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Fantastic Fest ’20 Interview: Jill Gevargizian Talks Gore and Understanding in “THE STYLIST”

Monday, September 28, 2020 | Exclusive

By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS

The strange intimacy of getting your hair cut and styled by a near-stranger has plenty of potential for horror. Vulnerability juxtaposed with so many sharp implements telegraphs every reason for the victim… er client… to question their safety. Established short film and music video director Jill Gevargizian first explored this potential in her 2016 film THE STYLIST, and she is now premiering the feature-length adaptation at this year’s virtual Fantastic Fest, with Najarra Townsend reprising her role as the titular murderous beautician. We sat down with Gevargizian, from afar, to talk about evolving the character for a longer format, how to deal with pesky scalps, and why this killer character is so unsettling.

As a hair stylist yourself, do you want to kill your clients?
No. I do not. This is a common question. That is not the inspiration, I swear. I’m not trying to scare people.

Maybe you are trying to scare people a little bit?
Well, I’m not trying to scare my clients away.

Do your clients know that you’ve made a film about a killer stylist?
I do tell them. Sometimes I’ll tell them in an awkward way. [laughs] It hasn’t actually scared anyone away that I’ve worked with. But now I’m wondering who I have not seen since I told them this.

If that isn’t the idea behind THE STYLIST, where did the original idea come from?
It did come from being a hairstylist, but just not from a place of revenge. I was just wondering why the basic premise of a hairstylist who kills people hadn’t been done, especially back in the Dr. Giggles era. Something really over the top. There are so many profession-based horror movies like that.

Like Ice Cream Man, The Dentist
Yeah, all those slashers. I still feel a movie like that could exist, because we didn’t go that route. I am more into the sympathetic, layered killers that like to wear people’s skin. All those kinds of killers are very similar. We also learn more about them. Slashers are told from the victim’s perspective, more commonly, and we know nothing about the killers.

And I was thinking in the indie, no money mindset. What do I know, have unique knowledge of, and have access to? Which is the Robert Rodriguez bible of filmmaking when you start. What do you have access to? Make something around that. I envisioned her in this room with all these scalps around her on the wall, with her wearing one and dancing. Like she was someone else while she wore it. She is just like Leatherface in that way. Who I love.

In THE STYLIST it is hair, not faces, being worn. What is it about hair that attracts Claire?
For her, it is a lack of any real identity or confidence. She’s always seeking experience through other people, and understanding how that feels. This is something real hairstylists experience. I do hear very intimate things from people. The scalping thing is taking it to a dramatic, ridiculous level. Also, a lot of us are trying to escape our minds. I see what she does similar to an addiction to drugs. When you get to a place that you want to stop, it is very hard. It is something that controls you.

Do you empathize with Claire? Or, how do you approach showing us what she is like?
I don’t think these types of films are trying to make you understand, and see that you might do the same as them in that situation. It isn’t just to humanize. I have complicated feelings about “bad” people. No one is just one thing. There are a million things that lead to that bad thing, but that doesn’t excuse it. I like how confrontational those ideas are, and I like movies and stories that make you feel that way about characters. I think that is real. We might not kill people, but we all have dark things in us. I want to understand how people have done really horrible things, or give people another chance.

You did bring up the point of revenge earlier, but this begs the question of redemption. When would you redeem Claire?
With her, I was trying more to show her self-sabotage story. If she were stronger she would stop doing this. Instead, it is a suicide in a sense. She totally destroys her life and her routine because she can’t stop doing it.

And she has no support around her. It’s just her versus herself.
I’m not trying to say I am an expert in mental illness. But this is that sociopathic and psychopathic thing where you don’t have feelings for other people. They say that feeling comes from someone who is born into a situation where they have never experienced support. From who raises you, you never receive that give and take. I think it is interesting that no matter how horrific people are, almost always the story behind them explains why they got to that point. There is that perfect storm of events in their life. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think locking people in boxes until they die fixes it.

 

We might not kill people, but we all have dark things in us.”

Brea Grant’s character, Olivia, is not perfect either, but she really isn’t a bad person. How did you go about creating her to complement Claire?
To me, she is the anti-Claire. Of course, she is this normal person, but to Claire, she has the ideal life. When she gets to know her more, Claire sees her background and sees the same starting place. Why did she go here and I go there? It turns from admiration to a really dark envy.

When I first started with the idea I was researching all these old movies. Kier-La Janisse’s book [House of Psychotic Women] has a whole section on doppelgänger films. That’s what I’m doing, but I never really realized it. I leaned into it more when I started thinking of it that way. She’s the opposite of Claire. When we went to design it and see what her life looks like, Brea Grant always stuck out to me as being like that. She has energy and positivity around her, but she is not someone you are going to fuck with. In the scenes where they are together and Olivia is not super nice, I wanted it to feel like we were with Claire. We perceive what Olivia is saying as much harsher than it is. Claire has very weird views of things, and Olivia is just trying to lay some boundaries. But to Claire, she hears, “I hate you, never talk to me again.”

Was the short film originally a proof-of-concept, or did the idea for the feature come later?
It was both. I always wanted the concept to be a feature, but when that idea came to mind I had only made one short. So I had only written the script for the short, but we started working on the feature script right after we shot that. Many people assumed we had a feature script after they saw the short.
We made it now, but I was really beating myself up at the time for not having the script ready. I learned you have to be prepared for the best-case scenario.

Where did the idea come from to include a wedding as a central event?
Again, I have no murderous feelings, but one of my best friends was about to get married. And the idea started with the ending, in my head. I love theatrical, gothic sets and design. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet is an influence in the design. I found a way to put lots of candles in one scene. I wanted a tragic ending. It was always going to be about her downfall. Visually, we could make a wedding over the top. But I battled with that. She wants to feel human, while what she does is inhuman. How do we toe that line? I think a lot of it is Najarra’s performance. It doesn’t feel like a silly killer.

How was it working with all of the practical effects on set?
The effects were crazy involved for this. A lot of them take a lot of building in pre-production. That means matching skin, which means an actor needs to be cast, and the artist needs time to build the effect. A lot of the time, these people wouldn’t be cast until a couple weeks before the shoot, but we need six weeks to build. Or match their hair to a wig. As a hairstylist, I want it to look as good as possible with a low budget, and wigs are expensive. With a wedding and all these wigs, it was an obscene thing we tried to do with our budget, but we did it.

With practical effects, you don’t know what is going to happen until you actually do them, and every time it is different. And the scalps were wigs with fake skin, and blood, and a bald cap; there are so many layers to them. We worked with the same special effects team from the short film, Colleen May and Philip Spruell. In the short film, we were blessed by the special effects gods. The scalp came off perfectly in one piece. I could tell Najarra was struggling with it a bit, but that just looks awesome. I’m really happy with it, and to see it with the sound effects added. I’ve been watching it for so long with very minor effects added, just for the sake of it. It’s all of these fruits being dug into, and who knows what else, just to make it sound gross.

What made you choose to do split screens rather than cross-cutting in some scenes?
It was written to cut back and forth between them. But in reading House of Psychotic Women and watching Sisters by De Palma, specifically the sequence when the police are coming over, it ends with this awesome double zoom, which we do. Shows their location. I thought that was such a cool way to reveal something. I texted Robert Stern, our DP, right then. And then I was watching Euphoria, which is an amazing show, and they do split-screen there. I was so excited to do it. We had a lot of fun with that.

What are you scared of?
I can talk about a really ridiculous fear. I grew up going to the lake in the summer. We would go down to Table Rock Lake. This fear doesn’t make sense to me, because I should be used to swimming in the lake. You know those trees in the water, that are just barely sticking out? I have always had a completely irrational fear of these trees. It is not because there might be creepy things swimming around them. No. I am not going to touch one of those things. I will scream. It is just a tree, it makes no sense.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., FILM THRILLS, and HIGH DEF DIGEST. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.