TIFF 09: Director Rick Jacobson Talks BITCH SLAP!
[This review was originally conducted slightly more than a year ago when the film was still in progress but with Bitch Slap taking its first public appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival now seems like a good time to bring it back. Enjoy!]
The first trailer for Rick Jacobson's Bitch Slap has been tearing up the internet since it first appeared, and why not? As he puts it himself, what's not to like about a trio of beautiful, well endowed women loaded up with assault weaponry? A deliberate cult flick in the vein of the the old b-flicks of the sixties and seventies, Bitch Slap is working it's way through post right now and director Jacobson agreed to take some time out of his schedule for a chat earlier this week. Covered within? His days on Baywatch, Hercules, Xena, the casting process, working with Death Proof's Zoe Bell and shooting the self-proclaimed Greatest Chick Fight In Cinema History. Read on!
TB: First of all, thanks for doing this.
RJ: Oh, no worries. Thanks for showing interest!
TB: So, tell me about Bitch Slap.
RJ: Well, the whole film for me was about being sick of working for all of the fools out there and just taking the reins for myself and doing my own thing.
TB: So no more Baywatch in your future?
RJ: You know what? As cheeseball as that show was there was no better job on the planet. [laughs]
TB: And it certainly prepared you for certain shots in your trailer, at least.
RJ: Yeah, of course! My whole history is kind of weird, you know. My whole history with films I've seemed to gravitate towards projects - or those projects find me - centralized around strong, powerful women. From Xena to La Femme Nikita to She Spy to Baywatch to Cleopatra 2525 and then, of course, my own features, I've always been intrigued by powerful female characters. I don't know ... there's just something more interesting there than with the typical lead guy like we see so much and have seen for so many years. So that part's all good man, it's good.
TB: So how long have you been working on Bitch Slap?
RJ: Bitch Slap started up in March / April of 2006. I had just come off of this other feature that had just been driven into the ground by producers that ... well, just essentially, they weren't producers. And it was kind of grounded in this frustration of seeing people out there producing films that shouldn't be there and I was just like, "Man, I just gotta do my own thing."
At that time the Slap was just going to be a little film that I was going to finance myself and just get it out there to control a project of my own and use it as a foothold to get to bigger and better things. So, just off of that I knew it had to be something that would go for the slam dunk, the real easy sale and of course there's no easier sell than hot girls, action, violence and those things. And then, of course, because I was going to be financing it myself I needed limited locations, daytime exteriors, blah blah blah. So that all steered me towards the original treatment, a twelve page treatment with the three girls - Hel, Trixie, Camaro - driving out to the middle of the desert witha guy named Gage in the trunk. The story just focused around these three women from very different walks of life who were brought together and formulated this plan to extort a bunch of money from this warlord. And it was just kind of based on that. Then things slowly spiral out of control and they get in over their heads and certain truths start to come out about who is really who and why they're really there ... it was that sort of thing.
It was built around that and I played around with it for a while and then in August of 2006 I was having dinner with a good buddy of mine, Eric Gruendemann, who was one of the main producers on Xena and Hercules and was a key figure in making those shows as good as they were - the look, the humor, the style. Everything. He was an amazing producer and an amazing talent. And we got to be good friends over there. We were having dinner that night and he was saying, "You know, man, I've been thinking about buying my own camera and making my own micro-budget films." And so, unbeknownst to the two of us we had both hit this same wall together and I was like, "Well, it's funny you should say that because I'm in the middle of developing my own little thing just along those lines." So I gave him a soft pitch on the idea and he really kind of perked up at the idea so that night I sent him the treatment. He called me the next morning and said, "This is great! I see where you're going with it, do you want to work on it together?" And that, to me, was an absolute blessing to the film because now it really kind of became something and the project finally really found its rudder. And then together he and I spent a good year and a half just writing it and having a thousand laughs in the process of writing it.
It was also kind of born on the idea of ... you know, I started making films in the fifth grade and Eric's been making films a long time and it was kind of let's get back to those glory days of when you really, truly enjoyed film making and everyone was there for the project and, you know, just assembling all your friends. You know, when film making was really, really fun. It was built on that; Eric and I shared the exact same attitude on that. We had an absolute ball writing the thing and then as we got closer to filming we called in a thousand favors and assembled this wonderful crew and really had a great, great time. It's the best filming experience I've ever had, making Bitch Slap.
TB: Russ Meyer is an obvious influence and looking over your filmography you've worked with people like Sam Raimi and Roger Corman. What were your influences and touch points going in? What were you watching while you prepared the film?
RJ: You know, it's actually kind of funny. Of course there is the obvious Russ Meyer and Corman and all those kinds of exploitation and b-movie kind of themes throughout the film but it was never "I'm going to go out and make a new exploitation film." It was more just simply built on the idea of three sexy, hot women dressed inappropriately out in this dirty, barren wasteland. Again, the idea behind the film was basically just built on this little checklist of mine which was limited locations, daytime exteriors, hot girls, action, guns. It was built on that and then off of that came "Well, the desert is kind of cool and we'll fill it with girls in tiny skirts running around being bad."
When Eric came on board and we started tossing the idea around we went down all kinds of different paths. There was even a time when it was going to evolve into a zombie movie at one point where they were out in this land that was some kind of ancient tribal burial ground and the dead were rising. You know, we explored all kinds of different paths and we always found ourselves gravitating back to the core idea, which was just these three girls and just grounding the story around these three main characters. And then as we were kind of developing and writing it, we were just having so much fun writing it that it became "Okay, what other kind of outrageous situations and wardrobe can we put these girls in?" And it was in that part of the process that we started looking toward the Russ Meyer's and Roger Corman's and thinking maybe we were doing a more modern take on the exploitation film. Taking those themes and stuff and making it more intelligent. We like to think of this as the thinking man's exploitation film. Just getting things updated in a more modern way. That's really how it evolved but it didn't start as 'Let's make an exploitation film." It evolved into that - it quickly evolved into that - but that wasn't the starting point.
And, you know, I certainly knew who Russ Meyer was but I hadn't seen many of his things and neither had Eric. Russ Meyer is this iconic figure out there and I'd seen little bits, I'd seen Faster Pussycat years and years ago and once we started heading down that road we tracked down a bunch of his films and watched them and then once we saw them we kind of chuckled ... we were really surprised at a lot of his stuff. He went there. He really went there and it was good fun seeing that.
Then our film found its own way and we came up with this sort of b-story that runs in reverse through the main story a la Memento and once we figured that out the film really started to take shape and it was just filling in the blanks. Eric and I, we've got forty plus years of experience in this business and it wasn't something that we wanted to rush out, we really wanted to make sure that the script was as good as it could be before we went into the production of it and that meant really building the script around these three characters and making sure that everybody was fully developed and had their reasons for being there and then the big twists and stuff that come about through the process.
TB: Am I right in thinking it was Eric who brought in Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless?
RJ: Well, yeah. I had done a bunch of Xena and Hercules as well, but yeah, Eric was the one. Early on as the script was getting finalized we started putting faces to it the first choice we had for this character Gage was Michael Hurst who was one of Hercules' sidekicks and is one of New Zealand's top Shakespearean actors. We sent the script to him and he absolutely loved it and wanted to play Gage, which was wonderful for us. So he was definitely from the get-go but later on when we started looking at other people and thinking we could maybe get Lucy and Ren (Renee O'Connor) and Kevin, we actually tabled that for a while thinking we don't want to be a one-trick pony, like these are the only guys we can get and stuff. So we then started looking around and trying to cast these other parts but we just kept coming back and wondering if maybe we were being foolish by not taking advantage of our friends who had done so much and became these personas that they are out there now. So we had these smaller roles that we thought they'd be just wonderful for so Eric gave them a buzz. Thankfully their schedules all lined up and we were able to get them in the film. And now we're really glad that we did because it certainly gives the film a bit of legitimacy to have names like that in it and, of course, it was just great to work with them again. To have Lucy and Ren back on the set and me looking through the viewfinder and framing them up, it was a good sense of deja vu.
TB: How about Zoe Bell? I know she did some stuff on Hercules and Xena but she's really become big since working with Tarantino.
RJ: Exactly, yeah. Zoe was Lucy's stunt double on Xena and, of course, then she did a lot of other stuff on Cleopatra 2525. I believe Eric was the one who hired her on to Xena. He found her ... I don't know how he found her, actually. But he got her on to the show then I worked thirteen or fourteen episodes of Xena and worked with Zoe a lot. She's just great. All the Kiwi's down there are just amazing. Great crew down there. But, again, when we were getting close to finalizing the script and we were putting feelers out for crew and people to help us out, Zoe was our first and kind of only choice. We thought not only would it be great to have Zoe because she's a great talent but here we are doing a sort of girl power movie and how cool would it be to have a female stunt coordinator, which is very, very rare in Hollywood.
And on top of that Zoe, over the last couple of years, has really made a name for herself but just as a stunt performer. So we were able to go to her right off the bat and say, "Hey we've got this wacky script, why don't you take a look at it and we'd like you to be the stunt coordinator." That was the feather in our cap, something extra we were able to offer her since we couldn't offer a lot of money. And thankfully she loved the script and agreed to do it for us which absolutely could not have been better for us. The stuff she's doine in this film ... we have the self-proclaimed Greatest Chick Fight In Cinema History that we did in this film and Zoe just went above and beyond the call of duty with it.
And again it was this great sense of deja vu and again it was bringing this family of film makers together, just everyone we've enjoyed working with in the past. It was just a real fluke that we were able to get her, she's been so busy and for her schedule to actually line up with ours ... we just look at this as a little blessed project of ours because this stuff keeps happening. This little film just keeps chugging along and thankfully people respond to the material and come on to it either as a combination of doing a favor for Eric or I or just because they read the script and go "Oh my god, I just have to be part of this thing." Zoe's just a wonderful asset to the film.
TB: She's dominantly behind the scenes on this, right?
RJ: She's dominantly behind the scenes, yeah, but she does play a character called Rawhide. A short lived character in the film. And she pretty much doubled for everybody in the film. So she's peppered throughout but for real on-camera stuff you'll see her for a few minutes as Rawhide.
TB: So tell me about the three girls, your leads. How did you find them? This is the first credit for one of them, if the IMDB is correct.
RJ: Yes, it is. Julia Voth. You know, for the three girls we just went the old school route. We just put the break downs in and let the submissions come to us and had the read throughs and whittled them down and eventually found our three. It was really, for the most part, a traditional casting process.
TB: What do you say in your casting call for a movie like this?
RJ: [laughs] Well, you know, basically what we did is just go to a wonderful casting director - Lisa Fields and Johnny Barber down at Lisa Fields casting - so they kind of took care of it. We actually hit several walls with casting directors. When we started casting this film it was right in the middle of the writers strike and there was this whole uncertainty in the business about what was going on and what projects would be coming back. So we started the casting process and we started going to some casting directors that we knew and it was funny, you'd get very random responses. Some people were like, "Oh my god, I don't even know how to cast this." And others liked it but couldn't because of their schedule or something else was coming up or, of course, there was always this sense of "The writers strike is going to end and then I'm going to go back to work on X or Y or Z." And they didn't want to risk being caught in the middle of casting something else when along comes CSI or something like that.
So we had a bit of a struggle finding a casting director but when we did - Lisa Fields - she really got the script and had a great laugh with it and all we really did was say, "Cast these three", the three main girls, "and we'll fill in the smaller parts ourselves." And so she just put this out and Julia Voth ... well, let me backtrack first.
When my wife first read this script the first thing she said to me was "You're never going to find three girls to play these parts," because it was really kind of the perfect storm. We needed gorgeous girls who could act and could do all of the physical activity within the script. And it is a big ask because usually when you get the really gorgeous, gorgeous girls you usually will have to sacrifice some in the acting department or certainly in the stunt department. However you mix that up you usually, kind of, will have to take a hit on something somewhere along the line, on one or two of those other areas. So we just kind of had to have this confidence about ourselves and the film that they were out there. I mean, this is Hollywood. If ever there was a town that three girls like this are out there, this is it. We knew that there would have to be some undiscovered talent, Eric and I always joked and said that our Trixie would be some girl who had just come into town, had been here for about six months and was some incredible undiscovered talent who just hasn't gotten her break yet. That's the girl we have to find. And, freakishly, that's almost exactly what we did find with Julia. I think she'd been in town for maybe eight months to a year and had primarily just been doing modelling and either her agent or her herself saw the breakdown and got herself submitted and read for us. She originally came in and read for Trixie and we were looking for Camaro at that time, too, because our original Camaro had dropped out, so we had her read for that as well but she wasn't right for Camaro. Julia is just a really naturally sweet woman so her personality fit really well for Trixie so we brought her back for that.
Erin Cummings just came in and handed in her first audition to Johnny on tape and Erin pretty much just nailed her character right out of the gate. So she was always our front runner for Hel, maybe on a short list of two others. And once we saw her in person she was the obvious choice.
Camaro was a bit of a struggle because we had went to a friend of ours early on and she had agreed to do the part, loved the part, and then maybe a month before shooting had to back out of the park because she was having some back issues and was concerned about the physical side of it. So we were all of a sudden kind of caught on the back foot with the Camaro role and we read a couple of people, and like I said we even read Julia for it. And in another one of those cases where things just worked out somehow a good friend of mine had just produced his own first film and had just finished a director's cut. He wanted me to take a look at it and I'm just gearing up my own film so I don't have five minutes to do anything but I said I'd take a look at it, thinking I'd never get the chance until after we were done filming Bitch Slap. And then kind of by fluke one night it was just sitting there on my desk and I figured, "Aw, hell, I'd better pop this thing in." and as I was watching it there was this one girl, America Olivo, in the film. And, you know, she even asks, "What did you see in that film that you liked about me?" Because it was a small part, it's very different from what Camaro is. And I don't know what it was, it was more just that physical side. I looked at her and she just had that look that I'd always imagined for Camaro, that tough but beautiful and sexy. When you looked at America you could believe that here's this woman who's a bad ass and has had a tough life. It was just that sort of thing. So I called my friend and asked how she was and he praised her. So I called her up and sent her the script and I think it was the next day or the day after that and I called her in and we read her and she got the part.
That was actually our last week of casting and we had some other Camaro's that, you know, if we didn't find a girl we'd have to go with one of them and I was pretty anxious about that because I really wasn't happy with the ones we were looking at. Anyway, America came in, did a great job with the role and everything fell right into place. Honestly I cannot think of three better girls for the roles, they are so good in this film and not only in the film but also in their enthusiasm for the film away from the set. We've been done now for three or four months and the publicist is sending them all out on interviews, they're going to events, we wentto Comic Con with them, just this past week we were out shooting pick ups with them in the desert and they're just one hundred percent there for the film. And to have that sort of commitment from them is just great for Eric and I. We really just absolutely lucked out with these three girls.
TB: What kind of approach did you take with the stunt work? Are you someone who prefers to go all natural or will we see some wire and CGI work as well?
RJ: We had some wire work on our green screen. There are two very distinct elements to this. There's the shoot out in the desert, which was all very traditional film making, a very Sergio Leone style is what I was grounding it in. and then we had this whole b-story, flashback sequence, and we shot the whole b-story in front of the green screen. That's where the really wacky, crazy stuff is going on. We've got like six hundred and forty some odd visual effects in this film, so that's really where all the crazy shit goes on. We've got some wire work in there. But for the most part it was all pretty traditional stunt action. Like I said, we've got the Greatest Chick Fight In Cinema History, self-proclaimed. It's at the end of the film and our basis for that thing was the great fight scene in John Carpenter's They Live.
TB: [laughs. a lot.]
RJ: It's kind of a female version of that.
TB: [composes himself] The sunglasses fight?
RJ: YEah. But bigger and longer, so you can just imagine.
TB: Oh, I love that movie.
RJ: Yeah, same with me. Same with me. I'm a big John Carpenter fan so he's influenced a lot of my decisions and style. So in the sense of that, that's just a very old school, traditional, fisticuffs, brutal, over the top, funny, ridiculously long ... and, of course, you get to watch two scantily clad women doing that and who wouldn't want to watch that? For the other stunts, nothing really outrageous. Some wire work on the green screen but not too much. It's really kind of ... you could almost say it has some fantasy elements in the green screen world but for the most part we're staying in a real world that's gritty, dirty, raw kind of action. It doesn't get too flashy.
TB: What kind of rating do you expect to get when it's done.
RJ: It'll be an R. It'll be an R for the language alone. Not to mention the violence and everything else that happens within it.
TB: The website still says that you're aiming for Christmas 2008.
RJ: Yeah, that's definitely our goal and the only wild card in that is the amount of effecxts that we have to do. If we run into problems or delays there, that's the only thing that could affect that at all. But so far so good.