The Badass Interview: Director Joseph Kahn Talks DETENTION And TORQUE

The director sat down with Meredith to talk about his maligned - and misunderstood - film TORQUE and his terrific latest endeavor DETENTION.

Joseph Kahn, director of Torque and the brand new Detention, grew up in the Houston suburb of Jersey Village. He returned to the Space City yesterday to do press for Detention, and I got a chance to sit down and chat with him. Detention is an amazing film: a movie that manages to be both frenetic and utterly deliberate, a pop culture tempest that blows through dozens of different genres and hundreds of different references and nails every single one of them. It's a horror/comedy/time-travel/teen movie that is at once all of those things and none of them. It's a movie that understands the brilliant and haphazard anarchy of the modern teenage brain, and that's a rare thing. It's absurdly fun and it also says something - several things. Go see it. You can read Devin's review of the film here.

Anyone who's seen DetentionTorque or one of Kahn's riotous music videos won't be surprised to learn that his speech is lightning fast and the topic is ever-changing.  He gives a really fun interview. Read on for the scoop.

You financed the film yourself and had complete creative control. Do you plan to do your next project the same way?

If I had any money left after this... I don't know. Here’s the thing: I can’t do everything the same way again. So I just did the “I will do whatever I want” version with my own money, so maybe the next one will be a studio film. I don’t know. I think when you make the structure an issue, then it’s an issue.

This is your first screenplay, and you co-wrote it with Mark Palermo. What was that collaborative process like?

It was really fun because we both come from a different perspective but we’re both very similar. He’s a film critic from Halifax and I’m a music video director, but we both like the same things. For a film critic, he’s hyper aware of music and fashion and things like that, so we were able to communicate on a very similar level.

There's a certain joy to Detention despite the cynicism. How did you strike that balance?

I think ultimately the story I wanted to tell is about a newer generation of kids that are under 25 years old, and I personally do not have the cynicism about them that everybody else does. I think the young kids today are the most progressive, least sexist, least racist, smartest, most interesting group of people around, because they have the benefit of the Internet and all the knowledge that’s in it. So I cannot dislike these people. If I truly made a movie about them, I like them, and I think that shows in the movie.

I see a lot of your commercial and music video work in the movie, to its benefit. I think kids will really respond to the fast-paced, multi-genre, pop sensibility. That said, what were some of the cinematic influences in the film?

It’s a big smorgasbord of a lot of influences on the movie, but ultimately it’s not about movies. It’s about pop culture. But in terms of the cinematic influences, I think that on a bedrock, there are a lot of Spielbergian camera moves, the blocking and the multi-access type moves that I’m doing. There’s a lot of music video stuff going on in terms of the tempo. But ultimately what I really wanted to do is use every kind of influence. You’ll see little pieces of John Hughes there. Like there’s a shot of eyes brightening up that’s a very sort of John Hughes thing. The idea was to take all of the influences that I have and then reprocess them internally so that it’s almost like it can’t be sourced out in any way, because any given shot could be a blend of five different ideas. The genres are obvious, but I think the filmmaking is blended. 

It's been eight years since you made Torque. Why'd you wait so long to follow it up?

Well, Torque was a very horrible experience for me. I mean, I like my movie at the end of the day. I think it’s a very misunderstood movie and it took a while for them to understand what I was doing with it. But the reality is that the studio wanted Fast and the Furious on motorcycles. I hate those movies. I’m sorry, you might like them, but I just think they’re ridiculous. [laughs] They’re predicated on this idea that there’s this really cool, real world with real action and real people, and I don’t get it. Like, who the fuck are these people? This is so ridiculous and so fake, so if I do my version of it, why don’t I make it super fake and super everything? Why don’t I make my hyper-real, Japanese animation, self-reflexive comedy version of a biker movie with Ice Cube? And you know what the audience for that is? One person. [laughs]

So it just got slammed in the media and quite frankly, everybody was really mean to me. The Internet just jumped on me. It’s almost like I was paying for the crimes of Michael Bay, like here’s another video director doing an action movie. So everybody thought, “Oh, we got him! Here’s our chance to kill the next Michael Bay. Stop that, before it grows up!” [laughs] So, good job, Internet!

So I just sort of shied away from it, and I decided I needed to do other things for a while. And I had to really figure out what my next move was. Because I always wanted to make movies; I love movies. That’s what everyone gets into this for. I just decided, next time, if I’m going to fail - and by the way, I don’t think I failed in terms of what I wanted to do, but on a financial level, it failed. And I thought, "If I’m going to financially fail, then I really want to go balls out. And therefore I’m going to take my own money and do it my own way, and if I’m going to fail spectacularly, I’m going to bet everything on it." That’s where Detention came in. This is all my cash and it took me eight years to do, because it took me three years to recover from Torque mentally, and three years to write this thing, and two years to sell it.

Are you already thinking about your next project, or are you just focused on Detention right now?

I am thinking about my new project, but the reality is, it’s just as crazy, and it would probably require me to spend my own money and I have no money right now. And it takes me so long to make these things. We’ll be lucky to see this thing before 2020. [laughs]

I think all of the kids in Detention do an incredible job, and casting was so crucial. How did you make those decisions?

Number one, what I wanted to do was cast all the kids authentically. I wanted the 18-year-olds to be played by 18-year-olds, so my four leads were all 18, 17, 19 at the time. I feel like that really allowed them to connect on a level that was more real. Because they have some very complicated dialogue to speak. If you really listen closely to how an 18-year-old speaks today, they use some pretty great linguistics. And I thought the dynamic would have been very different if, say, 17-year-old Josh had been playing against a 25-year-old actress. You’d never get any authenticity out of that, because now they’re truly acting. I thought that by casting them all within a certain age bracket, it kept a certain alpha level between all of them that was natural. And that was my main intention. And ultimately another reason of doing it independently is that I didn’t have to cast stars – not that I would have gotten any; I mean, I’m the director of Torque so nobody wanted to work with me anyway. [laughs]

But now you have [Josh Hutcherson] the star of The Hunger Games

But I got him before Hunger Games, that’s the thing! When he was around, I knew Josh was going to be a star. Part of my job as a music video director is to spot talent, you know, pick the right song, pick the right track and then turn them into stars. It was very obvious to me that Josh was a diamond in the rough. He had a certain reputation but he wasn’t Peeta yet, you know? But I knew that at some point, that kid was going to blow up. He has charisma, he has looks, he has an amazing smile, and he’s like a 30-year-old man in a 17-year-old body. He’s really smart. Okay, so this kid’s definitely going to blow up. And when I got him on board, it was like getting Apple stock at $2 and then suddenly he’s in The Hunger Games and I’ve got a $600 stock!

I think the actress who plays Riley does an amazing job, too, and she's so important to the film.

It’s truly Riley’s story. Shanley Caswell is another example of, because the money was mine, I really went for the best actress. I didn’t go for the name; I just wanted someone who could actually play that character. Because that character is my throughline, she’s the sympathy. Even though Josh has the lead credit, it’s really Shanley’s movie. 

I'm the right age for all of the '90s references, but a lot of kids today won't get them. Who would you say the film's targeted toward?

I think the movie works on two different levels. It was consciously written for people over, say, 25 and consciously written for people under 25. But there are two different perspectives of it. There’s going to be people over 25 that will get all the '90s references, but may not get all of the youth culture stuff. But maybe they will! If you’re older, you’d better have a young heart. But if you’re younger, you’re definitely not going to get all the '90s references, but if you watch the movie carefully, because of the way it’s structured with all the time travel and stuff, the characters are meant to be looking at this particular character who says most of the '90s stuff anyway, and they’re thinking that she’s weird. A lot of the older critics and some of the people at Sony were looking at it going, “What is this crazy movie trying to sell '90s references to teenagers?” And I’m like, “You’re missing the point! These kids think that '90s thing is weird and old.” And a lot of folks are going, “They’re so lame, talking about the '90s. Is that supposed to be cool now?” No, it’s not cool! That’s the whole reason it’s in the movie. These young kids are reacting, going “What the hell are these people talking about?” And I think that’s how the young people will be adjusting and reacting to the movie. 

Detention comes out in theaters next Friday, April 13. You should really, really go see it. I'm serious. Go see it!