Why 'Girlfight' Still Packs A Punch 20 Years Later


Earlier this year, Blumhouse had a success story with The Invisible Man, a fresh take on the property which earned back nearly 20x its budget. Naturally, the studio is pressing ahead with other takes on the Universal Monsters, and one of the more notable examples is Karyn Kusama on-board to direct Dracula film. To be given the keys to such an iconic figure, it’s a fantastic opportunity for such a brilliant director, but to get here has been an uphill battle. To answer why that’s the case (other than Kusama being a woman, of course), we must go back to her first film, Girlfight.

Released in the year 2000, Girlfight was Karyn Kusama’s chance to prove herself as a filmmaker. She drew from two aspects of her life, and the first was her own “general sense of isolation and alienation growing up.” The second was her love for boxing, which started in 1992 when a friend took her to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. For her debut as a writer and director, the idea was “to take the classic boxing story, put a female protagonist in it and subvert the form.”

However, she faced struggles to get financing, as studios were reluctant to be a part of the film. Movie companies wanted the lead character to be rewritten as a white girl, as opposed to somebody Latina, but Kusama didn’t want the protagonist transformed into “a celebrity starlet in an environment of material comfort.” She wanted to make something that was fresh, but the feedback was the lead would be “unappealing” and “unbelievable.” When the script was finished, Maggie Renzi, Sarah Greene, and Martha Griffin all agreed to produce it. The budget was $1 million, but the battle wasn’t over, as all of the film companies had passed on it.

A backer had been secured in 1999, but before you could say the luck was changing, the backer pulled out two days before pre-production began. Things would be saved, when the budget would be provided by Renzi and her long-time collaborator, director John Sayles (who was also Karyn Kusama’s mentor.) Later on, the Independent Film Channel would contribute $300,000 towards the budget.

Now that the budget was sorted, it came time to cast the lead role of Diana. Crafted as someone Kusama saw every day in New York City, she described the character as “pissed off”, with “a lot of presence” and an “urban braininess”, but without anywhere to pour that energy into. Due to how intense the shooting schedule was, the initial hopes were for a trained actor. However, Kusama was looking for a raw quality, and felt those who auditioned were too polished, and lacking what she desired. Enter Michelle Rodriguez, who had previously worked as an extra, but never before auditioned for a speaking role in a movie. She attended an open casting call an hour and a half late, and gave an audition which Kusama called “a disaster.” In spite of this, she beat out 350 auditionees, because nobody else “could come close to her in physical power.” What Kusama needed for the role was “Marlon Brando as a teenage girl”, and she believed Rodriguez fit the bill. To help their star, production hired an acting coach, and sent her to a gym. For five months, Rodriguez learnt how to box, spending five to six days a week training in the ring.

The film was shot over 24 days in Jersey City and New York. The initial boxing sequences were shot from a spectator’s view outside of the ring, but moments required to be in the ring, and adopt a more subjective point of view. To mimic the feeling of being hit, cinematographer Patrick Cady used camera rigs, which allowed the actors to hit him or the camera itself. Girlfight was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered on January 22, 2000. After all of the initial trouble, the film came out triumphant, winning the Grand Jury Prize (shared with You Can Count On Me), and also won the Director’s Award. In a funny turn of events, the companies who had previously rejected the film started competing to buy it, and Screen Gems ended up purchasing it for $3 million. Kusama also made a deal with Capitol Records, to release the distinctive soundtrack to the film, which blended hip-hop, flamenco, and hand-clapping.

Opening in just 28 theatres, the film had a limited release in the United States on September 29th , before expanding to 253 theatres a week later. It would bow out with a $1.7 million gross at the box office, but would garner great reviews, and receive numerous accolades from different awards bodies. One of the films lasting legacies may be opening the door, to allow more films about female protagonists in boxing films. Would we have had Million Dollar Baby if Kusama’s film hadn’t arrived first? Film studies academic Katharina Linder argued that Girlfight was responsible for the four time Oscar winner’s existence.

The film was responsible for launching the careers of its star and director. Michelle Rodriguez would become a recognisable name, appearing as Ana Lucia Cortez in the second season of Lost, and nabbing a role in the highest-grossing film of all time for a decade, Avatar. Her most recognisable role is arguably as Letty Ortiz, being with the Fast & Furious franchise since the series began in 2001 (even if the material hasn’t best showcased her talents).

Unfortunately, Karyn Kusama would have a rockier path. Her second film would be Æon Flux, a big-screen adaptation of the 90s MTV television series. The project would be taken from Kusama’s hands, recut and reworked from her own vision, leading the director to only work on future films if she had control of the final cut. Four years later, her most misunderstood work would be released, as Jennifer’s Body was unfairly dismissed as titillation for teenage boys.

The late 2010s would see Kusama find her place, starting with 2015’s outstanding feature, The Invitation. She would follow it up with a segment in XX, a horror anthology film that’s directed solely by women. Her contribution is entitled “Her Only Living Son”, a quasi-sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, and the best segment of the lot. In the shortest gap between features yet, the Nicole Kidman starring Destroyer would release to positive reviews. Even Jennifer’s Body would become a success story, as it’d be widely reappraised, and seen as prescient in the wake of the Me Too movement.

So, how soon will we see this newest take on Bram Stoker’s creation? The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown that up in the air, but Blumhouse aren’t known for lengthy turnarounds. Perhaps we’ll get it sooner than we think. Regardless of when it’s released, the future seems brighter than ever for Karyn Kusama. There’s already some great films worth seeking out in her back-catalogue, so why not start with her astounding debut?

Written by James Rodrigues