[Boston Underground Film Festival] Interviews: Writer David Axe Talks About His Exploitation Film The Theta Girl

Davide Axe talks about The Theta Girl ahead of BUFF

The Theta Girl, a feature film produced by first-time filmmakers David Axe and Christopher Bickel, is set to appear at the Boston Underground Film Festival.

The film had its world-premiere in Atlanta on Friday the 13th of October at midnight -- a fitting time slot for opening what director Christopher Bickel calls "a brutally violent existential horror film." At the Atlanta screening, several audience members walked out of the film following one shocking scene depicting a violent home invasion. The audience members who remained were very vocal and enthusiastic about their enjoyment and appreciation of the film, one audience member writing in a comment online: "Holy sh*t! Talk about a low-budget MASTERPIECE. A gory drug-induced mystery! A psychedelic B Movie thriller! Roger Corman-esque Punk cinema that's WAY better and smarter than it should be! A++++++"

The Theta Girl was produced on a shoestring budget of $14,000. To put that budget into perspective, the film could have been made 3,571 times over for what it cost Hollywood to make one Emoji Movie. It is the first film for Axe and Bickel, and indeed it was the first film for the majority of cast and crew. Though the film exhibits some rough edges as a result of its extremely low budget and the experience level of the creators, it has been enthusiastically praised for its high entertainment value, thoughtful existential themes, and shocking content.

The film has already received accolades from critics. You can read our review here.

Billed as an "existenploitation film," The Theta Girl follows the trials and tribulations of young drug-dealer, Gayce Delko, and the hallucinogen she peddles. "Theta" was a "fun drug" -- a drug that blew people's minds. Theta was supposed to be a door to Heaven, but when her best friends get methodically and brutally murdered, Gayce realizes theta might also be a door to Hell -- and it's up to her to shut it. The film's tagline is "She brought the pills. He brought the kills."

Bickel describes The Theta Girl as "an exercise in sex, drugs, punk rock, brutality, gore, revenge, and self-actualization... but really it's an art film."

The Theta Girl was written by David Axe (journalist and editor of the website War Is Boring) and directed by Christopher Bickel, who also shot, edited, and provided sound-design for the film. Axe and Bickel also served as the film's producers under the "Barron Perter Productions" moniker. The film stars Victoria Elizabeth as "Gayce," Shane Silman as "Brother Marcus," and Darrelle D. Dove as "Derek."

The film has not been rated by the MPAA, but it contains nudity, drug use, adult themes, and extremely graphic violence.

We had the opportunity to speak to writer David Axe about The Theta Girl, ahead of its New England premiere on March 22nd at the Boston Underground Film Festival.

TMS: First off, can you provide us with a little bit of background information. Did you always want to be involved in filmmaking? What type of training or schooling did you have?

DA: I've been a big movie fan since forever. My interest grew when I moved to Columbia, South Carolina and fell in with a couple different crowds that kind of celebrated "bad" movies. Slasher flicks. B movies. Exploitation films. I'm a journalist by day and I've done frontline T.V. reporting from war zones, so I've always been keen on the moving image and working quick and dirty in difficult conditions. I also write comic books. All these interests -- and a few lucky opportunities -- sort of combined to make me an indie filmmaker.

TMSDid you have a lot of support when you decided to get into filmmaking?

DATons. The biggest, of course, was from my partner on THE THETA GIRL, director and co-producer Chris Bickel. But we also enjoyed strong support from family, friends, business owners and some arts institutions here in Columbia. We like to describe THE THETA GIRL as Columbia's movie.

TMSWhat’s up with The Theta Girl? Besides BUFF, where can people see it? And what do you want them to know about the movie?

DAWe're working on distribution and should be able to announce something soon. I think it's safe to say that people will be able to see it before the end of 2018.

TMSWhat was the inspiration behind this story?

DADrugs. Ha ha, kidding. Sort of. Seriously, Chris and I both love the gritty, urban exploitation films of the 1970s. We also both love the local music scene. And we're both interested in folks who took deliberate, chemical steps to expand their minds. Timothy Leary. Alexander Shulgin. THETA GIRL draws on all those things.

TMSHow long did it take to get out that initial draft?

DAA few weeks. If I'm sure of the story and free of distraction, I write very fast. Chris and I agreed on the major themes and the tone before I started writing. And we had a strong guiding principle: the script had to have an act of violence or sex or something weird every five pages.

TMSHow much did the script change over the course of the next few drafts?

DAVery little. Chris had a few notes. We also added a few scenes mid-production.

TMSIs there anything you found more challenging when penning the screenplay? Did you write it with the $14,000 budget in mind?

DATHETA GIRL was not hard to write. It was a pleasure from the first page to the last, because I love the characters so much. I wrote with characters and story in mind, but Chris and I had sort of defined the kind of movie we wanted to make. And that was a small movie with gigantic, cosmic themes.

TMSHow long of a shoot was it?

DAWe shot roughly between December 2016 and February 2017.

TMSVictoria Elizabeth is great as Theta Girl. How was she ultimately cast?

DAChris found her via social media, I believe. We watched her reel online, met her in person and knew pretty quickly that she was the one.

TMSHow were the other main actors selected?

DAWe held an open casting call in Columbia, and drew a decent pool of prospects from across the southeast.

TMSDid you adjust any of the script after the actors were there?

DANot really. Of course, each actor brought something to their role. But we didn't really change the words too much. There's one major exception. Shane Silman, who plays the villain Brother Marcus, wrote some of his own monologues.

TMSIn terms of writing choices, anyone that you try to emulate? Or ones that have influenced you?

DAMy writing heroes are all novelists. Robertson Davies. Ernest Hemingway. Arthur Nersesian. Kurt Vonnegut. Many others.

TMSThe film has a very gritty style reminiscent of exploitation and grindhouse cinema from the '70s, but also mixes other subgenres into it. What made you choose that style and were there any specific films that influenced the style?

DAExploitation films are cheap to make. You trade expensive sets, actors and effects for attitude, which is free. For the more cosmic and trippy elements, I found inspiration in movies such as BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SUSPIRIA and Darren Aronofsky's stuff.

TMSNudity and violence are typically expected in a grindhouse/exploitation film. How easy was it to get so many actors to appear nude in the film?

DAIt was shockingly easy to cast nude extras. We didn't ask for a lot of nudity from our main cast, but some of them actually insisted. Turns out, lots of people just like being naked. I thought the main orgy scene would be a nightmare to produce, but it was actually one of our easier shoots.

TMSLow budget film productions have been historically known for being difficult and demanding. How was this production on the cast and crew? Any challenges or funny stories?

DAYeah, it's hard to make movies cheaply. You count on people's enthusiasm to make up for a lack of resources. And as producers, you have to nurture that enthusiasm. It's tough. But very rewarding when you pull it off. On THETA GIRL, we didn't linger too long on any one scene. Couldn't afford to. But there was this one line that we asked Victoria to deliver where she had to say the word "grovel." It took forever to shoot it, because Victoria -- who, I must stress, is a lovely, talented and very professional actress -- for some reason had it in her head that the word was pronounced "grow-vell" with a short "o" instead of a long one. It was frustrating and hilarious for her, us and everyone. We must have 30 takes of her mispronouncing that word. And the kicker is, we ended up cutting the scene for time.

TMSIs there anything you learned from writing and working on The Theta Girl?

DAThe more time you spend on pre-production, the easier production is. Detailed shot lists are your friends. Don't skimp on lighting. Pay for a professional on-set sound guy. Hydrate, stay rested, GET YOUR COVERAGE. When you're producing or directing, be gracious and patient and reward, in whatever way you can, your cast and crew's effort. Your musical score does half the work of telling the story. Practical effects are always better than digital ones. When you don't have money, compensate by making the weirdest movie you can.

TMSIf the movie was playing as one-half of a double feature at a Drive-in theatre what would be the perfect support feature?


TMSIf you had a choice to write the remake of a genre movie, what movie would you like to remake?


TMS: Are there any people or films that you’re looking forward to seeing at BUFF?

DAI've never been to Boston. I'm excited for all of it.

TMSCan you tell us anything about the other projects that you are working on or planning on working on? Or, anything else that you would like to plug?

DAI'm in post-production on my second indie, AZRAEL, which I wrote and also directed. It's set in the "thetaverse," so it shares some characters, themes and story with THE THETA GIRL. Where THETA GIRL is a thriller, AZRAEL is more of a horror movie.