In a post-apocalyptic world of deserts and lone cantinas where people barter for water supplies, and villains have chainsaws instead of arms, one hero has the power (or power glove) to save us all, TURBO KID. In film that feels like “The Last Starfighter” and “Flight of the Navigator” meets “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (yes, specifically that one because it’s the most ridiculous), kiwi collective The RKSS have crafted a fun world ripped out of the video games of our childhood. Even better, the film opens with a weighty voice over that tells us all about this wasteland of the future, the future of 1997. “We’re a big fan of the Italian rip-off of “Mad Max,” says Yoann-Karl Whissell, one of the members of the RKSS, “like, they’ve done tons of those, and they always had that kind of tagline. It was always in New York, or in a wasteland, and it always was l999. Cinema lied to us, that’s what we’re trying to say. They lied to us.”
I sat down with the RKSS (Yoann-Karl Whissell, François Simard and Anouk Whissell), at SXSW where TURBO KID had triumphant screenings in the Midnighters section (it won the Audience Award), after equally well-regarded screenings at Sundance. The film appeals to our lost childhood, injecting fun in the often drab and downer post-apocalyptic sub-genre (I’m looking at you The Rover). The Kid, an orphan who races across the wasteland on his BMX, scavenges for scraps to trade for a just enough water to live. Though it seems all hope has been lost, the Kid clings to the heroism of his favorite comic book to get him through his lonely days. Then he finds a friend, or rather a friend finds him, Apple, an annoyingly happy, cute pink-haired girl who seems strangely unaffected by the end of the world. When Apple is kidnapped to and taken to the lair of evil overlord Zeus (played to scene-chewing perfection by Michael Ironside) and his buzzsaw-armed minion Skelton, the Kid must become a hero himself. Fortunately he stumbles upon a spaceship left from before the world ended, and a laser-charged power glove.
Turbo Kid takes all those video game influences, throws it in the world of Mad Max, and then throws in the tone of saturday morning cartoons. It’s like “The Road Warrior” done by 12 year olds on BMX bikes, especially when it comes down to production design, which looks amazing. “Yeah, we like movies like “BMX Bandits,” or “Rad”, we loved the aesthetic,” says François Simard, “like the plastic, primary colors.” “BMX Bandit” is an Australian film, featuring the first performance by Nicole Kidman, which apparently had quite a run not only down under but in Quebec, where the RKSS grew up. “It’s all in colors, and you know you have the police station,” says Whissell, “it’s all in red and blue and yellow super-fly like. It’s –” “Like a kindergarten,” interrupts Anouk Whissell.
The team also drew on “The Goonies” and various John Hughes films, saying the key to those films, is the heart at the center of the story. “Even writing the script,” says Whissell, “we had all these set pieces, and we thought that would be the most fun to come up with, but it was actually the love story we had the most fun writing, and directing on set.” This relationship, between the Kid and Apple, was the central addition to the world they had created in a very well-travelled short, which was basically just an extended fight scene (and ended up first in the public voting for the “ABC’s of Death” contest. “We loved the Power Glove reference with Mega Man and all that,” says Simard, “But, to put the story in a feature version, like, you can do all the gore you want and all the set pieces but, if you don’t have a heart, you could die and I don’t care.” Although the film didn’t end up selected to be part of ABCs, the RKSS caught the interest of producer Ant Timpson (who also produced another of my SXSW favorites, “Deathgasm”). Relates Whissell: “Ant wrote to us and said, ‘I love the universe, do you want to expand on it? Do you want to turn that into a feature?’ And we said –” “And we said, ‘No…’” Simard jumps in. “No, of course not, it’s absolutely not our dream to make features. How dare you sir!” says Whissell, “so, no, we didn’t get in the film, in the actual ABC’s of that. But I think in the end, we got more out of it.”
The film is a co-production between Canada and New Zealand, with shooting taking place just outside Montreal. As part of the co-production agreement, the film features two kiwi actors. “It’s the first time that they were in Montreal,” says Simard. “Most days were minus 10,” adds Whissell, “it was brutal.” But no one seemed to mind the ‘canadian spring’ as the team calls it. “Well, I think it’s such a special and unique film that everybody was very happy to do it,” says two.
Let me also just add here it is nice to see a post-apocalyptic wasteland film NOT shot in Australia (I’m looking at you “The Rover”). Canadian world-aftermath looks pretty convincing as well. Although the team knew Ant Timpson would be down for anything, the RKSS wasn’t sure what they would get from their own country, on the Canadian side of the co-production.
Whissel added “Anne-Marie Gélinas “got” Turbo Kid. It was not the type of film she used to doing, but when you sit down with somebody and say, ‘Okay, now somebody is going to get his gut pulled then ‘it’s going to go into a bicycle and blah blah blah,’ and she goes, ‘Yeah! That’s cool- can we put a lot of blood in? We said “Okay, yeah you’re part of the team now. You understand.” Simard agrees: “you need crazy producers to let you do crazy stuff on crazy movies.”
“He really liked the idea,” says Whissell, “he said, asked us to send him a script and if he liked it, he was in. When he received the script, he sat down and read it through. He stopped, stood up, made himself a cup of tea and came back, said, ‘This cannot be this good.’ And read it again, right away. He called us directly, said, ‘I’m part of it,
I want to be part of it.’” Having someone with Ironside’s experience not only raises the profile of the film, but it changes the energy on set. “He’s the biggest sweetheart in the world,” says Whissell, “I mean, he’s done more than 200 films. And, you know, he has that knowledge, and we had amazing conversations with him about every movie he’s ever been in.” Simard chimes in: “Funny thing is on set he would be like, ‘What’s the budget again? You know that on “Total Recall” we had the same budget for bullets?’ Thank you. Thanks, Michael.”
Which brings me to the question I’ve been dying to ask the RKSS, ever since I scheduled an interview with the RKSS, which is what exactly is RKSS. “When we were teenagers,” says Whissell, “when we first entered sfestival with our short films, we needed a name like, for ourself, they wanted a production company name.” “Roadkill Superstar,” says Simard proudly, “which is like our Death Metal name.” Anouk Whissell smiles: “It was a bit of a joke, even then. We thought it was funny.” “I really find it funny that we thought that was funny,” confesses Whissell.
TURBO KID powers up next at BIFFF (Brussells, one of the top ‘fantastic’ festivals in Europe) on April 10th and then at Dallas International on April 10th and 17th.