SXSW Interview – ‘68 Kill’ Is Not Your Dad’s Trailer Trash Porn
“All money’s got blood on it, one way or another.”
“You shovel shit for a living. I suck dick. I’m tired of it. What do you want out of life?” – Liza in ‘68 Kill’
68 Kill is a straight whiskey flick with a whiskey chaser. Trent Haaga (writer, director) is not playing about when it comes to his characters. They’re wild, authentic, and painfully mean. For all intents, he’s made a female exploitation film but gender-swapped nearly all the characters. It’s a story about two victims of abuse trying to find their way in life. Well, trying to find their way to $68,000 and then, maybe, life. There’s a lot more than surface level violence for fun’s sake going on here. But, from the get-go, you need to understand that you’re in for some grindhouse nastiness.
“This is a conversation that is not for the weak at heart. So if you’re weak at heart, you need to go somewhere else. I’m not weak at heart, I’m a motherfuckin’ warrior. And I will go to the dark depths of despair and disgustingness. And I will dive into it. And I will love it.” – AnnaLynne McCord
There are NO spoilers below! So proceed ahead, unafraid.
It’s a rock-n-roll roller-coaster of a movie punctuated with deranged human beings doing awful, awful things. And I loved it. I had a chance to chat with Trent Haaga, Matthew Gray Gubler, AnnaLynne McCord, Alisha Boe, and Sheila Vand about their take on the movie.
Chip (Gubler) is a down-and-outer whose only ambition is to make his girlfriend Liza (McCord) happy. Liza is done taking shit. She’s ready to dole it out, big time. That extends to Chip. The opening sequence segues from a fly trapped in honey, to Chip day dreaming about his beautiful girlfriend, to Liza punishing Chip with some slap-happy choke-sex. Along the way to that $68K, Chip and Liza run into Violet (Boe), an escaped sex slave ready to take control. They also encounter Monica (Vand), a presumed crystal meth enthusiast who also happens to be the leader of a trailer park gang of violence-loving party animals.
“Yeah, I was down to fuck people up.” – AnnaLynne McCord
How do you get some (mostly) decent human beings to sign on to play such dirty roles? 68 Kill has your people-in-danger and exploitation moments, but that isn’t all the film is doing. For Haaga, physicality or the ability to perform a scene really wasn’t what he was looking to find out. It was about pitching the subtext and whether the actors really latched onto their roles in the film.
When you’re creating art that walks the fine line between exploitation and social commentary, that mental approach has to be 100% in sync. Once you’ve found your cast of ‘degenerates’ who truly get what you’re going for, well. Then the circus can really begin.
“Trent didn’t want this to be trailer trash porn. He grew up in a blue collar family and he wanted to honor that and not be taking advantage of his own background.” – Sheila Vand
That tightrope walk over exploitation is definitely reflected in the choices the actors are making on screen. It’s a fair generalization that your typical exploitation film features a lot of exaggerated sexual interest. Not so in 68 Kill. Okay. Wait. Stop. Let me rephrase. There’s loads of sexual interest in this movie. However! It’s 100% authentic. That’s one of the things that Vand called out as something that appealed to her. Despite all the sex, there really weren’t any obscene caricatures of sexuality on screen. Everything was grounded in reality. One thing that surprised the heck-fire out of me was that despite the filthiness of the characters and a plethora of sex scenes, there’s practically no nudity. And where there is, it isn’t gratuitous.
So, why choose a grindhouse styled, mean cinema? Basically, it comes with a certain liberty. From Vand’s perspective, it gave the actors the freedom to embrace the nastiness of their characters and take bigger acting risks in trying to bring that to life. You guys, just wait until you meet the characters these bunch of lunatics came up with. They’re amazing.
Haaga’s approach was definitely a hit with the actors. Gubler’s take was that Haaga knew how to get the best out of everyone on set. “He’s a seasoned veteran who’s in a lunatics body.” Which I took to be the highest of compliments, but maybe I’m just partial to lunatics who know what’s up.
“I’m a Persian-American girl and I don’t get asked to play ‘white’ roles all the time. I get overlooked, people look past me when it comes to playing just a straight Caucasian part. Especially a girl like this who’s really trailer trash or white trash, and it was wonderful for me to get asked to do the role. That somebody could see past my ethnic identity and my ethnic background and just say she’s a great actress, she should play this part.” – Sheila Vand
You should know Vand’s previous work in the wonderful A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night where she plays The Girl. But, among other things, she’s also in Argo and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The through line there is she does get cast based on her ethnic identity. She crushes it because she’s a terrific actress. But, this is a slice of Hollywood’s problem with representation. Actors with an ethnic background other than white tend to get cast in roles designed for their ethnic background and not what they can bring to the screen. I can’t imagine the hole that would exist in this movie if Haaga had looked over Vand. Instead, he found a person perfect for the role. And, god damned if she doesn’t just perfectly capture Monica, the down-and-out drug addict from New Orleans.
“I read the script and I was immediately drawn to it because I love the role reversal of the women actually having power. Violet was such an interesting character because she’s not a victim even though she should act like one.” – Alisha Boe
Picking the right people is an essential part of making a movie where most of your characters are deliberately playing with the gender roles typically assigned in this style of movie. I don’t want to give the impression that the women are chomping cigars and scratching their crotches to create a caricature of men. You know, there’s the famous commentary where the part of Ripley in Alien was originally written for a man, but Scott flipped it for a woman in the role instead. Well, that part was written for a person. Scott cast a woman in the role. You can feel that vibe in 68 Kill. Haaga captured some amazing humans to bring to life the characters in his mind.
Chip is the focus of the story. His definition of a happy life is whether or not the pretty girl he’s with is happy. And he makes some terrible decisions. Actually, he makes no decisions for most of the movie. He goes along with Liza’s machinations because he sees that as his role. As a human, he’s pretty ineffective.
If you need an ineffective person who needs their face smashed in Hollywood, get Gubler! … It was also, in a lot of ways, a sort of dream scenario being surrounded by exceptionally talented brilliant beautiful girls that just beat the shit out of me. It felt a lot like my childhood.” – Matthew Gray Gubler
Gubler brings an earnestness to the role. And his success in that endeavor is paramount. Despite Chip being such an ineffective human, with practically no personality, the audience has to root for him to succeed or the movie doesn’t quite work. Gubler’s version of a dopey approach to life is aces. At one point in the movie, amidst a bloody and violent murder scene, Chip sees a new pretty girl. As the new character is – quite reasonably – panicking, Chip gives the best dopiest, wide-eyed “Hi” I’ve ever seen. And in that moment, you know everything about Chip.
Vand shares that “the people in this movie do some really deranged things, but it’s all out of desperation for money.” Liza may be an emotionally abusive, terrible human being, but you can see how she came by it honest. The actors really find the heart in their characters. They’re all trying to be human in this movie. McCord started out our conversation by sharing that she is “no newbie to the world of psychopathy; I like my psycho-lady characters”. And, yeah. That’s clearly true! But, she segued into something which is imperative to good story telling. “The truth is, every villain has a heart and every good person has a villain waiting to find themselves.”
As we were chatting about the stylized violence in this movie, McCord and I transitioned into a larger conversation about the lasting effects of violence. I enjoy a good movie, full of stylized violence. I do. I love seeing a hero bash and slash their way to a gory, blood-soaked victory. And we agreed that there’s no shame in watching a movie and enjoying it on those surface levels merits. That’s okay! However, both of us are fans of deconstructing movies like pieces of fine literature. The cinema is a prime storytelling medium of our generation. And even in the grimiest pulp fiction, the creators can explore humanity through those fantastical or hyper-real stories. It’s silly not to dive into these works to see what they’re doing.
The reality of violence is that it makes for a destructively easy catharsis. And once you engage with it, well. Violence begets violence. Whether that’s something that we internalize on ourselves and allow to be done to us because that’s what we’ve come to expect or whether it’s something we do to others because that’s how we’ve learned to cope, it has a legacy.
“Coping mechanisms for people who have been through abuse tend to either become more abusive or to be susceptible to abuse in the future. Those are the cycles of it. I think for Liza, she experienced a lot of early childhood abuse – trauma, sexual assault, incest, all these things in my mind – that lends her to going one way or the other. She said ‘Fuck this, I don’t want to be the one getting hit anymore. I’m gonna hit you.’ And she attracted someone who went the other direction, someone who attracts the abuser. I think there’s a much bigger conversation there than just focusing on whether this is a violent film.” – AnnaLynne McCord
Switching the gender of the roles around puts the emotional abuse in this film in stark relief. Liza brutalizes Chip, emotionally. He’s cajoled, forced, and outright abused into every action he takes. He is broken. Chip looks at his bruises in the mirror. And it’s disturbing. Maybe he’s admiring them as signs of love? Disgust is not all over his face. He defuses arguments by immediately deflating any criticism he offers. All based on even a glance from her. The acting between McCord and Gubler is really phenomenally nuanced work. All of it feels very deliberate.
We emotionally abuse our partners, our people, all day everyday – all the time – in relationships. And, people are broken because of this. The physical aspect is just another way that we show it on a more base level. … The emotional scars that I have are the ones that are my biggest triggers.” – AnnaLynne McCord
It stands out that the emotional abuse in the film seems so huge to me. I think part of that has to do with not being desensitized to that portrayal. Another part has a lot to do with what I’m sure are deeply internalized ideas about what is common and uncommon in relationships. And the direction that these types of abuses go. As a culture, I think we (especially men) are accustomed to seeing that type of coercion originate from men towards women. And it’s shocking to me to see it depicted from Liza to Chip. Regardless of whether I’ve assessed this ‘correctly’ in the moment, I spent about an hour talking about the flick with my wife. And another half hour talking with the cast about it. It got me thinking.
Should you see this movie for the boisterously fun ride that it is? Hell yeah, you should. 68 Kill is a roaring good time. It’s one of those films where I can see the joy the actors are taking in their role and the lines they clearly relish delivering. But, if you want to, there’s a little bit more going on under the hood. It’s worth taking a serious look at this movie to see what it’s doing. And maybe this conversation isn’t for the faint at heart. I know this much, though. If someone asks if you’re a mother-fucking warrior, you say yes.