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A powerful vote of confidence (in round one) from filmmaker John Sayle helped writer/director Karyn Kusama pull off her award winning debut feature about an angry young woman who fights her way out of a vacuum into womanhood via the boxing ring, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

John Sayles, one of the most admired of American independent filmmakers, gave first time filmmaker Karyn Kusama a vote of confidence early on in the process of making Girlfight – which Kasuma has only recognised now the film is completed. "I now see what a powerful thing that was," she says on the phone from New York.

It was early days, and newcomer Michelle Rodriguez (who had never acted in her life before) was in training for the boxing scenes. Kusama prepared a short tape to send to Sayles, who had already seen the script and liked it so much he took on an Executive Producer role, investing some of his own money.

The Kusama-Sayles connection can be traced back through Martha Griffin, an associate of Sayles’: Kusama had filled in for Griffin when Griffin began to work more heavily on the production end of Sayles’ films. Kusama showed Griffin her script…and Griffin showed it to their former boss.

"For him to so trustingly approve of this unknown, inexperienced young girl at that early stage was a huge vote of confidence, and one that I probably wouldn’t have got from anyone else."

Rodriguez, went only reluctantly an open audition for the film; "I knew people would critisise me and they wouldn’t consider me for any role. But for some reason, I just decided other people have done it before, I might as well give it a shot."

Once on tape, says Kusama, "despite what a wild card she was, it just didn’t matter because she had that quality I’d been looking for – someone who burns up the screen."

Girlfight is the story of Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez), an angry young woman living in the poverty-stricken Red Hook precinct of Brooklyn with her dismissive father Sandro (Paul Calderon) and younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago). Her quick temper and a nothing to lose attitude earn her a reputation of troublemaker, which boxing trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli) agrees reluctantly to channel into boxing while also training Tiny. To everyone’s surprise, it is Diana who relishes in the sport, and she is soon competing against both sexes – and when she has to fight Adrian (Santiago Douglas) their budding relationship is tested: but at last she has found something that makes sense to her.

"Rodriguez seemed like she would be able to play both the loose cannon at the beginning and the more disciplined Diana at the end of the film," says Kusama. But casting the role posed "an interesting conundrum," Kusama admits. "I was open to getting the right actor for the financing needs of the project but there was no-one who fitted…who was Latino, raw, unfeminine and willing to put on five kilos. I was asking an actress to do four or five months preparing, but while many would be willing, very few would have been able to made the progress…Michelle put on a lot of muscle mass. . . "

As for the character being a Latino, Kusama explains it was prompted by a couple of elements:"I had an instinct that that was the world the movie had to be in – it’s very New York and Latin culture is such a big part of the fabric of the city – and even more so in the gyms. I also wanted to pay my respects to my favourite fighters, who all happen to be Latinos."

Kusama, originally from St Louis with a Japanese father and a Scottish/Irish mother, moved to New York at 18 to attend film school. By 1992 she was working in the film industry, and a female colleague introduced her to her trainer, a Panamanian called Hector (to whom Kusama pays tribute in Girlfight by naming Diana’s trainer after him). "It was a new world of solityary pursuit that is tranforming," she says. "I realised that there was a story to be told about being accepted in a totally foreign environment, and started thinking about that and a character very different to myself. The gym environment got into my bones…"

Kusama, who moved into a rundown Brooklyn house with four others at around the same time, did not set out to make any grand statements. "But I hope if there are any statements that the audience feels, they come organically. I’m wary of making films about issues. Film is one of the most friovolous mediums and as much as I’m obsessed by it, I don’t want to beat the chest, either politically or any other way. I hope the film’s power comes from the identification with the characters."

Kusama acknowledges, though, that there’ll be some, women particularly, for whom Diana will be quite a reflection of themselves."

Not boxing at present, Kusama is actually "fantasising about a vacation," as she stares ata waterstained wall. The house is only standing because of the houses on either side of it, she recently discovered. "If I manage the break, I’ll getting back to co-writing a script which is more influenced by sci-fi than horror, but a complete contrast to Girlfight."

But first, she is off to finish the DVD of Girlfight, recording her commentary. It will contain some deleted scenes, she says, although she has decided not to include the entire three hour rough cut!


Published: November 23, 2000

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Karyn Kusama
Kusama with Michelle Rodriguez on the set

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