Kern Saxton made his directorial debut with a horrific thriller entitled Sushi Girl starring Tony Todd and Mark Hamill, which will have its VOD release on November 27 followed by a limited theatrical run and DVD/Blu-Ray release early in 2013.
Saxton sat down with Dread Central to talk about making this memorable film.
Saxton was asked to describe Sushi Girl (review) for those yet to see the film. “Is it cheesy to say, thrills, chills, suspense, blood and gore?” Saxton joked. “It’s interesting because it’s a hard film to classify. It’s a blend of so many things. We really straddled the line between thriller and horror. It’s not truly a horror film, but it does trend that way enough to keep horror fans satisfied. I think that’s one of the concepts we had in mind originally to net a broader audience. We said let’s get the people who love this genre, while at the same time getting the people that love that genre.”
On his vision of Sushi Girl while writing the film Saxton said, “It’s a cool, fun movie. Kind of an ode to exploitation films, but I wanted to do it seriously and not tongue-in-cheek like Grindhouse does. I think we elevated it because it’s not really playing in the depths of the old exploitations films that we might have started off using as a reference point. At the time I was writing it, I was watching a lot of crazy Japanese films like Branded to Kill. So there’s a lot of weird stuff like that. There’s some Audition in there as well. Especially when we had the idea with the sushi. And then, absolutely, there’s some Tarantino in there, but there’s also Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah and stuff like that.”
Sushi Girl carries a powerhouse cast including Tony Todd, Mark Hamill, Andy Mackenzie and Noah Hathaway. Saxton talked about putting that team together. “The casting was really interesting,” Saxton said. “Basically, we hit a bump in the road where we were going to shoot, then financing fell out and we had to wait a year before we could get it back up and running again. We were going to get it done for a low amount of money, and we were originally going to do it for an even lower amount of money so it was amazing to get what we eventually got. Everyone responded really well to the material. But I think the waterfall really started happening when Tony Todd signed on. We had gotten Jimmy Duval and Andy Mackenzie on board through friendlier connections and we had a casting director named Zora DeHorter who was really awesome finding great people for us left and right. It was just a matter of getting the people attached to such a low-budget project. It was a little difficult.”
As Saxton said, the addition of Tony Todd to the cast made all the difference. “When Tony came on board it was a little bit more legit. I mean, he’s Candyman,” Saxton said. “Mark (Hamill) was saying when he first heard about the film that he felt safer with Tony signed on because he knew Tony would anchor it.”
And the addition of Hamill turned out to be a stroke of brilliance as he delivers an incredible performance in the role of Crow. “He hadn’t been on-screen for awhile, at least at the time we were shooting he hadn’t been in any big screen roles and he asked me why I wanted him to play this role because it was so different from anything he had done before,” Saxton said. “He said, ‘Why do you see me in this role?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re The Joker. This is perfect for you.’ And that’s how it came about.” However, initially Saxton never thought they could land Hamill in the role. “When we were discussing who could bring the role of Crow to life, somebody brought up Mark and immediately we were all like ‘Yeah, right. Like Luke Skywalker is going to be in this movie. No way.’ Then we thought, ‘That would be really, really awesome. We should do everything we can do to get him in this movie.’ And that was a typical situation with this film. We had a roadblock and it was either we stay in line and make a lower budget movie, or we pump it up and make it the movie that it needs to be, that it’s begging to be. So we stepped up to the plate and we got it done and we made a better movie for it.”
But getting over those roadblocks was not always an easy task for Saxton and the rest of the production team. “It took a year when we had to shut the production down and find more money,” Saxton said. “When we got back up and running a couple of names from the cast were no longer available, so we had an emergency casting session with the producers and that’s when we came up with Mark Hamill and we found Noah Hathaway through Facebook. He was in Amsterdam and we basically pulled him out of retirement and he hasn’t looked back since.”
Sushi Girl has a gritty, encapsulated feel that is very reminiscent to films like Reservoir Dogs. Saxton spoke about the feel of the film. “It’s inevitable to make that comparison because it’s such a confined film,” Saxton said. “I watched Reservoir Dogs to see how he handled filming in a location where it was so contained and there wasn’t a lot of movement in terms of space. Trying to see how to keep the location looking fresh.”
The ambiance of the location of the sushi bar provides is a great backdrop for the true strength of the film, the magnetic characters and the fantastic work done by each member of the cast. “It’s interesting because the performances all have this mutation,”You can hear it in Mark’s performance. At first he starts out kind of light and boppish. Then he gets angrier as the film goes on and he becomes this insidious, disturbingly frightening guy who will rip your face off.”.
To have names like Tony Todd and Mark Hamill in the cast of your first feature is a dream come true for any director and the experience was not wasted on Saxton. And the fact that they stuck with the project even when it stalled for lack of funding is a testament to the quality of the script. “It’s great validation to have people that you’ve grown up watching your entire life respond so positively to your work that they stayed on board for a year,” Saxton said. “A lot of times when a project falls apart like that they don’t come back together or people move on. It was the best experience of my life. For awhile it was hard to come back to earth and realize this is real. I had to tell myself, ‘You’re doing it. This is a real movie. This isn’t a short with your buddies anymore.’ And someone told me, while watching Mark’s performance, ‘You realize what you’ve done? You killed Luke Skywalker.’ That’s kind of an insane thing, but I guess the notion is you’re replacing one iconic performance with another. Maybe not replacing, but adding something to the chronology of his later work. People think Sushi Girl is something that is going to have legs. So I couldn’t have asked for anything more as my first feature.”
But for a film to truly stick around, it’s got to be something viewers are going to return to. “As a filmmaker, I want to make movies that are memorable and I felt that the film has repeat value. You can watch it over and over and see new things every time. I know I have.”
The Wagner/Cuban Company’s Magnolia Home Entertainment and Phase 4 Films jointly acquired North American rights to Sushi Girl. The revenge thriller will have a Blu-ray, DVD, and digital VOD release by Magnolia Home Entertainment under the Magnet Releasing label in early 2013.
Mark Hamill (Star Wars franchise) and Tony Todd (Candyman) lead a cast of cult heroes including Noah Hathaway (The NeverEnding Story), James Duval (Donnie Darko), Andy Mackenzie (MacGruber), David Dastmalchian (The Dark Knight) and Cortney Palm (Superbad). Sushi Girl also includes feature appearances by Michael Biehn (Aliens), Sonny Chiba (Kill Bill Vol. 1), Jeff Fahey (Grindhouse) and Danny Trejo (Machete).
The film centers on the compelling character of a man called “Fish,” just released after six years in jail after successfully not ratting on those involved in the robbery that sent him to prison. The night he is released, the men he protected with silence celebrate his freedom with a congratulatory dinner. The meal is a lavish array of sushi, served off the naked body of a beautiful young woman. The sushi girl seems catatonic, trained to ignore everything in the room, even if things become dangerous. Sure enough, the unwieldy thieves can’t help but open old wounds in an attempt to find their missing loot, with violent results.
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