Darren Lynn Bousman ‘Saws’ His Way in a Different Direction
by Paul Fischer
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Darren Lynn Bousman burst onto the directorial scene with his cutting edge and sardonic view of terror on three of the last Saw films. It was finally on the strength off these movies that the director was finally given the chance to direct the film version of the rock operatic Repo the Genetic Opera, a dark, visually stylized musical thriller set n the year 2056—the not so distant future. In this anarching world, an epidemic of organ failures devastates the planet. Out of the tragedy, a savior emerges: GeneCo, a biotech company that offers organ transplants—for a price. Those who miss their payments are scheduled for repossession and hunted by villainous Repo Men. In a world where surgery addicts are hooked on painkilling drugs and murder is sanctioned by law, a sheltered young girl searches for the cure to her own rare disease as well as information about her family’s mysterious history. After being sucked into the haunting world of GeneCo, she is unable to turn back, as all of her questions will be answered at the wildly anticipated spectacular event: The Genetic Opera.
A hauntingly melodic work in the tradition of Phantom of the Opera, this brazen work offers moviegoers a unique erxperience, and a director whose cinematic voice is finally being heard. Bousman talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Now, my understanding is that your association with this project was almost an accident. Because you were in L.A. trying to get work as a filmmaker, and the kind of staged version of this came to you, and you didn’t really want to do a stage version. What struck you about this material in its original form that made you change your mind?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Well, when I read it again—I’d never done a thing in my life. I’d never done a Saw film. I’d done a couple of bad music videos and a horrible short film. But I knew that I wanted to do a musical. More important than a musical, I wanted to do a rock opera. But that’s like saying that—it’s a ridiculous request. I mean, how many rock operas are floating around Los Angeles? There’s a handful of them, maybe. So when this play came across my desk, I read it. And again, reading a rock opera is like reading a foreign language. Because if you take your favorite CD and you open up the CD jacket and you read the lyrics on it, it doesn’t make any sense. You’re just like, “What?” But then when you hear it actually done to music, it all comes together. When I read Repo the first time, I fell immediately in love. And that’s—that’s saying a lot. Because I had no idea how the music went. I just knew how the lyrics were, and I knew how—I knew how everything just read. And then I heard five songs from it, and I flipped out. I flipped out. And I found myself singing those songs over and over and over and over again. And at that point I said, “I have to do this movie. I have to do this movie.” But again, I had no pull as a director. So I was forced to put it—do it as a stage show. And when I did the stage show, the last performance, I told the two creators, Darren Smith and Terrance—I said, “Listen. If I ever make it as a director, I’m doing this as a movie.” And I think they kind of rolled their eyes and said, “Sure. Because who’s gonna make—you’re not gonna make it as a director.” And then here I am. And I’ve made it as a film.
PF: Is it fair to say that doing three Saw movies was really your way of proving yourself, that you could make movies, and this is really your first real big cinematic film, in a sense?
DLB: This is more me than the Saw films were me. You know, with the Saw films, I was a painter with a canvas that already had outlines drawn on it. And—you know, James Wan had started a painting, and I just filled the lines in, and colored it in some more. With this movie, it was a blank palette. I came into it, and there was nothing on the palette. There was nothing on the—the thing. And I had to start from the very beginning. And I think that, again, as a filmmaker, it’s the best thing in the world, because you are getting to create a world. Where with James’ movie, the Saw films, I was just adding to the world that was already there.
PF: But what’s really interesting is that even despite the success of the Saw films, you still couldn’t persuade anyone to allow you to make this movie. It took a lot of—a lot of push on your part. I mean, what do you think finally convinced them that you could pull this off?
DLB: I think I screamed loud enough, finally. I mean, you know what it was? It was a short film that I did. I think that—I mean, to the credit of everyone that was involved with the project—it’s a weird thing. I mean, just say what it is out loud, and it’s weird. It’s a—it is a musical about an organ repo man, and the whole thing is song and dance, and there’s a big opera, and everyone dies. It’s weird. It’s a weird project. And I think that no matter how excited I was about it, in the end it was a weird project. And so I knew that me talking about it was never gonna get it made. So I took the approach that James and Lee did with Saw. I went out and shot a ten-minute short film. And I brought it in. I said, “This is the movie that I want to make.” And again, when you think musical, the majority of people think Dreamgirls, Rent, Moulin Rouge. You know, modern-day. If you’re an old-school person, you think Singing in the Rain, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls. My idea was to make the anti-Rent, the anti-Dreamgirls. The people in my—I guess demographic— would never go see Dreamgirls. Would never go see Rent. This movie’s for them.
PF: Going into this film, I thought “This is going to be a musical horror film.” And yet it didn’t strike me as being a horror film. It struck me more as being a musical tragedy, à la Phantom of the Opera, for example. How inspired were you by—for example, Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, because there seemed to be a lot of references to that kind of horror film, which is a psychological horror film, rather than what we expect from the guy who made the Saw movies.
DLB: That’s very good of you to pull that out, because that’s a lot what we were trying to do. I mean, here’s the thing. I would never call this a horror film. I think it’s a marketing term that helps sell the movie. It’s not a horror film. It’s a sci-fi fantasy opera. And it’s an opera in the truest sense of the world, because it’s got everything that opera movies or operas have. It’s got the big, grandiose characters. It’s got the bigger-than-life set pieces. It’s got the very dramatic songs. But more importantly, it’s got the tragedy. And this movie is all about tragedy. And—you know, I think that when we set out to make this, we didn’t set out to make a horror film. We set out to make an opera. And—you know, taking it one step further from the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera, look at the Sarah Brightman Phantom of the Opera. How lucky were we to get Sarah Brightman, who basically—the role of Christine was written for her. You know, it was an amazing—it was an amazing thing.
PF: In fact, the casting of this is fascinating, because you have the younger generation—you have these really amazing young actors. But the person that struck me as being the most extraordinary in this was Paul Sorvino. And I’ve met Sorvino, and he’s very picky about what he does. And you wouldn’t have normally associated him with this type of film. Was he easy to get? Because you got him pretty early on in the process, didn’t you?
DLB: Yeah. And here’s the deal. I think that every actor in this movie would never –I don’t think any audience would ever go into this movie saying, “Oh, I expected him or her to be in the movie.” You know, I made this movie with one thing in mind. The “What the fuck?” factor. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted the “What the fuck?” factor. That when you saw a poster of the movie, and you saw the cast that I assembled, you’re immediately being like—“I gotta see that. How can these people be in this movie?” And the reason why was, the movie was so outside of the box, the movie was so unique and different and crazy and eccentric, that I had to cast it the exact same way. And so when we did the approach of looking at cast, I was thrown some very—I guess “popular” names. And I said, “No.” Because—again, they’re too on the nose. Bon Jovi would never have worked in Repo Man. I don’t care how great a singer he is. He would never have worked. Because again, he’s too on the nose. So Paul Sorvino, for example—here’s a guy that everyone knows from Goodfellas. Let’s be honest. That’s how the majority of my people would know Paul Sorvino as. So take him away from the Goodfellas role, and put him in an operatic singer—I mean, that’s insanity. And Paul is a singer in real life. I mean, his original aspiration was to be an opera singer.
PF: Were you as cognizant looking at the singers who could act, or you were looking for actors who could sing?
DLB: Actors who could sing. You know, I think that it was—it’s a hard balance. Because whoever did this movie had to be able to pull off 90-some minutes of singing. Ninety minutes of singing, they had to be able to pull off. And you had to care about it. And I think the acting became critical in this. Because, you know, there’s a scene at the end of the movie between Shilo and her father, “I Didn’t Know I’d Love You So Much.” I mean, I don’t know if two rock and roll singers could have pulled that off. We just happened to end up with two great rock and roll singers that are actors.
PF: Let me ask you about casting Alexa Vega. She’s come a long way since I first interviewed her for Spy Kids. And I did not recognize her at all. Obviously she auditioned for you. I mean, did you know pretty quickly that she was the one?
DLB: Yeah, I did. I knew immediately. But—you know, something interesting. My girlfriend actually found her in the newspaper for Hairspray. You know, I’d seen maybe—yeah, she’s my fiancée now. She’ll get mad if you say “girlfriend.” She was reading the newspaper, and we were looking for Shilo at the time. That character. We were looking for someone that had a young, childlike look, yet was also very sexy. And we couldn’t find it. We’d find either a really sexy girl that looked trampy and not young, or a really young girl that didn’t look sexy. And so I see Alexa Vega, and I’m like, “That doesn’t look like the Spy Kids girl.” And then I looked at her face, and I’m like—“But yeah, her face kind of does.” So I actually flew out to New York to see her in Hairspray. And she was amazing in Hairspray. But the funny part is, in Hairspray, she plays a very young, child-like kid. But then when I saw her after the fact, behind the stage when she was getting her make-up off, she was sexy. And I was like, “Damn. This is Shilo.” I mean, this is exactly what I was looking for in Shilo.
PF: Paris Hilton surprisingly impressed me. Why do you want to hire her in the first place?
DLB: No one knows Paris Hilton. I think that’s the biggest thing I can say about Paris Hilton, is everyone thinks they know her, because they read Perez Hilton or TMZ. That’s not who she is. And that’s who I thought she was, too. And shame on me for that. because I guess that when I went into this, everyone—I thought I knew who she was. And so she came into audition—it didn’t take much to impress me. Because she was completely the opposite of that. And I’ll give you a story—one of my favorite stories to tell about Paris. We were in the recording studio, and we were recording this album. And we all went outside. And there were maybe 50 people in the studio at any given time, from engineers to guitarists, to drummers. And we’d been there about six hours. And everyone went outside, to behind the studio. And people were having cigarettes and standing out there talking. Well, all of a sudden the paparazzi van pulls up, and the doors open up, and hundreds of snaps go off. Photographers snapping like crazy. Well, the next day, all over the Internet, it was, “Paris Hilton caught smoking dope in back alley.” Well, she wasn’t doing anything. She was sitting there talking to me. But again, what happens is, people log on-line, they go to their TMZ or their Perez Hiltons, or whatever gossip site, and that’s how it’s spun. And so they think—they put these pieces of the puzzle together, and they think that’s the person. That’s not the person at all. She is—the reason that she is where she is right now, is she’s a smart business woman. And no one gives her credit for that. And I think this movie shows that she’s a smart actress, too.
PF: Did you know she could sing as well as she does in this? She does sing beautifully in this, too.
DLB: Oh, yeah. I think she’s a great singer. And I think that—this may be a bad thing for me to say. But the reasons I didn’t like her album was—it was not her voice. It was the production. It was the songs she was singing. And I think that in this, we gave her some great material. I think the writers, Terrance and Darren, gave her some great material. And she knocked it out of the park with that great material.
PF: The visual look of this movie is really interesting, but I also like the fact that you have this kind of comic book feel to it. Is that straight from the script? Is that something you imagined as you were working on the screenplay?
DLB: Yes. Well, it was always supposed to start and end with comic books. We didn’t know that we were gonna put them throughout the movie. And that came from a twofold problem. Budgetary—we didn’t have the money to pull off some of the things that we wanted to show, so we did them in comic books. But more importantly, look at Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the narrator in Rocky Horror Picture Show. The narrator, or the—basically, the professor, filled the audience in with story points that they needed to know, that they didn’t know. And if you missed it in a song, then we would tell it to you through the professor in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Same thing with this movie. The reason the comic books are there is to fill the audience in, in case they’d missed something and they didn’t hear it. It was a chance for you to breathe. It was a chance to fill you in with information. And more importantly, it fit within the world. The world is a very comic book thing.
PF: Would you do another one? I mean, the film does set it up for a sequel, I guess, if you really want to do—would you revisit this world?
DLB: Yes, 100 percent. In fact, I want to start a sequel next year. But again, everything—I’ll end my whole thing on a soapbox, which I love to get on. This movie is all about support from the Internet, and support from fans. This is not a movie where you’ll see billboards or bus stop ads or trailers on TV. It’s a movie that exists in a grass roots kind of a fashion. It exists when fans go and see it, and they go on message boards and talk about it. It exists when Dark Horizons posts a review about it and the thing which is so hard about this movie, but also exciting, is how polarizing the movie is. I got a half-star from Rolling Stone. And I got a four star from—you know, Washington Post. It’s ridiculous. I won, like, four out of four, and I’ll get a perfect score, and then the next person that watches it will say, “This is a fail. This is an F.” I think that—the trick is, right now, is spreading the word. Getting people out to the theatres November seventh, because, again, the more people that know about the movie, the more people that will talk about the movie—and the better chance that we have to see more movies like Repo. Because, again, it’s a weird, out there, crazy movie. And the only way to see more movies that are made like this is to show support when they’re actually released.
PF: Obviously Saw is behind you now. You’re not going to be revisiting that any more. What do you hope to do next as a filmmaker? Is this going to be your next thing? Or are you now in the position where you can really go in whatever direction you choose?
DLB: My next thing I want to do—I would love to follow up Repo and finish the story, because it was conceived as a three-part movie. But I’m doing an action film next. I can’t say exactly what it is yet. It’ll be announced next week. But I’m doing a big action film next, which is really exciting.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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