Last I reviewed the strong new revenge film, Girls Against Boys, which I was hugely impressed with. It tells the story of Shae (Danielle Panabaker), who over the course of a few hours is the victim of some very bad men. Her new friend Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) takes Shae on a vengeance filled day, before revealing she may be just as bad as the men they take down.
I was very lucky to be able to talk to director Austin Chick via email about his film, working with Panabaker and LaLiberte, the origins of the story and much more. There are some spoilers, so tread with caution.
Austin Chick: Thanks Andy. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.
I wish I had a simple answer for you but I don’t. I guess the idea for the movie started with the character of Shae. I arrived in NY when I was seventeen and I’ve known dozens of women like Shae over the years. Young, perhaps a bit naive, but desperately wanting to be seen as mature, sophisticated, independent. There was a period in the ’90s where I spent a lot of time in and around the fashion industry and watching what happened to some of the young models – both girls and boys, often in their teens, totally on their own but desperate to fit in – I was fascinated and horrified by how some of those stories evolved. GIRLS AGAINST BOYS isn’t about the fashion industry but exploitation is everywhere. The feeling of wanting to lash out after having been wronged somehow – taken advantage of, fucked over, lied to, whatever – that’s a pretty universal feeling and revenge movies tap into our own violent fantasies. But I wanted to explore the repercussions of vengeance on the person who chooses that route. We all get victimized or fucked over at some point in our lives but how we deal with that is what shapes us as people. I see this as a parable about the loss of innocence.
Andy Burns: Can you go a little into the writing process? How long did it take to write the script?
Austin Chick: I had the idea for this movie a very long time ago. I think it was as early as ’04 or ’05. I wrote an outline and started writing the script but somewhere around the middle the violence began to get to me. I’d never done anything with this kind of graphic physical violence and I felt like it was a movie I’d like to see but I wasn’t sure I was prepared to live with it day in and day out for a year or more which is what you need to do when you are making a movie. So I put it aside and ended up working on a couple of other projects and it wasn’t until a few years later that I came back to the unfinished draft and reread it. I still found the ideas interesting and decided to finish it. So to answer your question, I wrote the first draft in two sessions, probably a week or two each, but with several years in between, and it was a few more years until I decided to try to make it.
Austin Chick: I wasn’t familiar with Danielle’s work but her manager suggested I look at some of her material and when I did I was very impressed. Danielle is able to express a wide range of complex emotions without indicating them in any of the obvious ways. She’s got the confidence to be able to do very little and know when it’s enough. She’s also incredibly smart and I think that comes through. You see it in her eyes.
The character of Lu was actually written as Asian American originally and I’d cast a Chinese American woman who I’ve known for several years, but at the last minute she balked at the nudity and I was forced to replace her. We tried to find another Asian American but it’s a very challenging role and ultimately decided that it was more important to get a great actor, regardless of ethnicity. We saw dozens of women for the role and it was coming down to the wire when Nicole turned up and just nailed it.
Andy Burns: How much time did two girls have to get to know one another – did you want them to bond at all between filming began?
Austin Chick: Danielle and Nicole met for lunch in LA but they didn’t spend any real time together until they got to NY about a week before we began principle photography. I rehearsed with them that week and we ran through scenes and talked a lot about the material. I also had them work a shift in a bar one night and spend time on a gun range but Danielle and Nicole are very different from each other as people and as actors. Their backgrounds and working styles couldn’t be more different and that provides a tension that I find very interesting on screen.
Andy Burns: How much did your actors stick to the script – was there room for any improvisation, or were things more set in stone.
Austin Chick: I always do a certain amount of rewriting during preproduction. I’ll make changes if the actor I cast is different from what I had imagined and I want to tailor the character to him or her. I also do a fair amount of rewriting based on stuff that happens during rehearsals but by the time we’re on set I like to have everything nailed down. There were places where we tried alternate lines on occasion but for the most part everybody stuck with the script.
Andy Burns: I was blown away by Danielle’s performance – she can show so much without saying anything, usually with eyes. Did you know this was what you’d be getting with her? Did anything she do outright surprise you?
Austin Chick: We made this movie on an extremely low budget in New York and a lot of our crew was very inexperienced. Some of them were great and rose to the occasion but others really didn’t know what the hell they were doing. We were shooting all over the city – often in the streets and without permits – and there were some moments of real chaos. But Danielle was unflappable. Nothing ever threw her off her game, she was always ready and willing to do whatever was necessary to get the scene, and she was really fun to work with. We’ve become very good friends and I hope we have a chance to work together again.
Andy Burns: I loved the score for GIRLS AGAINST BOYS– it very much like something out of a David Lynch film like Lost Highway (that’s a compliment); it’s minimal and hypnotic, yet manages to always be perfect for the scene. Could you talk a little about working with Nathan Larson and what you wanted out of the score?
Austin Chick: Nathan and I have worked together a few times now and we’ve developed a kind of shorthand, which is really helpful. The ideas behind this score were based on something we played around with a few years ago on another project but didn’t end up using. We were talking about the raw emotion in the sound of the guitar on Animals (Pink Floyd) and the analog synth sounds from the Eno/Bowie collaborations and those first two Roxy Music albums. In the end the score for GIRLS AGAINST BOYS evolved organically into something slightly different I guess, but that was our jumping off point and we decided to stick with all analog.
I always knew the film would be very score-heavy and I wanted to use the music as a way to get inside Shae’s head and more closely align the viewer with her subjective experience, almost in a meditative sort of way.
Andy Burns: There’s violence in the film, but I don’t feel it was gratuitous – in fact, most of it is hidden or off camera; it’s the sound that really offers the horror (I’m thinking of the scene with Simon). Though, that being said, I did find the final meeting between Shae and Lu hard to watch. As a director, how did you decide what moments may lend themselves for more disturbing visuals, and which are implied or off-camera?
Austin Chick: The log line makes GIRLS AGAINST BOYS sound like it will be a bloody, high-octane, thrill-ride but that’s not really what this movie is. I knew I was running the risk of disappointing a huge portion of my audience if I didn’t show some blood but it’s not really a straight revenge movie. It uses elements of the genre but it’s actually a much quieter film – almost hypnotic, as you said earlier. It’s told in a very subjective way from the point of view of a young woman who may or may not have momentarily lost her grip on reality. It’s like a fever dream or the story of a girl who travels through the looking glass (which we do in a shot towards the end of the film), almost like a darkly twisted Alice.
The challenge was to balance this quieter more meditative approach to the material with these acts of intense physical violence, which could easily have slipped into torture porn if we weren’t careful.
I wanted the violence to look and feel real but wanted to keep it a bit understated. I didn’t want to sensationalize it by showing lots of squirting blood and gore.
It’s a little like a strip tease. We hold it back at times and don’t necessarily show you what you might want or expect (assuming you’re the kind of person who wants to see a close-up of a dismembered limb). The violence might be something that occasionally happens in the frame but it’s just one thing and it’s rarely the main focus of the shot. I was more interested in what’s happening with Shae. Often the violent act takes place off camera or out of focus but then we might catch a little bit of it in a way that shocks or surprises you.
In the scene with Simon we stay on Shae’s face and the act of violence takes place off-screen and is conveyed entirely through sound. I’ve noticed that people in the audience sometimes close their eyes during that part even though there’s nothing to see. They can’t block out the sound, however, and what they imagine is probably far worse than what’s on screen at that point, which is just a close-up of Shae. But then the sound of the cutting stops and people open their eyes again and that’s when we finally show it – just as their guard goes down. But just for a moment.
Andy Burns: The ending left me wondering what would become of Shae – as a writer, did her story stop for you with the ending of the film, or do you know how she winds up?
Austin Chick: The obvious answer is that this is the beginning of another cycle. Shae has become Lu and it’s all going to begin again – another round in a perpetual cycle of violence between men and women. But that’s pretty bleak. I’d like to think there’s a possibility for change. A couple people have said they wanted Shae to repeat Lu’s line from earlier in the film when she says “Do you want me to kill him for you?” but I preferred to let it hang there, unspoken. Rather than close that loop I tried to leave it open at the end.
Andy Burns: Finally, what are you working on next?
Austin Chick: There are a few things. I’m working something new which is a character-driven action thriller and there’s a movie about boxing that I’m really excited about, but I’d also really like to do a crime movie – like a gritty heist movie. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts.
Andy Burns: Thanks for your time and a great film, Austin!
Austin Chick: Thank you, Andy. I’m happy you enjoyed it and it’s been a pleasure talking.
Thanks to Austin Chick for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! As well, thanks to Leah at Amberlight and the fine folks at Anchor Bay Canada for helping make it happen. GIRLS AGAINST BOYS is available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD now.