GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH OLIVER MILBURN
In Jill Gervargizian’s THE STYLIST, an adaptation of her 2016 short film, lonely Kansas City hairstylist Claire (Najarra Townsend) has a killer secret. When the right person sits in her chair, she not only kills them, but keeps their hair as a souvenir. But when regular client Olivia (Brea Grant) asks her to style her hair for her wedding, Claire’s meticulous life is replaced with an impulsive obsession that threatens to expose her secrets.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Gervargizian discussed how she loved films that would make her cry as a child, the lessons she took from the short film, and her interest in characters that leave her audience feeling emotionally conflicted.
FRIGHTFEST: 'What we are' versus 'who we feel we are' can often be out of synch. I've spoken with directors who say that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. Do you feel that you can call yourself a filmmaker?
JILL GEVARGIZIAN: I feel that I got great advice from reading Robert Rodriguez's REBEL WITHOUT A CREW. He opens with that cool thing of not being afraid to call yourself a filmmaker if you're going to make a film. So I don't know that I ever felt like a fraud calling myself that, but I did have that syndrome actually making films. I was surrounded by talented and experienced people all of the time, and sometimes I’d wonder if I had that imposter syndrome - do I measure up to everyone I'm around? I still say I'm learning as I go, and I will joke that I don't know what that means until we do it for the first time. I didn't go to film school and so all of this I've learned through trying to do it.
FF: When you were making the short film, did you have clear ideas of how you wanted to expand the story should the opportunity arise? How do you look at the relationship between the short and the feature film?
JG: I wish I’d maybe written it backwards, but in hindsight I'm so happy with how it turned out that I don't wish for anything different. We wrote this short film first just because I said this is how we're going to start. So with the feature, we ended up catering to what I’d learned from making the short about the character, and there were certain things that we changed as I realised what I wanted to focus on more.
The short is a mini version of this downward spiral, and I knew I wanted that same idea in the feature, but it would just be a much bigger version of that. I didn't know what it was other than it was going to essentially be her downfall.
It was interesting that a lot of it was that the short told me how people reacted, and I realised that they were too focused on her actual physical appearance. I wanted it to be about what's going on inside her head, and so we focused more on that in the feature.
FF: When you want people to feel the emotions of the character and understand it's what is going on inside their head, how do you use the camera to achieve that?
JG: … I was always preaching to everyone that this is Claire's story and we need to always remember that she’s the focus. So approaching how we would shoot it, we created rules and had a language for the camera. It always hinges on Claire and how she feels, and we're not POV, but in every scene it should reflect her feelings, even to the point where it's distorting what's really happening because it’s how she feels about what's happening.
We also took that idea into the music, and it was so cool to make a feature with my composer Nick Elert. We’ve done shorts together, but to go through this much emotion with him instead of just a ten minute film was a uniquely challenging experience.
Nick and I will talk through the film about how it feels. We’re not talking about any literal music or sounds, I'm just going through the whole movie talking about emotions, and then he somehow processes that and creates something. I don’t understand that part at all, but one of the things we realised was we had these stalking scenes, and normally you'd be on the victims side musically. It would be scary like you're being stalked, but I felt it needed to be the opposite, like you’re a hunter. So it should still be dark, but it's from a different perspective.
As with everything, it was a challenge because we knew that's how we wanted it to feel, but what does that literally mean when applying it? All of these little details come together and you can't really point them out, but I hope that's why it works.
FF: One of the intriguing aspects to cinema is how a story draws out our emotions and uses them to create the experience. Claire suffers rejection, something we can all empathise with. But film can be devilishly playful, encouraging us to dismiss our moral compass and sympathise with the antagonist rather than their victims.
JG: I think that's what made me fall in love with movies even when I was very young. I liked them in general, but I really fell for them when I realised they could effect me so powerfully in a very emotional way.
As a little kid I fell in love with movies that had sad moments. I loved a movie that would make me cry, and that sounds so sad for a little kid, but I think I was just so fascinated that this thing that was created could effect me so deeply. So I discovered sad movies first, and with scary movies there are a lot of connections. I love tragic monster stories, and a lot of the classic ones are more tragedies than they are anything else. I love those stories that make you think, and characters that can make you feel conflicted about how you feel about them, because I'm interested in that in real life.
It's easy to make a film about a slasher killer because he's just a monster – they’re one dimensional and you don't know anything about them. These films are fun and we grew up on a lot of those, but I'm interested in people that are complicated. It's not to excuse anything bad that people do, but it's not as simple as they're bad. It's a lot bigger than that, and we as a society keep ignoring the root for all these problems, and so the bad things keep on happening.
On a deeper level, there's a lot of that going into this movie, and not that it’s on this level, but SLING BLADE is one of my favourite films. He's such an incredible character that you love the whole time. You can't blame him for what he did, but then he goes on to do something horrible. I love stories like that where it's not black and white, good or bad.
FF: Interviewing Larry Fessenden, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree with this sentiment, or is a less harsh phrasing that it’s about being able to let go of the film?
JG: We bring up that process when it comes to editing because a lot of people say you just walk away at some point. It's like writing - you can rewrite it forever and what it is, is it’s making a decision, believing in it and moving on. I’ve never felt it's an abandoning thing, that feels way too harsh. Especially when you’re editing a film, you can discuss every little decision and keep on changing it forever. A huge thing with filmmaking in general is you have to be able to make decisions, believe in them and move forward.
THE STYLIST is streaming on ARROW from March 1st.