Sometimes as a programmer you come across a film that is so unique and has performances so captivating that you want to champion it every chance you get. For me, that film is BLOOD PUNCH, a hilarious macabre thriller that dances across genres with the ease of a ballerina brandishing a hatchet. Milton (Milo Cawthorne) waits out his rehab sentence until the beautiful Skyler (Olivia Tennet) seduces him into cooking meth for her. She and her psychotic boyfriend Russell (Ari Boyland), a dirty cop, break him out and Milton finds himself in the midst of a love triangle with two borderline crazy people. Not surprisingly, the drug deal goes wrong, betrayal ensues and people die… bput that’s only the first time they try it. Caught in a Groundhog Day like curse to repeat the events of the day over and over again, Milton and Skyler search for a way to break out of the loop and escape with the money and their lives.
BLOOD PUNCH hinges on three great performances, and a chaotic reality where the characters are willing to try anything to disrupt the spell they’ve unfortunately stepped into. The spark between Cawthorne and Tennet is electric, and despite their criminal past and attitudes, you can’t help but root for them to make their new relationship work. It’s a very funny film, one where the laughter sneaks up on you because often the people are saying and doing terrible things to each other. Essentially a dramatic overhaul of the Cabin in the Woods motif (at least the middle act), Blood Punch never fails to twist expectations and deliver a shot of adrenaline and laughter.
I gave Blood Punch it’s World Premiere at Austin Film Festival back in 2013 and have kept up with the cast and crew ever since, following the steady stream of awards they gathered at fest after fest. Finally the film is available on VOD and DVD. I had the chance to talk with Cawthorne and Tennet (a couple offscreen as well as on) about the film and their tempestuous characters.
BEARS: Blood Punch was written by Eddie Guzelian – who you both worked with on the Power Rangers R.P.M. set. His other credits include things like Peter Rabbit, The Penguins of Madagascar, and the Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Director Madellaine Paxson also worked on Power Rangers and Peter Rabbit. This film is quite a bit different than those. Can you tell me about reading the script and what excited you?
Tennet: Yeah, Blood Punch is definitely the furthest you can get from our days fighting rubber monsters and prancing around in Lycra!
Cawthorne: From working with Eddy and Maddy on Power Rangers, I knew they were both incredible writers. Our season of PR was markedly different from other seasons, the characters had interesting backstories, it was darker and edgier and funnier than any other PR season I’d seen.
Tennet: I am mostly cast as a young, innocent girl so when I first read Blood Punch and the character of Skyler, I was very excited by the chance to play a character like nothing else I’d ever been considered for. It was also pretty nerve-wracking wondering if I’d actually be able to pull it off.
Cawthorne: I kind of expected something cool when I got the e-mail with the first scene from Blood Punch – which at that point was Skyler getting felt up by a guard, then putting a cigarette out on the guys head, then screaming obscenities at the other guards who took her away. I was very shocked and a bit worried at that point, that scene was so full on. But then it was a maybe a couple of days later and Ed sends the full script through, which I was really impressed by, because it reveals so much more about the Skyler character, and you see why she’s such an intense person. Now I look at that scene and think, of course!, that is exactly the kind of situation that’d be perfect to introduce that particular character. Plus I loved how the film never took itself too seriously; there was always a little tongue in cheek. Even in the most ‘emotional’ scenes.
Tennet: But the script was so good, it kept me hooked from beginning to end and I just knew with Eddie and Maddy at the helm, and working alongside Milo and Ari, this would be a good project.
BEARS: So when I first saw the film I didn’t know you two were a couple, and in fact you weren’t married yet, but were right after filming I remember. How is it working together on screen as lovers? Especially such wild and passionate ones.
Tennet: Milo and I have actually worked together multiple times; we seem to get cast as a pairing heaps, even before we were together in real life. So we’d had plenty of practice being on set together and creating a realistic relationship on screen.
Cawthorne: We both have a pretty professional attitude on-set because we’ve been doing it since we were kids. So working together was not hugely different from working with anybody else, of course there’s probably more of an immediate connection, we are probably more likely to suggest something for the other person to try in the scene, also probably more likely to get angry with each other for messing up, hehehe.. It is great to have someone on set who knows you sooo well, makes life easier.
Tennet: I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with my husband as it removes any awkwardness or pressure to create an intimate relationship really quickly. In saying that, we always have to be careful that our real-life history doesn’t play on screen when our characters first meet; there still needs to be a convincing first connection.
BEARS: Part of the fun of the film is seeing the same scene over and over again, but that must have been a nightmare to film and act. Tell me about that?
Cawthorne: HAHA, yes, you are correct. Even today there are a couple of scenes where I look at the film and think, hmmm, I didn’t really know what point along the story this was. Eddy was fantastic help for us during shooting though, I think he understood that his script was so twisted that it’d be difficult for us to keep up when shooting was out of order. So before some takes he would come up to us and have a little chat about where we were. The one thing in our favour, is that we’d read and acted out the whole script several times in rehearsals, and for test footages before actually shooting. So we were fairly well versed in the story arc.
Tennet: Because we were filming out of sequence, there were quite a few times where I had to ask,”Ok, what one is this?” I found the hardest part was figuring out what each character knew at each point in the story. I can’t remember it being that hard filming the same scene over and over. I think I actually enjoy doing scenes multiple times; it gives me more chances to get it right!
BEARS: Both Milton and Skyler are so enticing as characters because they are both good people and bad people, in varying amounts, but nothing easily definable. Can you tell me about the choices you made in the performances to keep them both dark and likable?
Tennet: This was something we had to be really careful with for the character of Skyler. We couldn’t just have her be the bitch, otherwise the audience is not going to care about her and Milton’s relationship or whether she ever gets out. The whole ending of the film would be meaningless if we didn’t have any empathy for her.
Cawthorne: Yeah the thing that I remember talking about most with Eddy and Maddy, was the transition from milquetoast to murderer for Milton. The script was really my best friend in that regard, because I was lucky in that Milton is treated pretty badly, and can get sympathy for being a bit of a victim, so his actions can be justified (maybe?). I definitely took that opinion anyway, and tried to make his (stupid) decision to go up and cook the meth less about greed, and more about his need for freedom and his love for Skyler.
Tennet: We decided from the outset that Skyler has had quite a tortured past which is why she ends up in these pretty intense relationships with people like Russell.
We also chose carefully the moments when we would see Skyler’s vulnerability and soft side to show she’s not just a foul-mouthed, quick-witted manipulator. You’ll also notice in the film that Skyler never lies. She is always completely up-front and honest with Milton and explains to him what they’re getting into from the very beginning. She’s able to manipulate people and get what she wants, but this always come from a place of complete openness and honesty.
BEARS: I’ve been talking a lot to people about the Kiwi film renaissance going on right now, including Milo’s own Deathgasm, but what’s your take on it? What is it about making films in NZ that comes out so quirky and fun? What have you noticed?
Cawthorne: Well we pride ourselves on having a’ laid back’ attitude and a good sense of humor. Previously we’ve been known for harrowing tragedy pieces that make you want to commit suicide (Once were warriors, The Piano et al). I think we’ve gotten a little sick of that, there’s a new generation of young filmmakers that’s into comedy, that’s into genre stuff, and the technology is more affordable for them to make stuff.
Tennet: I think we always have the attitude coming from such a small country, that we’ve got nothing to lose and we are able to take bigger risks. I also think because there are less films coming out of NZ that the films have to be really good to do well! It’s quality over quantity here, definitely. We’ve got some amazing talent.
Cawthorne: Also there is a lack of money, and with lack of money often comes weird quirkiness, look at ‘Dead Alive’ compared to ‘King Kong’ “We want to cut to the gigantic monkey rampaging through new york, but we don’t have the budget, so we’ll stay on this close-up.”
Tennet: Since Milo and I moved back to NZ two years ago, we’ve noticed that the work has picked up a lot, which is awesome. International productions are coming back to work in NZ and I think they’re always blown away by how hard our crews work too.
Tennet: I do quite a bit of theatre and commercial dance work, as well as working on some TV and film productions. 800 Words, a TV series I filmed earlier in the year is going to be released next month in Australia. I also just finished filming a really cool little series called Jiwi’s Machines, working alongside the kinetic artist and Rube Goldberg machine-builder, Joseph Herscher. Each episode has a different, incredible machine in it. It’s going to be released online in November so definitely keep an eye out for that.
Cawthorne: I recently filmed a pilot for a webseries in which I play a kleptomaniac. I had a guest role on ‘ASH vs Evil Dead’ which was a lot of fun. I’ve started a company selling a Swedish lawn game called KUBB. And to keep me off the streets I paint houses with a friend of mine. Which is much harder than I thought it would be.
Tennet: I’m also trying to study at the same time which is pretty mental. I’m half way through a Speech Therapy degree at Auckland University and I’m loving it. I probably won’t graduate til 2050, but I’ll get there eventually!
BLOOD PUNCH is out now on VOD, iTunes, and DVD.