SXSW Interview: ‘Detention’ Director Joseph Kahn: “Whenever you do something new and interesting, inevitably the vast majority of people will reject it”

Joseph Kahn (Torque) believed in himself and his film, Detention, so much that he financed the teen horror comedy himself. He made every decision and what’s on the screen is his baby.

The film, starring Josh Hutcherson, Dane Cook, Walter Perez and Parker Bagley, follows a high school senior who is given detention on the night of her prom. Throughout the night, her friends are terrorized and killed by a movie serial killer.

Joseph brought the film to SXSW for its world premiere and it definitely did not disappoint. The film is filled with pop culture references, quick edits and is beautifully shot, it’s definitely the work of a stellar music video director.

I talked to Joseph the morning after the premiere and he was definitely in good spirits. We talked about his decision to finance the film himself, not finishing casting till 2 weeks into the film and finding the perfect actors.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

You got a great group of young actors in the film. How did you and the casting directors work together?

Joseph Kahn: I was there for all the auditions, we had an extensive casting process. I mean, the movie was put together in like a month and a half, before we started shooting, from the beginning of prep til the end of shoot. And of that, I’d say like, we were casting all throughout the whole process. In fact some of the roles weren’t even cast until two weeks in to the shoot.

How nervous were you about that?

Joseph Kahn: Very nervous. I wouldn’t pull the trigger until I absolutely found the actors. And the beautiful thing is that, when you cast young actors, that are like, 17, 18, 19, there’s a lot of them coming through that haven’t broken through. They’re just so young and new to town. Someone like Aaron David Johnson hadn’t done anything before. Like he literally was in LA, like a month into it, and I went through like a hundred different people for this part, and he walked through the door, and he was so fresh and young and unknown, and it was just he was super talented. And that was my entire approach. I would find these young actors that hadn’t been around, like these nuggets of gold that just need to be sifted through, but I went through tons of people for every part.




Was it ever frustrating for you?  After actor 99 you’re like, “I just wanna find the right person!”

Joseph Kahn: Oh yeah, what was depressing is that sometimes the first time you hear someone walk through the door and they’re speaking the lines of your character… the first time you’ve actually heard it verbalized by an actor, and they’re trying out, and the actor says it wrong and doesn’t do the part right, you go, “oh my God, my script really sucks!” Like, “I can’t even imagine what the hell I was writing for the last 4 years.” But then someone comes through and they say the lines right and they inhabit the character and they bring it through and they’re storytellers, then you’re like, “oh my God! I’m a genius! I did do something right.” It’s amazing how an actor can sell a line, and turn it into a piece of life, and that’s the thing that was most fascinating about it. The unfortunate thing is to get to that one piece of life that you would find, you have to go through 99 deaths.

That’s a good way to put it. Is there any part in the casting process where you thought you wanted this type of actor, this type of character, and somebody comes in to read for the role and just brings something totally different?

Joseph Kahn: Yeah, one of the hardest parts, yeah, we’ve had that a couple of times, sometimes the parts do shift a little bit according to how someone brings something to the table. Like I think Dane changed the verge tonality a little bit. Cause he had a certain rhythm and vocal speech, and the way he was playing it instinctively… it was interesting because all the other kids would have this sort of screw-ball comedy style, where the dialogues really fast and furious and coming at you at a 100 miles an hour, and then Dane as the principal was this rock and he would slow things down. And like all these kids will try to talk really fast keep but running to this wall. And Dane brought that to the table, and it was really funny to see that contrast happen.  It’s a very subtle thing that I don’t think most people would recognize, but he’s the one that like kinda pulls the kids and stops them from talking fast. And sort of puts them in a verbal detention.

Did you guys rehearse?

Joseph Kahn: We had an extensive rehearsal period. I mean it was two weeks. And we would just go in there and go through the script and we’d go through the lines and ask them what they’re doing and then we go through actual physical blocking. And I was then sort of thinking like I was the camera, trying to figure out where the camera would be and stuff like that. It was an actual sort of workshop that we do. We would workshop out the scenes for a couple hours a night.

During the rehearsal process, did the script change?

Joseph Kahn: Sometimes it would, sometimes, because I had my writer there, and we would look at it, “oh, we should change this one, ‘cause she said it funnier.” It was a very fluid process but because I’m the co-writer and I’m the financier, I can do whatever I wanted. Yeah, I can start switching out things wherever I want, that was the process. It was really a very, very creative period where like the actors could really experiment.

And just one more question, what’s your advice to creative people?

Joseph Kahn:, I think that people play it too safe, and I feel like, if you gonna try a new idea, the problem is that everybody will tell you that that new idea is terrible. Because, and it’s my experience over and over again, whenever you do something new and interesting, inevitably the vast majority of people will reject it. That’s any choice, as an actor, as a filmmaker, as a writer, as whatever. Anytime you do something unconventional, like it’s different, like, and I know this from experience as a Music Video Director, every time I hear a new piece of music, I always have to listen to it a couple of times, ‘cause my first instinct is… I hear the music way before it gets on the radio, before anything like that, my first instinct is always “this sounds weird.” I’m not used to it, because this is something new. But then, once you listen to it a little closer and you listen again, you figure out certain things and some music starts popping. It’s the natural rhythm of how we interact as human beings. We don’t like new things, we like familiar things, it’s kind of a Darwinian code of survival, we like things that are safe ‘cause we like to know that chair’s over there so we don’t bump into it. It’s a instinctual human behaviour. So if you wanna re-arrange the chair to make it better and make the room more open, it’s gonna require a little shift of orientation, it’s always gonna be a little strange. So, the most important thing I could say to a creative person is, If you wanna change that chair, change that chair, and eventually people are gonna have to adapt to your room.

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