Repo man: Darren Bousman talks about his ‘genetic opera’
Published Thursday, 11-Dec-2008 in issue 1094
Between breaks on the Repo! The Genetic Opera road tour, director Darren Bousman took a breather to chat about the film phenomenon.
Some question why Bousman, who helmed Saw II-IV, is using a viral marketing campaign (i.e. a road tour, an explosive Web presence, and word-of-mouth recommendations) to market his newest film.
Simple. He doesn’t have a choice.
The Lionsgate vehicle – which with little advertising and no studio support has built a cult-like following in less than a year – isn’t seen as “mainstream,” Bousman said, and was slated for straight-to-DVD release before Bousman and the film’s co-creators took it on the road.
“We fought to get this into a few theaters and then a few more theaters and a few more theaters,” Bousman said. “This is an unconventional film. I don’t even like to call this a film – it’s an event. It is not like any movie you’ve ever seen.”
The film, adapted from a 10-minute opera written by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (who plays Graverobber in the screen adaptation) performed onstage and in open mic sessions, is a wildly original story of a worldwide epidemic that leads to human organ failure and the rise of GeneCo, a company that harvests and finances human organs. Those who default on their payments, however, face a visit from the repo men.
Before bringing the film to San Diego this weekend, and in the midst of planning Repo!’s third road tour, Bousman chatted with the Gay & Lesbian Times about the film’s fan base, why it’s an opera not a musical, and the celebutante (and one of the film’s stars) everyone loves to hate, Paris Hilton.
Gay & Lesbian Times: From its trailers and plot synopsis, it seems the film is wildly original. Give readers a bit of background on Repo! The Genetic Opera.
Darren Bousman: First let me tell you why I made the movie. That may explain a little more about the film. I was sick of being involved in projects lacking in originality. That’s not to say anything of the Saw movies – I owe my career to them. But they were sequels, sequels, sequels. I needed something completely original. The movies that inspired me growing up were Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy; movies that were crazy, out there, insane, not definable. Repo! is not like Rent or Dreamgirls – that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted something completely unique.
The stage play, Repo! The Genetic Opera, I fought to have made into a movie because it’s completely original. The story is set in the future during an organ epidemic and peoples’ organs begin failing. A company named GeneCo begins manufacturing organs – essentially offering salvation at a price. The catch is, you default on your loan – which is like a standard auto loan – and GeneCo owns your organs. They can repossess them. So, if you get a new heart and you miss a payment, they come back to collect.
One of the biggest things people don’t grasp about the film: it’s been bashed by mainstream critics for a reason. They’ve compared it to musicals, this musical or that musical. It’s not Repo! The Musical. It’s Repo! The Genetic Opera, and it follows a traditional opera formula – everything is bigger than life. There is no talking. It’s all singing, and it follows operatic themes. If you come in wanting to compare it to Moulin Rouge or Rent, you’re going to be extremely disappointed.
GLT: Why an opera?
DB: Everyone is doing musicals. It’s not interesting or entertaining to me. You can go to Blockbuster and there will be an aisle of musicals. Musicals are made all the time. I didn’t want to do that. How many operas, 21st-century operas, do you know have been made? Even critics who claim to know opera have no idea what they’re talking about. They say Repo! is just like Rocky Horror Picture Show – well that isn’t an opera. It’s a movie musical. Operas have themes – tragedy, bloodlust, betrayal, backstabbing; that’s what we like, that’s what inspires us. That’s why this is an opera, not a musical.
The other thing, I do love musicals, but all suspension of disbelief goes away the minute they stop talking and break out in song. I just laugh. That’s why we wanted this sung all the way through.
GLT: There is one question we’re sure a number of people will ask themselves before they see this film. Paris Hilton in an acting role – why?
DB: Why not Paris? Here’s the thing: I learned being on the road it’s cool to hate Paris Hilton. It’s vogue to hate her. Log on to Perez Hilton or TMZ or DListed – there is a preconceived notion about who she is. A lot of people make fun of who she is, but they don’t know who she is. She’s a punch line to a joke. I met her, talked with her five minutes and realized she is not who people think she is; she’s actually really talented. I said to her, “Paris, you’ve impressed me more in the last two minutes than I ever thought humanly possible.” She said, “If playing the blond ditz gets me into rooms with people like you, I’ll keep playing the blond ditz.” She was using three-syllable words – words I didn’t even know – she knew the script inside and out, she was smart and articulate, and that’s why I cast her. I challenge you to tell me she is bad in this film. Critics who say she’s bad in it went in wanting to hate her. The perfect example: Rolling Stone, known as the go-to for music news, reviews Repo!. The movie has more music in it that any movie ever made, more songs originally written for the movie than any movie ever made – and they don’t once talk about [film star] Sarah Brightman or the music. The entire review revolves around Paris. They even call her a slut in the review. I’m like, “Dude, were you even watching the movie, or was this just a chance to attack Paris?”
She has been a blessing and a curse for this movie, but if I had to do it again, I’d cast her again. I’d put her in the movie in a second. She gets unfairly bashed for who she is.
The other reason I wanted her: We wanted the movie to have the “what the fuck?” factor. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is drama and horror, but there are moments of camp too. We wanted that “what the fuck?” factor, where you look at the movie poster and you say, “A rock opera starring Paris Hilton? What the fuck?”
GLT: You’ve had to do all of your own marketing for the film, which must be difficult. Screening the film in a number of cities, however, must give you an opportunity to really connect with fans. What’s that like?
DB: Here’s the deal. Lionsgate is not the enemy here – I just don’t think they get it yet. The entertainment business is a business. I’m on the movie-making side, they’re on the business side – it’s extremely risky to make a movie like this, a rock opera with Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton. I don’t know how much more fucked up than that it can get. It’s not easily marketed to mainstream audience. That’s hard for them [Lionsgate] to grasp. The thing about Repo! is, unless you knew it was coming to San Diego, you wouldn’t know – we don’t have trailers in movies, or movie ads. It’s all done by word of mouth. So, there’s a good possibility if you go Friday or Saturday, no one will know it’s going to be there. The perfect example: We wanted to screen the film at the Chicago Music Box Theatre, which is one of the bigger theaters, and we finally booked it. We screened the movie one night and it was sold out. The Music Box wanted to continue playing it every night that week, and every night it was near sold out. Still, I got e-mails and MySpace messages from fans saying, “When are you coming to Chicago?” People who didn’t know it was there, didn’t realize it was in Chicago. I just hope people realize it’s coming to San Diego.
It’s been amazing though – it puts things in perspective for me. Terrance and Darren and I don’t hide out when we take this on the road. We stand in line and talk to fans, take pictures, and after the movie we do a Q&A and answer every question, shake every hand, sign every poster, even if we’re there four hours after the screening. When I was told there wasn’t an audience for this movie, I knew there was. It’s the disenfranchised, the freaks and geeks; they do exist. It’s like vindication when I talk and hang out with the fans. People don’t realize the amazing audience this movie draws in. It’s got an amazingly loyal fan base.
GLT: You’ve managed to build an enormous cult following – and the film isn’t in wide release or on DVD. From what I understand, fans dress as their favorite characters, and line up hours in advance for these screenings. How has that happened?
DB: Most of them have seen the film. It’s been shown for almost nine months now at film festivals and one-night engagements. We were in Houston two nights ago and almost more than half the audience had seen it prior – which is why they came all dressed up. The Web site has hours of footage too; there’s music on there, and our fans are watching, researching, listening to the soundtrack. The music has been out for months and months and months.
It upsets me when people say we’re trying to make this a cult film. We are a cult film. That sounds like an arrogant thing to say, but we’ve been on the road tour, and there is a cult following. The definition of a cult is a group that takes up a cause, that believes in something so much they’re willing to follow it; we’ve proven we have that group of fans. We have people from out of the country who fly in to see the movie in a theater in America. Hundreds and hundreds of people come dressed up. You can’t fake that. People think we’re a big budget movie with a big studio behind and we aspire to be a cult film, but we’re three guys pushing a massive rock up a hill.
People say we’re aspiring to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show – and I’m a huge fan of Rocky Horror, but we’re not Rocky Horror. It’s a completely different movie. One of the things that we have that links us is the same type of community – we have an online community on our Web site with 6,000 members who connect 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re chatting, talking, meeting, dating, planning road trips together to see the movie – these are strangers meeting to drive together in vans to see the movie. That didn’t happen with the Saw films or with anything else I’ve done. You can spot a Repo! fan from across the street. I know who they are. In high school, I was a dork, a loser, I didn’t fit into any group. All of a sudden I was introduced to Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I was standing next to fat kids in Spandex body suits, and no one was laughing. They embraced being different. That was a movie for those people, and I think people find the same kind of safety in Repo!.