If you grew up watching movies in the 80s and 90s, you’ll be in awe of the dream-team cast of Kern Saxton’s debut feature film, Sushi Girl. Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, Tony Todd AKA Candy Man, James Duval, Andy Mackenzie, Noah Hathaway, Jim Fahey, Danny Trejo, Sonny Chiba, the list goes on. The film aligns itself with B-list 80s films and it follows a group of criminals who reunite for sushi dinner six years after their last heist went bad.
Sushi Girl had its international premiere at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal on Saturday, and I was fortunate enough to sit down with the entire cast and creative team to discuss their gritty grindhouse throwback.
Part I: Interview with actors Mark Hamill and Tony Todd, director Kern Saxton, and producer Neal Fischer.
BD: Sushi Girl lends itself to films like 12 Angry Movie, Reservoir Dogs in that it takes place in a limited setting. Could you talk about what it’s like working with a theatrical piece?
Todd: I love theatre. It’s my first love, I’ve done many different kinds of theatre, Broadway, experimental, and when I read the script, it read like a play visually and that’s what appealed to me. Also, the words, the sentences that you can just wrap your mind around and see where the characters are coming from. The day it clicked for me was when I knew I was a paternal character, albeit dysfunctional, but a father nonetheless. Duke loves you completely, but he will punish.
BD: Kern, as a director how are you able to make a dynamic movie in such a limited setting?
Saxton: It took some thought and some effort. The writing is one thing, but when you get on set it’s a whole new game. Writing it depended in how detailed and how interesting you can make the characters, you have to give them a unique voice, unique goals, but they all need to go in the same direction. We needed a lot of conflict to keep things moving along. Once you get on set though, it’s a whole new ballgame because you’re trying to keep things visually interesting, which came down to subtle lighting changes as the story goes on. As the film progresses you see it become a lot less pretty, and a lot darker to the point where we were doing handheld camera work.
Todd: The lighting was very key.
Saxton: Movement also helped a lot. We take time to be still, but it’s poignant because it’s all about the acting at that point. So it also came down to fantastic performances, which we got from everyone. That’s really the backbone of how the information is presented. But keeping the camera moving, at certain points of the story, to give more variation, you notice we’ll start on one side of the room then shift to another section because the room was a quite large area so we had the freedom to focus on different areas, despite not being in a different space.
Todd: there’s one moment where we have a circular dolly shot and you see everybody in the scene.
Fischer: Also how the characters react to each other kind of grounds the audience. We get everyone’s perspective, not just one.
Saxton: We had to identify trigger points to move from one section to the next. When we first got the set, there are scenes that are 15 to 20 pages, so we needed to think of how to break that up. Not just for scheduling purposes, but we had to know how to compartmentalize the information.
BD: Mark you’ve dedicated yourself to voice acting for the past decade. The last role I remember you on last was Cocknocker in Jay and Silent Bob. What attracted you to Sushi Girl?
Saxton: There’s a funny story about that one!
Hamill: The prosthetics guys that did the Cocknocker hand came into the picture. Kevin Smith said that I was going to get the hand as my present when we finished the movie. He changed his mind somewhere down the line and now that hand is in his comic book store in New Jersey. I kind of just blew it off, and didn’t think about it because that’s his prerogative.
Saxton: So we went to visit the shop that these guys work at, and we were working with Vinnie and George, and I saw the mold that said “Kocknocker” on it and I was like, “no shit”. So by the time of our shoot, the prosthetics guys had made a new hand and painted it and all and gave it to Mark.
Hamill: The requirement to have it as a souvenir was that I had to wear it on set for Sushi Girl. So I wore it during the robbery scene, when Jeff Fahey was there. I went down with the hand behind my back, so it’s inserted in the scene. We had a lot of fun on this movie, despite it being dark and gritty. There was a lot of support. You remember I did a lot of voice over bits, and a lot of stage work in New York and one thing that really jumped off the page for this one, was that it was such a solid ensemble piece. My favorite productions in New York were ensemble pieces where there were opportunities for many performers to shine, and I find those to feel secure, working as part of a team, rather than piece where it’s all on my shoulders. Sushi Girl struck me as a real theatrical piece that you can almost mount as a stage play, and we were fortunate to shoot it almost in continuity. We shot pretty well chronologically.
BD: There’s an amazing cast behind this movie, so as you are veterans in the field what was it like to work with such a young director, and what was it like for you, Kern, to work with such a great cast?
Saxton: It was really a dream come true. When you start out you don’t have lot of options with cast because you have no money. Your worst nightmare is having actors you really need to coach through the process. With shorts, I was in North Carolina for college, and there’s not a big pool of talent out there to choose from, and we weren’t allowed to fraternize with the drama school.
Hamill: It was the same way when I was in college. I knew guys in film and I would sneak off and do work with them, but if I was discovered by the drama school, I would be penalized!
Saxton: They would say, no you can’t use our kids. So we had to go elsewhere. I ended up finding some diamonds in the rough, but it was always this process on set where you have this idea of what you need to achieve and you are constantly battling, trying to play catch up. You are trying to make sure you get a moment rather than finding a moment.
Hamill: It’s like pulling teeth! [Laughs]
Saxton: But these guys are such masters of the craft that I didn’t have to do much. They say a big percent of directing is casting, and when we got on set for Sushi Girl it was about finding the right tone, rather than just settling for a tone at all. The nuisances and character details we could focus on, rather than just trying to have some character at all. It was a really great experience for me.
Todd: I think we all had an abundance of choices with this project.
Hamill: When you are actually in sync with what the intent is, by the time you get on set it’s just a matter of finding your light and hitting your mark. There was not a lot of angst going back and forth trying to find out who we were. Very rarely did Kern say let’s try this in a completely different way. The case I’m thinking of where he did, it worked out to try a different approach. So it was a matter of trust for me.
Todd: Well, Kern said to me, “can you be less tall?” [All laugh]
Hamill: I was asking if we could frame out the apple box!
Saxton: Tony I need you shorter, Mark I need you taller! It was interesting; we had a freak out moment because of the height disparity, between these two guys, but it worked out really well in terms of the characters.
Hamill: Symbolically Duke (Tony’s character) dominates Crow, both psychologically and physically. So it all just fell into place.
Saxton: Everyone is playing catch up with Tony, so it made sense that he was so big.
Hamill: and Crow is bitching from day one. He’s literally a crow.
BD: Mark, you’re dishing out a lot of torture, it’s very gory, very realistic. Why did you guys want to include all the gore?
Hamill: I love the fact that it didn’t glamourize the criminals. Violence is ugly, and they didn’t shy away from it. It’s awful! Which was my initial reaction.
Saxton: That’s the initial idea. The violence has a very specific purpose in the construct of the story. It’s designed to make you feel like shit. We want you to feel uncomfortable seeing this. We’ve had walk outs in our screening because its so extreme, even though I don’t think it’s that gory. It’s a lot of psychological gore, which is the most effective way to use violence if you are trying to make it disturbing. You have to make it about the audience’s mind, get under their skin. There is a very poignant reward to sitting through that terrible torture at the end.
Fischer: It becomes almost like a personal violence in the sense that you feel it. It’s an assault. It’s not just a lot of violence all over the place. I wanted to have a type of violence that would repel you, that shocks you, and disgusts you. It was not just for the sake of violence.
Saxton: I mean this guy is tied to a chair and can’t movie. It’s brutal, and it needed to be violent to get the point across.
BD: Thank you guys so much for chatting with me! I look forward to all your future projects.
PART II: Interview with James Duval, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie, and writer Destin Pfaff
BD: Sushi Girl aligns itself with moves like 12 Angry Men and Reservoir Dogs, in that it takes place in a very limited setting. How do you create such a dynamic movie in such limited setting?
Pfaff: The biggest part of being able to do a movie like that, the whole gamble of the film, is casting. Finding the right actors to embody these characters is the key to pulling off entertaining the audience while filming in one location. Having the location be a character itself, as well. And we were lucky to get the cast we did with Andy first, then getting Tony and Mark, and Noah last. We really rolled the dice.
Mackenzie: It was a serious snowball effect. I was the first cast member to sign on and I ended up with all my childhood icons so it was ridiculous, ridiculous! Like a dream come true.
Duval: It really was. We’re all working with people we know and love, people we’ve grown up with. I’ve known Andy for a while now, and he has a huge resume, so be on the set with not only working actors, but iconic actors, and then it’s also be playing with them, where none of them are playing characters you’re familiar with. They’re playing roles you’ve never seen them play, which made the movie exciting and refreshing to make. A whole new garden to dig into.
Hathaway: Plus knowing them as these long-term actors, you don’t know if you’re going to get them on a good day, and if they’re going to embrace a low budget project. But they just turned it all off, and it was phenomenal.
Duval: If they didn’t, he (points to Andy) would have killed us!
Hathaway: [laughs] We call Andy mister Chi because he plays a crazy maniacal character but he’s like the Zen master in real life. He calms us all down, and makes us keep focus.
BD: The cast is pretty insane, you’ve all been working in the industry for quite a while, and you’re all well known faces. So what was it like to work with a new up-and-coming director?
Mackenzie: luckily for me, just before Sushi Girl, I worked with Kern and Neal, so I had met them before and worked with them. He’s a really fresh guy, he seems like a kid, but he’s not. He really knows what he’s doing.
Pfaff: He’s a kid.
Hathaway: I told him, he’s going to be a brilliant film maker. You can tell how he relates to his actors and you see that he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to bring his vision to his people. He knows how to work with his people, and you see it right away. From the start, it was very comfortable.
Mackenzie: Luckily, nobody had egos.
Hathaway: Everybody checked their egos at their door.
Duval: Anything we could do to help the other person. Everyone was there from the get go.
Pfaff: I’ve known Kern for 7 or 8 years, our careers have grown together. I’ve watched him become a better director, I watched him learn how to related to his actors. This is everything I hoped he would do.
Hathaway: I told him a couple days ago that the only difference between him and these big directors is the size of his balls right now. To be honest, you talk about Cameron or Scott, they have massive balls, and that’s what separates Kern from those guys. He’s really that talented, but that stuff comes with time. It comes with several movies under your belt; you can’t start off being that ballsy. You have to build that confidence in order to be brilliant. I see that in him. Nice testicular analogy.
BD: I was reading an interview, and Kern Saxton said the original script was almost cartoony, a little more colorful. How did it transform into such an intense, black comedy?
Pfaff: Kern and I were working on a film called Death Valley, but a few days into production the producer just left. He was like hey I’m out of money, and just left us all in the middle of the desert. So after a few months of being pissed off, nothing was getting made. We decided to do something on our own. After that other movie we were working on blew up, we decided to stay small with this one. It was going to be filmed all on the weekend with our friends. There was going to be a mafia boss, a Crip, the biggest caricatures of these guys. And they were at a funeral having dinner, it was like Ten Little Indians.
Somehow there was too much testosterone in the scripts so we threw in a naked girl, we loved her but then hated the characters. So it went from there. We started writing a movie with a real plot. We got it all from location to actors and morphed into something great.
BD: Did you guys have experience eating off a naked girl before this movie?
Hathaway: Numerous times. Every chance you get.
BD: One thing I loved was the sense of paranoia, you don’t know who is after who, you don’t know who is there to kill who. How did you deal with paranoia throughout the movie without making it so overt?
Noah: For me it comes down to the backstory for your own character. I think everybody has their own backstory they created for their character, and it has to do with script, setting, a little bit of everything that comes with the movie.
Duval: I remember when we started rehearsals, not anything big, but we started talking with Tony about who our characters before the movie. We tried to establish what is not told in the movie, what our past was. I know for Noah and I, one thing is he’s the new guy, I was the previous new guy, so he’s my friend who I brought into the circle. So it made it easy for me to imagine my emotions toward the others, and to not want to have anything to do with the torture. Like, “this guy is my friend!” So by adding these backstories to each of these characters, adds a dynamic, adds dimensions to the characters that you don’t see fully on screen. By establishing that before shooting, we have so much more to play on.
Pfaff: That’s the character relationships. You see Max and Crow, you see their dynamic. Francis and Duke have a relationship. They’re all like kids in a playground, very bad kids, all beating into each other. The characters were written that way, and paranoia grows from it.
BD: The gory parts. Noah, you’re on the end of a lot of gruesome torture, and Andy, you dish out a lot of it. What was your favorite torture scene to shoot?
Mackenzie: I loved every minutes of it [All laugh]. Only because I knew Noah was going to sit there and take it. He was asking for it. That’s the beauty of the trust game between actors. When you can trust an actor to take risks that make it look so awful for them, then you are lucky, you hit the gold mine because I could have easily hurt him during the scenes. And then there’s the spitting on the face.
Hathaway: I had to spit blood at Andy. And I really didn’t want to do it, you know we’re friends and Andy was like, “it’s my birthday! I want it!” So I had to spit a big loogie on his face, and it really was his birthday that day. I still feel bad about it.
Mackenzie: They were talking about using a straw instead and playing with angles and I was like, “just spit on me! Do it for real, do it right.”
Hathaway: there was a lot of trust, and there were a lot of times where I could have been crushed but you just trust each other to do stuff like the torture scene. Even with Mark, he slaps me around in the movie and I told him he was hitting me like a bitch, and after that he slapped the shit out of me. So we really just wanted it to be so good, to be as real as possible, and I was willing to take a little more because of that. Trust was a big factor.
BD: Were you ever surprised or scared at how Mak took on the role of Crow?
Mackenzie: He was actually a last minute addition; we had some guys before playing his character at some readings. The last time, he came along, and we have no expectations, no idea how he would play it. And he comes with this almost British, maniacal take on it, and we were all like, “what the fuck was that?”
Duval: It was just so different than what anyone else had done.
Hathaway: It’s like a Truman Capote, mixed with Joker, which is really messed up, and it comes through like that very much. It’s strange and eerie and diabolical and funny all at the same time.
Mackenzie: I hate it. I really hated it. It was scary.
BD: I remember watching the trailer and after watching it I had no idea Mark Hamill was in it, he’s so disguised.
Pfaff: We did a friends and family screening, and a friend of mine is huge Star Wars fan, he’s got light saber tattoos. And he watched the entire movie and he said it was a great movie. Then I asked what he thought of mark Hamill, and he was like, “Mark Hamill was in it?” He had no idea.
Hathaway: I was the one who said Luke Skywalker will be dead after this. Sushi Girl kills Luke, you’ll never think of him the same again after you see this movie. His performance is that good.
BD: The movie clearly has influence in the grindhouse, 70s, 80s B-list action movies. Are you guys all big fans of the genre?
Pfaff: Absolutely, that’s my background; it’s how we were raised, on horror exploitation films. It’s why you see it in the script. Kern comes from or Ridley Scott kind of background and Neal comes form a 60s Japanese kind of world. So you kind of see all those styles together in Sushi Girl. You can’t deny the influence.
Hathaway: These guys are all icons from those kinds of movies, you know you’ve got Sonny Chiba, Danny Trejo, Lawnmower Man, the Donnie Darko bunny. The list goes on.
Mackenzie: It’s like some fucked up grindhouse Camelot.
Hathaway: I had taken so many years off. I was tattooing an Amsterdam, and the thing coming back for me was I wanted to work with creative people. People I want to hang out with. And we hang out all the time now, we all want to make movies together. This is how filmmaking should be, you shouldn’t go to your trailer and not talk to other people. It should be a wonderful, creative experience and I think it’s been lost in some places in the industry. We workout together, we party together. But that’s what it should be like, why do it if you’re not working with people you love hanging out with.
Duval: That’s what it was like on set. There are some intense scenes, but we were all just clapping and so happy to be a part of the movie. Everyone tore it up because we are all so happy to be there.
Pfaff: As a guy who loved movies as a kid, to get to work with these guys was a dream come true. I’ve been a fan of Jimmy Duval for so long, and to watch him in our movie was surreal. To see Tony Todd, and Noah, and all these guys together, and they all killed it. Andy, who gets his moment to shine, Jeff Fahey, and these other guys who take a small role. I feel like the little kid who just got really lucky. I still don’t believe I’m sitting here in this room.
Mackenzie: This really has been a unique experience. We’ve been in the business for a long time, and this does not happen often.
Duval: The only negative aspect is that now going to another set, and it’s not the same. That’s a huge negative, in all seriousness. Obviously there have been rough times, but these are the kind of guys who are always there. These are the kind of guys who are there for you. It’s more than friends, its family. There’s so much support. I can’t tell you how many times Noah bailed me out…not of jail! Not of jail!
Hathaway: Let’s get you to an adult theater.
Duval: Ohh I can’t wait.
BD: Do you guys have plans after Fantasia with the movie? Any release details?
Pfaff: The movie comes out theatrically as a limited release in January. Then Blu-ray and DVD follow in April.
BD: Do you have plans to work together again?
Duval: It’s starting to bubble right now. It’s just beginning, but things are getting to the place where they can take off. We’re actually doing Peter Pan 3.
Mackenzie: We’re skipping 2 apparently.
BD: Do you have any other words you want to say about Sushi Girls?
Pfaff: Just spread the word. All the actors in this are incredible. We just hope you like it.
BD: Thanks, guys, for taking the time to chat with me! I hope you enjoy your time at Fantasia.