a strong female network as well as a camaraderie between all of the members of the town.
Absolutely, and maybe this is where the film gets all these comparisons to Twin Peaks, for instance, but for me it’s more related to Blue Velvet in terms of small town representations. I did want to make a film where this whole town feels affected in very different ways that are inspired by the disappearance of the girl; that it’s the inciting incident that allows them all to really unravel. This film is, for me, about a theme that I’ve used in my other short films: that female friendship is a survival strategy.
I like to unpack the myth of the mean girl. If you’re introduced to a girl and you think she’s the mean girl, but then as you get to know her she can reveal some secrets and you come to realize “oh, she’s just coping.” Or she’s just trying to survive. There’s that moment in the assembly where Jesse says to Joana “You can be pretty mean too” and she replies, “That’s all we’ve got.” That really sums up this idea of how we talk about certain people and use very negative language to describe them: we call people crazy, we call people bitches, and we do all sorts of things to diminish the way people are coping with their lives.
The score is *so* good. Can you tell me what you told Nick Zinner, and the things you wanted him to bring in?
I love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ music and I love Nick’s own solo music. He has a background in fine art photography, so I had this idea that he can make a score based only on me talking to him through the visual language, since I can’t play an instrument and have no musical background at all. I told him that I wanted the soundtrack to be a synthy, ominous horror score in the way that Tangerine Dream or Vangelis did, or like the Disasterpiece score for It Follows. He got the screenplay, and just based on that, he made a ton of wild tracks of varying themes for scenes that were sort of slow and with scenes that had more drama. And then they went on tour, and he was gone for three weeks, and we dropped in some of the tracks that he made, and they were brilliant. He’s really just a brilliant guy.
We were able to identify certain tracks, like “this track is Carolyn’s theme, so every time we see her, we’re going to bring parts of this back.” So when you’re a composer you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every track. You’ve got these kind of different themes. So even though the film is jam packed with music, these were really organic conversations about that process. And I was able to talk him through certain scenes and say “this scene has to have a really tonal, drifty sound in the background, nothing that’s too big,” but then the reveal of [spoiler elided, please watch the film] and I just said to him, “This has to be your orchestral climax. The audience has to know that this is a major moment in this film and that this town will never be the same again.” And he just said “okay I got it,” and then he came back with that track that just blew my mind.
It blew my mind too.
Okay good! *laughs*
I would say “we’re all in this together” and get a look back like “don’t talk to me right now. I will come back tomorrow, but I’m not gonna talk to you right now.”
There are a lot of fantastic costumes in this film – was there one that was particularly difficult to design or to shoot, and was there one that was your favourite?
There was nothing that was difficult to design, but we shot last July in Chicago, so the beaver mascot costume was hot. It was really not comfortable for him, but he was a total trooper. I would really have to say that I always loved Charlotte’s outfits, and my favourite one is the dress that she’s wearing while delivering a book report. It’s a white dress with blood coming down the front, and she has that gold face net and these glitter tears of blood, and ravens in her hair. It’s so over the top, and I would have died to have worn that to high school prom, if I had gone to my high school prom. I had a very good relationship with Kate Grube who did the wardrobe and I had worked with her on Signature Move. So I was like, “nothing is too over the top, let’s see what it all looks like.” I found that white dress at a thrift store when I was shopping for some other stuff, and I was like, “we have to use this, she’s got to wear this wedding dress, let’s put blood all over it.” She’s a really soft, lovely character, which we realize, but I also just love the idea that Charlotte was not at all afraid to be wickedly dramatic with her costumes.
Did the clown makeup keep melting off?
It did. The first time they tested it, it just wouldn’t stay on his face. And then they had to get some insane, industrial stuff, that was very hard to get off. Tim Hopper is a patient person, but it was sweltering and brutal. There was lots of outdoor stuff in the middle of the night, so it was pitch-dark, we were wearing headlamps, everyone was covered in bug spray – but the bugs were still coming – all of us sharing a portable toilet. But everybody kept coming back the next day! I would say “we’re all in this together” and get a look back like “don’t talk to me right now. I will come back tomorrow, but I’m not gonna talk to you right now.”
Last question: feel free not to answer if you can’t remember, but do you have a first memory of watching a movie?
I have a memory of seeing a movie that changed everything: I remember my mother, at a very young age, showing me Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Which is still one of my favourite films of all times, and as psychological horror, as a kind of love triangle, as a kind of difficult woman, I love that Mrs. Dewinter is only ever called Mrs. Dewinter, she doesn’t even have a name, and then Rebecca is this ghost; in a way Rebecca has an influence over the way that Carolyn Harper exists in Knives and Skin.