Joseph Kahn talks about latest teen slasher film, 'Detention'
In the 20 years that Joseph Kahn has been a director, he’s made hundreds of music videos and hundreds of TV commercials. But he’s only directed two feature films: the studio-backed 2004 biker action thriller “Torque” and the self-funded new teen slasher spoof “Detention.” Kahn, 39, arrived in Boston last week to talk up “Detention,” which will be released under the auspices of Sony and Samuel Goldwyn, but was in paid for by Kahn’s personal savings and by loans from friends.
“I was asked by Warner Brothers to make ‘Torque,’” he said, sitting in an open area of the Liberty Hotel. “But I had a very different conception of it than what the studio wanted. My mistake was that I thought it would be like a music video, where you get to do whatever you want and play around and improvise. But that’s not gonna happen on a studio film.”
He quickly learned that making a studio film meant that someone was watching your every move, making sure you weren’t losing them any money. But “Torque” failed at the box office, and Kahn returned to videos and commercials, wondering if he would ever make another feature. But he had an idea for a story, got together with a writer-film critic friend named Mark Palermo, and started working on “Detention,” a self-described “horror-science fiction-time travel-high school comedy, with some kung fu in it.”
“It took us three years to write, and we planned to sell it to a studio,” said Kahn. “But we knew that if we did that, there was no way it would get made the way it was written. It was too weird and too out there and had too many mixed genres. So I thought, ‘Why do I want to go through a studio on this?’ I had some money in the bank. I knew I could go completely bankrupt doing it. But how many films am I going to be able to make in my life? Not many.”
This one, like many before it, focuses on a bunch of high school kids getting knocked off, one at a time, by a mysterious killer. It’s also way over the top in outlandishness, goes for lots of laughs in between the almost cartoonish slaughter, and is swimming with oddball and out-of-date pop culture references, ranging from casual mentions of Ralph Macchio and “The Wrath of Kahn” (the director obviously likes his own name) to Katrina and the Waves and those “heart-tugging” Sally Struthers ‘Christian Children’s Fund ads.
“The movie plays on two different levels, on purpose,” said Kahn, smiling. “While people older than 30 will get all the ’90s references, we know that kids won’t know those references. The older audience members might be laughing at those jokes, but the younger ones will laugh for a different reason – that these characters (mentioning them) are extraordinarily weird. So there are like two versions of the movie playing for two different audiences.”
Boston audiences will likely get a kick out of seeing local comic hero Dane Cook playing the school’s dorky Principal Verge, a character who’s been harboring a secret for a long time. It’s the second time Kahn has hired Cook. “Torque” was the comic actor’s first Hollywood film.
“I saw him doing standup in the ’90s, when he was a struggling comedian at the Laugh Factory,” Kahn said. “I thought he was by far the funniest guy I’d ever seen. I pitched him to the studio, but the producer wanted another guy. But I somehow got Dane in there, and I was right. For this one, I just sent him the script, and he liked it.”
Another Boston connection goes back a decade, when Kahn came to town to shoot the science fiction-based video for Aerosmith’s “Fly Away from Here.” He readily admitted to being a huge Aerosmith fan, then and now.
“I get to work with a lot of big bands that were heroes of mine when I was growing up,” he said. “Steven Tyler and Joe Perry are legends!” Tyler lives in Marshfield and Perry is a Duxbury resident.
Breaking into storytelling mode, Kahn recalled what it was like working on that music video shoot.
“I’d be on set, directing the band, then I’d get called into Steven Tyler’s trailer, and he’d ask, ‘What did Joe Perry want? Well, I want a shot like that, too.’ And Joe Perry was pulling me aside and saying, ‘I want this or that.’ They were using me as an intermediary to make sure the other one wasn’t trumping the other.”
He then recalled a different story about Tyler, who adores women, Kahn said.
“In that video, I put Jessica Biel in a bikini with spikes on it, and I thought, ‘Steven’s gonna love this.’ I brought her up to Steven and said, ‘Look at her!’ I was showing her off like I just waxed a car. And he said, ‘Can I wear that, too?’”
The Patriot Ledger