Death Ranch is a no-holds-barred ode to ’70s Blaxploitation cinema. It follows an African American trio of siblings on the run from the law, fighting for their lives as they find themselves trapped on a ranch, surrounded by the KKK in Tennessee.
Death Ranch is as uncomfortable as it is thrilling. Touching on important subject matters for the modern political landscape, it is an over-the-top thrill ride with something for everyone, from 1970s grindhouse aficionados to casual genre fans.
We chatted with director Charlie Steeds ahead of the film’s screening at Grimmfest 2020.
Thom: How would you describe Death Ranch?
Charlie Steeds: Death Ranch is my tribute to the grindhouse and Blaxploitation movies of the ’60s and ’70s. It tells the story of an African American family who are on the run from the police and hide out in an old ranch in 1970s Tennessee. It all seems good at first, but as night falls, they hear a commotion in the woods and stumble upon a KKK clan burning a cross, killing, and torturing a black girl, and the family fall victim to the cult. But, without spoiling too much, eventually they’re able to turn things around and it becomes a very bloody revenge movie where our African American characters come out on top.
Thom: Blaxploitation is a very overlooked part of cinema history. What was it about the Blaxploitation and grindhouse sub-genres that drew you in and made you want to make this homage?
Charlie Steeds: I’ve always loved the movies, and I’ve always been fascinated with them. Coffy and Foxy Brown are two of my favourite movies, but the influence they had on modern movie-making is a little bit overlooked. I’m also a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. Everyone loves his style of very vibrant, over-the-top filmmaking, and I think that comes from grindhouse, exploitation and especially Blaxploitation. The characters that Quentin Tarantino plays could have walked out of a ’70s Blaxploitation movie. People love Samuel L. Jackson and they love these types of characters, but we don’t really have Blaxploitation anymore because it was of a certain time, however the influence is still there. The kind of filmmaking that I love and wanted to do goes back to those kinds of Jack Hill movies, amongst others.
I love the exploitation and grindhouse style, and I knew I wanted to shoot something in that style because it was something I had never done before. To tell a story that was in the Blaxploitation genre excited me – it just fitted together with all my ideas. When I’m trying to think of a good horror idea, I just look to the things that horrify me in general life, and one of those things is racism generally, but also racism in America. Not only today, but in the past as well. We see a lot of films about the KKK, and when they are included in any type of film, it’s usually dealt with in a serious, historical, matter-of-fact way. Obviously there’s definitely a place for that and it needs to be documented, but also, when it comes to the kinds of films I make, which are B-movies and low-budget horror, I think there is a definite entertainment value in taking something historical like the KKK and flipping the history on its head. What if they came up against this trio of African America characters who are so badass that they didn’t stand a chance, and they can kill twenty or thirty KKK members and come out triumphant? I just really like the thought of a revenge movie that can allow me to indulge in really sick and twisted gore, and have the audience really celebrating the fact that our main characters are carrying out such violent acts. It just all gelled together.
Thom: How do you feel that Death Ranch ties into the current political landscape?
Charlie Steeds: It’s interesting, because I came up with the idea itself about three years ago. It tookme a long time to get to make it. I kept pitching it to companies for funding when they asked me what ideas I had and what horror movie I wanted to do next. The companies always liked the sound of the film, but they weren’t going to fund it because of the controversial, edgy subject matter. The other thing that ties into it is that I’m a white, British guy from London. What business do I have going over to Tennessee and shooting a film about this part of American history? I’m not American, I’ve barely visited America, and I’m not black. I also thought about that – is it really a film for me to make? But the way that I look at it is that I like to make the kinds of films that I would enjoy watching, and if this was a Blaxploitation movie from the ’70s, then it would be one that I liked. I don’t think we’ve seen a film where you get to see the KKK represented in such a way where our black characters are the heroes, they’re triumphant, and they almost effortlessly get their revenge. It’s not been made, so I thought I might as well do it.
So, the script was three years ago, then we shot the film in May 2019. Obviously the themes of racism in the film are already very important to me and the cast, but over the last few months the Black Lives Matter movement has just totally exploded, which is great, but also for this film it makes it quite topical all of a sudden. I say all of a sudden, but my point is that for a film that was written three years ago and shot over a year ago, it was always topical, but now I think anyone anywhere is going to have an extra sensitivity to the themes of racism brought up. That’s then difficult because the film is obviously a totally anti-racist movie, but it’s also exploitation. It does throw things in your face, it does go over the top, so it’s interesting.
What gave me confidence is that my three lead black actors were so on board with the script. Not only that, but they contributed so much of their own ideas and feelings on the topic into the movie that the movie has become sort of a group effort. It’s become a platform where these guys can embrace those characters and do what they like. We’re really pleased with what we’ve done.
Thom: From the very start, Death Ranch feels like it was made in the 1970s. What creative decisions did you make in order to achieve that?
Charlie Steeds: In terms of the horror movies I’ve made previously, I love genre, and I love going into sub-genres of movies, so I love to do something that’s gritty and set in a hot summer, like Death Ranch. But then my next film could be a slow, gothic movie set in a haunted house in England. So, I love to jump between the genres and take on all the different styles and tropes of a particular sub-genre. When it came to doing it as a Blaxploitation movie, first thing’s first, I knew I was going to have to go and shoot it in America, because it couldn’t be done in England, it couldn’t be faked. That gave it an immediate sense of style, just the fact that I was in Tennessee. The Ranch you see in the film didn’t have any set dressing or anything – the ranch is the ranch. When the Cadillac showed up and we spent the day driving around the countryside of Tennessee, it just gave it an instant production value, because we were really there and we were really in a place that the KKK were active, and are still active just a three-hour drive north. Around Nashville and places like that, they still have statues and monuments of KKK leaders and racist stuff that they can’t take down because it’s on private property. You are kind of right in the middle of the history of what we’re making the film about. Straight away that gave it a major authenticity.
Aside from that, I wanted to have quite a natural look and feel to it, which a lot of the exploitation films had because they didn’t really have the budget. They weren’t shot in the studios, they weren’t shot with big lights. They were out on location. We shot the film with two cameras all on location. It’s mostly set in the daylight so there’s lots of natural light. I would block and direct the scene, for example the cross burning scene where you see the KKK for the first time – I would just direct what I wanted to happen and then we would just go for it and roll cameras, almost like we were a fly-on-the-wall watching it unfold before us. We’d run around with our two cameras and get all the different shots. That’s kind of like what I tried to do with all the scenes, to give it an authentic feel and then just capture it in a style that was handheld, rough and raw. When you add to that in post the music and the funky soundtrack, and then all the title fonts and stuff like that, it just brings it all to life.
Thom: The violence in Death Ranch can be both brutal and very naturalistic. Was that part of your intention to make it feel more realistic whilst being entertaining?
Charlie Steeds: The violence is pretty over-the-top and splattery. I’d say we didn’t make too much of an attempt to make the violence naturalistic. When someone gets stabbed in the eye, it would just be a hose pipe’s worth of blood spraying out. If you match that with the style that we went for, which was natural and authentic, I think that’s where these two things merge to give quite a unique feel to the violence. Even though the effect itself isn’t natural at all, just the fact that it’s happening within such a natural environment on the screen makes you buy into it way more.
Thom: Were there any films that had a direct influence on what you were doing?
Charlie Steeds: Most of what was inspired me was really the old Jack Hill movies. I’m a huge fan of Jack Hill and think he’s a really underrated director. Even though his movies are such B-movies, and you put them on and they’re trash, every time you sit and watch one of his films, the entertainment value is there. They will always thrill you and entertain you. Stuff like The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown, those are my favourites of his films. Films like that have such a good sense of humour, but also deal with serious issues but are also super violent and go on to the edge of bad taste. Aside from that, like I said, I am a huge Tarantino fan. One of my favourite movies is Django Unchained. When you watch Django Unchained and see Django triumphant, heroic, and fighting these horrible characters, that was definitely an influence. Tarantino is the master of these cathartic revenge movies. Kill Bill is one of the films that got me into filmmaking in the first place. He did almost the same sort of thing there, with the bride getting her revenge. All these kinds of things are the influence that went into it, and then the script takes on a new life by itself and you let the characters go where they want to go.
Thom: All these sub-genre films have certain tropes, and it’s almost part of being a fan to try and look out for these. Since you work in various sub-genres, are there any tropes that you like to play with consistently?
Charlie Steeds: I would say that it depends on what genre. I made a haunted house movie, and I’m the sort of filmmaker that wouldn’t make a haunted house movie unless there was a creepy rocking chair, or a ghostly figure in the window. I really like to put in those tropes. I learnt this lesson from my very first horror movie, which I only made maybe five years ago. It’s called Escape from Cannibal Farm and it was never released in the UK. In that film I was trying to tell a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type story but set in Britain. To kind of spoil the film, partway through there’s a twist – it’s not actually the skin-faced butchers who are the evil ones, they come out quite sympathetic really. They’re the victims of this whole other thing, and it turns out that the family who are imprisoned and tortured by them are the true evil characters. Horror fans like to watch films in this gritty chainsaw massacre-style with the violence, but I don’t want to give them what they’ve seen a million times, so why don’t I give them some of it but then segue off into something that I want to make? More drama and more character-driven horror. So, in Cannibal Farm there’s not really any cannibalism in the end. When I then got to releasing the film, you realise that instead of being surprised by something new, horror fans feel cheated that they didn’t get what they came for. The thing is though, people are going to moan “Not another bloody rocking chair in a haunted house film, as if we’ve never seen that before”, but they’ll then still jump when something scary happens to the rocking chair. Or, if you didn’t have the rocking chair, they’d be like “Oh, well, could have at least put a rocking chair in there!” You can never win really, so I like to include certain tropes.
When it came to Death Ranch and the trope of using Blaxploitation, the only thing that was a major influence was the opening title sequence. The Cadillac driving through the countryside with the funky music. That was the only major trope that we wanted to follow. Aside from that, I don’t think it’s one of my more clichéd, trope-heavy films. I think this film depends a lot on trying to go down an original route of something that we’ve not really seen much of before, especially not in horror.
Thom: You’ve mentioned your back catalogue. Your IMDB says that you have four films coming out in 2020, three that came out in 2018, and a couple more in-between. How do you manage that kind of workload without compromising on quality?
Charlie Steeds: I would like to slow down a bit to spend more time on each project. I tend to spend about ten months on each project, but they will overlap. I’ll be writing and planning one, whilst the other one is in post-production. With each one taking ten months, I get to slowly spend the amount of time I need on each project, but it can feel like they’re all coming out at the same time when it’s actually a very slow process. For example, Death Ranch I shot in May of last year. I shot the film, and then as soon as I got back to England, I was on a contract to shoot another film called Vampire Virus, and I had to shoot and edit that film before I even had a chance to look at the footage from Death Ranch. The way Death Ranch came about is that I was between two projects, I had just finished editing my film An English Haunting and I was looking for my next project. I got hired to make this vampire film, but I couldn’t start until a certain date, so I had this month gap. Instead of sitting around for a month doing nothing, I’d had the script for quite a long time but had this friend who’s also a filmmaker in Tennessee, whose parents own quite a large amount of land, which included the ranch and the woodlands. So, the location suddenly was available. As soon as I saw the pictures of the ranch on their new property, it immediately reminded me of my script for Death Ranch. I thought that I’ve got the perfect location there, and if I could get some investors to put the money in, then I can quickly go and shoot it in this one month gap. So, I spent the month in Tennessee, and it was fitted in very quickly. Now, for the last year and a few months, I’ve had to edit it in any little pockets of time I can find to get it finished because I’ve been working on other projects as well.
Generally, every six months there’s a new project, but they take me ten months at a time. It’s busy. It’s too busy at the moment. I really need to slow down. But at the same time, because I’m making a living from it, and because the budgets on these films aren’t huge, it’s almost like I need to do this many to stay afloat.
Thom: How does working as a contract filmmaker compare to the process of when you were a new filmmaker debuting films?
Charlie Steeds: Things were a lot simpler back then. My very first feature-length movie, which I never really bring up because it was more like a trial run, I never thought it would get a release of any sort. It was also only 60 minutes long, so it wasn’t a full feature, and it was shot for practically nothing. But that ended being picked up by sales agents and then went out on DVD and ended up making me quite a good bit of money. I didn’t realise that things were going to happen that fast, or that the straight-to-DVD market was quite easy to just slide into. I thought that what I really want to do is horror movies, so I put the proper time and effort into doing a horror movie and made Cannibal Farm. That again was a self-funded thing. I had a day job, I was saving, I was borrowing money, I was borrowing kit, people were pulling favours left, right and centre, and that’s how that one came to be. There’s a fun side to that because you’re totally free to make whatever you want to make. I like that and not having to answer to anyone else.
Now on the other hand, I started getting funding and people would ask me what I wanted to make, so I’d pitch an idea and they’d give me the funding and I’d get to make what I want to make. But then it got to a point where I was asking for a certain amount of money when people weren’t willing to just let me do what I wanted. Death Ranch is a great example of why it might not necessarily be a money-maker for me because of its controversial themes, so it might not be on the shelves of Walmart. Nowadays a company will come to me and say “We have this idea for a vampire movie” and I’ll speak to them about their idea and think to myself “Yeah, I could have a crack at vampires” and try and see what I can do with that. After that, another company could come up to me and say “Maybe you could do a werewolf film for us!” I pitch them some ideas, like we could do one in Victorian times, or a post-apocalyptic future, or out in the snow and we can have a snow werewolf. They’ll then pick, like “Let’s go with the Victorian idea, that’s going to be the most marketable”.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve kind of just done whatever I want for every single film apart from my vampire film. I always have to sign these contracts where they say that they’ve got final say on the script and edit, and a lot of filmmakers freak out about that sort of thing, but none of my films, apart from the vampire film, have had anyone interfere with the script or the edit. It’s entirely as I intended it to be.
In most cases, it’s pretty much the same, especially with Death Ranch. We all feel like we’re just friends out making a low-budget movie. It still has that feeling to it. There’s just a little bit more on the business and admin side. I try to keep things simple and just have fun. At the end of the day, it’s just movie-making.
Thom: How awkward is it being on set directing your actors to be awful racists?
Charlie Steeds: I was so lucky with the cast of the movie. First, we all had such fun working on the film. Even though the film is quite extreme at times, it was a light-hearted set. Everyone was just very relaxed. In the evenings, everyone from set would go out to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings or somewhere like that. This made it very helpful when it came to doing all these horrible, racist characters. Not only was I lucky with the black cast members, who were so confident with the script and so into what we were doing that they knew what they were going to have to put up with. It is all make-believe when we’re on set, but they were prepared that they’d have these people in the KKK hoods saying these awful things to them. But they knew that it was a revenge movie, so they were going to get their comeuppance at the end of the day.
We were also lucky with the actors playing the Klan. I mean, I’d never met any of them before I got out there, but when I was casting from England and going through headshots and stuff, I was trying to find the most strange-looking, hillbilly-looking guys.
Thom: I can’t imagine what the casting call looked like!
Charlie Steeds: [laughing] Yeah! All the people who applied for that were so much fun, and quirky individuals themselves. It wasn’t awkward, ever. The most awkward scene was probably the one where they go down into the ‘fuck pit’. Specifically, on that day, the guy who plays the big rapist character, Rufus, is played by this actor who brought along one of his friends to set. I don’t know why his friend was there, but he just came along for the ride. It kind of helped though, because it kept the atmosphere light-hearted, safe, and comfortable. His friend, Gregg, was just off camera on the duty of spraying Robert with sweat because he always needed to look disgusting and gross. Gregg was just spraying him down between the takes. There is also a Klansman called Joe-Bob, who in the film and is meant to be a guy but was played by a woman called Crystal. That was intentional as well, because then Faith, our lead actress, wasn’t the only woman in the room. So, even though it’s a rape scene where it’s two guys and her, the one in the Klansman outfit is a woman, which made things feel safer and more comfortable. It was always going to be safe and comfortable, but it was good to give the extra reassurance to Faith. Just the fact that right beside her is another female. They can have their own correspondence with each other if anything needed to stop because things were getting uncomfortable. I also gave Faith a code phrase so that I would know if it was time for a time-out and that we need to come out of the horrible, dingy shelter that we were in. It was just little things like that to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe, but overall it was just a blast and so much fun.
Death Ranch is screening at Grimmfest from October 7-11.