An interview with the director Joseph Kahn, about his berserk high school horror Detention. Honestly, I can’t recommend that film enough. Originally published on the Empire website but wiped during the 2015 site migration.
It’s hard to describe Joseph Kahn’s Detention: let’s just call it an average, everyday, perfectly normal tale of high school teen social politics, masked serial killers, human flies, interplanetary bears, time travel, mind transference, intense Canadians, vegetable-based alien life forms and being kept after class for nineteen years. It finally answers the question of whether Roadhouse beats Under Siege as a fighting style (can mullet really defeat ponytail?) and reveals beyond any doubt that music was cooler in 1992. Following a colourful career on the festival circuit – including a Biggest Surprise Award at last year’s FrightFest – Detention arrives on DVD in the UK on August 27. We asked Kahn to explain himself.
So… Detention is a loony movie…
Thanks, I think!
Did it begin its life as a more conventional teen horror-comedy? Has it ended up as what you initially thought it would be?
Well it took three years to write. Is it exactly what I wanted on the first day I was writing it? No, not really. But is it what I wanted it to be by the end of writing? Yes!
You financed it yourself, so what was the process of actually getting it made?
It was like a year with my co-writer Mark Palermo of coming up with the ideas, a year of actually writing it and then a year of re-writing it, and then about a year of making it and another year of selling it! So it’s been about a five-year process. Financially the big question in the beginning was whether we could sell it to a studio. And the answer was no. Nobody wanted it; nobody understood it. The next question was, if I made it myself would I have enough money? I calculated in my head how I could do it using all my contacts from making music videos and commercials, and we got started making it, and then ran out of money in the first week! Not only that, but I’d also planned for a 32-day shoot and it went to 52 days. So week-by-week I had to go and find money, and it was a very unconventional way of funding, because everywhere I went I was borrowing cash. Every single dollar that went into it, I owe!
You’ve directed hundreds of music videos: do you have a team of people that you work with all the time?
Yeah, a lot of the crew members I used were from my music videos and commercials, and that was the other appealing thing about doing the film independently. If I’d gone through the typical studio process, I would have had to get everyone approved, and a lot of them probably wouldn’t have been, because they’re “music video people”. But because I was able to use my DP and my production designer and my usual editor, I felt like I achieved a lot more for the money. We have a way of working that’s really fast.
It’s eight years since you made your debut film Torque. Did you not want to make another film much sooner after that?
I think Torque was quite misunderstood. I do like it. It’s about 70% of what I wanted. But it took me this long because for a long time I wasn’t really interested in making another movie, quite frankly, unless it was very compelling. I knew the type of movie I wanted to make… With Torque for instance, I knew what I wanted, but I had to fight to get even a smidgeon of it. It was brutal trying to get my ideas across. So what I really wanted as an artist for the next one was complete freedom, and that’s hard to achieve, and that’s what took all the time.
I noticed someone makes a crack about Torque right at the start of Detention.
Yeah, but he’s the villain! That’s self-deprecating humour: it doesn’t really mean that I agree what the character’s saying. I was just being a smartass. The world thinks that movie sucks so I wanted to make a joke about it!
Detention reminded me a little bit of Donnie Darko, in that it mixes a high-school setting with some very complicated sci-fi. But it’s also not as opaque as Donnie Darko: it’s actually quite easy to follow first time, even though it’s mad. Was that a difficult aspect to juggle?
I think one of my strengths as a music video director is my sense of structure and rhythm. A lot of filmmakers will say they’re a camera person or an FX person or an actor’s director, but my thing’s kind of harder to identify. I’m kind of a structuralist: I’m all about rhythm and tempo. I knew going into it that, for people on a certain wavelength – because obviously this movie is not for everybody! – I would be able to construct it in a way that should be followable. Also on a music video level, I designed it to be watched more than once. I think nowadays, people that really love a movie watch it multiple times, and that’s exactly how music videos work. If someone watches a music video a single time and says. “That’s great,” and that’s it, you’ve failed as a director. You should want to watch a music video multiple times, so I wanted to make a movie that people would want to watch that way too, where each time you watch, it’s more and more interesting. There are a lot of connector pieces. In music videos I’ll start a rhythm with one idea, go somewhere else, bring that rhythm back and pay it off, connect it with another rhythm, and keep intertwining. That’s what happens in Detention, but it’s over the space of an hour and a half, instead of four minutes.
Are you disappointed that, despite all the positive festival attention, Detention is going straight to DVD?
All I could do was make the best movie I could. I have zero control over, like, the macroeconomics of what happens to it afterwards. It may not even do well on DVD, because the target audience, which is teenagers, may just download the crap out of it and never pay for it. But it’s not my job to predict that. All I can do is worry about the art of it. If I was a smart person I would probably have made the movie for a lot less than I did and maybe made my money back, but obviously I went a different way and I’m completely broke off this thing, so on a certain level I’m an idiot.
But would you have liked to see it get a theatrical run, or don’t you really care? Given the re-watch factor, did you think Detention’s life was always basically going to be DVD anyway?
No, I do wish it had got a shot at a theatrical run. The most interesting version of the experience has always been on the film festival circuit where people are laughing so much they can’t even hear it. That’s wonderful. I’ve been to many screenings where I can’t imagine how the audience even understands any of it, because they’re laughing over all the lines! It’s a difficult movie actually. I find it very strange that we’ll have these amazing reactions at these film festivals, where people love it and give it great reviews, but then the people that hate it are also very vocal. People that don’t like it really hate it with a passion, and somehow it feels like negativity on the internet is much easier to hear. I think the people that love it had better start speaking up a lot louder! It’s much easier to appreciate. You just click “like” and you’re done. People who think Detention is a terrible movie just scream on for hours and hours!
Were you actually gunning for a teen audience? Given the time travel aspect, there’s a lot of 1992 culture in this film, so it almost functions as a youth movie for a much older audience.
Yes, the movie actually splits in two. If you’re 25 and older you’ll get all the references to things like Freejack and My So Called Life, and laugh, whereas if you’re under 25 those things will seem like gibberish. But then in the middle of the movie when the past and the present intersect, all us 37, 38, 39-year-olds just suddenly go, “Oh my god, we’re old…” It’s an interesting way of connecting two different generations. That’s what the movie’s trying to do. If you’re 40, you’ll be like, “Why the fuck is he playing MMMbop?!”
Yeah, that was an interesting cover version! Who did it?
It’s actually my composers, Brain and Melissa. Brain is the drummer for Guns N Roses and Primus. Buckethead plays guitar on it too, and the three of them remixed it.
The film has murders and time-travel and a Brundlefly, and yet all the kids are completely un-phased by anything. Were you trying to make a particular point there?
Definitely. Two things have happened over the last couple of generations. One is the Internet, and the level of shock is no longer the same. In 1992, you weren’t used to seeing the kind of images and material kids are constantly exposed to now. Today kids can click on the Internet and see really gross stuff, whether it be dead bodies or really graphic porn. The other thing is also that in 1992 we didn’t really have war like we do now. We had the Gulf War, but that was over in like thirty days. Kids today have been in a war for ten years since 9/11, and they’re used to the idea that other kids are going off and dying in wars. America sends its kids off to war all the time, and they come back dead and we just accept it. That’s a normal expectation for kids today, where for us in the 1990s it was just really weird. So the level of shock in terms of how these kids are phased is a definite comment on that, on a certain level.
What’s next for you? Are you already planning the next one?
I’m doing the same thing I did on Detention: I’m just writing a script for fun at the moment, but in terms of how it’s ever going to get made… When I made Detention I had cash. Right now I have zero cash! So it took me eight years to make Detention when I had money. Now I have no money, so who knows… There’s no money in music videos anymore because everyone downloads them now. So it’s tough! I’m in an interesting place. I’ll probably go and do a lot of commercials.
So we’ll see you again in 2020?
That sounds a bit ambitious.
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