Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.
Interview with Karyn Kusuma
feature by
Paula Nechak, 13 October 2000

Girlfight, director and writer Karyn Kusama's lean first feature film thankfully doesn't peacock, posture or preen with special effects and macho one guy against-all-enemy odds.

Instead 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 heart.

It's 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."

"He 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."

Maybe 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."

Girlfight 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.

But 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."

"While 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."

Indeed, 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 says.

If only because the director believes viewers "haven't seen this girl in that role before."

The "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.

And, 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.'

Still, 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."

"I 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."

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview.
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