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Interview: Josh C. Waller talks about the making of 'Raze'

Filmmaker Josh C. Waller has led a very interesting life so far. Born in 1974 to a Cattle Rancher/businessman and an actress mother, he spent his youth going to theatre rehearsals and watching movies on the weekends where his interest in filmmaking began to peak. After graduating high school, he joined the Marines and eventually worked for a private educational center that dealt with children afflicted with learning disabilities. This job ended up taking through different parts of the United States before he finally settled down in Los Angeles when his career as a filmmaker started to take off.

Movie poster for "Raze" starring Zoe Bell
IFC Midnight
Josh C. Waller attends the premiere of his film 'Raze' at the Tribeca Film Festival
Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Waller’s latest film, “Raze,” stars Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”) as Sabrina, an abducted woman who wakes up to find herself imprisoned in a bunker where she and other imprisoned women are forced to fight one another to the death. On the surface it looks like another exploitation movie, but after watching it, it becomes clear that Waller had a lot more on his mind than that as he takes the characters and their story very seriously.

I got to talk with Waller about “Raze” and what it was like to make the movie. Considering that it was done on a very low budget, I was curious to see how he managed to pull off all that he did with the little he had to work with. We also talked about what fighting styles were used in the movie which has some spectacularly brutal action sequences, how his time in the Marines has influenced his work as a filmmaker, and he told a great story on how he managed to get all the sets for “Raze” built in just one day.

From the poster “Raze” looks like a typical exploitation movie, but it ends up going a lot deeper than that. What inspired you to make this film?

Josh C. Waller: To be honest, I had been working for years on another film completely different that I directed called “McCanick” with David Morse and Cory Montieth. That was something that I had been developing for about nine years with my producing partner who also wrote it, Daniel Noah, and it’s a tough project. It’s a drama with some very heavy subject matter and it was a bit of a bitch to get made, but it finally got green lit.

But about the same time my friend Kenny Gage, he wrote a little short film called “Raze” which was like maybe seven or eight pages, I can’t remember exactly. He just asked me if I would take it home and he was just like, “Hey man, take a look at this thing and I’d love to hear your thoughts.” It wasn’t like, hey take this home, I think you should produce it, I think you should direct it. He was just like, hey take a look at this, I’d love to hear what you think, and I did. So I took it home that night and checked it out, and I thought there was something there. It was essentially the first fight between Jamie (Rachel Nichols) and Sabrina (Zoë Bell), then that was the short. It was a tad more exploitative of what the film ended up eventually being. Women were wearing a bit more revealing clothes and I think it mentioned something about it being particularly busty, and I brought it back to Kenny the next day and I was like, “Dude, there’s something here. I don’t know if I’m down with all the exploitative stuff, but there’s something here.”

It got my mind going, so Kenny and I just started like bouncing things back and forth immediately, and the way that he and I were working together was so organic. The ideas just kept flowing and flowing and flowing, and I think that I really was interested in being a part of it and directing it because it’s not the kind of film that I would normally gravitate to nor is it the type of film that I would normally direct. I didn’t really watch the women-in-prison exploitations films from the 70’s and 80’s stuff, not at all. In fact, I was never really a fan of any of the exploitation films like “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” It just wasn’t my thing, the Roger Corman films. So I was like okay, if I am going to do a film that kind of fits within that world, I’m going to have to take it as seriously as I would take “McCanick” or any other film, you know? I think that that was in my mind, then and still now, the only way we could possibly deal with something like this.

And also it was incredibly exciting for Kenny and I. Kenny, before he got in the industry, was an undefeated professional boxer, and it was important for him and I and Zoë to try to show the most visceral, intense female fights that we had ever seen on the screen. And because every time you see women in a movie in some kind of fight, it seems to be all over the place in the trades and everything like that. That fight scene from “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux), people were like, “There’s the biggest catfight of all time in it!” And I saw it and I was like, “They what?! Man, you guys could have gone like so much further on this!” So we were like let’s see how far we can push this, and trust me when I say that we have so much more footage that we could’ve put in the movie.

Regarding the fight scenes, Zoë said there were different fighting styles used in the movie. Were you looking to employ any particular fighting style or were you just open to whatever worked?

Josh C. Waller: No, in fact we wanted to avoid looking for fighting styles. But what was interesting to me was to try to use the action… It was a little bit of like an experiment to see how much we could use the action to propel the narrative forward as opposed to dialogue or like emotional sequences. That said, the fight sequences themselves are pretty damn emotional, so being able to use those fights to like propel the movie forward emotionally and the narrative, that was something that was super interesting. So it wasn’t so much about looking for specific fighting styles in terms of like, this girl does Muay Thai and then this girl does Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That didn’t really work. We just needed to make sure that their fighting styles, however their fighting styles were, were a physical representation of who they were as women and what they were going through because they’re supposed to be normal women plucked from society.

So occasionally you’ll have like one of the characters that knows how to fight. In the case of Sabrina, she has a military background and is well versed in hand to hand combat, so that’s the way that she fights. She fights very efficiently and she fights like a soldier. But if you start putting different martial arts styles on it… We didn’t want it to be like the female edition of “Best of the Best” or something like that like “Bloodsport” or “Mortal Kombat.”

I read that you served in the Marines for a time, and thank you for your service by the way.

Josh C. Waller: You’re welcome.

Did any of what you learned in the Marines influence the making of this movie for you?

Josh C. Waller: The guards down below I definitely fashioned after Marines. They’re most obvious trait are their Marine haircuts. All of those haircuts I maintained. I was the one who was like, “No, no, no” and then I’d run outside with clippers and be like, “Sit down, sit down while I cut your hair!” Their uniforms, making sure their boots were polished, making sure that their haircuts were clean and not like all nappy and plain looking.

Bruce Thomas who plays Kurtz, he and I had a lot of talks about his performance and how he could mimic the sound and the essence of a Marine drill instructor, so we would talk about a lot of stuff like that. I would put all the guards through a little closed quarter drill or boot camp over in a parking lot outside the set.

In terms of fighting styles, not really; the military thing didn’t inform too much of that stuff. I can definitely say that, in terms of being a filmmaker, I would not be the filmmaker that I am today without it. Whether people think that’s good or bad, I would not be who I am as a man without the Marines. Almost every day, so many aspects of my life are informed because of my choice to join the corp.

Absolutely. I bring that up because I have a family friend who was in the marines, and it has definitely influenced him in how he lives life today, and I think in a very good way.

Josh C. Waller: It becomes one of those things because the Marine Corps is so daunting, and you end up graduating from boot camp and when you earn that title, you are filled with such an immense sense of price and accomplishment for earning that title. You feel a little bit like, “Well if I can do this, I can do anything.” So when you look at other tasks throughout your life, you’re kind of like, “This is lame. This is easy!”

Zoë said that the total budget on “Raze” was less than a million dollars, but it looks like it cost more than that. The thing I continually find fascinating about low budget filmmaking is how it forces you to be more creative as a result. Would you say that was the case on this film?

Josh C. Waller: Absolutely. I mean a perfect example of like how you’re forced to be creative is that like… Zoë was right, the budget was below a million, and if we had 19 action sequences, the shooting ratio on action to straight drama is like 10 to 1. It’s so drastically different. So to say that the shoot was an ambitious shoot is like stating something stupidly obvious.

I think in terms of getting creative, there was one time where I was trying to figure out how the hell we were going to be able to afford… Because all of our sets were built, we shot everything on a soundstage, everything. We didn’t know how we were going to able to pull that off with the money that we had, and I went home one night and I was sitting with my younger brother, and the flipside is as a youth I was the product of a divorce. On the father’s side, I was raised by a Marine cowboy father, and on the other side my mom and stepdad were into theater and dance and jazz and all of that stuff. I would go with my mom to movies on the weekend and I would watch movies like “Arthur” and “Zorro the Gay Blade” and stuff like that.

I went home and I was hanging out with my little brother, and we were watching “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and there’s a big musical number in the movie where all the brothers get together and with people in the neighborhood, and like an Amish community they have a big barn raising, dance and a big party, and I was like, “Holy s—t man! That’s it! We’ll basically do a barn raising for all of our sets!” So I told the guys, “Look, all we have to do is throw a party, we’ll invite our friends, we’ll make teams of four people each and our production designer will be our foreman. And we’ll give a cash prize to whoever finishes their part of the build the fastest.” We had a DJ, we had food and beer and all that kind of stuff, and we built all of the flats for all of the sets in three hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We all drank beer and barbecued. We never would have been able to do it (the regular way). It would have cost us 2 to 3 weeks of labor costs, so that was one of the creative ways. It was fun.

That’s amazing! IFC Midnight is promoting this movie. How does it feel to have them promoting it, and what can you tell us about IFC Midnight?

Josh C. Waller: IFC has been amazing. The person that I’ve been particularly involved with at IFC Midnight has been Mike Winton, and I have to say that it’s been an absolute pleasure. IFC Midnight also put up “Maniac” which my producing partner Elijah Wood was in, and they function within the same world that I function and we function in. Working with them is like working with our friends. It’s been a pleasure. I love it and I can’t wait to work with them again.