A hit on the festival circuit and now available in select theaters and on VOD and on demand, Knives and Skin is a unique coming-of-age tale. When a high school band member goes missing after a bad date, the lives of all the characters start to go a little sideways – and not just the classmates, but the parents as well. With an expansive cast that includes cheerleaders, jocks, artsy goth girls, an unemployed dad who sneaks around as a birthday party clown, having an affair with a middle-aged pregnant waitress, and a paranoid mom who sleeps atop aluminum foil, the characters don’t have a long way to go.
We spoke to writer and director Jennifer Reeder about her unique characters, inclusiveness in casting, and her pointed choice of music in the film.
Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write and direct Knives and Skin.
Knives and Skin is thematically related to a lot of short films I’ve made in the past, all dealing with the experience of adolescent girls, all suggesting that coming-of-age is a lifelong process, that often involve floating objects that, in themselves, have a kind of aura or life force. Often times there is a darker element haunting the whole story and often times that’s been a missing girl. I wanted to expand [my short films’] audience and make a feature length film.
Usually my scripts start with something visual. The real visual nugget came when I was driving to my mom’s house in Ohio. I live just outside of Chicago and was driving through the Midwest to go see my mom, and I imagined that there were three punky gothy girls walking along a rural two lane road, to band practice, to school, to a friend’s house, whatever, and it seemed like a really powerful visual analogy to someone feeling at a crossroads in their life, feeling kind of out of place in their skin and out of place in their environment. That kind of visual image stuck with me and I thought, “I want to write a film about these three girls and figure out who they are and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever.” The disappearance of Caroline Harper was introduced and the whole script unraveled from there. I knew I was going to put in it all of the other things I had vetted in my short films, so I loaded it with glowing things, people singing, a kind of awkward deadpan dialogue, et cetera.
It was very almost Lynchian, because there are so many weird characters but they weren’t played for humor, it was played for this weird, creepy solemnity, and that was kind of fascinating.
Caroline Harper’s disappearance becomes the thing that kind of unleashes the characters’ obsessions and psychoses, so you have all these young people – and even the adults – that have been living in an invisible way in a small town. They are all drawn together by the trauma of this missing girl and what it does is send lightning bolts through all of them and it comes to the edge of a full psychotic breakdown. I think some of it is humorous in its awkwardness and I certainly do think I write funny scenes. Every scene has a punch line. I don’t mean that it’s a “haha” funny punchline, but it has a moment where the temperature of the scene shifts pretty abruptly. All that stuff is really on purpose and I think that people who have really loved this film appreciate those kind of shifts in the temperature of the scene. I understand for a lot of people it’s just too much to engage with.
Do you have a favorite character?
I suppose I would have to say my favorite character is Caroline Harper herself. That might seem obvious. I actually feel more personally aligned with Charlotte, who is the African American goth punk girl. She was the most fun to write and to dress; she, in a way, is the one who has the most self-awareness and self-possession. I’m not planning a spinoff but I could see a spinoff with her and her rise to a goddess-like takeover.
Speaking of her costume, the costumes in general go from insane and wacky and beautiful to very basic and normal. How did you decide on the huge range of costumes?
Well, in my normal life, I’m a very nosy person for better or worse, but I have this inkling that as humans, we don’t tell each other who we are; we show each other who we are. A lot of times that comes from a first impression: what someone’s wearing, what’s in their purse, what’s in their medicine cabinet, what books are they reading, et cetera. So I wanted to develop this ensemble cast – there are about nineteen people in this film – where the character is kind of iconic and emblematic, not a caricature. I know when we first meet some of them, we think we know them based on what we think we know about a girl in a band, or a cheerleader, a jock, et cetera. But all of those characters, as we get to know them, defy our first impression of them and they actually become multi-dimensional characters and our own judgement betrays us on some level. I wanted to develop these emblematic characters, who you might not be able to define by their names – there are some characters who you never hear their names – but you can say Clown Dad, Tiger Shirt Mom, Pregnant Mom, the Sheriff, you know you can describe everyone in the film by what they are wearing. I knew they had to be really distinctive. That tiger shirt is really quite extraordinary and she wears nothing else in the film. Even for the sheriff, it’s not realistic that a sheriff would wear his uniform day and night but I felt it was really important that he remain that iconic figure in the film. The same goes with the cheerleader, the pregnant mom, that they have these very specific characters and they have a uniform.
The other thing I noticed was your cast was very diverse, it’s not just a whole bunch of white kids running around. What that intentional, was it written that way or did it happen organically?
I definitely knew I would have a very inclusive cast, that felt very authentic to me in terms of the small town where I grew up in Ohio and the small town I live in outside of Chicago. They’re both very racially, ethnically, culturally diverse but they are still small towns. I think most small towns in film and TV, are primarily white-washed, so many films that take place in bustling metropolises are filled with people of color. I just thought I wanted to make a story about a small town that felt much more authentic to me, where there was a lot of diversity and inclusivity in front of the camera. I knew that would be the case but I wasn’t sure what characters would be which. The only person identified as African-American in the script was Charlotte and I always knew I wanted this African-American goth punk girl. We cast a very, very wide net in terms of casting. We saw lots and lots of different people and then narrowed that down and started putting the families together, putting couples together, to sort of figure out what the right dynamic would be but from the beginning, in my brain, I knew it would be a very inclusive cast.
How did you go about choosing the 1980s New Wave pop songs that they sing?
That’s partially my own autobiography. They were songs I listened to when I was a younger person, and now it’s really important to me. It feels more religious than anything else. Certainly when you’re a young person there are moments when your parents or your peers don’t understand you but your favorite band understands you. You retreat to your room and listen to your favorite songs and the world becomes a little bit brighter, for about five minutes at a time. I knew I wanted to inject the film with a lot of music to really echo that sense of importance music has in the lives of young people. I had used this method of rearranging a pop song as a kind of lullaby or a lamentation in my shorts, and I knew that it worked, that it created these moments that have a lot of emotionality.
It was also a moment in the story where the audience could sit with the plot of the story, and the characters, and have a moment to figure out who was who and what was going on. There’s a lot of moving parts in this film, and I think it’s important to have these little musical intermissions to allow an audience to re-orient themselves. They also have narrative content, so I picked songs that, when the lyrics were slowed down, the meaning of the song could become quite bold.
For instance, the first song we hear the girls sing is “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Gos. It’s a very infectious pop song, but when it slows down and you can really listen to the lyrics, it becomes a melancholic, girl-power battle cry. That first song sets off the tone of the film which seemed really important to me. Then it seemed important that we ended with the actual original version of The Icicle Works song “Whisper to a Scream,” so the film kind of ends on a slightly hopeful note, rather than ending in that kind of melancholy state. It ends with that infectious pop beat. I wanted it to have a more hopeful ending.
I was going to say, I found it to be a very happy ending, basically.
Yeah, I think it’s a happy ending too.
So what are you working on next?
I’m in development with a follow-up feature film. It feels like an organic follow up. It’s not a sequel, there’s no continuation of the story or the characters, but it’s a feature length film called A Girl and Other Small Stains. I think of it as a coming-of-age Cat People meets Fish Tank. It’s a teen shapeshifter film, based on this idea of a wild, out-of-control teen girl who actually becomes wild and out of control. We often tend to use animalistic terms to talk about self-possessed young women, like she’s a beast, so the idea is that a girl whose father has decided that she is a beast and sends her to go live with her estranged grandmother, and she actually becomes a beast, but then she gains control of her shape-shifting ability and uses it for good. It’s another girl power film, much more genre committed, one main character, much more plot driven. It will still be nuanced and awkward for all of the Knives and Skins super fans, but I think it’s going to open up my audience base a little bit wider because it is a little more accessible than Knives and Skin.