Some people look back at their high school years with a certain wistfulness; others couldn’t be paid to revisit that particular stretch of adolescence… thank you very much.
Filmmaker Jennifer Kaytin Robinson falls squarely in the latter category, though she admits she’s at least partially to blame for the bad memories.
More from Variety
“I was a bitch,” she says with the kind of laugh that only comes after years of self-reflection. “I was unhappy, so that came out by me paying that unhappiness forward. I love my family… but they can only do so much.”
Robinson, now in her thirties, is happily revisiting her teen angst in “Do Revenge,” a Hitchcockian high-school comedy that debuts Sept. 16 on Netflix. It’s a welcome return to the YA genre for Robinson, who most recently co-wrote this summer’s blockbuster “Thor: Love and Thunder” with Taika Waititi. She first made her mark on streaming with Netflix’s “Someone Great,” a funny and touching ode to love and female friendship, starring Gina Rodriguez.
When Robinson was putting the final touches on “Someone Great,” which premiered to acclaim in 2019, she spent her downtime watching a different Netflix rom-com, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” That high school-set story, which also struck a chord with young, cordless viewers, got Robinson thinking about the campy teen movies of her formative years, like “Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” “Jawbreakers” and “Heathers.” She recalls thinking, “Damn, this movie just doesn’t get made anymore.”
“Do Revenge” is the director’s candy-coated attempt to fill that void. Though Robinson, like the movie’s main characters, attended a posh prep school in south Florida, the movie isn’t exactly autobiographical. Instead, her second feature takes inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and follows two high schoolers who team up to take down each other’s enemy. Drea, played by “Riverdale” star Camila Mendes, wants to get back at her boyfriend for leaking a sex tape; Eleanor, a transfer student portrayed by Maya Hawke of “Stranger Things” fame, wants to salvage her reputation after she’s outed and accused of sexual assault by another girl at school.
The similarities with Robinson and her on-screen heroines may begin and end with their hometown, but she can relate to the feeling of simply trying to survive the everyday horrors of high school. “That drive to do whatever you have to do to get through the day – even if that’s something that when you look in the mirror, you don’t like what you’re seeing,” she says, “that was a lot of my high school experience.”
She looked to her young actors to offer a certain Gen Z-sais quoi to the script (and she credits the film’s co-writer Celeste Ballard for coming up with the exceptionally titled Cis Hetero Men Championing Female Identifying Students League, a club founded by Drea’s ex), though she maintains the high school experience is — for better or worse — evergreen.
“The times are different, but the feeling of being in high school and that angst and pain and hormonal feelings is true for everybody,” she says. “Everything feels so large. Nothing ever feels as big as it does when you are 17 or 18.”
Yet the movie is far from a downer. “Do Revenge” is a “big and bright” ode to ’90s film and fashion with a distinctly modern flair. Robinson, who was intensely involved in everything from costumes to music cues, accomplished that balance with a soundtrack that features Gen Z icons like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo matched with preppy attire that would make Cher Horowitz proud.
Hawke, who remembers instantly connecting with Robinson during her Zoom audition, praises her director for giving the actors “a tremendous amount of space to play.”
“She has this combination that’s so rare,” Hawke says. “Usually, a director has one thing or the other: they either have the ability to know what the camera is doing, or they have the ability to communicate with actors and understand the emotional landscape of the scene. It sounds insane that not all directors are like that. But, boy… are they not.”
She adds, “Every day on set when Jen said, ‘We got it,’ I knew we had it.”
Robinson’s own interests often make appearances in her films in unique ways. Swifties already know that “Someone Great,” which was inspired by Taylor Swift’s breakup anthem “Clean,” later became the impetus behind Swift’s song “Death By A Thousand Cuts.” And remember the “Phantom of the Opera” sweatshirt worn by Tessa Thompson’s Valkerie in “Thor: Love and Thunder”? That’s from the mind of Robinson, whose daily uniform on the set of the Marvel movie consisted of Broadway-themed loungewear. “Taika was like, ‘That’s dope. Let’s put it in the movie,” she recalls.
Before she ever stepped into the writer’s room for Disney’s fourth movie about Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled God of Thunder, Robinson considered herself a Marvel obsessive. She and her brother, who also works in film, have watched every MCU movie in theaters during opening weekend since 2008’s “Iron Man.” In fact, the world of comic book heroes heavily shaped Robinson’s acclaimed but little-watched 2016 MTV series “Sweet/ Vicious,” a teen drama about college students who exact revenge on sexual predators. Despite critical praise, MTV canceled the show in 2017 after one season.
She has no ill-will toward MTV. “They let me creatively make the show I wanted to make,” she says. Then again, she continues, “Did they promote it? No. Did anyone know about it? No. Did they premiere it on election day in 2016? Yes. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Robinson may have been down, but she wasn’t out of the Hollywood sphere. Soon after “Sweet/ Vicious” got the axe, she told her agent about her ambitions to take on another vigilante adventure. Around 2016, she pitched a few ideas to Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, who eventually hired Robinson to help write “Thor 4.”
“I think Taika and I have very similar sensibilities and senses of humor,” she says. “They felt like we would fit well together, and we did.”
With “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which grossed $755 million at the global box office, Robinson is entering a new phase of her career, armed with the confidence she needs to remain selective about the work she takes on.
“I am in a place where ‘no’ is a word that I can use, and I feel very privileged,” she says. “As a woman, you train yourself to take anything because it can all go away.”
Already, Robinson is tackling two new movies, neither one of which she is willing to reveal too much about. One is a campy slasher film (she teases it as the perfect follow-up to “Do Revenge”), and the other is a psychological feminist story. After getting a taste of theatrical success with “Thor 4,” she’s eager to see her upcoming projects play on the big screen.
“I’d love for my next film to be theatrical,” she says. “I’ve never been able to sneak in the back and watch a movie with an audience on a Thursday.”
Best of Variety