Created as an homage to ’70s exploitation films, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives by Texan writer/director/editor Israel Luna pays visual tribute to the grindhouse flick in an intentionally over-the-top send up of the revenge fantasy featuring three lovely showgirls out for the blood of the men who’ve seriously abused them and killed two of their friends. Having an appreciation for the genre is definitely a key factor in taking pleasure in a film that’s meant to be “bad” as is the willingness to experience exaggerated violence, including some gory scenes played for black comedy laughs. It’s not a perfect film – Luna sometimes overplays his hand, working the grindhouse gags a little too heavily and the scenes that go on too long are neatly balanced by the scenes that are too short – but overall, for those who can get into it, it’s good trashy fun.
Israel Luna and terrifically charming Ticked-Off co-star Willam Belli (who plays Rachel Slurr in the film) came to Seattle to present their film at SIFF this past weekend and talked about the making, the meaning, and the reaction to their movie.
Was it fun making the movie?
WB: Making it was an experience – it was the hottest I’ve ever been in my life. It was 117 degrees one day, we were on a hayride, in full beat – beat means full make-up…
IL: Actually the hayride was not even the hottest day
WB: Oh, that was a cool day? I’m sorry. It was hot. I got a fishnet pattern sunburn – try explaining that to your boyfriend. That was not cute. The warehouse was really bad; it was the bashing scene and I’m bloody at one point on the floor and I was laying there for so long because I didn’t want to get up between takes because I’d just have to lay back down on the dirty ass floor and it was so hot that my wig became one with the cement. They had to unpin my head to get me up and then the wig just stayed there all sad. They tried to wash it and it became like maraschino dirty cherry red and I’m like, “Um…yeah, that’s not the color of the hair in the movie.” Then they tried to really wash it with a stronger chemical shampoo and it came out. They were like “Well, we’re going to do one more rinse with it.” They did one more rinse with it and it became dreadlocks.
IL: What we worked out with the warehouse was–they didn’t know what to charge us because no one had ever approached them about shooting a movie there. So we said, “We want to pay you something so how about they way we work this out.” All the way in the back [of the warehouse] is this tiny room where we put everyone and we said, “What if we just buy you an A/C to put back there and that’ll be the fee.” They said, “Oh, we would love that,” so we bought their AC that we put in the back and the rest of it was not air conditioned at all.
WB: I would’ve brought them central air for them to say, “No, you can’t film here” because I never want to go back to that place.
IL: So, yeah, it was really hot. But other than that, it was really cool, it was just the heat.
WB: The last night there was better because it was one of the girls’ birthday and we were gussied a little bit. Which is good because that’s the night we were driving [Luna's] car. But it was on private property so it doesn’t count as drunk driving!
IL: But they were driving right up to me and stopping! I didn’t know they had been drinking or I wouldn’t have done that.
WB: Well, it was Krystal [Summers] and she was the driver and she’s got a degree so she was the most responsible out of us three, so it’s okay.
You mentioned your wig getting destroyed in the movie. Was that your own wardrobe in the movie?
WB: A lot of the wardrobe was supplied by the girls. The key pieces that needed to be doubled were provided by our hair/makeup/wardrobe vanity team who were amazing. It was led by a woman named Chase [Wade], who has a lot of experience in the girls’ world. It was her idea to have us in those candy-colored, jewel-toned pastel-y dresses and that really worked out cute. We were all like, “Really? We wouldn’t wear this,” but…I mean, we thought like that, but we didn’t think like an audience, thinking, “Why were they all matching?” We just thought we looked cute and we were all in our little things and it worked, but try telling five showgirls what they have to wear…
IL: And Chase would vent to me.
WB: And there was a fight the last day with one of the girls and Chase and then I was in the middle doing my make-up and they were fighting over me and I ended up with so much blush on because I was, just, like…[mimes applying blush like painting a wall]. It was great–except my blush.
IL: And then, of course, I’m here trying to keep everybody happy and then Chase would tell me, “Israel, you just have to tell them, it’s going to look good!”
WB: I believed her a little bit but her methods were a little…at one point she got insistent, because she knew what was best, and some of the girls didn’t believe her. Most of the time she was right, but one of the times Krystal’s stunt double chimed in: “I think it would be cute if we wore that belt, too”–a belt Krystal didn’t want to wear and didn’t end up wearing–and I’m like, “Honey, now is not the time to talk.”
Was there a lot of drama on the set?
IL: There wasn’t anything really extreme. Probably the biggest thing was with the actress Kelexis [Davenport] who played Pinky because we had gotten them stunt doubles and the stunt double for Bubbles looked like her, very feminine and the stunt double we had for Pinky was a football player. I guess she was offended by that and it caused a little problem because we had to take her aside and all of us, it was a meeting of six people, and we had to talk to her about why we needed this. She said, “He doesn’t look anything like me!” and “I can do it myself!” and I didn’t know how to handle that. I said we just have to make her happy and if she says she can do it, let’s have her do it and then if it doesn’t look great, we can bring him in. That was kind of a little dramatic.
WB: My stunt double was a man, too, but I’ve been beat up on any cop show that you can name for the past ten years, like it’s my thing. I guest star on cop shows and get beat up. I’m good at my own stunts but nobody asked us, “Well, what are you comfortable with?” They just assumed we needed stunt doubles. Once we sorted out that we liked to be able to at least attempt to do our own stuff, it was cool. I mean, my stunt double was a fucking man–he was a beast. But Kelexis’s…I mean, when you have a nickname that starts out “Big Herm”…it’s like, his name started out with “Big”. Poor girl.
IL: But it was really good and I hope I was open enough that when you’d say, “Oh, I can do this..”
WB: You let me try everything. I like to try and attempt to do it and train for half an hour for the stunt and then let my double do it.
Was this your first film?
IL: No, this is my sixth. But there’s a couple of them that I don’t really consider my films…this is, I would say my fourth, really because the others were sort of stepping stones. I think I’m finally developing my niche with the melding of genres.
So what made you decide to do this particular project?
IL: Because of my frustration with all of the hate crimes that I would read about. I remember specifically seeing surveillance video that was online on CNN.com or something about an older gay man leaving a gay bar and on the street these three guys came and beat him up and then left him there. And then he slowly got up and left and the response from the…
WB: That was in the middle of the street, right? I remember seeing that, too.
IL: …and the response from the gay community was, “Well, let’s not get upset, let’s try to understand the bashers. Let’s have a discussion about it…” and I thought, “No, no, I’m tired of hearing that from everybody.” It makes me angry, so I wrote this out of that frustration and I thought, well, I chose transgender women because I thought that nowadays, the whole thing for a while, 10 or 15 years ago, was having the gay sidekick on the show, that was the new thing. Well, now that’s just so done and it’s no big deal anymore and the most under-represented and most misunderstood, I think, is transgendered women so I thought I would write it with transgendered women to have a little more education to people, disguised as a horror film that’s a crazy, bloody mess. That’s very non-threatening because I don’t think a lot of people would watch a documentary, outside of the LGBT community.
WB: And that’s what a lot of the protesters were saying, like, “this isn’t our message”. Well, it’s a movie. It isn’t your message. If you want to make a movie about transsexuals who garden in peace, or something, go for it.
IL: When I was starting to write the revenge scene, I thought, how can the girls weaken the guys at the beginning, to let them just sit there and listen because I wanted to write more banter between the girls talking back and forth, like the apology of “Well, you screwed things up!” “How did I screw things up?” I wanted to write stuff like that so I thought well how can they disarm them? I thought, “Oh, I know exactly how”. Instead of the girls being strong and tough like them, they were just clever and smart.
WB: Violence is the answer sometimes.
IL: That was one of the things that I also wanted to say in the film. Some of the protesters were saying “You shouldn’t do this because it’s going to make transgendered women look like they’re these vigilantes out there killing people with knives.” I keep saying it wasn’t unprovoked. They pushed and pushed and pushed and then the girls were forced to do this, it’s not them just going, “Oh, they just pushed me” or “they just called me a name, I’m going to beat them up.” It wasn’t like that.
WB: We got to do that, we weren’t forced. We got to go shopping for outfits.
IL: …in a house with no air conditioning in Texas. We always had to turn off the AC because of sound issues. I don’t know how you did it.
WB: We were in all black and Kelexis, the biggest of us, was in a full Afro wig, too. Afro wigs are made of synthetic hair, usually, which is plastic. At least mine was real but her outfit was vinyl. All the girls wore full sleeves and legs and boots and I’m like, “I’m wearing capri pants and a bustier!” I ain’t going to be hot. Oh, and I wore a lace make-up thing because they were like, “We’re going to do really intricate make-up.” The other girls have major make-up on and I’m like, “I’m covering my face so I don’t have to keep touching up my face. I’m going to be sweating like a beast.”
IL: And on top of that, that was a pick up shot that we did two weeks later because we ran short on time and we couldn’t afford any more shooting days. We gathered a little bit of what we could. We were supposed to shoot the last fight scene in two days but at the end of the first day the girls all said, “We’re in our outfits, we have all the make-up on, let’s just keep shooting.” And we shot 27 hours straight.
WB: That was a very difficult day and I would do it again because I’m happy with the result. I’m so glad we all stayed. We started banging them out where it was like “Okay, this!” “This next one,” where everyone moves over. I would be telling the lighting guy where to put my key lights so I wouldn’t look like a hobgoblin…we were very particular about lighting. The girls wore different lashes. There’s a roundtable scene where you can’t see the whites of anybody’s eyes because they’re wearing huge lashes. They’re showgirl lashes. I’m in normal sized ones and you can see mine, but they still all looked prettier than me. Lighting is hard for a movie with transsexuals.
IL: Actually, that one scene, the roundtable that we called the “Sex in the City” scene, it took a while to convince our cinematographer to light from below. He kept saying, “Just give me a second” and then he’d do the lighting and all the girls were looking at me, going “Can we please tell him we need to be lit from under” so I finally went and told him and he said, “Okay, let’s try it” and he did it and he was like, “Oh, I get it.”
WB: It was the best possible way to shoot it without chopping a table in half.
How long was shooting all together?
IL: Eighteen days.
WB: With the pick up?
IL: Eighteen…nineteen days. It was 18 days and then we took a two-week break and then we did that final day.
WB: That two week break that you guys flew me in for and then Erica [Andrews] kept me out til 6 am the night before. Pushed me in a pool.
How long was it in post?
IL: It was about four to six months. I would edit here and there and I would take a few days off. We finished the shooting at the end of July and then I was done editing about January. We screened February 3rd.
You’ve had protesters, but how has the audience been when you’ve been at screenings with the audience?
IL: It’s been really great. I was really nervous that people might just read something and go in with their arms crossed and just make themselves not like it. It seems like a lot of transgender women are wanting to see the film now and I can’t think of one, honestly, that has seen the film and still thought, “Oh, no, this is bad for us.” They’ve all said that it’s very empowering so that’s really great to know. We’re noticing that there’s a lot of non-LGBT people watching it and they’re loving it so that’s the best thing.
WB: Last night when I asked people if they knew what BloodRayne was, which is a straight man video game about a hot vampire hunter girl, twenty-something hands went up and I’m like, “oh my god”. And there were 76 people who stayed for the Q&A. When they ask him questions I get bored so I count how many people stay. I was like, there’s a lot of straight people here so that was cool. In the end you really think that the girls–because they are–are women. The characters that we play are definitely women. We on the screen look like women. Kalexis and Krystal definitely do. I mean, I’m a little like…eh…but I have all the characteristics of a woman, I wear all the make-up, and so you think the characters are women. It just falls away that it’s something else and they’re just getting their revenge because that’s what they should do. It’s not because of anything down south.
IL: There was a woman in her late 60s in Dallas and she said, “I wanted to let you know that I watched the film and halfway into the film I forgot they were transgendered women” which is one of my messages in the film, that they’re just like everybody else. They’re women and that’s it. There’s no other confusion, that’s who they are. I’m glad that the festivals are picking up on that and the mainstream audience and the fact that we’re starting to get into the horror festivals as well. It’s not a “gay” film that only the LGBT audience is going to get, it goes across the borders. It’s a huge compliment. I made it a point not to explain the transgendered woman, you know, the background of why it’s called this. I started the film with them talking and that’s it. If you have questions – are these guys? are these girls?–you know what? Tough luck, just watch the movie. And in the end, does it matter?