A veteran commercial and music video director, Joseph Kahn has mastered MTV style—he operates at a speed that makes the carpool lane look like a senior dance-a-thon. His second film, Detention, is a hyper-referential horror film about a nerdy suicidal girl named Riley (Shanley Caswell) who worships a super cool hipster (Josh Hutcherson), who in turn loves a time-traveling cheerleader (Spencer Locke) who's dating a violent bully (Parker Bagley), who happens to be mutating via alien insect blood. Meanwhile, a serial killer named Cinderhella is terrorizing the school and principal Dane Cook (yes, really) has locked our leads in detention. We all have our crosses to bear. But with Detention, crosses are borne while the film is busy winking to pop culture of the '80s and '90s. Does that mean we care less about the characters? Maybe. But maybe it doesn't matter. Defends Kahn of his polarizing, insanity-inducing flick: "Detention is the teenager simulation."
If there were a dietary chart for this film, its primary ingredient would be cultural references. Why? Do you think we lose anything choosing that path?
My feeling is we lose nothing by doing that. I think everyone underestimates the value of cultural references. The big fear is these references in Detention are too old for kids, but that was done on purpose. When adults hear the '90s references, it'll be fun and offer a throwback movie experience for them. Kids will know some of the references but the perspective is kids perspective—the references point to the plot mechanics of why and when they laugh.
Plot mechanics? Not character dynamics?
One of our characters is ostracizing our main character, Riley (Shanley Caswell) for not being cool enough. The audience doesn't empathize with her because she knows so much—she's the villain. The main character doesn't know as much.
You move at a fast clip, like your film. I'm wondering if this empathy we feel for Riley has something to do with an empathy you have for the audience members who can't keep up.
Maybe older audiences won't get all the youth references and the youth will get the youth references and part of the throwbacks. You'd be surprised by how much the youth know. There are two girls, 16 and 17, that saw the screening we held at USC and they did a 12-minute review of it. It was wonderful and they totally got it. Twenty years ago there was no Internet, so if you missed a reference you missed it—it'd just get lost in the shuffle of time. But now we have the Internet and the accessibility of media means it's no longer ephemeral. You can walk around today with 1,000 songs in your pocket. Media is references—who is making the comedy albums, the fashion, the music? There's a memory kids retain that is longer than expected previously of them. These kids are essentially walking around with Cliff's Notes in their pockets for life. People tend to think movies with references are distracting—they think it breaks the fourth wall—but in reality people refer to media, the TV they watch, the music. If you make a high school movie that doesn't recognize pop culture, you're not making a high school movie.
So it's incorrect to avoid references?
To do that would be literally stripping away the relevancy of those teens from life as they know it. It'd be more surreal. It'd be movie mode. "Okay, I'm now watching a movie in an artificial world." It takes adjustment. An older audience might find it jarring, but for a teenager this a natural rhythm because of the Internet. It's a completely different perspective. Teens today are—well, they're amazing. They're progressive, informed, they're the least sexist, least homophobic, least racist generation ever. You have to watch Detention with a younger heart.
Isn't that oppressive having to live with Cliff's Notes all the time?
I don't think it's oppressive. If we needed to get any information before, we'd have to cram with Cliff's Notes but today they have them for everything. If you wanted to learn about a Zeppelin album in 1992, how would you find that out?
You'd go to the record store and talk to someone.
Sure, and maybe they know something but maybe it's a kid working for $6 an hour. After that, you'd need to find a magazine, and to do that you'd need to go to a library and find the microfiche. The process was just longer and involved driving and people helping you. Today, if you want to find out about Zeppelin you can open your phone and learn in 10 minutes. Some are scared of that process. I love it. I don't have a negative view of the technology—it's all positive as far as I'm concerned.
If this whole thing is based on mastery of cultural references—your characters can't really have interior lives.
People in movies are not real people. They're characters. Characterization is about acting and behavior. Character is decisions. Everyone is characterizations but Riley. Detention is about a girl trying to find herself and take this crazy journey. She's unsure of herself, suicidal, crushed by life and into a guy who doesn't see her. She takes the journey to strengthen herself. How that relates to society today...well, I don't think just because kids have a mastery of pop culture that they don't have an internal life. One of the points of the film is that teen emotions are incredibly intense: the first time you fall in love or think you're going to fail, or the first time you fear death. The emotions are incredibly big and when you're a kid, issues are so overwhelming you can't deal with them. As an adult, you look back and say "It's simple," and "The boyfriend's over," and you forget how intense the first time was. On a certain level the overwhelming feeling of society rushing around you and confusing you is what Detention is. Detention is the teenager simulation.
Teens today are overwhelmed with a lot more stuff and every decade that goes by there's more technology and more information. The more instantaneous access to information, the more decisions you have to make. If you live on a farm, your decisions are simpler: milk the cow and don't have sex with your neighbor. In the suburbs there's drugs, sexting, porn. I've been making music videos for 22 years and the kids this generation are the most wonderful I've ever made music videos for—once you throw more information into a human being, they'll always come out better, less afraid more open-minded.
But there's no breathing room here.
Teenagers have moments to themselves—times when they cry and wonder about the universe, but now if they want information it's so much faster. If we look back we can wonder how someone got around before the car and ask, "How'd they get around?" In each generation some think kids get worse and worse. From my perspective, kids get more progressive. The reality is these kids are great and I wanted to make a movie for them. It's complex and fast but I think kids today watch a film multiple times if they like it and this one challenges them—and uses skills they get out of other media. If a kid likes a music video, they watch it 50, 60 times. It's a puzzle piece they will like and replay for the rest of their lives. It's a different way to watch and make a movie.
You see that in Detention. Almost like a news ticker, you use subtitles, intertitles and floating graphics.
When you live in a world where you take texting and WiFi for granted, it changes your perspective and the speed at which you process things. My movie has a lot of typography and graphics and that might seem surreal to an older age bracket but it's not weird for teens. They're used to breaking dialogues with texts, they have graphics on their clothes. Even if they don't have graphics literally floating around their heads as they walk through life, to an extent and essentially, they do.
What about history? Your references are from 2012 or 1998 or 1992 but when they come up they kind of exist without context.
I think that's one of those things that will level the film for those not paying attention to the message sent. When Ione (Spencer Locke), who goes back in time to 1992, and she's playing with her iPhone, it's a comment on how out of place she is. For my DVD I interviewed all my actors—all of whom are 18-years-old—and all would say "If I went back to 1992, I'd be the coolest person there." Then I said, "there's no WiFi in 1992" and they said "Never mind." There's a difference between the mentality and expectations of what kids are now. There's always the sensation if you went back in time you'd be the best around but you're playing in a stacked deck because there are cards missing that you need, cards like Twitter or Facebook. At first, our references are frivolous, but after the body-swapping, and when you see that part again, you see a whole other story before you couldn't see the first time.
The one guy in the film around whom the plot really turns is the one who has nothing to do with cultural references whatever.
He's the representative of the teen who never changes. We have kids who live within their problems and never look outside of themselves, either for solutions or touchstones and those are the kids this one represents. When you tell people you're making a high school movie, they say "What a great genre." But it's not a genre—it's a location. You can say a person is living a drama, a RomCom, a sexcapade. What is genre but a way to filter out the story of life? For a long time we kept our genres separate—genres are valid for certain times because they're generational. Westerns worked in the '50s for a reason. We always think of them as nonmalleable and when we skip out of them it's a big change—but the world is so different and big. If we represent everyone, separately, in their genres they live in-one person is in a horror movie, one person is living Ferris Bueller, one is in a suicide drama-you have a representation of how teens tend not to look outside themselves. These characters don't see each other until they're smacked up against one other. The only way to transfer out of it is by empathy. Maybe the empathy isn't immediately transferred from character to character but in the world of this film, where the audience is overwhelmed by information, the big things can still seep through.
But not to the 19-year senior who won't change.
The only way to graduate high school is to become empathetic. If you leave high school in real life and never empathize, you've failed high school no matter what grade you get. That's the super tension—this entire thing is racing towards that conclusion. It may take a while to get that because this isn't made for one viewing.
So star Josh Hutcherson executive produced this—a big move as he's still very young.
He was already at a certain career level when I hired him. He wasn't Peeta yet but he was near. He wanted to help with production and I was happy to have him. He helped cast and had opinions and it was really nice to have his perspective because he was 17 at the time. As much research as I did, it was nice to have a youthful partner to make sure everything was authentic.
Like quality control?
He was! On a certain level my entire cast was, and that's why I made an effort to make sure the cast was all the right age. The story gets crazy but it needed to be full of teens really embodying their age and experiences.
And their cultural influences?
Pop culture today, the idea is to take things that were made and re-appropriate it for them. They distrust media and feel like anything that sells to them is disingenuous, authentic. The real power of viral is re-appropriation. Detention is a viral movie. We're never gonna live or die by what Richard Roeper says—but what two 16-year-olds say on YouTube could make or break us.
Isn't that harder?
I think it's beautiful!