Image: A24/Gwen Capistran

Halina Reijn: In conversation with A24’s rising star director

08 Sep 2022 | By Adam Davidson

The Bodies Bodies Bodies director on stepping out of the spotlight, the perverse appeal of Gen Z and *that* New York Times review

For Dutch director Halina Reijn, the attraction to making her English-language debut, A24’s Bodies Bodies Bodies, came from an unlikely source: playground games. The eponymous game at the film’s centre, in which an evil minority attempts to kill off a benign majority, was one Reijn played as a child – and she immediately saw its sinister potential.

“It was psychological warfare – a game of manipulation, teaming up with each other, excluding friends and feeling extremely paranoid, excited, insecure and aggressive all at the same time. It would always be a complete disaster. Everybody hated each other afterwards, but then two weeks later, we’d be like ‘Oh let’s play that game’ because it is so sexy and seductive.”

Described by Reijn as ‘Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies’, Bodies Bodies Bodies is a captivating comedy-horror that examines Gen Z culture and the shallowness of society. Thanks to the talents of scriptwriter Kristen Roupenian, it is also a sharp examination of human behaviour. Or as Reijn puts it, this is a horror film “about human nature and not so much about the monster under the bed.”

Reijn with Amandla Stenberg on set. Image: A24/Erik Chakeen

The movie centres around a group of wealthy young adults who plan a hurricane party at a remote family mansion. As the storm hits, the group decide to play one of their favourite games: Bodies Bodies Bodies. The game turns deadly as the house’s power is cut and people start being taken out for real. The old friends must survive the night and find the killer in their midst – but only if they can get over themselves first.

Following her directorial debut, 2019’s psychological thriller Instinct, with Bodies Bodies Bodies Reijn pivots, seamlessly blending her talents with A24’s reputation for progressive, offbeat genre pieces. The movie parodies the conventional slasher film while satirising the priorities of Gen Z and the social media age, with characters throwing around buzzwords like toxic masculinity, gaslighting and trauma in relation to trivial topics, even as people are picked off one by one around them.

But before the keyboard warriors turn to Twitter to rail against a perceived ‘anti-woke agenda’, this is not that. Instead, Reijn explains, it is about being aware that, when we have these conversations, we are so often missing the wood for the trees. “We all live in a world where we’re not actually looking at each other or seeing what’s going on. The layer of civilisation is very thin and when the masks come off [the characters] become animals. It’s much closer to us than we’d like think. They’re not really looking at what’s taking place; they’re just reacting, and that becomes almost a hysteria. Under pressure, we’re driven by our primal urges.”

Filmed during Covid, the production was forced to adhere to tight safety protocols, meaning the cast were restricted to the set or a hotel. The silver lining, however, was that the group formed a close bond, allowing Reijn to draw on her theatre experience and run her set in a manner more akin to an intimate play than a large-scale cinema production.

“They were condemned to spend time together and they really loved it,” she laughs. “They played the game all the time, they ran their lines all the time, it made me so proud.

“The group scenes look so easy but they are insanely hard to pull off. To really make the dynamic believable and authentic the actors just had to know their lines like clockwork. It needs to be a machine doing a very smooth job. When all of us are prepared like soldiers then we can let go in the moment.”

Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Chase Sui Wonders and Rachel Sennott

With the exception of Lee Pace, the film stars an all-twenty-something cast including Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders and Rachel Sennott, and collaboration was key to grasping an authentic understanding of Gen Z culture. Reijn asked the cast to send her their playlists, songs from which ended up in the final soundtrack, and even took notes during private conversations to get a candid understanding of her subject matter.

“We were really trying to make a film about this generation even though at the heart of it is human behaviour,” says Reijn, careful to point out that the movie isn’t just a simple skewering of a specific demographic but also tackles universal themes of human psychology, friendship and violence.

“I am 46 and I completely relate to this film, so it’s not that it’s just for or about Gen Z, but I do like to use their vocabulary and their humour. I think it’s such a fascinating generation because they were the first to grow up with this machine [a smartphone] glued to them.”

Reijn with Amandla Stenberg and Pete Davidson. Image: A24/Gwen Capistran

Of course, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t get the joke. Following the US release of Bodies Bodies Bodies in early August, New York Times critic Lena Wilson wrote that the movie was ‘a 95-minute advertisement for cleavage’. Not willing to take the review lying down, Amandla Stenberg sent Wilson an Instagram DM with the message ‘Great review! Maybe if you had gotten your eyes off my tits, you could’ve watched the movie!’

The irony that a satire about a superficial generation consumed by appearance and materialism should receive such a review was not lost on many, especially when Wilson (who is gay) shared the DM with her followers and branded Stenberg (who is also gay) as homophobic. Stenberg responded with a video apologising to Wilson, defending their mutual right to criticism and explaining that she was ‘tired of people talking about my chest’.

For her part, Reijn believes Stenberg did a ‘beautiful job’ addressing the objectification and sexualisation that women in the industry face. It’s a trope Reijn understands all too well, having appeared on stage naked in productions by long-time collaborator Ivo Van Hove.

“My whole career I’ve been objectified and sexualised. Even though onstage with Ivo I felt completely safe, everyone around the play sexualised it, the audience sexualised it and the media sexualised it. Amandla said that anyone can criticise our work and I agree. That’s the fun of creating art: everybody is going to have an opinion and that’s wonderful. But to sexualise and objectify women is just fucking dated.”

Bodies Bodies Bodies is in cinemas now.

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