In 2009, the point Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama made with their movie’s band of wolves in sheep’s eyeliner was ignored, along with the rest of the Megan Fox-starring horror-comedy. Ten years later, it feels like a warning.
"Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days?"
So begins the unforgettable monologue delivered by Nikolai, played by Adam Brody, that punctuates the centerpiece of Jennifer's Body. In the scene, Nikolai and his band of unassumingly dressed indie rockers — named Low Shoulder, after the common street sign — have kidnapped, bound and gagged one of their teenage fans (the titular Jennifer, played by Megan Fox) in order to drag her to the woods and sacrifice her to the devil, which they believe will help their career. But before doing so, Nikolai details to Jennifer why such dramatic measures are necessary.
"There are so many of us [indie bands], and we're all so cute… and it's like, if you don't get on Letterman or some retarded soundtrack, you're screwed," he explains, with a mix of irritation and condescension. "Satan is our only hope."
If the scene seems a little tonally confusing from that description, that's because Jennifer's Body is pretty difficult to read on the whole in that respect. The movie, released in September 2009, mixes frightening real-world scenarios — like the title character being abducted by a group of men in their creepy van — with the more conventional horror movie scares that ensue, once a post-sacrifice Jennifer is possessed by a demon, develops supernatural powers and starts feeding on her male classmates. And filling in the gaps between the carnage is Jennifer's darkly funny (and slang-heavy) wisecracking, about PMS being "invented by the boy-run media" and puncture wounds being "so emo."
Written by Diablo Cody, an Oscar winner for her script to the 2007 smash Juno, and directed by Karyn Kusama, filmmaker behind the acclaimed indie Girlfight — and of course, starring Fox, then one of Hollywood's biggest young stars following her breakout in 2007's blockbuster Transformers adaptation — the film debuted to great expectations in 2009. But its unique mix of horror, comedy and cultural commentary proved a tough sell to mainstream audiences. A marketing campaign that undercut the film's strongly female roots and messaging by focusing almost entirely on Fox's sex appeal didn't help. It drew middling reviews, and underperformed at the box office, only pulling in $16 million in the U.S.
However, ten years later, the film has emerged as a cult favorite, enduring both as a clever satire of late-'00s teen and popular culture, and as an ever-more-relevant comment on the ways young women are perpetually put through the grinder in a patriarchal society. Both of those core strengths of Jennifer's Body are particularly evident in its portrayal of the evil, misogynistic careerists in Low Shoulder.
Low Shoulder is first introduced at a local dive bar in small town Devil's Kettle, Minnesota. Jennifer has convinced her more bashful best friend Anita ("Needy," played by a bespectacled Amanda Seyfried) to come with her to see the band play — mostly so she can meet their lead singer, the eyeliner-clad, city-dwelling Nikolai. After flirting with Nikolai, Jennifer leaves to go get drinks, and Needy overhears Nikolai arguing with bassist Dirk about whether or not Jennifer is a virgin. Needy confronts them, assuming that they're being rock sleazes, but Jennifer later accepts Nikolai's invitation to their van anyway — and their intentions soon prove to be even more sinister.
Both Cody and Kusama say they saw themselves in Jennifer and Needy, having grown up as fanatic concertgoers and followers of bands. "I spent time kinda following The Replacements, and hanging out waiting for Soul Asylum to get back into their crappy van," Kusama recalls of being a teenage music fan in the '80s. "And definitely spent time in hotel lobbies — when I was sorta trading up for potentially nightmarish experiences — waiting for Guns N’ Roses."
Cody was particularly equipped to relate to Jennifer's infatuation with Nikolai. "I always had a crush on a different musician," she remembers of her early days in the suburbs of Chicago. "I would always find myself in the position of like, reluctant band girlfriend, where I was helping bring in the amps and stuff… But I would do anything for male attention at that time in my life. And I’ve always had a thing for musicians — still do to this day — so like, it’s a hard call to resist." (For her part, Fox tells Billboard via email that she was "very lame" as a teenager, and her obsessiveness was reserved for stalking *NSYNC in the hopes of meeting Justin Timberlake: "I think I probably would have let him sacrifice me in the woods when I was 14.")
But coming up in the '90s Chicago indie rock scene — memorably skewered in Liz Phair's classic 1993 album Exile in Guyville — Cody also saw the nastier side of being a young female follower of some of these bands. "You would definitely meet these guys who seemed like they were on your side, or seemed like they were emo and sensitive," she says. "And in reality, a lot of the time they were sort of garden-variety misogynists, who didn’t necessarily treat the women in their lives well."
It was her time spent watching these supposed nice-guy rockers that helped spark Cody's inspiration for the less-conspicuous villainy of Low Shoulder. "I grew up in the ‘80s where if rock bands were dirty, they were overtly dirty — Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses, singing really explicit lyrics about objectifying women, and assaulting women," she says. "And I thought — you know, I could go that direction [for Low Shoulder], and have a stereotypically aggressive, gross, dirty rock band. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if it were these guys who presented as very soft and sensitive and romantic… and in reality, they’re pigs?"
As much as their past experiences with the predominantly male indie-rock worlds of the '80s and '90s informed the conception of Low Shoulder, so did Cody and Kusama's interpretation of the then-contemporary late-'00s scene — a time when the mainstream skepticism of '90s alt-rock had given way to something more nakedly ambitious. It was a period when bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol had weaponized post-Radiohead power balladry for international chart success, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco brought pop-scaled emo to the top of TRL, and The Killers glossed up the new rock revolution into multi-Platinum arena rock.
"There was this moment where selling out was considered gross — there was that Kurt Cobain mentality," Cody explains. "And then in the 2000s, the mentality shifted, and you had these guys that wanted to play arenas… suddenly, it was cool to sell millions of records again."
Kusama says that Snow Patrol and Fall Out Boy were the kind of bands who popped in her head when she first read the Low Shoulder part of the Jennifer's Body script. "It was about the notion of kind of commercializing the punk instinct, or the emo instinct," she says. "The idea that — for better and for worse, I suppose, for music fans — the trappings of rock and roll attitude have become just another haircut, just another posture, just another way to market and brand yourselves… I don’t mean to sort of slag on any of the music of that era, particularly, so much as the aggressiveness with now music needs to be marketed to the public, instead of really being discovered."
The rock music of the era was well-represented in the Jennifer's Body universe. Music supervisor Randall Poster worked with Kusama to prominently feature sprightly alt jams from the likes of Black Kids, Florence + The Machine and Panic! At the Disco in the movie, and on its soundtrack, released by archetypal pop-punk/emo label Fueled By Ramen. "I think that [we were trying] to kind of find some music that rendered teen complexity, and wasn’t pandering, but had some great energy and spirit to it," says Poster.
The fact that essentially all of the film's music was rock-based — as well as the film's dreamy central antagonists — makes Jennifer's Body feel something like the end of an era, before hip-hop and EDM would take over as the default sound of youth culture in the decade to come. "Maybe Jennifer would get sacrificed by Post Malone [in 2019]," Cody quips.
The makeup (both literal and figurative) of Low Shoulder was so tied to this cultural moment that in the film's pre-production, rumors persisted that a couple real-life rockers were being considered for the role of Nikolai — including Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. No one Billboard spoke to for this piece could definitively state whether or not Wentz had been seriously recruited for the role, though Kusama says she does think he was considered.
"But [Fall Out Boy] were maybe gonna do some crazy world tour, and it just wasn’t going to work out," she recalls. "And I think maybe — who knows, maybe there was a moment where Pete Wentz was like, 'Wait a second, I don’t know if I wanna play that guy.' And I wouldn’t blame him." (Wentz declined comment to Billboard on the matter.)
The film did still land a different sort of iconic avatar of '00s alt-rock in Adam Brody. The actor had no experience as a band frontman — by his own admission, he couldn't even sing. But in his most famous role that decade, as awkward but sharp-witted teen Seth Cohen on hit primetime soap The O.C., Brody had been an early and vocal backer of several acclaimed indie bands who would cross over on to major commercial success later in the decade, in no small part due to the show's signal-boosting. "A lot more people talk to me about Death Cab For Cutie than Low Shoulder," Brody says today.
The presence of Brody certainly gave Low Shoulder a timeliness and gravity it would not have had otherwise. And for extra verisimilitude, the film filled out the band with members of real-life indie rockers Test Your Reflex — whose frontman Ryan Levine would provide Nikolai's singing voice, and who also wrote what would serve as Low Shoulder's big song in the film, the rousing power ballad "Through the Trees."
According to Levine, Amy Driscoll-Dunning — then-head of Jennifer's Body production studio Fox Searchlight — had been a fan of Test Your Reflex's most recent album. When it came time to put out a call for the song that would become "Through the Trees," with two all-time alt-rock lighter-wavers in Live's "Lightning Crashes" and Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" listed as reference points, she suggested Levine contribute. "A lot of people made a lot of U2 references [about our album]," Levine says. "So yeah, I guess I understood what a big, anthemic chorus is supposed to feel like."
Levine was provided the song's title and first chorus lyric — "Through the trees, I will find you/ I will heal the ruins left inside" — by Cody, who says she was "just coming up with some bucolic imagery" to match the film's eventual sacrifice scene in the woods. Levine added the verses, some heart-racing riffing, and the climactic chorus lyric "I'm still here breathing now," positioning the song as a survivor's anthem. Test Your Reflex keyboardist Andrew Ampaya added some strings and pianos and helped fill out the bridge, and the song was ready to submit.
"It definitely felt like a little goosebump-y," Levine recalls of "Through the Trees" coming together. "I was like, 'This feels like something special.'"
Several studio-suggested revisions later, Levine's version of the song was accepted — and he was asked to appear in the movie as Low Shoulder's guitar-playing Mick, along with Reflex drummer Sal Cortez as Chas. (Juan Riedinger, a more experienced actor, was cast as bassist Dirk — who, outside of Brody, has the most dialogue in the movie — while TV actor Colin Askew rounded out the lineup as the group's unnamed keyboardist.)
"Through the Trees" is a marvel of a fake pop-rock chest-beater — which it has to be, considering the amount of airtime it gets in Jennifer's Body. It's the only song Low Shoulder play in their two performance scenes in the movie (lip synced by Brody, to Levine's vocal): first at the dive bar, before getting interrupted by a deadly fire that the leads barely escape, and then at the characters' high school dance, after the band has ridden the exposure from the ensuing tragedy to massive local and national popularity. (Over the two performances, Brody's Nikolai evolves from shrugging indie rock frontman to full Brandon Flowers, peacocking around the stage and turning "Trees" into his own "All These Things That I've Done." "It was a blast," Brody says. "Love lip syncing.")
The song's chorus also pops up throughout the movie, sung by the Devil's Kettle townsfolk at a memorial, embraced by the girls' classmates in school, and even infuriating Needy when it comes on her car stereo. So "Trees" had to be both plausibly rousing, and understandably annoying. "I think it completely serves its purpose," Kusama says. "Which is that we believe that the characters both remember the song instantaneously, after hearing it one time, and that the town would elevate it to a hit. And we believe that a character like Needy would just feel, like, insane from how frequently they’re playing the song."
Cody is even more effusive when looking back on Low Shoulder's signature hit: "I think 'Through the Trees' slaps! I think it’s iconic!"
But for as unshakeable as "Through the Trees" is, the Low Shoulder moment from Jennifer's Body that really stays with you ten years later is still the sacrifice sequence. The scene is centered around Nikolai's jarringly dispassionate embrace of his band's partnership with Satan — and thanks to both his note-perfect reading and Cody's inspired script, some of his lines are so cutting and absurd that you can't help but crack up at them. ("Do you want to be a big loser? Or do you want to be rich and awesome, like that guy from Maroon 5?" he asks a hesitant Dirk, who sighingly replies, "Maroon 5.")
But Brody's nonchalant magnetism is starkly contrasted with Fox's livewire performance as the quintet's victim, attempting in vain to appeal to their humanity with sobbing pleas for her life. The band is unmoved; even in the one moment where Nikolai briefly appears to be expressing second thoughts, he turns out to just be mockingly reciting lyrics from Tommy Tutone's '80s hit "867-5309/Jenny" — with the rest of Low Shoulder joining in to sing along on the chorus, as Nikolai begins to butcher Jennifer with his Bowie knife.
"There was something very intense, something that triggered me when they would get to that part of the scene," Fox says of the band's impromptu, cackling "Jenny" rendition. "Being mocked in such an excruciatingly flippant way pulled that performance out of me. I wasn’t acting. Just reacting to being devalued."
It's one of the most surreal scenes to appear in a mainstream 21st century movie, both side-splitting in its humor and absolutely unnerving in its horror. "It’s a very fragile thing, to film a scene like that where there’s a very strange, tricky tone, that is riding the line between drama, horror, comedy, satire… and is also really very much about the blatant disregard and exploitation of a woman and her humanity," Kusama says. "It was very difficult for Megan, understandably. And I think what we had agreed on was that it had to be real — she had to kind of invest in her performance with something real, even when people were making horrific jokes around her as their characters. The horror of it was just that."
Though the scene was never easy viewing, it's particularly stomach-churning to watch in 2019, when the subject of predatory behavior between rock artists and their fans is such a recurring and uningnorable topic of conversation. While the setup in Jennifer's Body is almost too cartoonish to be taken seriously — as much bad behavior as this generation of indie stars has been accused of, Satanic fan sacrifices would be a new one — it's also remarkably easy to see Low Shoulder's treatment of Jennifer as a band simply abusing their power over one of their young, impressionable fans in the most brutal way possible. And though Levine and Brody both admit that they hadn't much considered the scene in this context while filming it, it was a theme very much on the minds of Cody and Kusama.
"I mean, for decades, that was the norm — that bands took advantage of their fans," Cody says now. "It was like, just a part of our cultural mythology. You know, people found it charming that Led Zeppelin had 14-year-olds on the road with them. So like, obviously things are perceived a little bit differently now. And you know, I guess the movie is saying, 'Hey, maybe it’s not that cool to exploit the power that you have over young women with developing minds.'”
"I think it was pretty clear between me and Diablo, certainly, that the notion of male power corrupting and ultimately sort of dehumanizing the very people who wield it was super-real to us," Kusama agrees. "I think we’ve seen strains in pop music and in rock, where there’s kind of this nod towards hyper-masculinity, and somehow that allows for the exploitation of girls. I mean, it’s been happening since the form existed… I don’t think we were consciously interrogating that, I think we just knew that there was something about it that was true in the culture. And remains true today, sadly."
Kusama says that the mixture of comedy and horror was what drew her to Jennifer's Body — with the film's humor compounding the brutality of its violence. She points out that in discussion of the movie at the time, the sacrifice sequence was referred to as "the gang rape scene," despite the band showing no sexual interest in Jennifer whatsoever. ("Are you guys rapists?" she tearfully asks the band on the way to the sacrifice site. "God, I hate girls," is Nikolai's eye-rolling response.)
"It’s fascinating that that’s what it felt like to people," Kusama says. "And so it was important, despite kind of knowing I was in really tricky territory — and either have potentially offended or upset or disgusted a certain number of people — I felt like that [mixed tone] was the most honest way I could handle that scene."
As quotable as parts of the sacrifice dialogue remain a decade later — Cody cites the Maroon 5 exchange as a favorite — the comedy isn't what the filmmakers remember the scene for. "I mean, there were moments in it that were funny," the Cody acknowledges. "But as a woman, that’s gallows humor. It certainly wasn’t me laughing at the idea of someone being murdered, it was more like, 'I live in fear of this happening to me.'"
And while Fox didn't consider any kind of larger societal statement while filming the scene, she also certainly felt the weight of the message of Jennifer's Body very acutely. "I don’t think that at 22 I was fully aware of the broader message — rather, it felt very personal," she explains. "A depiction of my own subjective story, my experience with Hollywood: male producers, directors, actors, studio executives. I didn’t realize that we were telling a story of the injustices of the collective, but I did realize I was exercising some of my demons while pretending to be one."
Neither critics nor general audiences knew what to make of the sacrifice sequence back in 2009, when the scene was largely overshadowed in headlines by a similarly misunderstood kiss scene between Jennifer and Needy. "I’ve been asked more about that [sacrifice] scene in the last year than I ever was doing press for the actual movie when it came out," Cody says. "I think people actually care about it now in a way that they didn’t then. Because we’re in this moment in culture where people are talking more about aggression against women, and that kind of stuff. Whereas then, I think it was just kinda seen as a set piece or something."
Regrettably, that lack of understanding extended to the entirety of Jennifer's Body a decade ago, whose male-geared marketing push Brody has gone on record calling the "worst ad campaign ever." "At the time, I remember I saw [a screening of] it early and I’m like, 'This movie’s awesome. It’s great, it’s so cool,'" he recalls. "And then from the marketing materials, all the way to after its release, it was a disappointment… it was just kinda 180 degrees the wrong way to do it."
Consequently, little attention was paid to the meaning behind or legacy of Low Shoulder, who Cody bemoans "gets paid dirt." (In the movie, they're eventually hunted down by Needy — by then possessing supernatural abilities herself, after being bitten by Jennifer — and slaughtered in their hotel room.) Although it would have been logical to release the radio-ready "Through the Trees" as a promotional single from the movie, there was never even a music video filmed for it. The sense of wasted opportunity still smarts with the screenwriter.
"I honestly and sincerely thought that we might be in Oscar contention for best original song," she says. "And I was licking my chops, because I wrote a lot of those lyrics. And then nothing! Crickets! Bullshit."
The fact that Test Your Reflex was in a state of flux as a band — label drama, a manager change — didn't help. "I think had we been in a different place, and more organized on a business level, it would have had a much bigger opportunity," Levine says today. "But Test Your Reflex was kind of coming apart at that time." (The band would subsequently change their name and lineup multiple times, most recently rebranding as Wildling, before breaking up late this decade.)
Today, Cody acknowledges that any attempt to give life to "Through the Trees" outside of Jennifer's Body was likely doomed from the start anyway. "People were so down on that movie — shitting on that movie was like a sport," she recalls. "So I dunno, I think anything associated with the movie probably would have failed. Although now we’re in this fun moment where people appreciate it, and that’s the best. So it’s delayed gratification! But in that moment, I don’t know if there’s anything we could have done to make Low Shoulder happen."
Ten years later, critics and audiences have, in fact, finally started to appreciate Jennifer's Body. A 2018 reappraisal of the movie published in Vox declared the movie a "feminist cult classic," while two headlines published in consecutive months on VICE that same year proclaimed that the movie "would kill if it came out today," and that it was a "classic that captured Myspace-emo in all its glory," respectively. Last year, an unauthorized musical version of it was staged at the El Cid theater in Los Angeles; this year, the annual genre film festival Beyond Fest will be holding a special 10th anniversary screening of the film at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, with both Kusama and Fox attending.
"I feel so happy to know that it’s the kind of movie that persists, and kind of holds up to what we were trying to do," Kusama says. "That’s been kind of interesting, to realize that it didn’t necessarily happen on the timeline that I wanted, but that the themes and hopes and ambitions of the movie do seem to be reaching some people now."
Cody is similarly grateful that viewers have come around to Jennifer's Body, but acknowledges that the turn in public reception doesn't mean the movie would necessarily fare better as a 2019 release: "I still think the tonal issues would prevent it from being a commercial success even today. But I appreciate the fact that it does have such a unique feel to it — the movie doesn’t really feel like any other movie, and it does have its own specific vibe and voice, and that aspect of it I think is interesting. I still think maybe picking a lane would’ve helped the movie be more successful — if it had been straight horror, you know, or straight comedy. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time."
She still hasn't given up on Low Shoulder, though. "I want justice for the song!" she insists. "If we can get 'Through the Trees' to go to No. 1… that would make me happy."