A neon-soaked teen-centric mystery, Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin is set to hit theaters and digital platforms this Friday, courtesy of IFC Midnight. The film revolves around Carolyn Harper, a high school student who has gone missing, and how her disappearance affects everyone in her tight-knit community as they try to figure out just what happened to the teen.
Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Reeder recently about her latest directorial effort, and she discussed her approach to the story of Knives and Skin, creating a film about female adolescence, the visual language of the project, and why her utilization of ’80s pop music was so essential to Knives and Skin.
I'd love to have you start off by talking about your approach to Knives and Skin, because it certainly has its own timing, and rhythm, and a very interesting approach to the material. It felt incredibly different from a lot of other teen-centric horror out there.
Jennifer Reeder: I don't know that I set out to make something that specifically stood apart, and yet I think that once filmmakers decide they want to make something that feels different, it can fall flat. I wanted to tell a story that had been in my brain for a while. I had worked through some scenes and some characters in a bunch of short films maybe leading up to Knives and Skin, which are available on Vimeo if anyone's curious about what I had done prior to this. There are a bunch of short films that are floating around, but very particular in and of themselves. They're all related to the mothership that is Knives and Skin. I never went to film school. I went to art school. I was making films in art school. I didn't do art in art school. I made films in art school. I do think that there's something about approaching filmmaking as a primarily, or firstly, visual storytelling. Approaching the film as visual storytelling and making sure that I'm paying enough attention to that visual storytelling, the visual language.
Then I think about being a fictional filmmaker, someone who is telling a story. There are just endless paths that a story can take. I'm always, as a writer, trying to exhaust all the paths and figure out the exact right paths for the story to follow. Knives and Skin really came out of something very specific and very visual. I was driving from Chicago to Ohio. I'm driving down a little two-lane road, and I had this image. It wasn't a real image. I was just imagining three Goth punk girls walking along this rural two-lane road on their way to their band practice, on their way to school, on their way from school, and it just seemed like a really powerful, visual analogy for being at a crossroads in your life, whether that's actual adolescence or a second coming of age as an adult. You don't feel necessarily comfortable in your own skin. You certainly don't feel comfortable in your environment.
I started thinking about who are these three girls and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever? The script for Knives and Skin spiraled out from there. It was just this visual scene I had imagined, and it all spiraled out from there.
What I think is really interesting about this is that there are so many different characters that have their own arc, and they interweave with each other, but it feels like the women's stories are at the forefront of this. When I was a kid, we had a lot of sugar-coated versions of what female adolescence is, but I don't think this does that at all. I was curious if that was conscientious in the back of your mind when you were doing Knives and Skin that you were exploring through these things that young women go through that we don't really talk about very often?
Jennifer Reeder: Absolutely. When I was a teenager, I veraciously consumed films that were not made for me specifically. Most of those, I knew even as a young person, were not authentic to my life. I think that the industry is still making lots and lots of films for young women. They are a robust consumer of media, both television and film, but I think that girls are still getting totally short-changed. At the weakest, those portrayals are inauthentic, but I feel like they can also be genuinely problematic for a lot of young women just trying to find their way in the world. I wanted to make a film that even though it's really fantastical, it's also grounded in the reality of girlhood. I wanted to use genre. It's not quite a horror film. It's not quite a thriller. It's not quite a musical. It's really genre adjacent, but I knew that I could use genre as a curtain to pull back and talk about aspects of consent, or more specifically, violations of consent among young women, or the tenuous relationship among young girls to each other, or young girls to their mothers, or to their parents, or to their teachers, etc.
Trying to be as real and authentic in those portrayals even though, like I said, the whole thing is vibrating these pinks and purples, this super girl power energy. It's a fantastical film, but I also wanted it to feel very grounded in terms of how it portrays the hardships of everyday girlhood.
You mentioned the visual elements of this film, which are absolutely stunning. Can you talk about working with [cinematographer] Christopher on this? Everything just pops so vividly in this in so many beautiful ways.
Jennifer Reeder: Chris Rejano and I have worked together over multiple films. We've always tried to pay a lot of attention to how the film was lit and what kind of atmosphere we're creating in front of the gaff. It was no exception. We wanted to push it even further and go as far as we could in terms of the lighting temperature to really heighten the emotional atmosphere of the film. We worked with a gaffer, Louie Lukasik. I said, "I want this whole thing to really be vibrating with color, in particular, these pinks, and purples, and softer yellows, and cyans. Just these beautiful poppy colors that feel like a celebration of girl power on some level." They were both totally into it. We looked at examples from [Dario] Argento and other Italian directors who also used really bold lighting choices to someone like Robby Müller, who hasn't done much horror, but he's definitely done some really interesting films that utilize bold color choices.
We looked at some fine art photography [from artists] like Gregory Crewdson and Todd Hido, all of whom within a single frame photograph, create through the color these curious atmospheres and mystery. Oftentimes, the lighting source is invisible, or it's just outside of the frame, which I'm not asking the audience to know this, but oftentimes the light source is invisible. I do think that it also creates a tension and something that feels a little off balance or off-putting when you know that there's a very bold light source spilling into the frame. That light source is the unknown. There are very specific choices in this film, but we also wanted to leave a lot of that unknown because the unknowable is really at the heart of this film on some level. Everybody has a psychotic breakdown basically not knowing what has happened to Carolyn Harper. It really made sense that we keep aspects of the light, even though it's very obvious that we've made these bold lighting choices. There's something that's still unknowable about the visual language of the film, which was totally intentional frame for frame.
Before we go, I wanted to talk about your song choices in this. Obviously, you tap into ’80s pop music, yet the way you infuse it into the film is so different. Was there something in particular about that era of music, or those songs specifically that you wanted to tap into with Knives and Skin?
Jennifer Reeder: ’80s pop music is the music of my youth. Music at that point was very important to me. It was like a religion. My peers didn't understand me, but Siouxsie Sioux did. It felt really important to be able to inject some autobiography into this film. The musical numbers for this film, they do two things—or maybe they do more than two things. They are a great course in a sense that the lyrics become an extension of the narrative of the dialogue. They also become these little intermissions where you can reorient yourself to try to figure out what's happening in the plot. What's happening with all of these characters? There's a lot to keep track of, so the musical moments become this intermission where you reorient yourself to the map of the film.
Then, they also become these moments in the film where you're reminded that in this world where everybody is making one mistake after another, and there is this constant brutality, that there also is beauty, and harmony, and synchronicity, and that amazing, magical, lyrical things can happen when we all work together. We all work together to sing a song, for instance—the pops of that narrative content, a pop of intermission, and certainly a pop of beauty and harmony.
Again, I had worked through these singing scenes in the short films I'd done leading up to Knives and Skin. I knew that the audience would be completely engaged, or the audience was engaged when I did it in a short film, so I knew that I had to put a bunch of songs into Knives and Skin. Each song is a surprise in terms of how it manifests in the scene with the way that it's performed; sometimes it's sung by one person, sometimes by the choir, sometimes by two people, sometimes by a whole group of people who are not in the same room together.
[Photo Credit: Above photo by Kinga Michalska.]