Revenge has always been a topic of action movies. It’s great to see Steven Seagal kill the guys who killed his wife, or Clint Eastwood get the guys who burned down his farm, etc. Ultimately, it would be nice if Seagal’s wife could live or Eastwood’s farm remain unharmed, but then there wouldn’t be movies.
Avenged offers a female and Native American take on revenge. A deaf girl, Zoe (Amanda Adrienne), driving across country is stopped on the desert road by a gang of hoodlums torturing a Native American. They capture her too, subject her to horrific tortures, and leave her for dead. A Native American resurrects Zoe but brings back a violent warrior spirit with her, giving Zoe the power to go after her attackers with the power of the undead.
Writer/director Michael S. Ojeda spent years making Avenged. He began by shooting some demo scenes, finding his leading lady on Craigslist. When he finally shot the movie, it began playing film festivals in 2013, under the title Savaged. Now A is for Avenged and I spoke with Ojeda by phone to find out how he brought this kick-ass action movie to us on such a low budget. Avenged opens in theaters and VOD Friday, March 6 and I will be hosting a Q&A with Ojeda and Adrienne on Sunday March 8 at Arena Cinema Hollywood for the 6:30 PM show.
Nuke the Fridge: With any revenge movie, whether it’s rape or not, you still have to show something really bad happening to the character at the start. Is that your dilemma as a storyteller, that you like these characters but to get the story started you have to do bad things to them?
Michael S. Ojeda: Have them go through pure hell. I don’t think that’s really a problem. The audience loves revenge films and in order to do a good revenge film, you have to first develop a character that people can relate to and connect with and love or like in a strong way. Give them dreams, things that they want to achieve, things that they hope to achieve in their life and then have them meet somebody who just takes it away from them and basically destroys them. At that point, you’re left with this character who has to rise up above that and prevail and kick ass and be victorious, destroy the people who took away their dreams and their lives. I think you have to do it. You have to give the audience someone who they love. You have to crush destroy that character, at least within the first 25 minutes of the film. From that point on, if you’ve done your job right, the audience will root for them.
Nuke: You have a fight on a moving truck with a stuntwoman thrown over the front. Were you able to do that safely on your budget?
Michael S. Ojeda: [Laughs] Yeah. That is actually three different shots that composed that one sequence. Basically the first shot is a profile shot when the truck slams on his breaks and you see her literally become levitated and fly through the air. That was done on a green screen stage so we shot a clean slate the truck slamming on its brakes with nobody in the back. We lined it up with her on a soundstage and yanked her on a cable. So that was fairly safe. It was a stunt girl though.
The second shot is a real stunt girl on location running on a plank in back of the truck and literally doing an airborne flip over the cab, over the engine compartment and landing in front of the car on a mat. It looks like the car is still moving only because we have a camera on the dolly pushing towards the truck at the same time, and we’re looking up at her. That stunt girl did that running flip over the front of the truck at least 10 times for us. I will call her again.
Nuke: Even the fight on the truck, were they being towed?
Michael S. Ojeda: No. We found a quiet road in the middle of Palmdale. Nobody was around, no traffic. We basically drove back and forth at about 20 miles an hour and sometimes a little faster. They were tethered in. They had cables from their belts down to the cab so they wouldn’t fall out. But they were able to do a lot of their moves and then sometimes we had to move the cables so they were dancing around. The cameramen were all mounted on platforms that were around the truck. So we were moving. The truck was not being pulled.
Nuke: Is it true you found Amanda Adrienne on Craigslist?
Michael S. Ojeda: Yes, I had been trying to get this movie off the ground for two years. I wasn’t having much success. I had realized that nobody was reading the script because I was nobody, I had no films out that anybody really knew so why would they give me the time of day, take the time to read the script? Eventually I decided to shoot some scenes to show people. I figured maybe if I shot some scenes, it would get people excited and they’d read it.
So we didn’t have any money. We were just going to do it on our own dime and it was Jason [Gurvitz] and I, my producing partner. So we decided to shoot these scenes and so since we weren’t going to spend a lot of money to do that, we just put some casting notices on Craigslist, on some of the casting websites. It’s funny because Amanda was the very first person to send her headshot in from the Craigslist ad. We auditioned other girls as well but she just blew us away. The moment I saw her picture, I just knew there was something about her, like “I think this might be the one.”
When we auditioned her, we did the scene right where she actually runs into the rednecks who are trying to capture her and the whole scene by the car out in the desert. She was amazing. She blew me away.
Nuke: How did you find the evil gang, like Ronnie Gene Blevins and Tom Ardvany who are so scary in the movie?
Michael S. Ojeda: Ronnie Gene Blevins has been working a lot lately. He was in the movie Joe with Nicolas Cage and a bunch of other films. He was actually just a recommendation from my producer, Jason Gurvitz. They were in a class together. Ronnie was amazing. As soon as I saw him, I said he’s exactly what I envisioned in my head. He’s actually a really sweet guy in real life, but physically and his energy that he conveys is this very edgy man. He was perfect.
Tom Ardvany hadn’t done a whole lot of acting. He had been an acting coach for a long time. I had not seem him for years. I shot a movie that he directed that I don’t think was ever released, like 15 years ago. That’s how we met. He hired me as a cinematographer and I shot the film. After that, we pretty much went our separate ways and we never talked again. Then years later, here I’m developing savaged. All of a sudden, I get a call from Tom saying, “We should hook up. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” The last time I’d seen Tom he had no beard, he had shorter hair.
All of a sudden, me and Tom decide to meet for coffee and I see him walking towards me. I have no clue what this meeting’s going to be about. Then he’s walking towards me. I’m like, “Holy sh*t, that’s West.” That was it and I said, “I’ve got a role for you, man.” That was it. I gave it to him and he was perfect.
Nuke: And the rest of the gang?
Michael S. Ojeda: Rod Rowland came from another friend of mine, another actor friend who recommended him strongly. He fit the bill perfectly. John Charles Meyer was incredible. All the guys were exactly what I envisioned. John Charles Meyer I found through casting. Our casting director found him and also Brionne Davis. Again, he was perfect and those two were found through standard casting procedure. There were a few who were investors in the film. The sheriff (Daniel Knight) invested a little money in the film and Roddy (Ed Fletcher), the foul mouthed old man, and his wife is actually the old woman at the end. They helped finance it a little bit and they’re actors. They’ve been acting a while. It was a great ensemble. It was really wonderful.
Nuke: Did you do something in post or on the day to the footage to give Avenged this unique look?
Michael S. Ojeda: Not on the day. I did it in post. One of the reasons I gave it the look I did, I always wanted to have a little bit of a grunge ‘70s vibe anyway, but one of the reasons why I pushed it a little further is because it’s a low budget, there’s going to be inconsistencies in the look. The more you whack out the overall image, the less people will notice those inconsistencies. If the daylight changes rapidly while you’re shooting, you might not have the light. We didn’t have the light to compensate and make it match. So if you whack out the image as a whole, people really don’t see those inconsistencies. Sometimes we’d shoot one scene over a period of two days. One day it’s cloudy, one day it’s sunny. So when you do that, it sort of blends it all over.
Also, one of the reasons why I did it is because I knew that I had to do a lot of the visual effects myself. I had done some visual effects up until then, but there were 170 shots I had to do myself because we didn’t have the budget. So I knew that some of them might not be perfect. Whacking out the image a little bit and bleaching it, I knew it would hide some of the artifacts and any of the imperfections of my work. Luckily, a lot of it looked really good without having to do that, but I just did it anyway just in case.
Nuke: Is the Native American mythology in Avenged based on something real?
Michael S. Ojeda: Oh yeah. Not so much the mythology but the backstory of Mangas Coloradas, the spirit that possesses Zoe in this movie, is a legendary Apache warrior who actually in the 1890s was murdered by General Joseph Rodman West. He basically told Mangas Coloradas that he wanted to have a peace treaty and that they should meet. When they met, he betrayed him, cut off the Indian’s head, boiled it and sent the skull to the Smithsonian. They say they don’t have it, so who knows really what happened. That’s a true story and that’s sort of how I incorporated that.
Nuke: Now that Avenged is finally coming out, what are you doing next?
Michael S. Ojeda: I have two projects in development. I took this year while we were doing festivals to write some screenplays. One is totally ready to go and the other one I’m still ironing out some issues. The one that’s ready to go that we’re looking to hopefully shoot by the end of the year is sort of a cross between The Professional and Man on Fire, but with a Russian female assassin. The mob puts a bullet in her head and she survives and leaves Moscow. She flees to a Caribbean island to start her life over. She works in a bakery and leads a very simple life. She befriends this little girl who’s sister is kidnapped into a human trafficking organization and she decides to help her. In the process, she just tears up this organization her and this little girl form a really beautiful relationship. Eventually, the bullet in her head starts to cause her to go blind, and the final showdown she has to save the day being blind while the little girl is helping her with a sniper rifle from a distance. It’s cool. The movie’s called Dominique. That’s her name.