[Fantastic Fest] Interview: Director Jill Gevargizian Of ‘The Stylist’ On Her Influences, The Challenges Of Jumping From Shorts To Features & Dr. Giggles

Earlier this week, as part of the virtual Fantastic Fest, Boom Howdy had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jill Gevargizian, director of The Stylist. In the lengthy interview, Gevargizian touched upon the excitement surrounding the world premiere of her film, the various places she drew influence from, what she wanted to do to make her film stand out, as well as her (current) ranking of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. There’s a lot of content here, you won’t want to miss.

 

Boom Howdy: A little over a year ago you embarked on a Kickstarter campaign to turn your short film, The Stylist, into a feature film. You passed your goal as Fantastic Fest 2019, was underway. Now here you are a year later. Not only is our film’s completed, but it’s having its world premiere at Fantastic Fest. Walk me through what that feels like and what it means to you.

Jill Gevargizian: It feels very surreal. Yeah, a year ago last week, we were just praying that we would make our goal. We had Kyle Clark, our executive producer, down at the fest passing out flyers trying to get every dollar we could. I actually just got the email last week. I don’t know if it was the same day as the premier, but reminding us of when we hit the goal. We could have never imagined that the film would be done by now.

I figured post-production on a feature was going to take me an entire year. At least, I’m used to shorts taking that long, because we’re always doing it. Like everyone’s working outside of their real job on it. This was the first time I had people that could work full-time on something. I had no idea how that was going to go. To play Fantastic Fest is wild dream come true. Even the short getting in was a huge feat, because I’ve submitted everything to them over the years and that’s all I think that’s gotten in until the feature. I just wish we could have all been there together, in person.

What was it that really lit the fire on you know underneath your feet that made you think “I need to take the short and turn it into a film now. I need to do this myself?”

JG: Well, My mom went through a terrifying thing last year. She had a health scare where she easily could have not made it. One minute she’s fine and a second later, we had no idea what was going to happen. If she was even going to be okay. That was just another reminder of how short life is and how it’s all these cliches sayings we hear our whole life. But that also couldn’t be more true. Life is short. Time is precious and it just kicked my ass. I was like “I got to get out and do this. Now!”

I said this 10 times to myself over the last year, so I emailed Robert Patrick Stern and Sarah Sharp, my fellow producers that made the short with me, and asked them if they would be willing to try to do this for the smallest amount of money possible. I told them “I don’t know what that number is, but I’m working on it” and wanted to know if they’d be willing to go on this crazy Journey with me. I then asked Najarra Townsend, the lead actress, at the same time and they were all like hell yeah, let’s do it which was somewhat surprising. I didn’t know if Robert Patrick Stern say “Dude. We need a budget for this movie, we can’t make it for $100.”

We shot the movie January through mid-February, of 2020. Had we pushed that back at all, Covid-19 would have shut us down. And so it was all these reminders of how you never know what’s going to happen. You got to figure out how to do it and what kept me from trying for so long, was because I always like to know that I can finish something. A lot of filmmakers I’ve met through the years, like Ryan Prowse of Lowlife, I’d asked them how they made their films and he told me they just started making it with a small amount of money. They didn’t know how they were going to finish it, as far as how to pay for everything and I was like, “how do you do that?” That will melt my brain. Yet that’s essentially what we had to do. We didn’t know how to pay for post-production in October, of last year. Slowly you figure it out and I realized people want to jump on the train when they see you actually doing it. Not just that you’re saying you’re going to do it.

What challenges are there, if there were any, in making the big leap from making a short film to a feature-length film?

JG: I feel like it should have been more obvious to me than it was. Just how much bigger of a project it all was. For instance, on a short I’ll do a lot of the jobs myself, because it might only be a two-day shoot with three actors and one day happening in the film. So, really it’s possible for me to do my own wardrobe, in that case. I’ll figure out where we’re eating for lunch every day. I’m my own assistant director. I do everything myself, since it’s somewhat possible. Yet when I sat down with my llllCostume Designer on The Stylist, Hallie Sharp, pointed out to me that Claire, who’s just one of 20 characters in the movie, has like 25 different outfits. I never thought about it all in those terms and then I realized how many days pass in the movie. What that actually means for our budget. How we’re going to pay for all these gloves! This is why a lot of people told me over the years it’s not a $100k or lower film. Somehow she [Hallie] freaking blew me away with the wardrobe. I don’t know what we did to do that.

Even things like like hair styling and makeup gets overlooked in a film, unless it’s the gore makeup. Something like this is an absolutely psychotic amount of work for Courtney Jones, who did the Hair & Makeup, on our movie. We’d be shooting Najarra all day, at like five different points of the movie, circling back in between to Courtney, completely redoing the makeup. It’s an insane challenge to schedule when you’re not shooting in order, as you’re shooting by location, versus order. Claire goes through a lot of different levels throughout the film. She needs to look like it’s the worst moment of her life and then everything’s fine, five minutes later.

The Stylist is a horror film that’s directed by a female filmmaker, as well as co-written by a woman, with two strong female leads, both of which are portrayed by respected genre mainstays. Was that important to you when you were focusing on making the film, given everything that’s happened the last few years in the Horror Community or was it just something that kind of naturally evolved on its own?

JG: It mostly naturally evolved. Once I started to break down the script, in figuring out how am I going to make this thing, How many characters are there? how many locations are there? Because that’s when you try to see many can characters to get rid of and have the movie still be good. I really realized there’s like one male role in this movie and it’s not very big. It that wasn’t me being all “I hate men. I’m not going to let men be in my movie.” That’s definitely not the intention. It just naturally happened, but then once I realize how female heavy it was, I wanted to try to represent different types of people and not have it all be one stereotype of a woman. Especially with whatever that might mean to people. I’m really proud of that and it was always important to have a lot of women behind the scenes. That’s not very common, as it’s a male-dominated industry. You kind of have to put effort into it, to try to make your crew somewhat balanced, in that way. But we ended up with a very diverse crew, all of which was natural. I’m real proud of that.

To piggyback off the last question. The second lead of the film is Brea Grant, who is just having a banner year right now. She just starred in a movie recently that she also co-wrote (Lucky) and then she’s got another film that she directed and also co-wrote, (12 Hour Shift) just now getting released. What was it like having her be a part of the production?

JG: When I first met Brea, I was very intimidated. I’m but I’m intimidated by almost everyone I work with. I admire her a lot. I met Brea through another feature that I was attached to direct and she was set to star in. We shot a trailer for it three years ago, then pitched it at Fantasia Frontiers Market. Nothing came of it, but it’s still a project I’d would love to make, somwday.

Anyways, I knew I wanted to still work with her and I always pictured her in this role as Olivia. She’s really, and this is like cheating, she just exudes so much of this character. Like she’s this bright energetic person that I feel people could underestimate. Someone that you think you could maybe cross or get one over on, when she’s definitely not. She’ll correct you and stand her ground and that’s what I loved about her.

Like you said she’s been so busy. She’s also directing on CW’s Pandora and writing on that show too. It came down to “was she available” when we were shooting the movie, because I knew that the bigger projects would take precedence, which is completely understandable.

You’re not going to turn down directing, as part of a series, for a movie that is very small, in comparison. But I learned only recently that when she said yes to me, she didn’t have time to even read the script. She was like “I trust you. I love The Stylist. I know everyone involved. I told her I would do it way before I read it” and I’m like, oh my God!

That’s got to be a good vote of confidence then.

JG: It was! This is a fun little tidbit: we were going to put her in the a smaller role, if she didn’t have the time. Which was going to be for the opening. I don’t know if this is a spoiler, but she would have been the opening client that comes in to see Claire. Almost like she’d be the Drew Barrymore type, have a recognizable face that maybe isn’t around very long. That would have worked out, too. It was a dream to have her and Najarra perfectly capture the mirror opposites. How internalized Claire is as a character is and Olivia’s the opposite. When I saw them together finally, I was thought this is the perfect combination.

They do really bounce off each other well and have a naturally breezy chemistry.

JG: Heck yes!

What is it about horror or thrillers that drives you as a filmmaker?

JG: I love that through them you can talk about more serious topics, without being so heavy-handed. Maybe sneak those kind of ideas past people who wouldn’t necessarily watch it, if it was a drama about some issue. Stories that are subtle or make you think long after you watch it, about different ideas they touched on. I think through horror we can really talk about stuff that’s maybe too hard to approach otherwise. On the other side, I just loved how horror invokes emotion out of you. Almost always. I actually fell in love with sad films, growing up. Like I love movies that make me cry my eyes out. This started when I was 5. I’m morbid, so I would watch Land Before Time over and over and over again. Getting excited to cry, basically. Then I discovered “scary” movies.

To me, it was a similar feeling, as scary movies were so strong in how they could connect. Whether its focus is scary or upsetting or sad. Being surprised that something could affect you that much, in that way. I was addicted to the idea of something that doesn’t simply pass before you, but actually you can engage with, on an emotional level.

Is that something that you were cautiously wanting to make with The Stylist? That you were wanting to make sure that you were hitting upon those points? Not just the gore or passable entertainment, but also on that emotional level?

JG: That’s definitely what I want to do. I grew up loving horror and I still love the slashers, just to a lesser degree. Those little more surfacy ones are just fun like more passing entertainment, as you said, but I personally really want to affect people emotionally. That’s my favorite thing about movies. How something that can gross you that much, does so on a more human level. But as the gore fan, we have to go the whole way there, too. You have to keep the bloody horror fans happy and strive to find the balance.

This might seem like a trap but it isn’t but on an artistic level, what is it that’s most important or fulfilling to you making films? The hopes of one day getting a big movie shot or contract? The respect and appreciation from industry peers, as well as filmgoers? Or the confidence and the knowledge that you’ve made a film that you’re proud of?

JG: Those are all connected, but first is definitely being proud and confident in what work you did. Because I think people can feel that and that attracts people to your work. Of course, I also want my peers and movie fans to like it, as I want it to lead to being able to make more films!

Unfortunately, I personally have never been money-driven. I think that’s hurt me. I constantly think “why can’t i just figure out why it’s so expensive to make movies? Why did I fall in love with this art form?” It’s just important to me to figure out how make the next one. It’s all connected and I want to make another film and I know from the business side, the money people only care about how well your last movie did. But you have to have a previous movie, both for it to do well and get another film so it’s just a cycle.

That naturally leads to a “pie in the sky” type question: Let’s say a movie studio does come to you and they decide that they’re going to give you a huge budget for your next film. The only caveat is that it has to be either a remake or a reboot of an existing property. Is there a franchise or film property out there that you would actually be willing to tackle, if it came to that?

JG: What’s ridiculous is both of the things that come to mind are like not at all what I just said above. They’re not emotional movies with anything to say. Maybe that’s not totally true. They definitely not emotional movies. But the first two that come to mind are I would love to make a Final Destination movie. Mostly, as I’m a fan of kills and over-the-top gore. That’s what those movies are for! You’re just waiting for those crazy “the thing rolls off the thing and it makes the chair fall and then the step by step to someone’s death.”

BH: The Rube Goldberg-ness of it all

JG: Exactly! I think those movies are so much fun. They’re all incredible! Part 4 is not so great. But I loved the rest and I need to be making part 6. Directed by Jill Sixx. Somebody called me!

If they’re already working on part 6, you can always do a weird like side-quel, where it’s 666 and then you can still work the Sixx in there. What’s the other one that you would tackle?

JG: A few years ago Larry Drake passed away, who played Dr. Giggles and I hadn’t seen that movie since I was probably 10 years old. It was one of the first horror movies I ever saw, so it’s always been stuck in my brain. I revisited it and thought this movie is just so fun. So ridiculous. I can’t believe it didn’t become a franchise. And so I thought there should be a new Dr. Giggles, but it’d be hard to do that without Larry Drake. He’s so great in that role!

That’s another one that he could easily go the weird horror route and have it be “Son of Dr. Giggles.”

JG: Dr. Giggles Jr.

There you go. You could even have it be like some weird mash of Dr. Giggles meets Dr. Dolittle.

JG: Dr. Giggles is in that time period of films, in the early 90s, where there are a lot of slashers about The Dentist, The Landlady, The Ice Cream Man. Lots of profession driven slashers. I don’t know what you call that, but you’d think in that period they’d already be like a hairstylist movie. That someone could make that kind of movie, just a straight slasher with more of a horror comedy focus.That idea came to my mind, as we [hairstylists] have so many things that could be used for torture or killing, that you could go crazy over-the-top with, in a movie like that.

I think the closest they got was the South Korean horror film several years ago. It was about the killer hair extensions, Exte.

JG: Yes, but someone needs to make The Hairstylist one. Maybe that’s what I do 10 years from now. Kinda like Tobe Hooper did with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Make it full on slapstick and a big comedy. I have a million spin-off ideas ready to go, if that should ever be the case.

That’s kinda how it seems to work, nowadays. Everything can have a potential sequel.

JG: You’ve got The Conjuring Universe, now get ready for The Stylist universe.

Some people wear their influences on their sleeve, in a figurative manner, others in a literal manner. With your various tattoos and as evidenced in The Stylist, you clearly embrace your influences both ways. What are some films or filmmakers who’ve kind of shaped your identity and views on film?

JG: When it comes to biggest influences overall, not just stylewise, it’ss been David Fincher. I mean, to me he is the king of the modern crime thriller and I love that genre. I would love to make movies in that world too, but he has such a meticulous method to his filmmaking that nothing is an accident. Every camera move is motivated by something. Nothing is done just because it looks cool or pretty. Even the tiniest thing in the background of a shot has a purpose and has been thought about and I really like that type of thinking. I think a lot about that. Hitchcock talks about his preparation that way. He was like “the movie’s made before you start shooting,” that’s it. He was so intimidating to listen to speak! I’m like, how did people work with this guy? Then he sometimes makes jokes? How do you know he’s joking? He’s so serious.

I’m all about the planning and how you make your film in pre-production. And if you plan to that kind of a detail, that actually gives you the freedom to then actually to experiment on the day, because you already know this exists and now we can try this and that.

For the style of my film specifically, I started researching films with similar themes, such as doppelganger films and films about women losing their mind. Or how women would envy other women. I found all these movies I had never seen before, like De Palma’s Sisters, Altman’s Three Women and Bergman’s Persona. All of which I learned about through Kier-La Janisse’s book, House of Psychotic Women.

BH: I thought of that book, when you were talking about those films. You can definitely feel it in the The Stylist, which is fantastic.

JG: Yeah that book should be taught at a college, as a year long course. You just watch each film and discuss it as you go along. It’s just so insightful to films and this film, in particular. Janisse talks about what people would just write off as “another horror movie”, that she deep dives into, even Paranormal Activity. I would never have had such deep thoughts about certain films, until I read her book. We also created a list of all kinds of thrillers to look at, from all throughout film history, leading up to modern thrillers like Black Swan and Neon Demon. I really was trying to be more inspired by thrillers, because while we have the horror level, in terms of the kills, I wanted it to have a balance and flow to it, as the two genres definitely go hand-in-hand.

What’s interesting in you mentioning Fincher, is how readily you can see that influence, even though I didn’t realize it at first. It’s in the meticulousness of the camera work and how things are all set in the way the lights play off various elements. Then there’s echoes of De Palma, also in some of the camera work and editing or Argento in the colors. But it still feels like these things are naturally weaving through your brain organically and not saying “Ha. I’ve seen these things;” Your voice is still strong, while also being able to see the influences.

JG: It’s important to me that we don’t feel merely like a fan making a movie, because there’s times you’ll see a nod in movies that’s just “Okay, we did that because we’re giving a nod to whatever other movie here” and it takes you out of the movie. In fact I was going to do that initially. I had a line that I took out, where I was going to have someone say a line from The Shining, like just a small thing, but I realized that takes people out of those kind of moments. It makes you think of something else and then you’re not in the movie anymore. But… I do have a little moment where over the intercom in the hardware store someone says “Tobe to the front counter” and that’s my tiny little not to Tobe Hooper. Nothing else though.

It’s been 4 years, since you first did the original short film of The Stylist, back in 2016. Has your lead character, Claire, kind of been growing over time, in your head? Have you been slowly developing and refining who she is as a character?

JG: We [Jill and co-writer Eric Havens], in hindsight, having all this time between the two just helped the story altogether. I had Najarra with me through the whole process, reading drafts and giving her feedback on stuff.

One major thing about the short that we change for the feature, was that Claire originally had some scarring on the back of her neck. Something that we showed, but don’t really explain. I realized a lot of people really focused on that and were trying to connecting that to her issues and why she wants to escape. I didn’t want her actual physical appearance to be so focused on, even though obviously that’s a theme in the movie, with the beauty industry, but really in how most of that’s not actually how we look like our issues, internally. We don’t actually see ourselves how we are and so I didn’t want some kind of scarring or deformity to take away from this. Instead I wanted it to be about how we perceive ourselves and how warped that view can be.

Again in making that jump from the short to a feature and having that extra time to work with, there’s lots of filmmakers who spend a lot of time on where these people came from, filling in their backstories. In The Stylist you you don’t really go into that because you’re focused on where where Claire is currently, but you still are able to get a sense of her mindset. Was that something that was really important to you?

JG: It was. That was actually a huge challenge because I always wanted to tell the end of her story, like the end of her serial killer career, her downward spiral. There were a lot of the films that I could compare this to and I would look for inspiration in Maniac or May. Two of the bigger films that are also told from the killer’s or the “bad person’s” perspective, versus the victims. And so you get to know them. Both of those other films do flashbacks, to show you more about where their leads came from. So, I was convinced for a while, that was maybe the only way to for it to feel full enough. We had added this throughline in the film, that had included multiple flashbacks. And people started to read that and comment on how that part of the storyline felt disjointed from everything and I was like, “that’s fair,” because it’s something I was trying not to do, honestly.

Then we just kept developing it and brought on another writer, Eric Stoltze (Late Phases), who I met through the project I also met Brea on. He came through and did a major revision to the script, that is hugely significant, saying “what if we took this storyline out?” It was like 30 minutes, you know, of an almost hour-long movie, maybe at mos, and we needed some major help. He made this movie way more of a horror movie, when he went through it. I was only going to have like one or two kills. So it was kind of a struggle to decide how much you should have when it came to the actual core aspect of the film. Well, I didn’t want it to be. I had concerns, because I don’t want people to be set up for something like Friday the 13th, and then they see this and they think “well, that’s not a slasher movie.” I didn’t want it to be kill, kill, kill, with a huge body count. To me that takes it to a different tone, a different kind of movie. How believable is that? How long can she get away with that? This is just not the kind of movie.

We don’t want to think about real serial killers that much, but real serial killers don’t kill that close together, as in people like going on a spree. That’s a totally different psychological thing. They use the serial the phrase when someone who kills for like over 10 years. The way Claire does it, to be more realistic, is maybe once a year or every two a year at most. Here we’re capturing her spiral. So some more mistakes and slips are bound to happen.

Basically, this is merely the beginning of the journey for The Stylist. It’s kind of a weird year with everything relating Covid and the way that people are able to engage with film festivals. Though it has had its premiere at Fantastic Fest, I know that there are several other places that our people will be able to see it. So if you can let people in on how they might be able to catch the film, whether it be in America or other countries, going forward?

JG: Yeah, we are. We’re about to make our International Premiere at Stiges. They’re lucky enough to be able to have it both in person and virtual. Then we’ll make our UK Premiere at Fright Fest. We’ll play Celluloid Screams in Sheffield England, as well next month, and we’ve got drive in screenings too. In October I’ll be at the Knoxville horror film festival for October 23rd. October 29th it’ll will be in Chicago for Music Box’s 31 Nights of Terror event. The Music Box normally does a 24-hour marathon, in the theater. They can’t do that now, so they’ve expanded to 31 nights of movies and that’s awesome.

Then of course crossing fingers about distribution at some point, right?

JG: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

To wind things down on a lighter tone, I wanted to go back something that’s been brought up a couple different times – Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you were to rank the films in the franchise, what would your order be?

JG: First, I need to put a disclaimer on the answer, that I can’t be held accountable for the coming disaster, because I could watch the movies again and change my mind. But, um…The original is obviously number one. Honestly, I’m torn. I’ve only watched Leatherface: TCM 3 maybe once in my life. I feel like I would like that one a lot more, if I watched it more often. I don’t know if just go “one, two, three,” for my top three. I do really like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. The prequel to The remake, ugh so fucking confusing with all these. I just loved how gory that movie [The Beginning] was. Cringy gory shit. So brutal! That was like early 2000s, when they were really releasing so much gore in the regular theaters. We don’t get that anymore.

Funny story about that, that I have to tell. I took a date to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. I learn on the way there that he doesn’t like horror movies. I had already seen it. Already knew how I gory it was. He tells me “I don’t hate them. It’s just not really my thing” and I’m like, “okay, this is a super gnarly one, at times. I’m very concerned for you.” He powered through and he’s still alive today.

I now have to go on one rant about my least favorite. Leatherface, the second prequel, to confuse you further. That’s just not Leatherface. His story is so insanely offensive to me, that they would like basically throw a Michael Myers type story in and put him in a mental hospital. In my heart, that’s not him. Leatherface always lived in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with his family. He was never gone from that. Give me a break with that bullshit.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Who would you say is your favorite Leatherface was?

Gunnar Hansen. I love how in the original, he’s portrayed like he’s cowering and he’s frantic. He’s just like doing what she thinks he’s supposed to do. He’s not, to me, driven by violence and blood like in the remakes, where he’s huge and stomping around like Jason. To me, he was never that way. I loved how he cowered was so panicky. That to me made him weirdly sympathetic and you got to see when he’s sitting in the chair and patting his head, as he’s freaking out about how these teenagers keep showing up at his house. He’s ready to yell “leave me alone!” Someone pointed out to me, I had never thought about it before, but Chainsaw is essentially a home invasion film from his perspective. They just keep coming to the house. Leatherface only chases Sally at the end who escapes, so it’s not like he really chases then. It’s not like he’s looking for any other victims. They all come to him and he’s just like “please get out of my house. I have to kill you now.” So, he’s a sweet guy.

Yeah, that Leatherface is so well known for being “a sweet guy”. 

Finally, since you’ve now made a feature film, after making several shorts, is short filmmaking still something that you’re interested in? Is that something that you feel a desire to go back to or is it one of those where now that you’ve made the feature, that’s where your focus solely is, for the future? 

JG: I definitely want to do features more just because it’s exciting to finally have that space and length to tell a story like that, but I think a lot of stories are made for a short format. It’s not always that this is a stepping stool, in order to make a full feature. It’s its own art form and has its own place, to me. I definitely don’t like the idea of becoming above it suddenly, just because I made a feature, you know. David Fincher was making music videos in the 90s still, after he made Seven, as well as other filmmakers. I think it’s just depending on what the story is and what it calls for, in terms of being told as a short or feature. I would still love to do shorts. I’ve also always loved anthologies, so I’d love to be part of one of those someday, too.  

Thank you so much for your time, Jill.

JG: Thanks for having me.

Keep Exploring
The Team Behind ‘Bone Tomahawk’ Reunites for ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’