As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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Karyn Kusama and I met on a hot June Saturday to talk about her new film, Girlfight. Kusama gives us a glimpse into the world of boxing from a female point of view, and she pushes our expectations by drenching her story in sweat, emotion and bad-girl attitude. As a director, Kusama has figured out how to get inside the psyche of her young protagonist, played by first-time actress Michelle Rodriguez. But what held me was watching the scenes in the boxing ring, the intimate nature of a sport where two nearly naked opponents have agreed to fight each other—focusing on a physicality that is so intense as to be hypersensual.
It’s refreshing to have a coming-of-age story from a girl’s point of view, and to see her as tough and as stubborn as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, or even Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. In an incendiary opening scene, Rodriguez’s character, Diana Guzman, picks a fight in the girls’ bathroom of her high school, and it quickly escalates into a fistfight, the kind you prayed you would never have in the high school bathroom. Life doesn’t offer Diana many choices, and she lashes out at every opportunity. She doesn’t know how to control her anger, nor does she care to. In her day-to-day environment, it’s all about survival. While running an errand for her father, Diana ends up in a gym and immediately gets hooked on boxing. Through weeks of training, she slowly learns to channel her strength. She’s a good fighter, too, gaining momentum as a contender in the featherweight category. Complications arise when her friendship with fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas) turns into a romance.
As two women directors discussing the politics and sexuality of women in the boxing ring, we couldn’t resist leaping to the obvious subject of women working in the film business. We agreed, that in boxing—and in filmmaking—it’s talent, tenacity and endurance that count. Kusama and her heroine have all that.
Bette Gordon Here’s the big question, which I’m sure everybody asks you: Are you a boxer?
Karyn Kusama I was. I’m not now. I haven’t had the time. When I was working at First Run Features I met Sandy Zeig and she was just filled with energy. So I asked for her secret: she had discovered a great sport and a great trainer. That’s when I started training with Hector Roca. It changed my life.
BG Hector in the movie is based on your trainer?
KK The character is quite a bit different, a bit softer.
BG I’ve heard of Gleason’s Gym; it’s the place where everybody goes—actors, nonactors. Sounds like an intriguing place.
KK It’s beyond celebrity value, it’s where pro fighters come to train when they’re in town. It’s exciting.
BG What made you want to tell this story? Was it boxing itself? What were your personal and political reasons?
KK The practical reason is that we couldn’t find money for my other script. I’d been working with John Sayles and he suggested that I change gears and do this boxing story because it was more accessible. But we ended up looking for the money for Girlfight for another two years anyway. It’s never easy.
BG That’s not bad for an independent film, two years.
KK I don’t want to limit the film by putting a political grid over it. But it goes without saying, there are not enough difficult, complex women on the screen. The idea that a woman could be emotionally moving and powerful, and in possession of herself and her body, is not something that we see in film because so much of a woman’s physical sense of self when acting seems to be a performance for other people. I wanted to see a woman become physically powerful on that screen.
BG The main character, Diana, does come into her own physically; were you also thinking about the sexual nature of boxing? I’d never seen that so clearly.
KK The other goal I might have had was to make a simple story. I want to say a blunt story because it hurtles along on its own emotional logic. If you’re with the character, you believe in her journey and you believe the trajectory of her story. But I wanted to test myself with a traditional narrative story because, in many regards, that’s not what interests me. So I thought, Why not see how it works? Traditional storytelling (the Hollywood model) is as limiting as the abstract idea.
BG Do you still feel that way?
KK Oh, absolutely. You have to make these strong choices, which is fine, that’s movie making. But narrative can be very limiting.
BG If you could have, let’s say, not followed this traditional narrative, what might you have changed?
KK Honestly, my editor and I talked about this. What if we ended the movie in the locker room? [The character Diana] is crying by herself, she takes a breath, she looks out at us like, “What’s my life?” Bam, we’re over, credits.
BG So she doesn’t get the guy?
KK She doesn’t get the guy. In my mind the last scene of the movie is so tenuous anyway that, in fact, it only provides illusory closure. Some people say to me, “Of course they’re going to be together forever.” And I’m thinking, God, you’ve watched too many Julia Roberts movies. And then other people say, “Clearly it’s only going to last another 12 hours. It’s over.”
BG It’s a rocky road.
KK Yeah. I decided there was something cruel about telling the story in the way I was telling it and then just leaving her in the locker room.
BG I agree with you. Actually, I was thinking about Love and Basketball. And this is what you’re addressing as well—she can have a career in a male-dominated sport. And, as in the end of Love and Basketball, she gets both—the relationship and the career. I’m tired of the purported choice between the two.
KK Exactly! Loneliness and career or a life partner and no career. It makes no sense! If women define their destinies for themselves instead of buying into the cover of Newsweek … granted, it’s all very difficult, but maybe it means that when you look for a partner, you look a little harder for the right partner. I still feel like I’m searching through these issues myself and that’s what the movie is about.
BG Her boyfriend, Adrian, understands why she has to fight him in the ring, but I was in the audience thinking, Why? But of course she has to fight him. Why wouldn’t she play an opponent, male or female? Male friends fight all the time.
KK It might be a bit abstract or metaphorical. But I felt that the audience would let their emotional belief system take them into this new realm where the man and the woman have to fight each other.
BG In order to love each other, they would have to get through this.
KK It’s part of the game, but it’s also part of their relationship. It’s part of who she is. Anyone Diana loves, she has to at least contemplate destroying because that’s her psychology. I see her as somebody who grew up watching families who loved each other but were not necessarily sweet or affectionate or soft. To Diana, the world is a rough place where sometimes you prove your love in warlike ways.
BG In that powerful scene where she directs her anger toward her father, who she sees as responsible for her mother’s suicide, she really pins him to the floor; she could have killed him at that moment. She says, “Now, how does it feel?”
KK “To see so much of yourself.”
BG The violence in her father’s relationship with her mother is paralleled by that need to box with him. Diana’s an angry character with huge issues who finds a way to work them out, not through talking to a shrink, which in her culture would be unthinkable, but in a way that makes sense for her. As a viewer, I’ve never seen anything so satisfying as that scene with her father.
KK Screen Gems did test screenings to see what kind of audiences were emerging. All mixes of people came—boys, girls, men, women, black, white, Latino. And across the board that was their favorite scene.
BG Interesting. I was afraid people would have thought it too harsh or confrontational.
KK I think people find it extremely satisfying.
BG The father’s not all bad, he just doesn’t have the skills to know what to do. I like that gray area. Hector, her trainer, is a gentle, supportive father figure.
KK Which is very common in boxing, where a boxer no longer speaks to his father, and it’s a very public estrangement, and then you see all the surrogate fathers, the trainers, who also get betrayed by the fighters. It’s an interesting familial cycle.
BG How many women boxers are there who play in the professional competitions?
KK A lot. You should see Shadow Boxers, the documentary that ultimately focuses on Lucia Rijker. She’s one of my inspirations for Diana’s character in that she’s incredibly attractive, very strong—it’s almost spooky how powerful her body is—and she’s very determined and focused. We’re going to see more and more highly skilled women boxers over the years. Especially if they start training as children the way athletes are meant to train.
BG Did you shoot this at Gleason’s?
KK No. We found a huge, crazy, crummy warehouse space out in Jersey City. I wanted the gym to feel dilapidated but sprawling and spacious, and part of a waterfront neighborhood. That warehouse space made the most sense. It was a weirdly beautiful space, I thought.
BG Let’s talk about the cinematography. You have a very strong sense of color, contrasting opposites, red against a blue. How did you approach the subject aesthetically? You also contrasted a moving, handheld camera versus a static one.
KK My cinematographer, Patrick Cady, and I started talking about the project a long time ago. I’d always had a distinct visual plan for the movie. The story of the film is so simple that I also needed to come up with very simple strategies to address the narrative. One being a film stock that looks like film, that still has texture. I’ve been discouraged by the look of most American Hollywood movies, I might as well be watching television; aesthetics don’t have a place. And that is very sad to me. I wanted something very rich in terms of color—painterly to some degree. And in terms of camera movement I wanted to work with two tensions, a locked down, composed, formalized frame, and a much looser, improvisational verité style. I worked with interiors in a sort of crushing way and then took the camera outside so you could see the world of the film. With those principles in mind, you can start applying them pretty quickly to places. One of the biggest challenges was to figure out how to make each boxing match distinct from the other and tell its own story, because that’s how we were communicating the narrative. We pushed an old Fuji stock, and that’s how we got the textured look.
BG I figured as much because it had that bluish feel to it, which Fuji does, with very strong reds.
KK It’s not the new Fuji, which didn’t test well for our purposes, but the old Fuji did beautifully. We used the last 90,000 feet in North America. (laughter) We were lucky to find it. We storyboarded the movie for a couple of months before we started shooting. That was the great thing about doing an independent movie, even though no money was coming in, and we didn’t know where it was coming from, my cinematographer and I could work every day, storyboard plan B and storyboard plan C. You hear about these Hollywood movies where they have only two weeks to storyboard. It’s ridiculous!
BG The most crucial time in any film project is the preproduction time. How many days was the shoot?
KK Twenty-four. We couldn’t go into overtime; we just did not have the money.
BG What was the budget?
KK A millionish. Patrick and I knew, that with what we wanted to do visually …
BG You had to be that prepared.
KK Everyday we provided everyone with a booklet with each shot, the ones that were expendable in comparison to the crucial ones. So everyone was on the same wavelength. During production we were as prepared as we could be. That’s all you can do.
BG The scenes between Diana and her father in the apartment used a static camera. In filming Diana and Adrian’s scenes, there was a certain amount of handheld camera work. Their relationship was so volatile and the urban landscape so important to the whole story.
KK You mean the physical environment …
BG You understood your character’s relationship to the environment without resorting to clichés.
KK We all know the hardships of urban poverty. I’m not Latina, I didn’t grow up in a housing project, nor was I raised in a large city like New York. I wanted to just be as authentic as I could to the world I was depicting. And I realized that to have people air their grievances and identify themselves as poor, or on welfare, or uneducated, whatever the tags are, underprivileged, that we give to huge populations of people—I didn’t want to insult them. I just wanted to depict the reality for people living in public housing all over the United States. It’s a lot of families. This concept of bad kids with guns and drug dealers—yes, that’s all real; but so are hardworking families trying to live, to survive, and get through each day. I wanted to depict that family by using the environment in a way that we could feel the crushing circumstances of someone’s life without having to spell it out.
BG Going back to the mobile camera, you actually used it almost in direct address during one boxing match; the punch goes right at the camera.
KK The audience had to be at a certain emotional point for that. In the first couple of scenes, we’re viewing the fights from outside the ring. But that particular fight is about mentally gaining the upper hand. We decided that that’s when we get into the ring with her and feel her having to get it together, to regroup: “This is real. I’m getting hit in the face and it hurts. And I’m stunned.” When we were cutting it my editor and I felt like the scene was close but it was missing a surprise. John Sayles, the executive producer, saw it and said, “It’s beautifully cut but what you’re missing is a frame of light every time the punch comes toward the screen.” A frame of white leader, that was all we needed to live pop to the image.
BG Was that the only scene where you used that simple solution?
KK At the end of the final fight when Adrian and Diana face off and they’re looking at each other, getting into this mind meld, we fade to white. Some people find it distracting, but I wanted to get to a blank space, it sounds corny, but Zen, emptying out. It turns into almost a slow-mo scene with very little crowd sound, like a love affair between them.
BG They grab each other in the course of the fight, but you blended in a bigger meaning at that moment. In Raging Bull, we see the fetishized, violent nature of boxing, and it’s fascinating, it holds our attention. However, watching your film, what becomes manifest is the power of the body. When two people are in that ring, there is nothing else for either one of them but each other. It’s sexual.
KK Yeah, except it hurts a lot more. (laughter) That’s the primal appeal of the sport: you’re seeing two nearly naked people sweating and breathing heavily, making every attempt to touch each other in the hardest of ways. It’s wild.
BG They’re so focused on each other—you often let the film’s sound go out completely so we feel like we’re sharing that world; or that moment we’re inside of them—her in particular. The way they move around each other and come together is a sexual dance. You see it all the time in boxing, they hug each other.
KK It’s called the clinch. I didn’t want to eroticize it too much, I just wanted to address that hypersensual quality of the sport. In terms of its sexualized nature, it’s the desperation to connect. Every sportscaster watching a boxing match comments on whether or not the opponents are connecting. It’s physical, of course, but it’s also emotional. There’s this agreement between two boxers, this sense of, “We could hurt each other very badly.” That, to me, is like love; you agree to be in a situation where somebody could get hurt.
BG Did you come to that while you were making the film or is that from your own experience?
KK I had felt it in the ring, where I’d say to myself, To really be committed to this you have to give up so much, you have to live so much in the present. You can’t be thinking about what just happened, or anticipating the future; you have to be in a very organic, instinctual state with that moment. The sport relates in metaphorical ways to other things about life. A lot of boxers feel like they’re living the most when they’re in the ring. It’s a very rare way to live; we’re not a present-oriented culture. My characters find some purity in that time together.
BG In boxing, would a male and female actually be pitted against each other? This is in the featherweight division.
KK It would be very rare. It’s been done. It’s extremely controversial, and it should be. It’s happening in wrestling. Any weight-based sport has to be examined as to whether it can be coeducational. Women in boxing create so much controversy, anyway. But I tried to make it realistic. And I made it very clear that it was an experimental program; an amateur event for people who didn’t get to fight enough, who needed to have bouts and be competitive. That could be on the horizon soon.
BG But for the most part it’s hardly done, so it was a posed possibility?
KK Yeah, which is why there is something more abstract about the final fight.
BG Let’s talk about the lead actress, Michelle Rodriguez, who is amazing. Did you find her in a casting call, and is she a boxer?
KK No, she’s not a boxer; she trained for four and a half months for the role. She is clearly a natural athlete and could have been a boxer. Her great line is that she wants to keep her teeth. But we looked long and hard.
BG How long?
KK Intensively for several months. Everyone was hoping we would find an experienced, professional, Latina actress who could still play 18 and be all of the things this character is. In fact, the character demands a sort of unschooled sensibility that often, once actors have been trained, they no longer have.
BG She has to be seething underneath the surface, and she can’t control it.
KK That’s what it is. It’s that inability to think straight, to reason. For this role you need to see someone working purely on their nerve endings.
BG Who were your casting agents?
KK A team named Orpheus, Maria Nelson and Ellyn Marshall who have worked in New York theater. Maria is Costa Rican and Ellyn has worked in African American theater so they have a line into the actors that I needed to work with.
BG What had they seen Michelle do?
KK Nothing. She came into an open call, 350 people in one day. We started seeing people one-on-one and then eventually I was like, Oh, let’s just bring them in five, ten at a time. Eventually it was 30 people in a line.
BG Oh, my God!
KK And she, along with two other people, stood out as very interesting possibilities. She had never acted before. She didn’t even know what a script looked like. At the beginning of the audition she started to read the stage directions. (laughter)
BG Did you do any improvisational stuff with her?
KK Eventually. Once she was at the stage where she had to work with other people, we did that with her. She’s pretty reality based. She’s as good as what she’s working with.
BG So, give her the material.
KK When we had first put her on tape she was an absolute mess, and I was just seeing the mess.
BG You were scared. This choice is 90 percent of your film.
KK We looked at her tape and I said, “She doesn’t have any control, and I don’t have time for it.” Ellyn and Maria said, “Karyn, you need to bring her back in and work with her because she is going to be a superstar. Your initial instincts were right; now you have to be a director, take it further.” My producers and John all said, “She’s terrific, let’s go with her.” Other producers would have said, “Huge risk, find a star.”
BG And did John give you any advice as to how to work with somebody who was so untrained?
KK He likened it to working with a child actor. You work with what’s immediate and situational, and you don’t get too headtrippy or intellectualize too much. I like to talk things through quite a bit with actors. That just wasn’t going to work with some of them. And other actors needed more than I was able to give. Once Michelle was comfortable with the process, she was able to ask questions and start talking about what she felt was real for the character. She had the instincts of a natural actor. And as a boxer, she was fearless in an almost frightening way. We really had to go forward with her.
BG The high school scene in the beginning is so amazing. When Diana strolls into the bathroom and intentionally starts a fight with another girl (who’s into hair and makeup), it escalates into a fistfight—the dangers of high school bathrooms!
KK Part of me wanted to take it even further into a vigilante zone. I’ve had a lot of interviews about Girlfight, “Is this character angry? Is this a feminist movie?” All these questions answer themselves or don’t ultimately matter. What happened here in New York, with women being accosted by a mob of men in Central Park, is why I made this movie. Sooner or later these types of men are going to run into a woman who’s as unenlightened as they are. And it is not going to be a pretty picture. She’ll be armed and dangerous. And I don’t mean for this to sound like angry rhetoric. I’m just shocked that all we see are women running through the streets in fear.
BG I’ve always believed that in making films that portray a character who instinctually reverses the modes of representation, women and men seeing that film will say, “Sometimes you have to go into the world that doesn’t really want you there, take it, become it, and make it work for you.” It’s finding out who you are and how you can inhabit a place. In this case, the nature of the character and the story comes across without being overly political.
KK The more personal it is, the more political it can be in its own way.
BG One last question: What would you tell someone who wants to be a director?
KK To have an engaged relationship with the world, where your imagination lives in a bigger world and film is your best attempt to reveal it. Always reach out to the world. Increasingly, we’re seeing movies disassociated from human experience that pretend to be reality. That drives me insane. You know, the Runaway Bride kind of movie. I’d rather see movies that are a little more unfinished, ambiguous, difficult, hard to swallow, hard to accept, whatever, because that’s what life experience is.
I’d like to ask you a question. I read the novel The History of Luminous Motion a while ago and wondered about its cinematic possibilities. I’ve just seen your film adaptation of it. Did you read it and know that you needed to make it into a movie? What happened? It’s a very difficult piece of work.
BG I had recently become a mother. The book is about a very tight relationship between a mother and son. I had a daughter, but it didn’t matter. I was interested in exploring a bond that went too far. The unconscious desires that the boy had were somehow echoed in me, not only as a child, but also as a mother. And I thought, How can you visualize the unconscious? That idea of making visible that which is invisible intrigued me. And I have always been attracted to outlaws, and that mother is an outlaw. Yet she loves her child. It’s similar to Girlfight in terms of complex characters who can’t be easily understood. It’s such a hard journey to figure out what to do and how to say it. But I’d like to make more accessible movies.
KK I’d like to make less accessible movies. (laughter) To me, it’s like being in the ring. The more you put yourself out there, the more hurt you can become, but the rewards grow exponentially. Why not live on the edge a bit? For all we know, this is our only time out.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.