“Knives and Skin” recently screened at the 2019 AFI Fest. The film is a neon-drenched teenage noir about grief, loss, and female empowerment. Jennifer Reeder’s feature-length film is a dreamy nightmare, full of opulent visuals with a haunting score to match. The film centers on the disappearance of a teenage girl, Carolyn Harper, in a small midwestern town and the effects it has on her classmates and their parents. Jennifer Ortega recently spoke to writer/director Jennifer Reeder about her beautifully surreal teenage saga.
The Visual Language of Knives and Skin
Jennifer Ortega: I will tell you, even before I saw it, this was one of the films when I saw the scheduling of AFI that I really wanted to see. I don’t read reviews before I see something, but just from the pictures of it and the little synopsis, I’m like, “Oh, I need to see this.” So I was so excited to talk to you.
Jennifer Reeder: Great.
Jennifer Ortega: And what a beautiful film. It’s so unexpected when you think of like a teen in a movie, and it’s just really wonderful. Where did that idea first come from?
Jennifer Reeder: So “Knives and Skin” is really is based on themes that I have worked out in a bunch of short films I’ve made over the past like five or six years, which are all available to the public on Vimeo. So if anyone’s curious about what I’ve done before “Knives and Skin,” they can watch a bunch of short films. But each exists on their own, I mean, they’re their own entity, but they all have kind of tentacles that relate to the mothership, which is “Knives and Skin.”
But in particular, I started writing “Knives and Skin” in the way that I start every film, which is through something visual. I didn’t go to film school, I went to art school. I didn’t make art in art school. I was only making films at art school, but the visual language in my films is always the germination.
And so with “Knives and Skin,” I was driving to my mom’s house from Chicago to Ohio, through the very typical Midwest, the rural Midwest, and I sort of had this vision. It wasn’t a real vision, but I imagined three kind of goth punk girls walking along this rural two-lane road on their way to school, on their way home from school, on the way to a friend’s house, on the way to band practice or whatever. And it felt like a really powerful visual analogy to a character being at a crossroads in their life, not feeling comfortable in their own skin, but more so not from the outside, not fitting into their environment, the figure being at odds with their ground.
Jennifer Reeder: And so then from there, I do what I do. You start asking yourself questions, sort of like to begin the writing process. And so I thought, “Who are these three young women and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever?” And so many of the short films I’ve done, again, leading up to “Knives and Skin” have had a dark element, usually a missing girl, which to me is just something that is a daily occurrence in the world.
Jennifer Ortega: Oh, absolutely. I love it, and definitely because the visuals in it are just insane. I love them, just like the tones and everything. This is like this moody, dreamy, psychedelic… It’s incredible just to look at. It’s just really beautiful. I feel like each scene is like a painting, like a picture in itself.
Jennifer Reeder: Right.
Jennifer Ortega: And I love that you do that because the environment becomes part of the story.
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah, absolutely.
Jennifer Ortega: And the costuming is amazing. Oh, I love it.
Jennifer Reeder: It was important that the production design became part of the narrative element. I mean, cinema is visual, and cinema for me is an art form. I’m sort of astonished that a lot of filmmakers don’t pay more attention to the visual storytelling, you know?
Jennifer Ortega: I agree.
Jennifer Reeder: And to really understand that even if it’s a story that’s supposed to be grounded in reality, it’s still a fictional story, and you can create whatever world you want to create. I mean, I wasn’t interested in necessarily making “Knives and Skin” feel as though it was taking place in a fully kind of parallel, fantastical city. I wanted it to feel like it was grounded in a place, but at the same time it, it hovers just above reality.
Jennifer Ortega: I think that’s a perfect way to put it. You said it perfectly because I never felt like it was like, oh, this is in the future, or this is not on earth or it’s something weird like that. But like everything, I mean, everything’s a little off-kilter. And I think that also adds just to the tension of the film, just this underlining kind of like… For me, when I’m watching, it’s like what’s going to happen now? I’m getting nervous almost.
Jennifer Reeder: Right, yeah, absolutely. That’s absolutely true.
The Animalistic Nature of Trauma
Jennifer Ortega: And the actors are amazing. Marika, I think her name is, that plays Carolyn’s mother. I think that’s right.
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah.
Jennifer Ortega: Her character and just the transformation of her and having this… The scene with her sniffing Andy was amazing, by the way. I loved that. And then she’s wearing his shirt and…
Jennifer Reeder: That’s right. I wanted to write a grieving mother, a kind of fragile woman, a kind of coming apart female character that was surprising. I just think that in real life, that the way that we as humans cope with trauma is very personal. It’s very, very idiosyncratic. It can be very private. And I think cinematically, we just have these one-dimensional ways that in particular women are supposed to be upset. You fall to your knees crying. And I just think that in reality, when we are confronting a situation, especially a traumatic situation which we have never confronted before as an adult, there’s no way to predict how we will react.
And I think that the loss of a loved one, which of course it’s just a horrific tragedy, I think our animal instincts kick in. Our senses are heightened, our sense of smell, hearing, touch, and we become animals just trying to find the things that we’ve lost. And I really wanted to inject that into that character.
Jennifer Ortega: I love it because she’s trying to like hold on to any little thing of her daughter. And you’re right, there’s this like crazy, even on TV when somebody’s missing, the way they expect people to grieve. I’m like you cannot have a preconceived notion of how somebody grieves. That’s so personal.
Jennifer Reeder: Very true, exactly.
Jennifer Ortega: And you don’t know what’s that going to be until that happens to you. So I love how she was portrayed.
Turning 80’s New Wave Tunes into Choral Lamentations
Jennifer Ortega: I have to mention the music because, first of all, I love this score, but also I’m a person that mostly I really only listen to like ’80s new wave music. So I was very excited. But it was so beautiful the way it was arranged and performed, the different songs, and I’ve never heard any of them sung like that. How did you get there? Because it’s so unique, and I just really enjoyed that a lot.
Jennifer Reeder: Sure. And I’ll mention that I also really love the score.
Jennifer Ortega: The score is amazing.
Jennifer Reeder: I’m obsessed with the score because I didn’t make it, but it was composed by Nick Zinner from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, it’s interesting to note. Because he’s like, we know what you can do as a guitar player for that band, but he’s also, his solo music is fantastic, and I think that he brings a lot of emotional life to this film through that score.
So the singing scenes, again, I had vetted them through, or I vetted scenes like that, through the shorts, and so I knew that they could work. I mean, I knew that those scenes were deeply engaging to audiences, and so I knew that I wanted to use that process when I was doing “Knives and Skin.”
And so I set out to… I had a list of songs that I knew were great, infectious, kind of poppy new wave songs from the ’80s. But I also knew that in terms of their lyrics, if we slowed down the lyrics to be like a eulogy or a lamentation or a lullaby, that the lyrics sung by, whether it’s one person, two people, or a choir, like a choral arrangement, had a lot of emotional weight. And that these pop songs were much more melancholy in the form that I present them.
Jennifer Reeder: And the singing scenes, for me, they are oftentimes an extension of the narrative dialogue, so they do kind of act like a Greek chorus. The lyrics are important to me, so it’s important that you’re listening to what the girls are singing, the words they’re singing that is. But they also serve as a kind of intermission within a film where you have to kind of keep track of a lot of characters, a lot of story arcs. I think that the singing scenes can be a place where the audience sort of reorients themselves, like to the map of the story.
I think that the singing scenes also, become moments in a world where a lot of characters are making mistakes. There’s a certain amount of a kind of constant tension and brutality. And the singing songs remind us that in this same world there is beauty and harmony and synchronicity and that everything is kind of better if we can work together towards a common goal. The singing seems to do all of that. That’s how they function in this film for me.
I love that so many people who are big fans of ’80s music, so many young people that I encounter, and the young people in this film know all those songs, but there’s something like when you hear those songs beginning, it takes you a minute for some people to sort of figure out what that song is. And then once you figure it out, they also really pull an audience into the story further. The audience is further invested because it’s like the songs are part of the fabric of their own identity.
Jennifer Ortega: Absolutely. I think, too, I mean, I think about high school too, and I listened to the same music that I do now… like those kinds of songs. So it kind of also brings me back to that time. And I love what you just said too because high school, my parents, we moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento, which in the early ’90s was horrific and rednecky, And I was like an artsy kid. I did not like it, and so it was not a pleasurable experience. But there were moments of joy, and so I do think… I love that because the songs are kind of like those moments… You recognize the little moments of beauty and joy within this terribleness.
Jennifer Reeder: Right.
Working with Theater Actors
Jennifer Ortega: And the actresses, the three girls, they’re great. All the roles, I think, are such powerful roles and challenging roles. None of them are, I would never think, I don’t act, but none of these would be easy roles to be an actor in. How did you go about casting or choosing them? Because I just think you have to have such a strong kind of presence for each individual character.
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah, so we cast this film all out of Chicago. Chicago has a very, very well respected and vibrant theater scene. And so all of the adults and all of the young people, all of them have extensive theater experience. They do all have some experience in front of a camera, so they all knew how to perform in front of a camera. But I feel like theater actors and even a lot of them do more even like improv comedy. They are comedians. And I think that there’s something very particular about an actor who’s used to performing in front of a live audience. I mean, it’s like that’s a very bold way of putting yourself out into the world. And it’s like I think that theater actors kind of lean into risk, lean into provocation.
So writing these, or presenting these kinds of multi-dimensional kind of complicated, difficult characters to the theater actors, I mean, all of them got it. I mean, I didn’t have to have long, extensive conversations with these actors about who their characters were. I mean, they really had a way of really understanding who their characters were. And I mean, four of the adults are Steppenwolf ensemble members. And Steppenwolf Theater is one of the most respected theater companies on the planet.
And I think that any film director who’s not paying all the attention to who’s giving remarkable theater performances is really missing out. Because I think that the way that I was able to get away with a lot of the kind of awkwardness and the deadpan of the dialogue and the acting in this film is because the performances are deeply grounded, but all of these actors really had a really bold and deep understanding of who these kind of difficult characters were. And they played them really lovingly. It’s also like none of the actors playing the characters hated their characters. They knew that they were difficult characters, but they really owned them with a lot of love.
Jennifer Ortega: I love that you used theater actors because I’m trying to remember it. Recently, I was speaking to a filmmaker about this. And I was talking to him, and it’s like it’s such a shame that people categorize, “Oh, you’re a theater actor. You’re a film actor… ” Because to me, first of all, if you’re in the theater, you’re going to have a good work ethic because you’re working nonstop. You’re doing matinees and whatever. But yeah, there is something so different. There are so many talented theater actors. I wish more directors and filmmakers would kind of look there just like you said because I feel like that makes sense now. They’re such good performances.
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah, right. And I think that these characters, in particular, they show themselves one way to the people in their lives, and then we as the audience experience them in a different way in their private lives. So I think that all of these characters, all these actors also had to just sort of be able to kind of like change the temperature of their character from like moment to moment within a scene. And I think that the people who are best at doing that are people who are used to performing in front of a live audience because you really have to kind of know the vibe of the audience.
Jennifer Ortega: Oh, yeah, and it changes daily, yeah.
Jennifer Reeder: And be able to adapt to that kind of change. Absolutely, yeah. No, I love my Chicago theater community, and I’m really glad that so many of them through a broader release of this film will get recognized for how extremely talented they are.
Female Friendship as a Survival Strategy
Jennifer Ortega: I know they’re going to kick me off, but really fast, I just would love to know what you hope that audiences take away from “Knives and Skin.”
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah, I mean, ultimately I want audiences to kind of settle in for the ride that’s “Knives and Skin”. I want them to go in not with the expectation of a thriller, not the expectation that a horror, not the expectation of a teen film, or even a musical. I want people to really kind of like sit down, buckle up, and sort of travel down the wormhole that is “Knives and Skin.” And afterward, perhaps have a conversation about girlhood and authenticity and imagine that female friendship as a survival strategy and that girlhood is a really tough place to navigate in terms of violations of consent. I mean, in a way, this is really kind of a #Metoo film.
Jennifer Ortega: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Jennifer Reeder: But it’s without sort of calling it that. So yeah, I want audiences to settle in, enjoy the ride, and I certainly want audiences to wonder what I’m up to next because I’m just getting started.
Jennifer Ortega: I can’t wait. I just can’t wait. It’s just beautiful, and I loved how it ended, and thank you so much for talking to me.
Jennifer Reeder: Thank you so much.
Jennifer Ortega: Thank you. And I am going to definitely keep it on. I want to see what you’re doing next, absolutely.
Jennifer Reeder: Great, all right.
Jennifer Ortega: Have a great day. Thank you so much.
Jennifer Reeder: Yeah, you too. Okay, thanks so much. Bye.
Synopsis: What happened to Carolyn Harper? Part suburban nightmare, part neon-soaked teenage fever dream, this tantalizing mystery traces the wave of fear and distrust that spreads across a small Midwestern town in the wake of a high school girl’s mysterious disappearance. As the loneliness and darkness lurking beneath the veneer of everyday life gradually comes to light, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls—gathering in force until it can no longer be contained. Unfolding in a hallucinatory haze of lushly surreal images, Knives and Skin is a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age noir that haunts like a half-remembered dream.
Directed by: Jennifer Reeder
Written by: Jennifer Reeder
Produced by: Brian Hieggelke, Jan Hieggelke
Starring: Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Marika Engelhardt, Grace Smith, Tim Hopper, Kayla Carter, Audrey Francis, Kate Arrington, James Vincent Meredith, and Ireon Roach
Music by: Nick Zinner
Release Date: Dec. 6th, 2019 in select theaters and VOD