Where are the Girls? 
Interview with Karyn Kusuma
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs, 29 September 2000

At first glance, Karyn Kusama's Girlfight looks like a pretty regular festival "darling" picture: it's the writer-director's debut feature, it's about a young Latina in the projects who overcomes her unhappy home situation to succeed in an unusual and topical arena (boxing), and finds true love to boot. Played by talented and charismatic newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, Diana is at once angry and sympathetic, and she gets to hit boys as well as girls. It's executive produced by the venerable John Sayles (for whom Kusama has worked as an assistant, and who appears in the film as a high school teacher), produced by Sayles' veteran producers Sarah Green and Maggie Renzi, and beautifully shot by Patrick Cady, camera PA for Roger Deakins on Passion Fish. With all this going for it, you won't be surprised to hear that Girlfight won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize. Arriving in theaters with much buzz, courtesy of Screen Gems' enthusiastic marketing and a cd soundtrack featuring Fat Joe, Carlos Santana, and Dilated Peoples (a cd available in "Explicit" and "Edited" versions), the movie is plainly poised for success -- however that might be measured. It doesn't hurt that Girlfight is also a good and earnest movie, inspired by Kusama's own experiences boxing at Brooklyn's Gleason's Gym and her observations of the kids who work out there.

Still, in the post-festival, big-boys, first-weekend-box-office-means-everything world, you never know what's going to happen. And so, I ask Kusama about her choice of topic, namely, girls participating in a typically masculine arena.

Karyn Kusama: In this world of gendered expectations, it's very scary to see violent women. Somehow we assume it's the province of men, and in many ways it is. But there's another kind of underlying violence in that assumption, which is that women don't have that rage and capability for violence in themselves. To just deny it, as opposed to trying to acknowledge it and examine it, is where this character [Diana] comes from. She's so much her father's daughter instead of her mother's daughter, and has so much of his violence and way of handling problems -- through dismissing them or belittling them -- she's taken into herself, because it's the only way she knows. I see [the film] as a humanist portrait of this character. What she wants is to be allowed to be her essential self, and her essential self is a fighter, literally and figuratively.

We're not all like that and I'm glad we're not all like that, but I wanted to start making the audience ask questions of her behavior. It's interesting to me that in boxing, when you see two women fighting, somehow it seems like you're seeing the violence of the sport so much more explicitly than when you see two men fight. And I think that's why many people have a problem with women boxing. What disturbs me is when people have a problem with women boxing but don't have a problem with boxing in general. The energy of the movie is watching a character's physical self come into being, seeing something as simple as her skin, or how her body changes, seeing that development of skill in her as an athlete. And at this point it's sad, because it seems that because it's a woman we're seeing go through this transformation, it almost feels radical. To me it's a very old-fashioned story.

Cynthia Fuchs: And in addition to being a girl, Diana comes from a particular class, which limits her options again.

KK: Yes. There's a very limited worldview available in those neighborhoods, and if we really want to talk about violence and brutality -- which is something I've had to talk a lot about [since making the movie] -- I think our public education system is a form of brutality, and the housing conditions that we see so many people living in, that's violence. Or social expectations and gender stereotypes: these are forms of oppression and violence that far exceed what boxing could possibly provide. I wanted to tell a story that was not making big statements about poverty or the ghetto. I wanted to do something more matter of fact, because there are so many people who live in these environments that I didn't want to be insulting or make a big issue out of it. I do think that one of the most interesting things in my experience in the gyms that I spent time in, and in the gym where I trained for many years, is that you saw you many boys from really tough environments, and you were at least slightly comforted to know that during these two or three hours every day, they had some form of sanctuary from the outside world. Perhaps it's a little bit convoluted, but they were safer and freer from harm in a boxing ring than they were in their daily world. And I knew that all of those kids had moms and sisters and girlfriends, and I wondered, where do they go? What do they do? They live in the same sort of depleted environment. The story was born out of that question: where are the girls?

CF: I notice that the soundtrack cd -- I guess it's inspired by the film -- features currently popular artists. Did you have input into that selection?

KK: I tried to have input into it. But I'll be honest, I feel like in the end, as much as people want to be supportive of the film and come up with a utopian hybrid of commerce and art, I remain suspicious of that hybrid. I think it almost never works. This process has been interesting, because I do think there's a lot of good music on the soundtrack, including some of the most offensive work on it. I think the Cuban Links song is patently offensive, a lot of the Remy Martin and some of the Fat Joe, that's offensive. But it's offensive in a lyrical way, and a lot of times, musically it's really interesting. And that, I think, is unfortunately, or fortunately, the interesting dialogue about hiphop right now. Some of the songs that are just kind of boring, ditzy girl pop songs, those are almost more offensive to me. What's disappointing to me is that more of the score isn't represented on this soundtrack album, especially the Latin traditional music. So I'm hoping, after the release of the film, that we'll have another soundtrack that will adequately represent the spirit of the movie.

CF: It sounds like the process of "representing" can become difficult, like, for instance, as you're taking the film to festivals, being picked up like your film has been is both your best hope and worst nightmare.

KK: You said it, sister! In so many ways this process has been interesting for me. It's great to be recognized, it's great to have so much public support before the film has even been released, it's great that people like the movie and that a distributor wanted to pay a lot of money for it and can imagine that it can reach a lot of people. But that clause -- it can reach a lot of people -- has a lot of strings that I don't think I really saw before I got into this process. And I want this film to be seen by a lot of people. So, at this point I have to go on faith that if some of the promotional materials to me aren't as representative of the film as I would like, I still have to believe that if it gets people into the theaters, then something right has happened. I really like the distributors I'm working with, so I want to believe that we've all been doing the best we can with it. This whole idea of getting a movie out to "the people," and not just to an art-house crowd, it's painful, because there's this assumption that the general mass of consumers are a bunch of lambs being led to the slaughter. But then there's this other conception, that there's a lack of choices in films. And then there's the public itself, which doesn't seem to educate itself or seek out new work, and does depend on media to get them into the theaters. I genuinely believe that audiences want and deserve better movies, but then the new dumb huge movie ends up garnering exactly as huge a weekend gross as you expect.

CF: And it's sad too that that is the measure of success.

KK: Exactly. And, that we live in such a competitive environment, that even that measure of success is just the icing on the cake. The cake itself is that you have to spend so much money to get a movie out to the public. You have to spend money on tv, newspapers, the internet. That stuff costs money. It's blowing my mind. I surely must sound a little disoriented.

CF: On the other hand, you've worked with and learned from John Sayles, who is a model of integrity in all of this.

KK: Yes. To have him as the model has been sort of the saving grace of this experience. I would venture to say that he's one of a handful of American filmmakers who work with any kind of consistent integrity. It's great to learn from him.

CF: I was impressed with Girlfight's structure, beginning with the opening scene in the high school girls' room, since it sets up her situation -- her anger and lack of options -- so deftly and so economically: that lingering shot on her "Jack Nicholson" glare is so effective. Can you talk a bit about the structure as you conceived it?

KK: At first, if it's possible, the structure was even more blunt and crude. [Diana] had an unexamined self and an unexamined rage, and she just sort of barreled through this storyline without particularly transforming: it was a pretty boring story. Over several drafts, it became clear to me that the opening five minutes had to set up her war with self-control, her inability to hold back or verbalize anything. At first I thought I was spending too much time setting her up, and establishing her personal threshold, and the crossroads she was at. But it became clear to me that what Hollywood movies often do -- which can work well, but wasn't going to work well for me -- is like, two minutes of set up and then bam, the story starts. I had to start differently, to set up that the story is already in motion when we meet her. We could only sympathize with her need to be aggressive and to find a teacher to channel that aggression with ten or twenty minutes of set up. So, though it's not particularly conventional, the love interest is planted at the beginning but does not really show up until the second half of the movie.

CF: Well, Santiago Douglas [who plays Diana's sparring partner and eventual romantic interest, Adrian] is so pretty, it's hard to not recognize him.

KK: Right! But, I think I could have made it come together and make it feel like a much more ordered universe. But when you tell conventional narratives, it's already too ordered.

CF: And her life was so chaotic.

KK: True, so I had to find a way to introduce that element of chaos into her life, even though the story I was putting her in was told in a linear fashion.

CF: It's also good to see a movie that is respects a high school age character.

KK: I feel like young people are really interesting people. They're at that point where the choices they make are important. And while it's like this everywhere, there's something about the starkness of urban life that can illustrate that point even more quickly and effectively. You have to take an active part in your own destiny at some point, and if you don't make that choice, you can't grow or change in the long term. And it's in teenagers that you see that cliff most dramatically.

CF: You were working with a mix of actors, ranging from very experienced to inexperienced. What was the process, in directing them and shaping the film?

KK: It all depended on who I cast as Diana, and once I cast Michelle [Rodriguez], who had no experience acting at all, I felt sure that I needed to get a pretty professional crowd in there to support her. So Paul Calderon, who plays her father, and Jaime Tirelli, who plays her trainer, and even Santiago Douglas, they were all trained actors, compared to her. What I also wanted to do was create a sense of authenticity, so that meant getting boxers and real trainers in there, and some kids who weren't exactly actors. The most important thing was keeping things fresh, not making the predictable decision. And I thought it would be good to see faces that had that spark of realness.

CF: At the same time, the story itself isn't precisely "real," say, the climactic fight between Diana and Adrian.

KK: It is theatrical. I wanted that. But I would have liked the fight to have looked a little bit different, but with the limited shooting time and two actors I had -- their sizes, the way they looked in the shots together -- there was nothing I could do. So I had to work with what I had. And I decided that the best way to do that was not to root it so much in reality, but in some operatic, emotional context. It's something that some audiences aren't going to buy and some will fall for hook, line, and sinker. It was the decision that worked best with the footage I had, to give a sense of something happening that was bigger than what we call reality.

CF: How do you mean "bigger"? 

KK: More like an emotional head-space. Any time you start showing a lot of slow motion, you're deciding to create an expressive space, but not show an interest in real time. The two characters are in that final round together, and I knew the only way to handle that material I had was to make it like a love scene.

Click here to read Paula Nechak's interview.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.