Interview: "Detention" Director Joseph Kahn Talks Respecting Teenage Moviegoers & '90s Nostalgia

The veteran music video shotcaller chats about his meta, genre-bending, and supercharged new high school horror-comedy.

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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)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

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.

The film was finished in 2010, and, again, the relevancies of certain pop culture references and talking points have changed since then. Was there ever a concern, on your end, that some of the references and jokes in Detention would grow stale the longer the film waited for a release date?
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)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

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