Exclusive Interview with Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion of Stage Fright
The newest horror musical Stage Fright (review) is poised for release, and we have the scoop! Starring Minnie Driver and Meat Loaf, this retro slasher is a great throwback for fans of Phantom of the Opera and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Dread Central: I don't know if you remember me, but I was a huge supporter of your short film, The Legend of Beaver Dam. I love it so much! So I am wondering... when you got the backing to make a feature horror musical, why not go with expanding on The Legend of Beaver Dam?
Jerome Sable: Even though we made The Legend of Beaver Dam first, the idea for Stage Fright actually preceded it. Batalion and I knew we wanted to do a slasher film at a musical theatre camp, but we realized we would probably need to make a short film first, before anyone would back an entire feature. We at first tried to find a shorter story within the story of Stage Fright, but that search turned up empty, so we came up with The Legend of Beaver Dam as a separate, standalone short story. I’m curious what you imagine the feature version of The Legend of Beaver Dam would be about. How do you see the expansion of the story?
Eli Batalion: Are you allowed to do that?
Sable: Do what?
Batalion: Ask questions back to an interviewer?
Sable: I dunno. Am I?
Sable: Are you allowed to interview your co-interviewee?
Batalion: I dunno, are you?
Long awkward silence.
Batalion: Soooo, yeahhhh, guess I’m not allowed to ask that question to either of you. (Breaks out cigarette) So this just got weird…
Sable: You can’t smoke here.
Batalion: I know, I don’t even smoke. This is really weird. Next question?
DC: Umm. Moving right along! People who liked The Legend of Beaver Dam may be surprised when they watch Stage Fright. They're both quite different from one another. Was that a conscious decision?
Sable: Yes, as you now know, Stage Fright is not an expansion of The Legend of Beaver Dam, however they are linked in that they both riff on similar genre mash-ups (horror + musical comedy). The concept of The Legend of Beaver Dam, to me, works best as a short story, while with Stage Fright, the story offers a bigger creative playground, so to speak, with more opportunities to explore different characters and different kinds of musical numbers. However, because Stage Fright deals heavily with the culture of theatre kids and the world of Broadway, it’s possible that it will appeal to an even more specific audience than The Legend of Beaver Dam. It’s certainly not for everybody.
Batalion: I, for one, won’t even watch it.
Sable: Ya, but you don’t watch any movies.
Batalion: True. But still. In the hypothetical world where I entertain the notion of entertaining myself with entertainment, this is literally the last thing I’d watch, if I were stuck on a desert island and the only thing I could eat was Netflix.
Sable: Netflix does kind of sound like a good cereal, right?
DC: You have a marvelous cast -- notable are your name stars, Minnie Driver and Meat Loaf. Would you please tell us how they came on board, and what it was like to work with them?
Sable: With Minnie, we were lucky that one of our producers, Ari Lantos, had worked with her on one of his other films, so there was a relationship there and he was able to reach out to her directly. She watched The Legend of Beaver Dam and enjoyed it and I think that was a significant factor in her decision to sign on for the role of Kylie Swanson. When I first spoke with her about the project, we also discussed her work in Phantom of the Opera and how we wanted to put a twist on the British mega-musical’s version of that famous slasher story. Minnie’s from the U.K., and I think the British are always up for a bit of ironic fun.
Batalion: They generally like to take the piss.
Sable: Or get pissed.
Batalion: Or piss off.
Sable: They have a urinary culture.
Batalion: Speaking of urinary culture… (reaching for his laptop bag)
Sable: Ummm, let’s keep our lab tests to ourselves, big boy.
(Batalion puts his laptop bag back down.)
Sable: With Meat Loaf, it was all about the character of Roger McCall. Meat approaches everything he does from a standpoint of full commitment and authenticity, so the initial discussion was all about who Roger was as a character, and what he was all about. I think Meat was attracted to play this character because it involved a complexity he could sink his teeth into, and a mustache on top of that.
Batalion: Literally, on top of his teeth.
Sable: Both Meat and Minnie were fantastic to work with. They both gave it their all, and were fully committed to rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. And their feet wet. With blood.
Batalion: And that was just to get to the set. In retrospect, that obstacle course was totally unnecessary.
DC: On the name Stage Fright... did you choose it because of the Hitchcock movie, the Italian Giallo, or...? How important is a film title, in your opinion? Some directors are very fervent about preserving titles, while others don't seem to care as long as the movie is out there…
Sable: When we first came up for the title for the movie, I actually hadn’t seen the Michele Soavi film of the same name. But then I did, of course, and thought about changing our title. Which was a bummer because we really thought it was the best title for the movie, especially since it’s a theatre-based horror movie with some throwback sensibility. But THEN, I found out that Soavi’s film wasn’t even the first to use the title--as you point out. So I realized that there seems to be a two-decade-or-so cycle that comes around where you can make a new movie called Stage Fright.
Batalion: Is that true?
Sable: Ya. I checked with Soavi and he said he went through a similar process with Hitchcock.
Batalion: If this interview gets printed, it must be true. I believe everything I read.
Sable: So I look forward to, in twenty years, the next Stage Fright.
Batalion: Shotgun-next-Stage-Fright! Called-it!
Shit. Twenty years’s a long time. (Pause) You guys got a magazine or something? (Reaching for a cigarette) Smoke if I got ’em.
Sable: I told you, you can't smoke here.
Batalion: Shhhhhh, I’m acting.
DC: Let's talk a little bit about the horror aspects of the film... what were some of your influences in creating the killer's look and M.O.? Did you go through a few incarnations before finding the right one, or was it already set in your mind?
Sable: With the music side of the killer, we knew we wanted to musicalize a slasher villain in a fun way, so that meant that we were gonna make the villain verbal, and in many ways it was like, “What would the musical version of a Freddy Krueger-type be like?” The answer we came up with was that he would probably sound like Axl Rose, mixed with a bit of AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Also, Freddy had some great one-liners--
Batalion: “Welcome to prime time, bitch!”
Sable: So we tried to give our killer a similar sense of dark comedy fun, but with musical theatre phrases.
Batalion: “Break a leg, bitch!”
Sable: Yes, except we don’t use “bitch” in our film.
Batalion: True, as an R-rated film with blood, children and adult situations, that type of language could alienate our audience.
Sable: And diminishes the chance of ever getting a Stage Fright ride at Disney.
Batalion: How about "Tragic Mountain"?
Sable: How about "no"? In terms of the look, since the killer hates theatre people, we thought, ‘What is a potentially hate-worthy trait of theatre people?’ And the answer was, ‘Their insistence on reinventing old plays with seemingly random academic ideas, resulting in unintended silliness, and--if you’re lucky--unintended racism.’ So we thought it’d be funny to have the pretentious director claim to be “reinventing” a British mega-musical by setting it in feudal Japan, the result of which is horribly confused and offensive. But which also involves a kabuki mask. So then, when the killer re-appropriates that mask from the show, it becomes a twisted slasher villain’s version of a kabuki mask, which we thought could be fresh.
Batalion: And inadvertently racist by the otherwise ultra-liberal performing arts camp, though intentionally created to be inadvertently racist by us.
Sable: This is very meta.
Batalion: It’s a British "meta-musical."
Sable: I’ve never meta-musical I’ve never hated.
Batalion: Too many negatives.
Sable: Too soon.
DC: What's the enduring appeal of the rock n roll horror musical? They're never been "popular" (except as cult classics, like Phantom of the Paradise or Repo! The Genetic Opera) -- so, what is it as a movie maker that drew you to creating a feature?
Sable: Well it’s hard to say what it was for those other filmmakers you alluded to, but I think in our case it was really a question of creating the kind of forum for us to explore things we like: slasher films, throwback horror, 70‘s rock, and musical comedy...
Sable: Plus since it was our first feature, we thought it best that it shouldn’t be too popular.
Batalion: A big part of the strategy was: what can we create with the highest production value and the greatest talent to reach the smallest amount of people so that that handful of individuals would be so enthralled by the exclusivity of their viewing experience they would profess their lifelong allegiance to us and offer us their day-to-day servitude . There was a lot of business thinking that went into this, and as you can see by the young man currently giving me a foot rub under the table, it’s working.
Sable (looking under the table): Oh SHIT! Hahaha! Nice.
DC: What's your own personal favorite song in the movie, and why?
Sable: I like “Exit Stage Fright”, the song that plays over the final credits, because it’s a medley of a lot of the songs from the film, but metallicized in a kind of punk rock way, or at least pop punk. And the outro riff is our own little homage to Pink Floyd.
Batalion: Bonne homage.
Sable: Merci, à toi aussi.
Batalion: Merci. No, but seriously, I have been meaning to ask: who is Pink Floyd?
Sable: Whatever you want him to be.
DC: What are your future plans for Stage Fright --? A live show, or perhaps a sequel?
Sable: Hmm... maybe a spin-off reality show with Thomas Alderson, who plays David Martin, the flamboyant stage manager character.
Batalion: The Real Stage Managers of Manhattan.
Sable: So You Think You Can Manage Stage?
Batalion: The Voice.
Sable: They have that already.
Batalion: American Ido-
Sable: Just stop.
DC: What's coming up for you, after this?
Sable: The most immediate thing coming up is our segment for the letter ‘V’ in “The ABCs of Death 2.” I directed it from a script I wrote with Nicholas Musurca, the editor of The Legend of Beaver Dam and Stage Fright.
Batalion: I thought you said after this we could go get PinkBerry?
Sable: Yes, but that’s in 15 minutes. Don’t you get my iCal alerts?
Batalion: I do, but it’s so much better when it comes from you, and when you vibrate when you tell me.
Sable: You’re going to not include this kind of stuff in the interview, right? I figured, yeah, you’ll just focus on the substance, not really get at the dynamics of our relationship? OK, ok, good. Yeah, people should not read about that. Cool, thanks so much.
DC: Thanks, guys!
The film is currently available on iTunes / VOD and will be in theaters May 9th, 2014.
Stage Fright tells the story of a posh musical theater camp terrorized by a killer who hates musicals. Driver plays Kylie Swanson, a haunted star of the Broadway stage and mother of two siblings who find themselves at the center of the unfolding horror at the camp. Meat Loaf plays Roger McCall, a slumming Broadway producer-turned-camp director.
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