Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) is dead. Her small town reels. Her mother grieves. The boy responsible for her death—who left her stranded in a remote area when she refused to have sex with him—grapples with his guilt. Yet no detective solves in to wrap everything up with a nice little bow in writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin, which screened recently at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. Instead, Reeder sketches a character study of a town struggling to reckon with an all-too-frequent occurrence. A coming-of-age semi-musical infused with lush magical realism, Knives and Skin approaches the twin issues of sexuality and violence against women with a nuanced empathy that’s won it raves on the festival circuit. Reeder took the time to chat about her latest film—and her experiences as a female director—at Fantasia.
I appreciate the way that you approach the trope of the “dead girl.” So often you see a movie or a TV show using a murdered woman or girl as a plot device, someone who’s used to set up a mystery and then be discarded. The trauma of her death gets treated like an afterthought.
And that’s exactly how it started: I realized that I wanted to take on that trope of the dead teen girl where we see her in her death, but utilize that, show it, and make a feminist film at the same time. It occurred to me at some point that she couldn’t just disappear and we never see her again until her body is found, which a very stereotypical [thing]. Or we couldn’t see her in a River’s Edge way, or even maybe a Laura Palmer way. We couldn’t see her dead and then never see her alive again.
Even after Carolyn dies, it’s still her story.
It’s totally her story. In an early draft of the script, I had to go back to that moment. I was like, “Whose story is this? Oh, it’s Carolyn’s story.” So then it just clicked, that we would see her multiple times in her sort of rotting state, but that the worry of the town would be this thing that would vibrate and animate her body. And that’s not something that’s super explicit. That’s what, as the writer, I was thinking about.
But I also wanted to set it up so that the first time that you see her body be willful and move again is when the amateur clown does a failed trick where his daughter says, “Can you make something move that’s not supposed to move?” And then she moves for the first time. We can either believe that he really is an incredibly amazing magician who can reanimated the dead, or that even in death [Carolyn is] a willful, unruly young woman. She’s rebellious even in her death. That felt like a creepy and mysterious way to deal with that trope and to make Carolyn Harper emblematic of every girl who’s ever had to suffer for saying no.
You see headlines about a woman being sexually assaulted, and then two days later everyone forgets about it. The longer-term affect that sexual assault has gets ignored—the affect on the women themselves, obviously, but also the pervasive atmosphere of fear and dread and caution that it causes.
I actually started writing this script before #MeToo blew up. Myself and none of my female friends were at all surprised by it. My male friends, even my lovely feminist male friends, were like, “I had no idea.” And I was like, “Look, if you have any women in your life, I guarantee you she’s been sexually assaulted. Just know that that’s the case and act accordingly.”
There was always the underlying horror of violating consent. I wanted to tell a story that had horror elements, the everyday horror [of] women and young girls having this fear. The pitch I gave was, “I think it’s really critical time right now for women working in genre, and specifically horror, because we really do learn from an early age about fear. We learn fear very early on.”
Walk towards the edge of sidewalks so no one can jump out at you, always have your keys out…
That you are a threat to yourself just by existing.
This film really made me think about Ida Lupino’s Outrage, which was all about the psychological effect of rape on its main character. There are male filmmakers who are respectful of that, but both Knives and Skin and Outrage feel like they have a uniquely female understanding of this fear women feel.
There are a lot of guys who understand that female stories actually have a lot of agency at the box office, and they feel totally entitled to tell these kinds of stories about about women, speculating about our fears, speculating about our aspirations. I think it’s a really critical time to claim that back.
And so many men use violence against women purely as shock value. There are always those concerns: What to show, what not to show. Was there anything you were consciously trying to avoid—or something you were consciously trying to include—in how you depicted the violence done to Carolyn?
On the one hand, I wanted her not to be killed. She dies. But in the morgue, the Sheriff says, “We think it was an accident.” It was a heart condition, which could come out of that moment of being so afraid to be left out there by herself. She’s so confused by this idea that she’s not allowed to say no, and that that could have killed her. I didn’t want her to be killed at the hands of that boy, because then it would have been his story, too, and I would’ve had to deal with him being held accountable much more than than he is.
You would have needed to devote more attention to, “Well, how does he get his comeuppance?”
That’s correct. What I could do is: He’s held accountable for being an asshole to girls. He’s still in an idiotic 17-year-old who can’t quite do exactly the right thing. But I didn’t want her to be killed. I didn’t want us to see her die. We see her live, and then we see her later, dead, but we don’t see those gasping last breaths that feel like really could be triggering.
We’ve seen that so many times.
And I wanted the sexuality for all of the young girls to feel like they are owning it… I really tried to make these moments where there’s sex or sexuality, and where the women still have lots of agency in that moment… Even in the scene where the young jock is making out with Carolyn’s mom [played by Marika Engelhardt], it still felt really important to deal with her sexuality. She initiates that intimacy, and it’s coming out of coping. It really makes her this complicated woman, this complicated mother. I wanted to write these scenes where we realize that grief is personal. Desire is personal and complicated, and women respond to the world around them in really complicated ways.
We do that in real life. But in the cinema, especially in stories that are written and directed by men, they speculate. It’s not authentic, and it’s certainly not as complicated I think it could be. At every step of the way, I was like, “Let’s not see any boobs. Let’s talk about sexual agency. Let’s not see anybody actually get killed.” But how do you make a film where there’s still a rotting dead girl, there’s a fair amount of blood, there’s sex?
There’s the threat of sexual violence. Without actually…
Without watching somebody get raped. Yeah.
Over the past several years, it seems like there’s been more conversation about the need for directing not to be such a male-dominated space. Recently, compared to when you were doing shorts, has it been easier for you to get money? Are there more doors open to you now than they used to be?
I have made so many shorts because I can make them by myself. I can make them cheap and I can make them fast, and I can make stories about any kind of subject matter. My shorts have been at Sundance, have been at Berlin, have been at the London Film Festival, have been at Rotterdam. They’ve won awards that have qualified them for Academy Award nominations. I have had all the freedom that I need and want in the shorts world. And I have had lots of all of that good stuff come back to me. It’s not like they’re just living in the ether.
You can make your next short.
Yes, exactly. There has been, for a long time, that trust gap. You make a short film that goes to Sundance and does really well all over. I’ve seen this example in a male director, where then immediately someone comes and says, “Wow, let’s make a feature.” I kept waiting! Waiting for the phone call, waiting for a knock on the door, and it didn’t happen. It was disappointing, but at the same time you’re like, “Okay. Alright. Let’s be realistic. I see what’s happening.”
And I did do a feature-length film in 2017 [Signature Move] that I didn’t write, but I directed it. And that did really well. It premiered at SXSW. It won the Grand Prize at OutFest. It’s on Amazon. It was kind of the same thing, where people would say, “What do you want to do next?” And I would say, “I have a script for a film that’s very much related to my shorts. I’m ready to go.” And they were like, “… That’s great! Good for you.” That kind of attitude is frustrating.
But then I put my game face back on and found producers who let me make exactly the film that I wanted to make. It feels like the case right now—pitching a new project at [Fantasia’s] Frontieres [Market Weekend], and there are people who are saying, “I’d love to read that script!” But I also feel like I get to say, ” I’m not sure if I want you to read this script.” It’s like that old story about the hen who’s trying to get everybody to help her plant the seed for the wheat, and then pick the wheat, and make the bread. And everyone’s kind of like, “No, I’m too busy. No, I’m too busy.” But they all want to come and eat the bread at the end of the day.
I don’t want to be overly presumptuous, but I do feel like I’m in a little bit of a position where, yeah, the film premiered at Berlin, and it’s doing great on the genre circuit, and it’s getting this nice theatrical release outside of North America. And it is a time where a lot of producers are like, “Let’s see what women are doing. Let’s see what Jennifer Reeder is up to.” But I get to say, “I don’t know. You weren’t there the last time.”
What are your theatrical release plans outside of North America?
For instance, I’ll go to France in September. [WTFilms], who’s the sales agent in Paris, sold it to UFO [Distribution] , and it’ll have this really nice French theatrical release. It’s been sold in other territories outside of North American, too, but I don’t always get invited to those. It’ll launch out of the Deauville Film Festival in September, and UFO is working on the trailer and the poster. I can’t wait to see what that looks like. I’m a person who likes sticking with the people who, prior to all of this, were interested in what I was doing. Now is the time I feel like I’m in a really good position to say, “Where were you? I’m onto the next thing, and you don’t get to be a part of it.”