Karyn Kusama wrote and directed Girlfight (2000). She lives in Crown Heights, where, in early October, she spoke to Rail contributing editor, and documentary filmmaker, Williams Cole.
Wiliams Cole (Rail): Let’s start by cutting right to it. What kinds of difficulties have you experienced as a woman who makes films featuring women in non-traditional roles?
Karyn Kusama: I think there is an ongoing, mostly subtle struggle for a lot of women in film or in any position where there is some kind of power dynamic. There is an instant distrust, or something inherent; somehow the building blocks aren’t there to trust a woman in a position of power. I don’t even get the sense that I am routinely passed over or discriminated against as much as that I am not part of the equation for so many people who are in a powerful position, or rather a money position. The people who have a lot of resources that would help me make the films that I want to make aren’t apt to consider women in that certain dynamic role as director.
I think we also treat the same qualities in men and women differently. Hysteria, neurosis, and unpredictability are seen as female qualities, but we call the same qualities in a man “genius” or creative chaos. We can stretch the idea of what is possible for a man a lot more quickly than we can for a woman. I actually have no intention of becoming somebody who is unpredictable on the set, or difficult to work with, or unprepared, because I am so possessed by some interior creative monologue, that is not the type of artist that I want to be. I think that if I were that type of an artist as a man I would stand to be successful, whereas as a woman it is very, very difficult to be possessed with creative power because I think it becomes interpreted as insanity more quickly. But if you actually look at the evolutionary possibilities of women, they are much more likely to stand the pressures. That’s just musing on my part, though.
Rail: So in a way, there’s a cultural resistance in the commercial artistic world.
Kusama: On the one hand, I would agree, but on the other, I say to myself, “Okay, if I really wanted the commercial brass ring, I suppose I could go for it and I could try to make extremely commercial films.” When I ask myself what really needs to happen in order to make those films, I’m truly not interested. I’m not sure that I could do those kinds of movies. I don’t have the instinct for it. So then I ask myself whether there is potentially a difference between male or female, or masculine and feminine sensibilities. Those two things could be very different from one another. Is it possible that my sensibility is innately more interested in open-ended stories, in ambiguity, in a complexity of character where you can’t make easy villains or heroes? If this is a feminine sensibility, can men share it? I hope so. So it’s not just that I don’t get the opportunity to make giant commercial films, it’s that I, in fact, don’t want that opportunity because I am drawn to a different kind of storytelling.
Rail: What about a director like Kathryn Bigelow, who recently did K-19. She started as an art-house filmmaker, but then she did Strange Face, a schlock thriller with Ralph Fiennes. Has big-budget filmmaking ruined her career?
Kusama: Strange Face was to me an apparition in her career. I don’t really understand how she made that movie but that’s what is revealing about filmmaking—it says something about the filmmaker. She is interesting because when I was in college going to film school she was an important model that hadn’t really existed, of a woman who was consistently making features. And it wasn’t necessarily five or ten years between features. She was actually really working. Her first movie, The Loveless, was this meandering, rigorously paced movie, which seemed to have some kind of influence of a European sensibility in my mind. I knew she had come from a painting background. I followed her career, and she did make some interesting smaller movies. Even when she broke into the mainstream and did Blue Steel it was like you were looking at a female lead with a very female problem: She was being stalked by a guy who needed to possess her power. And I felt as a 20-year-old that I could project myself into the story in a different way than I would into that of a male character, and different from the way a man would project himself into her story. She obviously had this baroque sensibility bubbling under the surface, as the entire credit sequence of that movie seems to illustrate. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but the credit sequence is this amazing visual dissection of the gun. She creates the allure of weaponry. In my mind, you understand that it’s not that this woman wants to be a man, it’s that this woman wants to hold a gun and that’s different from wanting to be a man. It’s appropriating what’s typically a male object and male power into female sensibility, which I think is a big part of Kathryn Bigelow, so I respect that in her. I’m trying to understand her way because she is making very commercial films now. I haven’t seen K-19, but I’ve heard mixed things. As a man or a woman you must be compromising all the time to make those giant movies because there is so much money on the line.
Rail: So in terms of the commercial side, what do you see as the barriers to acceptance of non-traditional characters?
Kusama: I think it has to do with the barriers to seeing those women. It’s all about where you put those non-traditional women in genre films. For instance, I am surprised there are not more female action heroes, because I think that we just love action movies so much. (When I say “we,” I am talking about a vaguely defined majority that I don’t really completely understand.) Non-traditional women to me are pissed off but not necessarily heroic, or are true complex bad guys, or complex people living in reality. That to me seems to be what is so difficult to get up on screen, but it’s difficult in all films. Complexity of character is a genderless dilemma because there are so few complex characters in big Hollywood movies. There is a lack on a stylistic level of so many properties that films could be experimenting with and expressing, like quietness, a slower pace, a reflection of something closer to either real life or a heightened reflection of an emotional life. All of these things commercial films are very afraid of. The most non-traditional female is the woman who is pissed off, and that’s something we don’t see enough. We see that in movies but generally she is relegated or marginalized to “freak” status or given other easy labels.
Rail: But this is a commercial business, and so aren’t investors looking to back projects with the potential of bringing in the most returns?
Kusama: There isn’t the same scale anymore. Filmmaking is such a risky enterprise. I think people now who have any business acumen just want to make their money back. It can feel like you’re losing on your investment if it’s meant to be a couple of years before it gets paid back. And these are the kind of movies I’d probably be making. You don’t necessarily make all your money right away because you have to see it through all these different forms, video, DVD, television. What scares me is that we want such instantaneous returns on our investments, which I guess we’ve been moving toward culturally and economically for a really long time. The impatience is frightening because it doesn’t give much of a lifeboat for work that needs more time to find people, or for the people who need more time to find it.
Rail: Talk a little bit of the challenges that it took to make Girlfight. What kinds of struggles did you have in terms of casting, trying to find stars, and so on?
Kusama: It was actually hard to cast the film with stars. We reached out to a couple of big names who were very kind but who refused the film because they didn’t want to do something so small. I never thought someone at the level of a J. Lo would be interested in this kind of a movie, anyway. In retrospect, I was left in a really lucky position where everyone threw up their hands and left me alone, which initially didn’t feel lucky because no one was going to give me any money for the project. But basically people thought this movie was not an easy casting job and wanted to walk away. There was this sort of attitude that if she can make it happen, she can cast whomever she wants. While there were some male stars that I could go to for the adult leads, I felt strongly that it would be more interesting to look for young people that felt more like everyday people or who were fresh faces basically. And with Michelle Rodriguez, I was able to do that. It’s definitely a challenge, but I personally love movies where you are looking at a bunch of new people where you feel that you could connect with them on some real level.
Rail: With the new project is it the same?
Kusama: Oh, it’s so much worse because it involves much more money. I am in such a quandary about it all. I can’t make this new movie with one million dollars; I have to get at least five or six. It’s really incredible how people want high-powered casts. People want big, big names. The entire budget of the movie is a quarter of the salary of some of the names that they’re throwing out there. We’re in such a fearful time. The film industry seems to be so adverse to risk. I hope it passes. I don’t actually see it passing any time soon. So there’s this idea that the only way you can sell movies is by having familiar faces up on the screen. Ironically, I thought that this movie would need to have a male star in it. But I’m finding out that the role isn’t appealing to a lot of male stars.
Rail: Can you tell us a little about it?
Kusama: It’s not a direct sci-fi movie or a direct horror film, but it has elements of both. I tell people that it’s influenced by sci-fi. It’s influenced by horror, but it’s influenced more by psychological horror. It’s playing around with concepts of the fluidity of gender and our willful destruction of our natural resources. Those are the themes. People say, “What are you talking about?” I’m not trying to be particularly political in the movie, but because it is working with those themes it is upsetting in way for people. When you start getting in a conversation about those themes you have to start talking about your belief systems. And a lot of people don’t share my belief system. Particularly about consumption and about this problem that I see in our culture right now, which is an inability to look inward and just be there for a while. Just to see what happens when you look inward and to connect yourself and your experience with other people’s. We just live in these spending bubbles, where all we do is just show who we are by showing how we spend our money. You get into that conversation particularly in Hollywood and it’s just like you’re entering into a definite black hole. I found that it has been really interesting to try and make a movie where there is a definite imperative to cast stars but there is a whole system regarding how those stars are perceived. This makes it even more difficult for me to get a script to the big actors because agents don’t want their clients doing these little movies where for one, the agent doesn’t make ten percent, and two, the idea of the all-powerful particularly male star is put into question. They think that somehow being in my bizarre little movie is going to affect that star’s ability to play a superhero. I didn’t think of it that way.
Rail: Is the problem just with the stars, their agents and publicists, or are there other factors?
Kusama: Everyone wants to give lip service to being involved in art and in provocative material. And the entertainment industry tends to be politically liberal in a very mainstream way. But what is so hard for people to address is the problem of greed as a driving force. I try not to look at it with too much judgment because I think greed is a natural outgrowth of the culture we live in. It’s very hard to stop the forces behind that power. It’s almost taboo to talk about greed, as if there is almost this god-given right to want to acquire everything in our sight. I think there is a real fear of opening up this discussion.
Rail: Do you think there are any scripts of Enron out there?
Kusama: I bet you there are big Michael Mann macho movies in the works about blowing the lid off of corporate greed. I’d be more curious to know if there is commercial interest in the woman character who plays by the rules, and who’s gotten very far, and whose head is scrunched up against the glass ceiling but she’s tolerating it. And then she sees something truly, truly wrong if not blatantly evil going on. So I wonder if anyone is interested in that story because it has this mythological Cassandra component. I wonder how many movies are in the pipeline about corporate scandal, but I’m sure they’ll all be reduced to something pretty simplistic.
Rail: Still, I think there are audiences out there hungry for alternative viewpoints. This past June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, there were all these films about social and political issues that had sold-out houses with massive lines waiting. So is the problem that the people making the decisions about distribution and investment are too scared of genuine controversy?
Kusama: I think fear is a big part of it and also there is a real difficulty though in reaching audiences all over. Part of why I am so devoted to New York is because you can go to the Human Rights Watch Festival and feel there is still a living, breathing community here that is interested in social change and social commentary. You can go to all kinds of art institutions here. Recently, when Film Forum was running the Kurosawa tribute, the one in the afternoon shows would be routinely sold out. Who are these people that come out of nowhere to go to all these movies in the middle of the afternoon, watch them and rewatch them? That obsessive quality for art exists here in New York. Is that how it works in the rest of the country? For example, where I grew up in St. Louis, what would the audience be for the Human Rights Watch Festival? At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I am dismissing any part of the U.S. as lacking the potential to really have the same sort of a vocal and radicalized community within it, and in many ways New York has never felt more conservative. I do think that other communities need all this work we are talking about as much or more than the bigger cities. But right now there is this sort of do-or-die attitude that if you get a movie out there, and it doesn’t do well in the first week or two, you pull it. Supposedly this proved that it didn’t have an audience, which isn’t always the case. It’s just a really fucked-up equation.
Rail: That’s a very important point, and it especially applies to a lot documentaries.
Kusama: True, but people actually want to see documentaries more than ever. It feels like there is a true hunger for them. Very few people know how to handle them. Many documentaries have had some of the most interesting filmmaking I’ve seen in the past five years, far exceeding most feature-narrative filmmaking. I think it is because it is fresh to see real people. You’re definitely still looking at a director’s shape of the situation and point of view, but that in itself feels more real, vibrant, and alive than so much of this half-baked microwave oven movie-making.
Rail: On the whole, do you feel that female roles in film are becoming better on some level?
Kusama: I really go back and forth. I like films of the ’30s and ’40s in terms of the depiction of women’s lives being complicated and interesting. One thing that is missing from movies for women is seeing them as the architects of their own destiny. There is still a blatant mistrust of women’s lives as being interesting in and of themselves—that is what I think really gets me. We can’t just watch how a woman functions in her life or watch her in her story or see the conflicts that arise from her life, or her relationship or her situation, and believe that it is worthy of being up on a screen. Somehow a guy and his problems getting a girl or a guy and his problems saving the world are more valuable as cultural currency. I don’t buy it. We’ve been trained to pay attention to men’s stories and trained to believe that men are the ones who are actually proactive in the world. So I understand our cultural resistance to women’s experience. What bugs me is the idea now if you’re going to see women on screen it’s going to be a chick flick—it’s going to be movies about and for women. As if somehow men can’t understand women’s stories. That to me is a big deception as well as the most damaging concept of all—that we can’t all share in one another’s experience and learn and grow from another’s experience. I’ve learned from Travis Bickle, as well as from all these great macho movies made over many, many decades. Who is to say that a Martin Scorsese can’t learn from one of my characters? To say otherwise invites the death urge to not grow, learn, experience, and engage. That is the biggest problem to me, not just that there are so few women leads out there who are interesting and complex, but that those women leads in circulation, regardless of whether or not they are interesting or complex, are assumed to exist solely for a female audience. I just don’t know if we’re all that simplistic. It doesn’t explain why so many women go to watch action movies.