Darren Lynn Bousman has worked on a variety of different projects. Most people credit him as the director of Saw II, III and IV, but he has also directed rock operas and large theatrical projects. His latest film, St. Agatha, is a story about a pregnant woman who is held against her will in a convent, tortured daily by the nuns who run it. Speaking to Bousman about St. Agatha was a lot of fun, and one of my favorite interviews I’ve done since I started writing for Nightmare on Film Street. He offered a number of behind-the-scene stories, and we even got a chance to geek out over musicals.
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare on Film Street: So now that the St. Agatha is out in the public, how are you feeling about it the film?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I shot St. Agatha in the beginning of 2017, now we’re in the beginning of 2019. So you lose perspective. More so, I’m very involved with the editorial process. We edit at my house and it’s a 24/7 kind of thing. What’s hard is, you watch the movie roughly 5,000 times, and it becomes hard to watch. It’s like looking at old pictures of yourself. That being said, what I’m very excited about is the early reviews on it have been great. I’m a masochist, and this is something I wish I did not do, but I read every review, I read everything on Twitter. I am extremely happy so far with what people are saying about it. That’s all you can hope for.
I love as well that I get to make movies with my friends. That’s my biggest takeaway from this, is that St. Agatha was a movie I made with a bunch of my friends. It was brought to me by a producer I was working with on an immersive theater production called the Tension Experience, which is very much akin to The Game, the Michael Douglas film. It’s a live-action real-world storyline that takes place all around Los Angeles. But you go to bars, you go to nightclubs, you go to alleyways, and you get into weird strange cars. And the story unfolds as you begin to unlock it. I was in the middle of doing this, and the producer snuck a script into my backpack Didn’t tell me he did it, just put it in my backpack and called me and said “did you open your bag yet?” I opened my bag—and I hate reading, literally. I can have a script for a year before I even open it. I lost out on a lot of movies because of this. But I did open it, and it was horrific—I don’t mean horrific as in bad, it was just a very violent film. But it had two things that I really responded to in it. It had this amazing character in Mother Superior, and this other unique character in Mary. I went back to them and said “Let’s bring all of our Tension people and go do this movie.”
The first thing we did was cast Sabrina Kern as Mary. Something exciting about that is this is Sabrina’s first movie, ever, on anything. Also, she’s actually not even American, she’s from Switzerland, so her native tongue is Swiss-German. Her and I have become very close, she’s one of my best friends. So number one, I’m working with one of my best friends. Two, I ended up bring four or five of the Tension cast members—who I’ve become family with—with me. One of the producers from the Tension Experience came, I brought my old cinematographer Joe White, my writing partner Clint Sears came on to do the rewrites. So it was like getting to work with a bunch of friends, and that always makes movies better for me, because, listen, this shit gets hard. I mean, it’s monotonous and complicated and dense and emotions run rampant. So anytime you can work with people you like to work with, it’s always a plus.
NOFS: There’s quite a few torture devices in this movie, and you’re known as the man who directed thee Saw movies as well. What is the trick to portraying torture on the screen?
DLB: For me, it’s changed. What used to be to what is now is totally different. Before, it was gimmicks. It was that “wow-what-the-fuck” factor. Let’s put someone in a huge complicated trap and watch the body be torn apart. Now, it’s a lot more subtle, it’s a lot more small. It’s watching somebody eat something that they just regurgitated on their plate. It’s watching your friends being tormented and tortured.
With St. Agatha, to me—first off, this is a period film set in the ‘50s—so it was like “what tool do we have at our disposal? And how can we exaggerate and pervert what the storyline is?” So in the case of this, it’s set in a convent. We started researching convents and found a lot of the rules and regulations. So, taking vows of silence is something that they ask a lot new people to do upon going into the convent. That just might be a 2-day or a 24-hour vow of silence. Well then, what would be a punishment be for breaking that vow of silence? So then you’d have a scene of cutting the tongue out.
I love small things; to me, small things are more horrific than big things at this point. So I love the sequence where Mary refuses to eat, and they do the baby bird scene, which, to me, is one of my favorite scenes, only because it’s just so small. It’s not hurting her, but it’s cringe-inducing.
It all led up to the final showdown—and if you have not seen the movie, stop reading this, come back. I’m going to spoil something. You have been warned. With that said, I always knew that I wanted to end it with the most ridiculous kill that I’ve done yet, which I think we accomplished with the killing of Paula. Which, I gotta say, was my favorite day on set as a filmmaker, because it’s in the script, but no one really thought that we were going to do it. I remember it was the last day of shooting, and throughout the entire process, all the producers, DP, everyone, was asking “What are we going to do about that scene? How are we really going to kill her?” And I kept pushing it off, even I knew it was ridiculous. So we showed up on the last day, we had something like 40 minutes to get the shot. The sun was setting, people had flights out that night, and we had no time. So we said “fuck it, let’s do it!” And I got to shoot that shot in one take, of the death of Paula with the bodily instrument that was used to kill her.
NOFS: Is it like BDSM? Do the actors need aftercare when you cut?
DLB: It’s the opposite of that. Again, I use the word mundane and monotonous, is the only words I can think of. It’s not what anyone thinks it is. I remember my mom coming to the set of Saw II. And she was so worried and scared—my mom is very squeamish—she said she didn’t want to do this. And then she shows up, and it’s boring. It takes an hour and a half to rig a bloodline. And then it takes 30 minutes to have an actor change out of blood and do whatever, then it takes ten minutes to get final touches of makeup on. And then they’re sweating because the lights are too hot so they have to do something about it. It becomes so monotonous that we have to entertain ourselves.
So Mother Superior in St Agatha—Carolyn [Hennesy] was my favorite—she walked around with an adult coloring book. And every time there was a break, she would sit there and be very detailed in coloring in the most offensive things you’ve ever seen. Like, it would say “Go fuck yourself, you something.” And she’s sitting there, coloring it like she’s Picasso. And everyone hung out all the time, went to bars all the time, went to dinners all the time. There was nothing after the fact that lingered. Maybe Sabrina is a different case, because being in her first movie, we didn’t make it easy on her. Every day, she was being put in coffins and dragged through dirt and covered in blood. But every weekend, we always went to go do mini-golf. It was awesome.
“Every day, [Sabrina Kern] was being put in coffins and dragged through dirt and covered in blood. But every weekend, we always went to go do mini-golf. It was awesome. “
NOFS: Last year, I was asked to put together a list of the best horror musicals, and I included Repo! The Genetic Opera. What are your favorite musicals? It doesn’t necessarily have to be horror.
DLB: Repo! The Genetic Opera! (laughs) No. I have a couple. First off, Jesus Christ Superstar, hands down. I’m actually wearing a Jesus Chris Superstar shirt right now. Why? Because when I saw it as a kid, I didn’t understand why I loved it. But it was something that I would play again and again and again. I would constantly go back to it and play it again. It was the rock n’ roll music set to this very flamboyant, very over-the-top design. You had Jesus rocking out in Jerusalem with women with feather boas on and huge wigs, and there’s grenades and tanks and people selling marijuana.
And I was like “What is this sorcery?” It was crazy to me.
My parents supported my love of the weird, so they would take me to see Jesus Christ Superstar live, and I got to see Ted Neeley as Jesus perform in it. So that was the first one. Because, what do you do when you go out running or go on an elliptical machine? Listen to music. When you’re in a car, you listen to music. What do you do when you get home after a long day? You turn on the TV, you watch something. So when you can combine those two passions, you’re hitting someone on a whole different level, because you’re combining the two things that most people do in their free time.
So I’d say, Jesus Christ Superstar, one. Number two, easily, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was very instrumental in my childhood. It was my introduction into being accepted by a community. I didn’t feel accepted; I was not good at sports, I was really bad at school. But I go to see Rocky Horror Picture Show and I can be the cool kid. I think it was probably the biggest inspiration for making something like Repo! and the Devil’s Carnival films.
NOFS: Judging from Repo! and you casting Ogre of Skinny Puppy, I’m guessing you’re really into industrial metal and goth music?
DLB: Yeah, a lot more now than I was. It’s funny, when Repo! came about, and Ogre came to meet me, I had no idea who he was. So Ogre comes in, and he has this monologue—and no one knew that we cast Paris Hilton—and he delivers this monologue. His back is towards us and he’s looking into a vanity mirror. And he’s doing this entire insane monologue about “will people like me? Am I going to be liked by these people? And will my money buy me happiness?” It was this really weird monologue.
And when he turns around—I shit you not—on the mirror, he had a cut-out of Paris Hilton’s face, as if he was Paris Hilton. I immediately fell in love with the guy. He was like “You know, I’m in a band called Skinny Puppy,” and obviously, I heard of Skinny Puppy but I didn’t know them, and he goes “Here, I brought you a CD.” And from there, I was addicted. He is such a showman—and I may get some hate for saying this—he birthed people like Marilyn Manson. He was the first guy up there doing that insane crazy show that I can remember like that. But he was my gateway into seeing people like the Marilyn Manson’s and all that. And now, he’s just become this sweet dude that I’m lucky to call a friend.
NOFS: That’s amazing. So to bring this back to St. Agatha, are there any parting words you want our readers to know about the movie?
DLB: Listen, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve gotten to work in all different sides of films. This is an independent film, and it needs your love and support. This is not a studio film, it will not be on 3,000 screens, you won’t see a single trailer for it anywhere, you’re not going to find posters or bus stop ads for it. It’s all through word of mouth. So help us spread the word, go check it out, and watch the birth of what I consider to be a new awesome villain in Mother Superior.
St. Agatha is now showing in select theaters and is available On Demand and on Digital HD.