As a first time film maker Kern has found himself in a sometimes difficult position. First with the regular comparisons (for good and bad) to Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs. Second he finds himself at the center of the "Torrent" issue with Millions upon Millions of his film being downloaded for free, infringing on his, Destins' and the entire casts intellectual property. Whats the big issue you may wonder? Well that is one of the things that we tackle with Kern in our chat!
Kern Saxton was incredibly generous with his time, so we have decided to make this interview a two Parter. Part one we primarily focus on the making of Sushi Girl, with we part two we get into the reception of the film, the torrent issue that is affecting many indie artists, and whats been going on with Kern since his first film released. So on with part one of my interview with Kern Saxton!
I was fairly surprised when I realized who your co-writer was (Destin Pfaff, known to many from Millionaire Matchmaker reality show) and I was kind of curious about how that partnership came to be?
Destin? He and I met through a mutual friend, before he was even on the Millionaire Matchmaker. I remember hanging out with him when he was interviewing for Patti. I knew him back when he worked at Tower records, before Tower Records went away. Our mutual friend James Waugh had introduced us, we became fast friends and started making stuff.
I watched your two short films as well and saw the partnership covered some time period, can you tell us a bit about the evolution from shorts to Sushi Girl?
The three of us (myself, Destin and James) decided to make a web show. I think what we were doing was a little ahead of its time. Back then, no one was trying to produce TV quality programming for the internet, it was all amateur videos, so it was an interesting experience and we all learned a lot.
We were also trying to make a feature film together. We didn't have any money and we didn't know about financing or raising money. We piled together what we had and made part of a movie until we ran out of funds. We were trying to raise more money to finish the film when I suggested we make a short to keep everyone sharp. That’s how we came to do the George Romero’s Diary of the Dead contest. We shot Deader Living Through Chemistry in a day or a day and a half and ended up meeting George Romero at a Fangoria contest where he gushed over it. We've developed a feature version of it and that’s still kicking around, but that project is what led to the development of Sushi Girl. We were frustrated because the feature was getting too big and it was proving difficult to find financing, so Destin suggesting writing a smaller movie. I asked, how could we get a smaller movie than Deader Living Through Chemistry? He said let’s do a movie in one room, so I asked what would that be? We started pitching all these scenarios with crazy gangsters, but I kept looking for something we hadn’t seen before, and that’s how we came up with the concept of the sushi girl. This idea where we took this vulnerable female protagonist and stripped her of everything, literally, and put her amongst these horrible people. I thought it was very intriguing, not just as a story element, but as an opportunity to make a comment on the portrayal of women in exploitation films.
So how long did it take you from start to finish with Sushi Girl? I know in one interview you had mentioned something about being close to a year in and not actually not having been able to film yet and how much that it meant that some of the names connected to the project continued to standby you.
It was a tough road. The script probably took a about nine months to get into decent shape and ready for financing. We had $15,000 when we first started with the idea. We were going to cast actor friends and shoot it on weekends. Then we ended up partnering with Neal Fischer and Suren M. Seron. Neal was really the guy who said, "This is the next Reservoir Dogs, you should do this like a real movie, with a real cast. I know the perfect location for this, it’s on the Universal lot, you just have to see it." He took us there and we were like WOW, okay this is where we need to shoot. It was a little more than we could afford on our friends and family movie budget.
That’s when we hunkered down and started to get serious about financing and about the casting. We hired a casting director named Zora De Horter, she worked for very little money and did amazing things, she was a believer of the project from the get-go. She was able to get people like Tony Todd on board. Some other people we attached through friendly contacts. Jimmy Duval was through friends and was one of the earliest casting choices we had made. Andy Mackenzie, I had worked with on a short that Neal produced, and I thought he was perfect for Max. I think he was the first person we cast, actually. David Dastmalchian found us through Facebook. He had heard about this movie while perusing the casting boards and thought it sounded awesome. He's now a close friend here in town and doing great things. He just wrote and starred in a movie called Animals that premiered at South by South West, and won an award for courageous storytelling! I am really proud of him, he’s one to watch! So, we had all these guys and we were close to rounding up $100,000, which was still a really low budget but doable. We were about two weeks out from shooting and basically the financing disappeared. We were like, "Well, we're going back to the drawing board, sorry guys." But they all stuck around. I think a lot of them were attracted to the script because the money wasn't really anything to speak of. I remember Tony telling me, "No, this is good. I’m staying on board with this, give me a call when you’re ready." Fast forward about a year. We found more money, called everyone up and just about the entire cast was ready to do it. The guy who was going to play Crow couldn't do it, so we had an emergency brainstorming session to figure out who could take over the part. Mark's name was kind of tossed out there almost as a joke, and we all sort of balked and said "Yeah, right, there's no way we can get Luke Skywalker to be in this!" But we made it happen.
Who even came up with the idea of Mark? I mean obviously for our generation he is massively iconic, but he is so completely unlikely for this kind of a role, and yet I think he just blew everyone away! He just stole the scene basically every time he was on, which I think was really surprising, the choices he and you made regarding the character... Where did all of that even originate?
He was definitely an evolution. The character would been radically different had another actor played him. I don’t think he would've been nearly as fun or entertaining. The original actor we had hired, I’m not going to name him, came in with this great idea to play Crow like Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon, so I wanted to keep that in mind. When I met with Mark, the first thing he said to me was that Crow felt like Truman Capote, and I thought that was pretty close to what I had in mind. So, Mark took this dark and disturbed character managed to make him funny and charismatic in a really twisted way.
He was phenomenal there was a depth to the character that I don’t think anyone would've expected from him, there was a vulgarity but there was an enduring quality at the same time. He had a very balanced approach that was outstanding, and fun to watch!
A lot of that was the two of us developing the character together. As we worked he would say, "I don’t know where the line is with this guy so you have to tell me if I’m going too far” and many times I would say, "Take it further, make it even crazier!" and it ended up producing what you saw.
I love Paul Verhoeven's original RoboCop. That movie is filled with satire that really wouldn't work without absurdity. There's a scene where a guy gets shot by the ED209 at the beginning and it sort of kicks off the movie's skewering of corporate culture. Verhoeven wanted it to be as hyperbolically violent as possible, so they had these giant squib hits using gallon-bags of fake blood, but the MPAA cut almost all of that out and transformed it in to something more insidious. Even though it was really darkly humorous, by removing the more offensive parts, they ended up taking the piss out of it. We wanted to make sure we went far enough with Marks character that you didn't miss out on the humor.
Who suggested Mark? It was Destin’s assistant at the time, Dave Sato, who is a really big Star Wars fan. I think he kind of threw it out there as kind of a dream choice that none of us were thinking about. We were looking at people like Judd Nelson and Leland Orser, you know, people we thought were within our reach. Then everyone kept thinking about it, we agreed it was really good idea, we could see him doing the part, playing this grotesque character. It helped that I had always enjoyed his portrayal of the Joker on Batman The Animated Series. As it turned out, we had a friend that worked at his agency and managed to get the script to him. We almost got a no, because nobody bothered to read it, but then Mark's kids got a hold of it.
His son Griffin and his daughter Chelsea, they both said to him, "Look you've got to do this. It's the character work you been looking for, if you don’t do this you can never complain again at the dinner table that you don’t get the jobs that Steve Buscemi does, no more complaining!" He read it and immediately thought it was too dark for him, but his kids told him that compared to most horror movies made today, it was pretty tame. So, he read it again, this time from his character’s perspective, and that’s when he realized he was the comic relief and thought he could pull it off.
So that’s really where the heart of his character came from. Then we met and he told me about his idea to base Crow on Capote. We didn't have any rehearsal time, and I didn't really know what his interpretation of Capote was going to be, like, what do you tell Mark Hamill if you don’t like what he's doing? How am I going to fix this if he shows up to the shoot, and it doesn't work? So we got everyone together at the actual location, the restaurant at Universal, and did a full read through. It was the first time the entire cast was in the same room, and I was able to see what Mark was doing and thought, "I can work with this!" It was a huge relief.
The look of the character really didn't come together until the first day of shooting. In fact, the reason Mark's shoes were stuffed into his toolbox is because they were a late addition to his wardrobe! We basically discovered after we started shooting that he HATED the shoes we gave him as part of his costume design. So he asked if he could wear his sneakers if it wasn't a wide shot as the shoes were just so uncomfortable. We didn't mind. So he pulls out these Chuck Taylors and slips into them, and we looked down at his feet. There was just something about the way they worked with the suit and we we all went "Ahh crap, Mark! Why didn't you tell us you had these shoes before??" So we managed to work into the script a scene where Crow finds his old work shoes stuffed in his toolbox and has a little Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood moment!
It worked perfectly, it’s the little idiosyncrasies that really fill a character out and make them believable on the screen. It’s those real life moments that help the deliver the viewer to the suspension of disbelief, so great choices by all!
Yeah, little moments like that definitely help. (laughs)
You brought up something interesting that I hadn't thought about touching on but now need to ask. How does a first-time director approach and deal with these icons of the industry when maybe they aren't going in the direction you want?
Yeah, that is a tough thing for any director really. Some of these guys have been doing this for decades, some longer than I've been alive. In my case, I was lucky enough to find a group of really genuine people to work with on this first feature. They were all very supportive of me and very supportive of the material. I think it’s a combination of several things, actually. It’s me wanting to bring their uniqueness to the project but also about being clear about what I wanted to see on the screen, but not being a dick about it. There was a lot of respect going into filming and we came out with more respect for each other because everyone was so professional and supportive. It's kind of like a family now, I feel like I can strike up a conversation at any time and fall back into how we were on the shoot. We haven’t done one in a while, but we would have barbecues at each other’s places, everyone would come hang out. It was nice but I do realized that isn't the norm, its kind of a rare thing. I’m not really sure how I did it, it's just how I like to work. It’s a collaborative struggle and you really are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.
It sounds like you’re wise above your experience.
Thanks, it's tough town, a tough business to make it in, and I think you need to make it is enjoyable as you can. I will say there were some red flags with a few people that we had a get rid of at a certain point because they weren't mixing with the other members of the cast or production. The year gap was actually pretty helpful in assembling the ensemble that you see on the screen, and making sure they all would work together. We didn't have any rehearsal time so I think a lot of it was not necessarily intuition but being vigilant and understanding, observing how the cast is getting along in order to rectify any problems that might come up. That way, everyone is doing their individual work allowing each person to focus on their characters. It's definitely a balancing act, and it definitely helps when your cast has your back. For instance, I had a day where I was very frustrated, nothing seemed to be working. Tony, Jimmy and I were shooting a scene and they kind of took me aside and asked if I was ok, that I was worrying them. I told them I just felt so discombobulated, I wasn't sure what I was looking for… They said, "We love you, we love this project, we will do anything, just tell us what you want us to do." So I asked them to give me five minutes. I walked outside got a little pep talk from my line producer and realized that as a director, you are controlling the energy of the entire crew and if you have a bad day everyone is going to have a bad day. So I told myself, you need to buck up, you need to get back in and you need to take the reins! I chugged a red bull and I walked back in there like Al Pacino in Heat! Like, "GIMME ALL YA GOT!" Everything was fine from that point on. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I didn't have their support
So it sounds almost coincidental, rather than intentional that you ended up with this cast of icons from our youth, like it wasn't necessarily your intention to bring all these names we had grown up with together for this piece, or am I misreading that?
I think it was a combination of luck and a conscious desire to cast actors that we grew up admiring. I think their presence equals movie magic to many people from my generation. We wanted to capture that in our film, and to give these actors something that they don’t normally get, which is strong character work to offset their perceived personas. Take Tony for instance. Candyman, is a landmark horror film, but in Hollywood, if you reach success like that, everyone just wants you to keep repeating yourself. We wanted to give them something that would break that cycle. Tony was definitely top on our list to play Duke, but we didn't really know if he would respond to the material or whether we could afford someone of his caliber, so it was kind of lucky that he read the script and jumped on. We got a call from our casting director saying "Tony Todd is doing the movie," we were like "So, he wants to meet to talk about doing the movie?" She said, "No, no, no, he loves the script, he’s doing the movie!" We were amazed, that was life-changing in a way. Some actors we had in mind from the beginning. Tony, Jimmy Duval they were in our heads as we were writing the script, we heard their voices speaking lines of dialogue. So, yes I think it’s lucky that we ended up with the cast that we did but we definitely pushed to get them on board.
The research I've done shows the budget of the film to be anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million, which is pretty minimal, especially given names that you were able to bring into this large ensemble cast. I wouldn't assume that amount would even cover the actors let alone the production cost above and beyond them. So how were you able to make this really nicely polished production with actors that have their own followings, for such a low figure in today’s market? Its pretty amazing what you accomplished with your limited budget.
Thanks! It was not easy, I will say that! You can see my name A LOT in the credits, most of that was to help keep the budget down. I do like editing but the choice to have me as the editor was more because it was the quickest and cheapest solution. Thankfully I’m good at it or otherwise it would've been a disaster. Getting actors that really wanted to be involved because they liked the script made them more willing to take pay cuts, which definitely helped. We secured a good deal on the location and found a great crew. Everybody got paid. We made smart choices on set and did our best to not bite off more than we could chew while stretching the dollars as far as they could go. If I had to go back and do it again there are certainly things that I would do differently. I will be honest in saying that the shooting plan we came up with went completely out the window once we got on set. The whole shot list ended up being improvised.
Is that because you wanted to do multiple takes but didn't have time to have to reset everything, or maybe the budget for as many cameras as you had hoped, what caused the change in plans?
Well yes and no, time is your enemy when you’re shooting. Time is what costs you money. The genius of Stanley Kubrick, from a production standpoint, is that he was able to keep his crew pretty small so he could shoot however long he wanted and without racking up too much in the way of the budget. Watch the documentary of The Shining and you'll see there’s almost no one there, so they could get away with shooting for an entire year.
Preproduction is very important. I think a lot of my technical issues with the shot selection was the result of not having enough prep time at the actual location. Because of the budget and schedule, we couldn't get in there before we started shooting. The sets were actually being put together as we were shooting in other rooms. We were still dressing things, art department had to build a table and hang the chandelier, that was not done until the second or third day of shooting. I wasn't able to actually work with any scale references, I wasn't able to actually get in there and look at it before the first day of principal photography, so when we got there and found it didn't work, I had to completely re-imagine the shots. It was a lot of consolidating and figuring out what to lose, which is every production to an extent, it was just kind of extreme in this case. From now on, I’m definitely focusing on being more concise. I think it forces you to develop your cinematic language… for instance, the scene with Mark and Tony in the kitchen where they walk into the main room, that long dolly shot. That was a one take thing, you know. I had prepared coverage for the scene, but I decided on the day that it would be more interesting an economical if we just did it all in one shot. I think we did around nine takes because it was a pain to coordinate, but I think it ended up buying us more time for another scene. That’s the stuff you have to figure out, as an indie film maker, really as any kind of filmmaker. You ask what do I need, what do not need, and how am I going to tell the story as interestingly as possible. It was definitely a learning experience.