DVDanger: Zoe Bell on 'Raze'

Tarantino's favorite tough lady talks underground fighting

Image courtesy of IFC Films

Zoe Bell has done some tough things in her life. But beating up Doug Jones, the nicest man in acting, may be the toughest. "That's when you know I'm learning chops as an actor," said Bell, "because Doug is the sweetest, loveliest man on the planet."

That's real life. In Bell and the infamously affable Jones' new movie Raze (out today from IFC Films), he's a source of pain and misery. Along with Sherilyn Fenn, the star of John Dies at the End and Hellboy heads a bizarre religious cult that kidnaps women and forces them to fight to the death. The twist of the knife is that, if they don't, then the cult will murder a family member. Their mistake may be in abducting Sabrina (Bell), who not only can really fight, but isn't exactly interested in becoming their deified killing machine.

Raze started in 2011 as a two minute short – almost a proof of concept – by director Robert Beaucage and writer Kenny Gage. Bell said, "There was always the idea, at some point, of turning it into a web series or pilot or film of some description. On day three of the shoot, somehow on Bloody Disgusting or another of those amazing websites, word got out that there was a fight film with me and Rachel Nichols in it, and I think there was just enough people who wanted to see us beating the snot out of each other that word spread a little bit."

Even though she's one of the most experience fight choreographers in the business, Bell passed on orchestrating the mayhem for Raze, instead bringing on James Young (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) while she concentrated on Sabrina. "However, that said, it's my language, and I can't help having opinions, and I think my opinions are mostly valid, especially when it comes to female fights." she said.

No kidding. Bell began her film career as Lucy Lawless' stunt double on Zena: Warrior Princess before becoming a Quentin Tarantino regular: Both as a stunt double on films like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, and as an actress in Death Proof, Django Unchained and the upcoming The Hateful Eight. But just because Tarantino saw her talent early, that doesn't mean he's the only one. The New Zealander has appeared, both in character and in chaos, in titles as diverse as Lost, Whip It, Gossip Girl, and Iron Man 3.

With Raze, the plan was to create something new, and Bell was very aware that the film could easily fall into a couple of cliched holes. She said, "One would have been the women in prison, exploitative genre, and the other would be the tournament-style movie. I like both those kinds of movies, but we wanted something different."

Both she and Young were very aware of the old plague of what she called "fight monotony." It's a struggle Keanu Reeves faced last year with Man of Tai-Chi: Making each fight look different, but then not turning them into an old-school UFC style-versus-style exhibition.

For Bell, creating variety was simple: Each woman drew upon her own character history to create a unique fighting style. Bar Nichols, whose sequence was shot before the feature began production, none of the actresses had stunt doubles, and few had much combat sports or stunt experience. Bell said, "We worked the choreography around their natural movements. We would have them get into character and discover, what have these women been through, why do they fight this way, who would they be fighting against, why had they learned to fight, why hadn't they learned to fight? We wanted it to be this woman and her life experience in this situation, versus that woman and her life experience in this situation."

Bell quickly found how dedicated the cast were, even though they were facing days of scrapes, scratches, black eyes and busted lips. The motivation was simple: "Roles like this don't come along for women very often. They saw that, and were so appreciative of the opportunity. Even though we were on a small budget with a tight schedule, these girls all put in weeks in advance, working out to get in good shape but also coming in and working with Kenny and James and myself to go over choreography, because they were excited to be able to."

Bell may have handed over responsibility for organizing the conflict, but she still wanted to do more than her traditional tough combo of actress and stunt woman. "I was wanting to get into learning more about producing, and let me tell you, that's one way to learn, is to do it," she said, "There was a little bit of naivety, but on the other end I can write a book about how not to produce a movie."

It was a learning curve for Bell and her three fellow producers. "The four of us were venturing into new territory," she said. "Josh (Waller) had directed a bunch of times, but they've all been shorts, so he's experienced, but it was on a different scale. I, on the other hand, with my experience of having been on set for any multitude of feature length projects and all kinds of budget, and I've lived on sets my whole life. Kenny and (producer Andrew Pagana) have been making animations, so they've been working in this forever."

With the team already assembled and established for the short, the plot and the tone of he feature established themselves organically and collaboratively. That just left the hard work of actually getting it done. During pre-production, Bell was busy working on Oblivion and Django Unchained, but she was as hands-on as the rest of the team once the shoot started. said, "We all ended up with this sense of parental ownership of it, which is a nice indie way to be." How She said, "I keep telling people, it's the first time I've realized why a producer is called a producer. It's solely your job to get this product produce, to create it, to make it, to get everything in line so it all gets done. We were all wearing multiple hats, from giving notes, to bringing on cast, to figuring out location, to crewing it, to figuring out what connections we had to get it done in post."

It was hard work on a short time frame but, unlike most producers, Bell got to take out her frustrations by pounding seven shades out of her co-stars. "Well, there's that," she laughed. "'Right, I'm having a bad day. Let's do fight number 11.'"

Raze is out now on DVD and VOD from IFC Films.

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