In an effort to best describe Joseph Kahn’s unclassifiable Detention, allow us to briefly relay the new independent flick’s bookending moments: The film opens with a pretty yet stuck-up high school girl getting hacked up slasher movie style after dictating her “Guide to Not Being a Total Reject,” then powers through 80 minutes of breathless energy before a prom band performs Hanson’s “Mmmbop” and a flying saucer disrupts a young couple’s cuddle time.
If that’s not bizarre enough to leave you highly intrigued, then we don’t know what to tell you. For those who, like us, appreciate reckless originality in movies, Detention is a must-see. Directed and co-written by Kahn, who’s been shooting many of the music industry’s biggest videos since the mid-’90s, the meta genre mash-up follows a small group of Grizzly Lake High School students as they fire off endless pop culture references and profess their love for all things ’90s. Not to mention, they also travel back and forth from 2011 to 1992 in a time machine dressed up as a humongous bear statue, get in trouble with a principal played by comedian Dane Cook, and evade the homicidal tendencies of a serial killer dressed up as the fictional horror movie icon “Cinderhella.”
Wisely, Kahn—whose music video credits include clips for Eminem, Usher, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry, amongst countless others—opted to forego the Hollywood system and raise the cash to make Detention himself; frankly, it’s the kind of fearlessly audacious project that very few, if any, major studios would ever bankroll. Having survived a problematic Hollywood shoot for his first movie, 2004’s automotive action flick Torque, the Texas native birthed Detention exactly how he wanted to, and the labor-of-love results speak for themselves.
Complex recently chopped it up with Kahn to discuss how Detention is tailor-made for short attention spans, why teenagers are rarely given good movies to call their own, and the appeal of the 1990s over the ’80s.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Detention moves so fast and has so much going on all at once that it made my process of taking notes nearly impossible.
[Laughs.] Yeah, don’t hurt yourself.
The interesting thing about the screening I attended was that the younger critics and people in the audience were reacting loudly the entire time, while most of the older critics just sat there with either indifferent or confused looks on their faces.
You know what? It’s an interesting movie in that I definitely designed it for a younger audience. It’s a high school movie, so it’s going to be a party for younger people, and for older people, you’re going to have to be a cool motherfucker to get into that party. [Laughs.]
Looking beyond Detention’s “high school” movie angle, where did the inspiration to structure it in such a genre-mashing way and with such a nonstop visual energy come from?
The whole movie wasn’t conceived that way, obviously; otherwise, it wouldn’t have taken me three years to write the damn script with my co-writer, Mark Palermo. [Laughs.]
We actually started doing something completely different. We wanted to do something a bit more conventional, and maybe a little more commercial, but as I developed the script for over a year, I realized that I’m not that guy. There’s a piece of me that just wants to play too much, that wants to kick sand out of the sand castle and replace it with, I don’t know, diamonds. I had to play, and what you see is really the result of me going to town.
Was the original, more commercial idea still a high school comedy?
Originally we wanted to make a high school slasher film, but obviously what we have here is not a slasher film at all. It turns into something radically different.
Even though you wanted to make something a bit more commercial initially, was the intention to always make the film independently?
No, originally the idea was that we would write this amazing commercial script, go to Hollywood, get a studio interested, and then show everyone how well I can be a “good boy” and play the system. But I’m not a good boy—I’m a very bad boy. [Laughs.]
Over the course of time that it took you to write and ultimately make Detention, you were still directing numerous major music videos for huge artists. Did that side of your career make it especially difficult to focus on Detention?
Well, it wasn’t even my music videos, honestly—I was doing a lot more commercials during that time, and I was writing another movie called Neuromancer, so I was a very busy boy. That’s one of the reasons why Detention took three years to write—it wasn’t the fact that I worked on it every day for three years.
Mark is from Canada, so I’d fly him down and we’d meet for maybe a week or two, and then he’d fly back. We did a draft before, but the actual final script took a three-and-a-half week period. It was intensive, and I really just quit my day job for a month, and we worked on it every day until it was done. That was when Detention really came together.
Being that pop culture changes at such a rapid pace, it seems that working on a movie like Detention, which is so heavy on pop culture references, would be even more difficult over a longer period of time. Keeping the references timely and relevant must’ve been a challenge.
Yeah, we had to keep updating the references, as the movie wasn’t getting sold in the early stages. And then, finally, I just said, “You know what? Screw this. I want to shoot it myself, so I’ll put my own money into it.” Unfortunately, it was, like, July 1st when I decided to do that, and most of it takes place in a high school, so I had to shoot it all before the high school went back to class in early September. So I had to prep out, finance, build all the sets, and cast it literally all within a month and a half.