Strike!, the 1998 film written and directed by Sarah Kernochan, was not supposed to be titled that. And, sometimes, it’s known as All I Wanna Do.
“The original title, my title, was The Hairy Bird,” Sarah Kernochan introduced at a rare and recent screening at the Metrograph in New York, “which was a euphemism in the 60s at boarding schools for penis. Since you’re seeing this under a different title, you’ll really wonder what that animated bird that looks like a cock is doing flying around the opening credits.”
It’s a perfect encapsulation of the film – unapologetic in its humor, witty even when it’s dirty. It’s the only dick joke that I’ve ever heard that set a hipster New York audience snorting with delight, immediately establishing the tone for the rest of the rip-roaring hour and fifty minutes. The entire movie, with its campy characters and memorable one-liners, reads like a cult classic that never came to be. That, as it turns out, was by sinister design.
The movie, which is a semi-autobiographical tale that Sarah wrote and directed, follows a group of young women at an all-girls boarding school in the 1960s as the threat of it going co-ed looms over their heads. They stage a plot to implicate the boys from a neighboring school in all sorts of lewd behavior, culminating in a choir performance that features more vomit than singing.
The cast is filled with teenage actresses who would go on to be household names, including the brilliant ringleader Verena (Kirsten Dunst), the uptight hall monitor Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook), and the just-transferred new girl Odette (Gaby Hoffmann).
This film is an openly feminist venture, and all my young actresses took to this very rare opportunity to rule the story.
“I spent seven years trying to convince people to bankroll a movie full of all female leads,” Sarah said. “This film is an openly feminist venture, and all my young actresses took to this very rare opportunity to rule the story. And for most of them, I was the first woman director they’d ever worked with.”
Sarah began speaking after the credits rolled, sitting on a stool at the front of the theater with producer Peter Newman and cinematographer Tony Janelli for a special Q&A. Her voice cracked slightly.
“It was emotional for me back there,” Sarah said, by way of explanation, “because, as some of you know, this movie was suppressed by the US distributor, and it only opened for one week in New York. That was Harvey Weinstein.”
This story – the suppression and resurgence of All I Wanna Do – is the tragic background that robbed the film of its place in cinema history. It opened in one theater for one week in New York for $100,000 that came straight out of Sarah’s pocket. Harvey Weinstein wanted it direct-to-DVD. According to the reports of those who worked on the film, he was always filled with vitriol, flying off the handle after a screen test when Sarah resisted changes.
“He turned around, he said, ‘you ‘c-word,’ I could buy you and destroy you and put this film in the bottom. And I’m so rich, no one will ever hear of you again,” Peter Newman said. “Harvey is calling her every four letter word – and this is the first time he’s met her! And the film had played incredibly!”
The cruel irony of All I Wanna Do is how easily one can see it fit in with the age of 90s Teen Comedies like Clueless or Bring It On, but with an unabashed feminist angle. Predatory male teachers are properly called creeps, scenes of girls getting ready are shot with attention to panty hose instead of body parts. The audience in the Metrograph, filled overwhelmingly with young adult women, got to laugh freely in the face of a story where they were seen.
“[Harvey Weinstein] kept saying we don’t know the audience for this,” Peter said. “And we can’t figure out how to get teen girls in. And two years later, Rachael [Leigh Cook] was in the movie She’s All That... $80 million dollars. And he said ‘I learned from The Hairy Bird how to reach that market. And things like that can keep you up at night.”
The experience with Harvey Weinstein was so dispiriting that it led Sarah to give up on narrative filmmaking for a long period of time.
“I had no ambitions to direct,” Sarah said, “I just wanted to direct my own stuff. So when my directing career was over, because of that, it was okay with me, I went back. But letting go of the injustice of it took quite a long time.”
Sarah has won two Academy awards, both for her work as a documentarian, but has only directed once since All I Wanna Do. She is well known as a screenwriter, and it’s clear to see why from this film: the script is unbelievably tight, a kind of fast-paced ricochet from one quick-witted moment to the next. Throwaway details come back to relevant scenes later, and the women are written to be almost five-dimensional in their authenticity.
“I worked on that script over about four or five years, it was really hard,” Sarah said. “I’ve never written a comedy before. I didn’t consider myself very funny, in fact.”
The reactions of audience members in New York are an indication of the power that All I Wanna Do still has in connecting with young women through humor and honesty.
It’s hard to believe. Despite the suppression and lack of distribution, the reactions of audience members in New York are an indication of the power that All I Wanna Do still has in connecting with young women through humor and honesty. After the movie, I heard people discussing how they hadn’t laughed that hard in years.
“Being here tonight has kind of reawakened my own hopes and dreams of the time,” Sarah said. “And hearing you guys be so responsive was just amazing, really amazing. It’s something I’ve never heard.”
© Catherine Sawoski (9/9/23) Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Catch a screening at the Metrograph by clicking here.
Read FF2’s Editor in Chief’s coverage of Sarah’s work here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Gaby Hoffmann & Kirsten Dunst in the film STRIKE! (1998) directed by Sarah Kernochan. Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: D24ATY
Bottom photo of Sarah Kernochan at the Metrograph screening of STRIKE! by Jan Lisa Huttner for FF2 Media. Approved for legitimate use by others as long as a link to this page is provided in user’s credits.