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An Interview with Bennie Woodell, Director of The Sad Café

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2011

Bennie Woodell on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new film The Sad Café - in a few words, what is it about?


The Sad Café centers on Jack (played by Brad Fowler), a hired gun for the underworld, who finds himself falling for a waitress, Rose (Katie Lanigan). Jack finds himself torn between the power of his newfound emotions and the responsibilities posed by a strict code to which he has vowed allegiance. The code was inspired by the Samurai code of Bushido. One day he wakes up and gets an assignment that will alter not only his life, but Rose's forever.


The Sad Café seems to be rather strongly inspired by Hong Kong cinema - would you like to elaborate on that?


Growing up, all I ever watched were action films like Rambo 2, The Terminator, Bloodsport, etc. everyday. Then when I was in high school, my Mom took me to see Rumble in the Bronx when it was playing in the theatres and that changed everything. I began buying a bunch of Jackie Chan films on import because at that time, Police Story, Project A, etc. weren’t released over here yet. Slowly I started discovering Jet Li, John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Cheh, Johnnie To and ultimately Wong Kar-Wai. I remember I virtually stopped watching American films after seeing Chungking Express for roughly between 2001 and 2006. I started building my collection up of Hong Kong films, and it’s become the cinema that I love most, and am inspired by the most. There are different themes and aspects from HK films sprinkled throughout The Sad Café from the voice over narration, to the Chang Cheh theme of women being the downfall of men, to the stylized action scenes, the simple medium 2 shot for dialogue scenes to spend more time on action, and to top it all off, a tad bit of slapstick comedy to lighten the mood; there’s a lot more in there, these were just the first that came into my head. So ultimately, I wanted to pay homage to the cinema that has influenced me the most and so this is basically my love letter to Hong Kong cinema.


What drew you to the professional killer genre in particular?


The Killer. It’s the film that made me want to become a filmmaker in the first place. Aside from that, since I set out to make a HK film, what better protagonist than a hired gun?


Your film has quite a strong romance-subplot. Where did that come from?


Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a sucker for a good romance. When I set out to write The Sad Café years ago, I actually intended to make a romance film with a kind of action subplot. I think one of the things that has drawn me into HK films is the very innocent, cute love stories that they produce. In America, it really seems to boil down to sex, whereas in HK it’s really not. Look at Chungking Express, if Faye Wong would have done what she did in Tony Leung’s apartment in an American film, she’d be labeled a stalker, whereas to me when I watch her sneak into his place and pretty much snoop around, it’s kind of cute and very innocent. Love doesn’t need to be carnal passion in HK cinema, and that’s what I tried to create here in The Sad Café. The two have been longing to talk to one another for who knows how long, but really we see their first conversation. It was all basically love at first sight, which is very HK.


What can you tell us about your principal cast?


Bradley Fowler is absolutely amazing. I can’t tell you how honored and grateful I am to have had him accept the role of Jack. I met him at an audition for a film I was AD’ing, and I fought for him to get cast. Thank goodness he was, because we started talking on the shoot and I told him about The Sad Café, and what I wanted to do and he actually postponed moving to Los Angeles by six months so he could star in the film. He spent most of those months studying Hong Kong films and the code of Bushido for the role, and by the time the cameras were rolling, he embodied Jack to the core.


Katie Lanigan is another gem just waiting to be discovered. I can’t send her enough praise as well for taking what I wanted her to do with the character, and upping it five or six notches. I remember feeling so horrible on set for writing her scenes where she had to cry because listening to her prep for the scenes were heart wrenching.


Macario Cortes is another star of the film, but no one saw his face because he was the Director of Photography. What he did with the lighting, with the amount of lights we had, still to this day amazes me. He actually was the Gaffer on my 2nd short film at Columbia College Chicago, where we met, and we always stayed in touch over the years, and I don’t know what I would have done without him, and it’s only going to get better for us as we move on to bigger projects.


Once Brad was on board, he basically cast the film himself, aside from two or three roles that I had already cast. He’d send me headshots and resumes from his friends from his class, let me know who he thought they’d be good for and we’d set up a meeting time and he was right about everyone. And I think that added a deeper sense of comfort and togetherness for the cast since most of them already had worked together, and did repetition together and all.


Brad, and most of the other actors in the film, are Meisner actors and basically the Meisner technique is living the life as the person by building memories and other things, seriously look it up if you’re an aspiring actor. But for me, it was so interesting to work with them because of how into it they became. When Brad was killing Lin, I was afraid when he started lighting the blow torch on the off chance that his mind was gone. The look of sheer hatred in his eyes was real. There’s a great production still of Brad crying with a 9mm to his head. That was never in the film, that was him getting mentally prepped for the scene at hand, and I have an immense respect for what these actors did day in and day out because they let their guards down and letting themselves become vulnerable to raw human emotions.


What can you tell us about your stunt coordinator/fight choreographer Andrew Hempfling, in what way did he influence the way your film looks like, and what was your collaboration like?


Andrew Hempfling, or Wushu as we call him, is one of the most energetic people you will ever meet in your life. He’s also a Columbia Chicago Alumni, and a student of Wushu, and knows action. I had written in the script basically what I wanted to see happen, he read it, made some alterations and spent about 4 or 5 hours with the actors on set going over it over and over again with them. Because I was off filming other scenes, the first time I saw anything he came up with was during our first camera rehearsal. He knew where I was placing the camera around the massage parlor, and he set everyone up and made the magic happen. I completely trusted Wushu to make a great action sequence, and he did.


The Sad Café shows many outbursts of violence, but probably none as brutal as the scene in which Brandon Fowler tortures maniacal Eliza Shin to death. What can you tell us about the violence in your movie, and was there ever a line you just refused to cross (for other than budgetary reasons)?


Well, there was actually a line I didn’t want to cross. My first 3 features were very gory films, and people started calling me, “The Horror Guy” which scared me because I didn’t want to get that title since I wanted to make Hong Kong style films that were far from horror. So when it came to blood, I wanted it to be impactful. We don’t see Lin’s body until the end of the sequence and we’re pulled back out of Jack’s mind, and we’re in the horror that he’s facing too at that moment. I didn’t want blood for blood’s sake; everything needed to be there for a reason.


Also, The Sad Café is quite strong on atmospheric filmmaking. How important was it to you to give your movie a sort of elegiac vibe throughout?


It was very important. During our production meetings, and all throughout filming, I kept saying that I wanted the film to move and feel like a waltz, and I was fortunate enough to get a composer to compose a waltz ballad with a live cellist and violinist to play the tune, which was the recurring theme within the film. Plus, I wanted to keep in the tradition of a “Bullet Ballet”, so I didn’t want anything jarring in this film. I wanted the cinematography beautiful, and the edits to be seamless, and I think we accomplished all of that.


If my information is correct, The Sad Café has so far only had a few theatrical screening. What can you tell us about audience reaction so far?


Yeah, we’ve only screened the film three times thus far, but as a whole the reaction I’ve received has been great. My two favorite comments thus far have been, “That felt like a foreign film.” And, “I normally don’t tear up at movies, but I was crying by the end.” That’s a huge compliment I feel, if someone was crying because they were moved by the characters and the film.


The $64-question of course, when and where will the film be released on DVD?


I have no idea to tell you the truth. Hopefully soon. We’re part of the AOF Co-Op, so hopefully they’ll be able to get it in front of their distributors and we can see it on DVD sometime next year! I’m also submitting to festivals still, so if you hear of one that might be interested, let me know!


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And if you’re looking for an out of the ordinary belt, please check out our DP Macario Cortes’s belt company at!


Any future projects you'd like to talk about?


Well I can’t really talk about plot details, but Brad and I have about four or five films we want to make and are currently looking for funding to get one rolling.


Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


I think we’re good on everything. Thank you so very, very, very much for asking me to do this interview and I can’t wait to have a new project to talk with you about in the future!


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Thanks for watching !!!



On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide


A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD



Stell Dir vor, Deine Lieblingsseifenoper birgt eine tiefere Wahrheit ...
... und stell Dir vor, der Penner von der U-Bahnstation hat doch recht ...
... und dann triffst Du auch noch die Frau Deiner (feuchten) Träume ...


Und an diesem Tag geht natürlich wieder einmal die Welt unter!!!


Bauliche Angelegenheiten
ein Roman von
Michael Haberfelner


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