Interview with Legend of the Red Reaper’s Tara Cardinal

A few months ago, yours truly stumbled across a trailer for a snazzy fantasy flick entitled “Legend of the Red Reaper”, a film that, in my humble opinion, felt like an impossibly loving tribute to a genre that isn’t explored these days by filmmakers who have a genuine passion for this sort of material. However, quite a bit of time transpired before I heard anything about the project, leading me to believe it was dead in the water. Apparently I was extraordinarily wrong in that assumption. Enter Tara Cardinal, writer, star, and mastermind of the “Red Reaper” character. Did I mention she’s also a wrestler, an activist, and one of the production’s biggest supporters? The exceptionally lovely Ms. Cardinal was kind enough to answer a few of my probing question about her career, her experiences on the set of “Legend of the Red Reaper”, and what she has in the works.

To kick things off, tell us a little about yourself.

I’m an actress, a story teller (which is also part of being an actress), an activist, and when I’m not spreading world peace, I’m a martial artist and a sword fighter.

How did you get involved in the world of wrestling?

Quite by accident, actually. It started at an audition, one of the girls auditioning for the same part I was looked me up and down, and asked me if I knew how to wrestle. I didn’t. She asked if I did stunts, and of course I do. That day she became my mentor. It turns out I was talking to Bronco Billie from Women of Wrestling. Her partner was Caliente, and the both of them trained me. For the first year or so I got my ass kicked in every match… but things are turning around now.

What made you decide to take the leap into acting?

Oh, Todd, I was born like this. I was in every school play, the class clown – school plays led to community theatre, which lead to student films, which lead to indy projects, and here I am.

What was your first “major” role?

The role of “Bibi” in the Warner Brother’s film “Delivery”.

So how did “Legend of the Red Reaper” come about?

Oh wow… it’s a long complicated story. It all started with an idea I had for a character when I was performing at the Renaissance Festival (yup – I’m a renny – can’t lie about it). I had this idea about an executioner who was very bitter, but who’s basic drive was to protect people who couldn’t protect themselves (it’s a fairly common theme in my characters, actually). I performed the character there for a couple of days, but it just didn’t work with a family friendly show (also, the director frowned on the executions of my fellow cast members). So, she got put in the closet, and showed up in a fan film (not saying ANY more about that..not a word!), as a cross between little “Red Riding Hood” and a pirate. This time she was sexier, flirtier and definitely wittier. Then, I submitted for Ms. Horrorfest, and used the background of the character I’d created as the basis for a sword fight against some pretty cheesy demons! From there, well, some how I ended up doing a fight scene in a waterfall with Al Snow.

In short, what’s the film about?

“Legend of the Red Reaper” is about a dark female warrior – half human, half demon, who has to sacrifice her family and true love to save the world from demons.

What character do you play? What’s her story?

I’m Aella, aka The Red Reaper. The humans call her that because of her long red hair, and she’s frequently seen covered in blood.

Have you always been interested in writing a movie of this nature?

Not at all! I never wanted to write it to begin with! We had several writers on the project, all of whom had very strong visions and ideas of what this story should be. Unfortunately I just lacked the skill to be able to communicate my vision to the powers that be, and eventually the all stepped back and let me run the show. But I never wanted it to be that way, and I would NEVER want the responsibility of writing, producing and starring in a film every again.

From what I’ve heard, the production hasn’t been a smooth one. What sort of obstacles have you faced?

Oh the list goes on. Of course we had all of the usual issues — certain crew members moving at a slower pace than we needed them to move, diva actresses who thought they knew the production better than the people who created the story, some amateurs who threw fits because things didn’t go they way they thought it should in Hollywood.. that’s all normal. Props breaking, wardrobe missing, lines dropped — that’s all run of the mill stuff that happens on every set. What happened on “Red Reaper”.. well.. it became a little more challenging.

First, my co-production company walked away with 40% of my production money, 2 days into shooting. I later found out that my best friend was Vice President of this company. Needless to say, we are no longer friends. That hit us hard.

While we were recovering, I came up with a full re-write on the script that would allow us to capitalize on what we’d already shot (which was a total of 18 days in beautiful locations) and round it out with some studio work. But during the recovery process, our DP, Irv Goodnoff, passed away. Also around the same time, a dear friend, and one of our star stunt men Chris Williams, also passed away. It was a huge blow to morale for everyone — but the ones who stuck with it all managed to find a way to honor Irv and Chris in our words, and in our performances.

Fortunately, I was able to bring in the Great Jose Cassella, who studied every frame of what Irv shot, and was able to re-create Irv’s style, so it still looks like the same movie. I was able to raise the balance of the funds, enough to pay for the studio, which we used to mimic 5 different locations. Because there was a 2 year gap, our core cast had changed a lot. Weight was gained or lost, hair cut, beards shaved, people moved away… I was forced to re-write 90 pages with a whole new cast. That was a challenge. I’d actually put out ads looking for real script writers, asked some of my friends who’d written before to help me… no one wanted to take on a project that was this wounded.

I wrote 32 versions of an outline, and re-wrote the “final” script 16 times, not including my daily scene tweaks. By this point everyone who knew me was sick of hearing about the Red Reaper, and this new scene, and that motivation. I finally found ONE man, Rolfe Kanefsky, who sat down and read it cover to cover. He gave me ONE note. Just one. Of course, coming from him, it was very flattering. Rolfe is a highly accomplished screenwriter and film maker, with over 20 released projects under his belt, and probably twice as many unproduced screenplays. He REALLY knows his stuff. So, I made the one change, which tightened up the story and pacing, and off I went to go shoot the darn thing.

I will say, not everyone was on board for round two. There were a lot of people who’d lost faith in the project, and I can’t say I blame them. BUT – the ones who stuck with it, Michael Schaeffer, Tim & Ruth Hays, Vicki & Brian Hildebrand, David Mackey – who went far above what an actor normally does, Charles Cardwell who never left my side, Cal Simmons who let me beef up his role to a major lead and STILL rocked the stunt coordinator spot, Christian Boeving who also came back for more scenes, but caught me from an 8 foot fall, and trained me for my nude fight scene, my make up ANGELS, Scary Teri, Saida, Luandra and Britanni, Patty Dunn and Kat Kentes, who let me make them demons when they were done shooting their roles as Reapers (you can see them BOTH in the trailer) and the great Ray Eddy. Ok… at the risk of sounding like I’m accepting an academy award – this is only a small portion of the people that made the film possible. The ones that were willing to go down with the ship.

And of course there were others who wanted to come back, but couldn’t due to obligations.

What sets “Legend” apart from other fantasy-oriented flicks?

I’d like to the think the story is contemporary, but just set in a fantasy period. Aella has problems with her parents, fights with her family, friends, and mentors. Can’t be with the guy she’s in love with, and has responsibilities — it could almost be the pilot episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in “Xena: Warrior Princess” times. In fact, I even borrowed a line from one of my favorite episodes of “Buffy”.

When I wrote it, I worked hard to make the characters relatable. The film isn’t fantasy-oriented, it’s story-oriented. It’s about a girl who was born wrong, who just wants to make the world a safe place for the people she cares about. But more often then not she says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing – she is her own worst enemy. It’s a role I was highly qualified to write.

Who handled the stunt choreography for the film? Were there any interesting mishaps during filming?

Cal Simmons is responsible for a large part of the choreography. (Cal also plays Kreios – Aella’s mentor.) Justice Maynard, who is a well known Free Runner, did a lot of the demon choreo for the first round of shooting. After that Cal did the majority of the choreo, with Charles Cardwell, who plays a demon and a human guard. I will joyfully take credit for incorporating one of my signature wrestling moves (the crucifix), into a sword fight with Charles. (He has a sword, I don’t – he takes a swing, I duck under, apply the Crucifix, and use his arm/sword to take out the other demons). That was a ROUGH day for Charles, who had to support my body weight while he took out 5 other demons. Plus, he had the heavy leather armour, and the facial appliances.

Mishaps — well, I accidentally stabbed one of the stunt guys. I cut my own wrist with a plastic knife and have scars from it. The stunt guy that I stabbed dropped a sword on my foot – I know that it doesn’t sound like much – but it’s 3 pounds of steel from 4-5 feet in the air! It hurt!!! And of course, there’s the now infamous “loofa scene” where I scraped most of the skin off of my back and actually bled during the second take. Oh – and one of the Reapers gave one of our humans a black eye! And one of the demons punched one of my leads on the nose between takes. And, I got kicked in the face during a rehearsal (but lied about it so all the stunt guys would think I was really tough – but I was seeing stars!)

Who was responsible for the special effects?

Tim Hays and his entourage! But mostly Tim Hays. Tim – who is a complete genius, and always has a smile on his face. He not only designed all the demons and the appliances (and body parts), but he also designed all the Reaper tattoos (each Reaper clan has a different Tattoo). Tim also provided a number of the props, swords and extra stuff – AND plays Ren in the film. I dare say he’s one of the best actors in the whole project! You can see him running and screaming like a girl in the trailer. He also did an awesome sequence where I get shot up with arrows – and in the next scene you see me strapped down to a table, as they pull the arrows out of me while I bleed. Tim designed and rigged the whole thing, and it was beautiful. That – and the nude waterfall fight scenes were the two scenes I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pull off.

Care to elaborate on that waterfall sequence?

Why – yes! I remember when I wrote it, on my laptop, in bed (that’s where I write usually), and I remember thinking “there’s no way this will ever happen”. The first thing I discovered was that a real waterfall was impossible to shoot in. The ground is drastically uneven due to the erosion from the water pressure – there was no way either one of us would keep our footing. Also, there’s no way to control the water pressure, or the temperature. So, for a variety of reasons, the waterfall had to be built.

The first place I had locked down wasn’t as locked down as I thought. I found out while I was shooting on location in the Poconos (Song of the Shattered) that my waterfall wasn’t going to happen. So, I grabbed the director’s car and drove out to Rockland County NY, which is where my associate producer, Joe Hollow, was stationed. Joe, however, was booked on another shoot in California, so I had to improvised. It turned out that one of my co-stars in Blood Struck (the film I met Joe on) had access to a property that had a 30 foot rock wall, and a huge area that could be turned into a pond. After a fairy tale conversation, Chris and his friends who some how all magically know construction, built the whole thing for me in 6 days. For the most part I was right there with them, cheering for them, running to home depot 3 times a day for penny nails and plywood. It was 105 degrees every day, so it was mostly built at night. All the guys had day jobs, so they were litterally working around the clock. But somehow, on day 6, there stood a 30 foot waterfall, filled with water, ready to go.

In the film, my character is having a pretty rough day. The castle is attacked, she takes Eris (played by David Mackey) into the woods (to the waterfall) and to safety, but when they get there, she discovers he’s mortally wounded. She cuts her wrist to give him her blood, which should heal him, but it only works long enough to give them a few more moments together. She’s taken off her top to remove a shard of steel from her shoulder, and she’s used her pants as a tourniquet for his wound. When he dies in her arms, she mindlessly walks over to the waterfall to wash a considerable amount of dirt and blood from her skin. While she’s in there, she gets attacked by a demon. Of course there’s no time to dress, or grab a sword. So it’s wet, naked, and hand to hand.

Al Snow was the obvious choice for the demon. Who else could throw me around all wet like that? So yes, he body slammed me, suplexed me, threw me across the pond.

Was it uncomfortable shooting a scene like this?

Yes and no. The water was too cold. The heat pump I ordered went MIA. The guys who built it stayed to watch the fruits of their labor – and I couldn’t deny them that.

How involved are you in post-production? Is it difficult to let someone else edit something you’ve worked so hard on?

Well, right now I’m raising some additional post production funds and interviewing editors. I’m not an editor, and I never will be, so at this point I have to hand it over to someone.. yes, it’s definitely a stressing me out.

Is it too early to talk sequel yet, or do you already have a follow-up in mind?

Actually, while I’ve been waiting to get my tapes back from the post house in NY, I have been working on the sequel, which will focus mostly on the relationship between Aella and her little sister Annaleyah (played by Shayne Leighton), who in the first film is a budding witch, and in the sequel has become quite adept – so much so that she’s threatening the fate of the world. We also introduce a shadowy character from Aella’s past..

Can you tell me anything about the comic book and the role-playing game that you’re working on, as well?

I’m developing a comic book series, which begins around Aella’s early youth, and goes through to the start of film. This will give our audience a WHOLE lot of back story that is lightly referenced in the film, but never elaborated on. Michael J Schaefer has already written the first book, which is where we find out how Aella was kidnapped by the demons. Michael Champion JUST signed on yesterday to do the artwork for the first book.

Are you at all interested in working on a big-budget Hollywood film, or do you prefer having more control over your projects?

Are you kidding? I’d love to do a film where all I had to do was show up, delivery some lines, and go eat sushi in my trailer! Love to! I have worked on some Hollywood films actually, and didn’t mind them. The pace of shooting a Hollywood feature is a little slow for my taste, but I could get used to it! Although, my real fantasy is doing TV. To me it always felt like the best of both worlds (theatre – my first love, and film – my true love). It’s heart breaking to delve into a character, to make her really live and breathe – and then 2 -6 weeks later she’s wrapped.. and gone. It’s like a part of me dies when a film is wrapped.

Do you have anything else in the works?

I do actually. I’m working on “Spreading Darkness”, a feature film directed by Josh Eisenstadt and starring Eric Roberts. I play Eric’s wife. James Duval, Louis Mandylor, Rena Rifel, and Mussetta Vander also star in the project. Josh and I are also working on another project I’m producing called “Dissocia” about a girl with D.I.D. (aka multiple personality disorder) who kidnaps a famous actress. We’re talking to some bigger names for that role as well. And I just signed on to a feature shooting over the summer, although I hesitate to give details on that until we’re closer to shooting. I hate to announce something before it’s set in stone, but contracts have been signed and a lot of my friends have also signed on to the project. I’m also working on a retelling of the “Phantom of the Opera”, where the Phantom is a woman (and it’s NOT a musical!). The script is being written by Shayne Leighton (The Incubus) and it’s amazing.

Any idea when can we expect to see “Legend of the Red Reaper” in theaters or on DVD?

It will be on DVD in 2011. I’m working towards a summer release – even if it’s just a limited edition before we go to a major distributor.

Many thanks and much love to Tara Cardinal for taking the time to chat with me. Look for “Legend of the Red Reaper” on DVD later this year! Be sure to check out the embedded trailer before you leave.