Jennifer Reeder Flirts with Horror, Thriller, and Musical in Her Feature Film, Knives and Skin

After making 45 short films over the course of her career, Jennifer Reeder is getting ready to premiere her first-ever feature, her Creative Capital project, Knives and Skin. Using both experimental and narrative filmmaking techniques and aesthetics, the work explores the aftermath of a young girl’s disappearance in a rural, racially diverse town in Ohio. As with all of her films, the teenage girls (not the parents) are full of wisdom, healing capability, and self-empowerment. Knives and Skin screened at Berlinale in February, and it heads to New York to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, April 26 to May 2.

We spoke to Jennifer Reeder as she prepared to premiere the work at Tribeca Film Festival.

Alex Teplitzky—What is Knives and Skin about?

Jennifer Reeder—I like to call it a “midwestern gothic teen noir.” It’s a teen film, although it’s not strictly for teenagers. It has some horror, thriller, and musical elements. It’s a narrative film that flirts with different genres. It tells the story of a small midwestern town, in which a teen girl goes missing, and the kind of worry and trauma that this incident causes—the emotional ripple through the town. Secrets are revealed, relationships happen, other relationships break up. It’s a real mystical, emotional opening-up of this small town’s ongoing heartache and heartbreak.

It’s also a story in which the teenagers have more agency than the adults, and as the teenagers live their day-to-day lives, it’s almost the adults who have a coming-of-age through this experience.

Alex—So it’s kind of flipping the script of what you would usually see.

Jennifer—Yes, and I’ve worked through this via my most recent short films, the idea of coming-of-age as an ongoing process, and specifically presenting adults in a kind of second coming-of-age, where they actually seek and get really good advice from the young people in their lives.

Alex—It feels timely, because in this age of the internet, we’re seeing so many teen activists speak out against adults and adult-led agendas. Of course, it’s not a new concept. Can you talk about your own past and coming across this idea of the teenagers being the wise ones?

Jennifer—I grew up in a household where I was the youngest of five kids, and I came way after my other siblings. I’m 10 years apart from my closest brother, and by the time I came along, both my mom and dad gave me a lot of emotional and intellectual freedom. My life was never dumbed down by my parents, but it didn’t take that long for me to really realize, especially in middle school and high school, how many teachers were kind of exhausted by their lives and took it out on the young people around them and thought we were all stupid idiots.

And it just occurred to me, when I was a teenager—and certainly now when I work with so many young people in my films, and also being a parent—that even though teens might be smaller, or less experienced, they know exactly what’s happening around them, and have such a fresh take. In real life, we need to listen to young people more often rather than police them, and certainly in films. It’s not a new concept in film, there’s so many fantastic teen films, where we’re basically just following these awesome, perhaps overly mature teenagers as they accomplish these tasks surrounded by bumbling adults.

Making a film like this one, which is certainly for adults just as much as it is for young people, really resonates with young audiences, and it rings authentic rather than fantastical that young people have agency.

Alex—And this film is specifically about young girls, which adds an additional layer to it. What do you see that perspective bringing to the table?

Jennifer—Well, the film is really about the secret lives of teenage girls, and we as the audience get to follow them through their days, which involves so many adults who have no ability or no desire to recognize the boundaries between themselves and young people. So in this film, there are parents who are indulging in their own shortcomings, let’s say, or their own kind of trauma, and have lost their ability to parent. Then there are teachers and other adults in the world of this film, who also cross boundaries and behave in a really threatening way towards these young girls.

That’s something that I experienced directly as a teenager, whether that’s literally being asked out by people who fully knew how old I was, or experiencing other moments where I was trying to be an average 15 year-old girl, and was asked to instantly rise to the occasion because an adult felt compelled to live out their wants and indulgences. So, it has a lot to do with this idea that we project so much onto teenage girls in particular, even when they’re kind of fighting for their lives every day.

I started writing this script before the #MeToo movement, but there’s a lot of #MeToo in this film, in the sense that every single girl in this film is really fighting for her life every single day.

Alex—And on different fronts, too, both at home and at school.

Jennifer—Yeah, at home, and at school, and in their personal relationships. I also really tried to avoid a typical “mean girls” scenario. So, at the end of this story, female friendship is really their survival strategy, where the girls across all different social cliques come together to form a sort of “girlhood battle cry.”

Alex—My favorite part about what you’re saying is that in the entertainment industry, there’s so many tropes where you just watch a trailer and feel like you know how the movie is going to turn out. I was reading about your work and how you kind of hug this intersection between narrative, mainstream film, and experimental film, where narrative filmmakers think it’s too experimental and experimental filmmakers think it’s not experimental enough. But it’s nice that you can do that because you allow your narration and your story to take a different approach, right?

Jennifer—Yeah, for sure! I tried to make this film more accessible because it was a feature-length film, I wanted it to have this kind of theatrical life, I want it to have a bigger life than my shorts have. I’ve been able to experiment with narrative form in the shorts, because short films, here in the States and overseas, have a different kind of life, so I could really experiment with the forms. I wanted to make something not necessarily conventional but more broadly accessible.

And I wanted to make something where, if you watch my short films, you could see that it’s part of the same family: it’s got the same magical realism elements, musical elements, the whole art direction and cinematography and pacing. The whole film hovers above reality, because I want to create a very specific world, that is the fantasy of girlhood and coming-of-age, so the whole film is bathed in magentas and violets. Often the film is compared to the vibe of David Lynch, but from a female perspective or a feminist umbrella. I’m just a sucker for a story or a narrative, so I wanted people to be able to walk into the work, and be part of the story.

Somewhere in the early 2000s I embraced my storytelling wants and needs, and I began making work that was scripted, with actors, and much more narrative. And it’s so much more satisfying.

Alex—So you had a world premiere at Berlinale, and then it’s going to be at Tribeca?


Alex—What was the feedback at Berlinale? I know they definitely are welcoming toward experimental film.

Jennifer—Yeah, so I have such a nice relationship with the Berlinale people, I’ve been there twice with short films, and I was there two years ago on the Generation 14+ jury. I got invited to show Knives and Skin in this Generation 14+ section, which is considered a youth section, but the content is super challenging. It was the perfect place for this film to premiere because there’s lots of young people in the audience. There was a world premiere in this beautiful theater with 1,000 seats, and it was completely sold out. We got a glowing ScreenDaily review the same night, saying that it was the best teen film since Heathers, which is bananas! Because you know, Heathers is 30 years old, and that’s a lot of teen films since Heathers and this one—so that’s a huge compliment.

I knew, in that moment, that what I had set out to do with this film had been accomplished, that all the nuance and references were translating to the audience, and the audience response that night was really great. There were packs of teenage girls swarming around me with questions and comments, and it felt great. Having spent so much time working on the concept and the script, then having shot it all last summer in the hot heat of July and August, and then for it to be at the Berlinale was fantastic. For it to have its world premiere there was pretty special, because the European press and audience are used to more experiments with the form of the narrative and the pacing—audiences there are used to different kinds of narrative films than what we’re used to in the States.

As the producers came on board for this film and raised the rest of the money—which was pretty substantial—I was able to maintain a lot of creative freedom because Creative Capital had invested that initial capital.

I’m so excited to see it at Tribeca. Tara (the head of programming) saw it as a work-in-progress at a film festival in Poland of all places, this past fall, and she’s been following its progress ever since. It’s something that she really got and understood right away. I don’t want a film like this to be marginalized, I don’t want it to be stuck in this sort of experimental category. I want it to be up there playing alongside all the other conventional films that might be screening at Tribeca. And right now it’s going to be in the Midnight section, the genre section, and I really like that too. It’s cool. I want to show it to audiences who are invested in genre, what they think of it.

I’m the only female director in that section, so to be a woman dealing with horror and thriller, I’m very excited to be bringing it to those audiences and to New York. I’ve lived in Chicago for a long time, but the lure of New York is never lost on me.

Alex—You have been updating us at Creative Capital on the progress of making this work. You even kept us updated about shooting last summer, sending us photos and everything, which we loved! How has Creative Capital been helpful for you in this process?

Jennifer—I mean, I was a 2015 Awardee. Four years ago this March, I went for my first orientation. I really feel totally connected to the Creative Capital organization and really taken care of. There’s a real connection that is so rare, and I’ve gotten a couple other grants between 2015 and now, and it’s really just remarkable how many other organizations just kind of give you the award and then step away from the process.

For me, I just feel like I want anybody involved in any part of the process to be kept in the loop, because I understand how that ripples out. For instance, keeping you all posted when I was shooting or sending you all work-in-progress drafts, whether or not anybody watched those. I mean Creative Capital was the first grant organization to get behind this project, and so keeping everyone in the loop was a way to acknowledge that and honor that. And especially for a feature film, there are so many people that are involved in this, even though at the end of the day it feels like my film, my name, it really is an effort that involves a lot a lot of people.

The people that I met at the Retreat in summer of 2015 were essential, deeply involved in how this film progressed until where we are right now, and that is such an invaluable relationship. And being able to kind of “pay back” Creative Capital is to see this film be successful to be able to say to you all “It’s going to Berlin!” or “It’s going to Tribeca!” It really means that you all saw something in this film, as a proposal four years ago, and I made it happen, which has so much to do with that human support. Yes, the money is outstanding, but having calls this summer with Brittni Collins and Marianna Schaffer for a couple of hours, to be there with me in the process that kind of personal investment from you all, I get to pay it back by having audiences love it and watching the film succeed.

Alex—That’s great to hear. Especially with the film industry, there’s so many “cooks in the pot,” as you mention, that I hope that what Creative Capital can provide is to give the artists more of the power to make the film that they want to make, as opposed to the film that the industry wants to make.

Jennifer—Yeah, without a doubt. When I contacted Creative Capital about a year ago, saying I was ready to shoot the film, that between Marianna and Brittni they had a real understanding of what else I might need and want without interfering with the creative process. We really don’t live in that kind of model of funding in the US filmmaking scene, but as the producers came on board for this film and raised the rest of the money—which was pretty substantial—I was able to maintain a lot of creative freedom because Creative Capital had invested that initial capital. They had sort of “vetted” this project so I could come to new tables and say “Creative Capital has already signed onto this film and they’re giving me creative freedom, so I would appreciate it if you all did the same.”

Alex—That’s awesome.

Jennifer—And I really don’t step back from here—so the next project, I get to have the final say and get to author my film. It has everything to do with the experience I’ve had with this film, so it feels really good moving forward and having people ask me what’s next. I only get to go forward from here not backwards.

I’m so excited to be in New York and show the film at Tribeca in the Midnight section, it’ll be so interesting to see what other sorts of film will be in that section. It’ll be a really great showcase for this film.

Read more and purchase tickets to see Knives and Skin at Tribeca Film Festival.