“It was something I could do cheaply and would entertain people,” Columbia filmmaker Christopher Bickel told Free Times while discussing his new movie, “Bad Girls.”
“That’s basically as much thought as goes into it.”
The movie and the rest of our chat belied this notion. Bickel puts a lot of thought into the way his films — “Bad Girls” and 2017’s “The Theta Girl” before it — subvert the traditions of the ’70s and ’80s grindhouse movies that he loves, and audience expectations for them, while paying tribute to the schlocky thrills they can so satisfyingly provide.
But his comment rings true as it pertains to Bickel’s relationship with low-budget filmmaking. For him, making movies for the price of a used car (about $16,000 for “Bad Girls”) isn’t just about freedom from investor oversight.
“Almost by nature of how low the budgets are, they have to exist in a world that isn’t the world that you and I live in, but it’s almost,” Bickel explained while discussing the exaggerated reality of his latest pulpy treat, strewn with liters of blood, mostly from dudes who are worse — or at least a more distasteful kind of bad — than the film’s titular trio of drug-addled valkyries.
“You can kind of get away with some things that you normally wouldn’t get away with if you were just telling a straight narrative that was supposed to exist in this world. So it does give it a little bit of comic book license.”
The choices made with this license range from an errant shotgun blast erasing half of a baby in a stroller, to using South Carolina’s own absurd highway relic South of the Border as a winking stand in for Mexico. It’s all part of the not-quite-reality that allows “Bad Girls” to depict a killing spree without the death toll weighing on you, while also teasing out some heavy questions about the nature of morality.
The movie was written and directed by Bickel, building from a stage play by Shane Sillman that got scrapped at Trustus Theatre.
It follows three young women who violently rob the strip club they work at, and then hit the road, murdering the crap out of a variety of misogynistic men along the way. There’s collateral damage beyond these satisfying kills, but smartly inserted news broadcasts and online videos show the general public doing what most viewers will probably end up doing, too — rooting for the “Bad Girls.”
They kidnap two of their favorite rock stars, with whom they have a series of conversations about the worst things they’ve ever done, which leads to an inescapable conclusion: Pretty much nobody in this world is actually a good person.
“I don’t think there’s any heroes in this, other than maybe the motel clerk Rusty,” Bickel said, comparing the sycophantic dude, who begs his way into being the girls’ other abductee and worships them while they mock him relentlessly, as the Luke Skywalker of this story, “the guy working on the farm that gets swept up into a great adventure.”
“As the title indicates, they’re ‘Bad Girls.’ I wanted to give them enough so that you sort of rooted for them, but that they’re all tragically flawed.”
Asked about the film’s “smash the patriarchy” vibes, Shelby Lois Guinn, who portrays Carolyn, one of the titular trio, said she appreciated the depth with which the film explores them.
“When I first read the script, I kind of assumed it was just ‘girl gang on a rampage,’” she offered, “but actually seeing it play out and the way that Chris was able to edit it, all the different aspects and bring it together, I really enjoy the whole subversion — smash the patriarchy, you kind of said it yourself, but in a really intense, grueling type of way.”
Bickel’s previous effort earned considerable plaudits and success considering its roughly $14,000 budget and Columbia’s off-the-map status on the national film landscape. “The Theta Girl” notched a deal with Film Threat Presents, the distribution arm of the beloved cult movie publication.
And his new film is already getting positive buzz.
“‘Bad Girls’ is an over-the-top grindhouse jam, packed full of sex, drugs, loud music, and ultraviolent action,” Jim Salter enthuses in a review for Ars Technica.
Bickel said that COVID-19 didn’t hamper production. The film was shot before the initial lockdown last March, and taking time away from his job at Papa Jazz Record Shoppe while it was closed was helpful when it came to editing. But he is disappointed in how the ongoing pandemic is impacting the film’s rollout.
“My favorite thing with the last movie was being able to sit in a theater full of people and watch it and see people’s reaction, and se the parts where they laughed or where they gasped, and so I don’t have that at all with this,” he offered, adding that he may look at screening it locally in the fall.
Film festivals weren’t going to be an emphasis for this movie, though Bickel will likely end up submitting to fewer than he would have. He plans to funnel the money he would have spent on those submissions into advertising and promotion.
“Part of that is trying to get it outside of our spheres of friends,” Bickel explained. “I think there’s a lot of people in the lot of the country, or the rest of the world, that would enjoy a movie like this, but you have to figure out a way to get it on their radar.”
But while he’d like to push the film beyond Columbia, his supportive community was a big part of “Bad Girls,” both on the screen and behind the camera.
He recouped the film’s $16,000 budget in a successful Indiegogo campaign, which has since pushed past $19,000 as he uses it as an outlet for people to continue to purchase the movie.
This embrace from Columbia is visible throughout the film. Local fixtures turn up as extras (look for Jam Room recording studio owner Jay Matheson in the opening robbery).
Local haunts get used as sets (New Brookland Tavern and the basement of Tapp’s Arts Center’s former location on Main Street are both included). And the soundtrack is strewn with local rock music, including Bickel’s own former punk bands and others (like Boo Hag, whose headily stomping “Burial Ground” is a fitting soundtrack for a hotel room drug binge).
Morgan Shaley Renew, who plays Val, the uncompromising leader of the “Bad Girls,” is originally from Augusta, Georgia.
“I had never been in Columbia, really, until I started filming this movie,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know any of these people, and it was amazing how everybody kind of immediately welcomed me into their circle. I never felt not taken care of the entire time, and have actually since moved to Columbia, because a lot of these people have become really, really good friends to me.”
Bickel is similarly encouraged by the support he’s been shown.
“I think part of that is that I’m operating in a place like Columbia, where it’s not Los Angeles where there’s like a million things going on,” he reasoned. “There’s just a handful of filmmakers here that are doing stuff, so I think people locally are excited about that. They’d like to see stuff come up that sort of amplifies the town.”
Available now. Purchase via badgirlsmovie.com.