Love and Boxing

Taking her best shot: Director Karyn Kusama (left, with Michelle Rodriguez) on the set of Girlfight

THE POSTER FOR Karyn Kusama's new boxing movie stands toe to toe with Raging Bull's for sheer ferocity: Once again, in close-up black and white, we see a sullen, sweat- and bruise-covered brawler staring out at us with half-closed eyes--imploring the spectator, it seems, either to throw in the towel or get in the ring. Given the new film's particular twist, however, one half expects the ad to contain one of those cheesy sequel taglines--something like, "This time, it's a girl," or, "Just when you thought it was safe to pick on your sister...." That it doesn't is a credit not so much to those PR pugilists as to 30-year-old director Kusama, an NYU film-school grad whose debut feature admirably resists any distributor's attempt to make it cuddly.

Last May in Cannes, where Girlfight riled up audiences at all hours of the day (including 6:00 a.m.), Kusama agreed to meet me in the ring--a circular hotel courtyard, actually--on a blistering afternoon in the Côte d'Azur. As we pulled our white plastic chairs into a rare strip of shade alongside a row of well-manicured shrubs, the vast dissimilarity between these swanky surroundings and Girlfight's setting in the blighted Brooklyn projects made it all the more clear that this low-budget movie has indeed gone the distance.

CITY PAGES: How did you come up with that great opening shot of the heroine, Diana Guzman, in a buffalo stance with her arms crossed and her back against her school locker, while the other kids stroll casually down the hall? Right from the beginning, she looks like she's ready to beat the hell out of someone.

KARYN KUSAMA: It wasn't in the original script, but once we started storyboarding, I decided that the simpler we could [orchestrate the action], the better. What I wanted out of that opening was to create something that was a little more confrontational, to give the audience a sense of who it is they're dealing with. I wanted to set up a situation in which we cannot just look at this woman--we have to realize that she's also looking out at us.

CP: Do you relate much to Diana's antagonistic relationship to authority--or, if you prefer, to the way the character manifests her frustrations physically?

KUSAMA: I relate to her a lot. Her sense of entrapment, I think, is familiar to all of us. I don't think I know many conscious people who feel free entirely. I feel close to her distrust of authority figures because there are so few of them, at least in our culture, that we can truly respect. So I understand her desire to create power for herself--even if that power, and the methods she has learned to employ that power, are quite destructive.

CP: You were a boxer yourself at one point, right?

KUSAMA: Uh-huh [laughs]. But I wasn't a competitive boxer--I was just training. Ultimately, I just didn't have the killer instinct that Diana Guzman or [actor] Michelle Rodriguez have. I came into it several years ago, through a friend I worked with in New York. She was a wonderful woman, with tremendous energy. Finally I just asked her, "How do you do it? How do you stay so peppy?" And she told me she boxed. She introduced me to her trainer, who would go on to become the trainer for [Rodriguez] in the movie. As far as how it felt to fight, it felt great. Boxing is an absolutely fabulous workout [laughs].

CP: And that energy you felt was part of the inspiration for the movie?

KUSAMA: Yeah, because you feel a lot of [pauses]...well, a clearing-out of your mind. I mean, it's exactly what every athlete or artist strives for--a sort of empty space where anything can happen. I think that in the case of my character in the film, she starts to experience that, and it's a state of grace--a new place for her, a place she needs to be. And I was excited to depict that, because I feel like [in movies] we don't get to see women achieve that sense of stillness in themselves, that sense that anything is possible.

CP: How would you describe the female boxers you met, either compared to other females or to other male boxers?

KUSAMA: Well, boxers in general are very driven people, very routine-oriented. And in a way, my impression of the really serious female boxers was that they were no different than the serious male boxers. What makes them different from other women is what makes them different from other people: They are willing to get into the ring and get hurt. They're open to that. Now, that takes a whole other kind of mindset. It requires you to be wired differently, I think. I was never wired that way. I feel like I understand and can empathize with people who are wired that way, but it's just not for me.

CP: Filmmaking is pretty competitive, too, right? Do you need to be wired differently for that as well?

KUSAMA: Definitely. And I think I do have that wiring. Because I think that one of the biggest lessons in filmmaking is getting a sense of how you work with people, how you communicate with them, how you want to engage your collaborators in the process. And I personally find that that takes a lot of energy. It's not for everyone. I really enjoy that process of working with people, and getting their input, and seeing everyone's collective creativity materialize into something else entirely, something that's out of our hands.

CP: That's really interesting, because so many young filmmakers talk about their work as being this me-against-the-world kind of thing, and everyone else is just there with the potential to fuck up their movie.

KUSAMA: In my opinion, you're only as strong a filmmaker as the strength of your ability to persuade, convince, recruit, listen, share, and defer. I think a lot of filmmakers have this fear of relinquishing control, this sense that if they did so, they'd have to give credit to other people--when in fact, no one but the director is in the position to stand up and say, 'We all shared in this together.' If I say that, I'm still the director. That's the icing on the cake.

CP: Girlfight has a lot in common with another recent sports film by a first-time woman director, Love and Basketball. Why do you think these two films would have sprung almost simultaneously from the culture? I'm not suggesting plagiarism here, of course, but rather the presence of an appealing vibe in the culture having to do with women in sports, both literally and as a metaphor.

KUSAMA: I think it's two things. I think the topic of women in athletics has never been more interesting or more prevalent, more full of possibility for women--although there are still terrible, terrible inequities. I also think that people are getting tired of the same old formula. There's a demand--emotionally, on some unconscious level, perhaps--for a different kind of story. We want different kinds of relationships. Prince Charming isn't doing his job [laughs]. We need more.

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