Knives and Skin Director Interview

The missing girl. She’s the center of many an American narrative. Yet for Jennifer Reeder, this figure is merely the beginning of a narrative that fades into the background of her film Knives and Skin. The real drama and intrigue of her “genre adjacent” work, as she describes the film, comes from watching how the disappearance of Carolyn Harper spirals outwards and deepens the grief of a small town mired in the quiet misery of suburbia.

Knives and Skin had a long festival run in 2019 from Berlin to Tribeca, Fantasia Festival to Fantastic Fest, and now finally arrives in theaters and on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight. On the eve of release, I caught up with Reeder to discuss her unique work. Our conversation covered everything from her stylish, colorful aesthetic to the deadpan acting style as well as the heaviness of the material she covers.

I read a whole book of essays this year, Dead Girls, about how the trope of dead (or missing) female characters in cultural narratives are typically used as catalysts for male stories of self-discovery. Here, though, it’s for a female story. Was it always the case that Carolyn Harper was to lead to changes in the girls in the town?

When I set out to make Knives and Skin, which I call “genre adjacent,” I didn’t want to avoid what I have found problematic about so many horror and thriller films. I wanted to embrace it, work with it, try and rethink it. From the beginning, there was always a missing or dead girl. I had to try and figure out how to continue to give her, as an object, agency. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but I think it’s important that she wasn’t murdered because then I would have had to deal with that story. I’ll look up that book, but there’s also that short What Happened To Her? that chronicles all these dead girls, and it’s narrated by the woman who played the dead body in River’s Edge.

At the end of the day, Carolyn Harper, who is my missing girl, it’s her story. But it’s also a story about female empowerment. A “genre adjacent” film that uses those problematic tropes, rethinks them, mines them and comes out a feminist [film] at the end.

You don’t waste much time on exposition or explanation. Is that just a natural process for you, or was it more intentional to let the mood fill us in where we needed?

Yeah, it’s intentional. Everything you see in the final cut of the film is deeply scripted. There were no happy accidents in the scriptwriting. In the scriptwriting phase, I didn’t really move on from another scene until it felt like it had enough information to do what it needed to do in terms of propelling the plot or a character’s arc forward. But I tried to fill in a lot of the information with visual language or atmosphere. As a film consumer, I watch a lot of films, sometimes the expository moments are really necessary. Sometimes the writer really nails it, and the labor is invisible. I would say, for the most part, that expository labor is totally visible. It’s where you’re like, “Come on, trust your audience! People are smart.” They can fill in the blanks.

You said everything that made it into the film is scripted. So does that mean there was no improvisation at all on set?

Correct. I’m saying that because it does have kind of a drifty pace. The performances are deadpan to perhaps a point of awkwardness. I think it could be mistaken that there was some more organic process on set, but they didn’t. All that stuff was written in from the beginning. No improvisation, no happy accidents.

I often find in conversations with filmmakers that the moments that appear improvised or accidental are some of the most crafted moments in the entire film, so I can understand the frustration when people dismiss them.

I’m very particular about my dialogue. A lot of the dialogue I write, the words are particular. People can distinguish themselves not just by the cadence but that they prefer to use one word over the next, or they don’t conjugate verbs. I feel like I also do a lot of character development through the dialogue, even though I end up using a lot of improv actors because I like their ability to call up an emotion or turn a scene really quickly. But I’d prefer that everyone stick to the script!

How did you work with your actors on the specificity of line readings? There’s such a fine line where they could either play as melodramatic on the one hand or overly deadpan on the other if you don’t find that precisely calibrated sweet spot.

I gave everybody some clues on who their character was, which would drive how they delivered their lines. But I kept reminding everybody that there’s a lot of melodrama in the scene itself from the information in the dialogue. You don’t want to cancel that out with a melodramatic performance. I wanted to heighten the drama of the melodrama by having the performance really drained of affect. I think it’s actually more authentic to real life than we might imagine. In real life, often times the most traumatic information is delivered not in a bloodcurdling scream or tears. It’s delivered in a really flat way because it’s really hard for someone to get out their mouth – “I want a divorce” or “your father just died” or “I don’t know where my child is.” Even though the performances can feel like they’re not totally grounded in reality, I actually feel like they might be more authentic than we usually see in films.

How do you find the tonal balance in a film where you have both naturalistic scenes of domestic malaise as well as a talking tiger T-shirt?

Aside from just the fact that the tone can shift from scene to scene, or even within a scene, there’s so many people and storylines to keep track of that it would be easy for this to turn into just a tangle that no one had any time or interest to untangle. I think there are people out there who have no interest in untangling Knives and Skin, which is totally fine by me. But it was something I was aware of in the writing process, even, making sure that I could maintain that tone from scene to scene by continuation of a color or part of the score. So even though you’re watching something emotionally shift and bend, or you’re watching a character’s arc shift and bend, the palette or score remains consistent over three or four scenes. You’re tricked into imagining that they’re all part of the same process.

Communication, whether it’s something the characters say to each other and something you divulge to the audience, makes for such an interesting part of the film. How did you determine the manner in which an idea gets conveyed, be it the subtitled whispers or the Magnolia-esque group singalong?

That was also part of the writing process. There were countless drafts. But so many scenes that, in the end, feel seamless in the story went through multiple iterations. The talking tiger shirt was in there from the beginning because it was something I tried in a short film that didn’t work. At that point, it was a talking parrot, but it didn’t work because we couldn’t get the visual effect to work. I was like, “we’re going to jettison it from this short film, but I’m going to use it again!” That was always in the script.

But an earlier version of the script had that Magnolia moment, but it was just a bunch of people in cars crying. They weren’t singing. But it was the most obvious thing in the world to have them sing at some point. Once I figured that out, I was like, “oh, that’s something.” And the minute I figured out that they should all be anchored to Carolyn’s [body] singing, I was like, “that’s so obvious, why didn’t I figure that out in draft 12?”

I like to subvert someone’s expectations of how information will be delivered, whether that’s factual information about a character or an emotional shift. The reveals in this film, some that are quite big and others that are not big at all, I would stop in the writing process and think, “is this unexpected enough?” Not in a way that’s like, is this weird enough? [I’m] not trying to make something weird for weird’s sake but something that still felt believable to the story, that character, that world. But still had that sense for an audience that they didn’t see that moment coming. Or they saw it coming but not exactly like how it eventually played out on screen.

The film somehow manages to feel both deeply emotionally invested in these characters but also at a slight remove from them at the same time. How do you negotiate that distance?

A lot of that was written into the script. I wanted a lot of the characters to feel pretty opaque for a long time. We’re introduced to them pretty closed off, and [they stay that way] for quite a while. The mom with the talking tiger shirt, she doesn’t open up until the last three minutes of the film. And she opens up a teeny, tiny bit. I meant for that to feel really satisfying, that tiny bit she gives us. It was intentional that a lot of the characters, mostly the moms, really keep everybody at distance for a good while … until they don’t. Part of that was knowing that there are so many other mothers in films that have zero dimension, or we start off with them being completely open and still with zero dimension. We’re not used to seeing moms who are unknowable and dimensional, maybe even unlikeable up to a certain point.

I knew in each scene, as I was writing it, there’d be a moment where the scene would turn – to a call it a punchline is not quite right. The hook of the scene is sometimes a moment where the scene shifts pretty dramatically in temperature, maybe something that you didn’t see coming. Even if that meant that a very serious scene ended up having a very funny moment at the end that punctuates it. That kind of get close, not too close, was a real intentional rhythm that I set up in the writing.

In the writing, yes, but also in the aesthetic. We care about these characters, but all your long shots feel a bit like we’re watching them under a microscope.

We shot with these beautiful Todd AO vintage anamorphic lenses. At first, I thought, “I love a close-up, is that going to destroy them?” And my DP [Christopher Rejano] was like, “No, we can deal with close-ups in a way we haven’t with non-anamorphic lenses.” We knew we could deal with the landscapes, whether it literally was an exterior or the landscape of Carolyn’s bedroom, taking it all in as a vista.

I know you say Knives and Skin is merely “genre adjacent,” but your use of dissolves is not all that common because they’re so subtle. How did you end up using them so heavily in the film?

I really do love a cross dissolve. I don’t think they’re super popular, I don’t know why. Thank goodness my editor does not have an allergy to a long cross dissolve. I come from a fine art background – I don’t have an art background; I was always making films, but in an art school context. For me, those dissolves come right out a visual art tradition like collage or photography or a double exposure. Or in paintings, putting two things in one frame. I don’t know that it would work in another film, but with this one, because there are so many people to keep track of and things are happening simultaneously, long cross dissolves have to do with literally putting people in the same time and space. Then my editor, Mike Olenick, had this really great method of, once we figured out the timing of it, going back and rebuilding those cross dissolves frame by frame. Even keying out faces so someone’s face will remain longer. It’s not just slapping a filter on. Those cross dissolves, for he and I, have become a painstaking process.

In preparing for this interview, I’ve seen you cite influences like Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and that your next film is part Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. You don’t often see movies like this inspiring genre films. How do you incorporate in these more eclectic sources of inspiration?

The character Morvern Callar is a really unknowable, opaque, impenetrable character bordering on unlikeable. I would consider Morvern Callar, in a way, a horror story. She does cut up a cadaver and bury it in the woods! But you still are rooting for her by the end of the film.

I would also cite something like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. I think that film is just brilliant in the way that primary subject played by Joaquin Phoenix, who is a super masculine character and has lived a brutal life. It still has a sensitive, feminine touch … a male director would have done something very different. Fish Tank is such a beautiful portrayal of a girl in transition just trying to survive her daily life with her mom and her boyfriend. Certain Women, in particular among Kelly Reichardt’s whole catalogue, she tells a lot of stories about lonely and misfit women who don’t appear like they’re misfits. In Certain Women, I’d say all thos women are misfits, but they don’t look the part. They haven’t been rejected from society. They’re choosing to put themselves on the outside. Wendy and Lucy [Reichardt’s film from 2008 starring Michelle Williams], she’s putting herself on the outside, the women of Meek’s Cutoff [a Reichardt film from 2011], the list goes on and on.

But maybe in a more genre way, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a total gamechanger. Even Jennifer’s Body, and fast forward to Karyn’s [Kusama, the director] next film Destroyer. The Babadook, The Nightingale … those are genre-based films, but those first makers you cited have a lot to do with the characters. The traits I just mentioned are in characters in Knives and Skin for sure.

Is this ultimately a hopeful story? Once people can come to terms with grief and trauma, it seems they can begin to connect more authentically again.

Absolutely, it is 100% a hopeful ending! It is a story about the possibility of redemption and learning from your mistakes. Being either a young person who does not have to live with the mistakes of the adults around you … or being an adult and being able to change the course of your life without ruining your life. And it’s about surviving a tragedy and surviving trauma.

Surviving the patriarchy!

Absolutely, and that goes for the men in the film, too! Ty, the young football player you see in the very beginning of the film who’s the last one to see Carolyn Harper alive, he’s just as much a prey of the patriarchy as the girls are. He’s enacting this kind of masculinity that’s also his burden and his trap. But hopefully, he’ll eventually read the back of his jacket [a character tapes on a message deriding his treatment of women] and take stock, change direction. I have hope for him!

***

Knives and Skin is now in select theaters and available on VOD.

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