Karyn Kusama on the ‘wonderful and painful’ process of revisiting Girlfight for Criterion

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Not every filmmaker gets their debut feature enshrined in the Criterion Collection. But not every filmmaker’s debut feature packs the punch Girlfight does.

Decades after release, Karyn Kusama’s debut movie, Girlfight, still holds up — it’s no surprise that it launched her career as a director of subversive horror drama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation) and memorable television (Yellowjackets, Halt and Catch Fire, The Man in the High Castle), along with launching Michelle Rodriguez as a star. Girlfight is coming to the Criterion Collection on May 28, with a brand-new 4K digital restoration supervised by Kusama, new interviews and commentary from the director, and a slick new cover by Jillian Adel.

Girlfight, the story of a troubled high schooler who takes up boxing in secret as an outlet for her frustrations, aches with high school emotions in and out of the boxing ring. At the same time, it subverts boxing-movie tropes. Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a teenager who’s frequently in trouble for fighting at school and alienated from her father (Paul Calderón) at home. When she tries boxing in secret to get some of that tension off her chest, she shows a real talent for the sweet science. At the gym, she meets a boy (named Adrian, making Diana the Rocky in this equation) and a new father figure in her trainer (Jaime Tirelli).

Jaime Tirelli coaches Michelle Rodriguez in the boxing ring in Girlfight Image: Screen Gems/Everett Collection

Making Girlfight was a long process for Kusama, who wrote the movie after taking up boxing herself in 1992. Production companies begged her to cast a white woman in the lead role, but she stood her ground, insisting on a Latina lead and finding Rodriguez in an extensive audition process focusing largely on non-professional actors. After financiers backed out two days before pre-production in 1999, legendary filmmaker (and Kusama’s former mentor) John Sayles and his creative partner and producer Maggie Renzi stepped in and helped fund the film.

Polygon spoke to Kusama on a video call ahead of the movie’s Criterion release. We spoke about revisiting her first movie for the restoration, when she knew she had a star in Rodriguez, and whether Girlfight could be made the same way now.

Polygon: Congratulations on Girlfight being added to the Criterion Collection. When did you find out, and what was your reaction?

Karyn Kusama: This must have been last year, Criterion reached out to me and said, “We’d really like to remaster Girlfight and release an edition of the film.” I was floored and so excited. I am such a Criterion nerd, as you might imagine, so it was literally a dream come true. For me, this just felt like the ultimate stamp of approval.

Does it mean more to you because it was this one?

I think what I appreciate is that it’s my first movie. And as someone now who’s got more than 20 years of time and experience to look back at the film, there’s so many things I might do differently — I might improve, I might cut, or change or refine. And so the idea that it can still work for anyone, despite the fact that I would love to get back in there and completely retool it, that’s gratifying.

A black-and-white image of Karyn Kusama directing Michelle Rodriguez on the set of Girlfight Photo: Abbot Genser/Screen Gems/Everett Collection

Watching it now, I was struck by the balance between the boxing elements, the family drama, the character study, Michelle Rodriguez’s amazing performance, and the high school romance. How do you think back on the balance of all those elements?

I never felt like I would want to make a purely boxing-oriented movie. In some ways, the true story is about this character entering a new world, and finding a place for herself within it. And in doing so, opening herself up to a kind of vulnerability that she doesn’t feel capable of exposing at home. It is so much about this tension between the closed emotional world of her family life and the more expansive emotional world of, paradoxically, a boxing ring. So that was something I knew I wanted to do. But I don’t know at the time if I was really weighing the balance of it all.

In somewhat ham-fisted terms, I was trying to tell a story about a young woman for whom traditional expressions of femininity didn’t quite feel true to her. And so it was so much about trying to find a path toward self-acceptance, toward some kind of openness, to whatever kind of weirdo she ultimately was going to be.

When you look at the movie now, what would you want to tweak?

I think I would probably lift some scenes and tighten some scenes. I think I would know a little bit more how to evoke the same emotional impact with fewer cuts or fewer shots. I would just get to the heart of the matter faster. But that being said, I think some of what I wrestle with in the movie is also inherent to it, you know, which is a lot of non-actors, a lot of young, raw performances. And in some respects, that’s part of the charm, I hope, of the movie.

And it helps that the central three of her family are so strong.

Oh, good. Yeah, I think so. Obviously, Paul Calderón [who played Marie’s father] was a wonderful and well-known actor at the time, and still, and so he could kind of anchor the rest of the cast. But you know, it’s funny, I always find with movies, for me, it’s a process of making the thing, hoping that I made the truest thing I could make, and then moving on and not looking back. And so what’s really weird about doing the Criterion edition is — the process of looking back is both wonderful and painful. I was looking at the movie a lot. So it gave me a lot of time to think about, Oh, I could have done that. I should have done that. A lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Michelle Rodriguez delivers a punch to another boxer in Girlfight Image: Screen Gems/Everett Collection

Do you think things have changed in the industry over the past two decades? Would making Girlfight now be the same, easier, or more difficult?

That’s something I have to chew on. Because in some ways, obviously we all want the answer to be “Things are better now.” I think the hard reality is that we are still almost even more entrenched in a star-driven system. So it would be even harder now, I think, to make a movie with a completely fresh face as the center of the film.

And luckily for me, when I made Girlfight, Michelle ended up having a true electric, charismatic star power that allowed her to continue to make movies. But now I find it’s still really, really hard. In terms of the questions around representation? I think the conversations are more deliberately coded around what is permissible. But I think ultimately, there is still a lot of resistance to a complicated or complex depiction of the world as we actually live in it.

Working with Michelle Rodriguez on the movie, what did you learn about what makes a movie star and how to showcase that?

Oh, that’s such a good question. I mean, first of all, she has a funny un-self-consciousness as an actor. In the initial auditioning process, and initially working with her, I had to kind of remind her of staying in character and staying on book and all of the basics around being an actor. What she didn’t have was shame. There was a quality to her of just like, I’m here. The world can start now. And that quality of guileless confidence is really important. She demanded attention.

And that simple kind of intensity is something that I’ve really learned is actually not common across the board. It’s not like every actor I work with has that same intensity, though I’ve certainly worked with actors who had more training and more experience and more discipline. Michelle has a kind of ineffable charisma.

Was there a specific moment with her where you were like, Oh, she’s different, or is that just something that you learned over the course of filming?

It’s really funny, because I have such a vivid memory of doing all those initial auditions and having hundreds of people in front of us for interviews and short auditions. And we taped them all. And because I’m kind of obsessed with thoroughness, I decided to just go through the process of looking at all the tapes.

And it was in that moment of looking at her tape, even though she was untrained, completely inexperienced, completely unprepared, kind of every negative you could imagine, she held the screen with such totality that I felt like, Huh, that’s interesting. I have to keep looking at her, I have to keep engaging with this presence. And so it just meant we kept bringing her back. But that initial feeling about her was definitely something that now I look at and I realize, Oh, that was her. That was her star power.

Michelle Rodriguez and Santiago Douglas embrace in a scene in Girlfight Image: Screen Gems/Everett Collection

Would you have predicted her going on to star in major franchises like the Fast and the Furious?

At the time, I couldn’t, but she called it for herself way earlier than I could have. Because she always knew what she liked. Immediately when she read The Fast and the Furious, she was like, I know I have to do this, and I know it will be a global franchise. She understood that part of entertainment a lot better than I did.

Have there been opportunities for you to work with her on projects of that scale? Is that something you’re interested in?

You mean like the giant franchises?

Yeah. Doesn’t strike me as totally your vibe, but you never know.

No, it’s not really my vibe. And a lot of that just has to do with the idea that you need to be making something that is of a piece of a very large entity with a lot of history, and a lot of relationships that people are already bringing to the characters, into the worlds. For that reason, I’m not sure I’d be the best candidate for that kind of work, but never say never, I guess.

You’re in this really interesting space with both TV and movie opportunities. Where’s your focus next, and what do you see yourself moving toward?

I need to be making personal movies again. That’s where I really learn and flex and experiment and fail and try and all of it, you know. So that’s what’s next for me, is just figuring out what the next feature is going to be.

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