Barely Lethal stars Hailee Steinfeld as an international assassin who yearns for an adolescent life. Her character of Megan Walsh is an orphan who ends up being raised in the Prescott School for Girls, a top-secret government agency, which turns her into a special ops agent. But upon watching a group of teenagers having fun and leading a normal life, she ends up faking her own death and reinvents herself as an exchange student who enrolls at a high school and tries to fit in with the rest of the crowd. She soon finds, however, that being an international assassin is a lot easier than being a teenager in high school. And when her past catches up with her in the form of her nemesis, Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), who tracks her down, Megan becomes involved in more extracurricular activities than any one teenager can possibly handle.
A press conference for Barely Lethal was recently held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, and it allowed me the opportunity to speak with the movie’s director, Kyle Newman. He is an honors graduate of New York University’s School of Film and Television and was a recipient of the prestigious Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film/TV Excellence in Directing Award. Newman was the director of Fanboys, a comedy about Star Wars fanatics who go on a journey to Skywalker Ranch to get a look at The Phantom Menace before it is released to the public.
Barely Lethal recalls many of the great high school movies we grew up on like The Breakfast Club, Clueless, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Sixteen Candles among others. With all those classics in mind, I asked Newman if there was any specific high school movie which came to inform the look of Barely Lethal over others.
“There wasn’t one specific film that influenced it,” Newman said. “There were some visual cues like when there is the suck and blow game at the party that’s re-created. I tried to represent in terms of similar focal length or frame to the movie like Clueless, so if there was a direct correlation then yes. But for the most part we kind of had to invent our own look and feel since the first few minutes of the movie are coming from this other world that could be another movie. Then you have the whole rest of the film which is in the real world and then defining those but not letting them feel like two different films, and finding this common ground so that they could coexist. So again it was using similar lenses and similar focal lengths but varying things like color to indicate the difference in where you are and then bringing those color elements or tones back in when Prescott would rear its head again.”
“So we couldn’t really shoot it like two different films or give the action too much of an action movie feel because it still had to feel congruent to the tone of the comedy or like the dinner scene later or high school auditorium or a dance,” Newman continued. “You had to find just the safe middle ground so they could both be what they are but within the framework of our world. That required us to do our own look so there was no direct reference. We shot it in 1:85 like a lot of those films are and not 2:35, so there are indications from those films that we took. We didn’t want to suddenly make like this widescreen high school movie because that’s not what we’re doing either, so general rules of the genre and of the style were applied but nothing specific.”
While Barely Lethal was never intended to resemble your average high school movie, I found it gratifying that Newman went out of his way to take adolescence seriously and not treat it like something to be easily dismissed. Hearing him talk how he shot the movie made it clear as to why he earned that Directing Award at NYU.
Barely Lethal is currently available to watch on DirecTV, and you can see it on the big screen in theatres starting on May 29.