Although she hails from our hometown of Chicago, The A.V. Club first encountered visual artist and filmmaker Jennifer Reeder in New Orleans, where her visionary film Knives And Skin was playing at the Overlook Film Festival. There have been many variations on the Twin Peaks theme of a small town rocked by the mysterious death of a beautiful teenage girl, but only Reeder’s movie has talking cat T-shirts, school choirs singing ’80s New Wave hits a capella, theatrical book reports delivered by high school fashionistas, and a tender romance between two girls who give each other gifts they keep in their vaginas. It’s a bold, uncompromising, and as Reeder puts it, “vag-y” vision of a new kind of high school horror movie, one that feels at times as if it’s been beamed in from the future. We caught up with Reeder in Chicago after film festival season wrapped up for the year, for a freewheeling conversation that found a lot of common ground with this singular filmmaker.
The A.V. Club: Why did you want to do a story about teenagers, as opposed to adult women?
Jennifer Reeder: I love a teen film, you know? As a filmmaker, I find writing stories about teenagers more fun, really. Teens in real life have character arcs that are changing moment by moment, so you can write these characters whose arcs are like figure eights.
And as a filmmaker who loves to put music and pay attention to production design, writing a film where most of the subjects are teenagers loads the film up with all kinds of rad production design. To me, teenagers, more so than adults, are experimenting with their identity through music, fashion, and makeup.
AVC: That’s something I was really struck by in Knives And Skin. It was interesting to have these fashion-forward, avant-garde teenagers in this classic suburban American high school. Was that supposed to be humorous or ironic?
JR: When I was a teenager in central Ohio, we lived on the edge of Ohio State’s campus, which is a ridiculous Big 10 school. It’s totally different
now, but [back then] the main drag of the campus was all-ages clubs, import record stores, and these consignment shops that would have vintage clothes, but also import stuff from London like Doc Martens—
AVC: Back when they were hard to get!
JR: Yeah! So I just happened to live on the edge of this portal to another life, as this punk rock girl in the middle of central Ohio. I had access to everything that I knew would help me survive that small town. When I was in high school, there was a group of kids—I suppose myself included—who were really avant-garde in terms of fashion and makeup and music and all of that stuff, but in this town in central Ohio surrounded by cornfields. It was awesome, all bets were off.
I’ve lived in Chicago for so long now, and sometimes I wonder how kids rebel these days in terms of fashion. It’s gone toward normcore, which is hideous.
AVC: I wonder that, too, because all eras of fashion happen at once now.
JR: My small town I made for Knives And Skin, Big River, is—a little extra. I wanted those characters to feel emblematic, to the point where there’s a cosplay event where somebody dresses as a Charlotte or Carolyn Harper. But it was not inauthentic to how I was as a teenager.
AVC: Tell me about the makeup and costume design in the film, because it is extra—in a good way. One of my favorite moments is when Charlotte (Ireon Roach) is giving a book report, and she’s got this elaborate costume on with paper crows pecking at her and fake blood. Tell me about developing that.
JR: That also came partially from my own British literature class, where we had to do these end-of-the-year presentations. My senior year, I was at a high school where they were a little extra. They called it an alternative high school, but it was a magnet school. There were a lot of theater kids, you know?
And you knew that if a theater kid was going to do a book report, there was going to be some pantomiming and some quoting in costume. So word got out. There was this end-of-the-year presentation about an author we had been studying, and I was presenting Aldous Huxley, who’s done a bunch of trippy stuff like Brave New World. I had a whole set, I was dressed like him, and it was very earnest. And people really upped the ante. I remember my best friend at that point was doing a project about Doris Lessing, and she had molded a wax heart.
Again, no one thought, “I’m going to out-extra someone.” It was just taking a presentation very seriously in an environment where there were a lot of dancers, a lot of theater people. Theatrical was in the trajectory of how we dealt with our daily life. I think it was a combination of that, and talking to my wardrobe woman Kate Grube about Charlotte’s outfit. At first, we were trying to figure out things like, maybe the lights flash on and off and then birds descend out of the ceiling? But then we thought, they’re high school kids. They’re trying to do something at lunchtime. What would they do? So we started thinking about kid’s puppet shows, and we came up with the crows on sticks. Then when figuring out how to shoot it, we started out with the establishing close-up, then we built it out so you understand what’s happening.
AVC: It’s really funny.
JR: Those scenes were really fun to shoot. The woman who plays Charlotte, Ireon Roach, is the antithesis of Charlotte. She’s very bohemian, no makeup, very casual, loose clothing. She’d come to set and we’d wire her up in crowns and wild makeup and whatnot.
AVC: What’d she think of all that?
JR: She loved it! Kayla Carter, who plays Laurel the cheerleader, would come to set with practically no clothes on, just little short summer shorts and a tiny top. And we’d put her in this cheerleading outfit. Ty, who plays this insufferable jock, was the sweetest kid on set. He was nervous about singing, and we made him sing. He had to make out with multiple people, and he was very nervous about that, genuinely nervous. What you see on camera was not at all [the energy] everybody brought on the set. But they all brought their A game.
AVC: Did they contribute elements to their characters, or were you just giving direction to a fully realized vision that you had?
JR: It was mostly fully realized. What we had to make sure of when we were casting everybody is that they could sing. The girls, at least. But everything else was really set. I did, however, rewrite scenes for the woman who plays grandmother Miriam, Marilyn Dodds-Frank. We saw a lot of older women with short gray hair who looked kind of like a grandma [at the audition], and then Marilyn Dodds-Frank comes in, who has done a lot of movies around Chicago. She’s just fabulous: black hair, ed lip, and a kimono, I was like, “Please, let her say yes.” She read the part and did a great job, and I went back and wrote more scenes for her. And I rewrote more provocative dialogue for her. There’s a scene where she talks about modeling nude for the community college....
AVC: How the grass helps her feel her body.
JR: One hundred percent. Later on, when she’s giving a kind of pep talk to Joanna, she talks about underestimating cunnilingus. I thought, I have to make this character feel full and sexual and experimenting with her life still. She loved it, because I knew that she would appreciate that.But everyone else kind of had to put on the skin of their character [as it was in the script].
AVC: You mention cunnilingus—
JR: Speaking of cunnilingus... [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of cunnilingus, this movie is very vaginal, with a lot of vaginal imagery that factors into the story. Does that serve a specific purpose in the narrative, or is that just your point of view in general?
JR: A little bit of both. I feel like we, as a culture, are obsessed with female sexuality without actually talking about female subjectivity, you know what I’m saying? We’re obsessed with speculating on female sexuality without asking women about their sexuality, and what it actually entails.
I feel like people make references to the body part all the time, and get it wrong. That’s actually the labia, that’s actually the vagina, or that’s the whatever, blah blah, blah. I have children, and one of them said something like, “well, you did poop out three kids,” and I said, “oh my gosh, I totally did not, I guarantee you.” There’s this way of being obsessed with women’s bodies, but also no interest in understanding what’s down there.
AVC: Or people want to disinfect it and say that it’s gross.
JR: Correct. So I really wanted to embrace [the vagina]. The bathroom object scene had me thinking about the particularities of desire. When you have a new lover, there’s all sorts of—even if you’ve had a hundred lovers, when you have a brand new lover, the way that they touch you, all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, I never knew I had an armpit!”
Then [I was] trying to nuance the note-passing between girls. I knew I wanted them to pass notes. Then I thought, what if they pass little charms to each other? Then I was like, what if it was more intimate than that, what if they carried it inside them? That scene is tender and sexy but also funny, just based on what they’re passing over. That was one of my most fun scenes to shoot because even though I had [chosen the] objects, I didn’t know the order until I was looking at the monitor. Then I was like, oh, a pink flamingo! Then up comes the statue of liberty. It was funny. It was trying to recreate this idea of intimacy among people, and desire that is so particular and very personal.
But yeah, it is a really vag-y film. But I feel like that’s because we’re part of a culture that’s obsessed with women’s bodies, and we don’t always get to claim them back. This is my attempt at claiming back all of the wonder of our bodies and orifices.
AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about this film is that it’s really funny, but I feel an undercurrent of anger in it. Every once in a while, a character will come out and say something that’s very blunt and hard to hear, but is also true. How does that bluntness and rage factor into the film?
JR: I love characters—in real life and in films—who tell it like it is, but with no affect. “You married the wrong person.” Boom, and they’re out. They just leave you with that truth. They don’t want to deal with the aftermath, they’re not your therapist or whatever. So I wanted to write characters who had a blunt relationship to the other people in their lives, but not so much with themselves.
So many of the scenes end in a punch line, and it’s not always a ha-ha punchline. But it’s a moment of punctuation where someone says something that halts the evolution of that scene. Maybe we’re going to a place that feels emotionally generative, and then someone says something that cuts off the evolution of that scene, in a way that sometimes is tough and harsh, but sometimes is funny. I [also] wanted to play with power dynamics: Even if we think about the very first) scene with the Sheriff Darlington’s (James Vincent Meredith) family, there’s this exchange: “Aren’t you gonna eat?” “Of course not.” Everyone in that scene wants to have the last word. I don’t know that that’s necessarily authentic to a scene that would play out in that period of time [in real life], but over months. I think people try to play out that dynamic and try to get the last word in spite of themselves.
I also wanted some of that harshness to be about how a character performs when other people are in the room, and then what happens when no one is watching. I love traditional thrillers in the Hitchcockian style, where he shows the bomb in the building, and then we have to watch the characters go into the building. So with this film, I wanted the audience to see the characters in their private life and understand how vulnerable they are, so that when they come back and they’re still throwing daggers, it’s a real conundrum. We know something about that character that the other people don’t know.
AVC: In terms of casting, much of your cast are people of color. Was that a deliberate move on your part, or was that colorblind casting?
JR: It was deliberate. I wanted to cast an inclusive small town, which feels authentic to where I grew up. What was maybe colorblind was that I wasn’t sure who would be who, necessarily. I knew [from the beginning that] Charlotte was always going to be African American, but I wasn’t sure who Laurel was going to be. We looked at a bunch of girls for Laurel. And then Laurel was then related to who Colleen (Emma Ladji) would be. But I always knew that it would be an inclusive cast. It was important [to me] to make a small-town film that was inclusive, because this entire country is made up of small towns that are extremely diverse.
AVC: When people talk about “the Midwest” as code for “white,” I’m like, “Have you been to the midwest? Because that’s not the midwest I grew up in.”
JR: Yeah, not at all.
AVC: This last one’s kind of a big question: Why do you think we keep returning to the symbol of the dead girl?
JR: For me, in real life, it’s the most terrifying thing. One of the things that makes me interested in telling horror stories in general is because [women] learn about fear from a young age. We learn about being prey from a young age. That’s in real life. Then we’ve been the subject of horror and thriller films since the dawn of horror and thriller films. [We’re] stalked, murdered, et cetera— often times, in a problematic way. And it felt really important to claim that, to lean into that trope and not avoid it. To make a feminist film that had a missing girl as its main plot point, and give her will and agency. I think, as a culture, we are obsessed with youth and beauty among young women in particular, and yet we also are a culture that wants to crush that obsession.
AVC: We’re obsessed with the bodies of young women, but we also kind of hate them, so we want them to die.
JR: I think it’s why there’s an obsession [in our culture] with youth and beauty, but in a way that is also just torturous. There’s a YouTube woman named Sailor J who I like to watch; she does these hilarious anti-makeup tutorials. Her makeup is crazy-looking, and she’s like, “Let’s contour the nose right off your face. Men hate noses.” It’s really making fun of this obsession we have with female youth and beauty.
It goes back to the obsession with naked female bodies, and then they’re de-vaginalized so that they’re harmless. Or if they’re dead, they’re harmless. They can’t reject you, on some level. I’m not a psychotherapist, but I thought about it a lot going into this film. I could totally avoid that trope, or I could really try to figure out how to take it on and give Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) some agency and to make this central story constantly come back to her.
AVC: It’s very interesting the way that Carolyn is a person, but also a symbol. Then you contrast her with the other characters, who do have a lot of will and agency. We love beautiful teenage girls but we don’t want them to have a will of their own. It’s scary and threatening.
JR: That’s right. So, if they’re dead, they can’t talk back or live on in the world and become fully realized adult women.
AVC: In your movie, they can still sing.
JR: They do! Without giving too much away, she’s not a ghost, and she’s not a zombie, but Carolyn Harper has will and agency [even after she’s dead]. And when we see her in the last frames of the film, she’s a fully formed person, and it’s awesome.
Knives And Skin is now playing in select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.