Trent Haaga has been knocking around the world of independent horror for almost a decade. He got his start, doing anything and everything, at Troma Entertainment, Lloyd Kaufman’s infamous production house. Though primarily known as an actor, Haaga has recently found success as a screenwriter—Deadgirl, a film he wrote, made the rounds at festivals with much success and recently opened in limited release around the country. Haaga’s latest acting role is in Timothy Friend’s new film, Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula. I was able to chat with Haaga a while ago about the past, the present and the future.
Hey Trent, thanks for taking the time to chat. Your latest role is Clyde Barrow in Timothy Friend’s cool new flick, Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula. How did you get involved in this project?
I basically just got a call for that one. I had never met Tim and Jenn Friend before, but I guess that they had seen me in some movies before. Jeff Sisson, their makeup FX guy, is one of my closest friends, and I think that he kind of put the bug in their ear.
It’s been doing very well on the festival circuit, garnering lots of praise and awards. Have you been at any of the festivals?
I have not had the chance to see the film with a crowd yet. The Friends sent me a DVD of the film a few months ago and that’s been my only exposure to it.
Is this the first time you’ve played a historical character? Did you do any research on Clyde, or did you just go by what was on the page?
Yes, and that’s one of the main things that attracted me to the project. It’s not often that a low-budget production attempts a period piece—they’re just too expensive to do by nature. So I was excited to shoot something that didn’t take place in the “Now.” I didn’t really do any research on Clyde. As far as I know, he never fought Dracula.
Well, I fear we’ll never know for sure. Tiffany [Shepis] was really great as Bonnie. You two have a lot of chemistry together. How long have you known Tiffany?
I guess that’s a testament to her acting ability! Tiffany and I have been in the same movie several times, but Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula was the first time that we had any actual scenes together.
Those early days at Troma have taken on an almost mythic quality, kind of like the Wild West of filmmaking. I’m sure the reality was much less glamorous, right?
It was glamorous to me. Just making movies was exciting. And making movies with one of my cinematic heroes [Lloyd Kaufman] was even better. But, yeah, it’s not what anyone would call “glamorous” by any definition of the word. But there was definitely a sense of being some sort of punk rock pioneer while we were doing those movies. Everything’s working against you when you make a movie like that, and they only get made through sheer force of will and persistence.
The great thing about Troma, I suppose, is the opportunity it gave you to learn everything about filmmaking from the ground up. You had almost every job possible at one time or another, right? From crew member to producer, you did it all.
Lloyd will basically give you any and all responsibility that you are willing to take on. I saw working for Troma as an opportunity to learn everything I could about making films—from writing through to post-production. Then I had to un-learn a lot of it! But what Troma did teach me for sure was the ability to keep going no matter what you have up against you.
And these days, though you’re known primarily as an actor, you also write and produce. How do you decide what you’re going to? Do you just field offers as they come in? Do you find properties to develop?
The acting thing just happened by accident—I went in to be an extra in Terror Firmer and landed a plum role in the film. Once that came out and was somewhat popular, I started to get acting offers. I always knew that I wanted to work in the movies and didn’t really care what I was doing—which is why I’ve done everything from Production Assistant to Producer. I generally field offers as they come in, but have always written scripts and have had the good fortune to have a handful of those made, too.
So, is directing in your future? You’ve done everything else. It seems like the next logical step.
Ultimately, yes. I used to want to make another extremely low budget film that I direct…but I feel like I’ve done that already—made extremely low-budget films before. Now my plan of attack is to sell some scripts and eventually get someone to pony up a real budget.
I have to say, man, as an actor you have this quality that allows you to make any character you play likable, no matter how despicable they may be. I actually felt a little sorry for your character in Jessicka Rabid. How do you do this? Is this just the natural Haaga charm?
I think that, no matter what kind of character you play, you have to understand that they’re real people that have all the qualities of a real person—good and bad. Marley Hoffman, my character in Jessicka Rabid, is truly a terrible person. But maybe he doesn’t recognize how horrible he is…especially compared to the people that he lives with and interacts with. I may not agree with what all of my characters do, but it’s my job to try and understand them as they do these things—to view them as real people. Certainly having a cool script and an understanding director always helps this.
I had actually shot a film with Elske and Matt that never came out, so Jessicka Rabid was just like old times. And it’s a real family vibe—small cast and crew, working in people’s homes. Makes the film feel more intimate. Comfortable and fun.
That’s quite an intense film. How was the mood on the set? Was it extra-jovial to offset the grim subject matter?
Well, we’re all kind of twisted individuals at heart, so once a scene was done, it was right back into fun and games. The vibe on set was very relaxed and friendly.
You are very much a proponent of independent film. Would you love a chance to appear in a big-budget flick? Or does your heart belong to the indies?
Let’s be realistic here. I’ve done a ton of ultra-low budget films and I love the spirit in which they’re made. But I’m a family man with a wife and kid. Money becomes an issue. If I won the lottery, it probably wouldn’t matter as much, but I’d like to expand my horizons and have the subsequent paycheck that comes with a larger movie. I’d also like to know what it’s like to make a movie without budgetary compromise—just to see what it’s like!
I’d like to ask you about Deadgirl, Trent. This is an original script of yours, right?
Absolutely. It’s the first “spec” script that I managed to set up—every other script that I’ve had made has been based on someone else’s ideas or characters or for the money. Deadgirl was something I wrote on my own time and on my own dime.
The film is getting amazing reviews and winning awards. This has to be very exciting for you.
Absolutely. It’s edifying to know that this is one of my most critically and commercially successful projects and it’s something that came from a place of pure creation. I wasn’t doing it for the money or for the gig. And it’s a lot closer, thematically, to the kind of things I’d like to do more of or be known for. Don’t get me wrong, I love Troma and don’t regret my time there at all, but Troma is Lloyd’s company and I get tired of being Trent “Troma” Haaga. It’s great to think that soon I might get to be Trent “Deadgirl” Haaga instead.
[Laughs] I promise to always think of you that way from now on. Can you tell us a little about the story?
Now I ask you, what could be better than that? And this particular story seems to be hitting a lot of nerves and connecting with people, which is what being a writer is all about.
100% so. There’s nothing worse than making something that’s met with a general air of indifference…and I’ve made quite a few projects like that in my time!
Deadgirl has been really galvanizing audiences. Some seem to really love it; some seem to really hate it. Some think that it’s an exercise in misogyny; some see it as a statement against misogyny. Some are moved, some offended. But the main thing seems to be that it’s affecting people. People have been debating it and talking about what it means and deciding on its artistic merit, etc. And that’s what good art is supposed to do—inspire debate and thought. I wrote a film called Hell Asylum that moved a lot of units. And people generally said things like, “It was okay” or “I didn’t really like it.” There was no passion for the film, no real love or hate for it. That indifference is more painful than passionate hate, in my opinion.
I agree. Was there any particular inspiration for Deadgirl?
I wrote Deadgirl right after we finished Citizen Toxie. I was kind of burned out on scatological superhero sex gore comedy. I needed to do something that I felt was more personal to me as a writer. And we had just shot a movie in upstate New York where locations were abundant and cheap. I actually wrote Deadgirl around two of the locations we had shot Citizen Toxie at: a high school and an abandoned mental institution. So those locations were important to the process. The rest of it came from the “troubled teen” movies that I really love and the kind of dead-end kids that I grew up with in small towns in the Midwest.
I actually wrote the film for Lloyd. He was wanting to return to Poughkeepsie and shoot a really quick DV [digital video] movie. He asked if I had any ideas, so I wrote Deadgirl thinking that it would be really interesting if Lloyd made the kind of movie that no one would expect of him. He read it and seemed to like it, but ultimately it just wasn’t the kind of movie that he wanted to do. It all worked out for the better, in my opinion…but it took nearly a decade to happen the way it did!
Hey, it happened the way it was supposed to, man. Tell me, how was your experience with the filming? Are you happy with the filmmakers’ interpretation of your script?
It was great. We shot it here in L.A. My wife was the costume designer. I was the AD [assistant director]. It was everything that’s great about low-budget filmmaking, but with a more—dare I say “artistic?”—ambition. I worked on the script with the directors for a few months and was there every day on-set. It was very hands-on for me, particularly so considering I’m the writer. I’m extremely pleased with the outcome. And it’s great to make something that premieres at a prestigious festival like Toronto. I’d work with [co-directors] Gadi [Harel] and Marcel [Sarmiento] again in a second.
So, what’s on the radar for you, Trent? Anything in particular planned?
The writing thing seems to be working best for me right now. Deadgirl has been playing some very prestigious festivals to some amount of acclaim. I landed an agent and manager as a writer, and have a couple of writing projects working—some already in the can and in pre-production, some on the horizon. I’m not going anywhere for the time being!