If you’re up on your independent genre film producers then Travis Stevens is a name that you’ll be very familiar with – if not, you should seriously check out his body of work. His IMDB producing credits read like a carefully crafted must-watch list featuring films such as Starry Eyes, Cheap Thrills, Teenage Cocktail, Buster’s Mal Heart and We Are Still Here. Stevens is the founder and CEO of Snowfort Pictures which, in the words of their website, is ‘a boutique production company specializing in the development, financing, and production of commercial genre films. Working with both established filmmakers and first-time talent, Snowfort Pictures partners with financiers, sales agents and distributors from around the world to bring unique, high-quality films to audiences hungry for something different.‘
His latest project 68 Kill, directed by Trent Haaga, is another hit and arrives in the UK on DVD this week.
Starring AnnaLynne McCord, Matthew Gray Gubler and Alisha Boe, 68 Kill is based on a novel by Bryan Smith and tells the story of Chip (Gubler) and one wild night. He finds himself coerced into stealing $68,000 by his manipulative girlfriend Liza (McCord), and things escalate from there as Chip crosses paths with a multitude of unsavory characters.
68 Kill got its UK premiere at Frightfest and we were fortunate enough to get some time to sit down with the super producer, here’s what he had to say…
Frightfest celebrates the dark heart of cinema, how does 68 Kill line up with that?
68 Kill shows the dark heart of human beings. It’s really just a movie about people being ruthless to get what they want; not being so concerned with the emotional cost that it can do to their partners or other people. On the surface, it’s a wild, exciting, extreme, outrageous, violent crime comedy. I think fans of Tarantino films, and Trent Haaga’s other work, will certainly have a lot there that they will enjoy.
How did you get involved? Were you there at the inception, or did you join later down the line?
Well, Trent, the writer/director, is a friend for many years now, we worked together on Cheap Thrills, then he did a scene in Starry Eyes which we ended-up cutting out, and we did American Muscle together. We just work together a lot and love him and he’d said ‘hey I wanna direct another movie, there’s this crime novelist I’m a big fan of, Bryan Smith, why don’t you read this book and tell me what you think’. I read it and was like ‘oh yeah this will be great!’ Then Trent went and wrote the script and we developed and developed it, changed some stuff from the novel, and spent a lot of time making sure the movie version of the story worked on its own terms. Both in plot and structure, but also in the tone of the characters. When you’re reading a crime novel things can be a bit broader, but once you’re actually seeing it in real life on-screen you have to – they’re different formats with different strengths and weaknesses, but we really put a lot of work in making sure the characters did feel at least sort of grounded and motivated in realistic human terms.
All the characters are kind of terrible, but I didn’t hate any of them, in fact, I kinda liked them…
Trent is going to be overjoyed to hear that because, for him, his whole worldview is he doesn’t see them as bad characters. He’s like, ‘people do terrible things, this is the way life is’. He’ll be overjoyed to hear that because that exact quote is sort of what I think he was trying to do with the movie. People do terrible things, but they can still be likable. That’s a credit to his ability to write dialogue that endears you to characters and get performances that are charismatic enough that you’re – ‘I really like this Dwayne guy, I mean he’s a terrible, terrible human being, but gosh, I just like him.’
So how hands-on are you as a producer?
To a flaw, I’m hands on. It’s something that, in my perspective, when I say ‘we’re making a movie’ we – the filmmaker/director and I – are making the movie. I’m not really drawn to this from a financial standpoint, it’s all about the creative for me. So a lot of times you really are working hand-in-hand from the script all the way through to edit to help shape it and make sure the movie conveys your intentions. Identifying what you want the movie to say and then making sure that it does it. Sometimes it can be beautiful and easy, and sometimes it can be challenging.
You have taken on some projects that other places would have deemed too risky. What is it about these projects that makes them worthwhile getting them out there?
They have something to say, or at least I think they do. They’re reflective of some sort of personal thing that I respond to, or there’s some sort of contemporary culture relevance, that it has something to say. A lot of it just driven by what is mine or the director’s connection to the story, and is it relevant enough to find an audience? While other people might view them as risky or not, it’s the most obvious choice to make for me, it’s like totally obvious.
In the last few years, you have had a hand in some of my favourite films – Starry Eyes, Teenage Cocktail, Cheap Thrills. My favourite of the three has to be Starry Eyes, which like Teenage Cocktail, starred Fabianne Therese – she’s such a good actress. I hated her character with a passion in Starry Eyes, but then really liked her in Teenage Cocktail.
(Nods) We did a movie, The Aggression Scale, and she was one of the first actors; normally the process of auditioning an actor and reaching out to them is a very formal corporate dance. She was the first one we had the opportunity to just go and meet her. She was filming one day and we just went to the set to meet her, and within in a few seconds of talking to her, I knew this person was fantastic and she was going to be the star of our movie. That sort of informed a lot of the casting process, even with 68 Kill we met Alisha Boe for breakfast, she didn’t have credits. I think maybe she’d done one thing and you sit there… are you able to have an intelligent conversation with the person, and hearing what they take from the script tells you about their ability to process ideas. That tells you about whether they’ll be able to take things as an actor. We would have meetings with really established TV people or whatever, people with 15 million Instagram followers – that’s who you should put in your movie – and we’d have a conversation and ask them about what they saw the character as, and they would say ‘I was thinking blonde’.
You clearly didn’t have that issue with AnnaLynne McCord, she’s just phenomenal in 68 Kill.
She really is.
Now IMDB lists you’ve done a bit of everything – stunts, writings…
It’s a necessity. I don’t know why those credits end up on IMDB because clearly, I’m not trying to be a stuntman or an actor.
So, no John Wick 3?
Yeah, no. Sometimes you do things because you need to. So, on A Horrible Way to Die, the night before we started shooting that scene the actor said he couldn’t make it. We didn’t have time to recast, so I said I’d do it. Doing stunts and stuff we just needed somebody to fall off of a roof or do this – I’ll do it – because I’ve clearly failed as a producer if I haven’t raised enough money to get us a professional to do it, so at the very least I’ll show the crew that I’m willing to suffer for it. It’s the same thing with music, supervising and all that stuff, just on the lower budget stuff, you end up having to do things out of necessity.
So no desire to move into any of the other areas?
No, I don’t think so.
I spoke to director Ted Geoghegan a while back about We Are Still Here and he told me about a supernatural moment on set…
You could call it a supernatural moment, I would call it the moment I realised Ted Geoghegan does not have my back and is a terrible friend (chuckles). We were shooting in the basement and we were out of frame in this black deader part and both just suddenly looked at each other because we had felt this cold, 100% felt this presence, right there. We locked eyes and Ted just left me in the room and walked out. (Laughs) And I was there like ‘I’m going to die and there goes my friend’. I think it’s part of the reason why the film worked because there may have actually been some spirit present.
You have just made Mohawk together so I’m guessing things are okay?
We got through it. We patched things up. I think now I’m far enough in this, it’s exciting to get a chance to make a second project with people like Trent. We worked together to make 68 Kill, me and Ted are together again on Mohawk, and I’m talking to Dennis (Widmyer) and Kevin (Kölsch) about their next movie. What often happens is a director will make a low budget movie and if it turns out good they’ll get these opportunities to make bigger budget movies which are fantastic, but you don’t always get the opportunity to be involved in those because there’s some other producer on the film. It feels that over the past year or so to have stepped up my career as well to be able to work with these guys again.
So you think you’ll work with Dennis and Kevin again?
Yeah, I think we need to.
If anyone ever asks me for a recommendation of a recent horror, Starry Eyes is always the one I choose.
I view Cheap Thrills, Starry Eyes and Teenage Cocktail as a kind of informal LA trilogy about what you’re willing to so to do to achieve what the things you want. It started broadly on Cheap Thrills with financial goals and then obviously Starry Eyes is about ambition and the same sort of thing on Teenage Cocktail what you do for love.
What future projects should we keep an eye out for?
I think Mohawk is the one that is closest to the pipeline. We have other stuff that is in the edit bay and when the time is right we will announce it into the world. But Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk, which is a historical supernatural action thriller (chuckles) set in the 1800’s, it’s beautiful, is next.
68 Kill is available on DVD and Digital Download now.