One Bad Habit: Re-Designing the Movie Posters for Abel Ferrara's 'Ms. 45'

the art house

Sometimes there’s not much to say about process. That doesn’t mean the project was better or worse than others, but that the journey from beginning to end happens in such quick succession that you’re left looking back at little more than a blur. Ms. 45 was one of those jobs. Evan Husney of Drafthouse Films and I talked at length about the direction of the re-release one-sheet, with both of us eager to avoid the exploitive qualities of the original marketing campaign. My sketches were a bit of a mess to start, and it wasn’t until we zeroed in on a few key ideas that everything fell into place.

We agreed that it had to feel both modern yet classic in its structure without resorting to cheap tricks or flashy imagery that sexualized Zoë Tamerlis Lund’s character. The posters of the past sidestepped one important idea: that at the center of this film’s madness lay a character damaged yet perversely empowered through her trauma. She’s a deadly force almost obsessive in her self-initiated war, and that was an avenue that clicked with the less-trashy angle we were trying to approach. The end result is fairly straightforward but works to rehabilitate the image of a film that offer’s much more than a scantily clad woman executing her own brand of justice.

Theatrical one-sheet (re-release)

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And now, a conversation with Shawn Knight, a critically acclaimed graphic artist from Michigan responsible for the Mondo print of Drafthouse’s re-release of Ms. 45. As you'll quickly be able to tell, we were having a pretty serious discussion about "Robocop" before we reached the topic at hand.

BRANDON SCHAEFER: I'll stop babbling about RoboCop though. That's a hole I'll never get out of. We should probably move on to something a little more cheery, like the story of a woman raped twice in the span of 30 minutes and then losing her mind..

SHAWN KNIGHT: Ugh, yeah, rough stuff. I'd rather be doused with radioactive sludge. Sorry, I can't get RoboCop out of my head.

BS: Poor Paul McCrane. First sludge, then a helicopter lops off his arm before falling on him in ER. Anyway, when did you first see "Ms. 45"?

SK: I was aware of the film, but honestly didn't sit down to watch it until being commissioned for the poster. So, a couple months ago.

BS: You had a bit of a leg-up on it over me, then. I hadn't heard of it at all. It seems like it made a bit of a mark when it came out in the 80s, and sort of drifted to the fringes afterward

SK: Yeah. I'm still catching up on some 80s thrillers & horror films that I would look at as a little kid in the video store. I have a lot of movie cover images in my head without having seen the actual film itself.

BS: I was the same. But it's great being able to re-discover films like this now, though ...I'm not sure they're easy to process when you're young. Or maybe I was just a really sheltered kid.

SK: Yeah, I was a tween in the late 80s, so I'd go to the party store, pick up a couple comics and then stare at the cover of "Chopping Mall". I do wish I saw more of them as a kid though, 'cause they are more effective on a child's mind. One of the Friday the 13th films scared me back then, but not so much now.

BS: Right. Your view of things tends to be a bit more innocent and less jaded compared to when you’re older.

SK: When I was younger, I was pretty desensitized to the horrors of the world. My friends & I would watch those "Faces of Death" movies at parties & think it was funny. I listened to bands like GWAR & Cannibal Corpse. I sought out entertainment with shock value, and just thought it was "exciting."

Over time, you experience some of the horrors of reality. Terrible things happen to your loved ones. So I'm a bit more sensitive nowadays, in particular to jokes or dramatized scenes of violence against women. It really starts to make me sweat, in a bad way. I re-watched "Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer" recently. I remember liking it as a teen, and it was still pretty good, but there were a couple parts I fast-forwarded through this time. Same with "I Spit On Your Grave."

BS: I've never seen either, but I've heard plenty about 'Grave'. I'm guessing the early scenes in "Ms. 45" weren't exactly a picnic then?

SK: Yeah, it was definitely uncomfortable. As with "Grave," the female lead is able to exact revenge, which I guess is the whole point of the film; shit happens & justice is served. Ms. 45 was made in that era where filmmakers were pushing the envelope as far as topics & shock; something that I would've definitely got a kick out of as a teenager.

In a way, this contradicts what I said earlier about horror films being scarier to kids than adults. I guess I'm more scared of reality-based horror nowadays. Jason Voorhees doesn't scare me anymore, but the guys in "Ms. 45" do.

BS: Sure. I think when you have some sense of how the world works and what people are capable of, the things that make you uneasy change. Not to mention that the film itself has a gritty realism that drives what it's showing closer to home; it stands in stark contrast to a movie sanitized by a large studio.

SK: I agree. It feels very real, and you already feel empathetic towards Zoe's character at that point. The fact that she's mute adds to her vulnerability. Once she transitions from hunted to hunter, you totally understand her actions even if you aren't 100% on board with the idea of randomly killing dudes.

BS: Definitely. Do you feel it held close to exploitative narrative put out by the original poster? To me, it felt like there was more going on with the film than , "Look, guys! High-heels with a gun!"

Theatrical one-sheet, 1981

SK: Yeah, the original poster paints the character as a sexy badass taking a bite out of crime. The actual story is a lot more realistic, following an already damaged mind on an expedited downward spiral. I tried to capture what I felt was the true essence of the film a bit more in my poster, though I love the original piece on an aesthetic level.

BS: It has its charms for sure. You mentioned on your site that sometimes you accidentally make things look cool and feel bad about it later, and that's something I struggle with at times because it's just really hard to get an idea and to translate it well. So when you refer to capturing the true essence of the film, was that all swimming around from the beginning? How did your process evolve through this? Your handle on the film is really quite thoughtful.

SK: I guess I've always thought that was the job of the movie poster; to boil an entire story down to one representative image. I spoke with Rob Jones (Mondo) a bit about it up front, and we knew we still wanted to incorporate the nun costume. That's a little tricky, because she only wears that outfit for the final scene of the film. That said, it's one of the most iconic elements of the entire film. My original sketch incorporated stained glass & olde english typography, which we decided to drop so people didn't think it was a period piece.

BS: I tend to steer clear from bringing type up, but it's really expressive here. How would you describe what you cooked up to replace the olde english angle?

SK: For the type, I did end up doing something I'm more known for. A chunky, gnarly mess - ha! It's closer to what you'd expect from an 80s exploitation film, so lifting a bit of the genre's aesthetic to set expectations was appropriate. Plus it's what I do, so it just made sense. I guess it represents the carnage that she leaves in her wake.

BS: It felt spider-esque to me, which seemed fitting.

SK: Yeah, the whole end scene is pretty well represented here. The web is a background party decoration, but it also works as a sort of black widow/entrapment metaphor.

BS: Definitely. You've done a few film related prints for the Burton Theater, but a lot of your work comes from gig posters, right? Do you feel that film offers a different set of challenges?

SK: Burton Theater was a local indie venture right here in Detroit. I did a few for them back when they were active, as well as a couple more recent ones for The Man With The Iron Fists (RZA) and The Last Stand (Schwarzenegger). You're right though, the vast majority of my posters are for concerts. Film is definitely different. For concert posters, pretty much anything goes. You try to make it feel appropriate, but even then I've done wildly inappropriate ones that have been successful.

My satanic metal take on Of Montreal comes to mind. For a film, you really should be showing a character, an environment, or at least an object that represents the film. The scope of options is narrowed. In a way this makes a film poster easier, since you know what you have to show. It also makes it harder, because you're competing with the original art, or at least trying not to redo it. In this case, I knew I wanted to represent the main character as more of a victim and less of a vigilante, so it wasn't hard to find a new approach.

I feel that most of my band posters come off as posters for movies that don't exist. The viewer's creativity creates the story, just as it does when you see a movie poster before seeing the actual movie. That can be pretty fun since anything goes, and it's ambiguous enough to allow interpretation.

BS: Right. I somehow missed your Iron Fists/Last Stand pieces. But to be honest, I tend to live under a rock when it comes to looking at posters. It's a way of making sure I don’t get overly-influenced by someone else’s jazz.

SK: I hear ya! I always go back & forth; avoid it to make sure you don't subconsciously steal something, or take the risk & hopefully learn a thing or two that furthers you along/enhances your jazz. Still not sure which way is best.

BS: It’s a tough line to toe. I try to keep my influences pointed at old, dead people if I can help it. How was the process of working with Mondo compared to something related to a band, or whoever is in charge of the venue you're creating a gig poster for?

SK: It has been good. Rob (Jones) is hands on, but not so much that it is stifling. We spoke on the phone a couple times during this one. For bands, I generally just do what I do & show them when it's done. I have enough of a portfolio amassed that they have a good idea of what I'll turn around. I'm used to working super last minute and with zero outside involvement, so it was a bit of an adjustment to try doing things "the right way."

BS: Ha. Any preference between the two? For me it's usually last minute with all the outside involvement the universe can muster.

SK: Not really. It's just different. Sometimes it's nice to have some insight, especially from someone you respect & knows what they are talking about. As for doing band posters, unless they have some general idea or direction they'd like to throw my way, I'd prefer to just see what weird shit seeps out of my psyche. So much of my work is becoming abstract, it's hard for me to explain to somebody. It's just something that happens. When I used to do a lot of packaging design for bands, it was usually too much outside input & a bit limiting. Not always, but maybe 50% of the time. I understand; this is the visual representation of their baby, and there is a lot riding on it.

When doing a gig poster, it's just one show. If it isn't their favorite thing in the world, oh well, it was only for one show. That works a lot better for me. I'm not really one of those designers that is trying to bring other's vision to life. Honestly, I don't know if I have enough control over my craft for that, or desire. The less restrictions the better, 'cause half the time I don't know what I'm going to do until I'm in the middle of doing it.

Shawn’s 18x24 print for Ms. 45 will available in an edition of 90 at www.mondotees.com on Friday, December 13 at a random time for $35. Follow @MondoNews for the on sale announcement.

Ms. 45 opens December 13th from Drafthouse Films. To learn more, visit Drafthouse Films' website.