I am chatting with Bang Bang Baby director Jeffrey St. Jules on the day he’s actually completing his first feature length effort prior to its debut at TIFF this coming Monday. One would think that his film would have been completed by now since he has worked on it for the better part of a decade to try and get it made, but considering how much of a hard sell the movie appears to be on the surface, it’s understandable that things are coming down to the wire.
“Yeah, ten years was how long it really took to pull all of this together,” Jules said over the phone, sounding blissfully exhausted and happy at the same time this past weekend, “but really the financing really only came through for this in October and November and we were shooting in February, so while I spent a long time working on it, the actual filming and production came together very quickly because you don’t know if you’ll get the chance to make a film this ambitious ever again.”
He’s not kidding, a Canadian produced musical period pieces with hallucinatory sci-fi elements, the film goes back to a heavily fictionalized 1963 and the small town of Lonely Arm to tell the story of Stepphy (played by Jane Levy) a young woman with dreams of entering a national talent show and leaving small town life behind. The only things keeping her in town are taking care of her alcoholic stepfather (played by beloved character actor Peter Stormare) and the often uncomfortable advances of Fabian (David Reale), the proprietor of the town’s apparently lucrative purple mist factory. Her life is changed by the arrival of Bobby Shore (Justin Chatwin), a musical superstar passing through town the she idolizes. It’s also changed by the fact that the mist has begun mutating everyone within the town.
One would think that a film this out there and stylistically eclectic would have a wide range of influences, but in reality St. Jules’ inspiration was something far more surprising.
“The most basic inspiration I had was Ann-Margret’s character in Bye Bye Birdie. In that movie she plays this wholesome girl that has this kind of madness inside her, and I wanted to see what could be done if we expanded upon that. Her character in that movie is literally stuck in a musical, and she can’t relate to all of these one-dimensional characters around her and it becomes incredibly frustrating. That was really what I wanted Stepphie’s life to feel like, as well.”
“In the beginning,” he continues with a bit of a laugh, “when I started writing the piece, and remember that it’s ten years ago and I have a hard time remembering most of what I was actually thinking, I barely remembered what 1960s tropes I really wanted to play with, but I always went back to Ann-Margret. I’d say the feeling of the film was just in my bones, and initially there was even crazier stuff in there. I think at a certain point about five years into the process of trying to get it made, that was when I switched from thinking about the film as a writer and started thinking about it as a filmmaker. I think by then we had established what we wanted to do.”
Of course, making this kind of film anywhere, let along in the more cash strapped reaches of Canada, was an uphill battle.
“We kind of had a very difficult task, the story had very different elements to it and we knew we would have to do it on a low budget. It was everything from a psychedelic creature feature to a Douglas Sirk kind of melodrama. It was really a matter of finding the people who could make this happen on a low budget and who loved it and who could get excited about the tone.”
That extends to the casting of rising star Jane Levy, who made a name for herself on young adult themed TV shows Shameless and Suburgatory, and recently appeared in the Evil Dead remake and American indies Nobody Walks and About Alex. There was a confidence in Levy that St. Jules was willing to take a chance on her, and one that pays off wonderfully in the film.
“When you spend ten years developing a film, you make lists of who you might want to get to star in the film, and with a role like this that requires so many things, that list stays very small and gets smaller because as time goes on, people age and they’re no longer appropriate for the role. There was something about Jane that I felt in my gut was right, and when it came time to make the movie, we actually just offered her the part without an audition, which is a huge leap to make. But we couldn’t have been more blown away. Jane intricately understood the tone and how to create a character that feels archetypical, but never one dimensional. We also knew that she could do comedy, drama, and that she could sing, but we never knew she could dance, too. That was a surprise to all of us.”
The only thing more surprising that that for me, however, was watching Peter Stormare sing an acoustic guitar heartfelt ballad to his daughter, which is something I never knew I needed in my life until I saw it happen in his film.
“Not only did we get him to sing, but we got him to play it live, on camera, while he’s playing the guitar. He actually has a band, Blonde from Fargo, and it’s a completely different kind of music, but we knew he was musical and that he would get it. I think he was really nervous about the part where he would have to do it live, though, because his song has to get followed up by a Bobby Shore song that’s pre-recorded and really produced. But he came in and he did it in one take perfectly. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.”