Charlie Steeds talks ‘Death Ranch’ ahead of Grimmfest premiere

Ahead of its world premiere, Bloody Flicks caught up with prolific British director Charlie Steeds to discuss his balls-to-the-wall race revenge horror Death Ranch.

As a Tarantino fan, did you always want to make a film like Death Ranch?

I’m a huge Tarantino fan! Tarantino and his films are really what made me start filmmaking myself. But I’m also a huge Jack Hill fan, who I wouldn’t have discovered without Jackie Brown leading me to Foxy Brown and so on… But those are also influences here; Coffy and Foxy Brown. Stylistically The Devils Rejects was another film I adore that inspired me on Death Ranch. I had been wanting to make a film out in the USA like this, hot and gritty, on the old ranch, that Texas Chain Saw Massacre aesthetic (which I’ve tried to re-create in the UK before). The idea was born from me wanting to try a exploitation/blaxploitation style, I love those types of movies, and of course, that is where Tarantino draws so much of his own style from.

What was the research process like for writing the film?

I watched movies that involved the KKK, and I researched into the time period.
Things come up in the dialogue that suggest exactly what time in history the film is set. Aside from that, the movie is very contained, and the Klan are a fantasy cannibal-cult representation, so it wasn’t a film where I had to dive into loads of historical research. However, I learned a lot from making it, regarding the feelings of Tennessee locals toward the history of the KKK, the sensitivity around it, and the fact that the KKK are still around, just a few hours drive from where we shot the film the KKK still exist. For visual inspiration before the shoot, I researched by watching films like I Drink Your Blood, that was the shooting style I wanted.

As a filmmaker, what was the main challenge of capturing a 70s aesthetic on screen?

This was the first film where I was my own cinematographer, and before this I wouldn’t have dared to take on that responsibility in addition to all the other jobs I already do! But I wanted this gritty, natural look, and I couldn’t fly all my usual kit out to Tennessee anyway. It was liberating though! I shot with two cameras, my co-producer Aaron Mirtes operated one, whilst I operated the other and did the lighting, and we shot some of the scenes almost documentary style, letting the action unfold and following it best we could. We used old Nikkor manual focus lenses, which I love the look of, and add to that the crash-zooms and other retro techniques, the blaxploitation font, the funky soundtrack, it started to take on a 70s Grindhouse vibe.

This is probably your bloodiest film to date, how much fun were the gore scenes to pull off?

Blood and gore is always fun and exciting for me, creating carnage gives me a real buzz! Really its all down to the actors, because they’re the ones actually throwing themselves around, getting a face full of dust, blood shot into their eyes, taking real punches and kicks off each other in many cases, all to make the action look real. We had a dirty old mattress to use as a crash-pad during fights, but aside from that its real chunks of wood flying past people during shootouts, it was a lot of mayhem!

One good thing was that Tennessee was hot, so using so much fake blood didn’t make the actor instantly freezing cold, if anything it was refreshing, so that means I could push it a bit more than usual. These action scenes are the hardest thing to pull off as a filmmaker, its fast cuts in the edit, little stunts and camera tricks, and very precise yet complicated blocking, its a thrill to see it come together after all the work.

Was there anything in the original script that never made it to screen because it was deemed too violent?

Everything made it through as far as I can remember, in fact of all my movies this shoot was unbelievably smooth and I’m really lucky to have got these results. The KKK cross-burning scene was quite different in the script, more detailed, but we had a hard time getting that cross to burn, and many extras waiting around, so that’s one of the few moments that changed from the script. The victim, the girl who the KKK are trying to kill, later on gets eaten by the KKK as Brandon is trying to escape through the woods. We shot this death scene, but it didn’t fit with the flow of the overall sequence, it wasn’t gory enough, so I cut it out, the girl isn’t seen again.

In terms of the casting process, was there any cast member you pitched the idea to or was it straight up auditions for each role?

I’d never met any of the cast before I got to Tennessee. I put the casting out online, did Skype auditions and self-tapes, and the best actors were the ones who got the roles. And I was incredibly lucky, there wasn’t a single actor who wasn’t perfect for their character, and also such fun and wonderful people. They were a very hard-working cast, but also we’d have a lot of laughs every day, we instantly bonded, we were all so excited to be making this script.

Faith Monique and Deiondre Teagle are a fearsome double act in Death Ranch, how did they approach the characters in terms of building up a believable sibling relationship?

Everyone seemed to have an instant connection when we met, and I think something that helped a lot was that we shot the whole film in chronological order. So the first three days it didn’t feel like we were even making a horror movie, no blood, just riding around Nashville in a cadillac, so the three siblings, Travis, Deiondre and Faith, became very comfortable together. Travis is pure comedy gold in real life, he would set us off giggling all the time, and also after the shoot days (which were often quite short, finishing before dark) we’d all go out to restaurants together and they’d introduce me to Tennessee food. We’re all from very different places, London, Kansas, Alabama, Atlanta, New Mexico (I even had my publicist over from Australia) so all finding each other together in Tennessee to make this movie was really exciting, it would be impossible to be bored in each other’s company.

Was this your first time filming in America?

Yes, and in fact it was my first time in Tennessee. My co-producer Aaron and I have been friends for a few years, but we skype, we’d never met in person until this film. Aaron provided the locations and accomodation, he’s really the reason this shoot was so easy for me, he did a lot of the work. It was nice to shoot in the heat, instead of the freezing cold misery of England. I’m hoping to go back ASAP and shoot there again, I would’ve done it sooner if not for Covid-19, because I miss my Tennessee family!

How different was this to shooting films in the UK?

Firstly it was hotter, which was a relief. Spraying myself with bug spray mutiple times per day was a new experience, and checking myself for ticks everyday. I had to cover up for the bugs, tucked my trousers into my socks, my shirt into my trousers, any idea of not looking stupid went out the window. And I got into the spirit of things and bought myself a cowboy hat in Walmart, which I wore on set. Because I was over from the UK and a stranger to these actors and crew, there was an extra level of professionalism to the set, the actors had to behave. By movie 2 or 3, the UK actors and I have usually become close friends and there’s a lot more messing around. And lastly, everything in the USA is so big and looks so cinematic through the camera, it was effortless making the film look good. Back in the UK I rely on a lot of set-building to bring that cinematic quality to the films.

This year we have seen real-life protests for the treatment of black people all over the world, do you feel Death Ranch will really resonate with people who may have been marginalised because of their race?

We shot Death Ranch in April 2019, from a script I’d dreamt up 2 years earlier, and we all knew racism was the huge, pressing issue it currently is (and has been for so long). For me as a writer, I look to real-life things that horrify me, and racism is something that can make my blood boil instantly, that’s why I thought this script would be powerful, but also a cathartic revenge story, that I’d not seen enough of. Its refreshing to dream-up a film with three black lead characters, that tackles some themes of race, it felt to me like a type of horror story I’ve not seen too much before and wish we saw more of. At its heart its a revenge movie, and to me these characters overcoming the KKK is the best type of revenge. There were certain images I really wanted to put in the film, the Klansman hanged from the front of the barn was one of them, we always see the black victims hanged, but this film plays with reversing that history. In films about the KKK we always see the black characters victimised and often helpless, but film also exists as entertainment and escapism, so it was fun for all of us on this movie to turn that around and have the black characters powerful and victorious. I can’t speak for who it may or may not resonate with, but I hope anyone against racism can watch this film and have a fun time seeing the racist villains getting entirely what they deserve, from some brilliant and badass black heroes. ‘Fck the KKK’ and ‘Fck racists’ is the message of the film, that hopefully resonates with all of us.

Catch ‘Death Ranch’ at Grimmfest 2020 Online Edition.

Watch the trailer for Death Ranch below –

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