Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill is a nasty bit of midnight movie fun, full of femme fatales sadistically taunting its central character Chip. Haaga began his run at Troma and wrote fest fav Cheap Thrills, bringing to the table a balance between full-on B-movie schlock and a keen eye for detail and character. He wrote the lead role for Matthew Gray Gubler, known to many as Dr. Reid on Criminal Minds but also for his pitch perfect take as the intern in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece The Life Aquatic.
68 Kill just had its Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival where BMD spoke to the director and star about the film, their fascinations and how Tom Ford plays a role in Trent’s cinematic life.
You’ve come a long way from your days at Troma, yet 68 Kill still has that spirit of abandon running through it.
Trent Haaga: Troma gave me my start and I grew up on this kind of thing. I've made quite a few movies since Troma - I wrote Cheap Thrills and Dead Girl that leaned more into that serious thing. They use the [term] “post-horror” these days, but I always just like my stuff to be a little punk rock. I know that in today's film world climate 68 Kill is not what's trendy at the moment, it's a little over the top, but it's what I wanted to make. It's kind of fun and sexy. Where are the sexy movies these days, right?
Matthew, as the lead you have the responsibility to be completely mad yet not come across as not a douchebag. It’s a fine line to toe.
Matthew Gray Gubler: I felt really honoured when Trent offered me this leading part, but there's this weird responsibility that comes with that to be a baseline and not devolve too much until the right time, to make sure other things pop and everything works together. Trent did a brilliant thing - this guy's a lunatic, a cineloon - he wrote us an e-mail talking about naturalism, this literature movement which I was not familiar with, that told all of the characters what animal they were. For instance, AnnaLynne was the scorpion, and if you look closely at the film there are some scorpion references. Dwayne was an alligator, the slow, lethargic, horrifying killer. My character was the fly, which I think was symbolically realized in the beginning with the honey. I really referenced that a lot in remembering to be that thing that constantly hums but doesn't shout. What's so special about it is the work that Trent did in creating this tone that could have at any point fallen one way or the other, and it was all him.
While you're in the midst of chaos, you're trying to obviously do the words and do the actions, but you're trying to do it in a way that fits the greater whole. Obviously, you need strong direction, but you as a performer, do you simply let yourself go to the moment and make sure that he's there to catch you if you fall?
MGG: I'm really good at talking about certain things, but acting is hard to talk about. I understand what you're saying and I don't want to sound pretentious, but whenever I approach a movie as an actor I never look at the character. I just really want the movie to be really fucking good, even if I get cut out. And that's happened! So I never look at it like how can I shine in this moment. When I look at a scene, I'm not like, oh, can I showcase my cool moment here, it's more like what's going to make the viewer unable to blink during this scene. I consider myself less an actor and more a storyteller.
One challenge of direction must be that with a film like this it can't all just be turned up to 11, otherwise the whole thing just sounds like noise.
TH: Exactly. Casting was a super important thing. I'm a fan of Matthew, I was watching Criminal Minds while I was writing the script and his voice just kept seeping in. The trick is that Chip does a lot of really stupid things. He's not the brightest bulb in the box, but he's got to be loveable. We had kind of a weird shorthand, there would be times when I would say hey, you need to Chip out more.
MGG: Oh, I loved that, it was so great.
TH: You establish kind of a baseline and then you go “let's get Chip out to 7” on the Chip scale, or sometimes I'd be like, you need to Chip down to 4 here. It's a weird sort of cool.
MGG: I like the idea that this character is bounced around like this horrible pinball machine where he's the sad ball just getting boinked from psychopath to psychopath, to love to loss. To me the best acting is just reacting and with the characters and with Sheila and Alisha and everyone it's very easy to just be the thing that's getting kicked and finding the story there.
You've done bigger budget, you've done indie movies, how you find that ability to actually still be listening given the different pressures of each project?
MGG: I always approach everything the same, whether it's a TV show or giant movie or an indie thing. I sound like such a douchebag talking about it, but I studied filmmaking and the only thing I know about acting is really believing something and tricking my own mind into believing it. It's less about knowing the line or the moment and more about knowing every fucking thing about that human so it's almost like being a spy. Every movie I do is going into deep undercover and if they find out that I'm really not this person I'm going to be murdered.
Do you go home with your character? How method are you?
MGG: Yeah, it's bad. Criminal Minds haunts the shit out of me. I flew here from there, but to go from defending a child's life with a gun and a knife and trying to save them to listening to “MMMbop” by Hanson on the radio a moment later.
What were the films that you saw where you said, fuck it, I'm going to do this for a living?
TH: Anything that just feels like a human being sat down and made it, not a group of people. [Take] Nocturnal Animals - when I watched it, I was like this is a singular vision of a human being, whether you liked it or not. Neon Demon, I know a lot of people hated that movie, but when I watch Refn's movies… Werner Herzog, Tarantino, you just go, oh, there's a person here. You may not agree with every decision that they made but it felt [made by] a person with a unique point of view.
Are we going to see a little bit of Tom Ford in your next project?
TH: I would aspire to it but I always can't forget my schlock background and it's just so deeply ingrained in me.
MGG: It's not schlock, man!
In some ways it has to be schlock, right? Own the schlock.
TH: You have to. I grew up in a trailer park, I understand these characters, this is my milieu
It's not ironic.
TH: Exactly. Some people would deny their schlock background once they reach a certain level of success, they would deny their sort of white trashy upbringing. But these are the things that made me what I am and they are what make me have hopefully a distinct vision. So when I look at Tom Ford, I think, oh, here's a really rich, successful guy in multiple fields, he's traveled all over the world, he can do this movie that's got a bigger thing. When I watched Nocturnal Animals, I was like, oh, if only, one day, I could do something like that, but I know that there's gonna be a little hook at the back of me that's going to drag me through the mud a bit more than that and it's just because of the nature of my upbringing.
So, Matthew, what films changed your trajectory?
MGG: I mean, as a kid, it was probably Ghostbusters. I saw it when I was three and I had to leave because the librarian came at me and I ran out of the room crying. I remember two movies that really changed my life forever were when I saw Rushmore on the opening day and I was, like, you're allowed to do that? It blew my mind. To me the gold standard is Buffalo 66. It’s the finest ever made, a perfect film.
TH: It's so fucking good.
You're falling in love with Rushmore and then you have a chance to work with Wes.
MGG: Yeah, how crazy is that? I'm very fortunate for that.
So, should you meet your heroes?
MGG: Yeah, always.