Jennifer Reeder Brings Feature Knives and Skin to Wex
Filmmaker and Columbus native Jennifer Reeder returns to the Wexner Center for the Arts Friday, September 13 to screen her first feature, Knives and Skin. The film has been picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight after its successful festival run, landing screenings at the Berlin Film Festival, Tribeca, Fantasia, Fantastic Fest and Deauville American Film Festival.
Reeder is thrilled to bring the film to the Wex, a kind of home away from home for her.
Hope Madden: How did your relationship with the Wex begin?
Jennifer Reeder: It actually started the day that the Wexner Center opened in 1989. I was a college freshman and the building was hosting architectural tours of the building. There was an audio cassette tour of the building itself and they needed students to facilitate that process: hand out the cassettes, tell people where to start, gather cassettes up at the end of the tour. I was one of a handful of students that kind of was pulled in just walking past the building, just kind of, “Hey, you! Can you help us today?”
I worked for the center for that first couple months when the building was kind of a spectacle in and of itself. And then once the building was a functioning art museum, I worked in the coat check and eventually up at the front desk, and by the time I left to start graduate school I was working at the loading dock delivering mail and receiving packages, that sort of thing.
So the origins are deep, you know?
HM: And the relationship has lasted well into your filmmaking career.
JR: From that point to right this minute, I just keep talking myself back into that scene. I always love bringing my films back to screen at the Wexner Center. I just consider the Wexner part of my DNA.
HM: I’m seeing Knives and Skin get compared a lot to Lynch, which feels reasonable, but I feel like your tone and quirky noirisms offer more pointed metaphors about not just navigating the world as a female, but being from the Midwest. Am I totally off base?
JR: I call Knives and Skin a Midwestern gothic teen noir. For me it feels deeply grounded in the Midwest and for me it’s based in Ohio even though we shot it outside of Chicago.
HM: What inspired this film?
JR: The way I often start writing a script is with something visual. I imagine a scene and the script spirals out from there. With Knives and Skin, the visual that the whole film started with was a scene of three misfit goth punk girls walking along a long, rural, two-lane road. So, there is this kind of paradox: these not-country girls but country girls with an awareness of outsider, goth punk culture who are living their best lives through their wardrobe.
And they’re at an age where they’re not old enough to drive so they have to walk, or they share a socioeconomic situation that mandates that driving is not an option. So they have these long walks to school.
In a way, that feels sort of autobiographical. I didn’t grow up in the countryside, I grew up in Clintonville, but I was definitely this goth punk girl in high school. Even though I could go down on campus and find lots of record stores and clothing stores that were my religion during high school, there was also a misfit quality to who I was and how I looked. So when we first are introduced to Charlotte and April and Afra- the punk band girls in the film – we see them walking along a gravel road that feels overgrown and certainly not an urban road.
And from there I started thinking, who are these girls and what is their friendship and how old are they and what happens to them? What’s about to happen to them that’s going to turn sophomore year of high school totally upside down?
HM: How did you create this tone?
JR: David Lynch has been certainly influential, but I’m also interested in other films about missing and injured girls. Something like Rivers Edge resonates a lot more for me. In fact, there are too many films about dead and missing girls and I really wanted to make one that set itself apart, that potentially even was a feminist film that had this missing girl at its heart because it’s such a problematic trope for thrillers and I really wanted to take that on.
And then, because I made so many short films leading up to Knives and Skin that have really experimented with art direction and lighting and pacing and superimposing scenes, I didn’t want to lose that in the feature length. There are a lot of filmmakers who experiment in their shorts and then make a very conventional looking and feeling feature length, and I didn’t want to do that. I have a fan base and I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to let myself down. I really wanted to make a film that felt special in terms of all the visuals and the characters and the performances and dialog and music and singing and all of this. I wanted an audience to feel like they were entering a very specific world that I had crafted. It’s grounded in a kind of reality, but at the same time, it’s hovering just above reality.
HM: Was it tough to get all the actors on the same page?
JR: We cast that whole film out of Chicago. Chicago has this incredibly vibrant theater community and very well respected comedy community. Improv comedians are fantastic dramatic performers, by the way.
Four of the adults are Steppenwolf ensemble members – these incredibly well-respected dramatic actors who loved the script. They’re all used to taking massive risks on stage and really digging into a character and really digging into the other people in that character’s lives.
I was nervous at first because the film has to be grounded in the performances or I can’t get away with some of the absurd moments. I knew we had these incredibly accomplished actors, and really what I asked them to do over and over again was err on the side of deadpan. Don’t go to melodramatic, even if that line of dialog is melodramatic or it’s kind of absurd or it’s awkward. But if you play it deadpan, then some of the humor can come out of it and maybe a little bit more of the sorrow.
HM: I love the mother/daughter relationships—they were so achy, like the mothers are still trying to enforce some kind of conformity while they are beginning to rebel against it themselves. What made the mother/daughter relationship so important in this?
JR: I wanted to make a film that had complicated moms, maybe even difficult moms or bad moms. In real life those mother/daughter relationships can be really difficult, especially if the daughter is going through a coming of age and the mother is going through a second coming of age. If both of those characters are going through a transition, that’s got to make for some good scenes.
I do think adults make insane mistakes and they implicate their teenage kids into that, which is also totally fine. I also wanted to make a film that suggested that we should be allowed to have multiple coming of ages. Instead, when adults make mistakes, sometimes it feels like the end of the world. If we were allowed to have multiple coming of ages throughout our lives without attaching it to negative phrases like midlife crisis, then things might be a little different.
I really wanted to make, in a kind of after school special sort of way, something that was about female friendships as a survival strategy, whether that was the friendships between the girls or the friendships between the girls and the mothers.
HM: One of the things I appreciated about this was that the males—although they are each disappointing as humans—they’re treated with sympathy if not empathy. Was that intentional?
JR: Definitely. I wanted to make a feminist film that suggests that we cannot dismiss the men in our lives. And whether they’re the young men or the older men, masculinity is just as complicated as femininity. When we look at masculinity through a feminist lens and try to break it down in a film where men are not the leads, how do you do that? I wanted at the very least to have sympathy toward all of them.
HM: What are you hoping the audience takes away from Knives and Skin?
JR: I wanted to leave the audience with, if not a happy ending, then at least a hopeful ending. Whether or not you’re getting advice from your favorite talking tiger shirt, we all have lessons to learn every day.
Knives and Skin screens Friday, September 13 and Saturday, September 14 at 7 p.m. at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Reeder is in attendance on Friday.
Tickets are $7 for member and seniors, $5 for members and $9 for the general public.
For more information, visit wexarts.org.