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'Girlfight' director Karyn Kusama: 'Women have always been athletes'

Michelle Rodriguez stars in "Girlfight." Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection
1 of 5 | Michelle Rodriguez stars in "Girlfight." Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection

LOS ANGELES, May 28 (UPI) -- Writer-director Karyn Kusama said her debut 2000 film Girlfight, available Tuesday on Criterion Collection Blu-ray, shone a light on underrepresented female athletes.

Michelle Rodriguez, also making her film debut, played Diana Guzman, a Brooklyn high schooler who trains to be a boxer.

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"Women have always been athletes," Kusama, 56, told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "It's just a question of whether or not we've been paying any attention to them."

Women's boxing was still emerging in the United States in the late 1990s. World Amateur Boxing did not hold its first championship until 2001, and women's boxing only became an official Olympic sport in 2012.

Kusama said she faced resistance from financiers and distributors for a film about amateur women's boxing, starring a primarily Latin cast.

She said it was important to her not to focus the film on personal achievement at an amateur level, "that it wasn't about reaching professional greatness," Kusama said, adding that it was more important to be "a character study of this young budding athlete."

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Efforts to improve diversity in film increased in the decades since Girlfight, she said. The Oscars faced backlash in 2015 for continuing to nominate primarily White actors and filmmakers and UCLA's Division of Social Sciences continue to monitor diversity in film and television.

Kusama said she insisted the Girlfight characters be Latin because she herself trained at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, which is featured in the film. She said she wanted to represent the Latin-American presence at the gym she herself observed.

"I could just say, "No, she can't be a White girl. She's got to be Latina,'" she said of suggestions to cast a Caucasian lead. "It just felt like the most authentic thing to do."

Though boxing was the sport on which Kusama focused in her story, she said the larger themes relate to women in any sport, including women's college basketball and tennis.

Boxing represented "this desire to find physical mastery or power within the routines and training of a sport," she said.

To embody Diana's achievements, Rodriguez trained to box. Her physical prowess later led to a career in action roles from The Fast and the Furious franchise to last year's Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

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"We had videotaped a lot of her training so that she could see how different she looked at the beginning," Kusama said. "Four months later, she was quite a bit better as a boxer."

Scenes of Rodriguez doing pull-ups and other exercises reflected the actor's strength, Kusama said. "She could just keep going. She was a force of nature."

Girlfright also shows Rodriguez's vulnerable side in Diana's story.

Diana begins to date another boxer, Adrian Sturges (Douglas Santiago), and starts to let her emotional guard down with him.

"That was the real journey the character was meant to take," Kusama said. "She was meant to move from defensiveness and outward displays of power to something more internal, vulnerable and contemplative."

Adrian supports Diana's boxing, but has second thoughts about being the one to punch her when they are booked to fight. Kusama said their climactic bout is also intended to be a metaphor for intimacy.

"It's meant to be an expression of how close they ultimately are that they can trade blows," she said. "That was meant to be both real in the physical sense, but metaphorical in the emotional sense."

Diana and Adrian are immortalized in the year 2000 as Girlfight ends on a freeze frame. Kusama said she and producer John Sayles experimented with the freeze frame, inspired by movies of the '60s and '70s.

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"It's almost like it memorializes the life that we've just witnessed for that moment in time," Kusama said. "It felt like a fitting ending."

Girlfight premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000 where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Directing Award. It ultimately made $1.6 million worldwide on a $1 million budget.

The success of Girlfight landed Kusama work directing Hollywood movies, although she said her subsequent film ended up compromised. Kusama directed Aeon Flux, a live-action adaptation of the animated series, starring Charlize Theron.

Kusma said the 2005 studio release altered her original cut, and she's like to restore her early cut, but it would require more visual effects work for added scenes.

"The movie that I made or intended to make was so different from what ended up in the theaters," she said.

After Aeon Flux, Kusama directed Jennifer's Body, from a script by Diablo Cody. In the film, Megan Fox plays a high school girl who becomes a demon who eats boys in her school.

Though not a success in its 2009 release, Jennifer's Body has gained a cult following. Viewers now respond to the friendship between Fox and Amanda Seyfried's characters, and critics have re-assessed Fox's performance free of the hype following her Transformers movies.

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"I always thought that was going to be a movie that would find its audience, and I felt like it spoke so deeply to me," Kusama said. "I'm very, very thankful that people now do appreciate the movie the way that they do."

She also directed the horror movie, The Invitation, the Nicole Kidman cop drama, Destroyer, and episodes of TV series, The L Word, Masters of Sex, Billions and Yellowjackets.

Her next project will be the third season of AMC's The Terror. The season will be based on Victor LaValle's book, The Devil in Silver.

Kusama had to stop boxing in her 30s due to the strain on her knees. However, she said, she now approaches filmmaking as a way to excel and achieve more with every film.

"The work of my life is finding a way to leave the distractions behind and focus on one thing at a time in a fully present, fully embodied way," she said. "The interesting thing about making movies is you have to just live with your choices and then move on."

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