Joseph Kahn’s Detention is a bizarre mix of a slasher flick, an ‘80s high school comedy, and a sci-fi fantasy. Surprisingly, it all blends together quite nicely and with a cast that includes Josh Hutcherson, Dane Cook, and newcomer Shanley Caswell, it works quite well and is one of the most entertaining films of the year.
Kahn, who is best known for his music video work (he has directed videos for everyone from Eminem and Britney Spears to Willie Nelson and U2), first tried his hand at directing a movie back in 2004. The result was Torque, a dreadful motorcycle film that bombed both critically and at the box office. With Detention he’s put everything on the line and has produced something so unique in both story and visuals that it is sure to become a cult classic with time.
Criticize This! chatted with Kahn about the film, which is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes. Read our Q&A below.
Where did the initial idea for Detention come from?
Joseph Kahn: I wrote it with a film critic out of Halifax named Mark Palermo. We were at Cochella, the music festival, and decided that we wanted to make a high school movie for kids today, which is radically different than movies made twenty years ago.
How was this production different for you than your last film, Torque?
JK: It was a lot different because it was my cash. I found the money and I had complete freedom. It was a very different way of making a movie.
When you say you ‘found the money’ how did you go about that?
JK: It’s ultimately all my money. I didn’t get investors, I got loans. Every dollar that went into the film I owe. So I’m responsible for every single penny that went into the movie.
You must really believe in the movie then?
JK: [Laughs] Yeah, I wouldn’t be going into it thinking ‘I don’t believe in the movie, but I’m going to put every dollar I have into it’.
The casting was wonderful. Did you have any of these actors in mind when you were working on the script?
JK: We didn’t have anyone in mind. We just went in there and wrote it and then when I went to make it I realized I would be in a situation where I wouldn’t get big actors, per se. I figured I could find young actors who had just moved [to Los Angeles] who hadn’t done that much work because they hadn’t been found yet. Shanley [Caswell], my lead, was in a Hallmark movie. And when I talked to Josh [Hutcherson] it was pre-The Kids Are All Right. If I tried to talk to him today he probably wouldn’t do a film like this [laughs].
How is directing a feature film different for you from your music video or commercial work?
JK: It’s different in that it’s much longer and is like running a marathon when writing the script. On a creative level, it’s pretty much the same thing. Even if you don’t have a narrative structure in mind [with commercials or music videos], visually you need to think how everything relates to each other. When you do anything artistic you have to think ‘what’s the point?’
You are a very visual director. What or who inspires you?
JK: I have a list of all my favourite filmmakers, the same ones everyone else lists; Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Hitchcock, Victor Fleming. But I take a lot of cues for my music videos from photographers and painters. Andy Warhol really messed up my mind before I went into Torque. Comic book artists are very important to me too, such as Todd McFarlene or Jim Lee. All visual arts affect the way I think of visuals in filmmaking.
Is there a particular genre of film you’re eager to work in?
JK: I’d like to work in a bunch of different genres. In my music video career I’ve tried to hop around every genre there is. I’ve done everything from country to Spanish music to rock and hip-hop, and it’s fun. Being able to take my mind and bury it in other ways of thinking I’d like to be able to do in filmmaking too.
Would you ever go the route you went with Detention and fund another film yourself?
JK: Definitely, but I have to make my money back with Detention first or I won’t have any money to do anything.
What do you hope people take away from Detention?
JK: There’s two different audiences I wanted to make Detention for. The primary audience is a younger audience. I wanted to make a film that spoke to them and didn’t talk down to them. I feel that films today that are youth culture oriented are demeaning to kids. They feel like they don’t live in the real world. Even though Detention is set in a fantasy world, I feel like the basic elements of how they speak, how they dress, the music they listen to and how they interact with each other are more real. The second audience is people who are older, say between 30 and 40, and they can get a glimpse of who they used to be because the film speaks to them on a different level. They can enjoy being young again.
Are you working on another movie now?
JK: I’m writing a script, but Detention took three years to write because I’m so busy with my normal work. This is becoming the same situation because I’m fiddling with it here and there but I’m so busy with commercials that it’s very hard to sit down and find time.
Is it a much different shift for you when you’re going from writing a movie back to doing commercial work?
JK: It’s like any other high performance career. You have to put a hundred percent into it. To even take a little bit of energy away from that to write a script is incredibly distracting. When I did Detention I had to literally sacrifice a bit of my career and hurt it a little, in terms of my commercial and music videos, so that I could put my energy into writing the script. And scriptwriting is something that should be done at a high level too. Neither one of these is something you should only do fifty percent. That’s the unfortunate situation I’m in. I should either be writing a script or making commercials, not trying to do both.
The Toronto After Dark screening of the film earlier this month was a huge success. Are you happy with the response the film has been receiving?
These films aren’t made in a vacuum, they’re meant for audiences. So if an audience reacts in a very excitable way, that’s very pleasing. That’s the applause of the entertainer.
Detention is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes. Check out the trailer for the film below.
Top image: A scene from Detention. Courtesy Sony Home Entertainment.