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Karyn Kusama Is Glad You’re Into ‘Jennifer’s Body’ Now

Fresh off of directing ‘Yellowjackets,’ Showtime’s acclaimed all-female survival drama, Kusama chats about ’90s music, cannibalism, and how it feels for a misunderstood masterpiece to finally get its due

AP Images/Showtime/Ringer illustration

In 2017, just a month after HBO teased the widely condemned Confederate, Warner Bros. made an ill-fated announcement: an all-female adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Like the reimagined Civil War drama, the logline alone was enough to set off a firestorm. Some of the backlash centered on two men helming a genderbent reboot, but others objected to the very idea of the recasting. “The plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women,” tweeted author Roxane Gay. The skepticism was enough to push the project in a different direction. In 2019, the studio brought on Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadanigno to take the helm. His version plans to stay more faithful to the original text, once again centering on a group of boys.

Yet the concept of an all-female Lord of the Flies isn’t as dead as it may seem—nor was it ever as off base as some naysayers believed. This Sunday, Showtime aired the first episode of Yellowjackets, a riveting drama about a New Jersey soccer team whose plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness in 1996. They manage to survive for a torturous 19 months, but in the present day, their buried traumas start to come back to haunt them. As teens, the team is played by a strong group of young actresses, including The Leftovers’ Jasmin Savoy Brown; as adults, they’re portrayed by veterans whose very presence evokes the era when they first became famous: Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, But I’m a Cheerleader), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers), and Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, The Ice Storm) all booked iconic roles when they were teenagers or close to it. It’s part Lord of the Flies, part Big Little Lies for ’90s alt girls who were really into Hole. Naturally, “Miss World” features prominently in the pilot.

Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, a husband-wife creative team whose past credits include Narcos, Yellowjackets understands what makes a female brute survival story not just plausible, but positively chilling. Girls aren’t any less capable of cruelty or brutality than boys; before they even leave on their trip, one Yellowjacket breaks another girl’s leg on the field because she thinks a weaker player might hurt their chance at a win. As anyone who’s seen—or lived through—Mean Girls would know, they’re just more subtle and methodical in putting that cruelty into practice. And Yellowjackets’ director knows a thing or two about vicious teen girls.

Karyn Kusama, who shot the show’s pilot and serves as an executive producer, has lived several Hollywood lives. After breaking out with the Sundance hit Girlfight, the film debut of Fast & Furious stalwart Michelle Rodriguez, Kusama took on two projects that landed her in the notorious limbo known as “movie jail.” First came Æon Flux, a blockbuster butchered so badly by the studio that Kusama drank 10 vodka tonics at the premiere; then Jennifer’s Body, the horror satire mismarketed as Megan Fox catering to the male gaze. Both disappointed at the box office. Unable to get a green light for another feature, Kusama then turned to TV, and she shot episodes of acclaimed dramas like Billions, In Treatment, and Halt and Catch Fire.

Incredibly, Yellowjackets marks the first time Kusama has taken on a pilot, with all the creative control it entails. On TV, most directors have to adapt to an established visual template; with a pilot, the director can set the mold for everything that follows. The effort comes after Kusama finally made her return to the movies—first with The Invitation, the 2016 thriller about a dinner party from hell, and then with Destroyer, a crime drama starring Nicole Kidman that, like Yellowjackets, toggles between two timelines. (Both films were cowritten by Kusama’s husband, screenwriter Phil Hay, and form the first two parts of an intended trilogy set in L.A.) TV was once a Plan B for Kusama when features weren’t an option; now, Kusama balances and finds fulfillment in both.

Kusama’s filmography has plenty of parallels with Yellowjackets. Girlfight established an affinity for gnarly violence, Æon Flux for genre, and Destroyer with the weight of a middle-aged antihero’s past. But the clearest connection is to Jennifer’s Body, in which a young woman possessed by a demon develops a taste for human flesh. In the opening minutes of Yellowjackets, an eerie flashback suggests some kind of occult ritual; in the dead of winter, the girls wear animal skins and horns around a fire, which cooks what appears to be a butchered corpse. We don’t know yet what happened in the woods or why, but we do soon see that Lynskey’s character can still catch, kill, and skin a rabbit by herself, 25 years later.

Jennifer’s Body has seen a critical resurgence in recent years, even airing on the Criterion Channel streaming service as part of its Halloween lineup. Kusama has benefited, in a way, from the larger reckoning with how our culture treats women, girls, and stories that center them, especially as the ’90s and aughts grow distant enough to analyze with perspective. Yellowjackets tells the same tale in a more literal sense, as its characters come to grips with everything they endured and inflicted on each other all those years ago. Last week, Kusama spoke with The Ringer about cannibalism, collaboration, and how it feels for a misunderstood masterpiece to finally get its due.

I couldn’t help but notice that both Yellowjackets and Jennifer’s Body involve teen girls who eat people. Does cannibalism, as a theme, appeal to you in some way?

You know what? I think what appeals to me more is the expression of hunger, and the ways that women are starved and [have] starved themselves. I mean that in a literal way and a metaphorical way. I’ve noticed how much of girls’ and women’s lives are dictated by their relationship to their body. And something about that just kept bubbling up for me, in both Jennifer’s Body and in Yellowjackets—the drama of having to make things right with your own physical self.

You didn’t write the script for Yellowjackets’ pilot, but I did notice some connections to previous projects of yours—both Jennifer’s Body and Destroyer, which also has a dual timeline. What drew you to the project?

I had read the pilot script, and as you can imagine, given the timeline and the jumping back and forth, it’s actually very densely written—incredibly entertaining, but a very densely written script. And so I had to read it a few times to really feel how those transitions were going to work and see it in my mind’s eye. I was just struck by how funny and tragic and surprising and bittersweet the whole story was. There was so much genuine gruesomeness mashed up against so much tenderness. It just felt very real to me. So I started a conversation with the creators, Ashley and Bart, and it was kind of love at first sight for all of us.

What were those initial conversations like, either about your vision or theirs?

It’s funny because one of the things I kept talking about with them and I felt like they really responded to was the idea of female war stories. The ways that we carry our past, carry our most traumatic experiences, and bring them forward with us into the present. And in the case of Yellowjackets, all these women that we see as adults have this looming shadow behind them all the time about those 19 months out in the forest.

I think there was something to me about that that was really analogous to other protagonist journeys, heroic journeys, that we tend to imagine men occupying. But this felt as visceral, and terrifying, and as big a mountain to climb as all of those other narratives, if not even bigger. I just found that really interesting, that Ashley and Bart were so interested in giving these women the weight of tragedy, and a real gravity to what had happened to them.

Something that also really evokes that looming shadow is the casting—the fact that so many of the actors initially became known for roles in the ’90s, the time of the show. How did you think about who those women would be?

There was a natural progression of the actors who have a kind of meta quality because we sort of watched them grow up on the big screen—like Melanie, and Juliette, and Christina. They were all now entering middle age, and in some ways facing some of the same conundrums and questions that the characters we were hoping they would play are facing. We all worked together to cast the show, and there was something really exciting about the idea of seeing these women that we think we know, and yet the reality is, of course we don’t know them. We just know roles they’ve played in their varied, notable first roles, starting in the ’90s.

It creates this interesting reflection back to the audience—having to interrogate this idea that we understand people just by looking at them, or listening to them, or watching them, even. It was exciting to figure out that we could be working with actors who have already kind of driven a hole into the head of the viewer with all of these associated memories of them.

I feel like the ’90s especially are something people have been relitigating a lot lately. It almost feels like Yellowjackets gets into that—what if we look back on the ’90s and some of the ugly things that happened there?

The way we’re looking back at girls’ and women’s lives of that period, it’s interesting that we’re finally reckoning with the ways that our culture specifically chews women up and spits them out, then blames them for landing in a million little pieces. I think it’s really interesting to have Yellowjackets come out now and be speaking to that moment in the culture that’s hopefully interrogating itself a little bit more.

You’ve done a fair amount of episodic TV work on shows like Halt and Catch Fire, but this is the first time you’ve directed a pilot. How was that process different for you versus other TV jobs you’ve done?

When you direct the pilot, you get a lot more time to prep it and to really dig into the casting—all of those crucial roles, all of those crucial decisions about the look and the feel and the energy of the show, get established in that first episode. For me, what was really fun was to come into the project, and have a bit of a blank canvas in front of me, and be able to say, “Here’s how I see it,” and have Ashley, and Bart, and Drew [Comins], the other EP, be on board and support that vision.

And of course, I always look to them for guidance when I didn’t quite know where the story was headed, or if I needed to have a better understanding about how things were going to develop narratively, but you’re just very much in the trenches creatively with the writing team and the creating team. That was super fun. I definitely want to keep having that kind of experience in television because it can be very rewarding.

The music in Yellowjackets is incredibly evocative of a specific time and place. I was curious if that was the kind of music that you had a personal relationship with from that time.

That’s a really interesting question because in the ‘90s, I was constantly going to shows and constantly listening to music. And it’s funny because a lot of the music that we chose, particularly in the pilot, I think it’s sort of, in the best way, the greatest hits of popular music of that time from certain subcultures of music or subsets of music.

But the irony is, for me, I was always going to Fugazi shows—I was, at least in theory, rejecting a lot of that music or somehow feeling like it wasn’t my soul music. But then of course, when you put those cues up against a picture and are reminded of an era that comes out of people’s car windows, and is in house parties, and on dance floors, it reminds you that all of that music is so much a part of us that we’ve grown up with. And so, though I didn’t have places for some of my favorite straightedge punk, I was really happy to be able to hear that music again in this context where it’s sort of refracted as this memory device.

In some older interviews and profiles you’ve done, television is positioned as something you turned to when it was harder to get features made. But now that you’re balancing those two media a little more, has your relationship to TV changed over time?

Oh yeah. I see TV as a really important part of my career because I’ve been really lucky to work on some really, really great shows. You mentioned Halt and Catch Fire. Those experiences were so formative and so fulfilling, for me to work with that cast and that team of people. In fact, because of a show like Halt and Catch Fire, I met Jonathan Lisco, who was the co-showrunner for the first two seasons. I brought him to the Yellowjackets team, because I just felt like he would be such a great match for Ashley and Bart. And so to me, television is an opportunity, depending on the show and the story, to kind of become multilingual on a visual level. It’s sort of like you’re learning the language of a show, and then learning to speak in that language, and execute with a sense of staying within some kind of consistent scope of vision in a way.

To me, there’s something exciting about that exercise. I recognize it’s not for everyone, and it can feel maybe like a grind for some if you’re not into the language that’s being established in a show. But I’ve been so lucky to get asked to do some work that I think is really interesting to begin with. Some of it is pulpy, and some of it is dark, and some of it’s a little lighter, and some it’s just period, some of it’s casual. There’s been some great variety for me, and it’s given me a way into imagining a lot of different kinds of storytelling I might want to do in the future.

A lot of your work is very rooted in Los Angeles, but Yellowjackets is so not L.A. It’s very Jersey, and then Canada. What was it like incorporating that new environment into the story?

That’s where I really look to Ashley and Bart, because they’re both from New Jersey. I saw how much where they came from informed and expanded their idea of the story—just hearing their reminiscing about the places they would go, the weird gas stations that they would stop at the end of a party to get snacks. All of that kind of stuff made me really see how much there was this regional identity to the show, and that it informed how they saw the characters. For me, it was kind of like research in a way, to be thinking about the story through Ashley and Bart’s memories of the place they grew up.

Just to come full circle, I recently rewatched Jennifer’s Body because it’s become available to stream on the Criterion Channel. The movie didn’t quite find its audience at the time, but it has a reputation as a cult hit now. What’s it been like for you to watch the film’s legacy evolve over the years?

I’ve been thinking about it because I think part of what’s happening in culture is this reassessment of high art and low art. What are valid stories, what are stories easy to dismiss? It’s interesting that the movie was panned the way it was. It was treated as this kind of campy expression of humanity. And yet, I think of so many successful movies, whether big action movies or big war movies that just have a lot of men in them, they’re just as campy. It’s a different kind of theater. We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re watching some version of the truth, when in fact movies are always a reconstruction of a reality.

For me, to see Jennifer’s Body be taken seriously now because there was something emotionally true about it, is really, really gratifying. Because I always had responded to that script because it was about girls and the complicated relationships they are forced to endure with each other in what is mostly, I think we can agree, a crushing patriarchy. I always thought what emerges out of that is horror and a perverse sense of comedy. To see that people are maybe picking up on those threads and also just enjoying the movie—it’s a movie I would’ve loved as a teenager. It’s really nice to see that it’s getting discovered now by people in a way that I had always hoped it would. It’s cool to see that it’s finding some love.