ZoŽ Bell spent years in front of the camera in Hollywood without anyone knowing her name.
She performed stunts for Lucy Lawless as her body double on “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and then, years later, as Uma Thurman's stunt double on “Kill Bill: Volume I and II.”
Kudos to Quentin Tarrantino for seeing something more in Bell, and for putting her front and center finally in “Death Proof,” his homage to drive-in movies for his half of “Grindhouse,” which he directed with Robert Rodriguez.
Since then, Bell has been steadily working in genre films, from low-budget action movies like the catfighting cult classic “Bitch Slap” to Hollywood tentpoles like “Oblivion.”
Her latest film, “Raze,” however, is poised to make Bell a star.
BVB: Blood, Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the chance to speak with Bell by phone about “Raze” and to dissect this beautiful, brutal, bloody deconstruction of underground fight movies that finally shows women as being more than capable of holding their own in an action feature.
BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. I've been a big fan of your work for many years, going back to “Angel of Death” and “Bitch Slap.” “Raze” is just an incredible film.
ZB: I love hearing that.
BVB: It's so brutally realistic. I watched it this past weekend with a friend, and I think between the both of us, we just kept yelling at the screen – 'What!' 'No way!' 'Oh my God!'
ZB: I love you guys.
BVB: How did (director) Josh Waller approach you about this? What did he say to convince you to play Sabrina?
ZB: It was an evolutionary process. Basically, when he first called me – I've known Josh for years – when he first reached out to me, it was conceptually a short. At the end of that first fight was the end of the short. They approached me more so to play Sabrina at the very end, but to be fight choreographer and stunts. I turned them down. I was fighting really hard to take myself seriously as an actor. They called me back and said would you consider coming on as a producer? I think they appealed to my desire to collaborate and create. Sort of my favorite part of all of this stuff is the making up of stuff. When I first signed on, acting wise, was a quiet cameo at the end. When we decided we wanted it to be a feature, it became more about Sabrina's story. By the time I was looking at the finished script, I was so familiar with it, there was no shock. I was thinking about it, if somebody had put that script in front of me with no prior knowledge, I don't think I would have had the confidence to take it on. It's not courage, it's definitely confidence. I don't think I believed in myself enough to take on that responsibility. That would have been entirely intimidating to me two years ago. If I had been handed that script in its entirety, it would have been overwhelming. As it is, the process has put me in a place I feel that you could put any script in front of me and I would be able to find that character. It's a nice feeling. I did a lot of preparation, putting myself in a position to really appreciate this person. It wasn't until after the movie when people would ask me, I found myself reading scripts or talking to directors and producers differently. It was – I walked into the room knowing I had something to offer instead of just hoping they would think I had something to offer. “Death Proof” started it. I wouldn't be acting at all if it wasn't for “Death Proof.” “Raze” sort of cemented it.
BVB: This isn't a new story, by any means. There have been so many action films centered around an underground fight ring. But the way this is presented just feels particularly fresh. The characters are well defined. There's real emotion, both in the fights and in the course of the story. And the cinematography is unlike anything I've seen in a standard action movie.
ZB: It's beautiful isn't it? Dylan (Dylan O'Brien, cinematographer) had such a visual aesthetic we really like. He heard my concerns in the beginning about the physical activity of shooting the fights. It was a whole lot of hand-held. It's a big rig, and a very small place. There's a lot of limbs flying about. We had a lot of conversations about how to get the shots that were beautiful but also selling the hits.
BVB: You feel the punches.
ZB: Yeah. Kenny (Kenny Gage), one of the other producers, is an old-school boxer from way back. He felt every time there was a female fight movie coming out, fans got really excited. He was sick of people being disappointed. Taking a punch, so to speak, was really important to him. Josh was sort of all about character, emotional journey and the story. Kenny was all about making sure the fights were sick. I was the middle ground of mixing the two together, getting the emotional journey to the point where the fights feel so sick.
BVB: Was there any concern on your part that some people might be drawn to “Raze” simply by the voyeuristic, fetishized allure of watching women fight? Personally, I think the very nature of the fights completely eliminates that. This isn't “Bitch Slap,” for instance, where there was that erotic undercurrent.
ZB: It was a very conscious decision to remove that. I loved that idea. Josh was a very big pusher for that. I love movies like “Bitch Slap.” There were two genres, or sub-genres, that we could have fallen into with this movie that we were intentionally avoiding. One was women in prison, where we're women imprisoned. The other one that came from me was the fight tournament style of an action movie, the “Mortal Kombat” or “Street Fighter,” this weapon versus that weapon. We wanted to see if we could do, structurally, a genre movie or exploitative movie, but take all of the hamminess out and take it really seriously. The end result was just a huge amount of intense. We took the hammy, campy out of it.
BVB: How difficult were the fight scenes to film? That's you throughout the fights, correct?
ZB: Yes. We had a bunch of very dedicated – it did take a lot of preparation. Fortunately for us, we had a cast of women that were equal parts dedicated because they're professional and equal parts so excited to be a part of a role like this. We had very little makeup. We weren't wearing push-up bras. The fight stuff is second nature to me. The other girls were really, really dedicated. They spent their own time, their own money to come in and train with the other fight choreographer and myself. My preparation was finding Sabrina. The fight stuff I got already.
BVB: How was working with Doug Jones? He's such an incredibly giving guy in real life. I had the chance to meet him at a fan convention and he was incredibly generous. It's weird to see him in a villainous role.
ZB: I love him. How awesome. I worked with him on “Angel of Death.” Josh brought him up as a consideration. I was stoked at working with Doug, getting his face on screen, and the thought of him being evil was just fascinating to me. There's a scene near the end, we're very close proximity, just feeling the power that was coming off of him was just like – I'm not watching him, I'm being Sabrina, reacting to him – there's one shot right before he attacks me, there's a shift in his face. I'm like, 'Yes Doug!'
(NOTE: By this point, BVB had totally run well past the allotted time we had with ZoŽ, but we couldn't help telling her once more how great her film was and that we hope as many people as possible are able to see it. She thanked us repeatedly, and agreed that “Raze” is a film that definitely leaves an impression on viewers.)
ZB: It's the sharing thing. People either love it – some people are offended by it. Most of the people that seem to be offended by it are men, which I find really surprising. It's so weird considering the content. Every time I watch it, I literally become more fond of it. Getting it in front of people is the key, I think.
"Raze" is currently available on DVD and VOD from IFC Films.†