An Interview with DEADGIRL Writer Trent Haaga
The indie horror film Deadgirl emerged from nowhere to a world premiere as part of the Midnight Madness program at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. To say that the film, which plays like a mixture of Larry Clark and Jorg Buttergeit, set some people off would be putting it mildly. Much to the likely chagrin of detractors, however, Deadgirl is proving it has staying power. For example, various distribution deals for the film are in discussion and festival screenings continue to fall into place. Deadgirl picked up the second place prize in the AMD Next Wave Competition at Fantastic Fest 2008. The next screenings will be part of the "New Visions" competition at Sitges in October. Screenings at Leeds International Film Festival and Stockholm International Film Festival will follow. Screenwriter Trent Haaga shared his thoughts with ScreenAnarchy about the film's origins, development and public reception. He also commented on his career, including past and present projects.
When did you write this script, and what inspired you to write it?
I wrote the script for Deadgirl in Winter 1999/Spring 2000. I had just finished writing and producing Troma's Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part 4 and we had two locations that I thought were interesting and that I wanted to use again: A high school and an abandoned mental hospital. I also had just finished doing this over-the-top gore comedy and wanted to exorcise that from my system by going in another direction and doing something more serious (though it's just as audacious). I grew up in a bunch of small coal towns in the mid-west, knew a lot of juvenile delinquent types. The teenage years are full of feelings of helplessness and boredom and anger and it's even worse in economically depressed areas, so I wanted to try and capture this. I've also always been a fan of films like The River's Edge and Over The Edge and Larry Clark's films and wanted to give it a try.
When did you first meet Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento? How did they get involved in making this film?
I had actually met Gadi in 1998 on the set of Terror Firmer, my first feature. We became friends, but then I moved out to Los Angeles and we kind of fell out of contact. Gadi moved to LA a few years after I did, we re-connected, and he introduced me to Marcel, a filmmaker friend of his that he had known since elementary school. Gadi and Marcel were looking for a film to produce and direct so they came to my house to see me and talk about it. I had a large stack of spec scripts laying around and was going through them and Gadi and Marcel kept asking me about the one that I refused to give them - Deadgirl. I felt that it was too "out there" for anyone to ever make and tried to dissuade them from reading it. They were persistent and eventually I let them read it and after a few weeks they came back to me and said that they wanted to make it.
Were you worried at all about how they were going to pull off the film? What are your feelings about how it turned out?
Absolutely. The tone of the eventual film was really important to me. Given the material, in lesser hands the project could have been extremely exploitative and explicit. That wasn't what I wanted for the film. I've done excessive gore and gross-out films and the aim here was more to disturb, to mess with your head. I think that the guys did a great job with translating the script to film. It captures the melancholy and forlornness that I wanted it to have coupled with the "holy crap" factor. I couldn't be happier with it.
Were any aspects of the script changed once production started?
Certainly. That's what happens when you move from script to film several times. There was about a year where Gadi and Marcel were out raising funds that we were meeting and doing re-writes, etc. To tell the truth, the script was even rougher and angrier and more insane in earlier drafts. Having Gadi and Marcel's input tempered the material a bit, which I think is a good thing.
The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival. What is your take on the response so far? The Fantastic Fest crowd has been receptive.
The response has definitely been interesting. It seems that the film has real fans and incredibly vocal detractors. Unfortunately, the people who really love the movie say to us, "I really love the movie," then they go about with their lives. It's the ones who really hate the film that go home and talk about how terrible it is on their blogs or whatever. But the important thing is that they're talking about it. It really galvanizes audiences and it's a lot easier to hate a film like this than to defend it. I feel that the movie is actually a statement about misogyny than a misogynistic film (as evidenced by the large number of females that seem to "get" it at the screenings). It's a statement about morally bankrupt teenage boys and how they objectify women. Men don't want to acknowledge this aspect of their being and deny it and think that the film is just being prurient for the sake of it. That's not the case. Look, I've made a number of films on the last ten years and none have spurred heated debate like this in the film community (most of them have been met with general indifference, truth be told). I'm just glad that people are seeing it and reacting - good or bad.
You have a long background in independent horror films, including acting, writing and producing. Do you prefer any aspects of filmmaking over others? What have been your favorite projects to date?
I'll do anything on a film to make it happen - I love making movies. but guess what? What I really want to do is direct. And after 40-plus feature films, I'm still trying to make that happen. I just keep doing other things, one after the other. Obviously Deadgirlis one of my favorite projects. I'm also a big fan of Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!, The Ghouls, Gimme Skelter , and Terror Firmer, to name a few.
You wrote a film called Poor Things that was ready to go into production with some high-profile performers. What happened and what is the status?
It's a story that's apparently all too common in Hollywood. Poor Things was a black comedy script that I wrote for an independent producer. I needed rent money for the month, wrote it, collected payment, and figured that would be the last I saw of the script. Within a few weeks of turning in the script, however, it had gone all over town and had gathered quite a bit of attention and the attachment of two Academy Award-winning actresses - Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. Soon the film had an all-star cast and a relatively big budget. I was "discovered" through the project and got an agent and a manager, the film went into pre-production. Everything was going well except that one of the main stars of the film was Lindsay Lohan, who was deep in the midst of her tabloid craziness. Two days before commencement of principal photography, Lindsay was arrested for DUI and cocaine possession. Since a large part of the film's financing was contingent on her participation, a great deal of money was spent paying people while we waited for Lindsay to get out of rehab and she got busted again a few days after her release. The film got a lot of press at the time, but it wasn't enough to actually get the movie done. It just sort of dissolved. I understand that there's still a team trying to get it off the ground again, but I don't really know what the current status of the film is.
What other projects do you have in the works?
You know, I'm used to blabbing all about future projects, but now that I'm working through my agency and getting paid real money to write, I'm not at liberty to discuss most of it just yet. I'm trying to up my game, and get some bigger gigs. But I'll probably always do this or that on indie films. I've still got at least a dozen completed projects awaiting release now and I'm constantly making more. I guess the best way to find out what I'm up to in the future would be to check out my blog: trenthaaga.com.