The making of KC horror film The Stylist with director Jill Gevargizian
After a series of excellent short films, director Jill Gevargizian–aka Jill Sixx–has transformed her highly-acclaimed 2016 short, The Stylist, into her feature debut. Starring Najarra Townsend as lonely hairstylist Claire and Brea Grant as Olivia, the object of Claire’s obsession, the film sees a need for connection and friendship turn deadly. It’s a tour-de-force, taking everything that was wonderful about earlier Gevargizian shorts like the original Stylist or 42 Counts–superb use of color, believable protagonists, strong women leads–and expanding upon them with new, unexpectedly wonderful details.
Shortly after the film made its debut as part of Fantastic Fest, I hopped on the phone to speak with Gevargizian about the process of bringing The Stylist to life.
The Pitch: The film had its premiere virtually. Is it a little weird?
Jill Gevargizian: I’ve actually been saying to a lot of the team this weekend that there’s this weird, extra surreal quality not being in person for the world premiere, because even though I see the reactions and they’re incredibly exciting and awesome, it doesn’t feel real still.
When 42 Counts was being released one of the things we talked about was the fact that you were really excited about the possibilities of making like a feature film in Kansas City and it seems like The Stylist does a really good job of not only showing off Kansas City as a city but also the people within it. You used local actors like Laura Kirk, for example. Was that one of the things you were going for when you made the film?
Yes. Honestly, any project I’m a part of, I’m trying to convince people to shoot it here. The Stylist, I was for sure, no question, not gonna go anywhere else with that. I’m attached to a couple of other features that I’m not in charge of, but even to those people, I’m like, “Everyone come here. Trust me and we can do awesome things here in Kansas City,” but with The Stylist, we really wanted to show off the city as much as we could, as it made sense with the locations in the movie.
We do have quite a few scenes where we needed a lot of background talent. Beyond our featured actors in there that have roles and lines, we have probably 100-plus people from Kansas City that came out and were extras in multiple shoots. If you really watch, you could notice more people in multiple scenes. This movie’s Kansas City pride, through and through.
The reviews and reactions after the Fantastic Fest premiere seemed to have many people referencing the fact that it reminded them a lot of Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 remake of Maniac, in terms of a sympathetic portrayal of your protagonist. What films were you looking to for inspiration for the look and tone of The Stylist?
Well, first I have to argue that the original Maniac–[William] Lustig’s Maniac–is just as sympathetic as the remake. Maybe because Elijah Wood is more of a bad boy type character, where he’s cute and so he’s immediately looked at that way, but the original guy is portrayed the same way. You see him crying in bed with his mannequins. That’s half the movie.
I didn’t grow up seeing Maniac. I didn’t see that until I was an adult, so that wasn’t ingrained in my head like other horror films, but this started as a female Leatherface idea for me. Visually and the tone of the film: we looked towards a lot of psychological thrillers from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, like de Palma or Robert Altman’s Three Women–a lot of these psychological thrillers specifically about women obsessed with other women, wanting to become other people–and then, a lot of the ’90s erotic thrillers.
We don’t have that erotic thing going, but I’m sure you can see the similarities to stuff like Single White Female. I was trying to make more of a thriller, but then take the kills to a super-gory horror level. We got deep into creating a language for the camera and all that was inspired by older films. We brought in split-screen and zooms, but I’m also inspired by a lot. We had this watch list for everyone. It had the older thrillers, but we also had stuff like Black Swan, Neon Demon: all these movies about women who lose their mind, with similar themes.
I feel like you can see a lot of all that kind of stuff because we use a lot of brighter colors. We created a mirror opposite vibe with our two main characters, Claire and Olivia, her object of obsession. I really wanted to feel like Claire’s almost from another time, transported into present day. Everything else around her looks normal, but she looks like she’s maybe from the ’60s or ’70s. Who knows where she’s from? We spent crazy time planning all of that kind of stuff out. Luckily, we’ve had four years to think about it since we made the short film.
The colors are really vibrant and what I found really surprising was how warm the film looked. In addition to a lot of the reds and yellows and oranges of the color palette, there’s a lot of very sunny scenes. I like the fact that, because of the time of year in which it takes place and was shot, there’s this sharpness to the daylight that really provides a very nice contrast to the warmth.
A lot of this I didn’t perceive ’til later–after we shot, honestly–but with our production designer and wardrobe and also the cinematographer, we created this thing where I feel like, it’s common that you would design or style a character a killer not to be warm, but [Claire]’s always in this warm ’70s-type color palette: all these yellows and oranges. But, we’ve made the real-world cool, so that she really stood out. Her home is warm, but everywhere else is cool and so, she’s still always wearing all these warm colors–standing out when she walks down the street.
We wanted to do that because I always wanted people to be with Claire. Even though she is disturbing, we’re trying to bring in our audience to her life and her perspective so that, as the viewer, your view gets almost as warped as hers. You start to think people are mean, when really they’re just–like Olivia–laying out boundaries, but to Claire, it’s like the end of the world.
I think people who are familiar with the short film will recognize, when they see the feature version of The Stylist, that the film’s opening scene is essentially drawn directly from that original short. Was that an intentional thing, so that folks who hadn’t seen the short get to see part of it, but also those who had seen it, then get to see it expand afterwards into this grander world?
My idea with that I always wanted to, right away, show the audience her normal routine. It’s not a surprise to find out that she kills people, you know? I want you to go in knowing that’s what she does, so we show you her normal routine.
With the opening, we even shot it almost exactly the same. There’s certain things that are exactly the same as the short, but there is a little bit of a difference for me, narratively. The end of the short, for me, is more comparative to the end of the feature, at least where Claire is emotional. I always imagined, if the short continued, the police were on their way to her house. She was the last person with this woman who was on her way to a party. She wasn’t making smart decisions in the short film. She’s about to get caught.
I was really trying to tell her downward spiral, so it’s a short. With the beginning of the feature, we show this is her normal routine: she escapes through wearing these wigs or these scalps. The scalps like soothe her. In the feature, I wanted to show that it normally soothes her but in the short, it didn’t work anymore, so it’s kind of like her last one.
That was actually a note I got from Timo Tjahjanto, one of my favorite filmmakers. He’s an Indonesian filmmaker–he did Killers and The Night Comes for Us and all kinds of films–but he was like, “In the feature, you should show her whole routine, but have her break down and then put the scalp on and show how that that saves her from her inner turmoil, versus breaking down post wearing.”
I was like, “That’s incredible.” He had that note on the short and with the short, I was trying to say something else, but with the feature, that totally makes sense. I’ve always wanted to tell her downward spiral. I was never trying to go back and be like, “Here’s Claire’s life from five years old.”
How did you come to work with Brea Grant. She is, like yourself, a screenwriter and filmmaker. Was it through that or just the horror community in general?
I met her through a different feature film that we were trying to get financed that I was attached to direct, written by Eric Stolze, who helped write The Stylist. She was attached to star in that other film and we made it a teaser for it and everything, two or three years ago. As I was working on The Stylist over the years, I realized that she really exuded this kind of personality to me in real life. I always pictured her as this character and I never brought it up to her until I decided to be insane and do a Kickstarter for this movie, because I was done trying to get it financed the Hollywood way. I was done with that.
I just asked her if she could do it. At first, she didn’t know if she could, because she’s so busy. Like you said she’s also a writer/director. Right now, she has two other films out: one she wrote and directed, 12-Hour Shift, and one she wrote and stars in called Lucky. She also just directed more of that CW Pandora show. She’s on fire, so for a while, we didn’t know if she’d be able to do it, because she has these bigger jobs that, understandably, were a priority over what we could pay on our budget but, when it came down to it, she could do it and we were so stoked.
Brea has this bright energy around her but she also is the kind of person that you can’t cross, and I love that about her, because I feel like she could be underestimated as someone you could walk over. A lot of people think that about small women–short, like me–and they think that you can, but she’s definitely not, and that’s what I wanted in this character: someone who Claire looks at as perfect,but the person who that is doesn’t at all see themselves that way.
In terms of Brea’s performance: she has this unique ability to deliver a monologue or a speech. The scene where she’s setting the boundaries with Claire really reminded me of that monologue she gives in After Midnight. You just immediately have your sympathies then, all of a sudden switch from the main protagonist of the film to her character, whomever that might be.
She has this ability to just come across as somebody who you see that inner strength come out in. Yeah, she’s incredible. In fact, that monologue in After Midnight–that crazy long shot they do–we do a couple long shots like that. They’re not monologues, but we’ve got two scenes with Brea and Najarra that are probably three minutes or four without cutting. I know there’s some people that are like, “That’s slow and boring,” but I was like, that shows how much of incredible performers they are, because we’re normally watching stuff in 10-second clips when it’s edited together.
That scene you’re talking about, where Brea’s character Olivia kind of lays down these boundaries for Claire? That’s one of my favorite moments because, when I watch it, I see it as such a heartbreaking moment for Claire. It comes across so devastating, but it’s from another perspective. Like I said, Olivia’s just setting boundaries but to Claire it’s like, “I hate you. Please never talk to me again,” and it really feels that way.
That scene on the parking deck, where she lays out those boundaries, is actually the first thing I shot with both Najarra and Brea together, so I was real nervous because I’m like, “This is the climax of their situation. This is a huge turning point to the movie,” but it was like magic the first time we rolled. I knew they were gonna be the perfect opposites.
Given that you filmed this courtesy of a successful Kickstarter campaign, what are the lessons that you learned–both in terms of crowdfunding, as well as making a feature?
The lessons I learned about making a feature could probably fill a book, but crowdfunding? I’ve crowdfunded two of my short films before this and then, been a part of a couple of others, but I did a thousand times the research to prepare for this than I did for anything else, because I was just so scared. Like, how do you ask and how do we raise this much money? I remember raising maybe $10,000 for the short and it was only $6,000 that we were trying to get – and it was very hard, so I was like, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” It was $30-40,000!
I went to crazy lengths. I made spreadsheets with all these other campaigns that were successful, around the same kind of goal we were going for: what were all of their rewards? How did they compare? I went insane preparing for it. I created a PR campaign that lasted the entire Kickstarter, so we had articles and interviews sprinkled for four weeks. It was insane, but we also always knew that the Kickstarter would only be what greenlit the project. We would have to find a significant amount more money.
I think what’s hold held me back from just going for it, because I–as the anxious organizer planner that I am–I like to know I’m going to be able to finish something. Like, “How do you start a movie and you don’t know how you’re going to even pay to do all of it? Where’s it gonna come from?” but I’ve learned from a lot of people I’ve met at festivals–other filmmakers–that that’s almost what everyone does with their first movie: they just start making it and you don’t know how you’re gonna finish it, but you figure it out as you go.
Upcoming dates for The Stylist:
October 8-18: International premiere at Sitges Film Festival in Sitges, Spain.
October 23: Drive-in screening at Knoxville Horror Film Festival in Tennessee.
October 22-25: UK premiere at FrightFest in London.
October 25: Celluloid Screams in Sheffield, UK.
October 29: Drive-in screening at 31 Nights of Terror in Chicago, Illinois.