Director Joseph Kahn Goes Back to School for ‘Detention’

For the past 20 years, director Joseph Kahn has been instrumental in creating some of the most iconic visuals in music video history. His resume includes a range of artists from Britney Spears to U2 to the Wu-Tang Clan.

Among his most celebrated work are the videos for Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero” and, more recently, Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie.” He is, in many respects, a legend in the field.

And right now he is almost completely broke.

For that, you can blame his latest venture into feature filmmaking “Detention,” a high school comedy-horror film that Kahn self-financed. Today, the film opens in 10 markets across the United States, including Atlanta’s AMC Southlake Pavilion.

“I put every dollar I have into this movie, so I have a huge responsibility to get this movie seen by people,” Kahn says, sitting in the lobby of Altanta’s W. hotel, where our interview is taking place.

In preparation for the film’s release, Kahn has been flying across the country, attending screenings, engaging in Q&As with the audiences, doing press and retweeting every positive review of the film that he sees on his Twitter feed.

“Detention” is by no means an easy pitch. While the premise at first sounds simplistic — high school student/social outcast Riley (Shanley Caswell, “Mending Fences”) finds herself in peril when a killer starts picking off students at her high school — the film soon reveals itself to be a frenetic, genre-hopping exercise in pure style.

Incorporating a killer dressed as a deformed prom queen named Cinderhella, a mascot bear with the ability to travel through time and more ’90s nostalgia than a weekend filled with classic Nicktoons, the film is relentlessly paced, absurd and highly reflective of itself. It’s also the single most exciting and original American film of the year.

Currently, one of the film’s biggest draws comes in the form of newly minted phenomenon Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”), who plays Clapton Davis, Riley’s friend and the school’s designated cool kid.

Having completed the film prior to his casting in “Hunger Games,” Hutcherson looks back at the film with great fondness.

“I’ve never read a script as near as crazy as this,” Hutcherson said in a conference call with the Wheel.

“I think this movie has some many different things happening in it — you have pretty much every single genre that exists.”

“Detention” marks Kahn’s first outing as a feature film director since the 2004 Ice Cube-starring/ motorcycle-action extravaganza “Torque,” a film whose critical and commercial drubbing all but stopped his feature film career dead in its tracks.

“Basically, [critics] wanted to kill the next Michael Bay,” Kahn said. “They saw me and they were like, ‘ah, a hip music video guy making an action movie — kill it before it grows!’ And they did — good job Internet, you killed me!”

In approaching this new project, Kahn did what he does with every project he works on: envision what the “ultimate version” of the film could be.

Once he had figured out what this would entail, he knew a studio would not touch the movie with a 10-foot pole.

“I realized that I couldn’t go through a studio on this because it would just get filtered,” he said. “You know how sometimes you say, ‘God, I would pay millions to see that movie?’ Well, that’s kind of what I did.”

More than anything, Kahn saw an opportunity to construct a new type of high school film — one relevant to a digital age defined by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“High school movies have been in the same lot for the last 30 years, he says. “It’s almost like John Hughes made it and the studios, once he was buried, said, ‘okay, let’s just replicate him over and over again and not do anything else and f–k him.’ The reality is — things move on. The generation today is very different than the generation 20 years ago. And yet, we’re making the movies exactly the same way…And that’s wrong. I believe that kids today should have their own stories and their own ways to tell them.”

For Kahn, the very nature of youth culture necessitated the film’s breakneck pacing and layered storytelling. In addition to formatting the movie for today’s media-savvy generation, Kahn saw the film’s frequent switching in genres as an excellent metaphor for the high school experience.

“Everyone is living their own little genres,” Kahn says. “That’s why ‘Detention’ has so many genres. Some people are living a horror film, some people are living romantic-comedies, some people are living sexcapades. A good chunk of trying to transition from being a teenager to an adult is surviving the emotions of being a teenager and seeing that other people have those same emotions.”

More than anything, Kahn wanted to create a film that showed a positive light on the youth of today.

Far from characterizing the generation as being “fragmented” or “ADD,” Kahn believes today’s children and teenagers represent a massive step forward.

“I think the generation today are the smartest, most progressive, least racist, least sexist, least homophobic, hippest, coolest, most amazing generation that has ever walked the planet. When they say you have ADD, what it is is that you have the Internet and the Internet has accelerated your brain. You have access to information at the speed of thought and that’s just made you smarter.”

Hutcherson concurs with Kahn’s assessment.

“I think we’re more compassionate because the world is so small,” he says. “Through one tweet someone in Africa can talk about their life and we can learn from them.”

Looking towards the future, Kahn takes a more pragmatic standpoint. Having taken weeks off from working to promote the film, he plans to soon dive headfirst into new jobs in an attempt to replenish his income.

In many ways, Kahn sees “Detention” as a film that could act as his artistic redemption in the eyes of the film community.

“It took eight years to get to here from ‘Torque,’ so if you see my new movie before 2020, that would be amazing,” he laughs.

“If this thing doesn’t do well, I’m back to square one. If this thing does well, I have a shot at doing other things. So if you want to see me do anything, see this f–king movie.”

Yes, based on his work, Joseph Kahn may very be a progressive visionary of our time—that being said, visionaries still need to eat.

— Contact Mark Rozeman.