Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, KNIVES AND SKIN had its World Premiere at Berlin International Film Festival this year, followed by the American premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. Surreal and colorful, KNIVES AND SKIN is an extraordinary film that explores the awkwardness of being a teenager from a female point of view, while telling the story a town shrouded in the mysterious disappearance of a girl. What makes KNIVES AND SKIN so unique is that it features a refreshingly diverse range of characters from LBGT to women of color, and it refuses to fit neatly into any one genre, but it could be described as Twin Peaks meets High School Musical. Writer/director Jennifer Reeder is also known for the award-winning short film A Million Miles Away, as well as the short film Signature Move, and her films highlight female relationships, trauma and coping. She received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, founded the social justice group Tracers Book Club, which focuses on feminist issues, and she is candid about the struggles of women in film, particularly filmmakers.
Following the premiere of KNIVES AND SKIN at Fantasia Film Festival, Nightmarish Conjurings had the pleasure of speaking with Jennifer Reeder about KNIVES AND SKIN, how she’s influenced by the work of David Lynch, being a female filmmaker, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about.
KNIVES AND SKIN is genre-bending and is described as a feminist teen noir. What prompted you to write this story?
Jennifer Reeder: So many of the short films I have made leading up to KNIVES AND SKIN share themes from this film. For instance, coming of age, especially among adolescent girls, a second coming of age among adults, aspects of consent or violation of consent, and I’ve used singing in some of my shorts as well. I can’t resist darker elements, usually, someone who is missing, a younger person who is missing, which is a trope of so many horror films, but it’s also for any parent, just the most horrific occurrence. Even though I really love the horror and thriller genre, I’m primarily drawn to stories that at the end of the day are also about human experience and human relationships.
KNIVES AND SKIN does a fantastic job exploring relationships between female characters and showing how some of these characters deal with things like trauma, grief, and being a queer teen. What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?
Jennifer Reeder: Maybe it’s specific to American culture, but I think we as a culture don’t do a very good job of just allowing humans to cope and cope in very personal ways. How we respond to trauma, how we grieve, is very personal and it’s also very precise. From what I’ve experienced, we often don’t give each other, as humans, the real space and tools to cope with the world, which right now is in pretty bad shape. So, I think the first time young people experience some very life-changing and traumatic event, like the death of a peer, we don’t give them the tools to respond to that or room to respond to that. Then I wanted this film to be one that really represented a wide range of teen experiences authentically.
So, I cast it to reflect how I grew up, which was a small town, but racially very diverse. I thought it was important to present, for instance, a teen girl who wasn’t boy crazy. She was actually girl crazy (laughs). And also, to present another teen girl in the Joanna character, who actually wasn’t interested in any kind of romance at all. She was much more focused on getting into college. This is a love letter to teen films, but also, I feel like so many teen films focus on a sort of heteronormative storyline and I just wanted to offer some alternative storylines. If we do see it, it’s really fetishized and a token kind of relationship or that young queer teen is being harassed or it’s a coming-out story and it’s really sad and tough. For this film, I just wanted that storyline to be what it is, and those two girls are really celebrating their relationship, and no one gets harassed or beaten or kicked out of their house.
There are so many elements of KNIVES AND SKIN that remind me of Twin Peaks, which I’m a big fan of. The colors, lighting, cinematography, and story of a dead girl which affects the town she lived in all give the film a Lynchian aesthetic. How much would you say David Lynch has influenced your work and more specifically this film, and why?
Jennifer Reeder: I remember seeing Blue Velvet many years ago, obviously before Twin Peaks, and I just so deeply appreciated the way that he suggests that small-town America is the portal to the fourth dimension. In a way, he suggests that the most ordinary people and the most ordinary places are actually extraordinary. I grew up in a small town and I always felt like a misfit and so in a way, I think that his films have sort of suggested that the misfits are actually the magicians. I appreciate how he treats filmmaking like an artform. So, the art direction in his films, and the lighting, and the score, it’s a whole experience. Like him, I didn’t go to film school, and I was making films in an art school context rather than a film school context. So, not just this film, but with other films leading up this, wanting to inject KNIVES AND SKIN with a true artfulness or to treat it like a piece of art, I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t even set out saying, “We will make this film feel like a piece of art.” It came quite organically. I wanted the film to feel really feminine, so when I was talking to my gaffer and my DP, I said, “We’re going to drench this film in pinks and purples.” Now, having said that, I understand that feels very gender binary and nobody owns pink or purple, but I think that we can all sort of agree that there is something very femme about pinks and purples. I really wanted the film to feel like the lighting for the film was a character itself. The whole film seems to be hovering above reality, which is also something I think I appreciate in David Lynch.
I was looking at other examples of dead girl stories like River’s Edge, which was a late eighties film about a girl by the river in a small-town setting. And even reading accounts of Hazel Drew, which is the story that inspired Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer. There is this general, cultural fascination with missing girls. It’s like a deep, kind of violation. In terms of the direct influence of Twin Peaks, I’d actually say that in general, of the catalog of David Lynch’s films, I have a deeper connection with Blue Velvet, or even something later on like Lost Highway. Not that there are Lost Highway references in KNIVES AND SKIN, but the way that Lost Highway, or even Mulholland Drive, which is a little bit more accessible than Lost Highway, but the way that he kind of digs down under this kind of psychic skin of the characters and takes you into a very specific kind of world. I think that’s maybe the most Lynchian moment where I wanted the audience to feel like they were in a very specific world that’s been totally fabricated just for this film. I don’t think people who love David Lynch would hate this film unless they just felt like they would rather watch Twin Peaks, which is totally fine (laughs). Well, actually it’s not fine (laughs). I think this film totally sets itself apart. I think the people who have not responded to this film don’t want to be in that world, which is fine. Some people don’t want to be drenched in magenta and I get that (laughs).
I love that you’re very outspoken about female filmmakers not being treated equally. Your work also features strong female characters and shows how they process difficult situations. In addition to adding more female voices to filmmaking, what are some things you think can be done to help women filmmakers be taken more seriously?
Jennifer Reeder: Well, first, we can look at the stats. You can go to the Geena Davis Institute website (https://seejane.org/) and they gather stats about women in film, both behind the camera and in front of the camera. The stats tell us that films with female leads do better at the box office than films with male leads. The problem is that not as many films are made with women as leads and most of those films are directed by men. So, I think that what needs to happen is that more people who have the power to make the films, like the studios and the producers, need to trust women. It’s a trust gap. This doesn’t just happen in filmmaking; it happens in politics. It’s a trust gap and it’s not just men. Other women don’t trust women and there’s nothing about any individual woman I know, that without getting to know her, would say that she’s not trustworthy, for instance. I don’t know how to convince people to trust people. However, we can’t give up. We simply just have to keep making films and also making films that we want to make. It felt really important, with KNIVES AND SKIN for instance, that I had full creative freedom over this film, that I made exactly the film I wanted to make. I have producers who do trust me, so I feel really fortunate about that. I also, as a filmmaker, feel like it’s really important to mentor young filmmakers. I didn’t have a mentor as a young filmmaker. I think there are a lot of male filmmakers who attach themselves to older filmmakers and they become mentors and those men kind of pull the younger men into the room.
We see other examples of this, not just in filmmaking. That’s kind of how Boys Clubs work. And now we actually see Girls Clubs. We see people like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay, who are really bringing a lot of women into the room, and I think we just have to continue to support each other. Bypassing the system, which a lot of us have done, is really exhausting. I say often that I kind of came into the house of feature film directing by kicking in the basement window, not by being invited through the front door. That way of getting into the house is exhausting. There is a trust gap, so I think we need to trust and take chances on women the way that people have trusted and taken chances on men. Women make amazing films and especially the women who are making films about female experiences. Those films statistically do really well at the box office, so even if it’s just that you’re a shallow producer who simply wants to make money, there’s no reason not to hire more female directors. If people go to the Geena Davis Institute, the stats are there. So, if people want facts rather than emotional pleas, the facts are there. Hire more women.
Can you tell me what you’re working on now?
Jennifer Reeder: Sure! While I was at the Fantasia Film Festival, I had a project in the Frontières Market. I was pitching a new project that’s called All the Small Bodies, which is based on a short film I made three years ago. I describe All the Small Bodies as a post-apocalyptic, Sci-Fi, fairy tale that follows two young refugee girls on a vengeance journey across the desert. I know that doesn’t sound like an organic follow-up to KNIVES AND SKIN (laughs), but it is. I see it as a very loose take on Hansel and Gretel, but with two Gretels. It’s another coming of age film about female friendship. These two girls are together against an adult who is disrupting that coming of age process, which are very much things that exist in KNIVES AND SKIN as well.
For more on KNIVES AND SKIN, check out Michelle’s review here.