Darren Lynn Bousman is a man possessed. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is putting the final touches on his latest film, the man behind the Saw franchise’s successful sequels wants to get a message out. “Everyone talks about being sick of what’s out there - sick of the sequels. Sick of the PG-13 Japanese horror remakes,” he says. “They want originality. They want something different.” Enter his newest project - Repo: The Genetic Opera. A futuristic tale centering on designer organ transplants, post-apocalyptic corruption, and live on stage vivisection, the director is excited, and wary of his revamped rock show. “It’s been a hard thing - It’s been the biggest struggle of my life getting this movie made,” Bousman adds. From talking to the talented 29-year-old, it has also been his lifelong dream.
As a kid in Kansas, making horror movies was never his ambition. “Growing up, I came from a theater background”, he offers. “It was a classic story - I was a dork in high school, I really didn’t fit in anywhere.” As with most creative types, the stage set him free. “I got involved in theater,” he admits, “and everything changed.” After taking part in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Bousman’s was bitten - and his new goal was clear. “It was the first kind of experience into something creative - it was amazing and it changed my life…because I became addicted to the music.” Indeed, the notion that emotions and psychological underpinning could be expressed via song struck him as a vital and important epiphany.
“I think the thing about musicals is…if you look at music and what it does to you…or what it does to a society…it is the thing that it is crucial to our life.” He goes on to clarify, “Whether we’re working out and listening to our IPod, whether we’re in a car listening to music, or we go to parties and music is the backdrop, music is an extremely important component.” The link to motion pictures soon became clear when he watched the film version of Superstar in preparation for the play. “Movies are also important like that. I mean, what do we do on the weekends? We go see the new movies that opened on Friday night. When we go on dates, we watch movies.”
“I got into the entertainment business to direct a musical”, he admits. “I didn’t come out here to do Saw. I didn’t come out here to do horror films.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, a script he was attached to entitled The Desperate got noticed by the studios as being very similar to the surprise Sundance hit, and soon he was collaborating with co-creator Leigh Whannel on the second installment of the influential terror title. Yet even after two more movies, the concept of directing a musical continued to intrigue him. “Music has always been a driving force in my life” the director confesses, “When a musical is done correctly, when you combine movie’s visuals with the music, it triggers emotions that are not normally felt. Music has the power to make people cry, to get excited.”
Oddly enough, when it came time to adapt Repo: The Genetic Opera into a feature film (it was originally a stage play, and then a 10 minute short film that functioned as kind of a resume reel), his previous success had no influence on studio interest. “I knew we had a great script”, Bousman points out, “and I knew music was going to elevate it to a whole other level and it was my chance to pay homage to the movies that I loved - Superstar, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Forbidden Zone.” Sadly, few would listen. “My present reputation didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.” It sounds almost surreal when you consider the success of his three Saw installment. “Me making this movie was like coming in as a first time filmmaker,” he laments. “Even today, it’s a constant battle to get this movie out there.”
In fact, with its unique premise and wall-to-wall singing (“That’s what it is - songs from beginning, middle to end” he explains), Bousman clearly anticipated some difficulty. “It’s not Saw. It’s not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s kind of a hybrid of all of my favorite moments from movies, or all my favorite types of movies.” Yet not even festival previews have earned the film a potential release date. “We did an early, early screening of it from a workprint cut about two months ago”, he states. “Every review has been glowing, and I’m so lucky and so excited that we’re able to do that, yet even the good reviews aren’t helping my cause right now.”
Some of this can be chalked up to the narrative. Repo centers on a dystopic society where a disease has caused a global plague of organ failures. Enter Geneco, a biotech company that takes advantage of the awful situation to provide transplants - at a price. Of course, those who fail to pay end up as part of the Genetic Opera, a stage show where the final act is the repossession of the unpaid entrails. Yet Bousman understands the inherent “weirdness” of the project, and believes that, if marketed correctly, it could find its audience. He recognizes the problems, though. “The way I like to describe Repo,” he says, “Someone tells you ‘let’s go to a steak restaurant’, and then they take you in and give you sushi. People are immediately going to be upset. They’re going to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t steak’ and they’re going to hate it.”
As part of his eclectic group, Bousman hired Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Bill Mosley, Anthony Head, and Alexa Vega. While the names may seem random, there was a strict method to the filmmaker’s madness. “The movie is crazy,” he explains, “and I wanted to make sure the casting was crazy as well.” He also took the inherent fanbase from each actor into consideration, from the classical diva-dom of Brightman to the outright media whoring of Hilton. He recognized that horror geeks would flock to see Mosley, while Sorvino offered the mainstream crime drama crowd. There was also the Spy Kids contingent - via Vega and Head’s undeniable Buffy link. The results speak for themselves, as Bousman states. “The casting in my mind could not be any more perfect. Each one of them is amazing in their roles.”
And this was important to Repo‘s success. “This movie had to have real cred. It was a major battle that we fought, credibility.” In fact, the director understood both the upside, and the downside, of going with such an idiosyncratic company. “If Bon Jovi had been brought in, first off, his audience is a very specific audience. And they are not going to respond to this type of movie.” By offering up a wide-ranging selection of known names, Bousman believes he’s kept potential audiences clued in. “(Repo) is such a spectacle. The movie is so out there. I wanted to make it a spectacle to watch as well.”
The unusual look of the film also played directly into this ideal. “It’s a cross between ‘50s propaganda art and a really twisted, macabre fairy tale,” he admits, “I love it. It’s dark and depressing.” But in keeping in line with the disinformation approach, Bousman made sure to tap into the form’s underlying ridiculousness. “There’s something so macabre about propaganda’s message,” he notes. “What it’s promoting is horrific, and yet you have a smiling person with a thumbs up on it.” Luckily, he found an old collaborator who agreed with this approach implicitly. “I wanted it to have a specific look. The DP (Director of Photography) - Joseph White - was amazing. He was the DP on one of my first short films and I was glad he could come back and do this.”
All of which feeds directly into Repo‘s into what Bousman views as the film’s undeniable relevance. “It’s very timely right now,” he points out. “I live in Los Angeles and when you walk down the street, no one looks like people anymore. They all look manufactured.” By applying the designer label pop culture crassness to people’s insides, as well as their outsides, the director feels his film offers a clear cautionary warning. “The whole thing is - people want perfection in the way they look. I do too,” he admits. “They are taking it to extremes now. No one wants to put in the work. And so Repo asks us to look at what we are doing to our bodies, manufacturing ourselves to meet some ridiculous standard.”
He points to a perfect illustration of this idea within the film itself. “Paris Hilton’s character is great. Her name is Amber Sweet and Amber is constantly undergoing some major plastic surgery procedure,” Bousman chuckles. “Every time we see her in the movie, she changes her appearance.” Again, the filmmaker is firm in his philosophy. “It’s about the absurdity of it all, and then what happens when we take it to the next level - manufacturing ourselves from the inside out,” he argues. “What happens if and when we can replace our heart, our lungs, our kidneys, our spines. What if we can replace our eyes. That’s what it is. It’s happening right now. Every time you go outside and walk down Rodeo Drive, people are looking more and more absurd.”
But there’s a catch. “You cannot compare it, it is physically impossible,” Bousman argues. “Again, this isn’t Saw. I dare you to compare it to another movie.” He also knows that “unique is not necessary marketable.“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done three sequels back to back to back.” He goes on to add: “And my next movie after this is a remake. This is my rebellion, my chance to do something completely different. If you give the audience something different, they will find it and they will embrace it. They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They don’t want to be shoveled the same cookie cutter machine made movies.”
And thus, the current call out and passionate product pitches. Bousman, however, definitely realizes what he’s up against. “Repo‘s a hard pill to swallow. It takes a good fifteen minutes for you to understand. There is no talking. There is no spoken dialogue in this movie,” he explains. But he hopes that, by getting the word out, he can convince those in charge to give the film a chance. “My goal right now is to inform people of what the movie is, because you need to know what it is prior to going in and seeing it,” he points out. “The reason we did it was to start informing people about what the movie is they are going to see. You can’t go into this movie blind. It will fail.”