Now filming in the Los Angeles area is the indie horror flick Chop, the directorial debut of genre veteran Trent Haaga (writer of Deadgirl and long time Troma actor/writer). Chop, which stars Tanishaa Mukherji, Billy Bakshi, Malaya Manson, Trent Haaga and Timothy Muskatell, centers on a seemingly innocent young couple, forced by a psychotic stranger to confront their duplicitous past. It’s a revenge thriller with a comedic edge in the tradition of Fargo and Oldboy. Bloody Disgusting’s Chris Eggertsen took a trip down to the set to spend a day watching filming., You can read about his escapades beyond the break!
In the center of it all I was welcomed by the sight of curly-haired lead actor Billy Bakshi, “strapped down” to a table complete with one bloodied stump in place of a leg and a sexy-hot-pants-wearing female costar prowling nearby. Behind his head, a camera crew was making adjustments in preparation to shoot another take, while in front of Bakshi stood Mr. Haaga himself, making wild gestures and facial expressions in a fashion that vaguely reminded me of a Charlie Chaplin pantomime as he attempted to communicate something to his lead actor that I could only speculate.
Mr. Haaga, a blonde and mustachioed lighting bolt of a man in possession of a vaguely pompadour-ian hairstyle and the darting eyes of a born multi-tasker, was at first glance (and second, and third) the epitome of the young horror auteur. I imagined this set might have been something like that of one of Wes Craven or Don Coscarelli’s early films, or maybe more appropriately Troma veteran Lloyd Kaufman (given that Haaga is a product of that legendary ultra-low-budget studio himself). Before I even had the chance to see him coming, the director approached me with a firm handshake, those wild blue eyes – the eyes of an artist, yes – meeting mine for just a quick second as he introduced himself. “Hi Chris, I’m Trent. Nice to meet you.”
Just as quickly he got back to work, stepping behind the camera and conferring with his director of photography for just a second to go over the next take. The scene involved Mr. Bakshi, obviously at the wrong end of a raw deal given his dismembered appendage, trapped in this dark lair of hanging tools and cold engines and bookended on one side by actor Timothy Muskatell, looking warm and ominous all at once in a Mr. Rogers sweater, and on the other by those red leather hot pants and black high-heeled boots (aka sex-kitten actress Malaya Manson). She stalked about with a wicked glare, dancing just on the edge of her performance, and as filming commenced it quickly became clear to me that her character, a sexy lesbian named Stephanie with a motherfucking score to settle, was not the type of woman any man in his right mind would want near his private parts.
“Shut the fuck up!” she screamed at one point, spitting venom at poor defenseless Mr. Bakshi as he ogled her goodies. Judging by the fierceness of her gaze, she looked about ready to chop off another of his body parts. Just as I thought it, Muskatell, like the tiny red devil dancing on Ms. Stephanie’s shoulder, tantalizingly offered up a shiny blade. For whatever sin Bakshi’s character had visited upon her, she would be granted the opportunity to remove one extremity of her choice. I won’t tell you which particular extremity Stephanie chose, but let’s just say the dude probably won’t be fathering children anytime soon.
The scene is alternately funny and disturbing. One moment Bakshi spoke with the cadence of a sex-starved teenage boy (he just couldn’t get his mind off her super hot body), the next he was gently pleading as she straddled him with a knife like Isabella Rosselini in Blue Velvet. Through it all, Mr. Haaga remained on high alert, not pushy but engaged, gently coaxing out stronger and stronger performances from his actors with each subsequent take. Impressive? Absolutely. By the time the set broke for lunch, it had become very apparent to me that Haaga possessed the specific instincts needed to direct his actors with maximum efficiency; Manson, in her first feature-film role, had transformed from scrappy jackal to bloodthirsty tigress in the span of 30 minutes. With all due respect to the actors involved (all three were very good), Mr. Haaga had managed to generate a palpable electricity between Bakshi and Manson, a gentle spark brought to flaming life. Take it from me: the dude knows how to start a fire.
Visiting the set that day was lead actress Tanisha Mukherjee (her work on the film was already finished but she came by to watch) who co-stars opposite Bakshi as his wife. Mukherjee is part of a distinguished Indian acting family and has starred in several Bollywood productions, Chop being her first job on an American film. I was interested in getting her take on the project, so we stepped outside for a few minutes to have a chat about her experience working on the film. I asked her more about the central couple, and the grisly machinations they’re forced to face during the story.
“It’s actually amazing, because throughout the film, [Emily’s] constantly having to face [her husband’s] karma, like in India we believe in karma“, she told me. “Only in the film it’s instant karma, because it’s coming back to you then and there, what you did is just coming back to you then and there. We always think it will happen to us in another lifetime, or whatever. But here it’s instant karma.”
During our conversation Mukherjee couldn’t stop gushing about Mr. Haaga and his command of the craft, but rather than feeling like typical Hollywood kiss-ass hyperbole, it came off very genuine. I asked her if she’d seen Deadgirl or any of his previous work before signing on for the project.
“No, I hadn’t“, she told me. “But I don’t think I needed to, because he was just so with it. I could not believe that he was a first-time director. You could just see the experience. When somebody has worked in the industry for that long, I think they either absorb it and they grow or they become boring and do the same thing again and again…he’s really, really seriously experienced and he knows what he’s doing. You don’t at any point feel like you’re working with a first-time director.”
Indeed, Haaga isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to filmmaking. The man has worked on over 40 movies as a writer, producer, actor and pretty much anything else you can think of. Mukherjee particularly appreciated Haaga’s experience as a thesp, because it made her life that much easier during the shoot.
“He gives you a certain amount of freedom. He knows exactly what he wants, but he still gives you that little bit of creative freedom, which sometimes with directors who don’t have an acting background is a little bit difficult.”
Mukherjee is a straight-forward, very pretty young woman with an air of upper-crust elegance to her that made me wonder what preconceptions she might have had about horror films before taking the role, and whether she hesitated at all participating in a project with such a seemingly hardcore sensibility.
“When I read the script, I did hesitate, because of the gore quotient“, she told me frankly. “When Trent directed [the rehearsal], I remember him telling me it was a dark comedy, and I was like, ‘I don’t see the comedy. I just don’t see it.’ But it was just the way he manipulated it, I suddenly saw [what he was talking about]. You know, that’s the whole thing about a director, he needs to show you his vision. And he did. So it was great.”
Part of her hesitation likely had to do with the fact that horror isn’t exactly a prolific genre in India. When it is tackled, it’s not exactly what splatter-happy horror fans in the U.S. would find satisfying.
“We don’t have very many genres. Horror films are not very big“, she said. “It’s basically our culture that when we go to movies we want to escape for three hours. When we do horror it’s more spiritual. Because we have so much spiritualism in our culture, it’s more a spiritual, superstitious kind of horror. Like ghost stories and things like that.”
Mukhajee made it clear, though, that whatever doubts she had going into the process were blown out of the water by Haaga’s obvious enthusiasm for the material.
“It was such a close-knit thing, I loved working with him“, she said. “Trent and his whole crew, it’s so great, because everyone is so passionate. And everyone’s so excited, and there’s that level of like, ‘we’re gonna just do an amazing job’… at the same time the quality that you see when it’s being shot…I think it’s going to be as good or better than some of the other things that are out there.”
Shortly thereafter cast and crew broke for lunch, and in a diner down the street I had the opportunity to sit down with actor Timothy Muskatell, still outfitted in that beige, vaguely menacing Mr. Rogers sweater, to engage in a brief chat. Muskatell is your classic character actor – you swear you’ve seen him in something before, but can’t say exactly what. Fans of low-budget horror will probably know him from several Chad Ferrin-directed films, including Unspeakable, The Ghouls and Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!. In this film Muskatell plays “The Stranger“, a “loner” character that orchestrates the karmic chaos around Billy Bakshi’s protagonist in the film.
“I’m definitely the lead villain, but I think as you watch it he might not be such a bad guy“, said Muskatell. “He might have righteous reasons for what he does. He does have a lot of good reasons, he has his manifesto. [Muskatell pulls out a ledger in which he has written several things “in character“.] The Stranger carries around this book with all these things he writes in there and I’ve added plenty of things in here. He’s the type of guy that would get incensed if somebody was in the express line at the supermarket and they have 50 items and they write a check. So he might just follow you out to your car and write down your license plate number and pay you a visit. I think when you see this you might think twice about cutting that guy off on the freeway.”
Muskatell had similarly effusive words to offer about Haaga, a man who along with pretty much everyone else I chatted with that day seems to think this film just might serve as the next big stepping stone on his way to the mainstream.
“This is about my eighth film with Trent“, said Muskatell. “It’s either in one capacity or another. He’s either a producer, or my co-star, he stars with me in The Ghouls. I did Hell Asylum for Full Moon with him. He was the producer, he acted a little in that. I have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-me role in Deadgirl as well. I really love the script [for Chop] and I consider myself really, really lucky that he’s remembered me and given me this role. This kind of stuff doesn’t come around very often. I completely trust him. He’s a triple-threat. Directing is a long time coming, too. He’s been writing for so long, and it’s time for him.”
This almost incestuous circle of talent was something Haaga brought up when I headed over to speak with him at the Mexican restaurant across the street, where he was enjoying a quick lunch with his director of photography.
“We’re like a little group of filmmakers, a little group of actors“, said Haaga. “Sometimes I’ll act in Chad’s movie with Tim, and I’ll produce a movie with Tim, and now I’ve got Tim, and Chad’s producing and I’m directing. So I like to think of this as kind of a collective, like a small little mini-collective. We’re like this little weird group that’s just been making movies. We’re not the ‘After Dark’ guys, we’re not like the $1.2 million guys. We’re like the seedier, creepier, weirder, more dank and twisted [types].”
I hate to sound like a sycophant, but I couldn’t help but like Trent Haaga. A lot. His love of the genre shines through in every word, every expressive hand movement and curl of an eyebrow. Oh yeah, about those eyebrows – I couldn’t help but notice them. Curved in a natural high arch, they’re a bit devilish, with a mischievous character all their own. One second one or both of them are raised at an extreme angle, perhaps as he affects the voice of a Hollywood muckety-muck just discovering him for the first time (“Where did you come from?! Who are you?!” he proclaimed in a gleeful bit of mockery), the next they’re drawn down low in a thoughtful slant. He’s blessed with the striking, rubbery face of a silent film comedian, to be sure, but that quality is potently coupled with the breakneck mind of a virtuoso.
I asked him if the buzz around Deadgirl had allowed him the opportunity to expand his horizons and finally direct a feature, but he was quick to point out that Chop had been around long before Deadgirl began turning industry heads. In fact, he optioned the script from a guy living in South Carolina named Adam Minarovich, who had been a fan of his before he began sending him his own material. Haaga was impressed by his screenplay Chop and, after doing a polish on it, began shopping it around town with himself attached as director.
“There was a lot of interest around the script, so then I spent almost a year taking it to the studios, they all were like sniffing around, but unfortunately I was like a barnacle attached to a project that they wanted“, said Haaga in a humorous bit of self-deprecation. “Who am I? They don’t know anything about me, I say I want to direct, they say no. I said, ok, I’ll be a producer. And they’re like, how about we just take it from you, and you can tell everybody you got fucked by a studio. So I basically said no, and I hung onto it, and about a month and a half, two months ago, I went to China to shoot a movie for Charles Band as an actor. And while I was there, I met a Chinese businessman. He took me up to Beijing, and he showed me around, and he was like…’Do you want to do a movie? I’d like to get into movies.’ And I was like, I’ve got a script. He said, ‘How much do you think you could do it for?’ And I said [makes a bleeping sound], and he said ‘ok, go’…so I come back from China, I call up my boys and said we’re doing a movie.”
That bleeping sound was in service of disguising the film’s budget, which Haaga (understandably) would not disclose. But let’s be clear: Chop is clearly a labor of love, made for very little money by a filmmaker who chooses to stick to his vision rather than sell out to the highest bidder. To be sure, this is the anti-Platinum Dunes/Michael Bay horror film. Anyone who has seen his work, Deadgirl in particular, will tell you that it’s not easy to pigeonhole a Trent Haaga-penned film into any precise category.
“I know that I’m known as a horror movie guy, and this movie definitely has its grotesque elements“, said Haaga. “It’s got a lot of murder, and a lot of amputations and things like that, but I like to think of it more as a…and I hate when people say that. ‘It’s not a horror movie, it’s a supernatural thriller’. But I mean a horror movie to me is more like, ‘oh my god, where are the keys, I can’t start the car, the guy’s stalking me’. This is more of a thriller/comedy, where we’re really playing the comedy. But a very, very, very black thriller/comedy. It’s a standard thriller plot. A guy getting revenge, and the protagonist doesn’t remember what he did to this guy. And we reveal more and more about the characters as things get more insane and crescendoing in a guy with no arms and legs. It’s like Boxing Helena, but funny.”
It’s Haaga’s idiosyncratic nature that perhaps has kept him from so far realizing mainstream success in a risk-averse studio system that tends to marginalize quirky artists that fall outside what they consider a marketable quantity. Of course, perhaps it’s these very quirks that will end up getting Haaga noticed on a larger scale. In fact, he already had a brush with the mainstream, when his black comedy script entitled Poor Things piqued the interest of actresses Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. And it’s easy to understand why: the script was inspired by the real-life story of two 70-something female con artists who took out insurance policies on homeless men they befriended and then subsequently murdered by running them over with their cars. In other words, it’s a meaty role for older actresses like MacLaine and Dukakis who have aged out of being the romantic comedy ingénue and are starved for interesting parts.
“I was like, this ain’t gonna go nowhere! Homeless people and old ladies, this ain’t going nowhere“, said Haaga. “And the script goes out, and I don’t think anything of it, and then like three weeks later, I get a call saying ‘Shirley Mclaine loves your script and wants to play this role, and Olympia Dukakis wants to do the other one’. As soon as that happened, it just blew up, everybody in town read it, I got my name on the front page of Variety…So that’s my ten year, 40 picture overnight success.”
Ironically enough, Hollywood party girl/shameless crack whore Lindsay Lohan may end up being a major reason why Poor Things never sees the light of day. That’s because after winning a role in the film, she surprised absolutely no one by getting charged with a DUI in that now-infamous 2007 cocaine-laced incident in Malibu. Luckily for his own sanity, Haaga realizes this kind of thing is just par for the course in Hollyweird.
“It was crazy, we had huge actors, full pre-production, nine trucks full of grip and camera crews“, said Haaga. “And we had Lindsay Lohan in one of the major roles, and two days before they started shooting she got busted for a DUI, [the project] got put on hold, we sat around and waited, a lot of money got spent, and it kind of petered out. But I’m making money, I got signed…I mean you hear about this kind of stuff happening all the time. And every time, I go out and I go ‘I’m gonna try to do the best that I can’, but once you throw it out in the world it’s sort of up to the winds.”
Haaga is fortunate in that he’s been blessed with the rare combination of spectacular ambition mixed with a dedicated work ethic to complement his talents. He’s not the kind of filmmaker to rest back on his laurels and wait for Hollywood to toss him a multi-million dollar movie. That’s doubtless a career development he would welcome with open arms, but by working in the trenches on dozens of ultra-low-budget films, he has developed a D.I.Y. mentality that keeps him pushing forward without the added benefits and advantages of having big-studio money and clout behind him. Indeed, over the years he has learned all the tricks to cranking out a quality project with severely limited resources. One of these tricks led him to shoot the script sequentially rather than in the scattershot fashion typical of a bigger-budget movie.
“This comes from my having produced and assistant directed and scheduled and done everything on a lot of other movies“, said Haaga. “When you’re doing a low-budget thing, I don’t have a script person on this job right now. I don’t have a real wardrobe person. I don’t have a locations manager. We’ve gotta do it all. So doing that I have to sit down personally and make the shooting schedule myself. Continuity[-wise], if something happens it could be that way for the rest of the movie. So trying to shoot in as close to sequential order as you can behooves you when you’re talking about a twelve day shoot and a budget that I do not want to disclose [Laughs].”
As of this writing, principal photography on Chop is finished (I visited the set on the second-to-last-day of shooting), so now, in Haaga’s own words, it’s “up to the winds“. Of course, a little movie called Deadgirl could be the key to bringing his first directing project wider visibility.
“This is not one of those movies where it’s really easy to market as a simple horror movie and get a Lion’s Gate just to snap it up and throw it out to DVD“, Haaga admitted. “I’d love to get that DVD deal but I think that we’re gonna have to build up to this one. It worked really well for Deadgirl, which is also kind of a horror movie that’s not a horror movie. Hopefully these festivals that played Deadgirl will be like, ‘oh, it’s the directorial debut of the guy who wrote Deadgirl!’ At least it will open some doors and they’ll take a look, and I feel that we’re gonna have something strong enough to [play] some festivals…the most important thing is to try and get my Chinese investor’s money back and be like, ‘see how easy that was?’”
As Haaga himself has learned though, nothing in this town is ever easy, especially not for the ‘what the fuck’ guys such as himself. Sometimes, the freaks just have to work a little bit harder.
“I just like the dark, weird, twisted stuff“, he said. “Michael Haneke, Gasper Noe, Alex de la Glesia. These kind of weirdos…weird and uncomfortable is sort of my comfort place.“