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Interview with Jennifer Reeder, writer and director of Knives and Skin
By James Whittington, Friday 23rd August 2019
FrightFest poster art by Graham Humphreys

The best thing about FrightFest is the way it promotes exciting new talent and this year there seems to be more new creatives around than ever. One of the stand put movies is Knives and Skin from Jennifer Reeder so we had a quick chat with her about this amazing piece of cinema.

HC: Where did the idea for Knives and Skin come from?

JR: Although Knives and Skin is based on themes from a few short films I have made recently (A Million Miles Away and Blood Below the Skin for instance), this story was built around one scene in particular, which is three goth/punk girls walking along a rural two-lane road. It was this visual in combination with a want to make a feminist film with a missing girl as its primary plot motivator.

HC: Did it take long to get the script exactly the way you wanted it?

JR: I had a draft of the script written in 2016, but I took the summer of 2017 off from film making to overhaul that draft. I consolidated a bunch of the characters and figured out how to deal with Carolyn Harper and once those revisions happened, it got finished and ready to be made pretty quickly.

HC: The cast bring the story to life in the most honest and sensitive way, did you write it with actors in mind?

JR: I did not write it with those actors in mind. We cast this film entirely out of Chicago which has a robust and deeply respected theatre community. The actors we cast loved the script and felt connected to their characters. The unexpected tone of this film is grounded in the performances. I directed these brilliant actors toward deadpan rather than melodrama which I think brings more of both the humour and the sorrow out of certain scenes.

HC: Did they have much rehearsal time?

JR: We had none! No rehearsal time at all... not even a table reading. This was very frustrating prior to day one of production but then all the actors showed up totally prepared and engaged with their characters and their scenes and it was not a problem.

HC: Was the idea of having musical pieces there from the start and how did you choose the songs to use?

JR: Yes. The script had the musical scenes from the very beginning. I have experimented in previous films with chorale voices singing a re-arrangement of a pop song so I knew the musical scenes would work. Those particular songs are all from the 80s so that is my own autobiographical contribution.

HC: Were there any song you wanted to use but couldn't get licence to use?

JR: Yes. I wanted to use Lucky Star from Madonna and we just could not get anyone associated with that song to return a call or email, same with Don't Change by INXS. Additionally, Tainted Love was too expensive. I had also wanted to use Big Mouth Strikes Again, which was also pricey.

HC: The film is very intimate and immersive, almost like a "fly on the wall" documentary, as if we're peeking into some people's deepest feelings, was this your idea from the start?

JR: Yes. This is a film about the deeply personal way that we humans cope. Our responses to trauma are very particular and our desires are sharply precise. I wanted this film to feel internal rather than external. There are many secrets revealed to only the audience rather than to other characters. I wanted to audience to feel implicated and included in this world.

HC: It straddles many genres, if you had to pin one on it which would it be?

JR: It is mostly a coming of age story... (for both the young people and the adults), but it borrows from horror and thriller and supernatural and musicals of course. I call Knives and Skin a "Midwestern Gothic Teen Noir."

HC: Do you have a favourite character from the movie and if so which one and why?

JR: I love Carolyn Harper. She has will and agency. She is sort of a ghost and sort of a zombie. It is her story. #haveyouseencarolynharper

HC: The film is emotionally charged throughout, what was the atmosphere like on set?

JR: I love this cast and crew dearly and everyone was on board with this story which is not necessary a given for film sets. There were several scenes we shot that brought nearly everyone on set to tears during production... even the Grip/Electric guys. It seemed like we all knew we were making something very special and no one took that for granted. I like to have a calm and inclusive set. I never raise my voice or stomp around which helps everyone stay in the present and production keeps moving forward.

HC: You're a person of many talents, do you have a favourite role whilst making a film?

JR: Of course, I like being the director. I cannot act or sing so If this film directing thing does not work out, I am not sure what I will do... Ha ha!

HC: So, what are you up top at the moment? I am in development with a new project!

JR: It's a teen shape-shifter film called A Girl and Other Small Stains. I am writing the script right now. Its like a coming-of-age Cat People meets Fish Tank and will be a very special follow up to Knives and Skin.

HC: Jennifer Reeder, thank you very much.


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