Advanced Audience Member 101: Joseph Kahn on ‘Detention’

The director of this weekend's other genre-defying horror film on making movies for the 90's generation and why Michael Bay is a genius.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Joseph Kahn is looking for a few good viewers. His indie film Detention begins like a teen slasher film in the high school self-referential Scream vein. By the end it incorporates ‘90s nostalgia, time travel, Hanson music and a kid with both a TV on his hand and The Fly’s acid blood. Kahn is a prolific commercial and music video director but you may remember him as the director of Torque, the maligned “Fast and the Furious on motorcycles” flick. Detention makes fun of that too. Kahn co-wrote Detention with former film critic Mark Palermo. The scope of his film and his interest in the language of cinema led to an in-depth discussion about craft. That’s what we discussed as Detention opens in 10 cities this weekend: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, L.A., Miami, N.Y., San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Halifax, exclusively at AMC Theaters.


CraveOnline: How did you meet Mark Palermo through his movie review of Torque and then know you’d be compatible working together?

Joseph Kahn: Well, there weren’t that many people that liked Torque. You were one of them so I tend to be friends with almost anybody that appreciated Torque, at least on a real level. This is before it became a cult film and there was just a handful of these guys. He was one of them and he was a film critic and I started talking with him and found out I could just riff with him. The reason why he liked the movie is we’re so similar in our taste in movies and humor and pop culture and things like that. So eventually I met up with him and we just started discussing things and we decided we should write a movie together. This was an experiment and I think the experiment came out really great.


Why would putting your hand in a TV cure The Fly’s blood?

That’s the thing. We had plotted out the entire story. The whole thing was beated out. It took a year to come up with this story. Palermo started writing one of the drafts and he took the TV hand sequence. It was supposed to be the Fly sequence. Then he comes back later on, he wrote his draft of it and he put in TV hand. I was like, “Palermo, what is this?” And he goes, “Oh, that’s what you would do with The Fly.” So in his head, he thinks it’s a legitimate way to hide a fly hand. The guy is a kook. He’s so weird and it took me a while to justify that. I added in the line “That’s exactly the way I remember it” and then shot it like a Tim Burton movie just so I could give the audience a little out so it doesn’t completely derail at that point.


Talking about using the visual language, how can we educate an audience that’s used to shakey handheld movies to appreciate a visual language like that?

I think unfortunately the movie is either going to connect with you immediately or not at all. There’s no education process in this. This is Advanced Audience Member 101. You have to watch a ton of movies and then really have a high sense of pop culture and an awareness for camera movement and things like that on a much higher level than a normal movie. Quite frankly, if you’re not used to this type of filmmaking, you will not catch up. This is made for the advanced students.


How can you be used to a type of filmmaking that no one else is doing?

I’m hoping the people that see this have a certain amount of background that they have seen elements of it in Spielberg films or Scorsese films and things like that. If all you’ve watched is a bunch of found footage movie, this movie is going to be just so outside of your realm, you might as well just go watch another found footage movie.


What’s the Spielberg element?

The way I move my camera is really based on both Spielberg and Scorsese which both have a certain new wave style of filmmaking that was based on a lot of old French filmmakers. So the way it’s blocked to camera and things like that. When people actually talk about how fast Detention is, it’s not just the camera work. The camera work can actually be very conventional in some sequences. It’s the amount of information that’s packed in. Any given frame might have one particular camera movement but then it’ll also have three pieces of information. A shoe that Riley lost is in a glass case with a textual thing going over it for motion graphics combined with someone’s credit sequence. That’s all literally in one shot. That’s when the mind goes, “Can I keep up with this?”


Can there be a simple reaction shot?

There are simple reaction shots in here. I think at its core there’s a through line of this girl Riley and I’ve treated her character and her story with utmost care. I think it’s a legitimate story. It’s just that her journey is so complex. On a certain level, it replicates the entire idea of what it’s like to be a teenager. We may look back at a teenager’s life and go, “Oh, those issues are so simple. She’s just lost a boy.” Or you got an F in class. But to a teenager it’s so overwhelming and so confusing that hopefully for an older person when you watch this movie, the sensation of Detention should literally be like what it’s like to feel like a teenager being compounded by issues that seem completely out of your control.


Are we in an age where you can make a film for such a specific audience, but then everyone else will feel left out?

I believe so. I believe that media is done in a way now that’s completely different than the past. You can be much more specific if you do it for a price. Detention was made for a price and that’s the key. I wouldn’t make Detention with $150 million. I wouldn’t make Detention with $80 million. Detention at the price that I made makes sense. I don’t have to get every audience member in the world to love this thing. It’s made for very specific people. I just need to ping them out there. The aliens out in the audience that love this, that’s who it’s for and it’s uncompromising. So if you love it, you’re going to love it like crazy and it was made for you as a labor of love.


How did you and Palermo come up with character names like Clapton Davis, Sander and Ione?

We based a lot of them on other characters in movies. There are a lot of meta messages going on with the name. Clapton Davis is obviously Eric Clapton.


I didn’t think it was that simple.

It was really that simple, maybe combined a little bit with Clive Davis, the record producer. Ione obviously Ione Skye.


I got that one.

Sloan from Ferris Bueller, a lot of these names have very specific references to very specific characters.


Do you think we’ll see CinderHella costumes at Halloween?

I hope so. I think she looks pretty darned good. The entire idea of a prom queen who had really bad plastic surgery and has to wrap her face in bandages and go killing people is a pretty cool concept I think.


How long have you been thinking about the ‘90s?

The ‘90s, actually I really didn’t think about it too much. It was just yesterday I felt like that I even started directing music videos. It was like 22 years ago. Literally one minute I decided to become a director and the next minute I blink my eyes and here I am. Life moves so fast and one of the things I think Detention sort of discusses is that life does move really fast. For instance, a movie that time travels back to the ‘90s seems pretty stupid because it wasn’t even that long ago. But we did that on purpose to contrast one, how fast life moves and two, how much can change within a very short period of time.


Is this generation being dismissed? People lament all the social media and technology they have, but are they a lot more clever than we think?

I actually love the new generation of kids. I really love this new generation. I think our generation, Fred, we’re kind of lame. We have messed up a lot of things with the banking and the wars and just the confusion and the politics and how weird we are in terms of our politics and stuff. The new generation, if you look at them, they’re the least racist, least sexist, least homophobic, most progressive, amazing, smart kids ever. Whatever we messed up, hopefully they’re the ones that will fix it. So I have a lot of faith in them and I think it’s because of the social media. I think it’s because of the internet. I think it’s because they have so much information at their fingertips that it may be overwhelming, but ultimately what you end up happening is a new breed of young human being that’s just so much more informed and has much more knowledge. When you have that much knowledge, it’s harder to be racist. It’s harder to be homophobic. It’s harder to have that much hate when you know that much more. I really believe the more they know, the better they become and I love this generation.


That’s very reassuring. Even in 21 Jump Street they showed from 2005 to 2012 it changed to where the kids were all socially aware and it wasn’t cool to be a slacker anymore.

I know, the way that they even view nerdism is different. We have to give this generation a lot of props and on a certain level, Detention is a love letter to them. Although it has a big formidable obstacle as any movie does, at the end of the day I think when you look at the final picture, you love these kids. I genuinely do. I love these characters and I love these kids.


How did you discover this cast?

We had a very quick audition. Shanley [Caswell] was auditioned. I pitched it straight to Josh [Hutcherson.] He agreed to do it. Spencer Locke, Palermo and I loved her in Resident Evil 3 which I think is a completely underrated movie and loved her performance in it. Great movie so we cast her in it. There are other things like Organik and Dumbfoundead who are two battle rappers I was aware of. It was kind of a fantasy list of people and then there was Dane Cook who I’m just a huge fan of. I think he gets so much sh*t but he’s such a talented comedian. The fact that he took this role on and he’s so selfless, because it’s not a flattering role. He has a scar on his face, his hair is down, he wears terrible clothing and he gets to play essentially the worst character in any of these movies, the high school principal. And he does it and he does it with so much glee and such fun and such selflessness, it shows you a little bit of the Dane Cook that I personally know.


How do you feel as this weekend actually approaches?

I’m nervous at this weekend and confident at the same time, and let me explain. I’m confident that my movie is great and I love it. I don’t even care if anybody badly reviews it because I love it and the people that I love love it too. So I’m happy about that. I’m nervous in terms of I put all my money into this so it’s really important that it makes some money but I have no control over that. I can just do what I do and promote it as much as I can but it’s up to the audience. But ultimately, if the movie fails and I’m in debtor’s prison for the rest of my life and I’ve got to go and pay off every one of my little loans that I’ve done on this dollar by dollar, I’ll still be a happy man because the movie exists. I wanted to put a dent in the universe with this movie and I feel on some level, for some people, they’ll feel that dent. Other people will look at that dent and go, “What an ugly dent.” Other people will go, “What a wonderful new piece of art on my car.” I believe this film is out there ready to be driven now. I’m more ecstatic than any other thing, that’s the main accomplishment, that this film exists. Look at this film. What an impossibility. It’s here. I’m happy.


But you do love your job in commercials and music videos, so will you still love it even if you’re paying off debts?

It is the beautiful aspect of it. It’s kind of a no lose situation for me because I love shooting no matter what. I love doing commercials, I love doing music videos, I love doing films. If one thing costs more and must be paid by the other then it just gives me another chance to keep shooting and keep learning. So on a certain level, as long as I’m shooting, I don’t even care if I’ve got a roof over my head, I’m shooting. I’m happy.


The general public might not know you’re a go-to guy for a lot of companies and musicians. Are you in a position where if they want something done they come to you?

I’m in a very fortunate situation because a lot of people do trust me to be the go-to guy in commercials and music videos. I wish it was that way in movies but I’m also learning that as I develop my voice in narrative features, some of the commercial aspects that I know so well in music videos and commercials do not necessarily translate into movies. The part of music videos and commercials is that they always want the next step. People are actively looking for the new camera movement or the new type of geometry or the new composition or the new editing idea. In movies that takes a backseat. People are looking for what sells the most, what hits the four quadrants. We’re not even talking about what is the newest type of story. They’re not even interested. That’s why they do reboots and sequels and remakes all the time. They’re just looking for whatever they can sucker people into a theater at that given weekend and make a lot of money. That’s the only agenda and that’s a little bit opposite to how I usually think of art. So me and movies right now in terms of the studio perspective are kind of a mile apart.


Could Josh get you the job directing Catching Fire?

Uh, I wish Josh could. I love Josh but I think there’s quite a bit of obstacles, including the fact that I am the guy that did Torque.


But Torque gets some love now?

Torque gets a weird cult love. Eight years later people have finally come around to that film and said, “Oh, he did that on purpose that way.”


That’s amazing, people thinking something on a film was done because they didn’t know any better.

Look, the reality is when Torque came out people were ready to destroy Michael Bay. I love Michael Bay by the way. I think he’s a fantastic filmmaker. I really do. I love the way he shoots but I’m not Michael Bay. He’s him and I’m me but what they saw was a music video director taking on a biker movie. But I was taking a very satiric approach to it. They just saw it as failed serious Michael Bay movie so they were ready to kill the next Michael Bay and they did. They did a good job, internet. They stomped me, they knocked me off my bike and sort of pummeled me as much as they could and it took me eight years to finally save up the money and get back on the bike.


As a Michael Bay fan, what should our readers appreciate about him?

I think it’s undeniable he’s a very solid, great filmmaker. He’s got some of the most interesting action sequences. I think as time goes on, as people get more used to an accelerated form of filmmaking and they can process information better, they can actually watch his older films and go, “Oh, it’s paced quite well and you can actually see the geometry and have no problem tracking it.” These are the things that they’re always throwing at him and actually, I find him quite frankly, compared to most shakeycam stuff, Michael Bay is positively geometric and you can see everything going on. It’s amazing people accuse him of this stuff when it’s just not true. You can actually see a Michael Bay action sequence. It looks positively classical compared to the found footage/shakeycam genre that’s around in everything. What’s infuriating is I see popular movies which I will be political and not mention, in trailers I can just see that there’s no sense of design to this stuff, that it was shot farmed. You look at a Michael Bay sequence which has got a lot of thought and rhythm and tempo and geometry to it, and they literally hold up one action film as if it’s a model of cohesive filmmaking when it’s totally the opposite. It’s incompetent and yet his stuff is so accomplished.


I have a theory that they’re starting to make action movies for people who hate action movies. They figured out that people who actually love action are such a small group, they might as well try to sell to the other people and that’s where shakeycam comes in. They’re like, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch action. This’ll be ‘real’ and ‘gritty.’”

I hope you quote yourself in your article because that is precisely what’s happening right now. Action films are made for people that don’t want to watch action films. It’s absurd.