Director Joseph Kahn Talks About His Latest Project Teen Horror-Comedy ‘Detention’

Detention is not your average movie, but average was the last thing on director Joseph Kahn’s mind when he made the teen horror comedy. When I asked him to describe the film in two words, I briefly stumped him. “Really insane,” he replied moments later.

Having seen the movie the night before I sat down with Kahn, I couldn’t agree with him more. Still unsure of exactly what I had seen, I couldn’t deny that I had been thoroughly entertained, and that I had laughed more than I had at any movie so far this year. I had even described the film to a friend as The Breakfast Club meets Scream meets Scott Pilgrim. I may not have fully understood the film and it madness, but that’s exactly what made it so brilliant.

So what was Kahn’s goal with the film? He wanted to create a film that spoke directly to young people, yet still worked for older people on a separate level.

“One of the things I feel like they’re being denied is a film that speaks in their own language. Everything gets filtered through a studio process where it has to be tested and has to cater to the lowest common denominator.” Kahn explained, “There’s a reason I feel like kids text during movies all the time. It’s not because they feel like they have to text all the time, but I feel like movies bore them at a certain point – they’re not compelling enough. It’s not giving them a reason why they should put their phones down. With media the way it is, people can feel the rhythm of things that have been done before.”

Kahn went on to compare it to going to a 5th grade student with 5th grader work when the student has already seen what happens in 8th grade. “You’re not going to get their attention until you get to the 10th grade – until you advance them.” Kahn stated, “I wanted to advance this movie to a higher level where they’d be compelled not to text.”

Kahn’s movies may be one of the only films that truly works in this way. With so much going on and the film moving at such a fast pace, if you look away for even a moment you risk getting lost. And while the film can feel a little ADD at points, that’s exactly what keeps your attention throughout as you’re trying to figure out exactly what is going on.

Another interesting aspect to the film is that it doesn’t truly fit in any one genre, in part because each character has their own genre. So what influenced that? There was no one film that influenced any one character according to Kahn.

“Each genre was a blended influence. We were studying a ton of different movies, and then we combined them into one. So there’s a kid that is essentially a monster movie, and that monster movie is The Fly, but it’s also got a Tim Burton and David Lynch vibe at the same time.” Kahn explains.

What about the overall film?

“You could say the overall macro story of Detention is Better Off Dead, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, or a collection of John Hughes movies. It’s never just one source.” Kahn answered.

Another thing that’s hard to miss with Detention if you’re familiar with Kahn’s work is that a lot of the music in the film, is music that he shot the videos for. From Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears to U2, Kahn is responsible for a large fraction of pop music’s music videos (even the classic one hit wonder Sisqo’s “Thong Song”). So many of the songs and videos that define pop culture are the creation of Joseph Kahn. And if you’re over 25, you saw them on MTV back when the network actually aired music videos. Hey, I was a teen in the 90’s, I was a victim of the boy band craze just like everyone else. I’ll admit it – I watched Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” more times than I can remember, so when I heard the song in Detention, I couldn’t help but smile.

So all that music that Kahn had ties to being in the film… coincidence or not?

“Believe it or not, it was coincidental that I had ended up with a lot of the songs that I had done. It’s a really funny thing, because I can be sitting in any restaurant, and if I sit there for 10 or 15 minutes, I’ll bump into a song that I did the music video for. So when we were looking for really epic songs that defined each era in pop they just happened to be things that I had done before.” Kahn said.

Those songs were the songs that so many of us identify with our high school years, but not all film goers will have experienced the magic of 90’s culture. From the music to TV show references like My So Called Life, there’s lots of Easter eggs in the film for those of us over 25. For this of younger though, Kahn still has a message he wants to get across.

“For young people, there’s a message in the movie that you can survive high school. High school is this really intense experience.. just being a young person is a really intense experience. All these emotions that you’re experiencing are new to you.” Kahn explains, “It’ll be the first time you fall in love, the first time you get dumped, it might be the first time you fail out of school – it might be the first time a lot of things happen. Because it’s the first time, sometimes it can feel like the final time – because the intensity is so amazing.”

Truer words have never been said about high school. You will survive, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

Switching gears a little bit, I wanted to ask Kahn what the biggest challenge was that he faced on the 52 day shoot of the film. The answer wasn’t that surprising. Money. He didn’t want to compromise his vision for the project, and not compromising meant funding it himself – which presented a number of obstacles.

“Well I didn’t have a lot of money, so I ran out. I had to go and borrow some. That was a big challenge. I was literally trying to find money each week.” Kahn explained, “I didn’t compromise. I probably could have made the movie in a different way, because the shots were so complex and the art direction needed a certain vibe.. the special effects, the costuming, music – I just forced myself to find that financial solution – I made the financial solution the thing I needed to solve, and the creative was the thing I had already solved.”

Would he do it this way again? What would he change?

I would like not to use my own money again if I could.” Kahn laughs, “It’s tough because I like compete creative control. Never say never though.”

So what’s next for Joseph Kahn? He’s currently writing another movie, but he emphasizes that fans should be patient.

“I’m writing another movie, but it’s going to take a little bit of time. It’s been 8 years since my previous movie, so we’ll be lucky to see the next one by 2020.” Kahn laughs.

Even if it is another 8 years, we’ll definitely be there to see the next one, and we’ll be putting away our phones… or Google glasses… or whatever other type of technology we have then. Kahn brings a fresh and unique feel with Detention, and we’re excited to see how he continues to grow as a director.

Interview By: Emma Loggins
Detention Official Site:

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  1. Darn it all… I checked and this is NOT opening here this week. Is it opening nationally or just regionally or what? I really want to see it.

  2. It was limited release last Friday, so if it’s not near you now you might have to wait until DVD. 🙁 Definitely worth checking out though!

  3. Saw this at a sceening in Atlanta that had a Q & A with Kahn. One of the most insane and entertaining movies I’ve ever seen and Kahn has a great mind for writing and characters. Highly recommend this to anyone who can still go see it.

  4. I just checked the site—no wonder I can’t find it anywhere. It’s only playing in 10 cities. How unfortunate. Still, I want to see it.

  5. Monster_A_GoGo- It was surprising to me that it was playing in such a small town here. Usually limited releases go a theater in town that does more indie stuff. I know a lot of people want to see it – it’s just difficult to find a place showing it. dunfee555 – we were at the same screening! 🙂

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