I’ve been sitting on this interview for some time, largely because Joseph Kahn’s Detention remained without a release date or plan for so long after being acquired by Sony. The other reason is that it is simply such an extensive, long interview (which took course over nearly two hours in a busy sushi restaurant) and was a challenge to wrangle onto the page. Between the noise of the recording and the free form conversation between Kahn and his writing partner Mark Palermo, this was like an archeological dig to transcribe. But now that the film approaches it’s 10-city, April 13th release it’s the perfect time to drop this huge conversation.
In this second segment we speak on writing for the many characters in the film, casting, the ideal viewing experience for the film, and much much more.
This interview took place after the second screening of Detention at SXSW 2011, after I’d published my review of the film. I met both Joseph and Mark for the first time to have this talk, and it’s interesting seeing the two discuss the film before its festival success and divisive-yet-positively-leaning critical response. You can tell even the writers are having trouble fully quantifying their odd little film, which is a challenge critics and audiences have faced in screenings since. Like this interview though, the film is extremely rewarding for those that are open to give it a shot and roll with its experimental oddity.
I’ll be slicing this interview up into three parts for publishing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Keep an eye out for all of them, and spread ’em around if you would…
Also, make sure you go out and support the film’s 10 theater release this Friday, if it’s playing at a theater near you. It needs your help much more than the big guys, as it’s do-or-die for the film this weekend. Get your tickets here.
Picking up where we left off…
Joseph: On July 1st we hired our casting director who immediately went to work, production designer and all that other stuff. A month and a half later it had all been casted, all the sets were being built, all the locations had been scouted, and we’d gone through all the rehearsals. We started shooting that month and a half later with a full cast and everything.
Renn: That’s hardcore.
Joseph: That was August 13th. We were supposed to shoot for 31 days, but because it was an independent movie and I felt like I had one shot at this, I thought- I don’t give a shit, I can go bankrupt, but it needs to be exactly what it needs to be. So we shot for 51 days…
Joseph: I had to bring on other investors ‘cuz I was running out of cash- I’m a video director, you don’t work for five months, you don’t have any income. And then we test screened it three days after we finished just to gauge how people thought of it, and then five months later all the visual effects and sound were done and here we are.
Renn: Did you have parallel editing going on while you shot?
Joseph: I was editing as I shot- like, every scene. So, from the moment I said “lets start shooting” to the minute it got released: nine months.
Renn: Nice, that’s very impressive. I think it speaks to you and your crew’s talent. It doesn’t look like a nine month, start-to-finish movie.
Joseph: And here’s where doing Torque was very instrumental in doing it. It was almost like I was a spy and I slipped through the studio cracks and I got to make a movie, and I got to see every process they did. Like how did they organize post-production? How did they prep it? How did they do the division of labor? Because a lot of my people are music video crew and commercial crew and they’re all really great, but they’d never done a feature film either. So, by having gone through that whole complex process of making a film, I reversed engineered it and I did my own mini version of it. We essentially shot it like a studio film, except the big difference is there was no studio executive telling me I couldn’t do anything, and I controlled all the money. I can tell you straight up- there’s no difference in the technology we used and the mechanics we used and the structure I used outside of the studio system. In fact, we ended up mixing it all on their stages and using the equipment they would end up using, the editing they would, and the effects that they would. There’s no difference between it and a studio film except I did it for a shit-load cheaper.
Renn: Talk about casting a little bit. It was a snappy process obviously, but-
Mark: It was a long process actually.
Renn: Was it?
Mark: I had never sat in on a casting session before, but it seemed like we were seeing like 80 people for some parts. I’m really pleased with how it worked out because everyone really understands their parts so well and are just kind of perfect for their roles. I remember certain parts — like Gord the Canadian for instance — we saw so many people for that and they were all doing this weird Mike Myers impressions and things-
Joseph: Oh, he got offended because [Mark’s] Canadian. [laughs] Some of those impressions were pretty fucking funny.
Mark: I think we got the right guy for that- we casted a real Canadian in the role.
Joseph: This is the way the casting went down on a certain level- the first thing is that I got Judy Cook, who’s a great casting director and I had to beg her to do it for, basically almost free, and then on top of that we had to make a big decision right from the start: is this a SAG film, or is this not a SAG film? And I know from commercials that there’s a big difference between SAG actors and non-SAG actors. I had a number in my head of what I wanted to make the movie for, but I also knew there’s a quality level in terms of the actors you work with. So I decided, “Okay, I’m going to make this a SAG film,” at which point our budget just got blown out of the water, and I didn’t really have the money for it at that point. But I just wanted the best actors possible.
The second thing is that if you’re paying them scale, what level of actors are going to come in an try that? But the beautiful thing is that because our movie is a high school movie, there are a ton of kids coming into Hollywood that don’t have experience and don’t have names, but you know they’re talented- you’ve just got to find them and give them their first shot. And we ended up very lucky on a few of them- Shanley, she had just done a TV movie and pilot that didn’t go through, she walked through the door on the first day and she was so natural, and had so much of an ease in how she said the lines. We wrote some pretty tough lines in terms of the punchlines, and you could have some people really try and turn up the comedy and try to be funny, which is the kiss of death, but she was just naturally funny being real. So she was an instant “in” from the beginning. We ended up seeing people like- we probably went through something like 200 Sanders by the time we got Aaron David Johnson, and he hadn’t done anything before. He was literally in LA for, like, a month before we booked him.
Joseph: And there have been weird ones, like we went through Gord – the Canadian guy — and everyone did their Canadian accents and it just didn’t work. But I remember, I was a big fan of rap battles, and there’s this guy name Travis “Organic” Fleetwood in Canada, and he was just this skinny, weird looking dude and he was just like the character. We wrote Gord as the foreign exchange student because we thought it would be funny if the foreign exchange student wasn’t the Asian guy- let’s make him foreign in a way that’s not even relevant, and make him Canadian [laughter]. He had this accent that was so wicked and he’s so angry- he’s like the angriest Canadian guy I ever met. And we tried to track him down over and over again, and it was a couple of days before we shot that we got a hold of him and we had to fly him down over weekends, because he still had to do his job.
Mark: Yeah, I think his response was, “I don’t know, I think I’m going to miss work tomorrow.” We’re making a movie!
Joseph: And yeah, “Dumbfounded” is another person I found through rap battles- he’s like the best Asian rap battler. I told him early on, “You’ve got this role, there’s nobody else that can really play Toshiba.” Because, we had all these Asian guys come in to play Toshiba, and it was so whack, they all either played it like every other fucking cliche you can, or they weren’t cool enough because Toshiba has this natural rhythm to the way he speaks that’s very urban. There are Asian guys like that who are out there, ya know? And I guess the big problem that we had is that we needed at least one name in there, and I had a meeting with ICM very early, like the very first week we were in production, and I told them — because they’re my agency — you need to start submitting a bunch of actors, because I’m going to make this movie regardless of anything, and we started discussing it and they started talking about Josh. He’d just done The Kids Are Alright but he hadn’t blown up and nobody knew what it was gonna do, and he’d just lost out on the part of Peter Parker. They gave him the script and he read it over the weekend and he loved it, and he gave us a call, I had a meeting with him and he said he was in. And I guess the last piece of the puzzle was the Verge character- I was hoping to get one more name in there, and so the only person I know that was famous as a comedian, and really the only famous person I know, was Dane Cook. I gave him one of his first breaks in Torque, he wasn’t known then, and I called him in for my favor, and he gave it to me.
Mark: And also, Spencer Locke, who plays the Ione character, she was in the 3rd Resident Evil movie and she read the script and loved it.
Joseph: Literally we didn’t have another choice for Ione, she was so great. She nailed.
Renn: She’s great, and even Dane Cook is funny in a way that’s not the sort of thing he does typically. I enjoyed enjoying him.
Joseph: You know, I had to tell Dane when he took on this role, “This isn’t going to be like things you’ve done before. You’re going to be playing against your type, you’re going to be playing a guy that’s out of it, that’s terrorizing kids. It’s not in your wheelhouse, but I know it will be really fun to watch you do this.”
Renn: I feel like it’s more in tone with what originally made him popular- I liked seeing that from him again… Okay, so you’ve got your cast, a 50-day shoot, parallel editing, and have a cut pretty much immediately when you’re done from cutting at the same time.
Joseph: Well, you know the way I shoot I always edit while shoot, even on commercials and music videos. By the time I walk off a video set, the video’s already edited. I’ll actually be shooting, I’ll operate the camera and then run back, edit, and then do the next shot. Things like that. That’s just my process, so by the time we were done with Detention, I had a 96 minute movie cut out of a 106-page script that got edited down to an 88 minute movie, which tells you a little bit about the speed and what it is.
Mark: Nothing was cut from that either- everyone just talks really fast. I think there was one scene Joseph wanted to cut and I convinced him not to-
Joseph: Which one was that?
Mark: It’s the shot of Billy Nolan on top of Taylor Fischer with bug wings flying out.
Joseph: No no, I always had that…. oh yeah yeah, I was about to cut that thing, you’re right.
Mark: But like, cut it when shooting, like shoot it at all.
Joseph: Well I only had one fucking reason, because we were running out of time and I didn’t know how the fuck to do that scene. It seemed like I was going to have to go into CG land to do that, and I wanted to avoid it as much as possible, and I was thinking, “how am I going to make insect wings fly out of someone’s back?” But we ended up doing the shot and it worked.
Renn: Cool. So we kind of mentioned it earlier and you didn’t really know, but let’s just say we’re in an ideal universe- where do you see this movie going? How do you see it getting out there?
Joseph: Well. Okay- I think theatrical is very important for this, because I’d love to see people experience it together in a movie theater. And it’s a tricky film because it’s going to be very polarizing, so hopefully the people who like it will come together and enjoy it on that level. But then, more importantly, the film is designed for a modern perspective, because media today I don’t feel like people observe just once. You like something, you’re going to watching it over and over. People talk about recycling culture and whatever- well remember, back in the 80s… well, you don’t remember because you’re too young [laughs], but before the current youth culture came about it was very different. You might be able to recycle your CDs and music, but you didn’t really do that with film. Because remember that VHS had just been formed, so this whole modern video culture that Tarantino and Rodriguez and all those guys do, you have to realize this is a modern phenomenon that came along with invention of Laserdisc and most importantly VHS. Before that media itslef and films were like one at a time with maybe some revivals here and there, but that sort of personal experience of having seen something over and over again and delving deeper is new. That’s not
how those movies were made, either. But Detention is made for the theatrical experience but, on a certain level, a personal experience. You’re supposed to take Detention, watching it once with everybody else and then watch it by yourself over and over again, and grab different things. You know? That’s the way the film’s designed. And you will find out- as you watch the film over and over again you’ll find new things and new connections and- I’m surprised you got so many of them off the first viewing. Most people will probably just watch it and see one movie, and then they’ll start seeing other things and all the connections. It was purposefully designed that way so ultimately, theatrical: yes, but the video download, whatever… as long as it’s in your sphere of knowledge, you’re gonna get a lot more out of it, and that’s what it’s designed to do.
Renn: I think that’s great because in that paradigm you’re talking about, I’m appreciating more and more some of my favorite movies that I can just watch them over and over to the point that I could buy a TV, put it in my room, and dedicate it to one of those films on loop and just make them a rhythm in my life. And I think Detention is a film that can play on phone, on your computer, on a TV, in a theater…
Joseph: And also I think there’s a new form of learned way of looking at visual narrative that is a unique thing in the last twenty years. Ever since music videos right? Music videos are designed in a way, you don’t just watch them once, you’ve got to watch them over and over again and they’ve got have a high repeatability factor. A good music video has a repeatability factor that makes it deeper each time, so you design little puzzles that gets you in a certain rhythm, and you sense the audience — if they watch it like four or five times — will then have a sort of rhythm built in to them an they then process things a little bit different only the fourth or fifth viewing.
Joseph: Detention is definitely placed in a way that the more you watch it the more you get a different rhythm to it, the more it starts changing. Not only the rhythm, but also we plotted it in a way that there are double stories going on with Ione and her Mom and you can watch the movie again from a different perspective going, “oh, now we see what a great job Spencer is doing, acting like her mom in today, and now she’s acting like herself in the past.” Things like that. And then you look you look at the rhythm of how certain shots play off and all of a sudden you can look at like, tracking into the window, and then you see Cinderhella’s reflection, and you see Carl Verge, and you see a boot you didn’t see there before, and you know the boot’s significance because of the final scene and you make these random backwards comparisons and stuff. There’s so many layered easter eggs that’s it’s definitely designed for multi-viewing at any point really.
Mark: Since certain people have seen the movie once, a lot of the negative reactions they’ve had is that they find the movie too cold. It’s really when you watch the movie a second, third time that the nuances of the characters start to come through. Maybe the first time you watch the movie, you’re kind of just blinded by the mechanics of all the plotting that we do, but I think the humanity of the movie really comes out in multiple viewings. That’s also the big trick with the writing, because its a very stylized script in a way, but the key is to do that in a way that each character has their own voice, their own way within that style.
Renn: To widen things a bit and kind of pick your brains as filmmakers, let me ask you randomly: what are your thoughts on 3D?
Joseph: 3D? All for it. I mean, I’m for 3D, I’m anti-glasses.
Renn: Have you had the opportunity to shoot anything in 3D?
Joseph: I’ve never shot anything in 3d, but I know how to compose for it. I’ve actually done research- when I was developing Neuromancer I was gonna try and shoot that in 3D. But you know, it’s funny, if you walk into Austin airport right now if you look up on the monitors, they have some 3D monitors that are holograms. You can see it’s imperfect because as you walk towards the edges the screen goes black, but when I look at it, it’s there, the rhythm is natural, I don’t have to wear glasses. I mean, the issue with 3D isn’t that it’s an unnatural way of viewing life, it’s a very natural way of viewing life. The issue is that you’ve gotta wear those stupid-ass glasses and if I didn’t wear glasses I’d probably have problems because I look at life through glasses anyway, but when I have to wear my fucking glasses and then those fucking glasses, then I have a big ass fucking head anyways so no glasses fit me anyway, so I have this visor clamping to my temples, that’s a problem for me. I would love to see more movies in 3D, they just need to get the technology to a point you don’t have to wear glasses of death.
Renn: Well they’ve already got glassesless 3D TVs on the market, so I can only assume it’s not going to take long for them to make good, glassesless 3D.
Joseph: I also think anyone who says 3D is not the way the future is gonna be, is a luddite. Period. Like saying, “film will always be around,” it’s not. It’s not efficient, it’s wastes in terms of environmental issues, but 3D is a more natural view of the world, and it’s just processing speed. How quickly can we get processors going and how quickly can we get technology up there. But I think it’s much more natural way of looking without having to go through all the bullshit of flicking it on and off and preparing for it.
Renn: Well why we’re talking about tech, let’s take it back to Detention: tell me about your relationship with sound and post-mixing…
Joseph: Sound or songs?
Renn: Sound design.
Joseph: There’s no sound design in the script, is there?
Joseph: Yeah, there’s really no sound design and there are no camera angles either. Actually, the first three years we didn’t think about the technical craft of filmmaking at all, it was literally just written. As a director I’m filing things away, I’m seeing the way scenes could come together, but it’s all separate and it’s not like that’s what those scenes are about, they’re just sort of me thinking I could do it this way or do it that way. But those aren’t the discussions that Mark and I have- we’re literally thinking in terms of character, and in fact, if anything it’s 99% character as we’re thinking, “What is Riley’s problem? What does she need? How do we make her feel bad? How do we make her feel good? What does she want? What does Clapton want? What does Ione want? How do we interface them?” And even the technical basis of all this cool tech stuff we’re doing with going back in time, we’re thinking of it specifically in terms of each character. “Why does that character want to go back in time? What does that character need to do now that they’re back in time?” That’s our concern for three years.
Mark: Yeah, I’d say like the whole visual design of the movie is not in the script, it’s all character stuff and plotting issues. Some of the rhythm’s there, but not quite. It’s a little different when you see it in the film.
Renn: Well I mean shit, if you included the visual design it would read like a fuckin’ Burroughs novel or something.
[laughter… from everybodyBECAUSEI’MFUNNY]
That does it for this chunk. Come back Friday for our final piece in which we talk about choosing what reference to make in a film built on them, a world filled with typography, and some pretty deep character and thematic concerns of this time-traveling teen slasher flick.