director and writer Karyn Kusama's lean first feature film thankfully doesn't
peacock, posture or preen with special effects and macho one guy
the machismo that her movie, about a young Brooklyn-projects teen named Diana
Guzman (played by newcomer Michelle Rodriguez), who finds her escape, center and
soul within the exclusive, male-dominated world of boxing, emits is, well,
feminine in spirit. It's compact and taut, not showy; internally tough instead
of outwardly bravado-esque and its raw visceral power comes cleanly from the
a fresh film formula that thirty-two-year-old Kusama is rightly comfortable
with. She was not only a boxer herself but entered the film business as an
assistant, up until 1996, to writer/director John Sayles (Lonestar, Limbo)
and his producer and partner Maggie Renzi. It was Sayles who said "this
could be great" once he read the first draft of the script. He also said,
according to Kusama, "it needs some work and maybe what you just need to do
is change gears."
suggested we put my dark, perverse script into a corner and if we could find the
money for something a little bit more emotionally acceptable, universal and
appealing, he'd sign on as the executive producer, " explains Kusama.
"But quite frankly, it was really difficult even with John's name attached
and his committing to a small portion of the budget."
the financing entities were wary of a film about a girl boxer. Kusama believes
that was part of it. "Since you bring up the gender issue," she says,
"it would have been easier to trust if I were a guy or a first-time
filmmaker. But I know who I am. The familiarity missing in the equation was an
issue for the money people. But in terms of the actual investment, no one could
have made them feel safer than the producing team behind this film."
KO'd the audience and ended up winning the director's prize and sharing the
Grand Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival early this year. It's the first
time, she believes, that a woman's film has captured the honor.
she says initially Sundance was "never the goal." She had been trying
to get the movie made for so long that once there was money in place the project
"barreled forward because we had to stop and start a production just about
to happen for almost two years."
we were at Sundance," she says, "we were just trying to find a
distributor and I had a sense that if the first screening of the film went well
there was a very good chance the movie might find several potential
distributors. I was in a good position after that screening because I was
basically given the opportunity to choose and find the right distributor. And I
think I have. It will be interesting to see what happens to the film once it's
out in the world."
Kusama is not unaware of the fact that film festival audiences present a
heightened reality and very seldom reflect the everyday movie audience
sensibility. "Whatever that general film public is, outside of a film
festival, I hope real people will get to see it, people who never before said
they liked an art movie. My hope was to get a distributor who would find a way
to not alienate the art world and yet get the film to the people," she
only because the director believes viewers "haven't seen this girl in that
"girl" of note - the main character Diana - is played by a film
newcomer we also haven't seen before. Michelle Rodriguez won the part only after
an exhaustive casting search proved fruitless and an eventual open audition
turned out 350 young hopefuls. "Several were noteworthy but only Michelle
Rodriguez had the chops to make Diana truthful," says Kusama.
she stresses, Rodriguez, as a newcomer and neophyte actor, was always honored.
"Within the cocoon of making this movie was a grand experience in which she
was protected and loved. That in and of itself is unusual. There was no bad
energy, perhaps, because there was no time. As filmmakers together we were in a
zen state not dissimilar to that which a boxer has to be in prior to the fight.
When I saw the first actual dailies I thought, 'she could be a huge star.'
Kusama says her hope is not to give something "only to women." She
believes Girlfight is antithetical to the movies in which it's bound to
be compared - Rocky for instance, which, she admits, she hasn't seen,
"so I don't know if it's a female version."
think this movie makes more sense and ascribes to a tradition of filmmaking
where things aren't so resolved. It's a real story with real people."
"I wanted to make a movie where you couldn't label the characters easily. That creates a good dilemma," says Kusama. Ironically her newfound status as an award-winning director only creates a good dilemma as well. "I think, as a director I still get to have control but I ask everyone to do their best work. Often the happy medium you find is the work itself. I don't want to be just a young director who, down the road, can't still make a movie about life, and who winds up just churning out product."