Detention - Featured

Interview: Joseph Kahn


Famed music video director Joseph Kahn, responsible for some of the most influential music videos of the 90s and 00s from an eclectic range of artists and bands (Backstreet Boys, DMX, and Faith No More, just to name a few), only had one previous big screen outing before his sophomore feature Detention (out on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), and while 2004’s meathead biker opus Torque has been viewed more recently in the proper (read: humorous) light that it should have been originally been given, that didn’t make funding his new and more personally rewarding project any easier.

A real labour of love for the director, Detention is a genre bending teen film designed for the young adults of today as our heroes the cute, nerdy, depressed girl with the bum leg Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) and the almost quite literally too cool for school Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) have to get to the bottom of a labyrinthine mystery involving their futures, time travel, their principal, a giant taxidermied bear, a kid who once had a TV for a hand, body swapping, and, of course, the end of the world. There’s a lot going on in every frame of Detention and it’s up to Kahn to keep it all the numerous balls in play and moving at a pace that almost literally dares it’s potentially ADD addled core demographic to actually keep up with it.

Our review will be posted tomorrow (short version: see it), but here’s what we talked about with Kahn over the phone recently, including how teen films have somehow failed to evolve over the years and his reasons for making Detention with nothing but pure love for his intended audience.

Dork Shelf: This is a really interesting new breed of teen movie that seems to be approaching the target audience on modern terms while at the same time treating them like human beings in spite of all their faults, which has been missing since roughly the 80s. Did you ever notice a tipping point where you sort of felt that teen films had lost their way?

Joseph Kahn: Yes. Right after John Hughes. (laughs)

DS: Which is a pretty fair answer, but you were sort of on the periphery of the 90s teen movie boom when you were first gaining recognition for your music videos. Do you think there was there something around that time where people just stopped seeming to care about quality?

JK: You know, a lot of it really has to do with demographics. There’s a really big Gen-X/Gen-Y millennial shift when I was making my music videos in the 90s. I was definitely from Generation X. How old are you?

DS: I just turned 30.

JK: So, you’re on the last end of where I was and the beginning of the new generation. You’re right on the tip of it. But I knew that when I was doing my videos back in the 90s that there were all these 6 to 12 year old kids out there that were going to outnumber my generation. In America there was something like 20-30 million Gen-Xers and there’s close to 100 million millenials, so there were a few teen movies here and there, but nothing that was ever able to catch fire. Now, I think today, these kids are now in their teens and early 20s and they never got a chance to see these kinds of movies because they were never made for them. I think the closest anyone ever came to making something like that was when Juno came out, and that didn’t even really speak a teen language, but rather this sort of specialized Diablo Cody-speak that she made up. So when going into this I really wanted to see a film made for kids today, and when I say kids, let’s face it, even a 25 year old person can get referred to as a kid these days. I really, really wanted to do something that spoke very honestly, and even though it’s surreal, I wanted to make that honest attempt at speaking to these kids.

DS: One of the most interesting things about the film is that while you are trying to craft this sort of new breed of teen movie for a neglected audience, you’re also rooting it somewhat in a real sense of nostalgia for films in the genre’s past. How do you strike that balance between the two without coming across as being too old-timey?

JK: I think it’s more of a reflection of society today, actually. We live in a retro-society, which is why I made the movie flashback twenty years, because if you picked 30 you won’t really learn too much and you would just be making fun of the 80s all over again. It’s still just recent enough to not feel too far away, but the changes that have happened have been so significant, especially with the internet. Twenty years ago kids didn’t have wi-fi, or cell phones, or Wikipidia and Google at their fingertips. It’s changed the way that we all really process and access information, and it’s changed popular culture as a result. Popular culture now has a very long memory. Before, like say in the 80s, if you watched a music video and it disappeared after it aired, you’d be hard pressed to get access to that or something else that you liked. Now, you can just YouTube anything at any given moment. People have that longer sense of pop history. For instance, Urban Outfitters or Hot Topic and stores like that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Now if you want a retro T-Shirt, it’s become a very common idea among kids today. That’s the culture we’re living in now, and this movie on a certain level is reflective of culture today as opposed to something like Back to the Future where they were really contrasting and saying there was such a big wide gulf between 1985 and 1955. I’m saying that among kids today, although there are some significant differences, the internet has changed the way they perceive the past.

One of the funniest things that I find about movies that I find completely false and which is why I think Detention will completely offend a certain bracket of viewers that’s older than say 25 or 30, is that they will see all these pop culture references and just think “My God. This movie’s just stuck in its own ass and it’s just making fun of other movies,” but what they don’t realize is how these kids today really watch movies. These kids have their phones on them all the time, and on that they have movies, music, television, the internet, you know. You are always hip holstered to entertainment. When kids talk, they talk about what kind of music they listen to and what movies and TV shows they should watch. It’s so pervasive in culture nowadays that if you don’t make a movie geared towards that audience that doesn’t discuss these sort of things, you’re just not making a movie about kids today.

DS: And Detention certainly also plays very well to the new type of modern teenage viewer who might be watching something on TV while they have their laptop or phone in front of them.

JK: Yeah. I mean, Detention has some really wonderful reviews, but it also has a shit load of bad reviews, and I think that’s quite unfair because I love my movie and I love that you like the movie, but there’s some people that just do not get it. They tend to be older and I think that at the bottom of their hearts when they register the movie they see this multitasking, multitextural pop culture infused movie that they just can’t connect to because it moves to fast for them. I made it for the generation that has grown up with texting and has grown up with interactive media. It’s like they can’t keep up with it on a mental or intellectual level, or they just generally hate fucking kids. (laughs) You see all this stuff that kids process and love today and they just hate it on principal. They’re luddites.

DS: Do you think a lot of the negative reaction to the film is more of a generational thing or do you think it might be coming from some critical need to over intellectualize everything?

JK: I think that over intellectualization isn’t really a bad thing. I think if you spent some time with Detention and you wanted to think about the thematics of it, there’s plenty of stuff to dig into. It’s been structured like that by me and my co-screenwriter, Mark Palermo, to do that, but I do think that there’s a certain level of disdain for youth culture that ends up happening and that’s the gulf. Every generation, every twenty years, someone turns 40 and ends up hating someone for being 20. I’m turning 40 this year, but the difference is that I love 20 year olds. I love young people. I think that young people are always going to be the most interesting because they’re just discovering life. They’re learning new things. Yes, there might be things that they don’t know that might come off as being obnoxious to an older person, but that’s just the general gist of being a young person. They’re going to make mistakes, but they have to have the freedom to make mistakes and the freedom to explore. Detention at its heart is a high school simulation. If you think about it, you don’t know which way the film is going to go. You think you know genres and everyone assumes that they do, but then you flip it and suddenly someone turns into a fly or someone else gets killed or someone else travels back in time, and when you’re in high school, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. From day to day, you’re learning new things, and the trajectory of your growth from a freshman to a senior is so dramatic, and that’s only over the course of four years. That’s how radically your life changes during that period because high school is such a mystery, and Detention is a mystery. Ultimately, if you watch Detention as an older person, you’re either going to embrace that level of confusion and sit and remember what high school was like and what it was like to be a kid and confused or you can say “That was so confusing. I know all the answers to life. I reject that movie.”

DS: Another thing that might fly by people is that Detention is ultimately a very hopeful movie made by people who want to see the younger generation succeed, which is something we should all probably spend more time thinking about.

JK: Again, I really do like most young people, and I’ve worked in pop for most of my life. I deal with younger people all the time, and I think the younger the person, the more interesting the perspective they have on things, because, quite frankly, younger people are far more progressive. Even someone of my age had to deal with a lot more racism that they would have to today. If you grew up in the 80s, you were still only 20 years removed from the 60s upheaval. That was something even when I was making Backstreet Boys videos that I had to make sure that I integrated that. I made sure that all the dancers were black, white, and Asian, and all that. Nowadays if you see a pop band out there where everyone was only one race you would think that was weird. You would think they were making some sort of weird ass statement. That is the natural progression of how kids think today. Kids today are very beautiful and I like them.

I think the trick is that you don’t want to coddle kids, but I think it’s important that you give them their own life lessons in their own movies that can speak to them. I really hope that Detention does that. I don’t want another movie that just goes in there and just tries to take their money without giving them anything back and without reflecting anything in their lives. I want these kids to walk in there and say “That character is me and I totally understand what that person is going through.” I just don’t fell like there’s any sort of totality to the reality they are being presented with on film these days.

DS: I’m a huge fan of sight gags and having watched it twice now I’ve seen even more the second time through than on the first go. Was that something that you always wanted to include a bit more in your work?

JK: Yeah, I love making connectors and Easter Eggs that are meaningful, so the trick is, like when you have the running gag involving signs on the back of the principal’s shirt, it connects 2011 to 1992 from the perspective of the principal, but at the same time I’m also foreshadowing the fact that I’m going to be discussing homosexuality in this movie from the perspective of a teacher. I’m going to talk about intolerance and things like that and I’m sort of going to let that joke fly until in finally confronts you in your face, you know?

DS: And that particular gag is something that’s hard to pull off because it’s really talking about ignorance by making fun of an ignorant perspective.

JK: I’ll definitely say one thing, and this connects to how young people react and think nowadays versus the older perspective: Detention isn’t made to be watched only once. Music videos aren’t meant to be watched only once. Those are things designed to be watched over and over again. You want to watch them a hundred times. Detention is a movie where if you get on its wavelength, you’re going to watch it many, many times and you’re going to make even more connectors out of it. It was completely designed that way. On a certain level it was a sort of music video styled dream logic threaded into the narrative so you catch something new every time. And trust me when I say I’ve loaded every scene with lots of connectors like that.

DS: The securing of the music rights for the film had been one of the things sort of holding up the release of the film, and you’ve talked about it quite a bit already elsewhere, but do you think it would have been harder for someone who didn’t have a music background like you did to pull this together?

JK: It would have been impossible to make this movie without my connections. Zero. Zero chance. I think 50 Cent would have asked for a million dollars for a single track alone, and we have 30 monster tracks in this movie, and it took a year to put the soundtrack together just on a legal and financial level, but I think it was very important that this movie has this music in it because I think if I put in a bunch of tunes that no one had ever heard of it would’ve eliminated a big piece of the pop commentary I’m doing here, and if that shared experience of the pop lexicon was missing, it would have just crushed the movie. We wouldn’t have given you the experience that you needed.

DS: Do you think it’s hard when you’re trying to put a soundtrack together like this and you know already that a song is going to be the butt of a joke to try and explain to people what the joke is all about?

JK: Yeah. What was really hard was that I had a Backstreet Boys song in a flashback and then I had to do a grunge rock song immediately afterwards, and EVERY grunge rock band turned us down because they have no sense of humour. (laughs) They did not want to seem dated and they want to produce albums and still seem like they’re relevant, which they’re not. Luckily, I had worked with Courtney Love, so she handed over one of her songs from Hole for me.

DS: The DVD and Blu-ray for the film also comes with an interesting commentary track that you guys call Cheat Mode, where it’s this equally stylized and fast moving picture-in-picture examination of the film that’s somehow able to keep up with everything that was going on in the film. How did that come together?

JK: It’s funny because the studio didn’t have any money to produce any special features for it, so I just shot everybody against my living room, edited it on my AVID, and just pumped it out that way.

DS: You also let a lot of the supporting cast and crew have their say on things, as well, instead of just having you and Josh Hutcherson front and centre for the whole thing.

JK: Yeah. This really was a special production for all of us. The cast and crew were really deeply connected. It was really interesting because a lot of the kids were the same age, and for a lot of them it was their first thing. And this was also before Josh had moved on to The Hunger Games and became a superstar. There was just this wonderful sort of bonding on set and I hope that special feature brings out that we really did like each other a lot.

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