It wasn’t that long ago that Trent Haaga was a film geek with his own website who was so into horror movies that he sent a VHS tape to Lloyd Kaufman at Troma Entertainment on which he begged to be killed in a horror movie. His wish wasn’t immediately granted, however. Instead, he got a leading role as a goofy effects-artist-cum-hero in Troma’s movie-within-a-movie, “Terror Firmer”. Haaga wouldn’t actually be killed on screen for another couple of years. Finally, in “Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV”, he got his wish—twice. But he had to write the movie first.
These days, Haaga seems to be in the running for the title of “Scream King”—a much rarer bird than the “Scream Queen”—leaping from one indie institution to another, namely Full Moon, where he either scripted or appeared in movies like “Killjoy 2” (as the title character, no less), “Hell Asylum” and “Dead and Rotting”. He landed leading roles in the horror film “Suburban Nightmare” (directed by Jon Keeyes and produced by Debbie Rochon) and the hilarious b-movie love-letter “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”. His most recent project involved teaming up with cult filmmaker Chad Ferrin (“Unspeakable”) to produce the grim and gritty urban thriller, “The Ghouls”.
In his spare time, Haaga is a screenwriter, a husband and a father, juggling the responsibilities of all three out in the wilds of Hollywood. “You wouldn’t believe it, man,” he says, trying to snag the noisy child dashing around the room behind him. “Sometimes I’m buying groceries with the kid, taking the dog for a walk and I’m thinking – ‘But I’m supposed to be the king of sickness!’ But I guess that provides a valuable dichotomy. You’re throwing people a curveball.” He laughs, then continues, “Whatever, I’m just making excuses for being domestically whipped!”
Haaga is dying for more people to see “The Ghouls”, which tells the bleak story of a freelance news videographer, or “stringer”, named Eric Hayes (played by “Unspeakable”’s Timothy Muskatell), who discovers a colony of subterranean cannibals who feast upon the homeless. Haaga plays Hayes’ even slimier buddy, Clift, who helps the stringer capture the creatures on tape. “The Ghouls” of the title could refer to the cannibal creatures, the stringers themselves, or the desensitized, self-centered remainder of society who are no longer touched, but entertained, by human tragedy (you know, the rest of us).
“It’s nice to be involved with a movie that doesn’t just exist for cheap thrills, you know?” he says. “Which is funny, because we made the movie to sell. Keep in mind the Full Moon stuff that I’d done. And Chad had done “Unspeakable”, and of course it was really over-the-top and he had trouble getting rid of it. So he ended up giving it to Troma. It didn’t get much distribution from that, though. Then I did all these movies with Full Moon – holy cow, “Killjoy 2”, which everybody agrees is just a rotten flick. It sold 40 thousand units! And we made it for no money. So, okay, yeah – let’s do that! Let’s just make a monster movie! And we can unload it really fast. And that’s how “The Ghouls” started out.”
Tragically, Ferrin came up with something a little deeper than their original intention. And with such a dire outlook on human existence—the film features news footage of a highway suicide, adultery, murder, and a rapist with Down’s Syndrome—it is no surprise that the filmmakers are having trouble landing domestic distribution.
“And left to my own devices, I would always do stuff like that,” Haaga affirms sadly. “We’re still shopping ‘The Ghouls’ around. I think everybody’s heard of it or are interested in it, want to see a screener copy of it, and then when they actually see it…The more artistic companies like it, but it’s too horror or too shot-on-video for them. The other companies who have no problem with shot-on-video stuff are like, ‘What’s with this guy killing himself, and what’s with this retarded rapist?’ So what are you going to say about something that’s neither fish nor foul? And now we’re paying the price for that. It’s a weird thing. (This one company) works with so many sub-distributors, and they expressed interest in it from the get-go, but they’re like ‘We wanna film-look the movie.’ Which, well, we can’t really say that we shot on video, then. We did it for pure aesthetics. These guys are videographers, so we shot it on video. It works well. And it would cost more than half the budget of the entire movie just to film-look it. Which also seems kinda pointless. Then they wanted us to take out the whole suicide at the beginning and replace it with a scene of the Ghouls attacking somebody.”
“The Ghouls” was well-received at its screening during a series held at The Egyptian theater in Los Angeles. At the same series, the intentional cult-classic, “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”, also played. “Skeleton” was picked up for a full release through Sony Film Classics. “The Ghouls” got a nice write-up in Variety, which generated interest, but no momentum.
“We had discussed at the beginning, before we had even finished the picture, ‘Well, at the very least, we know we can go to Troma, we know we can go to J.R. Bookwalter (of Tempe Entertainment), we know we can go to these guys. But then when you get Miramax calling you, asking to see the picture, you start thinking ‘maybe we can get a better deal, something a little wider’.”
Haaga continues, “And through this, I’ve been toying with taking some of my own money and making a movie, but everything I’ve ever done has been through Full Moon or Troma or people who have their own distribution already. So that’s why I’ve been really involved with this one, so I can see what happens with Chad. And we’ve been talking with people who have distribution and I don’t understand the math, or the logic – or the lack of logic – behind the whole thing. So whatever the point of the conversation is, it’s either you get, like – I don’t know what it depends on! Is ‘The Ghouls’ better than ‘The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra’, or vice versa? I don’t know. But one of them got picked up by a major, even York picks up this other movie, but the guy doesn’t get paid for it. So it’s very discouraging. Now I know I can make the movie – I’ve done it a hundred times – making the movie is the easy part.”
The aim is no longer for “The Ghouls” to make its money back. Shot for a budget in the neighborhood of ten thousand, and in classic “MacGyver Filmmaking School”, the artists sold the camera it was shot with, sold the lead character’s semi-classic Cougar for more than the purchase price. Money, while important, is not strictly the issue.
“Basically, we’re still ten grand in the hole. Nobody got paid and Chad worked for a year on the post. If you factor that in, it would be nice to make back the money and make a little bit. At least make a little bit to – but the idea behind this one was not the money but to get better distribution than ‘Unspeakable’, and hopefully, based on that, there would be some exposure and show what we could do for nothing, at least in Hollywood terms, and maybe get another direct-to-video gig from one of those guys. (Everyone we’ve approached) you would think would be perfect for it. It’s above-average, you know? I don’t know, I look at ‘The Ghouls’ and by god, I think it’s pretty good. And other people seem to like it. But we’ve created this bizarre creature that’s a little bit weirder and darker than (we had intended). But it’s playing at the Amsterdam Film Festival in a couple months. The Europeans seem to dig it. And I understand that. Again, when it played at the Egyptian, it just seemed to have more of an art-film vibe to it. If we had just made ‘C.H.U.D. in L.A.’ it would probably be in video stores by now.”
Haaga continues, laughing. “That’s the inherent problem with all of us ex-Troma guys, you know? And there’s a bunch of us,” he says. “We understand to appeal to the base audience—let’s put in the tits, let’s make it stupid and get it out there. (But) once you start to put the time and the effort into making it—even if you say you’re going to do it crassly, and we’re just going to puke something out and get it out there—I guess if you’re an artist, you just can’t help to force your personalities onto the project. I’m not Lloyd Kaufman. I love Lloyd, but I’m not him.”
The interview continues in part two of TRENT HAAGA: MILD MANNERED KING OF SICKNESS>>>
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- THE GHOULS
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- EASTER BUNNY, KILL! KILL!
- INDIE FILM CLICHES – A FILMMAKER’S OPINION
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