I was of two minds when I walked into a press screening for Raze, out in theaters. All I’d really heard about the film is that it was being presented as something of a revisionist take on the “women in prison” exploitation genre. In it, a group of women—the lead, Sabrina, is played by stuntwoman legend Zoë Bell—are kidnapped and forced to fight each other to the death. “This could be a really interesting film,” I thought, “that defies typical tropes of women in action/horror movies. Or it could pull a Glee and simply lampshade those tropes without subverting them. ‘Ha ha, the women fight in high heels and push-up bras, even though that’s not practical attire for the situation! Aren’t we so clever for pointing out how stupid that is? Moving on…'”
Readers, I am happy to report that Raze did not just subvert those tropes. It tackled them to the ground and beat them unconscious. It’s a truly original, engaging movie, and one with overtly feminist themes and a large cast of female characters besides. Needless to say I was very pleased to have the opportunity to interview Bell about both the film and some miscellaneous bits and bobs, like the state of women in action movies and why the question “What’s it like being a woman in a man’s world?” sets her teeth on edge.
But first, the movie. Calling Raze a straight action movie isn’t really accurate, because that label implies a certain level of, well, fun. Audience members cheering as our musclebound lead punches out a robot or delivers a quip along with a death blow. One thing that can unequivocally be said about Raze is that it is in no way a fun movie. The premise of people being plucked out of their lives to kill or be killed is a dark one, and the way Raze tackles it is both brutal and brutally honest.
That wasn’t always the case. The original concept, Bell reveals, was one in which the women were “more sort of pin-ups—you know, skimpy underwear.” But the final movie took that male gaze and scrubbed it out, leaving us with a final product that didn’t sexualize any of its characters. Fighting is done in tank tops and sweatpants, not bikinis. There are no lingering shots of cleavage. The fighters “don’t look beautiful,” explains Bell, who also co-produced the film. “We don’t have push-up bras and makeup and have our hair all done.” That’s incredibly rare in any movie, never mind one that shares elements with the horror and action genres, where the audience is far more often than not invited to ogle at an actress leaning over the hood of a car or running away from a killer as her breasts jiggle.
It was important to Bell that the fight scenes in particular be presented in a realistic fashion. And Bell knows from fight scenes: Before breaking into acting in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (where she played herself) she was the stunt double for Kill Bill’s The Bride and, oh yeah, Xena.
“We’ve seen loads of campy female action. I’ve done that myself. I love it,” she says. “But what I hadn’t done is emotionally visceral, women fighting the way women would if there were no other option. We wanted that to be a particularly conscious decision. Just shoot it as if it was a drama piece as far as performances and motivations and intentions of the film and of of the actresses in it, and the actors as well, [were concerned]… I didn’t want it to be like Street Fighter. We wanted these women’s style of fighting to be based purely on the life that they’d lived as women, not as fighters or because of their training.”
It so happens that Bell’s character, as an army veteran, does have training, as do a few others. Most of them don’t. Like Cody (Bailey Anne Borders), a paragon of sweetness who’s never thrown a punch in her life, or Teresa, played by Bell’s Death Proof co-star Tracie Thoms. Most of the characters don’t like fighting, though there’s one—Phoebe, played by Rebecca Marshall—who discovers after being thrown into the arena that she quite likes killing. Then there’s Elizabeth (Twin Peaks‘ Sherilyn Fenn), who with her husband John (Doug Jones) organizes and runs the tournament. (Interestingly, their objective is to force the fighters into expressing a brutality that they see as the hallmark of “true womanhood.” Yes, this is a movie where the bad guys explicitly want to control what it means to be female. Sabrina doesn’t like that so much.) Raze‘s cast includes a large number of women, all with their own backstories, personalities, and fighting abilities. Such variety is something you can pull off when the entire burden of female representation isn’t placed on two characters (a sexy love interest and someone’s mom, natch) among a sea of men.
The sheer number of female characters in Raze isn’t the only thing that sets it apart from its action/horror fellows. “I honestly feel like this is a movie you will not have seen before,” says Bell. “The fight scenes are like I’ve not fought before and I’ve not seen before with women.” That focus on women, surprisingly (or not. Sadly, probably not) has caused some raised eyebrows. “We’d poll people after seeing it,” remembers Bell, “and there was one man who was very angry… He was just livid, and he walked out! He said something about it being completely sexist, and blah blah blah. I was completely floored by it! I was just like… wow. OK.”
While I had Bell on the phone I had to ask her about her take on the state of female action heroes, because… well, because she was Xena’s stunt double. She’s Zoë freaking Bell. I can’t not. “There’s still a ways to go before people have faith that [a female-starring action movie] is going to work,” she explained. “We’ve got the Angelina Jolies and the Milla Jovovivhes, who’ve had Hollywood come around through the course of their careers. They managed to make themselves synonymous with action, which is fantastic. It seems like it goes in waves. There was a moment in the ’70s, and in the ’90s with Charlie’s Angels. But I feel like somehow it always feels a little bit like a fad… You had shows like Xena, of course. I don’t know where it came from, but it just nailed it on the head and did such an incredible job and created such a cool space for women to walk into. There’s definitely more room for it now.”
But women as action heroes are still the exception, while your Vin Diesels and Jason Stathams are the norm.”I think at the end of the day it’s more likely you’re going to see a man getting drunk at a bar and getting into a physical fight than you are going to see a woman doing it,” says Bell. While it was important that the characters in Raze have backstories, she explains, no one would blink at a male character who found themselves in that situation just “[waking] up and [fighting] his way out.” That difference in expectation is evidence of a “part-nature, part-society, part-archaic bullshit that’s still in our day-to-day lives. That’s what we have to deal with. So you don’t let people make you angry or bitter about it. I take the work that I do get and I make it as badass as possible.”
The field of work that she’s in—kicking ass and taking names—means that Bell’s more than familiar with a question often asked of women who work in male-dominated fields: “What’s it like being a woman in a man’s world?” And while she appreciates why people ask that question, “there’s some small part of me that almost finds it defensive or self-fulfilling. It kind of implies that it’s still a man’s world, and I don’t see it like that. I see it as ‘I’m Zoë, and this is my world.’… The reality is, if I work hard, and I make amazing work, and I do amazing performances, and I treat people well, no one should give a fuck if I’m a woman or a man.”