With a cast that includes Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), Dane Cook (My Best Friends Girl) and Spencer Locke (Resident Evil), Detention guides moviegoers through an complex maze of plot twists, onscreen graphics and a soundtrack of pop hits from the last two decades. In a recent interview director Joseph Kahn and Cook talked about making a movie for today’s media savvy kids. Check out our interview below (and be sure to read our review of Detention, and listen to us hash it out during our podcast).
Detention is one part horror flick, one part high school movie, one part sci-fi film and one part comedy all combined into a ’90s pop culture scavenger hunt. At the helm of the self-financed feature is Joseph Kahn, whose only other major movie credit is the cult motorcycle movie Torque. Kahn is best known for his award-winning music videos for artists like Eminem, Katy Perry, Moby and Lady Gaga and cutting-edge commercials for products like Adidas, BMW and Budweiser.
What was the original idea behind Detention?
Joseph Kahn: The original idea was that we wanted to make a high school movie that’s relevant for kids today. John Hughes made a certain type of high school movie and then it stayed static for 30 years. The only thing that changed was maybe it’s a little snarkier. But the actual language that kids live in today — like texting, motion graphics, Internet, that whole hashtag culture — doesn’t exist in movies today. Even the way the kids react with media today, is so completely different than what most movies have, that we just wanted to make a movie that challenged them. When I see a kid in a movie theater texting, I think it’s a failure of a movie. It’s not a triumph of Apple iPhone. It’s a failure of Warner Bros. and Sony in that they haven’t kept their attention. They haven’t challenged them. They’re smart little kids that are in fifth grade but they’re seeing sixth, seventh, eighth grade curriculum. And they’re not going to be excited until they see the ninth grade curriculum. I wanted to give them the ninth grade curriculum equivalent of a movie.
Dane Cook: I use my iPad during movies.
Were you concerned at any point that you were taking it too far or it would be too crazy?
JK: I don’t think the film is going to work for everybody, period. It wasn’t meant to be done for everybody. I didn’t four-quadrant this movie like Hollywood does. I knew that it was a very specific audience. We’re taking a shot in the dark. I’m imagining there’s a particular audience out there that’s younger and older, too. It works on two levels. Do they exist? I don’t know. I had to make it to find out. When you do something this experimental, that’s part of the process. That’s part of the risk. It’s also why I only spent my own money so I’m the only person who gets hurt if it fails.
Can you tell us about the movie-within-a-movie, Cinderhella?
JK: The movie was actually constructed with a new media perspective. If you really watch a movie these days, you don’t watch it once, especially if you’re a kid, because you have a different relationship with media. You expect that to be on your hard drive and it will look just as good at any time… So I knew that the film was going to be watched multiple times and that’s a lot like a music video. Music videos aren’t designed to be watched once, they’re designed to be watched hundreds of times. So on a certain level, the film was dream logic-ed like a music video. When you look at somebody like Cinderhella, on one level there’s a production design aspect of it, trying to find an interesting iconic character, having her face wrapped up in bandages and that was kind of funny. But on another level, on the dream logic level, you’ll see the parallels of that interesting connection that I made. For instance, there’s a reason why she’s called Cinderhella. Because [the lead character] Riley, herself, has one shoe through the whole thing and at the end she loses her shoe and she gets her prince charming to put it back on. Riley is Cinderhella. She is a Cinderalla story. And Cinderhella is both the thing that is attacking her and the metaphor for her life. It’s layered through the whole movie.
DC: There will be a college course that you can take.
JK: The film is loaded full of everything. That’s why it took us three years to write and we were very careful not to change lines because it is really layered and built on a million different ideas like that all throughout the film. And if you watch any particular scene you’ll see that we placed a foot here, we placed that there, he says a line here and the more you watch it the more wonderful little discoveries you’re going to find.
DC: My eyebrow was based on Julia Roberts’ in Pretty Woman. I had specific body parts that Joseph wanted me to make an homage to.
JK: Even the casting of Dane was purposeful.
JK: Well it’s anti-casting isn’t it? If you think high school principal, you don’t think Dane Cook. So for him to take his entire persona and wrap it into essentially the most uncool role in a high school movie is a very fascinating study. It’s a pretty selfless thing. Most people in his position would not do it. He plays a nerd basically, a guy down on his luck. The equivalent character to him, which is Sloane, a woman in her late thirties, you would think that a million actresses would want it. You always hear women in their late thirties have a hard time finding roles, and we wrote this really fun cool part, but every single person that was in their late thirties early forties would not play this role. Every single actress in Hollywood turned us down because nobody wanted to have an 18-year-old daughter. No one wanted to be identified as in their late thirties. Nobody wanted to be aged. So it’s an interesting comment about vanity.
Dane, what drew you to this unique role?
DC: I’ve been in a place where I want to make bold choices, whether it’s onstage in a comedy live performance or in projects that I’m reading. And when this came to me it was like Inception if the movie came to life and beat the s#*t out of you. It was definitely a part that I had never gone near, to play somebody that was very dark and mysterious. So that was a lot of fun.
Dane, did you base Principal Verge on any school principals that you had or any teachers that you had?
DC: Actually I based him a little bit on my own dad, who was a hilariously funny person and liked to play the part of the scary dad. So times my father would come home purposely, even though there was nothing wrong, and he’d be like, ‘I heard things today. I want this family to sit.’ He would do these long, drawn out moments, where he would be very pensive. So it was actually a little bit of a nod to my pop in there.
Can you talk about your process of the distinct vocalizing you used?
DC: The use of tone and modulation is something that always fascinated me. I used to do a lot of musical theater and I remember doing Cole Porter plays and all this summer theater. And I had a great mentor, Frank Roberts, and he was so much about voice and certainly about projecting and making sure that the people in the back row felt as enthralled and connected… I used to like to dig up and find those old radio shows — the use of tone and being able to be big and broad in your annunciation, but then quiet. To play with that was as important as physical prowess.
JK: I find on all my screenings — it was a revelation to me — that people were laughing at lines that weren’t even written funny. It was just the way that you modulated your voice. It was like you had such control over the audience. It was interesting to watch.
How exciting was it to get to die and then be reincarnated through time travel?
DC: All the accoutrements of time travel and all that was actually the bonus. That was the dessert for me. The movie was just wild. It entertained me first and foremost. I thought that character, again, was such a bold choice but I read this and one of the first things I said was, ‘If a pinball machine came to life and hung out with you for a day, then at the end of that day beat your ass and robbed you, that’s what this movie is. It’s whiplash. “
How closely did you stick to the original dialogue with the script?
JK: Completely almost. Except Dane improvised a couple nice lines there. But we treated it like a play for the most part… We worked for three years on the script and we finessed every single line and then what I did want was levels of interpretation. For instance Dane, because I know he’s an amazing vocalist, he has the best pitch of anybody in terms of being able to modulate his voice. He can tell a joke, he can say nothing and it’s funny. Some people complain about that, but that’s a f@#king gift. He doesn’t even have to tell a joke and it’s funny.
DC: I can speak to dolphins as well. I can go that high.
JK: So I would roll camera, I would let Dane riff on a line 30, 40 times and I would pitch him something. I would say like, ‘Do it as a CIA agent.’ Then he would do it. And I would challenge. I would say, ‘Do it as a dolphin.’
DC: I’ve never had so many, ‘Now you’re a CIA agent but his wife is angry at him, he came to work, he’s surly.’ It was a lot of fun.
JK: I had this amazing weapon and I wanted to fire it in all directions and see what happened.
DC: That’s the quote I want, ‘Dane Cook is a weapon.’
Did you know that Josh Hutcherson was going to be a big star from The Hunger Games?
JK: I will now take full credit for this, but I knew Josh was going to be a star. Even back in the day on Torque, I fought for Dane to get his cameo on Torque because he was an unknown entity. One of the things you do as a music video director is you spot talent. That’s one of my things. I don’t just do random people. I don’t turn Brittney Spears into a star. I have to spot that these people are going to be stars in the future and say these guys have cultural validity and they’re going to pop. I knew Dane was going to pop back in the day before the studios knew it. And I knew Josh was going to pop… When we were casting at that point, he wasn’t what he is now. I made that call and said, ‘This kid is going to pop.’ It’s just a matter of time.
Can you talk about your experience bouncing off all these young kids and new actors?
DC: That was another thing that I was enthused about… I like hungry people. I like people that feel like they’re in make or break situations, because I myself made a career by making some interesting moves early in my career. So to finally feel like the older veteran, in with a bunch of kids that I knew were coming to set every day really wanting to hit it out of the park for Joseph, but for themselves and for their futures, for their repertoires, that was also great. To get in there with a gang of people that were going to fight… Everybody here really came to really bring their A game.
Are you planning bonus features and added value for Blu-ray and DVD releases?
JK: We are putting together a narration. But it’s a little bit different. The version I have for the Blu-ray that I’m working on, it’s more like Pop-Up Video. I’m not interested in the director’s commentary stuff, I think that stuff is really boring and I think the director explains too much. It takes a certain mystery away from the interpretation that I think is very important for the audience. The audience should have their own interpretation. The filmmaker should make it and then the critic should interpret it. Period. If the director goes in there and starts telling you exactly what to think, you’ve just completely slapped the audience in the face and not given them the opportunity to interpret it and that’s terrible.
Detention opens April 13.
Will you be watching Detention?
Written by Amy and Nancy Harrington