By Danny Peary
Back in the days before the NHL cleaned up it’s act, the oft-told joke was, “I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out.” I am reminded of this in regard to maverick Seattle filmmaker Tonjia Atomic because when I watch one of her horror movies, a comedy almost always breaks out. Her low- and zero-budget shorts and features have been embraced by the underground horror-movie crowd, yet I am not sure they are horror movies at all. Or can even be categorized. Her last feature, Plain Devil, is, despite its horror-movie title, a tame John Waters-like comedy. Her first feature, the often hilarious Walking to Linas is a comic parody of a documentary, featuring deadpan humor, zany improv. and an array of bizarre characters, including the egocentric leads Stasha (played by Atomic), and Ada. The totally improvised Claudia Qui is most definitely a horror movie…until the loony final sequence. Her next film is titled Raw Meat and it’s about a skinless man out for revenge, yet I would be shocked if it doesn’t have comedic elements and a few references to the foreign filmmakers Atomic adores. I thought I was the first to discover Atomic much like an art critic comes happens upon an outsider artist, but I was glad to learn that she already had a following after screening her movies at (mostly horror) festivals and making them available online–as is Plain Devil now–and she has even won awards. Yes, her curious movies have the flaws of all films made with micro-financing, but all have impressive moments (and laughs) and are made by someone who really loves movies. I think they deserve an audience. The following is an interview I recently did with the talented filmmaker, actress, and singer with the intriguing name, Tonjia Atomic.
Danny Peary: In Walking to Linas, Stasha’s overweight Martha Grahame-idolizing dancer friend Ada says, “Seattle has an art scene…and I’m not part of it.” I have the feeling that she is talking not only about your character, too, but partly about you, as someone on the fringes of Seattle’s art community. Do people in Seattle’s “art scene,” know you?
Tonjia Atomic: That’s an interesting topic. I wouldn’t say that I’m known except in certain circles, more in an underground way. The local papers haven’t written much about my films but I was mentioned in a couple of articles for being in a band called Huh-Uh. My films have gotten more attention for playing in festivals in Boston and other towns than in my hometown. Some people in Seattle’s indie movie scene may remember me from when I volunteered at the Northwest Film Forum, which shows a lot of smaller films that don’t have wide distribution. About ten years ago, I helped sell tickets and run the concession stand for the theater there. Years later I volunteered at its new, expanded space, and on Mondays I cleaned up the place, mopped the floors, things like that. So I got to know a lot of people who worked there over time. I haven’t volunteered there for several years, but it has a pretty well known film festival called Local Sightings, and both Walking to Linas and Plain Devil played there recently, in different years. There’s another popular local festival called Seattle TransMedia Independent Film Festival and Walking to Linas played there in 2013. I also did the voice of Jenna Jones in Jim Smith’s stop-motion animation short, Porn Star: The Jenna Jones Story. It’s a bit naughty and was made for Hump, a porn festival here in Seattle, but Hump turned it down and it got into STIFF instead. I haven’t had anything play in Seattle International Film Festival, which is our biggest festival, but I worked in the box office a long time ago. Also I worked for Landmark Theatres, so people probably know me in that capacity as well.
DP: Are you ever recognized as Stasha, from the Stasha and Ada video shorts or the feature, Walking to Linas? Have people waved to you when they see you filming on the street?
TA: I’ve been recognized only once or twice. Although people who have seen Walking to Linas at festivals aren’t quite if I am that character. Of course, Stasha is a totally fabricated character.
DP: She’s one of your typically vain and pretentious heroines.
TA: And I’m down-to-earth. It’s a deadpan mockumentary, so people aren’t sure if it’s real.
DP: I feel like I discovered you while taking a look at micro-budget horror film directors. The surprise was that making horror films is just a part of what you do. I was taken by your comedies, Walking to Linas and Plain Devil. Yet I think you’re most known for being a horror-movie director, even though Raw Meat isn’t out yet and I can’t imagine many people have seen Claudia Qui.
TA: It’s because of my shorts, mostly. Most festivals, reviewers, and film communities have trouble pinning down what I do–but since my films tend to have en edge to them–a weirdness and a dark quality–the horror community actually accepts them. I’ve made several shorts that have played at horror festivals and I have become involved in the organization Women in Horror.
DP: I know there was a “Women in Horror Month” earlier this year.
TA: Hannah Neurotica, a friend I met in a women’s filmmaking group, started an online zine called Ax Wound, and I got involved in that for more support. Hannah is the one who started “Women in Horror Month” a couple of years ago. So now every February, women horror filmmakers and actors get together and create events. The word goes out online and basically all of us working in horror are supported and showcased. I had my short Awesome Ouija Board play a couple of years ago at one of the events in Philadelphia. And through “Women in Horror Month,” I’ve met a lot of filmmakers, actors and actresses who are working in horror films.
DP: Was your 2014 short Closing In also part of that?
TA: No. Closing In was a short I made with a team for a 48-hour horror challenge. So it was made in a 48-hour period. I wrote and directed and edited it, and I wouldn’t do that again because it’s too many roles to have when you have such little time. It made it hard to get things done.
DP: Go back to your roots. When you were growing up, was your family into movies and theater?
TA: My dad was really into movies and is the one who exposed me to all kinds of B movies and horror movies. My mom wasn’t a movie buff, but she loved true stories and epic dramas, stuff like that. So I got both sides of it. Also, I have a sister seven years older than me and when I was very young, probably 3 or 4, she would borrow my mom’s tape recorder and record made-up radio shows. She’s pretend to be a DJ or radio host, and create segments and other things, and I did that with her a couple of times.
DP: In a radio interview I listened to, you said you wrote a musical when you were about eight or nine.
TA: It was called Jungle Fever and was about loving to be in the jungle. I don’t know what inspired it, but I taught a bunch of kids in my class to do dances and to sing along and we performed it for our teacher. Actually music is my first love, slightly ahead movies. I’ve spent a lot of time learning songs, practicing, and writing songs, and I’ve been a few bands like Huh-Uh, Duet To-It, and Filthy Issue, singing lead and playing guitar and keyboards. I have performed a lot and recorded some cds and made videos you can find online.
CD: Stasha does some faux opera, but you’re a rock singer.
TA: Yeah, I guess so. I would say Blondie and David Bowie were big influences.
DP: Did you perform in shows at your schools?
TA: Not really, because honestly when I was younger I was always too shy. I did try out for a play, and there was a musical number so I got the part because of my voice. But that was the only time. I was too shy to let everything go and really audition.
DP: Were you going to movies all the time? You have references to foreign films in your films, but I doubt if your friends growing up were going with you to see Bergman and Truffaut movies.
TA: I did see a lot of foreign films. That was more when I was in high school. I was always the oddball. The other kids thought my jokes were dumb or strange, and I often found myself loving movies and other stuff that my friends thought was weird. I didn’t really have anyone that I related to in that way. I had to find likeminded people.
DP: So you went to film school?
TA: I went to Seattle Central when it was in its heyday and was rated the number one community college in Time magazine. It was a really good time to be there because they had all these technical programs and I was in the Film and Video Production Program, which was a hands-on technical course that included some theory, too. That program doesn’t exist any more, which is sad.
DP: In another interview you talked about its high attrition rate, how it started with lots of students and was whittled down to a dozen or fifteen dedicated students.
TA: If film wasn’t your passion and you didn’t really love it, you wouldn’t find it worth giving up all your time. The school was open from 9 to 9, and we’d be there at 9 and work on projects until 9 at night and leave only because we were kicked out. It was a pretty intense course, and to get through you had to have a lot of drive to do a project and work on it until it was exactly how you wanted it to be. Anyone who actually graduated put in a lot of effort. I graduated when I was 23 or 24.
DP: Did the instructors there point to you as somebody who had potential?
TA: I would say yes, which is a reason I decided making movies was what I wanted to do. I really did well in the program, and received a grant based partially on an instructor’s recommendation. I even got chosen to direct the class project, which was our own version of a scene from Matewan. I was very excited because John Sayles is a filmmaking hero of mine.
DP: Didn’t you make your first film around this time?
TA: Yes, in 1999, I made a 21-minute film called Clever Elsa. That was my first short and it’s the only time I shot on film. I shot it on 16mm, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to do that, because since then all the processing labs here have closed and it’s nearly impossible to do anything like that without spending tons of money. Clever Elsa was just something I wanted to do and I took advantage of the opportunity I had because I was in school to make it. We could do anything we wanted for our final project, and most students did a short piece and used only school equipment. I was either the first or second student to make something on film, which our program didn’t have resources for. I had few resources but I used the grant and did some fundraising and a lot of work outside of class to finance it. Basically I used fellow students and the school’s studio, which gave me access to lights, for the indoor scenes, but everything else I did outside of the school–getting the camera, purchasing the film, paying for the processing, etcetera. It was certainly ambitious. It was a huge and important learning experience for me.
DP: Is Clever Elsa a horror movie?
TA: It could be classified as one. It’s based on a Grimm fairytale, and it’s in black and white and is kind of eerie. However, I felt like the original story is amusing, so I included humor. Like with my later “horror” films, I mixed serious and funny.
DP: Everyone has theories on horror. As you made more shorts and Claudia Qui and Raw Meat, did you develop theories on the timing of scares, or on how to build up a fright scene, or about things you don’t see on the screen, or on the best way to unsettle a viewer?
TA: Honestly, I don’t look at my films as horror films, so when I make them I’m not thinking about how to scare or unsettle viewers. I kind of fell into horror organically because my stuff is unusual and has a darkness or twist to it, but I’m not consciously trying to put a fright into anyone. I want to explore a topic or a theme or something about my characters. What I’m thinking about when I’m writing a piece is if one person does this, how would a second person honestly react. The back and forth between the characters is really what I’m looking at, and if something comes out of that that’s unsettling or frightening, it’s because it goes with the topic or the theme or whatever. But I don’t consciously try to get scares, if that makes sense.
DP: For me, it’s your deadpan humor that stands out, so I think it’s odd that you might get pigeon-holed as somebody who just makes horror films. Will you be okay with that?
TA: Comedy is something I’m very interested in, and I think it comes naturally to me. So even if I am making a horror film, I’ll include some comedy elements, like with Re-Animator and American Werewolf in London. I don’t think I can help it.
DP: You seem to have taken a long break between Clever Elsa and your later shorts and features. What happened?
TA: Between 2000 and 2010 I did little videos here and there but nothing serious. One reason I wasn’t putting out anything is that I was focusing on music and playing with a few bands during that time. Another reason was that it was very expensive to complete projects. People still had the idea of making movies on film but I really couldn’t afford that. I didn’t really have the resources to create anything until digital hit it big. I did have a project that I tried to make but completed only about half of it before I had problems with cast and crew dropping out. Since I’ve gotten back into filmmaking, finding the right people to work with has taken me quite a lot of time. If someone proves to be reliable, I try my best to hold on to them.
DP: I urge people to seek out your shorts, but let’s talk about your features. Where did Walking to Linas come from?
TA: From the web series we made before the feature, The Prosaic Life of Stasha and Ada. There were six episodes, followed by the feature. Stasha and Ada appeared for the first time and met in the first episode, Performance Art.
DP: I laughed out loud at their conversation when they meet. Your character introduces herself as Stasha, saying her name is short for Anastasha. Then Aiden Karamanyan’s character introduces herself as Adalynnarella, and Stasha asks, “Is that short for something?” I loved reaction. So was that close to your first meeting with Aiden?
TA (laughing): Not really. We worked together, and met through a job. I think it’s funny that she has since legally changed her name and chose the name of her character, Ada. So we should call her Ada now, not Aiden as she is credited in my films. Ada’s a very talented actress and I’m an actress, so we decided to do a couple of films together. She has a small part in Camille Qui, playing my character’s girlfriend, and has a lead in Plain Devil as an immigrant who wants to fit in with my character’s girl gang. She’s not really involved in my films any more because she has gotten more into stage acting and writing. I won’t be surprised if she becomes really well known in that capacity.
DP: Waiting for Linas is a mockmentary inspired by a documentary by Linas Phillips, which itself was inspired by a real journey by Werner Herzog?
TA: I guess this is where you can really see what my humor is like. I heard about Linas’s Walking to Werner, and how he had decided to do a documentary based on Werner Herzog’s famous journey [in 1974] in which he walked from Germany to his mentor, Lotte Eisner, who was in a hospital in France. It was a personal thing that he did to show solidarity. So Linas was inspired by Herzog’s pilgrimage and decided to walk from Seattle to Herzog’s house in L.A. So I thought that it would be funny if Stasha walked to Linas’s house, to show her solidarity with him and inspire others in the future to walk to her house. Of course, Linas Phillips lives in Seattle too, so Stasha and Ada’s big journey is about a mile or whatever. I got the idea before I had even seen Walking to Werner, which is a good movie.
DP: Linas Phillips makes a cameo appearance in the movie, though Stasha and Ada don’t recognize him and continue on their journey. Is he a friend or did you actually seek him out to make an appearance in your movie?
TA: I met Linas before at the Northwest Film Forum, and we became acquainted because of filmmaking,
DP: Because Stasha can’t climb down a long flight of stairs because she’s wearing inappropriate high-heeled shoes the first time and they get lost on their subsequent attempt at finding Linas Phillips’ house, I thought your movie was going to be a variation on Waiting for Godot, like Walking to Godot, with the two of you never reaching your destination. And now I see that a quote on your film’s poster refers to Beckett’s play. Was Godot in your mind when it was scripted? Or wasn’t it scripted?
TA: The Stasha and Ada shorts were 100% scripted, but in Walking to Linas, the dialogue was all improvised. But unlike with my next film, Claudia Qui, which was also improvised, we were always sure where it was going. Ada and I decided on all the plot points beforehand. Basically, rather than it being like Waiting for Godot, I wanted to do the movie like a dream of mine. I thought it would never work if I actually filmed it as a documentary. In Walking to Werner, as Linas documents his journey and meets a lot of people along the way, there are some genuine, even heart-breaking, human moments in there, so when I finally saw it, I thought, “Oh, maybe I’m making a serious mistake doing this.” Because I would be doing it to be funny and his movie is very serious. But I thought, “Ya know, I can do it if I make it kind of unreal.” And one of the things I thought of was to create characters that could be placed in a world that isn’t really real. That’s how Stasha and Ada were born. Ada and I thought that if we made a few shorts with those two characters, we could develop them and really understand them better and build an unreal world for them.
DP: I don’t know if you watched the Abbott and Costello television show from the early 1950s, which was a big influence on Seinfeld. The two of them would walk down the street and inevitably run into weird characters, just as Stasha and Ada do on their journey. What I find really interesting about your comedy duo is that they move through the real Seattle as if they are in a bubble, and the alternate universe just wherever they are. It follows them around.
TA: The characters are in their own world.
DP: One time in the web series, they are feuding and each have guys drooling over them and then they see each other and forget all about the guys and just walk off chatting and gossiping excitedly.
TA: They’re a bit naïve and very self-centered.
DP: When it gets right down to it they love themselves most of all. They love each other but they also really don’t because there’s always some jealousy and annoyance with the other.
TA: That was something definitely we thought would be part of the humor. Make it so they think they’re best friends. The really do rely on each other and have this strong connection, but we wanted there to be competitiveness and jealousy and have them flip on each other. That’s where we thought the humor would really shine, so we kept that in mind the whole time.
DP: So was it hard to walk and talk with a camera in front of you and a boom over your head?
TA: It was to some extent, and I think that’s why we had so many sound issues. We didn’t have crazy-expensive equipment so we could roll things, and we had a small crew, and one time the cameraman, Joseph Cole, was backing up as we were walking forward and walked into a pole. So it was challenging. He did survive and would also be the cameraman on Plain Devil.
DP: The early scenes in the house in Walking to Linas remind me of early Andy Warhol. Particularly the apartment scenes in Trash with Joe Delasandro and Holly Woodlawn– only Stasha talks about shoes and herself rather than drugs and sex. It has an underground vibe.
TA: I have seen Andy Warhol’s films, but I didn’t consciously borrow from them. I think the reason there’s a connection is that I wanted a naturalistic feel. I wanted it to seem real although the stuff we were talking about was absurd.
DP: There’s a scene in Walking to Linas, when Stasha and Ada discover that Linas is in New York and decide to swim there. I thought they would change their minds and go home but instead they walk—you and Ada walk–fully clothed into a lake. Was that planned?
TA: Yes, from the beginning. We knew we were going to walk into the water. It was cold, too! I’d been in that lake before,we go swimming there every summer, although not in street clothes. I have swum in there when all the sticklebacks spawned and died–that was a bad surprise.
DP: I really laughed when Ada is insulted by Stasha and storms off, and Stasha gets her to return by singing a very stupid but complimentary siren song to her, in your opera voice, about what a great dancer she is. I think you improvised those silly lyrics and my guess it’s like something you do while walking down the street sometimes.
TA: Yeah, I do that. After they run into a character from Ada’s past, there’s some jealousy and fighting and we had to figure out–how will they get back together? We thought it would be so funny if they came back together through their mutual love of their art. I didn’t think to do that ahead of time. It was an unplanned moment. I just started singing to a flower and that just kind of happened.
DP: You didn’t laugh then and keep a straight face throughout the film, but I think there is one time when you couldn’t help but giggle for a second or two.
TA: We talked about whether or not to keep that in or not, and we decided to leave it in.
DP:. So how come there have been no more Stasha and Ada shorts or features?
TA: I think it’s really because of the availability of the actors. We’ve talked about doing a couple more episodes for the web series, and we tried a few times, but unfortunately it’s not meant to be.
DP: You decided to leave those characters behind and next do a horror movie, Claudia Qui. Is it true that you had no money or time to write a script, so the whole film is improvised?
TA: One of the reasons I decided to do this was because I knew Barbara Burgio and Don Ayers, who play Claudia and her husband Mark. I really love their music so I wanted to use the movie as the showcase for their music as well. I thought I could shoot this pretty economically and pretty fast, not thinking it would take me so much time to edit it and put it all together so it would be coherent.
DP: You mentioned the word “eerie” before and that’s what I think the best scenes in Claudia Qui are. There’s no violence in that movie at all. But where it succeeds, horror-wise, is when it’s creepy, particularly the night scenes when Claudia walks about possessed. Were you going for that?
TA: Definitely. I think the horror is psychological and though it’s multi-layered, most of all it’s a relationship-type story, in a tragic way. To me, much of tragedy is Claudia pulling away from her devoted husband as she changes. It’s kind of a sad story.
DP: Rather than putting your characters in physical danger, you have people who are in love pulling apart.
TA: For me, the danger was Claudia losing herself, and she does. And that I found tragic.
DP: Here’s a quote I found of yours: “I like to be scared or creeped out in a safe setting.” I think that’s key to you. Did you try to scare yourself or creep yourself out, particularly in those night scenes?
TA: I guess so. A lot of it was intellectual, like, “What would Claudia be seeing in her dreams?” I was imagining that what she sees in her dreams is herself, but in another time and place. I was thinking about the duality and the separation from self. So a lot of it is not about a creep-out factor, but is an intellectual exploration of that idea. For me, the unsettling nature of the movie is the separation of her from herself.
DP: I really like the shot of two women in the mirror. It’s the closest to a shock that you have in the movie.
TA: It was something that I wanted to do once, I have various shots of Claudia with the mirror, but this was different. I wanted to show the duality, how she was fractured from herself.
DP: I also like the scenes of Claudia walking around at night and that Paranormal Activity moment when she stands by the bed while Mark is sleeping.
TA: That was all done kind of in the moment. So if I had a strong idea and it went with another idea or fit into the scene we were doing, then I’d just film it.
DP: Your film is nothing like Picnic at Hanging Rock except for the eeriness factor. We never see anything bad happen to anybody, but there’s something out there in those rocks that’s taking over these girls and inhabiting them. They literally lose themselves, as does Claudia. Was that movie an influence on you?
TA: I do love that movie, so perhaps. I think everything I see influences me a little bit. With Claudia Qui, it’s a little tricky, because I tried to let the movie make itself, depending how the actors played their scenes.
DP: I think Barbara Burgio and Dan Ayers are very natural and very much under control in their scenes together, and are very adept at improvising. How much direction did you give them?
TA: I agree they did a good job. They’re an actual couple in real life, which is one of the reasons I got them to play the couple. I wrote notes for myself but I didn’t write anything for them or any of the actors. I basically was like, “Okay, you guys, this is where I want the story to go in this scene.”
DP: So I’d think you’d film it chronologically to help them understand the progression in their relationship as she withdraws more and more.
TA: You’re right. We didn’t film everything chronologically, but did as much as we could. The first scene in the movie was the first scene we filmed and the last scene was the last scene we filmed. I did Claudia Qui as an experiment and an exercise and didn’t know how it was going to end up. And it was really, really hard to make. I mentioned the editing before–once we finished filming the editing took four or five months because that’s when I had to create by putting all the footage together. I realized if I had scripted the film, I would have made it differently. So I don’t know if I would do a film that same way again.
DP: Since everything was improvised, how many takes did you do?
TA: We would usually do a few takes. Because of how we made it, one of the things I realized when I was editing was that I needed to insert footage that wasn’t the most interesting or seemed repetitive in order to move the story forward.
DP: You include flashbacks and dream imagery of Claudia as a fashionable woman who lived maybe a century ago. I believe you are showing us the woman that Claudia might be transforming into
TA: That is my intention. When Barbara dressed up in the older garb and walked by the water, she is supposed to be the other woman. And some of the imagery, her putting on the gloves and things like that, was supposed to be—in my mind—her putting on and taking on the other persona. These were the images in her mind or in her dreams.
DP: Late in the movie there is a slightly off-kilter party sequence, where Claudia has an art exhibit but she’s really no longer Claudia. All of a sudden she is one of your very vain heroines.
TA: In this particular case, she has adopted the other woman’s persona, and that vanity she shows is about Claudia’s character feeling repressed. I think that part of her relationship with Mark is even-keeled, normal, average, every-day, but there is another part of herself that she repressed. Because of what she’s been holding back, she allows the change in herself and for her own vanity to come out.
DP: If Mark didn’t come across as a totally accommodating and supportive husband, I’d understand why she would want to break out and feel liberated. But as you said, the tragedy is that they are a really good, loving couple and she is still pulling away, either because she is really being possessed or because she undervalues what she has.
TA: I think there’s a selfishness on her part.
DP: Did you intend to be in that movie playing Claudia’s friend or was that a case of someone not showing up?
TA: It was mostly because of the need for extra actors. The need to have an actor who I knew would be available.
DP: Since Claudia Qui was so hard to make, how long was it before you started working on Plain Devil?
TA: I love filmmaking and always want to be working on something, so I started right after Claudia was done. I had Plain Devil in the back of my mind for a while and I was working preproduction on it.
DP: I have the feeling that Plain Devil was your dream project, your big epic. Is that how you thought of it?
TA: Of the movies I’ve made so far, it’s kind of my masterpiece. It’s my only film where I scripted everything myself from beginning to end.
DP: Did you close your eyes and picture it, or did you just have confidence that you’d pull it off?
TA: No, I imagined everything in my head before I did the shot list—and even before I wrote anything down as part of the script. If I know something’s going to happen I can write it in the script even if I haven’t visualized it yet–that’s fine–but I have to visualize it before I can add it the shot list. Everything is visualized before we shoot.
DP: How long did Plain Devil take you?
TA: It took me a year to make, to get it right.
DP: Did you do some editing and then come back and do more filming?
TA: A little bit, but mostly it was just filming on weekends. It had a larger cast than anything I made before and often I wanted a lot of the actors together in certain shots. That took a lot of coordinating, because while most of them act professionally, they all had other jobs and I had to adapt to their schedules. So it was difficult.
DP: Aiden Karamanyan—now named Ada Karamanyan–plays Lil Gypsy and Barbara Burgio plays her mother in Plain Devil. You sort of have a repertory company, people who appear in most of your movies. I think you find everyone on the outside of the art scene.
TA: Most of the people I work with are well-known, but in a totally different way. Some are in puppet groups, doing shows around town and workshops. One company called Vox Fabuli that is mostly known for puppetry also makes videos and films, including Manos: The Hands of Felt, which is the puppet version of Manos: The Hands of Fate [which many people insist is the worst movie of all-time]. That came out recently and is getting reviewed here and there. I just edited a couple of videos that they made as well. My friend Rachel Jackson, who plays one of the gang members, Einstein Vagein, in Plain Devil is the puppeteer for Vox Fabuli.
DP: Are the people you cast all on the same comedic wavelength as you, or do you have to reel them in or explain things to them?
TA: I would say they’re mostly on the same wavelength. And if not I usually can explain things. I think it was pretty good for Plain Devil; everybody was mostly where I was at.
DP: I see Plain Devil as tame John Waters. Were you parodying ‘50s gang pictures?
TA: Oh, totally. The whole inspiration for Plain Devil is the juvenile delinquent film. I wanted to be as if my character Bomber Hoshi and Einstein and Trashy [Danielle Daggerty] watched those movies all the time and wanted to emulate them in the modern day. It’s very tame and very mild on purpose.
DP: They have no idea how to be bad. They even drink in moderation… Funny stuff! So the question is: Is everyone on the set laughing all the time or taking things seriously?
TA: My whole attitude is to take everything really seriously, so I would tell each of the actors, “Your character believes in what they’re saying and believes in what they’re doing, very seriously.” Because I feel that if the actors commit to having their character deeply care about even the most ridiculous things, it comes across as stronger and funnier.
DP: Plain Devil also has deadpan humor, but do you think its tone and rhythm are the same as it is in Walking to Linas?
TA: I think somebody would be able to tell that the same person made both films, but I think the tone is a little different. I wanted Plain Devil to be a little more rock’n’rollish, and a little more absurd. Throughout the movie there is the juxtaposition between the Lil Gypsy’s gypsy family and the girl gang she wants to join. And I wanted each to have a very different style and different feel.
DP: And different music. Although it’s a supersilly film, did you want to get across a message about bonding, friendship, or any of that stuff? Or were you just saying, here’s my movie?
TA: As with Walking to Linas my main goal with Plain Devil was just to be funny. And I’d throw it out if something was not meeting my goal of being funny, making people laugh or have some quirky reaction. In writing the story and coming up with the plot, themes do come out, but even though I think that’s important to have, it’s secondary to the humor. I do feel like it’s important to have a story that involves the girls and the connection and the desire to accepted, all that stuff is important–but that’s number two, and the jokes and comedy are number one.
DP: Your next film could be a big one, another horror movie.
TA: Raw Meat is a project I really have high hopes for. It is fully scripted, not 100% by me, but I am excited by that.
DP: What is the tone of that movie?
TA: It’s going to be more serious. It has horror elements, and there’s some gore. But it’s definitely character-driven. It’s about a killer.
DP: A skinless killer. Is it a revenge movie?
TA: Kind of. Basically he has been left by his fiancé, and he’s not happy about that. He’s very bitter, about the things that happened to him, and his trigger is seeing other couples in love.
DP: He is skinless, so does something happen to him early in the movie?
TA: Something has already happened to him by the time the movie begins. He has a backstory, but we don’t see that in the film. If I have my way there will be a sequel and that might show what happened.
DP: And indie horror icon Bill Oberst Jr. is the lead?
TA: Right. I’ve known him for about three or four years. We met through friends, who I know through Women in Horror. Bill is a real supporter of indie horror, and has worked with a lot of people that I know. He’s not just an actor, he’s a fan, too, and I consider him a filmmaker too, because he goes above and beyond what most actors do. He doesn’t just show up and work and leave.
DP: Are you at this point excited about your career, where it’s going? Are you going to try to establish yourself as a horror movie person?
TA: I don’t want to limit myself and do whatever I want, but I don’t know how to balance those things. And I still have a day job. I feel like maybe my next step is to go to the next level and do larger projects and see how that goes.
DP: Are you a more confident filmmaker now or have you always been confident?
TA: Like I said, when I was in the class and doing really well, I always could make what I was conceptualizing. Because I could make movies that were close to what I conceived I felt like I was very successful. So I guess I had confidence in that way from the start. When I shot Clever Elsa in 1999 I didn’t shoot coverage, I just shot every shot that I wanted, and then I put them together and it all worked. That might not have been the smartest approach ever, but I knew I could do it and it would be economical. I took a lot of chance but there were no issues. I just have a knack for that. That said, there’s a lot I don’t know and a lot of equipment that I haven’t used. And a lot of things I haven’t tried. So I feel like, yes, I have confidence in that I know what I’m doing, but also I feel like there’s a lot of stuff I have to learn, that I’ve never done. So there are two things going on: I’m confident in my abilities to a certain extent, but I feel like I have a lot to learn.
DP: Do you want to stay in Seattle?
TA: Raw Meat was made in Seattle and I have another film planned for Seattle. After that I’m not sure.
DP: How can people find your films?
TA: At my website, tonjiaatomic.com, and I have some videos on Vimeo and some on VOD. You can find Stasha and Ada videos on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/stashaandada/videos. And I’m excited that everyone can finally look for Plain Devil on-demand via Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ZEBDVRE/ref=atv_feed_catalog?tag=imdb-amazonvideo-20. Plain Devil is also available on dvd now via Amazon.com, at http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Devil/dp/B010GPVQJM/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid