Fittingly, it was a true fight for Karyn Kusama to get her directorial debut made. Inspired by the writer-director's own experience taking boxing lessons, Girlfight centers on Diana Guzman, a troubled Brooklyn teen who feels lost at school and bullied at home by her father (Pulp Fiction's Paul Calderon); when Diana joins a boxing gym, she finds a new love and, more importantly, herself in the ring.

"It represents so much of what I'm still interested in about character and about movies," Kusama says. "I love character studies. I love getting to watch a person evolve. In some respects, I feel like it was a very truthful representation of my interests at the time, but also my enduring interests."

Rejecting requests to cast a young white starlet in the lead role, Kusama searched long and hard for her Diana, eventually landing on a first-time actor by the name of Michelle Rodriguez. "Even with her lack of experience and her complete lack of training, there was just something electric about Michelle," Kusama recalls of the then-20 year old, who responded to an an open casting call. "She represented a kind of female dynamism and physicality that I don't think I had seen in many people before her — or since."

Fighting to cast a Latina lead was just one of the knocks Kusama took on Girlfight; there were also all of the usual budgetary and scheduling challenges of an independent production. But the fight was worth it. Girlfight premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, where it won a Grand Jury Prize and Kusama took home a Directing Award. The film launched Rodriguez to movie starm (she followed up Girlfight with 2001's The Fast and the Furious), while Kusama's would go on to helm acclaimed films like Jennifer's Body and Destroyer.

Now, thanks to a new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, with a 4K transfer supervised by Kusama, Girlfight's legacy lives on. In conversation with A.frame, the filmmaker reflects on discovering Rodriguez and the legacy of her first film more than 20 years on.

Karyn Kusama on the set of 'Girlfight' in 1999.

A.frame: When you reflect back on the experience of Girlfight, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

I think it's reflecting on the value of naïveté, and the value of not knowing the ins and outs of the business or the challenges ahead of me. In a funny way, that kind of inexperience actually really served me, and I'm always trying to get back now to a place of blissful not knowing. [Laughs] I don't want to quite call it ignorance — because that's not really what I mean — but a lack of over-awareness about the obstacles in front of me. That's what fueled the process while I was making Girlfight. I wasn't really concentrating on how hard it was, I was just loving doing it.

What were some of the biggest obstacles?

We had very little money and very little time. That remains a struggle for me now, film to film, project to project. I think the No. 1 struggle of that film — and still remains something I need to be aware of — is just surrendering to the process of making that film. I learned that I had to give myself over to the logic of its certain obstacles, its certain roadblocks, and just let go! That's something I'm still learning now with every new thing I do.

Much of the legacy of Girlfight centers around the discovery of Michelle. What were you looking for in Diana, what weren't you finding elsewhere, and then what was it about this girl from Jersey City with no acting credits to her name that won you over?

In the most basic way, I wanted to find somebody just completely watchable. Somebody that could be staring out a window and you still want to see what happens across their face. Even with her lack of experience and her complete lack of training, there was something electric about Michelle. She represented a kind of female dynamism and physicality that I don't think I had seen in many people before her — or since. She really inhabits her full body.

Was there a moment once you officially cast Michelle that you knew your instincts had been right?

There were many of those moments. But when we started, I put her on a pretty strict training regimen. She needed to be working with the same trainer, Hector Roca, that I initially worked with as a boxer, and I could tell in the way that he and the trainers were interacting with her that they weren't seeing her as an actor anymore. They were seeing her as a fighter. And the fact that that sense of needing to care for her as an actor dropped away and she was just a fighter to them, that told me on some meta-level but also on a performance level, that she was going to embody the character.


With Michelle being a rookie, how important and valuable was it to have an incredibly talented veteran like Paul Calderon opposite her as Diana's father?

Paul Calderon is such a wonderful actor, and I had known him from a lot of work in film and TV and theater. He just had a kindness to him. Despite the fact that he played such a small man as the dad [in the movie], in real-life, he was so expansive and kind and patient. He was so supportive of Michelle and open to the fact that she was sort of this raw, live wire, and I think it made things off-screen quite warm between them.

All these years later, is there a specific sequence that immediately comes to mind when you think back on Michelle's performance?

Because I have now looked at the film in the remastering process, one area that we were paying attention to was the final scene in the makeshift locker room. Over the course of the film, to see her face go from hard and confrontational to something open and vulnerable, I felt like I really saw a full performance from an actor between those two extremes of the film.

It's funny, on The Fast and the Furious, Michelle told me she accidentally punched a fellow actor in the face, which is something she says she also did on Girlfight!

Oh yeah, and it was Paul Calderon! [Laughs] I was just like, "Oh god!" It's in the moment where they're fighting with one another bare-handed, she just missed a mark, and it was really rough. But he got through it with grace and dignity, and so did she. But it was an unwelcome surprise on set!

I was already planning to ask you this question, and then my point was further proven when it was recently announced that Sydney Sweeney is doing a boxing movie. [She is set to play boxing icon Christy Martin in an upcoming biopic.] Clearly, this is an arena that really speaks to creatives, considering some of our greatest films and performances have been set in the ring. Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby. What is it that directors and actors love about the genre?

It's a good question, because it speaks to the insularity of the ring as if it is this contained landscape to work out a lot of story, a lot of emotional growth, development — or lack of development. It's a very pure storytelling space. There's something about the sport that's incredibly raw and visceral and has an elegant simplicity and purity. I think actors and storytellers who gravitate toward it like the sense of so much story being possible in the ring.


As you worked through this restoration process, what has it been like revisiting the film all these years later? Were there any surprising takeaways or discoveries?

It was interesting to go back and remaster the film and be aware of the fact that color and texture and pattern, all of these visual, sensual qualities of cinema were very much top of mind for me when I was making the movie. And it got me thinking about how much, for me, cinema is a process of both provocation and active pleasure.

Obviously you'd love to have your movies come out and each make a billion dollars, but regardless of whatever that opening weekend number is, are you able to now see the bigger picture? Like, 25 years later, Girlfight is still being talked about. Jennifer's Body has graduated from cult classic to a widely-recognized classic. Is there anything more a filmmaker can ask for than their movies find a place in film history?

That's an interesting thought. I mean, for me, I definitely don't feel I have my place yet. I feel I have so much work ahead of me to earn my way toward that. But that being said, it is really gratifying when people see your work and that there's a way to keep it alive, and I'm really thankful to the Criterion Collection for actually giving this movie a chance to exist again.

By Derek Lawrence



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