A cult classic is in our midst with Jennifer Reeder’s teen noir “Knives and Skin”

Jennifer Reeder

In April, I spoke with director Jennifer Reeder about her film “Knives and Skin,” which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and its US premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. “Knives and Skin” is Reeder’s second feature, and it’s produced by Jan and Brian Hieggelke, founders of Newcity magazine and the Chicago Film Project.

“Knives and Skin” follows the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance in a rural Midwest town. The coming-of-age film has been described as a mix of Lynchian thriller and high school musical.

“I have been influenced by David Lynch; I love the way he takes ordinary people in small towns and injects them with a lot of surrealism and magic,” Reeder said. “I think my version is much more diverse and inclusive, and it has both a feminine and feminist sensibility. But I love high school films—I love ‘Carrie,’ I love ‘Heathers,’ and even though they’re problematic, I love the films of John Hughes, ‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Sixteen Candles.’ I’m deeply influenced by Martha Coolidge’s ‘Valley Girl,’ which is kind of Romeo and Juliet.”

Like “Heathers,” I do think “Knives and Skin” will become a cult classic. Reeder said, “I think it will have a very specific kind of following. I can’t wait for it to have a nice kind of theatrical life, a lot of audiences to see it, and for it to be a kind of girl power, battle cry.”

I spoke with Reeder about her style, finding power in the details, and what advice she has for young filmmakers. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GROWING UP

REEDER: I grew up in central Ohio, where most of my films take place. [It’s] not where I shot a lot of films, but I always write based on my memories of central Ohio. I go back there a lot, my mom still lives there. My editor still lives there. I actually came to filmmaking—I say I came to filmmaking like the impossible love child of Maya Deren and Steve McQueen, in that I was a dancer, I was a ballet dancer for a long, long time, and I took a sculpture class as an undergraduate student, because I was interested in the visual arts, but I failed that sculpture class…

MARTIN: Sculpture is not easy. 

REEDER: It’s tough. And my sculpture teacher suggested, because she knew I had this background in dance, she suggested I take like a performance art class the next semester, which I did. And basically it was a performance class where we were using video cameras to document performances, and we would make little videotapes.

So the first time I picked up a video camera was really like recovering a phantom limb, you know? It was very normal and natural to me, and I felt like I was good at it, and I still feel like my filmmaking is an extension of my background as a dancer. When I think about how dance is your moving bodies across the stage and it’s framed. There’s a pacing, there’s a lyricism. And I still feel like when I’m blocking a scene, that it’s really about moving bodies through a frame, lyricism, and pacing.

I still feel like my filmmaking is an extension of my background as a dancer. … There’s a pacing, there’s a lyricism. And I still feel like when I’m blocking a scene, that it’s really about moving bodies through a frame, lyricism, and pacing.

MARTIN: I love that!

REEDER: It’s like ballet; I think more like ballet than modern dance. Those are all stories, Giselle, Swan Lake… these are all very rich, narrative stories. I feel like that’s all really a part of my storytelling. So once I picked up a camera, I did not really do anything else. It really helped me out, because I don’t really have any other skills.

“KNIVES AND SKIN”

MARTIN: I would love to hear about your process making “Knives and Skin” and putting your style into it.

On set of “Knives and Skin”

REEDER: “Knives and Skin”‘s theme is based on two short films I did. One is called “A Million Miles Away” and one is called “Blood Below the Skin,” which are free to the public on my Vimeo page. But those two films are kind of companion films. They are related to each other, there’s the same actors in both of the films. Not playing the same parts, but they are siblings, they are sisters.

I was trying out themes of teen girl agency. I was working on incorporating music and particular musical numbers. I was also dealing with stories around consent, and telling stories about teenagers just living their life, while the adults are kind of having a coming of age.

So both of those films did really well, they went to Sundance, they went to the Berlin Film Festival, I mean really had a robust life. Which just told me that people were interested in that content. And also I knew there was a bigger, longer story for some of these characters, and for some of these scenes. So I began writing “Knives and Skin.” It went in to production with 103 pages, which is a pretty substantial script.

THE DETAILS

REEDER: “Knives and Skin” in a way is like a love letter to young women because at the end of that story, it is really about female friendship. But I still wanted to make it a beautiful film, that has magic and that is soaked in these kinds of pinks and purples. The lights in the film was very particular; I really wanted the film to feel girly.

“Knives and Skin” in a way is like a love letter to young women because at the end of that story, it is really about female friendship. But I still wanted to make it a beautiful film, that has magic and that is soaked in these kinds of pinks and purples.

MARTIN: I love that it’s about the little things. When the mother is in Carolyn’s room with all of the things in her room, it’s just so intimate, and I could feel that.

On set of “Knives and Skin”

REEDER: I’m working with Adri Siriwatt, who was the set designer, she was a dream. She and I worked together. And I’m very particular about the art direction. You know what the room’s look like, I mean everything has to be just very particularly curated. I was a little nervous working with someone who was doing the art direction who I hadn’t worked with before, but she had it, she just got it. She read the script, she understood, and we worked very collaboratively mostly together to make sure that Carolyn’s room was perfect. To make sure Anna’s room was perfect, to really get the details of those girls’ lives right. So you know even at that moment where you see the inside of the two girls’ lockers, that was very particularly curated.

WOMEN IN FILM

REEDER: It is just unreasonable that every time, a woman has to start over. You could be nominated for an Academy Award, you could win an Indie Spirit Award, you could have your film at all the best festivals, with a real robust theatrical release. It seems like those women have to start over again every single time.

It is just unreasonable that every time, a woman has to start over. You could be nominated for an Academy Award, you could win an Indie Spirit Award, you could have your film at all the best festivals, with a real robust theatrical release. It seems like those women have to start over again every single time.

So I just think we need the people, the money people in place. We have to get the money people in place who treat the men like the women to trust, who close that trust gap, who close that time gap. And I do think that’s happening. I feel really thankful that with “Knives and Skin,” I had total creative control with the final edit of that. I think it helped that Brian [Hieggelke] and Jan [Hieggelke] who produced [the first feature film I directed] “Signature Move” also produced this film. So my relationship with them was already enthusiastically vetted. They knew I could make a film that audiences would want to watch. So it felt really important to me that I had full creative control for that.

MARTIN: I’m so glad you did.

REEDER: Yeah, I think some people who have approached me about doing different projects, you know also really loving “Knives and Skin,” they want to know what I want to do next, what’s my vision for my next film.

Because we’re lacking on using words like “auteur” with a lot of female writers and directors. It’s the men who get the “auteurs.” And I think there are more women like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Debra Granik, and Kelly Reichardt have an auteur voice, Dee Rees … There needs to be more women who producers look to and they say, “You have a voice, a vision, and I want to help you realize that.”

We’re lacking on using words like “auteur” with a lot of female writers and directors. It’s the men who get the “auteurs.” And I think there are more women like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Debra Granik, and Kelly Reichardt have an auteur voice, Dee Rees … There needs to be more women who producers look to and they say, “You have a voice, a vision, and I want to help you realize that.”

FOR THE YOUNG FEMALE FILMMAKER

REEDER: I feel there are so many rich, smart, funny, viable, valuable voices among young women who are making music, who are writing, who are poets, filmmakers, performing. Maybe it’s not a bulletproof glass ceiling, but we do still deal with that mentality. And I think that especially for young women who want to get in to film—I mean the resources exist, people make a film on their phone with free downloadable software, and then publish on YouTube, publish it on Vimeo, publish it on their Instagram page. …

Speak, and be heard, self-publish and get it out there, because people are paying attention to what young people are saying and doing way more so than when I was a younger filmmaker. You can get your vision and your voice out there.

Speak, and be heard, self-publish and get it out there, because people are paying attention to what young people are saying and doing way more so than when I was a younger filmmaker. You can get your vision and your voice out there. That kind of DIY culture, yes, it can be exhausting, but it really is a way to get your foot in the door.

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