68 thousand bucks. One sex-drunk mark. Looks like an easy enough score, but it never is. Just try telling that to the usual self-immolating money-grubbers looking for get-rich-shortcuts in the exploitation-noir rampage, 68 Kill. Matthew Gray Gubler plays Chip, a dim-bulb aspiring thug targeting his girlfriend’s sugar-daddy—relationships and finances can be complicated—who instead finds himself fighting for his life and the dwindling vestiges of his own masculinity against the ferocity of menacing low-rent femmes fatales.
Writer-director Trent Haaga’s adaptation of Bryan Smith’s novel is an unrepentant pulp opus chronicling a poor bastard and the women who fuck with him, and their dizzying spiral together riding the blood-gush down the drain.
The film debuted at the 2017 SXSW Festival, where Haaga, Gubler, and cast members AnnaLynne McCord (“Liza”), Sheila Vand (“Monica”) and Alisha Boe (“Violet”) discussed their outrageous characters and influences—Crowleyian sex magic.
HB: Why’d you want to make this film?
TH: I was just looking to make something a little wacky, a little crazy, something that is ultimately entertaining and hopefully – whatever! – you can read some subtext into it, you can read it one way, you can read it the other, that’s up to [the viewer].
HB: Why are you attracted to this kind of material?
TH: Look, I grew up in the Midwest, my dad’s a coal miner, I’ve got friends that were criminals. I sort of understand these people. I lived in a trailer park. I was a punk rock skater and you know that was it. I like this milieu. I like that. I grew up around, like, poor desperate people and so I understand them and I feel for them.
HB: There’s also part of the influence that seems both – because it’s based on a novel – there’s a literate part of this and there’s a cinematic part to the universe you’re capturing – kind of part of the Southern Grotesque tradition.
MG: Trent’s a genius. The night before he sent us all this manifesto explaining the literary movement of Naturalism and broke down every single character in the movie – I play Chip, who he described as ‘a fly sort of buzzing about, frenetic and stuck in this weird world’. Dwayne’s an alligator. Violet was a butterfly. Monica was a cat, drawing them in. And a tiger was one…?
TH: Scorpion. If you re-watch the movie, you’ll see the symbolism in it, it’s funny –
MG: – It’s peppered with a lot of scorpion imagery. –
HB: So where does Naturalism come from?
TH: Naturalism, I mean Stephen Crane is like The Guy, The Naturalism Guy – wrote a book called The Red Badge of Courage, and as he talks about it he will compare a line of soldiers walking down the road to the line of ants doing something. It’s how Man’s actions are reflected in Nature, and there are parallels between – What is Man, but a lizard brain with a little bit of a higher-developed cortex around it, right?
HB: Every punk rocker knows that, and how we’re fucked as a species –
TH: Yeah, and Naturalism is very much about how we are destroying ourselves as a species. Primal emotions and these kind of things. I’ve always liked books that were from the Naturalism style and era and I was like, even though we are making this thing, this is sort of the touchstone for everybody to kind of think about – And I mean, these are the things you plant in a movie, and maybe nobody’s gonna notice when they see the scorpion magnet on her fridge, or the scorpion steering-wheel cover – or the red car – She’s wearing a shirt with the band The Scorpions, at the end. You know, you plant all these kind of little things and 99.999 % of people won’t see them…
AM: – But 70% of our communication is non-verbal. The aspect of everything we learn before we understand cognitive reasoning – as a two year-old – is subliminal messaging. So if you’re putting it in there, it’s getting logged. Not necessarily consciously, but unconsciously.
HB: …So you’re saying there’s Crowleyian sex magic in your film.
MG: There could be, there could be!
AM: There’s so much sex magic, we love sex magic. [Laughs]
TH: The whole of the Law shall be Do What Thou Wilt, and I Wilt Make A Movie! [Laughter.]
HB: Were there any particular literary or cultural touchstones that you used when developing your characters, as part of your process?
AM: That’s not my process. I wouldn’t say it’s not, but I have a weird brain: I store data. Like, my brain goes [high-pitched computer sounds:] ‘Doo-doo-doo-doo’ and it goes through ‘Any Time That This Line Has Been Said In The History of Humankind That You’ve Heard’ and then it’s like this: there’s ‘All The Different Ways That You Can Say It’ and like I go into it when I first read it like that. Completely have anything, and I just let my imagination go. I remember the world that I saw when I read the script the first time. Those images never leave me. I play the film in my mind the second I read something, and it never goes away. So that’s how my brain works as far as that’s concerned. And then I’m pure instinct – I just trust 100 % in whatever the Hell happens in here, and then I let it go out there. And that works, in some settings. It works when you have a director who gives you carte blanche. It works when you have actors who can roll with you, and go with the punches. It’s more difficult in confined settings and it makes me appear to be a bitch, because I will fight for it, I will fight for my right to be instinctual. Personally, Liza? She’s got demons and so do I. I’ve got a hell of a lot of them, and for me to be able to – –
HB: – Act out. –
AM: [Laughing.] – Act out! Yeah, just let it all hang out, hang loose. But also kind of because of that scorpion aspect, which I kind of see in the world of the, the kind of ‘come-hither’ creature, in a way – ‘Come hither to your own peril’ –- There’s this aspect of Liza that draws you in – and then she stings you with her tail.
HB: If you’re the scorpion, then you [to Matthew Gray Gubler] should be the frog then –
MG: The frog, exactly – that’s where there are so many scorpion-y things, like I can’t help it!
HB: For those readers who might not know, from the old tale, the frog gives the scorpion a ride across the river, and the scorpion stings him. As they’re both sinking beneath water to die, the frog asks ‘Why’d you sting me?’
TH: – ‘Because I’m a fucking scorpion!’
HB: Would you consider your film to be a noir, in some sense?
TH: I would definitely think so. I’m massively influenced by that stuff. I read a lot of pulp novels from the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. Gil Brewer and Jim Thompson and Lawrence Block, and this kind of thing. I love potboilers – and I love a dark world where things maybe get darker and darker and darker.
MG: It’s Night of the Hunter meets Goonies! [Laughter.]
TH: Put that one on the DVD box, right?
HB: If we had to make a playlist for fans of this film, for other films to see, what might be some books or movies they should watch?
MG: My only dream when I make a movie is to make something that will appeal to my fourteen year-old self. I grew up making videos in my backyard with my friends. This movie, from reading it, just seeing it on screen, just struck me as something I so dearly wish I could get into a time machine and show it to myself at fourteen, because it’s exactly what I – It’s fun. It has a very deep message, but positive, like shiny ‘Here comes the airplane!’ and Trent’s delivering some beautiful poetry, but in the guise of a lot of action and craziness and fun. It reminds me of all my favorite films, like The ‘burbs and early Joe Dante, but mixed with – It’s completely unique, so I hate comparing it with anything to anything. It’s such a bizarre world that he’s created, that at the turn of a hatch, he’ll have them murder someone, like a gas station attendant. So it does feel like an odd world that I haven’t seen a lot.
AM: At times a True Romance kind of – not your typical pulpy fare I feel –
TH: I have to say, in a way, the early films of Penelope Spheeris are like super-duper influential to me. Like The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. There’s something about this desperate-punks-nowhere-to-go kind of – those kids and that place – definitely. Suburbia is a movie I’ve watched a hundred billion-gajillion times.
SV: For the cinematic influences of Monica, I knew I really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get a little more over-the-top, which you get to do in grindhouse films – while still having my character rooted in reality – so I went back and looked at some of my favorite villains, like Gary Oldman as Drexl in True Romance and Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart – I’m a huge fan of Willem Dafoe – Grace Zabriskie is Wild At Heart is terrifying! They’re all so incredible because they are giving you a show, they’re having so much fun playing the part, and it’s a true performance, you know? But you still believe every word they say. To me, Willem Dafoe and Gary Oldman are masters at it – that sort of character actor thing that I am striving for. So these were some of the movies I referenced, to get the tone right.
HB: Do you have any southern roots, because I just completely bought you as a southerner: I thought ‘Where did they get this swamp witch’?
SV: You did? I am going to take that to my grave! That means the world to me! I’m a first-generation Persian girl, who like managed to see the goth girl in me and like, finally! Because I do a lot of these, like, procedural TV shows to pay my bills and I fucking hate wearing pantsuits! I became an actor so that I would never have to wear a pantsuit and do a nine-to-five and then I actually have all these parts where it’s like, it’s a nine-to-five character, wearing a pantsuit. Just to be able to wear that G.G. Allin shirt and all the chains and black, it’s like ‘Finally!’ This is much more of a reflection of my insides than a lot of the other parts I’ve played.
TH: I knew it when I met her! When I met her, I was like, ‘You know what? You’re always playing the intelligence analyst or somebody walking around, taking notes on an iPad, I was like, ‘No way! This girl has a total edge to her that’s just =waiting to be exploited!’