I know that in a couple of years the references in the movie are going to be so old and so ridiculous that people will look back and say, “Man, this is a really lame and wack movie.” But then I also know that in 20 years it will be cool and retro. [Laughs.]
When it comes to high school movies, I feel it’s very important to actually put your foot down, plant a flag, and say, “It’s this date,” because it’s about cultural relevancy. I think, ultimately, before the film goes too vintage, we have a couple years of shelf life where it’s still relevant. But there will definitely come a point when Detention becomes a vintage film, and I’m OK with that. I designed that. I wanted the magic of actually placing it in a very specific time period, so that people can say, “Oh, I identify with that particular day and that particular part of my life.
To that point, it’s also quite refreshing to watch a high school movie starring actual teenagers, rather than 20- to 30-year-olds pretending to be teenagers.
That was very important to me: to get realism, in terms of the acting. Because most of the times what happens is you cast 25-year-old people to act 18, and I really wanted 18-year-olds to say these lines, which are really complex. But I know, personally, that the youth culture of today is just so much more intelligent than anyone can really give young people credit for; they are able to say these lines and make them their own because they actually speak like this.
It’s interesting, because with a movie like Juno, when that came out and had its teenage characters speaking in really heavy slang, a lot of people railed against it and felt it was too forced. Was that in your head while writing Detention?
Well, when I did some test readings of it before I started casting it, I definitely gave the script to some 18-year-olds and had them all say all the lines, and every once in awhile they’d say, “Well, we wouldn’t really say this,” or, “What the hell did you write here?” [Laughs.] We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any Juno-speak, in terms of making up funny words that nobody would ever actually say. We wanted the things the characters say to be things actual teenagers would say in 2011. I wanted to keep it real on that level, so I did filter it through some actual teenagers. For the most part, though, we were on target.
The person who really stands out in Detention is your leading lady, Shanley Caswell—she owns the entire movie, in my opinion. Was it a long process finding her?
Shanley was a find, yeah. It’s funny, I found her on the very first day, and she was the last person to come in. I had a huge casting session for every young actress that hadn’t made it yet, and she was just so natural and so amazing. I think my entire cast is a slam dunk, on a weird level, because I was looking for every actor in Hollywood who was doing television and hadn’t been drafted by the studios into their larger work.
Shanley was definitely one of those diamonds. I went through the entire jewelry store and found the one that was inexpensive and also the biggest, brightest, clearest, and shiniest one I could find, and that was her. Hey, studios: That was your loss. [Laughs.] I found her, and now you can have her.
It definitely benefits a film like this to have mostly unknowns, save for Josh Hutcherson, in the cast; if we were to see bigger name actors delivering all of Detention’s snappy, slang-heavy language, it’d look pretty goofy. You’d think, OK, he probably doesn’t really talk like that—he’s definitely acting.
Yeah, it was a tough thing. For instance, two of my actors aren’t even actors—they are battle rappers. I’m talking about Dumbfoundead [Jonathan Park] and Organik [Travis Fleetwood]; Organik is the president of King of the Dot, in Toronto, which is the biggest battle rap league in the world. I specifically didn’t even cast those parts; I saw it in my head that Dumbfoundead would play “Toshiba” really well, and Organik, I would have to fly him down at my own cost, but I knew it’d really work if he played Gord, the really tall student.
I mentioned earlier how Detention moves a mile a minute, and I’ve read how your intention with the film’s quick pace was to cater to today’s short attention span society. Can you elaborate on that?
I believe that people don’t just watch movies once anymore. People watch movies multiple times, because that’s the way we deal with media. I’m used to designing for music videos, and with a music video, you never just watch it once—those things are designed to be watched hundreds of times and never bore the viewer, and they’re paced in a way… And, by the way, when we say “pace,” it’s not just the rhythm of editing, it’s literally the rhythm of ideas. You can create a fast pace without editing at all.
Detention has a certain density. Once you watch it the first time, and all the puzzle pieces come back together, I assume that the audience is smart enough to watch it again and get a whole other set of revelations, from the switching of the characters, to predicting plot points, and figuring out a whole other aspect of the movie. Every time you watch it, you should get deeper and deeper.
And I’d imagine that it’s extra difficult to write a movie with that approach in mind.
Definitely, that’s why it took a year. I’ve never spent a year on anything, in terms of just conceptualizing it. With most of my videos, I figure out the conceptualizations within a couple of days, so this was an entire year of thought for Detention.
What was the most difficult aspect?
Well, we wanted to make sure that the characters were, number one, real. The difference with this and another mash-up, like, say, Scary Movie or Epic Movie, is that the characters never just pop out and let a certain gag change who they are just to service that gag. Like, to get a visual joke, the lead actress can suddenly become a rapper and be really good at it, and that’s the fabric of what that joke is, you know? Shanley’s character, Riley, could never suddenly start rapping in the middle of this thing. [Laughs.] That would totally be out of her character.
So we tried to keep the consistencies of these characters intact all the way through, while also doing all of the most amazing, outrageous, ridiculous, absurd, and ironic things possible to them, and that was the struggle: to tell such a fantastic story in a grounded way.
The idea of bouncing around from one genre to the next in Detention is interesting, too, because it services that short attention span philosophy. If the viewer grows tired of the horror stuff, there’s comedy or science fiction right around the corner.
That’s the macro idea, but I think, ultimately, if you really appreciate the movie, then you’ll appreciate that everything is placed perfectly where it is. Then, when you watch it again, it’s like a fine wine: You’ll notice all of the different flavors and how they blend together.
You have to be a wine-snob filmmaker-lover to really appreciate this movie. You’ve got to take that film, put it in your mouth, and go, “Wow, there’s a little flavor of cherry, there’s a little sci-fi, and, oh, I love the way that comedy blended into that horror, and, oh, how that cheerleader blends in with her mother. Delicious! It’s a nice vintage 2011!” [Laughs.]
On the flipside of that, though, the audiences today are so sophisticated that when they start texting in movie theaters, I think it’s a failure of the movie more so than it’s a triumph of AT&T. People know that, with all of these reboots, remixes, and remakes and sequels, there are certain lulls in the movie where they know what’s going to come next, so they snap out. They say, “OK, this is the part that’s slow, so I can use the bathroom now, or go and text.” I wanted to make a movie that’s so compelling that it challenges the audience to pay attention. If you text for even 10 seconds during Detention, you’re toast. [Laughs.]
What made you want to go with the ’90s as the focal point of the film’s nostalgia?
I thought it was a really absurd thing to do. The obvious approach would’ve been to go back to the ‘80s, because the ’80s are really hot. But as a music video director, one of the things I do is predict where trends are going next, and I know that the ’90s are coming up next. They’re just right behind the dugout, ready to step up to the plate, and start hitting those balls. I just wanted to be the first one to pitch that ball.
With Detention, one of your intentions was to give today’s youth a movie that they can call their own, which it seems like they need. When you think back on the best teen/high school movies of all time, save for Superbad, most, if not all, come from way back in the day. Why do you think there’s been such a lack of movies like Detention in modern times?
Because I think that the studio, on a certain level, is really afraid to sell to kids—they underestimate their intelligence. The kids today are so much smarter than studios give them credit for. They are one of the most sophisticated, smartest, least racist, least sexist, and least homophobic generations that has ever popped up on the planet.
These are really progressive kids, but all that studios want to do is find a certain formula to make money off of them, so they take the John Hughes formula and maybe throw in some shaky-cam touches and some found footage, and maybe even a superhero or two, and call it a day. They’re just really un-ambitious, and they don’t know what kids want. I’m not saying that I do, but I wanted to at least give them an option out there that says, “OK, this is not a taste for anybody else but you guys, so have at it.” If you like it, then thank me; if you don’t, then keep your fucking mouth shut. [Laughs.]
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)