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[Interview] Director Joseph Kahn On Today’s Teens And His Insane New Slasher, ‘Detention’

Detention is such an idiosyncratic accomplishment I’m not even sure where to start. I’ve seen it twice now and, while I was initially put off by what I perceived to be a sense of self-satisfaction emanating from the film, I quickly fell in love with it. Yes, it’s a slasher movie, but it’s also a million other things. Perhaps its most singular achievement is that it so accurately captures the current high school experience and the rate at which the youth generation absorbs and processes information. It’s an empowering acknowledgement of that generation that will regardless become many parents’ worst nightmare.

Co-scripted by Kahn and Mark Palermo “Detention’ tells the story of the senior class at Grizzly Lake high school. The road to graduation is never an easy one, but it’s further complicated for these students by the arrival of a slasher movie killer who has seemingly come to life. The only ones who can stop the killer are a handful of students, but they’ll have to cut out of detention if they’re to stand a chance at saving the world.

While director Joseph Kahn (Torque) is best known for music videos, he put a lot of his own money into the film. So even though it has plenty of blood, guts, sex, violence and time travel (yep) – it also has a beating heart. Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell, Spencer Locke and Dane Cook (don’t worry, this isn’t a “Dane Cook movie”) all star. Detention opens in select theaters tomorrow, April 13th.

Head inside for the interview.

What was it about this material that made you want to do another feature? So much so that you put a lot of your money into financing it?

I put all my money into financing this. Why did I want to do that?

Yeah, how did the process with you and Mark Palermo get started. I know you co-scripted, did he come to you with a treatment?

No. Mark’s a film critic from Halifax. And what happened is that he gave me a good review on Torque, right? And I was like, “who the hell is this motherf*cker that actually likes my movie?” So I met with him and it turned out we actually had a lot of common perspectives on filmmaking. I mean we’re both very different people, but there was a lot of common ground. So, he’s a film critic and knows a lot about movies. I know a lot about movies. Let’s write something and see what happens. And that’s where Detention started. I’d been wanting to make a high school movie and coming from music videos I know something about the way kids think today in the way the studios don’t.

They’re on such a different level. Kids today are so intelligent and so advanced. People call it “ADD”, I call it “multi-tasking”. So I wanted to make a movie on a basic technical level that at least challenged them. Because I don’t think movies today are anywhere on the level of how I think kids actually process information.

A lot of people might look at this movie and see it as [a frightening statement] about them, but you clearly don’t see it that way.

No. Here’s the reality of it. You and I are about in the same age bracket. The generation below us is the most intelligent, amazing generation ever. They are the least racist, the least sexist, the least homophobic, most progressive amazing group of kids in the history of humanity. They’re really great. And a lot of that has to do with the internet. If you take any human being and give them access to more information they will inform themselves and they will make themselves more intelligent. That is the nature of a human being.

I love these kids. I think it’s our generation that’s f*cking things up. We’re doing crazy things with the banking system and wars and politics. These kids have their heads on straight and I really, really like them. So I wanted to make a movie that spoke to them on an equal level. Because ultimately a lot of these movies are the old John Hughes formula with found footage or shaky cam and that’s not good enough for these kids.

That’s interesting that you say that about this generation. I recently saw 21 Jump Street which also addressed the gap between this generation and the last and found that the current generation was treated as being much more conscious and tolerant. Hopefully it’s something that more films come to embrace.

It’s a credit to both the kids and the parents that have raised them. Something is going right at the moment and I like it quite a bit.

It’s such a dense film with so many ideas. How did it develop? Was it originally just a high school slasher?

Yeah. Absolutely. It was originally just a high school slasher. We intended to go out there and make a commercial hit. We wanted to play their game and do it better than them, right? And I think most people would say that. I’m being completely honest.

But when I started writing with Mark, the heart leads where it wants to go. And ultimately I didn’t want to tell that story. I wanted to tell this other story. And being completely honest with myself, it took a year to come to fruition. We kept beating it out, plotting it out, tossing around ideas. We let it germinate for a year before writing the treatment or outline. And then a year after that, Detention was Detention essentially.

It’s not a super low budget film, but it’s not a huge budget either. And it seems to have an insane amount of set-ups [individual shots]. What was your schedule like?

My first day I shot 66 unique movements. 66 unique edits. The whole film was like that. I originally planned on 31 days but then it went to 52.

It’s taken for granted that the kids in the film are sexually active, but it’s not a film that judges the kids for engaging in that behavior. Do you feel this generation processes their sexuality in a more responsible way than previous generations?

You know one of the funniest things about the way studios view teenagers is they still see it as the Porky’s generation. Like when porn was harder to get at. The idea of seeing nudity was much harder because the VHS had just been invented. But today, any kid can get on the internet and see porn in two seconds. The ridiculous nature of the MPAA, saying that kids shouldn’t see anything more than a PG13 film is absolutely insane. Because the control of the media is so much more loose than it’s ever been. A kid can watch an R-rated movie on the internet while skyping and looking up their homework on wikipedia with porn on the 4th screen.

So therefore, most studio teen movies are just sex comedies. I’ve watched a lot of these things and they’re primarily just sex joke after sex joke after sex joke. And there’s nothing else to it. You’d think what was the thing in a teenager’s life. And while it’s a part of it, it’s not the only thing. And, by the way, that’s an incredibly male perspective. The vast majority of these movies are just, “how do I get laid?” What is going on in f*cking studio executive’s heads?

Shanley Caswell is a definite find. She’s very pretty but is also accessible, smart, warm and relatable. What was casting that part like?

Most importantly I needed naturalism so it didn’t feel like acting. I was looking for teen actors that weren’t acting, and a lot of them just act. Josh [Hutcherson] on the flipside isn’t formally trained, he just emotes. He becomes the character. And Shanley has a lot of training. She’s an amazing tool for a director to use, but the way she can just throw away lines and become the character is such an incredible tool. That’s what I wanted in the movie. She just happened to be this diamond that I found in the middle of the floor and I was like, “are you guys kidding me? This is a diamond! What are you not seeing?” So I picked up that diamond and put it in my movie.

You wrapped in 2010. What was it like for you to make something you know is special but then have to sit on it?

It was very frustrating because I knew we had something that connected with the audience we made it for. And it’s a very specific audience. The people who love it will love it and the people who don’t like it will throw fire at it. But I knew that – ultimately – the people who should see it will see it. I want as many people to see it as possible, but if it completely fails at the box office and I lose all my cash on it – which is conceivable – I will still be happy. It exists. I put a dent in the cinematic universe with the film and I’m happy to leave it there.

Hopefully the audience sees it this weekend. But if they don’t they can catch it on DVD or VOD later. As long as people see it and the right people love it, it’s worth me losing every dime I have to get that.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m going to do a ton of music videos and commercials to pay off this movie. Because I still owe on it. My investors gave me loans that I have to pay back regardless of whether the film does well or not, so i have to pay those back.

In terms of features do you have any ideas percolating?

Yeah. Mark Palermo and I are writing another movie called Saliva Lightning House.

That sounds super accessible.

[Laughs] Yeah! I think it’s so crazy I might have to pay for it myself again. But I have no money left, so maybe you’ll see that movie in 2050.




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