Trent Haaga might not be the household name he deserves to be yet, but his contributions to genre cinema haven’t gone unnoticed either. For nearly 20 years he’s been a prolific indie actor, writer and producer, and his presence can be found in notable films from the likes of Troma and Full Moon Entertainment, as well as indie crossover fare like Starry Eyes (2014) and Tales of Halloween (2015). After making his screen debut with in the the former’s Terror Firmer (1998), he went on to pen the screenplay and star in Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000), as well as appear in the short-lived sitcom, Troma’s Edge TV (2000-2001). Later, he established himself as somewhat of a cult icon playing the titular demonic clown in Full Moon’s long-running Killjoy franchise, which keeps going from strength to strength as the series progresses.
However, in 2008 he would write what is arguably his boldest work to date: Deadgirl. A disturbing tale of juvenile delinquency taken to extreme lengths, it tells the story of two teenage boys who, after stumbling upon a woman that cannot die in an abandoned mental hospital, proceed to torture her just because they can. Like the films of Larry Clark, Deadgirl incorporates challenging subject matter as a means to explore the hopelessness of youth amid cultural depression, in addition to painting a harrowing portrait of what human beings are capable of in an environment where they dictate the law of the land. Similar themes were explored in 2013s Cheap Thrills, a demented black comedy where wealth is used to manipulate and exploit the less fortunate. The film, which tells the story of a pair of reunited friends pitted against each other for money at the behest of a rich couple, was a crossover success and raised Haaga’s profile as a writer, which in turn opened doors for him to direct again, having only helmed the undiscovered horror comedy Chop in 2011.
Now, at long last, Haaga has returned to the director’s chair with 68 Kill (2017), a southern-fried crime yarn based on the novel of the same name by pulp writer, Bryan Smith. For a career that’s already well-established it feels like Haaga is just getting started, and with the film set to arrive later this year aboard a hype train, we hopefully won’t have to wait six years for his next directorial outing.
Recently, Diabolique had the opportunity to interview Haaga about his new movie, his career so far and future projects.
Diabolique: Your latest film, 68 Kill, is only your second directorial feature. Was that a conscious decision or was it a case of waiting for the right project to materialise?
Haaga: I’ve always considered myself a filmmaker and being a director was my ultimate goal. The truth of the matter is that I have bills to pay and mouths to feed and people are more willing to pay me to write than they are to direct. So. I kept writing scripts that I wanted to direct, but was offered money for them and just figured, “No problem, I’ll sell this one and write another one to direct.” This just kept happening over and over again. I finally felt that I had enough clout as a writer that I could take my next project and insist that I had to direct it. If I wasn’t directing 68 Kill, it wasn’t going to get made. So. it would be nice to have more directing jobs under my belt, but I had other responsibilities. But in the meantime. I got to practice my craft and work with a lot of great filmmakers, so I’m cool with how my career has gone so far.
Diabolique: 68 Kill is based on a book of the same name by Bryan Smith. I think there are a lot of similarities between your writing work and Smith’s, in the sense that you’re both audacious, have similar sensibilities and mostly play in the similar genres. How much has his work inspired you, and what made you want to adapt this novel?
Haaga: I’ve been a fan of Bryan’s work for years and have read everything he’s written. A few years ago he decided to go the self-publishing route and wrote 68 Kill, which was as outrageous as his horror books, but was a crime story. For me, this was a sea change in his work. I love his horror stuff, but as a filmmaker my interests lay more in the crime/thriller sort of world. When I read 68 Kill, I was really impressed with it and thought that it would make a great movie that I could do for a small budget. Plus, it hearkened back to the world I grew up in – I was raised in a small town just a few hours away from where Bryan lives and it just spoke to me. As you say, we have very similar sensibilities, which is why I’m a fan of his work. I knew that I could do the book justice where others might not be able to … or want to, for that matter. If my movie brings Bryan more success, I’ll be very happy – that’s one of the reasons I made it in the first place!
Diabolique: The film has garnered a lot of positive response so far among the audiences and critics who’ve had the pleasure of seeing it. For those of us who haven’t yet, what can we expect from it?
Haaga: 68 Kill is little sexy, a little violent, a little funny, a little romantic and hopefully a lot of fun. If there’s one thing that I can still say about the movie after watching it a billion times in post-production, it’s that it’s unpredictable and fast-paced. The rest is up to the audience to decide.
Diabolique: How did you go about casting? Did you have anyone in mind for roles when you were writing the script or did it all just fall into place along the way?
Haaga: Casting is a tricky process. A lot of people do it based on numbers – i.e. how much an actor can guarantee in sales. Some of the actors – like Sam Eidson and Matthew Gray Gubler – I really wanted. I wrote it with them in mind. Some of the other ones – Alisha Boe and Sheila Vand – were suggested by my casting agent, Samy Burch. AnnaLynne was the last piece in the puzzle and I have to thank my pal Ricky Bates for suggesting her and for putting us in contact with one another. I owe that guy!
It’s not like I was able to offer anyone a massive paycheck for this movie, so if they came on board it was for the right reasons – because they “got” the material and were willing to take a chance on me.
Diabolique: You’ve been a prolific writer and actor for in horror circles for a while now, but Cheap Thrills found some crossover success among mainstream outlets and film fans. Even though it’s still a twisted genre film, would you say it opened more doors for you to direct?
Haaga: I would definitely say that writing Cheap Thrills helped me get taken more seriously as a writer and subsequently a director – Snowfort Pictures and Travis Stevens produced both of the movies, so I’d say yes, absolutely.
Diabolique: Easter is coming up and you appeared in one of the great films befitting of the holiday: Easter Bunny Kill Kill (2006) . What was that experience like? Watching the film, it seems like everyone involved was having a blast…
Haaga: Not only did I act in it, I produced it as well! We shot that movie in eight days at a single location for well less than $10,000. We made it because we wanted to make a movie. I’m pleased and surprised that the film still manages to find fans. A lot of movies shot under the same conditions disappear into the sands of time. And, yeah, it was a fun project to make; the entire cast and crew was probably less than 15 people. It’s fun to make something completely off the grid and without any interference whatsoever. We were like a little family going camping for a week.
Diabolique: You also co-wrote the outstanding video game, The Evil Within (2014). Is that a medium you plan on returning to in future?
I would jump at the opportunity to work on more video games. Only the future will tell if that happens or not!
Diabolique: Through your portrayal of Killjoy, you’ve created somewhat of a horror icon. I know Psycho Circus (2016) is recent, but are their plans to return for another sequel in future?
Haaga: Every time we finish one of them, everybody says, “That’s it. We’re not making any more Killjoy movies …” And then I get a phone call and I’m back in the makeup chair again. Those movies are difficult to make. We shoot under extreme conditions and while it’s fun to play Killjoy, the makeup process is arduous and sometimes painful – I’m in it every day, all day for the duration of the shoot for long hours. I’d be okay if Psycho Circus was the last one, but I’d probably do it again if they asked me. We’ll see what happens.
Diabolique: Speaking of the future, what projects do you have coming up you can tell us about?
Haaga: I’ve got a few scripts that I’d like to direct, but nothing in the pipeline at the moment. I’ve got a massive project coming out in October that I’ve been working on for the last five months, but I can’t announce it yet. I write a lot of TV movies and have one shooting in the Fall and I also wrote another movie called It Came from the Dessert that’s in post-production now and should come out before the end of the year … I always try to keep busy!
Diabolique: Lastly, when you look back at your entire body of work until now, are there any films you feel deserve more recognition?
The ones that got the attention deserved it and the ones that didn’t probably didn’t deserve it. I do feel that my directorial debut, Chop, didn’t get the exposure that I would have liked. We came out in the States and Germany and Australia, but no place else in the world – you guys in the UK were never able to buy a copy of it. A lot of that had to do with what I knew about sales and distribution at the time – which was pretty much nothing. Hopefully the positive response from 68 Kill will make people seek out Chop and maybe it can have a second life somehow …