Exclusive Interview; First Clips from “THE BADGER GAME”Features/Interviews,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
With the modern take on torture films and their prominence in the independent horror landscape, it’s somewhat surprising that not too many filmmakers have tried to turn the concept on its head. Dark comedy is not uncommon among low budget horror, but very rarely does it show up in that particular subgenre without becoming too overbearing in a stylistic presentation.
That’s why a film like THE BADGER GAME, the new kidnapping thriller from Josh Wagner and Thomas Zambeck, is able to stand out among it’s straight-faced and bleak brethren. THE BADGER GAME takes aspects of both horror comedy and torture films, twisting them into character quirks which drive the film further into unpredictability. As the film hits the festival circuit, FANGORIA caught up with co-director Zambeck for an exclusive interview about how the film was conceived, finding the right tone and shooting with digital distribution on the mind…
FANGORIA: So how did you come aboard THE BADGER GAME? Were you behind the project from the beginning or did you join it later?
THOMAS ZAMBECK: THE BADGER GAME was my baby from the start. Necessity is the mother of invention in the low-budget world, so I was the writer, director and producer on the project. So it started with me, but fortunately I had a co-writer, co-director and co-producer every step of the way in Josh Wagner.
[Josh] has been a good friend of mine since film school, so we banged out a script; I sent him the first draft and he sent me back a draft that was completely different. So the next eight months was going back and forth on it with the goal of writing something that was fairly self-contained but also intense and in the mold of a genre picture. We wanted to make something we knew we could actually raise the money to do, so in that eight months, that’s what we did. And in 12 months, we were shooting THE BADGER GAME.
FANGORIA: The one thing commendable about THE BADGER GAME was that the film is set up like a standard torture film, but goes into a completely different direction. It’s almost like the “anti-torture film.” Was that something you were conscious of when you put the film together?
ZAMBECK: I’m glad you said that! Not a lot of people point that out, but yes, that’s exactly what we were doing in. For a little backstory on me, I used to work for Anchor Bay Entertainment as their convention manager. So I used to travel to all of the horror conventions and comic cons, including the FANGORIA Weekend of Horrors.
So I would network with fans, being a horror fan my whole life, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that horror fans are some of the smartest filmgoers out there. They usually pick up on things that casual moviegoers don’t see, yet they’re really disrespected in terms of the content that’s available to them. So with THE BADGER GAME, we took the opportunity to make a movie for horror fans that’s not a true horror film. [laughs]
So we used a lot of elements that’s common to horror movies, between the stylized visuals, the practical effects, the creepy masks, etc. But we turned it into more of a character study and a thriller. We wanted to engage your mind while also showing you the things you expect from a horror film and love about the genre.
FANGORIA: THE BADGER GAME is a very dialogue driven genre project. What was the creative choice that led to that approach?
ZAMBECK: It was a little bit because of the budget, but it’s also tied into the story. There’s a big difference between a story and a plot. The plot is about two scorned lovers who decide to kidnap their married boyfriend, but the plot is familiar and you’ve seen it before. What drives the story forward, in my opinion, are the characters and their internal struggles. That’s what brings them together.
I liked the idea of taking a gory kidnapping caper and showing the characters are internally rather than follow the “botched-kidnapping-gone-wrong” formula that we’ve seen before. It’s not about the outside forces that descend upon them or how they react to them. It’s about what their internal struggles are and how that reflects upon the plot.
FANGORIA: Did you guys already have a cast in mind before you began the project or did you go through the standard audition procedure?
ZAMBECK: We went through a very rigorous audition process, which is necessary for a low budget film because you’re asking a lot from people for a financial commitment- or lack thereof- and their availability and time. So we spent a lot of time on the casting process; probably longer than what we spent on production since we went through so many auditions and actors.
It’s actually funny; Augie Duke, who was in BAD KIDS GO TO HELL and has a little credibility in the horror film community, has been a friend of Josh Wagner for a long time. She was the first person we auditioned and the last person we cast, so she’d make jokes to us about how her callback was 4 months after her audition.
But the one thing we kept in mind during casting was that we didn’t really want who we liked for the role; we needed who we liked for the role against someone else in a role. These characters are together throughout the entire film, so it was all about how they looked together, how they read together, and if their personalities were different. And if we changed one piece of that puzzle, other pieces had to change as well. So we had to cast THE BADGER GAME in the context of the group and not the individual.
FANGORIA: Considering that the independent distribution landscape has changed to become VOD-centric in recent years, did that influence you as a filmmaker at all during production?
ZAMBECK: Definitely, especially considering I had worked on the distribution side of things before in the marketplace. So I couldn’t help but have that in the back of my mind, and with everything changing, it’s especially tough to shoot something low-budget for a theatrical expectation. It’s great as a creative artist to really want your movie on two thousand screens, but in this day and age, that’s not a practical reality. The practical reality is that you’re trying to get as many eyeballs on your film as possible, and the best way to do that is to shoot digitally and aim for a digital VOD audience. So for a lack of a better term, we did aim for that and had that in our minds throughout the production process.
FANGORIA: There’s a moral ambiguity that runs through the characters in THE BADGER GAME. In fact, I don’t think there’s one definably good character throughout the film. Was that also an intentional decision in terms of who you wanted populating this story?
ZAMBECK: We did actually have that in mind during production. It’s interesting to hear people’s criticisms on the film, because that’s something we always hear about the film negatively. The criticisms are usually that the film has no protagonists and there’s nobody to root for. I personally root for Kelly, which is Jillian Leigh’s character, as she’s the innocent who has been roped into this plan.
But I’ve always liked films where there’s no good guys or bad guys. That’s how people are; we’re complex. Sometimes, good people do bad things and sometimes bad people can have heroic moments. We wanted to make something where the characters may not be likeable, but you can certainly relate to them. And if you can relate to a character who is doing something unlikeable, maybe you might question yourself a little bit.
FANGORIA: Do you have any particularly memorable moments from the set of THE BADGER GAME that’s stuck with you?
ZAMBECK: Pretty much every moment was memorable because time was so tight on this low budget shoot. But we had a sex scene in the movie that was pretty intense, and Josh and I had never done anything like that before. So it wasn’t easy directing that scene. It was interesting because before we had even shot the scene, we were already behind schedule so we took the actors in the scene and had a long sit down with them. So the crew was waiting around for us to make the technical decisions but we wanted to make sure that everyone in the room was comfortable with how everything went. It wasn’t even about the sexuality as much as it was about the proximity in which the crew was in the room, which made everything very intimate.
We also did some guerrilla filmmaking on the backroads of California. That was pretty fun; we had somebody stationed as a lookout to warn us if any cars were coming, since we were shooting on some desolate road. Also, much of the movie is set in that one garage, so it was cool to find and light that space to make it a character unto itself.
Keep an eye out for THE BADGER GAME as it makes the festival rounds in your area, and look for more updates on the film as they develop! In the meantime, check out the exclusive clips and still gallery below!