STACK chats with New Zealand filmmaker Jason Lei Howden about his insane new action flick, Guns Akimbo, and how he roped in Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving to be a part of the mayhem.
Guns Akimbo is a fast-paced and ultra-violent cyberpunk thriller that’s best described as a cross between Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Running Man. Its hyper-kinetic style and whiplash choreography have it play out like the bastard lovechild of John Wick and La Femme Nikita, and with the central character (played by Daniel Radcliffe) having guns bolted to his hands, he is forced to participate in a deadly online game of death called ‘Skizm’.
When STACK asked director Jason Lei Howden about the film’s curious title, he was more than eager to elaborate.
“You know, you’re the first person to ask me about the title and it’s crazy because I have been itching to tell someone. It’s sort of a general term, a film trope, and a gaming term. Akimbo describes someone who holds two weapons – two handguns or two Uzis, or whatever – sort of like John Woo style. So for me it stems from a video game called Blood 3D that I used to play back in the ‘90s. It was sort of like a Doom type of game. And it had this power-up mode where you’re running around with, say, a machine gun, or a shotgun, and then you get this power-up called Guns Akimbo, and then you pull out two guns and for 30 seconds you just blow away all of your enemies. So yeah, you can tell that I’m a video game lover. And no one really questions the title Guns Akimbo, they just think it sounds kind of catchy.”
We were also curious to learn how long the film had been gestating for, and were surprised to discover it was around long before Howden’s first film, Deathgasm (2015).
“I first had the synopsis around 2010, and it’s one of those things where it’s been bubbling away since then. Originally it was going to be made as a New Zealand Film Commission short film, which they turned down,” he explains with a laugh. “But then after my first film, Deathgasm, I was doing the film circuit and ended up in LA meeting with some producers. They asked me what other film scripts I had, and because I had been working in Melbourne full time on VFX, as well as finishing the film, I had no time to write anything. So I just said, ‘Yes, Guns Akimbo, about a guy with guns bolted to his hands.’
“They loved it and asked when they could see the script. So I said ‘just give me two weeks’ and then flew back to Melbourne and wrote non-stop. Two weeks later I sent them the first draft and they went for it.”
Physically bolting guns to the protagonist’s hands is a bold image that informs the very crux of the story, and Howden explains the necessity of such a strong motif.
“It started with wanting to do a film that was an homage to the classic ‘80s action – you know, the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies, which I’ve always been a huge fan of. I wanted to make a movie that was as fun and over the top as those, but instead of a typical action hero, I wanted to have a character who was just a normal guy; a sort of nerdy nobody. Which then got me thinking that if he’s such a pacifist, he’s not going to want to engage and he’s just going to keep running, so I thought why don’t we bolt the guns to his hands, which means that he can’t get away from the violence.”
With a string of audacious and provocative indie films to his name over the past few years, it’s no surprise that Radcliffe would find himself guns akimbo and pitted against a psychopathic femme fatale named Nix (played with absolute relish by Samara Weaving).
When asked how these two prolific actors came to be a part of the film, Howden explains, “I had a short list of five actors and Dan was at the top of the list and he was literally the first person we sent the script to. He responded the very next day and he wanted to Skype. I assumed that he’d want to ask me all these questions, so I had pages of notes prepared, but when he came on to Skype he was like, ‘F…. man! I f–ing love your script!’ So I instantly saw how much energy he had, and I needed someone who was willing to take the falls and the hits, and yeah, he was down for it.”
As for Samara Weaving’s involvement, “She’s fantastic,” he enthuses. “I had seen Sam in a bunch of things, and she was another one of those people I could tell was willing to go there, in terms of commitment, and she did. And her character of Nix is a sort of murderous, coke-snorting psychopath. I mean she kills like 20 guys in one of the first scenes.
“There were no questions asked and she was like, ‘Yep, yep, let’s do it! This is awesome!’ For me, the exciting thing was taking someone who hadn’t done that sort of role before. And there was a lot of talk about the producers wanting to get actresses who were known for their action roles. I said that that didn’t make sense, because Nix is like a junkie psychopath and she needs to be fairly skinny.”
With Guns Akimbo being such a labour of love, it’s no surprise to discover that the film was something of a family affair – a point that Howden was keen to reveal when explaining the look and style of Weaving’s character.
“Her style and look sort of came from my younger years as an industrial punk metalhead. I’m always drawn to characters who are – what people would call – alternative looking. And my wife is a costume designer, so not only did she help me with the script but also helped design a really cool look for Nix. It was a little controversial at first because we were doing some crazy stuff to her, like bleaching her eyebrows, but Sam totally loved how bold it was.
“And of course we didn’t want to do another Harley Quinn character, because Nix wouldn’t spend time making her clothes look cool. She steals clothes, and everything is ripped and dirty.”
With two profoundly stylistic and highly entertaining films to his name, Howden muses on what his third feature might be.
“I’m writing something at the moment that’s pretty cool that I’m hoping to get out. It’s loosely a horror-action, and I’m really keen on mixing up the genres. I’d love to also do a sci-fi, and I’ve got a ninja movie bubbling away in my brain as well. But yeah, it would have to be something that’s different and that’s fun, and that I feel as if there’s a part of me in it.”