CHICAGO — Filmmaker and University of Illinois Chicago film professor Jennifer Reeder’s fourth feature, “Perpetrator,” is described this way in the program of the Berlin International Film Festival, where the thriller makes its world premiere:
“On her 18th birthday, tough-girl Jonny eats a cake baked by her aunt according to a magical family recipe and goes through a radical metamorphosis. As several classmates go missing, a bloody coming-of-age story takes its course.”
The course rarely runs smoothly in Reeder’s filmography, which has been described as half David Lynch, half John Hughes. It’s driven by fierce young women; huge, bruising emotions; and a vision of American suburbia full of brightly colored, darkly subterranean mysteries.
The writer-director shot “Perpetrator” in 23 days early last spring in Chicago, using an empty Ukrainian Village three-flat to create a “gorgeous, weird, witchy house.” There, the key figures in the story — Jonny, played by Kiah McKirnan (“Mare of Easttown”), and her aunt, played by Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless” and, more recently, “American Horror Stories”) — set the stakes.
Reeder’s short and longer works have been largely what she calls “genre-adjacent.” Not full-on conventional horror or supernatural thriller projects. Instead, they’re eerie, corkscrewy variations pulling from thriller, horror, coming-of-age and other idioms.
“Perpetrator” is different, she says. It’s more cognizant of what subscribers to the Shudder streaming platform (where it will stream, following its festival and hoped-for theatrical runs) want in a movie about a shape-shifting teenager on the hunt for whoever’s hunting young women in her school.
What does not feel different to Reeder these days? Well, how about the latest 2023 awards season nomination announcement, with yet another all-male lineup in the directing ranks, as if it were 1983 all over again? Golden Globes — zero female directors nominated. Directors Guild of America — same. No Sarah Polley for “Women Talking,” no Gina Prince-Bythewood for “The Woman King,” no Chinonye Chukwu for “Till” or Charlotte Wells for “Aftersun.”
Excerpts from our conversation in Reeder’s kitchen in Hammond, Indiana, edited for length and clarity:
Q: Jennifer, you can argue with me, but 2022 felt to me inarguably full of strong work in many directions for women behind the camera. Yet here we are. For a while, it seemed like the awards-season runway was getting a little bit wider, but the recent nominations —
A: Right? Sadly I feel the runway hasn’t gotten much wider. And I think you have to look at what’s happening in a larger sense around, you name it, women’s reproductive rights and any number of other reminders of how many powerful people still don’t look at women as equals. That thinking trickles down to all sorts of places, storytelling included. Who gets to tell what story, who gets to make the movies, who gets nominated — they’re all part of that.
Most female writer-directors have to reinvent themselves with every project. And women who have gained access to bigger opportunities, bigger budgets, their work is still held to a different standard. I mean, people were scrutinizing Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” films in a way they just weren’t scrutinizing the latest “Spider-Man” or “Iron Man.” Same with Chloé Zhao on Marvel’s “Eternals.”
Q: I talked to Nia DaCosta about her version of “Candyman.” She intimated that she got less interference from Marvel on “The Marvels,” oddly enough, the movie she was making when we talked, than she did with a much smaller budget on “Candyman.” There was a clear sense that the producers’ horror genre expectations were not being delivered by her take. And who knows, it probably wasn’t splurchy enough for an audience that basically wanted the old “Candyman” again.
A: After I made “Knives and Skin,” WTFilms asked what I wanted to do next. And I told them I really wanted to make a proper genre film. I’d been thinking about something that (deals) with a shape-shifter, a wild, out-of-control girl who becomes really wild and out of control. And the man who was my French sales agent on “Knives and Skin” said, “Well, I want to help you make that film!” I thought, well, that’s great, but that’ll probably be the last of that. But a week later, we got started. So I’ve been lucky to find people supportive of my vision.
Q: Is there some comfort in micro- or low-budget filmmaking, in that a film doesn’t have to become this year’s “breakout discovery” in order to get your producing partners interested in backing the next one?
A: Absolutely. But, you know, I like the idea of bigger budgets. I like the idea of a giant budget! Someday. On “Perpetrator” I’m putting more pressure on myself. I’d like this one to ensure triple the budget next time. I’ve got ambitions to shoot elsewhere (outside Chicago). The budget we ended up with on this project meant I had to make a director pass on the script, with an eye toward what we could afford, which meant consolidating some characters, things like that. But that kind of streamlining often makes for a better story.
Q: Awards exist outside the actual process of filmmaking, and I suppose they’re essentially barnacles that occasionally do some good to call people’s attention to work they might not otherwise see. But then you look at —
A: I mean, look no further than the Golden Globes. And it’s kind of true of the Independent Spirit Awards this year. I love the success of Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun” And “Nanny” was nominated for a “breakout” award, which is nice. But that doesn’t really recognize what an accomplishment that film is. I’m curious to see if the Academy Awards will be a case of, OK, three women have won directing Oscars now in roughly a century. Two of them happened to win back-to-back (Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland” and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog”). So that’s enough for now!
Also, we should look at what kind of work gets recognized in those cases. “Nomadland” and “The Power of the Dog” are real accomplishments but they’re sort of quieter, headier films. Is that where people want women to stay? To just tell their smart, quiet stories and not get too weird, or too radical, or too racial, or too whatever?
I don’t know. I hope that’s not the case.
I keep looking for a really good action movie script to direct. Last year I was sent a lot of scripts that were all basically “Stranger Things”-meets-blah-blah-blah. And then I got a lot of: “What if Clarice Starling from ‘Silence of the Lambs’ did dot-dot-dot.” Rookie FBI agents, written by men. And the most difficult part of the (female protagonist’s) personality is she comes home one night and drinks too many beers. No sex life; always a traumatizing childhood; the same story, over and over. That’s what some of these guys think women are good for. And I thought, well, none of these scripts feel right for me.
So I think, for now, I’ll just write my own action movie.
“Perpetrator” makes its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival Feb. 16-26.