Exclusive Q&A with Girls Against Boys Writer/Director Austin Chick
With Anchor Bay Films’ psychological rape/revenge feature Girls Against Boys opening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on February 1st, we conducted a lengthy interview with the flick’s acclaimed writer and director, Austin Chick.
Girls Against Boys (review here), which lands on Blu-ray and DVD on February 26th, stars Danielle Panabaker (2009’s Friday the 13th ), Nicole LaLiberte (“Dexter”), Liam Aiken (Road to Perdition), Michael Stahl-David (Cloverfield), and Andrew Howard (2010’s I Spit On Your Grave) in a film which revolves around the character of Shae (Panabaker), a naïve New York college student, who, after being tormented by several men in a matter of days, reaches her breaking point and is drawn into co-worker Lu’s (LaLiberte) twisted plan for revenge.
Filmmaker Chick chatted with us at length regarding the production. Dig in!
Dread Central: In ways the film seems the offspring of Baise-moi and Fight Club, although with a more languid, thoughtful approach. What was your inspiration, and how was the scripting process?
Austin Chick: I've always been interested in the dynamics between men and women, and Girls Against Boys might be Part Two in a ‘battle of the sexes’ trilogy that I started with XX/XY. In fact, those two titles, XX/XY and Girls Against Boys, have essentially the same meaning. Both films are about the ways people misunderstand and misinterpret each other’s actions and intentions, and how this can lead to people getting hurt. Nobody loses their feet in XX/XY, but by the end of the movie Mark Ruffalo's character sort of loses his balls.
Revenge movies tend to be populated by characters who are extremes - often even caricatures. In rape/revenge movies the women are often portrayed as innocence personified, and the men are evil incarnate. Painting the situation in this extremely black and white way gives the protagonist a moral righteousness which allows us, as viewers, to feel good about cheering them on. It's an exercise that taps into our innate desire to see the world as a more ‘just’ place, and it allows us to indulge our own violent fantasies.
But rarely are situations in life this simple. In Girls Against Boys I was interested in exploring the grey areas - the collateral damage, the moral ambiguity, and the way violence affects the perpetrator as well as the victim. The violent impulse is complex and imprecise, and it rarely provides the kind of pure catharsis we hope.
Dread Central: In narrative, it possesses a rather bleak outlook on the male gender. What informed this?
Austin Chick: It's structured in a way that opposes the sexes, but the movie actually takes a fairly bleak outlook on people in general. Not all the men in the film behave badly, and not all of the violence unleashed by the women is completely justified. You might say there's something fundamentally feminist about women empowering themselves and exacting revenge, but historically the rape/revenge genre is pure exploitation. The tension created by these contradicting forces is interesting to me, but I'm more concerned with the effects of violence - physical and psychological and real, as well as the violent act we merely fantasize about - as it relates to both men and women.
Dread Central: What was the genesis of the project from script to principal photography?
Austin Chick: I met producers Aimee Shieh and Clay Floren in New York in late 2010. They were looking for a project they could produce in this under-one-million-dollar budget range, and they were fans of my previous films. I gave them the script for Girls Against Boys and they loved it and said they wanted to try to raise financing to make it.
I was living in Vancouver at the time, and it was a few months until I heard from them again, but by spring of 2011 they'd raised enough money that we could start casting. It was a tricky movie to put together because it's not really a straightforward genre movie. It's got those elements, for sure, but my background and interests are in the character-driven, psychological side, and the movie I wanted to make was more of a hybrid. As I met with people - actors as well as crew members - there were some people who got it right away, but most reactions to the script seemed to break down into two camps. There were those who read it as a straight exploitation movie and who were psyched about the idea of chopping off feet and shooting someone up the butt. And then there were others who were intrigued by Shae's story but freaked out by the violence and worried that I was planning to make torture porn.
As you pointed out, the film exists somewhere between an ‘art house’ film and a genre film, so the question of, ‘What version of this script are we making?’ was a constant topic of discussion. Prior to that point I hadn't felt the need to distinguish - I mean, for myself. I had a strong sense of how I thought the genre elements would work, as well as a clear idea about the tone and visual style and the ideas underlying the story that I was interested in exploring, but I understood the concerns people had. It wasn't an easy thing for some people to get their head around. But there were a few, like my production designer, Jeanelle Marie, who got it immediately. Jeanelle showed up to our first meeting with dozens of images that she'd pulled after reading the script. She'd picked up on all the references and visual cues, and she was able to build off them in a way that allowed us to be perfectly in sync.
Dread Central: When was the film shot, how many days of principal, and what did you shoot on?
Austin Chick: We shot in the fall of 2011. It was about eighteen days of principal photography, and then a day or two of stealing stuff around the city with a tiny crew of about six.
We shot most of the movie on the Alexa, but the extreme slow-motion was the RED EPIC because that was shot at 300fps and the Alexa wasn't capable of shooting that. We also shot a bit on the Canon 5D, but there's only one 5D shot in the finished movie. I'll be curious to see if anyone can spot it.
Dread Central: In working with cinematographer Kathryn Westergaard, what was your intended visual approach? There’s a dream-like quality to much of it, with the camera lingering hauntingly on Panabaker.
Austin Chick: I always intended for the film to have a dream-like quality, and there were several films that I had Kat watch as we were prepping for the shoot - Lilya 4-Ever (director Lucas Moodysson), Criminal Lovers (director Francois Ozon), and The Dreamlife of Angels (director Erick Zonka) were a few. The intention - aesthetically speaking - was to start Girls Against Boys based in the everyday world, and then, as Shae's journey unfolds, we slowly moved it away from that sense of realism and into a more fantastical place. Not fantasy exactly but more like a fairy tale or dream world that looks like the world in which we live but is actually more subjective - more closely aligned with Shae's internal life and isn't confined by the concerns of a police procedural.
I was interested in exploring what's going on inside Shae's head, not questions about the 'CSI' stuff. It was a challenge because people are so familiar with forensic science, but the question of ‘how to kill people and get away with it’ wasn't what interested me. I wanted to look at how the character is affected. How she's changed, which is a very subtle thing, but by the end of the movie Shae has totally changed. She looks exactly the same, but she's transformed.
Dread Central: Much of its personality comes from the New York setting as well, something which factors into your previous directed film August, as well as your co-produced feature Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. How important was setting to you?
Austin Chick: A big part of this movie is the sense of isolation and loneliness (in addition to betrayal) that Shae experiences after Terry breaks up with her and she discovers that he mislead her from the beginning. She's young and alone, and New York can be an incredibly lonely place. It can be exciting, too, but when you're living by yourself and everyone around you seems to be having fun, the sense of isolation can be really overwhelming.
This part of Shae is very familiar to me. I came to New York when I was a few years younger than she is, and I've known dozens of young women like her over the years - going to college during the day and working in clubs at night, where they're constantly being treated like a piece of meat.
I've shot all my movies in New York. An authentic sense of place is incredibly important to me, and it just seemed natural to make movies about places I know intimately. But I'm in L.A. these days, and I tend to look to my immediate surroundings for inspiration - the history, the architecture, the politics, etc. - and I find myself drawn to stories that are set in Southern California. Unfortunately productions are forced to go where the tax incentives are, and it drives me crazy when movies are cheated. When you shoot Vancouver to look like New York, you have to avoid everything great about Vancouver and only shoot in the most generic locations. In most instances I'll want to be able to use the setting like another character in the story, so at the moment I'm working on a project to shoot in Louisiana, and the movie is set in Louisiana.
Dread Central: How was the casting process, and how was your working relationship with Panabaker? She shines in the film.
Austin Chick: Danielle is an absolute pleasure to work with. She's also a trooper. We had some really tough days. We were shooting challenging material, we didn't have much time or money to work with, and some of our crew was very inexperienced. A lot of the time we were shooting without permits on the streets of New York, and things could get pretty chaotic at times, but Danielle was always prepared, always game for whatever I asked her to do, and she never complained. But most of all she was just so damn good.
The character of Lu was actually written as Asian-American, and I had cast a Chinese-American woman. But at the last minute she balked at the nudity, and I was forced to replace her. I was really upset about it at the time, but we were lucky enough to find Nicole, who did an absolutely amazing job with the role.
Dread Central: There are interesting visual cues within the film which tip the audience towards its true nature (Panabaker’s hair, for instance, which begins to resemble LaLiberte’s). Can you comment on that aspect?
Austin Chick: There are a lot of little clues, starting with the second shot in the movie, but I didn't want that to become the central focus. I didn't want that reading to become a gimmick that would eclipse the emotional impact of Shae's story. Too often a twist or a ‘big reveal’ ends up becoming what the movie is about. I wanted to create the possibility - or opportunity - for the story to be read in another way, but not at the expense of Shae's experience. I didn't want to undermine the legitimacy of Shae's journey.
Dread Central: What prompted your (in my opinion refreshing) decision to keep the rape off-screen?
Austin Chick: Throughout the process of making this movie, I was always acutely aware that I was a man depicting the experiences of a young woman. Obviously there are lots of things people do in movies and part of my job is to give them a sense of authenticity, whether I have first-hand experience or not, but too often the showing of a violent act merely sensationalizes it. I wanted to avoid that and preferred to let the viewer's imagination take over.
Dread Central: What was your experience shooting the more FX-laden scenes? The demise of Michael Stahl-David’s character and the finale ‘womb slash’ are particularly effective.
Austin Chick: Special FX makeup was one of the areas where our low budget really caused us pain. It's easy to do lots of squirting blood and gore, but to pull it back and keep it realistic or even understated is expensive if you want to do it well. We actually went through two or three different FX makeup guys over the course of the shoot. We started with a guy who was supposed to fabricate prosthetics for us, but his work was underwhelming, to put it mildly. In retrospect it's kind of funny - like something out of Spinal Tap - but at the time it was a complete nightmare. This guy was supposed to send us two pairs of prosthetic legs for Michael Stahl-David to use in that scene, enough that we could shoot a few takes, but the prosthetic legs didn't arrive until the night before we were supposed to shoot, and when we opened the box, there were no right legs. There were just two left legs, and one of them looked more like a large pink macaroni than a leg.
Luckily we were able to get another FX guy named Anthony Pepe to come in, and Anthony saved us. He showed up with ten pounds of lunch meat - I think it was a combination of prosciutto and bologna - and he packed it into the pink macaroni tube-leg-thing and improvised a solution that allowed us to get through the day.
Those scenes became a combination of practical and visual FX. They required more CGI than I had planned, but I worked with a guy named Ari Levinson, who also worked with me on August, and I'm really happy with how that stuff looks in the end.
Dread Central: Do you feel that marketing is a challenge for Girls Against Boys? The film exists somewhere between ‘art house’ and the horror genre, in my opinion, which is certainly not a bad thing, similar to Simon Rumley’s feature Red, White & Blue.
Austin Chick: The movie is much quieter than the log line suggests. As you said, it's more languid and thoughtful and not the kind of bloody thrill-ride that you might expect if you hear ‘two girls on a killing spree.’ It certainly has some blood and gore, but it's actually a very intimate and internal journey - almost like a fever-dream. It's a quiet and almost meditative sort of experience; that isn't necessarily the kind of thing that's easy to package and sell. It's easier to sell ‘two girls on a killing spree,’ but hopefully audiences will be able to adjust their expectations and they will be pleasantly surprised. I'm sure some people will be disappointed that there isn't more blood, but last year at SXSW a woman asked me why there couldn't be less.
Dread Central: How involved were you in the score and soundtrack? Nathan Larson’s composition is an integral component to the film’s mood, as is the soundtrack (Joy Division was employed wonderfully).
Austin Chick: I worked with both Nathan Larson and Howard Paar (music supervisor) on August. Nathan is a genius and also a joy to work with. When we did August, his studio was just around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn, and I'd go in to work with him on the arrangements or stand over his shoulder and bug him as he worked. That gave us a strong foundation and the ability to talk about music in a kind of shorthand.
From its inception I always knew Girls Against Boys would be a score-heavy film, and Nathan and I had a lot of long conversations about how it should sound and feel. In the end he decided to go completely analogue and very synth-heavy, and I love the way it sounds. The music is a crucial element of this film. As far as the source cues go, Howard is great. I've always loved Joy Division, and when he said we'd be able to license that track, I was thrilled.
Music is always a challenge on these low-budget projects, but it's such an important part of a movie. I was really excited to be able to use my friend Aaron Diskin's band, Lycaon Pictus. He and John Morton and Simon Marcus all appear in the movie, playing themselves, performing at the Halloween party scene. I've know those guys for twenty years and always wanted to work with Aaron. We used three of his songs in the movie - two in that scene and one earlier - and they all work really well.
Dread Central: In subtext, what was your intent? Again refreshingly, Girls Against Boys I feel leaves it up to the audience to muse, but as a filmmaker, what was your intended commentary?
Austin Chick: I'm reluctant to dictate a particular interpretation or reading because I intentionally left it somewhat open, but as you already pointed out, there are lots of cues, and clues, in the film itself. I feel like the film should stand on its own.
Also, one of the things that I love about the medium is the fact that a film's meaning can change so much over time. There are a few movies I saw in college that I watched again recently, and it was like watching a completely different movie. Themes that resonated with me years ago seemed insignificant now, and new things came to light that I hadn't even noticed before. Watching a film isn't really a passive act, at least not when it's good. You bring your own experiences or, at the very least, expectations to the viewing experience, and that colors how you read or see the movie.
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