A Gun For Jennifer: Interview

Feminism Meets Revenge Flick

by Donato Totaro Volume 1, Issue 5 / August 1997 17 minutes (4117 words)

A Gun for Jennifer is a ballsy, energetic feminist revisionist take on the traditionally male revenge action film. After a successful festival run, it has seen comparisons to such female revenge films as Ms. 45 and Thelma and Louise , though it has as much in common with earlier American classics The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde . Such comparisons hold tenuously, but A Gun for Jennifer surpasses these progenitors at the level of explicit violence and conviction. Though confined by the revenge action genre, it surpasses most with its tight script and solid performances. The film tells the story of a group of angry women (an understatement) who work at a strip bar which fronts as a hang out and planning headquarter for their methodical vigilantism (reminiscent of the hood-run bar in Scorsese’s Mean Streets ). No rapist, misogynist or femme-abuser, whether low-level street thug or well-guarded mafioso, is safe from their collective wrath…. like a feminist twist on Travis Bickle’s tortured attempt to rid the streets of its dirt and grime. Surprisingly, the film has yet to procure North American distribution. It’s a sad comment on the independent scene when such a frank, vibrant, crowd pleasing film that does not compromise on its politics or viscerality is met with closed doors. Its single screening at Montreal’s Fant-Asia Festival was a screaming success. The 900 plus sell-out crowd at the regal Imperial theatre cheered, laughed and emoted at all the right moments, and carried their enthusiasm into the theatre lobby mobbing the slightly perplexed writer/producer/actress and director team of Deborah Twiss and Todd Morris for autographs and questions. Peter Rist and Donato Totaro conducted the following interview with Deborah Twiss and Todd Morris in-between band sets at the noisy Cafe Sarayevo.

Deborah Twiss as Alice

Peter Rist: I’m really amazed that you were able to come up with such a tight script, having shot the film over a 3 year period, can you talk about this.

Deborah Twiss: I started off writing a story that was very theatre based, because that’s the environment I come from, then I handed it over to Todd and he turned it into a screenplay and added the cop element. Altogether the screenplay itself took a year-and-a-half, before we even started our 3 year process of shooting the film. So we definitely stuck to the script for the most part, except for when the actors wanted to improv lines, which is the only way we deviated from the script; and of course in the final editing process things were changed around.

Todd Morris: Basically, because we didn’t have a lot of money we didn’t have the luxury of shooting these little random scenes we could add or take out at will. Every scene we shot we knew we had to use. It was more like eliminating scenes because we had too many and it was more like, God I wish we had more money so we could do this one scene and then we’d work and work and try and come up with enough money to do that one scene and get enough of what we needed. So that’s how our script making process was affected over time.

Donato Totaro: How did the money problems effect your shooting process. Did you, for example, have a very low shooting ratio?

Todd: Well, I hate these stupid stories where people say, oh yeah we did it all in one take, I find that very difficult to believe because basically, even if you try to keep your shooting schedule really low, unexpected problems will occur. The first take is going to be bad because the actors don’t know what they are doing or maybe they do know what they are doing but there is a hair in the gate or the focus puller screwed up or a plane flew overhead. So that’s one. You do take number 2 and something else goes wrong, someone forgot to turn the phone off and it rings or somebody trips. So our shooting ratio was about 4 or 5 to 1, which is realistic.

Deborah: That was one of the really good things about shooting 16mm it’s so much easier to burn through film and not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Peter: Well, shooting over three years, did you have actors drop out, and have to reshoot scenes with different actors, and were you roughly shooting it in sequence or not?

Deborah: Well not so much in sequence because we had to shoot the film as we had the locations. In terms of losing actors, yes we lost Jessie. We had wanted to do some important pick-up shots, or what we thought we important at the time, and we called her up and she said oh, I cut all my hair off, and since that happened we didn’t use her for the reshoots. Also over the following year-and-a-half or so of doing the editing she met a cinematographer from Brazil and married the guy and now she’s living down there having children and has dropped out of acting completely.

Todd: One of the early actors when we first started shooting let us shoot for a month and a half and suddenly she appeared on set one day with someone she called her agent and manager, a leg breaker guy and said, well you’re not paying me but now I demand you pay me since you shot all this film and you can’t go back now, so we said the hell with you, you’re gone and we replaced her and reshot all the scenes with her in it, with a new actress. That’s the kind off thing you have to deal with in New York. Everyone’s a scam artist, everyone thinks that they’re worth a million dollars.

Donato: I thought the representation of the police was very authentic and believable. Did you do actual research or base this on other films or television cops?

Todd: Of course it was a combination. It’s inevitable that you will be influenced by seeing other police type movies, or for example in the 70’s the police genre was very big in America on television, and I saw my fill of cop shows in the 70’s, Kojak, Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Police Story, so I’m a child of the media. But I’ve also read a lot about the police in novels and crime stories and actually the actor that plays lieutenant Rizzo, the older guy, he was a real cop, a retired NY city homicide detective and also worked for the dda (drug enforcement administration), and was a marine in Vietnam. He was a really colorful guy and if he had something to add to the script we just let him go, we let the camera run on.

Peter: Were a lot of the actors non-professional because I was very impressed with the level of performance in the film?

Deborah: They were working on small things but yes they were all non-sag, non-union. So we got them all through Backstage and they all went through a certain audition process where we had their resumes, pictures, we evaluated everything, we evaluated their education, we really made sure that we got people who we thought were capable..or tried to at least.

Todd: We auditioned quite a few people, two days of seeing people we’d never seen before. We put an ad in the trade paper Backstage that everybody reads if they’re a wannabe actor or actress and they sent us a thousand resumes, headshots, 1500 whatever, Deborah counted them, and we did our first run through where they would do a dual monologue and if we liked what they did we’d bring them back. I video taped all the one’s I thought were interesting and from those tapes we decided which ones would be the best, and if we had any question about one or two for one part we’d call them in again.

Peter: A couple of questions about the script again Deborah. Something I really liked was that you were able to get political content in there without being didactic, without having people standing around talking too much, and I think that’s very difficult to do. Did you work for a long time on getting that part of it right?

Deborah: Well, actually, my version was very talkie because I come from a theatre background, all these woman had these long monologues and it was Todd’s doing that concentrated it all and put it into the visuals and into much more concise dialogue. That was very important because he does come from such a film eye background, so it was a good collaboration on that level.

Todd: We didn’t really dwell on a political agenda, basically the theme of the whole film is based on, or germinated from female rage. We took the position what if you had a collection of 5 or 6 very damaged, angry women who because of the way they were brought up, the things that happened to them throughout their lives, to just show this really radical, almost terrorist cult behaviour. That’s basically how we looked at it. We didn’t moralize it, just here are these women, this is what they have been through and this is why they’re behaving the way they are. We wanted to show that we weren’t behind vigilantism, we showed that violence has terrible consequences. The wrong people die, you live by the gun you die by the gun.

Peter: Another film I saw last year that was sort of similar and that I liked a lot but that was less successful in terms of getting the content into the script without boring people or making it seem like an intellectual film, was Set It Off, I’m not sure whether you saw that film with black women?

Todd: We’re familiar with the film but we haven’t seen it. We were very concerned when it came out, about people thinking we copied that film.

Peter: No I could tell there was no relation there, but it’s interesting to me that there’s a clear lesbian character in that film and you sort of chose not to stress the sexual preference. I wonder if you could talk about that a bit.

Deborah: Yes because overall our film was not about sex and we thought it was better if we left it up to the audience to decide what they thought these characters were about. If we started presenting these scenes where the female characters start making out with each other it would feel like an exploitation film geared toward men that longed to see two women together, and we really wanted to avoid that kind of thing at all costs.

Todd: There’s the inevitable thing that one must avoid is portraying women who are powerful and angry and taking the power away from men as the stereotypical castrating lesbian bitches. Which is what would happen, so I thought it was a much wiser choice to leave it up to the audience, where maybe sex isn’t important for some of these women, maybe some of them have lesbian sex, and maybe some have sex with men. It doesn’t really matter, because they’re coming from a point of view of being damaged and I didn’t think it was relevant to the story.

Donato: I remember when Dirty Harry came out and Death Wish in the early seventies, these vigilante films were always labelled as being right wing, but there’s no way I think your film could be labelled right wing, yet it’s a vigilante film. I have my own reasons for why I think it’s not a right wing film, I was wondering whether you could talk about this, is it because left and right isn’t an issue so much these days?

Todd: Well, left and right is definitely an issue these days, especially in the US, where everybody rushes to try and label something as being rightist or leftist or whatever. I’m definitely not a right wing guy, but the whole idea is that partisan politics isn’t an issue either; this is pure female rage, it’s not politically motivated or slanted as a republican or Democrat or liberal, but pure rage, it’s this catharsis. I wanted to make a film that was cathartic from a female point of view.

Donato: The reason I don’t see it as being a right wing film is because with all the other films I mentioned, plus I Spit on Your Grave, Ms. 45 it’s always an individual who does what they have to do, whereas in your film the emphasis is on the collectivity, on the unity, the group, on doing things together.

Todd: That’s an interesting way of looking at it, but then again you could have a collection of neo-Nazi’s, so I don’t think that’s it, it’s just basically these are very angry women, they see something in the world they can’t stand and they try to change it, be it right or wrong, in their eyes its right. From an outsider’s view it’s wrong, and it is wrong, but I just wanted to explore these damaged women behaving this way.

Peter: Again, on the script as much as the film, I really like the range of characters, given that you’d think this is very straightforward, like a single line type of subject, but you had lots of shadings of characters, particularly with the two police officers. I think in a genre situation the characters who get sacrificed are either women or non-whites, was that conscious having the white cop be the one who gets killed and the black woman the one who survives?

Todd: Yes that was definitely conscious. I couldn’t have seen detective pretty boy Grady going off and confronting these women and having it end up the same way.

Donato: The Billy character is African-American, she’s Hispanic, she’s a woman, she has a lot of the minorities covered!

Todd: One interesting thing about the police in New York is that they’re born into it, they’re mostly of either Irish or Italian background and they married each other’s relatives. None of them live in Manhattan, they all live in Long Island, which is the suburban area, and then they come into the city and look at all these dark people and they can’t wait to slam them up against the wall.

Donato: Well, we have a similar problem here, but that’s a long story.

Peter: I lived in New York myself for 4 years, I went to NYU film school, and it struck me that this is a very NY film as well. Both of you are not from NY right?

Deborah: We both have lived there for a long time. I’ve lived there for nine years and Todd for 11 years.

Peter: And you’re both still alive and not crazy!

Deborah: Or so it seems…I ‘m not really alive and I am crazy!

Donato: I’m just wondering how you feel when you watch the audience watching the film like a few nights ago here at Fant-Asia when the audiences get off on the violence and there’s this collective YAAA. What do you think they’re getting off on? How do you feel about that?

Todd: Well I think violence in movies serves a purpose, as opposed to politicians who think that disturbing movies spur people to do awful, horrible things, hence the argument for censorship. I think the opposite. If I’m having a bad day and if I go see something that’s really cathartic where I could identify with the underdog and the underdog vents and gets to behave violently, then I feel like it’s been lifted for me..I live it vicariously and I walk out fresh and I don’t have to deal with it anymore. But that’s me, maybe I’m crazy, but I’m not one of those who blames society’s ills on what people read or watch.

Deborah: For me, when I witness the audience reacting to certain things, it’s very predictable to me when they are going to react to the violence. I really enjoy it when they react to the black humor that’s hidden in the film. There are many people who don’t get the humor, and when I see an audience like Friday night, really get it, that’s so exciting.

Donato: Can you give me an example?

Deborah: The first thing that comes to mind is the very end of the film with the scene of the two women at the roadside bar. You can feel what’s happening and the audience slowly builds and builds and the girls look at each other and start laughing, and then the audience bursts into applause when A Gun For Jennifer comes on the screen, that’s so exhilarating. If I could only bottle that feeling and take it everyday as a vitamin!

Peter: There’s a lot of laughter at the machismo of the men as well, that was a shared thing. This is an interesting festival for this subject because we’ve seen a lot of things that were not intentionally funny in a lot of places but the audience wants to really laugh, and I was thinking in terms of showing the film in a horror film festival or a film festival of the fantastic, where there are ways in which your film doesn’t always fit, yet this particular audience seemed to respond. You’ve been in other fantasy or horror festivals, can you talk a little about the difference between this experience and other festivals?

Deborah: The one fantasy festival that we were at that didn’t quite get the film, because most of them get it the same way, very well, oddly enough was Rome [Fantafest]. I think it was because it’s such a machismo society there that this film completely obliterated the way they think, there wasn’t anything for them to anchor into. The women weren’t naked, there was no sex, the men weren’t powerful, it was very disturbing for them.

Donato: Just a very general question. Did you have a visual style in mind before you starting shooting that you carried through?

Todd: Yes, because we knew we’d be shooting in 16mm, and we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of money for a huge amount of lights, we knew there would be a certain amount of grain with the film being shot mainly at night. I really wanted to go for that 1970’s cop movie look, the really garish colour and the neon lights…a real blaxploitation, urban feel, that’s the aesthetic I was really trying to go for. The grain of the 16mm film lends itself very well to that sort of look.

Donato: Did you do anything special in the transfer to 35mm?

Todd: Well with the timing, we had to adjust the timing, because it’s not an automatic process. A shot will turn out totally red, or green and you have to adjust, not because of a mistake with the negative but because that’s the process in film.

Donato: Can you discuss how the situation with the corporate embezzling of one of your financial backers affected the production?

Todd: We got through principal photography in the fall of 1993 and the bottom fell out, it was over. Our so-called financier called us at 4 in the morning one night in January and said, sorry but I stole all the money, I’m leaving and you’re on your own. A couple of weeks later an old private investigator came knocking at our door and told us that his client was a big Japanese corporation who was a victim of a big embezzler and we were subsequently sued for all the money the guy had given us for the movie and our bank accounts were frozen. We couldn’t do anything and we were lucky enough to find an attorney, a Wall Street attorney who used to be a federal prosecutor who felt sorry for us and picked up our case. We still owe the guy $20,000 in legal fees, so we’re so far in debt in legal fees its disgusting. Since then, in 1994 we did a couple of pick-up shots, we shot for 7 or so days in 1994, 3 or 4 days in 1995, did all the postproduction and finished in the spring of 1996. So it really prolonged the whole process.

Donato: Just getting back to the script, the characters, were you conscious of the make-up of the female vigilante group in terms of ethnicity, race, because there’s the black woman, the hispanic woman?

Todd: Yes, the only thing I was disappointed by is that I was really looking for an Asian actress to play one of the roles but no one showed up. I had no Asian actresses apply for the roles. I had no luck. I think most of the Asian women who want to be actresses are successful and they get into the union very quickly. There were no non-union Asian actresses who had any experience at all.

Donato: What was it like for you directing Deborah?

Todd: It was very different because I was able to use my knowledge of her personality, the things that make her tick. I was familiar with her history and hence things about her that no one else knew, and so it was very easy for me to turn on a certain emotion by cuing something that I knew about her that no one else would. In that way it was efficient and good.

Donato: If the film is autobiographical I imagine it’s mainly on Deborah’s side, or is there anything, Todd, from your personal side?

Todd: For me it was like living vicariously through her anger because she would come home after working very hard at the go-go bar and unload. She would tell me all about her experiences and I would get so angry about it that there was a lot of fury built up in me, so it was also very cathartic for me to make the film.

Peter: There’s one thing I didn’t like about the film, or more precisely, about America, and that is this sort of what you term rage, this acceptance of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth mentality, and I wonder if you had a comment on that?

Todd: Well I understand what you’re saying, I really do, but because I’m coming from an American point of view obviously I’m tainted by that whole culture, a culture in which I was raised. The American movies, the films I grew up on, that’s the aesthetic and cultural awareness that I had, and because of that at least cinematically, not in real life, I can separate the two, cinematically it’s accepted that there be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I think also in trying to flesh out these characters realistically they would think this way. This is the code of the street, the code of the underclass who are stomped upon. It’s a very animalistic point of view, be it American or whatever. And I’ve definitely seen this in many other countries, but yes it is an American phenomenon.

Peter: I really enjoyed that in the film, like in Thelma and Louise , where there’s a payback to what has come before, but I just see that as a social problem as well, this acceptance of revenge, the revenge fantasy as the norm.

Todd: Yes, but with the revenge fantasy, like I said, we went out of our way to show that revenge never turns out the way you plan it.

Donato: Just a final question about the turn to the weird in the final sequence with the cannibalism at the “party.” Is there a subtext to Jessie being eaten by the villains?

Todd: Aside from making the villain more loathsome I hope audiences don’t just see that sequence as an attempt at grossout. I really wanted that to reflect the ultimate shit that Jessie and other women have gone through in their lives…being eaten alive.

A Gun For Jennifer: Interview

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 1, Issue 5 / August 1997 Interviews   action film   fantasia   feminism   independent cinema   todd morris   violence