I vividly remember seeing Jennifer’s Body for the first time and being both stunned and amazed post-viewing. Years later, I had a chance to attend a screening of Destroyer and Q&A after the film with Nicole Kidman and Karyn Kusama. Shortly after, my wife and I remained while she spoke with Karyn Kusama about the use of various cameras on the set of the film, and so on. Kusama, known for the aforementioned films as well as The Invitation, and now a director of Yellowjackets’ pilot episode, is a contender for a Primetime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series.
I recently chatted with the Jennifer’s Body director about her work on the pilot episode of Yellowjackets, how it was working with almost all-female cast, and more. I can happily confirm that she’s a fan of the show, just like me, and she even shared a funny story about the rabbit scene with me.
Zofia Wijaszka: Hi, my name is Zofia, I’m talking to you on behalf of AwardsWatch. How are you doing today?
Karyn Kusama: I’m great. How are you doing?
ZW: It’s going good. It’s kind of hot in Los Angeles, but I’m trying to manage.
KK: Nice. Nice. I’m actually not in LA, but I’m coming back soon. So it’s hot, huh?
ZW: Yeah, it’s something. And I’m not originally from Los Angeles. I’m originally from Poland. So yeah, the temperatures are crazy [for me]. But today I want to talk to you about the Yellowjackets episode that you directed, and that’s now nominated for the Emmy. First off, congrats!
KK: Thank you.
ZW: I’ve been a big fan of the show from the beginning. The first episode really blew me away and I’m very happy to talk to you. I actually did meet you, just passing by, a few years ago. You were doing a Q&A, and it was a premiere of Destroyer. It was with you and Nicole Kidman. My wife and I stopped by for a short chat with you, and she was talking to you about the use of camera. So, that was really cool.
ZW: But coming back to the episode. The pilot directed by you is one of the most important episodes because it introduces main characters as well as their older selves. How was your collaboration with the cast, especially when trying to stay consistent with their personalities in the opening?
KK: We had conversations about creating a bridge between younger and older selves and sometimes it was really just about energetic qualities, emotional qualities. The idea was that Natalie, for instance, was always impulsive, was always hot-tempered. That Shauna was always more internal and a little bit more private in her calculations about any situation. That Taissa was always quite extroverted and quite assertive in her opinion. So, we spoke a lot about elemental, emotional qualities and then saw ways to try and keep that thread alive between young and old.
ZW: It was beautifully connected. And the transitions between the scenes were really amazing, consistent. And also, there was apparent sense of tension and mystery from the beginning. Do you have any techniques when creating such a combination?
KK: Well, I think that’s a great question. One of the things we started to play with in edit a lot more was just very slight, they’re called pre-laps of sound or music that helped create this bridge between past and present, but also helped create the feeling of almost a continuous question being asked. Because, in a way, it’s not just like we were cutting back and forth between the young characters and the older characters, though we were doing that. We were also hinting to this larger mystery about the wilderness and the snow, and what’s happening in the snow. And so we had to thread that through so that people could start piecing together that all three things were related. And so it actually took some time in the edit to arrive at that. And I was lucky to have the producers and creators helping me along to find the most clear connection.
ZW: It’s great how there were so many questions and yet, it feels like the viewer cannot be really lost because you are so good at transitioning scenes, what I mentioned before. And I feel like we want to know more, and we need to know more, but yet we know enough to be interested.
KK: Oh, I love that. That’s so great to hear.
ZW: What was the most challenging part when shooting this episode?
KK: The whole thing was challenging, I’m not going to lie, because it was such a big episode and we really had to pack so much material into that one hour. I could go on and on about the wilderness and how challenging that was. I could also say that shooting the soccer was really, really challenging. Our actors were not professional soccer players or high school champions. And so they had to train pretty quickly to get into the shape that they would look like they could just reasonably play. And that was challenging for them. And just to know the maneuvers on the field. The airplane scene was highly challenging. There were so many things that were really quite, quite difficult. And so I look at the whole thing as a really big thorny, complicated, ambitious hour of television in a fairly small amount of time. That’s the most challenging thing always with TV.
ZW: That’s very interesting to know about the soccer scene, because it was so beautifully executed and it feels so easy, but then you tell me what’s behind the scenes.
KK: Oh yeah. We had to have a stunt coordinator and they had to work with the actors, and it was hard. And it was rehearsed. Obviously, there were moments where really consequential things happen on the field, and so we had to see that and rehearse the whole choreography that lands us there.
ZW: I was born in the ‘95, so I was a child through the nineties. But I’m an old soul so I listen to eighties, nineties music, and I’m very much into nineties movies and stuff. Did you have any inspirations when creating that atmosphere?
KK: Yes. There was quite a bit of music that was in the pilot script that helped create a sense of tone and vibe. And sometimes we couldn’t get certain songs, they were too expensive or not available, but it helped give the feeling of what we were looking for. And then there were areas where there was the keg party or in people’s cars. And so those were interesting moments to try and find, not just the tracks that everybody recognizes, but also the tracks that were a little bit more obscure. And it’s been so great because, through the whole series, we can play with a spectrum of music now, which I think is going to be really fun.
ZW: Yeah. I love the music; the soundtrack was great. I love the song [editor’s note: It’s the cover of Never Tear Us Apart by Paloma Faith] that plays when the girls are preparing for the flight.
KK: Oh, that’s a great song. And that’s a cover of an INXS song and it just felt like something about that song, lyrically, was quite interesting with that montage. So, credit to our music supervisor, Jen Malone, for helping steer us toward that particular song.
ZW: And what about each individual character? Did you have any specific angles or ideas how to shoot them or was it more like consistent?
KK: That’s interesting. I think it was largely pretty consistent. I would say there might have been times when it was important that, for instance, we see Misty in a way that we understand she’s part of the group, but that she’s always on the outside, visually. Because she’s the equipment manager, she’s not technically on a team as a player, but she’s a very key character. And so I felt like I had to be sure that we were “hooking” into her visually, seeing her and recognizing that she was this incredibly enthusiastic cheerleader for the team, so that when we reveal her at the very end of the episode, we feel the sense of like, that’s weird, she isn’t even a player. What role will she play in this larger mystery? So, I probably treated that character a little bit differently.
ZW: Yeah. Her character is absolutely genius. I love all of them. I feel like I cannot pick one that is the best because they all have amazing qualities and also, the empowerment from the show is astounding as well, it’s basically all-female cast. It speaks volumes in how we perceive the show. And I was just wondering, what was your experience working with almost all-female cast? How was it?
KK: Yeah. Oh, it was really fantastic. What’s great is, it’s a mix of younger actors and actors who play adult characters. It’s a mix of people who’ve been working almost all their lives versus people who are new to the art form or relatively new. And so, what was great about it was, just a reminder to me as a director, that every actor is different, every actor has a different approach. And I have to adjust as I learn what everybody’s approaches are and what was so wonderful was that every single actor brought something really interesting to the role and to work. And so that was exciting because, for instance, in that montage, we get to see into people’s lives that we haven’t seen that much of earlier in the pilot, like Lottie, Van. And they end up being so interesting once you get a little window into their personal life and it was a way to set up how big, as characters, they were going to be in the rest of the seasons.
ZW: Yeah, they were really interesting. And I’m still wondering if there is a way that they survive because there are no adult versions of them yet. I have to talk about that scene with Melanie Lynskey and the rabbit because that was one of the greatest scenes in your episode.
KK: Oh, that’s so funny. There’s actually a really funny story about that because when we chose the rabbit, we didn’t see its tail, it also looked like a small dog, like a really big animal [compared to rabbit]. And I knew that it was going to look really strange to have Shauna impale this animal with a shovel. We had to make it look smaller. So, we had to find a way to shoot it so that it looked smaller. Of course, she doesn’t actually kill the rabbit, but it was just really comical when we’re waiting for the rabbit to be unveiled. And then, there came the rabbit and we realized we had made a mistake. It was like the Stonehenge moment in Spinal Tap, but just the opposite direction. It was really funny.
ZW: Yeah, and there’s Shauna’s character, too. Now that I’ve watched the whole season and then you come back to that episode and the moment when she does it, you realize that, oh, maybe she misses blood.
KK: Yeah, or it’s something she knows how to do.
KK: She’s more capable with this than we might have realized. She’s not that uncomfortable with it.
ZW: Exactly. Your episode ends so brilliantly because we see the scenes of older Shauna reminiscing. And then we have younger Shauna waking up in the middle of the plane crash. What was important for you to capture in that moment because I feel like it just left viewers wanting more.
KK: I love that that’s how you perceived it. I would say that Melanie is such an incredible actor and Sophie Nélisse is such an incredible actor. And so what I was hoping would happen in the two characters’ timelines is that, when we reveal that Shauna has kept a record of what happened and that she’s saved them and she’s starting to read them again, it’s like opening up a Pandora’s box, right? She’s revisiting trauma that she’s literally locked away in a safe. And so, in revisiting it, and in closer to her face and understanding the terror of that time was so real and so great that it makes sense you’d try to bury it and just pretend like nothing had happened really. And then to land at that first moment of the girls on the plane and the plane is going down, and this is the beginning of this nightmare that the audience is going to be given access to.
I just wanted it to feel like this really happened to them, and that there are all kinds of ways that we process those memories. an important way that we process, out of sheer survival, is to attempt to forget that it happened at all. I was hoping that collision of those two things would result in an interesting question and leave the audience with a sense of like, okay, I’ve got to see what happens next. So, I’m happy that that’s what your experience of it was.
ZW: Oh yeah, hundred percent. It was also interesting because you put that plane crash right at the end, whereas usually it’s either at the beginning or it happens in the middle. It was one of the best episodes I’ve seen this year.
KK: That’s very nice, thank you.
ZW: It was so lovely to meet you and talk to you about that show and I’ll keep fingers crossed for you.
Karyn Kusama is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the pilot episode of Yellowjackets, which is currently available to stream on Showtime.