[Interview] Jennifer Reeder for PERPETRATOR

In Jennifer Reeder’s latest film, PERPETRATOR, Jonny Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan) is a reckless teen sent to live with her estranged Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone). On her 18th birthday, she experiences a radical metamorphosis: a family spell that redefines her called Forevering. When several teen girls go missing at her new school, a mythically feral Jonny goes after the Perpetrator.

For the release of PERPETRATOR, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with writer/director Jennifer Reeder. During their chat, they discussed everything from how interview questions inspired PERPETRATOR, the strength of the female body, and the influence of Cat People on the shapeshifting element in the script.

Hi Jennifer, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you today. To kick things off, what was the source of inspiration behind this story?

Jennifer Reeder: Right after I premiered Knives and Skin at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019, I was getting ready to have it screen at Tribeca for the North American Premiere, and I was doing a lot of press days and Q&A’s. I was getting this question over and over again about my experience working with so many teenage girls and my answer was always like, Oh I love it that’s why I keep doing it. It’s rad. Then I realized at like the 12th or 15th time I got asked that question that the people asking the question had a very different assumption. Their greatest nightmare would be to walk into a room of like twenty-two 14-year-old girls, you know?

We are obsessed with youth and beauty among young women, but we are terrified of them and in fact, we hate them. We hate them and we are going to disrupt their evolution at every chance we can. I was thinking a lot about the phrase “wild and out of control” and how that’s used to diminish a young woman’s agency. It’s never used to celebrate her agency. I kept thinking, what if I write a story about a wild and out-of-control girl who really becomes wild and out of control? I’ve done that a lot of times in my other films where the protagonist can use what someone else has said is their weakness and flip it and make it their superpower. It’s exactly what happened in one of my first films, White Trash Girl.

In PERPETRATOR, I knew that I didn’t want Jonny to be a werewolf or a vampire. I mean, God bless werewolves and vampires, but I wanted to find a different shapeshifter. I spent a couple of weekends rewatching some great shapeshifting classics like the 80s iteration of Cat People, which is so great and so weird, honestly. I thought, okay, I wanna make a provocative, sort of nuanced coming-of-age version of Cat People based on this idea of this wild, out-of-control girl who becomes wild, and out of control. That’s PERPETRATOR.

[Interview] Jennifer Reeder for PERPETRATOR
The film does a great job of highlighting the strength of the female body, which is evident in Jonny’s journey. Why do you believe there is resistance to perceiving the female body as a source of power?

Jennifer Reeder: I think we’re seeing it right now with all the legislation around reproductive rights. There’s gigantic groups of lawmaking people who believe that women don’t own their own bodies. That our bodies are unremarkable at best and disposable at worst. It blows my mind. I think also the way social media has changed the way people are able to shame bodies and comment on bodies. But it’s also given those bodies a place to kind of speak back, to clap back, and to reclaim which I think is super powerful and I love watching that happen as opposed to just closing your account. I just think women’s bodies are powerful.

I think it was George Carlin who had a guy who had that joke like, what can bleed for days and not die? A woman. I think about childbirth. I have three children and that was gnarly as hell but my body knew how to do it and my body did it. I think of the women in my life – my mother and my grandmother and my sister, all of whom I have watched face illness, face death, face these physical things and just stand there doing the thing that they think they cannot do, that men won’t do, that men won’t show up for and stand there and do it. Watching mothers protest gun violence, watching people with uteruses and non-uteruses go out and risk their lives for all forms of justice because they don’t have a choice.

Our bodies are miraculous. I mean, I know they’re not miraculous. It’s scientific. I believe in science but I also believe that at our core, we are superheroes and teenage girls are super-superheroes. So why not make a film that is also about this kind of girl who bleeds relentlessly and does not die and in fact, becomes stronger with each gush? That feels fruitful to me. Why not make a film where at some point this girl emerges from a very traumatic event and she’s covered in blood like a newborn baby, and she’s fierce as hell? That feels really productive to me. In all of that triumphant grotesqueness is beauty and power. Some people aren’t going to like it and aren’t going to get it and that’s fine. This is not the film for you, and for other people, it’ll be a battle cry.

Kiah McKirnan does a tremendous job of bringing this story to life. What was the casting process like in selecting her for the role of Jonny? 

Jennifer Reeder: I knew that I wanted Jonny to be an actor of color partially because I wanted her family provenance to be complicated. Without revealing too much, when the mother appears, I wanted that to feel properly curious and weird and deep. I had seen Kiah in a small but memorable role in “Mare of East Town” so, I knew she was captivating without saying a word. The minute people see her as Jonny, I want people to be like, who is this?

We sent Kiah the script, she read it and we had a conversation. One of the first things she said was, in my real life as a queer woman, as a multiracial woman, I get Jonny so well and her level of code-switching, her level of queerness, and of transitioning. Kiah totally got her and she got that part of the story that’s really nuanced, which I had hoped someone would get.

She was the first of the actors that we were talking to who really felt like she knew exactly how to sew herself into the skin of this character. And she had to because she was on set every day all day because she’s in every scene. You can’t phone that in. And she had to go from being tough to vulnerable, to scared to tough again, to bloody and change of hair and then back again. It was a tough role and she was in it to win it. She’s a superstar.


Is there a scene that stands out to you as your favorite or one that posted a significant amount of challenges during production?

Jennifer Reeder: The scenes where Kiah was most vulnerable were tough. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say the scenes in the perpetrator’s lair even though she was acting. In real life, that space where we shot was freezing cold. Those were walk-in freezers. We shot in March and they weren’t working walk-in freezers but they were not insulated spaces. The space itself was genuinely very uncomfortable and she had to fake get hit. She gets fake hit a couple of times and even though we obviously had a very accomplished stunt coordinator, we also had an intimacy coordinator who was super helpful and whom I’ve worked with many times.

I was still asking her to be terrified and to be vulnerable, but to also feel like she had this power to do the thing that she thought she couldn’t do which is to save those girls. Those kinds of layers of trying to then pack that into a performance where that’s a convincing performance that still can involve remembering the stunt choreography can be tough.

I think physically what was hard for her and Christopher Lowell was the fight scene in the blood. I’m so proud of that scene cause it was totally practical but they had to, I mean, she’s a strong swimmer. He’s a strong swimmer but you’re still submerged 10 feet down and trying to fight. He had goggles on under his mask so he could see, and she just had her eyes open and she crushed it. She totally crushed it.

Lastly, what would you like to say to all the writers and actors who are currently on strike due to improper compensation from the studios as well as how their jobs will be impacted due to the rise of AI?

Jennifer Reeder: Here’s how I feel. I really feel especially for the actors because I’m a writer, but I’m talking to you as the director with all the permissions. I dearly, dearly love the actors that I work with. I do not have a film without the performances. I do not have performances without the trust in my actors. For this film, in particular, none of those actors did it for the money. They all got paid but it wasn’t about that. They did it because they believed in me and they believed in the project and they believed in each other. The art and craft of being an actor is about accessing your vulnerability, accessing your intimacy, accessing your internal. Your body is the vessel to go back to your first question about bodies having power. Pay the people and don’t f*** with their images.

I’m very, very happy to have the support of Shudder. It’s not one of the streamers that’s really under such scrutiny right now. The people who are holding up this strike should be really embarrassed because what we are talking about is, from my perspective, art and culture. From my perspective, even before Covid, I would say art and culture will save our lives. I really believe that when the world broke down and people had nothing else to do but to watch movies and reconnect with their families or whoever they were shut down with, or even by themselves they had a movie to put on. Art and culture will save us. Let’s meet at justice for these strikes and make some more movies.

PERPETRATOR is now opened theatrically in New York (at IFC Center) and streaming on Shudder. For more on the film, check out our review.

Shannon McGrew
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