An Interview with Dan Hoskins on CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN
It has a joke title that is an accurate summary of the story. It's a blend of about seven genres, most prominently the zombie film and the motorcycle movie, all the way back to The Wild Ones. And it is surprisingly effective despite a small budget, with a great cast of then newcomers (Billy Bob Thornton among them) and old hands (like Don Calfa). It has a sardonic wit that borders on but pulls back from grossness.
It's Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, and now it's out on DVD, from Troma, with several extras and an audio commentary track by writer and director Dan Hoskins.
Chopper Chicks in Zombietown is the amusing tale of a independent gang of vixens who ride into a desert town only to be set upon by the mindless walking victims of a mad doctor's experiments (some have argued that technically it's not really a zombie picture). The second in command is the luscious Jamie Rose (carrying on an affair with Clint Eastwood at the time, according to a new bio of the director, and later the star of a short-lived action gal TV cop show), and the cast is filled out by a wide variety of well-selected oddities, such as MTV's Martha Quinn. A plot point concerning a busload of sarcastic blind school kids points to the underlying Hawksian themes of the film, the thirst for individual independence at odds with the necessity of mutual dependence.
Recently, DVDTalk interviewed Hoskins via e-mail about his film's long-awaited appearance on disc.
Where was the film shot? Was the location hard to get to? Why that town over others?
The film was shot in the California high desert. I always loved the fact that we were on the road to Bridgeport, where my second favorite film — "Out Of The Past" — begins.) The town itself is a place called Randsburg. The exteriors were all shot around that vicinity. We stayed in Ridgecrest, and built some of the interiors (the church, part of the Clutter home) in a warehouse there. Pick-ups were shot in my editor's basement. Oddly, about eight years later, a friend of mine from San Francisco State University film school — Gary Tieche — shot a film called "Nevada" in Randsburg. When he asked if any other films had been shot there, the locals said, "Oh, this thing called "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown").
The casting process: what goes through the mind? Is there an ideal person you want to cast but disappointment dogs you because of budgets and schedules? Or does one accept the reality and visualize the movie more ?fluidly,? that is, view the script as a blueprint that can be much different down the road. Are how do actors stand out so well? (I am always amazed at how a certain group of actors seem to rise and rise in movies, such as Billy Bob and Jamie Rose [who ended up on a short lived series]).
I was lucky to have a casting director named Billy DaMota. Billy also plays Martha Quinn's husband. He took the project very seriously (well, as seriously as one can take this kind of thing) and got us a lot of wonderful actors to come in and read. One of the reasons that we cast/shot under the title "Chrome Hearts" was to not put off potential cast members.
I always thought of it as an ensemble film, and cast it that way…who fits best with whom. At one point, I had one of the actors I'd always wanted in one of the lead roles … but I had to let her go for "political" reasons. I also made a concerted effort to not hire anyone based on looks. I saw at least one Playboy centerfold (at the insistence of the executive producer), but she wasn't right for the role, and the money people supported me in that decision. Billy Bob was, hands down, the best actor for that particular role. The money people were somewhat hesitant, because they thought he was "odd," but they finally agreed.
I was thrilled to have as many good character actors as I did…Don Calfa, Earl Boen, Lewis Arquette, Cameron Milzer.
There was some shifting in roles after the first round of casting…Dede, Rox, and Willum all changed before we began shooting.
If the actors stand out, it's because they were well-cast…that is, the best actor for that particular role. Again, they were all selected for acting chops rather than looks.
Nail down the "true" version of CCiZ for me. Do you prefer the title "Chrome Hearts"? Is the Japanese LD version your preferred version of the film?
For me, the Japanese version (called "Chrome Hearts") is the definitive version. (Actually, I'm ASSUMING it's the definitive version, having never seen it, so I don't know if they made any of their own cuts.) It is, ostensibly, my cut, which is six minutes longer and has all of the original score. I don't mind the title "Chrome Hearts"... hell, I came up with it. But my favorite title will always be the MPAA-nixed original title: "Cycle Sluts Vs. The Zombie Ghouls." (Someone once said, "But 'zombie ghouls' is redundant!" And I responded, "And your point is—?")
I love the surly blind kids. It must have been fun to write this script.
It was a fun script to write. Again, it was 50% response to an OD of "quality" films that I experienced in undergraduate school, and 50% homage to George Romero and Russ Meyer. In each successive draft, there was a sense of, "What other excessive element can I bring to this?" That probably peaked when I decided that Rox needed a musical number. (At one point, the evil force behind the zombie mine plot turned out to be The Phone Company—my tribute to The President's Analyst.)
I started writing this script in undergraduate school in San Francisco. When I was going to graduate school at USC, I had a class in which we had to pitch three ideas, and the class and professor would decide which one we had to develop into a script. I pitched two "serious" ideas, fraught with student angst—and both bombed. In desperation, I pitched "Cycle Sluts Vs. The Zombie Ghouls." And that's what they said I had to write. (My professor said, "When you pitched, your eyes lit up. I knew that was the script you had to write.")
On the DVD the actors make you sound like Billy Wilder, very precise about the language, the dialogue. Who are some of the directors you admire, learned from, met?
The two biggest influences on the film (at least at the script stage) were Romero and Meyer. Along with their content, I loved the fact that they cut their own films. I was pleased that one review of the film said that the compositions had the "rough symmetry of a Russ Myer film." When I was going to USC, I was fond of saying that I wanted to be a cross between David Cronenberg and Jean Renoir. (I always hope that each of my characters "has his reasons.") If I had to choose five directors that I most admire, I guess they would be: Jacques Tourneur, Michael Powell, Yasujiro Ozu, David Cronenberg and Jean Renoir. These days, I think I'm influenced as much, if not more, by musicians. I think, "I'd love to write and/or direct a film that has the resonance and wit of a song by Cracker's David Lowery, Eels' E, or Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields."
Directors I've met? Once met with Michael Ritchie when I was doing a paper on him in college. Studied with Ed Dmytryk at USC. And shook Sam Peckinpah's hand after a screening of Cross of Iron. Didn't wash it for a week.
Does one have to be a fan of Zombie films to make one? (by the way, Dendle's Zombie Movie Encyclopedia includes the movie but with reservations, saying it really isn't a zombie film).
For me, Night of The Living Dead is, hands down, the scariest film ever made. And, for a number of years, I had a recurring nightmare about zombies. The most disturbing thing about NOTLD (and most zombie films), is the idea of your family coming back to kill/eat you. Other influential zombie movies: Invisible Invaders and Plague Of The Zombies. Yes, I know—my zombies aren't that scary. And that's a failing on my part. Though I do love the scene of the zombies on main street, returning to their habits.
CCiZ is unusual in that professionals an amateurs seem to be blended in the cast. The pros seemed to take the film very seriously, learning to ride Harleys and such. Any thoughts on the differences between pros and amateurs? (On DVD I just watch Bresson's Dames du Bois de Boulonge, which drove the director forever away from the idea of using professional actresses).
Well—I'm in heaven. I never expected to see CciZ and Dames du Bois de Boulonge mentioned in the same paragraph! With the exception of Ridgecrest locals who were cast as zombies and/or townspeople, everyone in the film had some kind of training or experience. Even the blind orphans had head shots and resumes! Granted, most of them were UNFAMILIAR faces, which I always see as a plus—because viewers aren't bringing a set of expectations associated with a particular actor. I suppose if Billy DaMota had brought me someone off the street who just knocked my socks off, I would have gone with that person.
The plus of working with "nonprofessionals," (i.e. locals) is that they still have a sense of wonder about the process. They don't mind the cold, long hours, bad food, itchy makeup. Sadly, it also makes it easy to take advantage of them—so I tried to be sure they were being treated well. There was one young man who was playing a zombie. He would come up to me at the start of every night and ask, "What do you want me to do tonight?" I loved that.
Any publishable thoughts on Troma? I personally am annoyed that they "take over" movies, attached prefaces that you can't skip, and with extras that insert Troma into the shadow of the film—though, I have met Kaufman and he is a funny guy, also sharp, and more opinionated than you'd guess.
I'd have to say that, up to a point, Troma was a godsend. CciZ wouldn't have had the life it had without them. When I was working for E! Entertainment Television, I used to go to the international television markets (MIP and MIPCOM in Cannes, and NATPE in the US), and was always impressed to see someone at a card table in a tiny booth, pitching, among other catalog titles, CCiZ, seven or eight years after it had come out. Any exploitation is better than no exploitation. Do I wish that they had put more than $125 into the Los Angeles opening? Yes. Do I wish they had been willing to put up some money to develop a sequel? Yes. (Our discussion: "Give me some money, and I'll write a script." "Write a script and we'll give you some money.") But CciZ shows up at Troma retrospectives at places like the American Cinematheque, and clips pop up on The Tonight Show any time Billy Bob is a guest. So—
Don't know if they kept this part of my commentary, but there was a certain irony to ending up with Troma. Maria Snyder, the producer, was one of the strongest proponents of permanently changing the title from "Cycle Sluts Vs. The Zombie Ghouls" to "Chrome Hearts." (The plan had been to revert to the original title after we had completed shooting.) She said, "We don't want people to think this is a Troma film!"
That's a very funny story on the audio track about the flow chart of sex hook-ups among cast and crew. It sounds like the director truly IS the auteur, doing all the work while everyone else is playing around.
Yeah—tell me about it. Though I did have a couple of passes lobbed my way, usually along the lines of, "You know—I'd really like to talk to you about developing my character—maybe adding some lines—"
What are you doing now? Any projects brewing you can talk about?
These days: Still writing. Working on two scripts, both for fairly reputable companies (reputable in that they get films produced.) And was a semi-finalist in the Sundance Writers Workshop last year. (Sadly, "semi-finalist" is like Miss Congeniality, but without the trophy.) I also work with kids as part of an after-school mentoring program for at-risk inner youth. Depending on the age and sensibilities of the kids, I occasionally bring in Chopper Chicks with copies of the script for an exercise on transferring words to images. They usually comment, "Boy, that movie is really OLD."