BY LAEL LOEWENSTEIN
When Karyn Kusama, draped in laurels, left the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, she could hardly have imagined the turbulent path that lay ahead. Her first feature–the seminal (and semi-autographical) female boxing drama Girlfight–had just taken the Grand Jury and directing awards; it was booked for Cannes; Screen Gems was set to distribute. Not unlike her film's protagonist, Kusama, then 32, was simmering with ambition.
Then reality set in.
Kusama spent the better part of three years trying to find financing for her passion project, an original sci-fi script called Invisible X, only to meet with rejection at every turn. Its unconventional take on issues of gender and identity was deemed problematic, and prospective backers wondered why she couldn't just write another crowd-pleaser like Girlfight.
It was a tough wake-up call for Kusama, who had gleaned an entirely different lesson from the five years she spent on Girlfight: Hard work can yield concrete results. After graduating from NYU film school she worked as an assistant for John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, who eventually produced Girlfight, splitting the $1 million budget with IFC. But now Kusama was discovering that her vision and Hollywood's didn't quite align.
Although Kusama hadn't intended to take on projects by other writers, she relented after reading Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy Aeon Flux. Kusama felt an instant connection to the project, which was set up at Paramount. ""It was an unexpected step for me," she admits of taking on a $65 million project for a major studio, "but because I loved the script, it felt natural. There were many beautiful strains to the story, and it was interwoven with a sensitivity and an attention to detail that made it unique."
In response to those who accused her of sacrificing her indie roots and selling out, Kusama points out, "I worked for almost three years to get financing for an independent movie that no one would give me money for. It's called needing a job."
Though Kusama was initially excited about Aeon Flux, Paramount turned out to be an unstable environment in which to work. In the course of making the film, the studio went through three separate administrations, each having a different agenda. "I had no concept of how that [situation] was a slow digging of a grave," she relates. "It's like walking into a fire not even knowing the coals were hot."
HANDS UP: Kusama, showing Michelle Rodriguez the right
technique, based Girlfight on her own experience in
the boxing ring. (Photo Credit: Sony Pictures)
According to Kusama, former studio head Sherry Lansing had told her she wanted Aeon Flux to be the studio's answer to Blade Runner. But under new production chief Gail Berman's tenure, the directive was to make it Paramount's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Internal politics only made things worse. Kusama soon discovered that "there was no upside for the new administration to claim this movie as their own. Their only alternative was to distance themselves from it, to prove that the way things had been done before was wrong," or to reshape it into something that barely resembled its original form.
And so began a painful postproduction process. After her first cut was deemed too long, the film was taken away from her. Edits were made, voiceovers added, characters virtually eliminated, the love story "eviscerated." About 25 minutes of her original cut were removed, leaving a bizarrely truncated 82-minute version that completely thwarts narrative plausibility. "What they didn't realize," she says ruefully, "is that sometimes a cohesive 100 minutes will feel much shorter than an incoherent and barely comprehensible 82."
Kusama recalls one particularly painful conversation with an executive who attempted to mollify her during the recutting phase. When he insisted, "You shot it, Karyn; it's still your alphabet," Kusama retorted, "In our alphabet we have 26 letters. From that alphabet, you can spell the word LOVE and you can spell the word HATE. That's how little the editing process was respected as a director's statement."
Kusama thought "quite seriously" of taking her name off the film, even discussing the issue with the DGA. But she was ambivalent. Ironically, seeing how Paramount had virtually disowned the movie compelled her not to do the same thing.
Battered but not defeated, Kusama directed an episode of The L Word for Showtime and contemplated her next move. In the summer of 2007 she read a horror-comedy by the then-unknown Diablo Cody entitled Jennifer's Body. Kusama felt an instant rapport with the material and saw great possibilities in the blending of genres. "There was this collision between horror and the teen angst movie that made sense to me," she remembers. "It had this very poetic use of language and this beautiful imagery, so it inspired me on a lot of levels."
Kusama met with the producers Jason Reitman, Mason Novick and Daniel Dubiecki, who had set the project up at Fox Atomic, the studio's genre division. She came to the meeting armed with a book of ideas comprised of photographs, paintings, and various images that she likens to a massive collage. Culled from a variety of sources, the book's contents included ideas for wardrobe, physical locations, character and the overall look of the film. "When I'm excited about something, that's what I do," Kusama says of her book, adding that whenever she has a strong reaction to a project she can see it in her mind. The producers were impressed, but Kusama had to undergo six more rounds of meetings with various studio personnel before she was signed to direct. Production began in January 2008.
Making the film in and around Vancouver, Kusama reports that she has become even more focused while working after recently becoming a parent. Rather than having longer prep or shooting days with permeable schedules, she's become more militant about her time. She works till 6, then returns home to bathe her son and put him to bed. After 8 she returns calls. "I came to realize that if we set more limits on things we'd get as much done and have much fuller lives," she says, conceding that she's had to cut corners on sleep.
Beyond helping to prioritize her time, parenthood, she says, has made her a better director, since she's now more realistic about her own limitations. "It's extremely instructive to realize that you cannot do everything. You need to delegate, to find experts, to consult with them. A big part of the job of directing is knowing when to take something on and when you shouldn't," she says.
And she's developed an almost intuitive ability to key into her actors' needs, a skill she credits to daily interactions with her toddler. "Sometimes you realize that the thing an actor is asking for isn't exactly the thing they want," she says. "Maybe they're asking for more dialogue or maybe they want a deep intellectual exploration of their role. But probably what they really need is encouragement."
Although after the Aeon Flux debacle she once swore she'd never work without final cut, an older, wiser Kusama has backed down from that stance. "As bad as some movies can be, good movies are also possible, sometimes through the very heinous corporations we love to trash," she allows.
She aspires to make mid-range budgeted movies, some of which will need a studio's financing. "When you say final cut, you take your name off the table for a lot of people at the studio who perceive you as difficult or psychotic," she confides. "I'm strong-willed, but that doesn't mean I can't work with people if we're all in the mission of trying to make a good movie."
Whatever happens with Jennifer's Body, the experience has been a good one so far. "I talk and they listen," she says of her producers. Having been jolted from Girlfight's fairy tale reception to the postproduction nightmare of Aeon Flux, Kusama has rebounded, finally arriving at a comfortable, reality-oriented middle ground.
"You have to walk through those fires to get a tough skin in this industry." She reflects. "Fortunately, I got it early."