This morning I had the chance to talk with co-writer Destin Pfaff and co-writer/director Kern
Saxton, the guys behind this week's craziest Blu-ray release, Sushi Girl, a violent neo-grindhouse thriller about a band of criminals resolving an old dispute. The film's ensemble cast of
1980s cult all-stars includes Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Tony Todd (The
Candyman), Noah Hathaway (The NeverEnding Story), Sonny Chiba (Kill
Bill), and Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man), among others.
We talked for about twenty minutes, covering a lot of ground, from the film's unusual starting
point—a naked woman, covered in pieces of sushi, as a living platter—to the perils of shooting in
a derelict Chinese restaurant and the possibility of a non-Star Wars Mark Hamill action
figure. Read on for a full transcript of our conversation:
First of all, let's talk about the opening of the film, which has one hell of a visual hook. When
and how did you find out about nyotaimori—naked sushi? Have you ever done it yourselves? I
mean, not as the naked person, but you know...partook in the buffet, as it were.
KS: That one's going to go straight to Destin...
DP: Yeah, yeah, I have...as the naked person. That's my day job.
KS: You mean your night job?
DP: Uh. (Laughs)
KS: You know, I don't even remember who was the first one to suggest it. I mean, I had heard
about it before, but at the time we were coming up with the script, it was sort of the stuff of
legend. It wasn't as popular as it is now.
DP: What had actually happened is, when we were talking about the script that morphed into
Sushi Girl over a few drinks, we were wondering what these gangsters would be eating. Kern
actually suggested the sushi girl, and I was like, "Oh, I've did that! It's
f---ing hot!" Then we were just locked on that. All we cared about was the naked girl with sushi
KS: Yeah, I think it was the idea of "what's more vulnerable than a naked girl in a room full of
these sharky people, you know, as a plate covered in food, with no way out of the situation?"
She's really completely defenseless, and I thought that was good. There's something really
interesting about the commentary on the subjugation of women in film, and I felt we could do
some cool stuff with it.
DP: An edible plate, Kern, and edible plate.
KS: Yes, exactly.
Sushi Girl has, bar-none, the most gonzo cast of any film this past year. I mean, you have The
Candyman and The Lawnmower Man, Machete and the Donnie Darko rabbit, not to
mention Hattori Hanzo and Luke Skywalker. How did you get all these guys—all of whom are
cult figures—on the same set?
DP: Don't forget Atreyu from The NeverEnding Story.
Of course, him too.
DP: It was just this wonderful journey—well, I wouldn't exactly say wonderful. It was
this very bumpy journey that became perfect. Originally, Kern and I had planned on doing this
movie on a much smaller scale, with just friends. And then the minute Tony Todd got involved,
and Jimmy Duval got involved, and Andy Mackenzie got involved, it just became, well, "we can
get these people we like. Who else do we really like and want?" We got really lucky with
everybody. Every genre icon I ever wanted in a film, we got in the film! I've worked with
everyone I've wanted to work with. I'm done, I'm good.
KS: You could never make a movie again and be happy. Some of the more personal contacts,
like Sonny Chiba, was through a friend of ours, a nice Japanese man who's also a filmmaker. We
befriended him at a crepe shop, and he ending up saying, "oh, I work with Sonny Chiba," and
kind of brought Sonny to us. We were working with him on some other stuff and asked, "Hey,
do you wanna be in the movie?" He said yes and came in for a few days.
KS: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. That never happens, right? Tony was on board, and Tony lent a
lot of legitimacy to the project. I think Mark [Hamill] will say this. He didn't know everybody in
the cast, but he knew Tony and he thought Tony would really ground it. That was what let him
feel comfortable to hop onboard and convinced him we weren't just a couple of yahoos who
were full of crap.
What was Mark Hamill's initial reaction to the script? We haven't really seen him like this before—not in a live-action film—and not to demean the other actors, who are all great, but he really
does steal the show.
DP: At first, he didn't really respond to the script. He thought it was horrifying and violent and
he didn't get it. His kids actually convinced him to reread it and re-think it, because they loved it
and thought this was what their dad should be doing, getting out of his shell. He wants these
cool roles, well, start doing these cool roles. Once Mark realized it was kind of a black comedy, he
got into it. He realized that it had this horrifying humor.
KS: He read this character and realized that he was the comic relief.
Was there anything in particular he brought to the role that wasn't necessarily in the script?
KS: Yeah, he ad-libbed a lot of really great lines.
DP: And those are his real glasses!
KS: (Laughs) Those are his real glasses, his real sneakers. When I first met with him, he said
that his initial impression of the character was that he wanted to play it kind of like Truman
Yeah, I can see that.
KS: And that was very much along the lines of what we were writing.
He's got this arch, very effeminate quality.
KS: Yeah. He modeled some of that after his daughter, actually. (Laughs) With the hair twirling,
things like that. A lot of those little character moments were really built in by him, and I know
that when we were working together, he would always ask me if he was going too far. And I
think there were some moments when I said, "No, go farther." He'll tell this really great story
about putting the hair on, putting the jacket on, looking in the mirror, and saying, "That's not
Mark Hamill." And then feeling completely free to do whatever he wanted to do in the moment.
And I think that shows.
One of the film's real strengths is that it works really well within the constraints of its low-budget. I mean, you have two action scenes that take place in flashback, but most of the film
plays out almost theater-like in the restaurant. The film, then, becomes about the edgy tension
between these characters and it really highlights the performances of actors. When you started
the script, were you conscious of writing with the probable budget in mind?
KS: Yes, completely.
DP: Very, very much so. We planned for an even lower budget in the beginning than it ending
up being. It was in the tens of thousands of dollars range when we were writing it. We knew
that it had to be a really well-constructed character piece.
KS: We wanted to make sure that if we did our jobs right, we could make this really cool self-
contained movie that would not feel like a self-contained movie, that you would get completely
lost in it and the time would fly by. As our budget grew—and this is still a very low-budget film—but as we got a little bit more money, we could've really screwed it up. But I think we really
pulled it off. I think our film is awesome and completely entertaining. Not only do the actors
hold together the entire film, but each actor gets one of those really juicy moments.
I particularly liked the sort of violent oneupmanship between Crow and Max. What was your
approach for the torture scenes? It seems to me like they're just as psychological as they are
gore and shock-driven.
KS: Yes, totally.
DP: Max and Crow, to me, are like competitive school kids that don't like each other.
KS: With the violence, I don't think it's gratuitous because it serves a very important purpose
within the story. I didn't want to show too much, but I knew that we needed to show enough
to get under people's skin. I feel like the ideas are so caustic that that's what really
hurts people. When people cringe, they're not necessarily cringing at what we're showing,
because what we're showing is really pretty low-tech. A lot of it is just blocking and editing.
You're not actually seeing Fish's face get torn off, you're seeing slight of hand. It's like the whole
Psycho paradigm with Hitchcock, where people thought they saw more nudity than
they did, or thought they saw more violence than they did, but it was really just the way it was
constructed. I felt that, and I still feel that the best way to do horror is to put the idea into the
audience's head and let them freak themselves out.
DP: And the last thing we wanted to do, we didn't want to make a torture-porn film. It's not
even a horror film. It's a crime thriller with horrific elements. That balance—it's supposed to
make you upset and then give you just a little bit of tension release with the humor. It's
supposed to get a reaction. If we had just been blatant with it, that reaction would've been
KS: I think that was Dustin said about making you feel like shit, the movie was designed to
make you feel the pain of torture, to make you understand that what's happening is an ugly
thing, a bad thing, it's not supposed to be glamorized. It's not supposed to be fun, you know
what I mean? It's supposed to be a hard thing to watch, really.
Going back to working within a small budget, was it expensive to get the rights to use Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds
Are Forever"? It's the perfect song at that spot in the film, and gives us a little foreshadowing.
KS: It is, and the other song, Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By," is nice too. Those songs, actually, did
not cost as much as we thought they were going to be, but I think we might be the last non-Bond film to license a Bond track. (Laughs) The doors were closing, I think, and we got in there
and made a good deal when we could. We're really lucky to have it.
DP: And that Bond track, it's the title theme for our film. I can't believe we got that
song. A lot of people looking out for us up there, somewhere.
You guys shot inside the long-derelict Fung Lum restaurant outside Universal Studios, and I've
heard that you had some trouble with squatters during the shoot. Any crazy stories about the
DP: Lots of satanists, and lots of human feces, everywhere.
KS: We'd been in there a couple of times—we'd been working in that location for about a year
before we actually shot there, doing scouts—and every time we went in, it got to the point that
we had to have a security guy with a shotgun go through and make sure everyone was cleared
out. But one time we went in there, someone had drawn a giant pentagram in Sharpie on the
wall, left some weird poetry, and there were sleeping bags and a half-eaten sandwich. The
sleeping bags were still warm.
KS: They had just left. And a friend and I stepped in poop. It was terrible. (Laughs)
I've read elsewhere—actually, in your Reddit "Ask Me Anything" thread, Kern...
KS: Oh wow, you read that.
I did. I read that Sushi Girl has been extensively torrented. On the one hand, this must be a little
flattering, on the other, it has to be hugely frustrating. As independent filmmakers, is there
anything you can do to combat pirating?
KS: I think a lot of the issue is helping to inform people that there's a difference between studio
movies and independent movies. There was a lot of talk on that Reddit forum where people
were like, "Screw the MPAA," that kind of thing, and I had to explain that, no, when you steal a
movie like that, you're not actually doing anything to affect the MPAA's bank account, because
they get paid on the top. We have to get the certification, so we have to pay them no matter
what if we want the film to play in theaters. Pirates are stealing from us, not from them. So,
what they're doing has no effect whatsoever. I'm not saying everybody does that, but with a lot
of people I know, the RIAA/MPAA-suing-people-thing got them angry. You have to differentiate
between us and studio budgets, where they're not really as affected by piracy because they
have the marketing budget to be put into thousands of theaters on release day all over the
world, you know? They're going to make money. On the other hand, we have no marketing
budget whatsoever, and a lot of how we got out there was by press that we did on the internet.
In one way, it's interesting because you can make the argument that piracy serves as an
advertisement, but at the same time, you can calculate almost exactly how much money you're
not making by how many people downloaded it. It's just staggering. I think we're hoping that
that will translate into better DVD and Blu-ray sales.
I was going to ask you, what are your hopes, then, for the Blu-ray release? I mean, the film
definitely has cult potential, as evidenced by all the people pirating it. Now that it's widely
available, hopefully it can get into more people's hands.
KS: We hope. I'm sure that not everyone who's downloaded it has loved it, or loved it enough to
buy it, but I hope that getting the word out has got us more fans who will buy stuff.
It's kind of a tricky situation because you look at what happened with the music industry, and a
lot of those people have adapted by giving away music for free and then selling other things...
KS: Yeah, so we're going to try and combat it that way. If we can make a decent amount—
we're releasing the soundtrack as well—if there's enough interest, I think what we want to do is
make a nice special edition package that people can buy for a larger sum, that'll have a vinyl
record of the soundtrack, a special edition Blu-ray, t-shirts, posters, things like that.
You should totally do action figures. I'd kill to have a Mark Hamill-as-Crow figurine.
KS: (Laughs) Yeah, that'd be great. (Long pause) Do you know anybody?