Exclusive Interview with Josh C. Waller about ‘Raze’

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Filmmaker Josh C. Waller has led a very interesting life so far. Born in 1974 to a cattle rancher/businessman and an actress mother, he spent his youth going to theatre rehearsals and watching movies on the weekends where his interest in filmmaking began to peak. After graduating high school, he joined the Marines and eventually worked for a private educational center which dealt with children afflicted with learning disabilities. This job ended up taking through different parts of the United States before he finally settled down in Los Angeles where his career as a filmmaker started to take off.

Waller’s film “Raze” stars Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”) as Sabrina, an abducted woman who wakes up to find herself imprisoned in a bunker where she and other imprisoned women are forced to fight one another to the death. On the surface it looks like another exploitation movie, but it soon becomes clear Waller had a lot more on his mind than that as he takes the characters and their story more seriously than you might expect.

I got to talk with Waller about “Raze” and what it was like to make the movie. Considering it was done on a very low budget, I was curious to see how he managed to pull off all he did with the little he had to work with. We also talked about what fighting styles were used in the movie, how his time in the Marines has influenced his work as a filmmaker, and he told a great story about how he managed to get all the sets for “Raze” built in just one day.

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Ben Kenber: From the poster “Raze” looks like a typical exploitation movie, but it ends up going a lot deeper than that. What inspired you to make this film?

Josh C. Waller: To be honest, I had been working for years on another film completely different that I directed called “McCanick” with David Morse and Cory Montieth. That was something that I had been developing for about nine years with my producing partner who also wrote it, Daniel Noah, and it’s a tough project. It’s a drama with some very heavy subject matter and it was a bit of a bitch to get made, but it finally got green lit. But about the same time my friend Kenny Gage, he wrote a little short film called “Raze” which was like maybe seven or eight pages, I can’t remember exactly. He just asked me if I would take it home and he was just like, “Hey man, take a look at this thing and I’d love to hear your thoughts.” It wasn’t like, hey take this home, I think you should produce it, I think you should direct it. He was just like, hey take a look at this, I’d love to hear what you think, and I did. So I took it home that night and checked it out, and I thought there was something there. It was essentially the first fight between Jamie (Rachel Nichols) and Sabrina (Zoë Bell), then that was the short. It was a tad more exploitative of what the film ended up eventually being. Women were wearing a bit more revealing clothes and I think it mentioned something about it being particularly busty, and I brought it back to Kenny the next day and I was like, “Dude, there’s something here. I don’t know if I’m down with all the exploitative stuff, but there’s something here.” It got my mind going, so Kenny and I just started like bouncing things back and forth immediately, and the way that he and I were working together was so organic. The ideas just kept flowing and flowing and flowing, and I think that I really was interested in being a part of it and directing it because it’s not the kind of film that I would normally gravitate to nor is it the type of film that I would normally direct. I didn’t really watch the women-in-prison exploitations films from the 70’s and 80’s stuff, not at all. In fact, I was never really a fan of any of the exploitation films like “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” It just wasn’t my thing, the Roger Corman films. So I was like okay, if I am going to do a film that kind of fits within that world, I’m going to have to take it as seriously as I would take “McCanick” or any other film, you know? I think that that was in my mind, then and still now, the only way we could possibly deal with something like this. And also it was incredibly exciting for Kenny and I. Kenny, before he got in the industry, was an undefeated professional boxer, and it was important for him and I and Zoë to try to show the most visceral, intense female fights that we had ever seen on the screen. And because every time you see women in a movie in some kind of fight, it seems to be all over the place in the trades and everything like that. That fight scene from “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux), people were like, “There’s the biggest catfight of all time in it!” And I saw it and I was like, “They what?! Man, you guys could have gone like so much further on this!” So we were like let’s see how far we can push this, and trust me when I say that we have so much more footage that we could’ve put in the movie.

BK: Regarding the fight scenes, Zoë said there were different fighting styles used in the movie. Were you looking to employ any particular fighting style or were you just open to whatever worked?

JCW: No, in fact we wanted to avoid looking for fighting styles. But what was interesting to me was to try to use the action… It was a little bit of like an experiment to see how much we could use the action to propel the narrative forward as opposed to dialogue or like emotional sequences. That said, the fight sequences themselves are pretty damn emotional, so being able to use those fights to like propel the movie forward emotionally and the narrative, that was something that was super interesting. So it wasn’t so much about looking for specific fighting styles in terms of like, this girl does Muay Thai and then this girl does Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That didn’t really work. We just needed to make sure that their fighting styles, however their fighting styles were, were a physical representation of who they were as women and what they were going through because they’re supposed to be normal women plucked from society. So occasionally you’ll have like one of the characters that knows how to fight. In the case of Sabrina, she has a military background and is well versed in hand to hand combat, so that’s the way that she fights. She fights very efficiently and she fights like a soldier. But if you start putting different martial arts styles on it… We didn’t want it to be like the female edition of “Best of the Best” or something like that like “Bloodsport” or “Mortal Kombat.”

BK: I read that you served in the Marines for a time, and thank you for your service by the way.

JCW: You’re welcome.

BK: Did any of what you learned in the Marines influence the making of this movie for you?

JCW: The guards down below I definitely fashioned after Marines. They’re most obvious trait are their Marine haircuts. All of those haircuts I maintained. I was the one who was like, “No, no, no,” and then I’d run outside with clippers and be like, “Sit down, sit down while I cut your hair!” Their uniforms, making sure their boots were polished, making sure that their haircuts were clean and not like all nappy and plain looking. Bruce Thomas who plays Kurtz, he and I had a lot of talks about his performance and how he could mimic the sound and the essence of a Marine drill instructor, so we would talk about a lot of stuff like that. I would put all the guards through a little closed quarter drill or boot camp over in a parking lot outside the set. In terms of fighting styles, not really; the military thing didn’t inform too much of that stuff. I can definitely say that, in terms of being a filmmaker, I would not be the filmmaker that I am today without it. Whether people think that’s good or bad, I would not be who I am as a man without the Marines. Almost every day, so many aspects of my life are informed because of my choice to join the corp.

BK: Absolutely. I bring that up because I have a family friend who was in the marines, and it has definitely influenced him in how he lives life today, and I think in a very good way.

JCW: It becomes one of those things because the Marine Corps is so daunting, and you end up graduating from boot camp and when you earn that title, you are filled with such an immense sense of price and accomplishment for earning that title. You feel a little bit like, “Well if I can do this, I can do anything.” So when you look at other tasks throughout your life, you’re kind of like, “This is lame. This is easy!”

BK: Zoë said that the total budget on “Raze” was less than a million dollars, but it looks like it cost more than that. The thing I continually find fascinating about low budget filmmaking is how it forces you to be more creative as a result. Would you say that was the case on this film?

JCW: Absolutely. I mean a perfect example of like how you’re forced to be creative is that like… Zoë was right, the budget was below a million, and if we had 19 action sequences, the shooting ratio on action to straight drama is like 10 to 1. It’s so drastically different. So to say that the shoot was an ambitious shoot is like stating something stupidly obvious. I think in terms of getting creative, there was one time where I was trying to figure out how the hell we were going to be able to afford… Because all of our sets were built, we shot everything on a soundstage, everything. We didn’t know how we were going to be able to pull that off with the money that we had, and I went home one night and I was sitting with my younger brother, and the flipside is as a youth I was the product of a divorce. On the father’s side, I was raised by a Marine cowboy father, and on the other side my mom and stepdad were into theater and dance and jazz and all of that stuff. I would go with my mom to movies on the weekend and I would watch movies like “Arthur” and “Zorro the Gay Blade” and stuff like that. I went home and I was hanging out with my little brother, and we were watching “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and there’s a big musical number in the movie where all the brothers get together and with people in the neighborhood, and like an Amish community they have a big barn raising, dance and a big party, and I was like, “Holy shit man! That’s it! We’ll basically do a barn raising for all of our sets!” So I told the guys, “Look, all we have to do is throw a party, we’ll invite our friends, we’ll make teams of four people each and our production designer will be our foreman. And we’ll give a cash prize to whoever finishes their part of the build the fastest.” We had a DJ, we had food and beer and all that kind of stuff, and we built all of the flats for all of the sets in three hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We all drank beer and barbecued. We never would have been able to do it (the regular way). It would have cost us 2 to 3 weeks of labor costs, so that was one of the creative ways. It was fun.

BK: That’s amazing! IFC Midnight is promoting this movie. How does it feel to have them promoting it, and what can you tell us about IFC Midnight?

JCW: IFC has been amazing. The person that I’ve been particularly involved with at IFC Midnight has been Mike Winton, and I have to say that it’s been an absolute pleasure. IFC Midnight also put up “Maniac” which my producing partner Elijah Wood was in, and they function within the same world that I function and we function in. Working with them is like working with our friends. It’s been a pleasure. I love it and I can’t wait to work with them again.

I thank Josh C. Waller for taking the time to talk with me, and I again want to thank him for his service to our country.

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Exclusive Interview with Zoe Bell on ‘Raze’

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New Zealand native Zoë Bell has long since made a name for herself as a stunt performer having doubled for Lucy Lawless on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies. But once we saw her play herself in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” we saw she was a very entertaining personality to watch onscreen as well. Since then, Bell has been balancing stunt work with acting in films like “Whip It,” “Django Unchained” and “Oblivion.” Now she gets to combine those two talents in the viciously intense “Raze.”

In “Raze,” Bell plays Sabrina who is one of 50 women which have been abducted and imprisoned in a concrete bunker. She soon realizes this bunker is a modern day coliseum of sorts as the women are forced to fight one another to the death. If she doesn’t fight than her daughter will be murdered, so her choices are extremely limited to say the least. From start to finish, Bell is a riveting presence as she is driven to emotional extremes to do things she doesn’t want to do in order to protect the one she loves.

I was lucky enough to talk with Bell when she was doing press for “Raze,” and she proved to be as cool as she was in “Death Proof.” On the surface, “Raze” looks like your typical women-in-prison exploitation flick, but its director Josh C. Waller ends up taking this material much more seriously than you might expect. I talked with Bell about how she got involved in this movie, what kind of fighting styles were used in it and if she was instrumental in choreographing the brutal fight scenes. She also talked about what it’s like to be a stunt performer in show business today as opposed to years before, and she gave us an update on “The ExpendaBelles.”

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Ben Kenber: “Raze” was different from what I expected it to be.

Zoë Bell: Well what were you expecting? I hope you weren’t expecting a romantic comedy.

BK: Oh no, I usually avoid those (Bell laughs). With so many different fighting styles around the world, was there any specific style of fighting you used in this movie?

ZB: There are all these action movies out there with samurais and stuff, but we didn’t want to have those kinds of fights at all. We wanted it to be real characters that were plucked from their lives and put in this really shitty situation. But as far as the characters are concerned, Sabrina comes from a military background, Teresa (Tracie Thoms) comes from a boxing background, Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) is just street, and Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) is just the young girl who has to fight for her life. So the characters’ individual fight styles were less about the styles they were trained in and more about the life experience that they have, and it was really important for us that that come through. That’s what makes the fights different.

BK: What do you want audiences to get out of “Raze?”

ZB: I wanted the audience to have an experience of female fights that they maybe haven’t experienced before. I was looking to get more experience. I wanted to do female fights and stuff in a way that I’ve not done before. We wanted to take everything sort of heightened and strip all of that away. It was more just sort of like an experience I wanted to put out there for people. Ironically what’s ended up coming out of it is the joy that women audiences who have watched this movie have. It’s like they’re living vicariously through this womanhood and these actors, but also the characters and for all the right reasons, obviously the crazy ones, it’s satisfying. All the actors were just like, “This is so fucking cool that we are doing this film!” And that means the world to me because I’ve spent my life doing these kinds of films and I’ve gotten benefits from it as long as I can remember. It’s cool to be able to share that around a bit.

BK: How did the role of Sabrina come to you?

ZB: Sabrina came to me through the project really that was sort of… Kenny (Gage), Andy (Pagana, the producer) and Josh (C. Waller, the director) had also worked together on this project before I came aboard. Josh and I have known each other for a long time and when he threw my name in the mix, Kenny and Andy were excited about it and they brought me in. We all kind of vibed and jived and they asked me if I wanted to come on as a producer, and I got really excited and I said yes. At that stage it was still in a short format, and the role of Sabrina was really… I was just going to work on staging the fights basically. I worked with this woman named Christy and I created this whole story and at some level put a lot of preparations on her (Sabrina) for the short. But as it turned into a feature, a lot of the stuff I worked on before carried over to her in the feature script which was really cool. It’s a really fun way to go about it. It’s kind of an ass backwards way of going about it. We had problems doing it the way we did, but it was still pretty exciting.

BK: Did you work closely with director Josh C. Waller on the fight scenes in “Raze?”

ZB: Everything on this movie was pretty collaborative, but the fight scenes in particular because I have experience in that world and therefore I basically have a convenience when it comes to that stuff. We had a fight choreographer called James Young, and so basically we had James Young and we had me who was never going to be quiet about it. My forte is female action and what works well for women. There’s something about a female character in the way that she moves in the kind of choices that she makes in a fight situation, and Josh was very much about bringing emotional truth to those fights and these women. Kenny, having been a boxer for years and a real ring fighter, was one of the biggest cheerleaders for having female fights that were real that haven’t been seen before, so we had a lot of people that the fights were very important to on the creative side. So fortunately we all worked quite collaboratively together and I think we all ended up getting the fights we wanted. They are pretty cool.

BK: Did you do all your own stunts in this movie or were there some done by a stunt double?

ZB: Oh no, no, no, no. No one had a stunt double. There was one stunt that ended up not even making it into the movie which we brought in a stunt double for. We didn’t have time or the money, so the girls are all bringing it.

BK: Having been a stunt person for quite some time, what kind of changes have you experienced for stunt performers in the industry? Have things gotten better or worse?

ZB: I think work conditions for stunt people across the board have technically improved. There are more challenges in regards to safety and, having said that, when you get more technology it also enables you to push the limits. We’re always trying to do something new and bigger. Work conditions are what they were. As for work opportunities, now compared to 22 or 30 years ago, women were not really allowed to be stunt people. Guys would put on wigs and cover their hairy legs and double for women. As far as female action, it almost feels to me like it kind of goes back to where you’ve got “Xena” and “Alias” and all these… There is more female driven stuff now to where I feel like then there was for a long time. I think the type of action that’s acceptable for what females are doing now has probably shifted too. “Charlie Angel’s” was technically action and it was all females, and the action of the “Wonder Woman” to be done now, the type of action you’d see your committing would be far different to what was in the day.

BK: “Death Proof” really opened doors for you as an actress. At this point, does doing acting appeal to you more than stunts, or are you equally passionate about both?

ZB: “Death Proof” was definitely the catapult for me. It feels like it’s probably a good time to naturally progress over. If I’m being given these opportunities and I’ve worked hard enough to make that change, then that’s the next stage of wherever my career is taking me. I’ve had to be very conscious about not being in the industry as a stunt woman as much as an actress because, for myself certainly, I would very easily kind of slide back into the comfort zone of what I know well which is being a stunt girl and shy away from maybe what’s a little more challenging which has been acting. But also the intention of being seen as an actor and taken seriously by the industry, I think it was sort of important to me to sever ties from one so that I could fully commit to the other. It’s a shame but it’s part of the process, you know?

BK: Yes, it is. What was the budget for “Raze?”

ZB: Well I’m not sure that’s something I am allowed to say. We think it was $600,000 or $700,000. It was definitely well below $1 million.

BK: I was just curious because it looks like it cost a lot more than that.

ZB: Yeah, and it’s very important for us, I think, for people to know that the budget was incredibly low but that we are so proud of what we managed to do with well below $1 million. We are just in the process of doing a general audit just to double check the numbers, so I don’t want to put a number out there because I would be making it up, but I can basically say that it was well below $1 million.

BK: That’s interesting because what I’ve learned from most filmmakers is that working with less money forces you to be more creative. It certainly looks like you got a lot of creative stuff out of the budget that you had.

ZB: Yeah definitely, and we also got really lucky with the people that we had on board.

BK: Regarding the other actresses, did they have any fight training when they came onto this movie or did you help them out with that?

ZB: A lot of the girls had taken themselves and… I know Rebecca has been doing some kickboxing on her own time. Rachel Nichols has done a bunch of action films before. The girls are not meant to be… We didn’t need Rachel Nichols to walk in there and look like she had a black belt. We did a lot of work on the fights together before we shot it. James has done a lot with the choreography, Kenny worked on a lot of boxing with bags, and I just worked with them doing everything and anything they could when I had a minute. And most of when I was of use to the other women was just as a girl in how I approach it. So I spoke their language and that’s the gift I had to give. Everyone was just super dedicated and it was really touching to see these women always so dedicated to their roles.

BK: One last question, is there anything you can tell us about “The ExpendaBelles?” (This is an offshoot of “The Expendables,” and it was reported that Bell had been talking to the filmmakers about being in it.)

ZB: No, absolutely nothing. I have met with those guys. I don’t know if it was specific to… Well here’s what I can tell you about “The ExpendaBelles” and why I’m excited for that movie to be in existence whether I’m a part of it or not: I would love to be a part of it. That’s all I can tell you.

BK: Okay no problem. Well thank you very much for your time Zoë. This has been a lot of fun and you were terrific in “Raze.”

ZB: Thank you!