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Berlinale Generation 14plus | 2019

Jennifer Reeder

Knives & Skin



Jennifer Reeder creates a mysterious world, accentuated by pop-song choirs, reinterpreting genre elements taken from magical realism, musical, absurd comedy and film noir. The result is a dazzling neo-feminist thriller that bathes urgent contemporary themes in a garish light.



Hey Jennifer, thanks for talking to TNC, how is everything going?


Things are great! I am just gearing up Berlin and so very excited to share my new film with the world!

Your feature film Knives and Skin will have it's World Premiere at the 2019 Berlinale, what does it mean for you to be at the festival?


I dearly love BERLINALE. I have been there twice with films in competition and a third time in 2017 when I was on the Generation 14plus jury. It’s such a sprawling and important international festival and yet the programmers make it seem effortless with so much attention to details and making the filmmakers feel very special. It’s a huge event but also very thoughtful which is a rare combination. 


What went through your head when you found out that Knives and Skin was going to be part of First Generation 14plus?


At that moment, I knew that I had made a good film and knew that it would have a robust life. I was thinking this exactly as tears were splashing out of my eyes. This is a special film for me and the Berlinale invitation is very validating. The Generation 14plus is the perfect section for this film. I am still a bit stunned and emotional.

Do you think nerves will set in closer to your Berlinale screening? 


Oh yes indeed. Because Berlinale audiences have liked so much the short films that are related to this one, there is some pressure to deliver. So I will be holding my breath through the first screening – just hoping that everyone loves it. 


You had an amazing festival run last year with Signature Move which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best US narrative feature at Outfest, what was this experience like for you?


Although Signature Move was a very different film than Knives and Skin, I still absolutely loved touring with it and watching how the story deeply connected with audiences. Winning at Outfest was quite unexpected and totally awesome. The win let me and Fawzia (the writer and lead actor) know that audiences are ready for challenging content… added fuel to our creative fire! 

Tell me a little bit about Knives and Skin, how did this film come about?


I have been working through some of the main themes for Knives and Skin over a few years via a group of short films that have screened all over the world and won some very nice awards.


I loved making these shorts, but I knew that I had a longer story to tell – a story about trauma and coping and female friendship as a survival strategy. The film is an ensemble with lots of additional moving parts (like singing and VFX) so I spent all of last year very vigorously getting the script into shape. The finished version is exactly the film that I set out to make. 

"Know the rules before you break them..."

What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?


The inspiration was visual. I was imagining my own adolescence and I saw in my mind, a group of misfit girls (goth-punk) walking slowly along the side of a two-lane road in rural Ohio. This scene is in the final film of course. I wondered back then about who these girls were and the story spiralled out from there. I tend to write in spirals rather than straight lines. 


Did you have any apprehensions about making a teen-noir film?


None at all. I knew exactly the film I wanted to make and felt fully confident I could make that exact film and I did that with no hesitation. 


What was the hardest scene for you to film?


No one scene in particular but the group of scenes we shot at the end of production which was all overnight exteriors in the middle of the woods. It was very hot and there were no local lights and there were big bugs and coyote, skunks etc. Those last days of production challenged everyone but they are the most beautiful scenes in the film – well worth the discomfort.

What were the biggest challenges you faced making Knives and Skin?


I had quite a lot of fun making this film so I was relieved when production began. Prior to that, securing the licensing for all the songs was making me lose some sleep. I would not describe this film as a musical but there are several scenes in which people sing and those songs are very specific. In the end, though, I got all the songs I wanted and those scenes are sublime. 


Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?


I came to film by way of dance and visual art, like the impossible love child of Maya Deren and Steve McQueen. I was a ballet dancer as a child and through my teens, then I took an art class as a freshman in college in which we had to make videotapes. Picking up that camera for the first time was like recovering a phantom limp and I have never done anything else since then.

As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you? 


I don’t exactly consider my films or my process collaborative. I have worked with the same DoP (Christopher Rejano) and editor (Mike Olenick) for many years. I trust them dearly and value their input and feedback, but at the end of the day, its MY film for better or worse. Knives and Skin, in particular, is crafted from my heart. A lot of enormously talented people helped make this film possible and I appreciate them without end, I accept that this film is mine, lumps and all. 


How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?


It's certainly nice to work with better equipment and a bigger budget with more shooting days and more experienced cast and crew. But every film I make, still feels fresh, like it’s the first film. Also, I am still mostly making films about unruly women and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?


Know the rules before you break them, take risks, tell stories you care about and don’t be an asshole.

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Knives and Skin?


I want audiences to get lost in this world I have created. This film is meant to hover just above reality. I hope audiences feel as though they have experienced something new – an unexpected approach to a familiar genre. And certainly, I want audiences to wonder what I will do next because there is still so much more to come! 

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