It’s the meta–Breakfast Club: During the detention of Detention, a Scream-like serial killer is on the loose, and that’s before we get to time travel à la Donnie Darko. A love-it-or-hate-it concoction, Joseph Kahn’s second feature is a Molotov cocktail of high school–iana; it’s also an audacious formal experiment that straddles the narrative/avant-garde line. An NYU film-school dropout who trained himself on music videos and commercials—and directed the 2004 cult film Torque—the L.A.-based director, 39, calls to talk about his passion project. (Note: This interview was conducted before the July 20 shootings in Aurora, Colorado—after which Kahn tweeted, “Go to a movie this weekend and enjoy being with other people.”)
How do you get funding for something this aggressive, this flagrant about referencing other movies?
Let’s be clear. The movie is not a movie about other movies. That’s just one aspect of it. We’re talking about fashion and music just as much. Ultimately, I wanted to construct a big movie about the nature of pop culture and how that defines kids. I ended up having to spend my own money.
Even in Torque, which was released by a studio, there’s a satirical element—you’re parodying the way advertising is done.
The studio didn’t know what I was doing with Torque. By the time they figured something was terribly wrong, it was too late. I had already shot the movie. Torque ultimately was 70 percent of what I wanted. I’m used to getting 100 percent in music videos.
Would you say that Detention was born out of nostalgia?
For people that are over, say, 30, [Detention] is going to be very nostalgic because of all the ’90s references. But [for] people under 30, especially under 25, it plays completely different. Because retro culture is a big thing. Kids today, because of the Internet and the memory of the Internet not letting things go, have a much broader sense of pop culture.
You’ve embraced technology. You’re kind of an icon on Twitter. Do you feel there’s not enough critic-filmmaker-fan interaction?
The critic in me wants to talk to critics, the fan in me wants to talk to fans, and the filmmaker in me wants to talk to filmmakers. Personally, I don’t see any delineation between my filmmaking and my film criticism. I’ll write film criticism myself on a blog, and it’s part of my process as a filmmaker. Filmmakers do criticize other things just like film critics do. They don’t let them out because of the political ramifications. A lot of filmmakers are quick to say that they’re fans and bond with fans over that. But the aspect of the film critic being a filmmaker—I think I kind of own that a little bit more than other people.
In September, you wrote an epic response to critic Jim Emerson’s post on what he perceived as poor action editing in The Dark Knight.
[His post] was worse than wrong. It was arrogant. And mean. And the mean part was the way he was dismissing [Christopher] Nolan’s filmmaking altogether. The thing that really pissed me off was when he was reediting it himself. He actually reedited a sequence and then claimed it was better. I thought that was crossing a line. That was actually disrespectful to the art form.
When Detention came out, Richard Roeper panned it. You said on Twitter that was validation.
And I’m telling you the truth! If Richard Roeper liked my teenage pop-culture movie, I would have completely failed. Why would I make a movie for kids that Richard Roeper loves? That is the creepiest thing in the world.
What were your chief inspirations?
My chief inspiration for the movie was Columbine. There was a life lesson, I felt, in Columbine. I remember reading about those two boys. Everyone said they were bullies and this and that. Ultimately, it turned out that those boys actually had girlfriends. Those boys actually had good families. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school, so they were one up on me. What those boys had was a complete lack of empathy. If you go through high school and you do extraordinarily well but you don’t have empathy, then you have failed high school. Detention [is] exploring this idea of high school where everybody is enraptured in their own problems. Some people could be living a comedy, some people could be living a thriller, some people could be living a sexcapade. Detention takes all the genres, mashes them together, and then slowly, people leap outside of their genres to see other people. Detention is a lesson about empathy. And it’s a positive one.
Detention arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 31.