Q&A with Jeffrey St. Jules on BANG BANG BABY

When you live too much in your fantasies, reality begins to look like a nightmare…

That is the premise behind Jeffrey’s St. Jules’ BANG BANG BABY, which made its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Canadian First Feature Film.

The film is a unique, stylized blend of sci-fi and a musical about a girl named Stepphy (Jane Levy – EVIL DEAD, SUBURGATORY), who is trapped in a sleepy 1960′s town taking care of her alcoholic father (Peter Stormare – FARGO, 22 JUMP STREET). Stepphy dreams of escaping to a better life on the stage and screen, and when rock star Bobby Shore’s (Justin Chatwin – SHAMELESS, WAR OF THE WORLDS) car breaks down in Lonely Arms, it seems her impossible dream might actually be coming true. But when Fabian (David Reale), the town creep, tells Stepphy that the local chemical factory is leaking dangerous purple fumes that can cause human mutations, Stepphy becomes obsessed with hiding these dark secrets from Bobby until they can escape together and make all of her fantasies a reality.

In many ways, Bang Bang Baby is Jeffrey St. Jules’ fantasy turned reality.  An alumni of the Canadian Film Centre, St. Jules is also the only Canadian ever to have been selected for the Cannes Festival Residence.  His innovative, bold short films have played festivals across the world, including TIFF, but with this film, he finally brings his vision to a feature length format.

First Weekend Club caught up with Jeffrey St. Jules to discuss what it’s like to write a musical and bring to life a truly unique one-of-a-kind cinematic vision:

FWC: First of all, thank you for making a musical. There are not many of those around in Canadian film history. Why did you decide to approach your film as a musical? 

JEFFREY: There is something inherently absurd about musicals. It is a very strange business breaking out into song and I love the strangeness of this convention. But there is also an opportunity to express emotions overtly in a way that grabs audiences directly. Musicals give you license to be brazenly melodramatic and absurdly humorous at the same time. I love this combination. 

Which musicals inspired you the most?

My favorite is probably Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It is a sad and beautiful expression of the fleeting nature of romance. It is so human and down to earth, but tinged with a sad romantic beauty. It is like life, but elevated to a more beautiful sphere. While it is obviously a very different film than Bang Bang Baby, I did look at it a fair bit in prep for the use of color and costumes. Also, I felt it was very important to bring the audience and Stepphy to a more grounded place by the end of the film. I wanted to capture the feeling that life has went on, not quite as she expected but she is okay with that, which is a much more real place to land than I’m sure people might have expected. I love the way Umbrellas of Cherbourg ends on a similar note of life just moving on not as expected, but real. It is both sad and happy at the same time and I wanted to capture some of that in the final scene of BBB.

You’re credited for much of the lyrics. What was the process like, writing the songs, collaborating with composers?

I wrote lyrics while I wrote the script. To do this, I had to also write rough musical ideas to go with them. I brought this to the composers and they used the musical ideas I wrote as tonal references and rewrote the melodies and chord progressions. In some cases, the chord progressions and melodies I wrote made it through in some form to the final songs.

Bang Bang Baby mixes the very dark, with the musical and campy – there’s also surreal sci-fi – why did you decide to go in that direction? You really seem to be into mixing genres.

It is an expressionistic film about fantasies and nightmares. When we are experiencing Stepphy’s fantasies we are in the poppy musical world. This is a very tenuous world because it relies on willful ignorance of reality. When reality rears its head, it comes to her in the form of nightmares. This is the darkness and the mutations that feel similar to 50s sci-fi. I intended to use genre as a stylistic tool to express the inner states of the character.

Because your vision is so specific — how were you able to communicate it to the rest of the cast and crew? I’m assuming telepathy is out of the question…

Making a film that draws a lot from other films makes this much easier. I used a lot of references from films like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Far From Heaven and the photographs of Gregory Crewdson to get across the tone I was going for. For the cast, I just wanted to make sure that they took these characters and this world seriously and cared about them. Everyone seemed to get what I was going for instinctually though.

How did Jane Levy get involved? Were you familiar with her beforehand?

We sent her the script, through our US casting agent, Heidi Levitt, and she seemed into it. We had a Skype conversation and I think we knew we were both on the same page about the type of film we wanted to make. Her instinct was that the tone was not meant to be ironic, but sincere which is how I approach every film. No matter how weird it is I always want to approach it with sincerity and compassion for the characters.

She seemed to really care about this character from the get-go and I was very happy about that. Honestly, I’m still amazed how perfectly this casting choice worked out. She brought a lot more depth to this archetypal character than there was on the page and it turned out that she could also dance, which we didn’t know when we cast her. I had also only heard her sing a short folky song on her TV show, so we got lucky that she was actually able to pull off these songs so well.

What is it about her that embodied your protagonist?

Jane was my first choice for this role and I had a very small list. I had seen her in her TV show, then did a little research and watched Evil Dead and a few of her other roles. I felt that she had something iconic and timeless about her that would fit into this era and into the world of my film and she is also super charismatic and sweet.

From watching Evil Dead I knew she would not be scared off by becoming mutated. She has a unique ability to radiate strength and vulnerability together and this is what I wanted for Stepphy. Even though for much of the film she is losing her head, she is actually the only one who makes it through all the craziness in one piece. She is actually a very strong character, even though she doesn’t know she is at the beginning.

You’ve made several short films that also played in TIFF, but is there anything about the transition from short to feature that surprised you or caught you off guard?

I wouldn’t say there was anything totally unexpected. I did find it fascinating to see how actors come into their characters even more through the course of shooting in a way that they just don’t have time to do in a short.

Looking at the final vision on the screen — is it like what you imagined in your head? How close it?

If it was exactly what I imagined there would probably be something wrong, like I didn’t allow people enough freedom to give creative input and collaborate and it would probably feel too controlled and static. The tone and themes are what I imagined, but we were tweaking the script right up untill the final week of shooting. Seeing the actors inhabit these characters changed a lot of how I was thinking about the script, so I felt compelled to make changes all the way through.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a mystery film about two teen detectives set in 1959. 

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