Exclusive Interview With Stage Fright Director Jerome Sable and Composer Eli Batalion
We sit down with Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion of Stage Fright to chat about bleeding together musicals with slashers.
Screaming your guts out in a horror movie is par for the course, but in Stage Fright, they do it on pitch. The rather nifty concept of bleeding together the genres of old school splatter slashers and big-hearted, honest-to-Broadway musicals marks this month’s newest horror-comedy release—which is now available on VOD—as a unique tap and splat thrill ride. And perhaps only Jerome Sable, who makes his directorial debut on this feature, and Eli Batalion, who co-wrote the music with Sable, could have envisioned it in quite such a way.
We were thus happy when the writer-director and composer sat down with us last week to discuss the musical and slasher influences of Stage Fright, it’s loving hate mail for Broadway, and the necessity to capture all the singing (and all the gore) in-camera. Plus, this is also Meat Loaf’s first movie musical since Rocky Horror Picture Show…
When did you first realize you wanted to combine a slasher movie with a musical?
Jerome Sable: A long time ago, now. 1989? We first did theatre for many years, and our weird plays always involved musical numbers and weird musical elements. Then I was in film school, and I was getting into the horror stuff more, and we discussed doing our next project as a film. So we said, “Why don’t we combine creative forces and creative ideas,” and—
Eli Batalion: And we high-fived.
JS: And we high-fived and said, “Let’s do a horror musical.” But the first thing we did at that point actually was a short film called “The Legend of Beaver Dam.” That was our first sort of foray into the combo. The short was well received, and we enjoyed the way people [liked it]. So we said, “Let’s try to do a feature.” But not of that short. Just another thing, a longer thing that combined these elements.
So when you made this short did you know it was a steppingstone to a feature film?
JS: We were hoping that it would be. Not in the way of these characters and that story, because it’s totally different. But in the way of let’s see if we can combine these genres and fantastical elements: musical, comedy, and horror.
EB: It was like a proof of concept for others, but then also to ourselves. We wanted to demonstrate that this could work, and people like producers might be interested in this sort of thing. But for ourselves, we wanted to test this out in the form of a short film.
I’ve seen the short film, and I enjoyed it, but it is very different. It was more of a Freddy Kruger killer than a Jason Voorhees. Was there a reason for that change for the feature?
JS: Well, it wasn’t like a change; these were two different things from a storytelling perspective. Even though one was the ancestor of the other in terms of the combining, and just working with singing and slashing—that aside, one was like campfire tale short story, and the other is a longer story about this girl and the past, and her history, and theatre camp, and what that all means. It was what we sort of thought would give us a more feature-length playground.
EB: There’s a lot more psychological background for the killer role or roles [in Stage Fright] whereas in “The Legend of Beaver Dam,” there is a legend there, but we never really go back into his childhood. Although, maybe we should? Maybe later this afternoon? [Laughs]
According to the press notes, Meat Loaf saw this short film and that is what helped convince him to do it. Could you talk about how it was getting him to do this film, because I believe it is his second movie musical?
JS: Yeah, that’s the fun thing. When we first met Meat Loaf, not too far away from here at one of our New York casting director’s offices, it’s always fun during that first meeting, because there’s a piano in the room, and I had some of the songs for Roger McCall [Meat Loaf’s character], but we didn’t get into any of the singing. He wanted to talk character and he wanted to talk about Roger McCall the character. And it wasn’t what people might think or might guess about discussing “we’ll do it like this and you’ll sing it like this.” No, he just really wanted to get into the background of this character and the way I saw it, and the way I felt it in terms of the story. That was really his approach to the material. So, he approaches singing through character and through fully committing to what this character, this person is saying. He doesn’t see them as lyrics, he doesn’t see them as musical notes. He sees them as emotions that need to be uttered at this time and in this way. That’s his starting point, and that is his process. It is so amazing, and it was unexpected for me, because I thought, “Oh here is this Grammy Award winning musical icon,” but he really sees himself as an actor first. That’s how he works, even musically.
Did he ever talk about parallel between doing this and Rocky Horror. Did you ever have that discussion with him?
JS: Never. Not once even. It was an obvious thing that exists in the background like, “Of course you’re in Rocky Horror, you’re a musical icon, you’re in the iconic and legendary horror musical. The horror musical.” No, it never came up. The discussions, because of the way he approached the material—it’s not like he wanted this to be “Meat Loaf in a movie” or “this is Meat Loaf in a new horror musical.” He just liked the character of Roger McCall and wanted to do that. That is all we discussed when it came to work and then we discussed a whole bunch of other stuff like baseball.
Speaking of Rocky Horror though, what were the musicals and, for that matter, slasher movies that influenced both of you and then which ones influenced this movie?
EB: It’s interesting, because we love musicals, but we don’t necessarily love all musicals. I wouldn’t describe us as Broadway fanboys. Actually, there’s probably a lot of stuff on Broadway that we violently detest. [Laughs] But there’s a bunch of stuff. Our musical influences, going to more traditional music, certainly Kander and Ebb, some Gilbert and Sullivan as well. We were just talking a little earlier about Lionel Bart.
JS: The guy who wrote Oliver! There’s influences there not only in terms of the music, but also in terms of the directing Carol Reed. Just the kids in the lunchroom at the beginning in the orphanage if you’ve seen that version of Oliver! And of course, there’s then the rock influences.
EB: Which I say is less Rocky Horror—we’re influenced by Rocky Horror in terms of it setting the precedent, but in terms of the specific rock sound, I think that’s more along the lines of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, some Led Zeppelin, some of the vocal stylings of Axl Rose. That’s the stuff we listened to in high school, so it was an interesting combination of combining that stuff with stuff we had accumulated as enjoyers of music since our teens, and to then throw them together in one film.
I felt the whole thing had a very obvious nostalgia for the 1980s. The slasher elements were very Friday the 13th and also Carrie—though that’s the ‘70s—but also the musical that it was most parodying was Phantom of the Opera. I bring that up to ask do you have a love/hate relationship with some of this genre? Because you say Led Zeppelin, and I hear Van Halen in “Metal Killer.” People who listen to Van Halen probably did not like Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 1980s.
JS: Yeah, it is love/hate. It’s like our love letter and it’s also like hate mail. So, it’s our love/hate mail to musical theatre. But here’s the thing, Andrew Lloyd Webber does Jesus Christ Superstar, which in itself was more of a rock musical. And then he chose to do his version of Phantom, which is intentionally, and I think he would admit this, high on the cheese factor, high on the romance. He just wanted to take what essentially is a slasher story, because it’s about this guy who offs people in a theatre one-by-one, and takes a slasher and says, “Let me do a slasher completely dripping with romance!” And oozing with this sort of red rose [imagery]. And I think he’d admit that’s exactly what he did. I think on their first draft of the music and lyrics, he thought it was just too haunting or serious. He’s like “let’s just make it more romantic.” Sure Andrew, we can do that.
So, he’s done that, and then we said, “Okay. What about dialing it the other way and making it just more brutal, but also with a sort poking-jabbing at the belly of the beast.” Because of course, it’s such an iconic—when I was young, my mother took us to see Phantom, and the chandelier fell, and it was a hugely impressionable moment. “Oh shit!” [Laughs] So, it makes an impact whether you love it or hate it, it’s a huge part of our culture, which is his take of that story. And by the way, in prepping for this movie, we went back and watched the original movie, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, and also Brian De Palma’s take, Phantom of the Paradise, which people may not remember proceeds Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the Gaston Leroux story.
EB: I guess a lot of people have done that story.
JS: Yeah, even Dario Argento did one. Even Freddy Kruger himself, the actor Robert Englund, was in a weird version of Phantom of the Opera.
To transition a little to the slasher movies, which slasher movies really influenced this? For example, I think you used a lot of in-camera effects for the gore.
JS: Yeah, to your point about there being a lot of nostalgia for the ‘80s and the late ‘70s, yes, there is. I just think those are awesome movies and to name a few others like Black Christmas from ’74, and of course Halloween from John Carpenter, as well as Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie, Texas Chainsaw, and also Hellraiser. But even the Dario Argento movies, the Giallo, movies like Opera and Susperia; these movies that take place with the ballerinas and opera singers. It’s cool to mix high-class theatre and opera with low-class slashing.
Was it hard to get them to sing or lip-synch with all the fake blood splattering around?
JS: They were really singing! We did all live-singing. That was another thing that was tricky to do in-camera singing and in-camera effects. Once we had our cast, they were so talented they could nail it over and over again, being of that theatre ilk and having those chops. But like you say, practical effects take time, and you can’t control splatter, as much as you would like to, so you’d just have to take your time and go again. There was stuff that could go wrong, and it was a complicated shoot, to say the least.
Why did you approach it with live-singing as opposed to pre-recorded music?
JS: Same reason as the gore. The results that you get have a certain grit and texture, whether it’s live-singing or in-camera gore. We talk about the splatter. With CG blood splatter, the gravity just never quite looks or feels the same. And maybe you only perceive it on a subconscious level, but if something is fake, it might just feel fake. It is the same with singing. You may not know it, but you feel that you connect more to the character, because it was just what they did in that moment. That’s the result part of things. The other is when you’re on set, having the actors not only singing then and there, but also get splashed with something or see something, that just affects their whole emotional performance. It is throwback, but is also just better in general, I find, to do as much as you can in-camera. It just brings more out of the people then and there.
EB: When you have a canned musical like Singin’ in the Rain, and you can tell that they’re clearly not singing, as a viewer and an enjoyer that takes you out of the moment. It’s very distancing.
JS: Imagine this whole interview was lip-synched, and we weren’t saying what we’re saying.
EB: But we’re still saying these things, but it’s pre-recorded. That would be weird.
Were you on-set during the production or were you helping the actors through the music during shooting?
EB: Yes, it’s interesting. I played the role of the maestro in it, but there also was a lot of preparation as well. And part of the reason the actors were able to improvise these scenarios with the blood and splatter is we spent a lot of time with them. It’s a different process from a Mumblecore movie, for example. For months leading up to it, we were beginning to record some of their pre-recorded vocals that they would work with and use later on within the film, and get them to learn these songs, and different parts within these songs. We spent a lot of time actually schooling the talent in this.
JS: It was true, and I would get home from a prep day at the prep office, and there in the condo was Eli the choir master with the whole cast, just conducting and teaching harmonies. So, it was a funny pre-production where we were both building rigs and building jigs! [Laughs]
EB: But yeah, to your point, that was happening before. But on set, not only was there a B-unit, but this was shot in 23 days, which is really quite ambitious in terms of everything we were trying to get done. It wasn’t like there was one event going on. B-unit was also going on in the camp, and there were rehearsals going on as well.
Speaking of making it work, when it came to casting, I imagine finding a lead actress like Allie MacDonald who had to be both the scream queen and the leading lady ingénue was a bit of a challenge. Could you talk about how you cast her and what you were looking for in that role?
JS: We had the luxury of being able to cast out of two countries, both Canada and the U.S. And for the U.S., a lot of our casting took place in New York where we actually got to see a lot of the top talent of Broadway, and the casts of The Book of Mormon and Mamma Mia! were coming in and singing the songs of Stage Fright. And we’re like, “Wow, this is the pick of the litter and very talented!” But in the end for Allie MacDonald, the role of Camilla Swanson, the lead, we actually chose someone who wasn’t a Broadway singer because what we found in Allie was something more special for this movie. Yes, she could sing and do all that, but she also embodied this essence of being on the outside of theatre kids. I found out later, after we cast her, that she actually had a very similar experience where she went to this musical theatre school and didn’t feel like she fit in. And I was like, “Well, that make sense.” We felt that on this unconscious level. Yes, she could sing and she had the same chops, but from an essence perspective, the intangible things that you can’t really describe on paper but you get in terms of a feeling from someone, she really was an outsider to this world and this way.
EB: And the other cast members actually really were Broadway.
JS: Insiders, yeah. So, it was kind of nice like that. So in the end, there are all these intangibles that go into casting, and we were lucky with Allie.
I have to ask about Minnie Driver. How did you approach her for this role and was it a conscious decision because she was in The Phantom of the Opera movie?
JS: Our pool of who we could even approach was limited to begin with, because we knew that we needed a singing actress, so that immediately eliminates all kinds of people that the investors or financers [would be interested in]. Minnie is not only a great singer, but she also gets the satire or send-up of the British mega-musicals. She’s English, she was in Phantom, and in Phantom she plays La Carlotta, so she did that in a very satirical way, and it was great. So, we could appeal to her on that level. And the producers sent her a copy of “The Legend of Beaver Dam,” and with that she understood we were doing something with a bit of a wink. I had a phone call with her, she had watched “The Legend of Beaver Dam,” and she was like “yes, let’s do it.” And I was like “really?”
EB: “Are you sure?” [Laughs]
JS: I was like “don’t mess this up! She said yes.” And she was awesome. Also, here’s the funny thing about Minnie. I don’t think she’s ever necessarily done a horror movie before or even watched one. And she was completely game to do this brutal scene that was so [violent] that even when we were recording ADR with her, doing some additional dialogue, she couldn’t even watch her own scene. It was too violent and too brutal. But she was game for it, which was something outside of the zone for her, and she was fantastic.
Do you view this as more of a horror movie or more as a satire?
JS: Isn’t all horror satire, somewhat?
That’s a good answer. Do you guys have a musical you want to do next? Like a superhero musical, a sci-fi musical? Any other genre bending?
JS: The answer is yes! It’s deep within us…But no, that’s a great idea. We’re going to steal it, thank you! [Laughs]
Thank you for doing this.