Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Halina Reijn about transforming Bodies Bodies Bodies into her own damn movie.
When Halina Reijn first received the script for Bodies Bodies Bodies, the characters, settering, and narrative mechanism were radically different than what we finally saw on screen. In place of a hurricane was a snowstorm. The threat pursuing the young friends in the house was much more traditional, and the message drilled into its audience was entirely different.
Reijn responded strongly to much of the film and was itching to make her genre movie, but before she could do that, the director needed another stab at the screenplay. The film had to be hers through and through. She did not see this as tampering but as evolution. It’s a process not too dissimilar to what she would do as an actress working for Belgian director Ivo Van Hove.
“I thought I would approach it the same way we approach all the classical plays that I used to do with Ivo van Hove as an actress,” she says. “You take a hundred-year-old play, and then you deconstruct it, and you make it super contemporary. I thought that would be a great key into [Bodies Bodies Bodies].”
The film opens with two girlfriends invading a hurricane party. Their romance is fresh, new. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) seemingly wants to show off their relationship to some old pals, and Bee (Maria Bakalova) is nervous but willing. As evening falls, the group launches a murder mystery game called “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” where someone is the killer, who strikes when the lights go out. Then, one amongst their group actually winds up dead, and the remaining terrified parties quickly turn on each other.
“I pitched it like Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls,” says Reijn. “I thought it would be about group behavior, but mainly the question of, ‘is the killer inside of you? Is it outside of you?’ Hence the ending. I don’t want to speak too much about it, but for me, it was really, very, very important – the nihilistic, hedonistic ending, if you will. It is about human nature and not about an evil ghost or a serial killer or some revenge theme or whatever. For me, it was all about human reaction and intimacy and really looking at what’s going on instead of just looking at your phone.”
Bodies Bodies Bodies tears into its protagonists. Frequently, you’re left wondering whether the filmmaker likes or loathes her characters. Where are these knives and this contempt directed?
“First of all,” she says, “I am very addicted to my phone. Of course, in my own grandmother kind of way, where if you want to show me a TikTok, I would be like, er uh…I text like this [pulling the phone close to her face] because of my eyesight, but I’m super addicted. I grew up in a commune, and I’m totally obsessed with any group or cult – with sports clubs, with friend groups, like any subgroup. Also, with youth, so of course, it fascinates me the way they communicate and the way they use their phones. This is just part of their bodies. But they have so much knowledge; they’re smart because they can Google anything, and you and I had to look it up in a book.”
So, if older audience members are separating themselves from the youth savagely tearing into each other, they’re probably missing the point and fooling themselves. The technology in our pockets is changing all of us. A gulf is growing between our physical interactions, and whatever fingers we’re pointing should be aimed backward at ourselves.
“I feel that it’s not as much that I’m mocking them,” says Reijn, “but I’m sort of making fun of the human nature in all of us. It is a little bit of a cautionary tale for myself, like, ‘Please, woman, stop looking at your fucking screen.’ Because also, I’m avoiding intimacy. I need to go out on dating apps and all of that. I hate it. I hate it! When are we going to sit with another human being and really look into each other’s eyes? I’m making this film to warn myself.”
Reijn sees her time as a filmmaker on Bodies Bodies Bodies as an anthropologist. The experience rejuvenated her, and for whatever horror or disgust we might find in the film, Reijn found an equal amount of hope. Her cast puts her in a state of awe, and some jealousy is mixed within.
“Their vocabulary is so interesting,” she says. “They have words for everything, and they have rules, all these different rules that they have to go by. There’s lots of pressure, and they will talk about mental health all the time. When we grew up, it was like, ‘suck it up and be tough.’ When I would have a panic attack, I would never share that, which, of course, you have as an actress on stage all the time. You wouldn’t even know that it’s called a panic attack. You literally thought you were going to have a heart attack and go to the hospital. The fact that they talk about all of that, constantly, constantly, constantly, is because they also grew up in front of cameras. They’re so self-aware, and that’s a little annoying and maybe feels like, ‘Jesus Christ, toughen up.’ But on the other hand, there’s also beauty in it. I admire it, and their feminism and their wokeness.”
One gets the sense that there was absolute freedom on the set. Bodies Bodies Bodies has a loose vibe; it doesn’t feel heavily chained to a script. While that is certainly true, the director is quick to celebrate the screenplay and its writer. Determining which lines were made up on the spot and which ones were written is rather tricky.
“Sarah DeLappe is a brilliant writer,” says Reijn. “The fact that the movie is a murder mystery and, at the same time, is so contemporary. She’s technically really, really good. But a lot of the other stuff, like the ableist line of Amandla, she ad-libbed that. ‘I look like I fuck’ is an ad-lib. Or Rachel [Sennott] going on about body dysmorphia, that’s an ad-lib. The whole thing, ‘Do you know what it takes to make a podcast?’ So, yeah, there’s a lot of improvisation in it too.”
Halina Reijn and her cinematographer Jasper Wolf spent several weeks, without the cast, rehearsing and blocking the film. Her goal was to treat the set like a stage. She never wanted her cast to know where the camera was going to be, which meant they had to be present and in character for every scene.
“I want to create the same atmosphere as in the theater,” she says. “Where you always have to be at your best game. You can’t think like, ‘Oh, the close-up is on my scene partner, and I can go to sleep for a while,’ or ‘I’m just here to feed him the lines.’ I like to create the same tension so that they’re all on high alert at all times. Then they feed each other way more interesting energy. The camera is just moving intuitively. Of course, we have a plan, but they don’t always know what we’re going to do with those really long takes.”
Shooting this way sends electricity through the frames. The on-edge quality of the actors works its way into the characters, which translates immediately to the audience. The process works exceptionally well for thrillers, and it’s a vibe the director was chasing for her first American feature. Although, narrowing Bodies Bodies Bodies down to anything beyond a genre picture is troublesome for Reijn.
She’s not interested in where the film ends up on the video shelf or whatever streaming category. That’s our problem. She also finds that placing labels on your film is a fool’s errand. The audience is the ultimate decider of where your movie will end up.
“I was in a movie once,” says Reijn, “as an actress, called Zus and Zo, which was nominated for an Oscar. Can you imagine? For Best Foreign Film. A friend called me the other day, and he found the movie in a sex shop! I never know where my movie is going to go afterward. I only know that I really enjoyed making this, and I give it to the universe. I hope with all my heart that people will enjoy it and maybe take something away or have a conversation after it, get inspired to make their own film. If it’s still here after hundreds of years or if it’s gone tomorrow, it’s all fine. It’s like pop art. I give it to the gods, and let’s just fucking get on with it. Make a new one.”
The movie gods have Bodies Bodies Bodies now. They will do with it what they must. Halina Reijn is excited to see what they bestow upon it but obviously not too flustered over their decisions. There’s another movie already in the works, and her attention is needed elsewhere. She’s gotta make that one her own too.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is now playing in theaters.