Imagine Suspiria without the raucous prog rock madness of Goblin. Huh. Inconceivable, right? Well, thanks to Luca Guadagnino we can conjure such blasphemy, and wherever you fall on the remake’s quality, you cannot deny that it is a completely different experience from what Dario Argento originally conceived. A film’s score makes, breaks, or at the very least, radically alters a movie. Darren Lynn Bousman understands this resource inherently. When it came time to cobble his latest horror film St. Agatha together, he gave his composer Mark Sayfritz three specific films as their guiding light: Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and of course, Suspiria.
The director made his bones on the Saw franchise, joining on the original sequel and staying for two more films. He was practically a kid with just a few short films under his belt when the great Hollywood franchise machine was thrust upon him. After he wrapped on Saw IV, he thought every film experience would result in massive billboards sprinkled across L.A. He quickly found himself fighting to bring new, gnarly and grotesque visions to the screen. The battle only made him stronger as it fine-tuned his tastes as a creative.
I spoke to Bousman over the phone just days before St. Agatha’s release. He was caught up in the excitement of unleashing another dark treat upon the world and excited to talk about the influences that fed this latest religious horror. Our conversation begins with those three film scores that burned into his psyche, and we turn to how they influenced his visuals as well. We discuss the strange trip he’s been on ever since Saw II and how each film steers him to the next.
Here is our conversation in full:
St. Agatha has an incredibly memorable score, seemingly jumping genres at different points in the movie. What was your philosophy it putting that together?
I worked with a composer named Mark Sayfritz who I had also worked with on Abattoir, and I was a huge fan of what he did with me on Abattoir, huge. And I wanted to work with him again. So, we talked very early on when I got the script, and I gave him three references. I said, Rosemary’s Baby meets The Omen meets Suspiria.
If you listen to it knowing those three things, I think you’ll find those references very interwoven into the score. The kind of lullaby aspect of Rosemary’s Baby mixed with the kind of Omen-esque chanting, and finally just the absurdity of Goblin in Suspiria toward the end of the movie. He just goes kind of batshit crazy. And I was a fan of how insane he was as an artist. So, he is a guy that I’ve been working with ever since.
Well, Goblin, I mean, that definitely comes through.
Some of my favorite films, I love them because of the music. And I keep going back to Suspiria. Imagine Suspiria without Goblin?
Yeah, well, it would be something very different.
What would it sound like? What would that version of the movie sound like? Watch Requiem For a Dream, but takeaway Clint Mansell’s score. I think to me, music is integral in telling the story. And so, with this, I was presented with a challenge. The old me, the Saw guy, would have just cared about the violence and wanted to just make it a gore fest. In this, I wanted to try something a little bit different.
I’m older now, I’m 15 years older since I made those films. While I love violence- I mean, I strangled someone with an umbilical cord here- while I love violence, I wanted it to be crazy for different reasons. In St. Agatha, you actually see a lot less than my other films. A lot of it’s just suggested.
Now that said, there still is a fair amount of just absurdity, such as eating your own vomit or puking into somebody’s mouth. I mean, that’s all there. But we wanted to try to play with character, go silent in places, let just there be creaks and things like that. So, there’s that. Then, I wanted, by the very end, the music to overpower and just be so ridiculous and insane.
Especially that moment when that Goblin vibe hits.
Yeah. Crazy. I remember when I heard it for the first time. I just got giddy, I just started smiling. Because I think that good music can propel a film into a whole other level. And Mark Sayfritz definitely did that with this film.
Since those Saw films, you’ve hopped around in a lot of sub-genres. Always kinda sticking to horror, but –
Well, I get bored very easily. I was very lucky to ride the best rollercoaster first when I went to the amusement park, and that was Saw. It doesn’t get bigger or better than Saw. If you think about it, I’m a 25-year-old kid, never made a movie in my life. I had only made a couple of really bad short films, and yet I’m on set directing Jigsaw. It was crazy for me.
And then, I make the movie, and then seriously, like what, a month or two later after I make the movie, there are billboards all over Los Angeles. Not only billboards all over Los Angeles, there are billboards outside of my house that I’m living in, literally outside my house. So, it was crazy to me. And I was like, “How?” It was such a shock to see this happening.
I thought that’s what filmmaking is. You make a movie, and then there are billboards up. But that wasn’t the case, that was just the Saw films. So, I became desensitized very quickly. I had these three amazing releases with an amazing marketing campaign and amazing pushes. I wanted to do something different. And I thought, at that time, it was kind of just me- and maybe I regret it a little bit- because I was just like, “You know what? I’ve done that. Now I’m going to be weird and do this.”
And so, I made Repo! and Repo! couldn’t have been any more different than Saw. I mean, I cast Paris Hilton singing and dancing. And then, go from that to Mother’s Day, which is like a crime drama, not really even a horror film at all, to going to Japan and shooting a TV show called Crow’s Blood. So, I’ve always tried to do new things. That’s what excites me. I don’t love one type of food. I like all kinds of food. I like pizza and I like steak. As a filmmaker and as an artist, I want the same variety in the movies that I do.
Yeah, but even Mother’s Day, while I agree it’s not necessarily a horror film, you have an extreme aesthetic. You push your characters to their limits, and it seems like you like living in that heightened realm of terror.
I do. I mean, listen, I write things and direct things that frighten me. And they’re all exaggerated versions of whatever that is. Starting with Saw II, I was terrified of needles. I had a phobia of needles. So then, next thing we know, we have a needle pit, an exaggeration of what my actual fear is.
On something like Mother’s Day, I made that film right after we got our first house. So, I buy my first house and now I begin considering that you’re safe and secure inside of this house, but all it takes is someone to kick in the door and all that safety goes way. Every film that I make is something that I’m dealing with at the time.
So, 11-11-11 was my trying to figure out my philosophy or stamps on religion. And I was trying to figure that out. You know, when I made The Devil’s Carnival, it was me saying, “Fuck you,” again, to Hollywood because I was getting desensitized and upset about my lack of belief. And so, I made something batshit crazy. With St. Agatha, it was that I’ve recently become a father. My wife is a very, very intense woman with very strong opinions. I was watching her react to what was going on in the political system with this fight over Planned Parenthood and politicians trying to put into law what women could and couldn’t do with their body. Then this script came in that kind of echoed that, but from a much more exaggerated standpoint. At that time, it seemed to be something that spoke to me.
Joseph White is a cinematographer that you’ve worked with a few times before. What’s your relationship with him and how did the two of you land on the visual aesthetic of St. Agatha?
Joe White and I have worked together on 14 projects. He is not only my cinematographer, he is one of my best friends. What’s great about working with someone like Joe White is, on a normal film, there’s a get-to-know-you period. I just shot a movie in Thailand a couple of months ago with Maggie Q, and there was a huge get-to-know-you with the team. I had never worked with these guys before. Joe was on a commercial shoot and couldn’t come out. It was very hard for me, because Joe, we have 14 years of history together.
So, he just looks at me and says, oh, you want this, this, this, and this? And I’m like, “Yes. That’s what I want.” And he just does it. One of the things I’ll say about Joe, which I love about all of our films, they all have the same palette. And it’s something called the Storaro. Basically named after the guy who was the cinematographer on Dick Tracy, a DP named Vittorio Storaro, he has a very unique style and he has his own gel light.
These gels are extreme. Repo! The Genetic Opera used them, Mother’s Day used them, The Devil’s Carnival, used them, and this film used them as well. So, if you watch the movies, there’s not a lot of subtlety in some of the things that we love, such as when Mary is put in a coffin. It’s bright orange, nuclear orange, coming through the windows. I think that, again, this is something that, for me, I just love because Joe has such a visual flair. So, you kind of let Joe do what he wants to do. You trust him, because he’s such a badass. He’s an artist in the truest sense.
Carolyn Hennessy’s Mother Superior is a helluva terrifying authoritarian figure. What brought her to your attention?
I’m going to give you two sides to the story, Carolyn and Sabrina Kern. They’re both unique and interesting. So, with Carolyn, I didn’t know who she was, never heard of her. And someone brought her name up, and I immediately shut it down. I said, “I don’t know who that is. I want someone else.” I forgot who my names were, but they were ridiculous names. And this producer said, “Just meet with her. Those guys are gone. Just meet with her.” And so, we set up a coffee. And I’m not shitting you, this is not an exaggeration, the minute she sat down with me, I got the same feeling I had when I met Tobin Bell for the first time, Jigsaw.
Oh. How so?
She scared me. The way that she could look through me, and I felt like she was judging me at all times. And, even when she smiled, it was a smile like, “Did I just fuck up? Did I say something wrong? Did I do something wrong?” It was this constant feeling of unease that I had around her, honestly. And I knew that, that moment, there was no one else. There was literally no one else that could play her. And I stopped looking right then and there. She anchored to the film, she kind of set the bar the movie we were making.
And then, Sabrina could not have been any further from the opposite of what I just said there. Sabrina Kern, believe it or not, I actually met on Backstage, which is like a Craig’s List of casting for an immersive theater thing I was doing. I was doing this immersive theater production called The Tension Experience, and she answered a blind ad for an extra. I was literally casting for an extra walk on.
She responded, I cast her for this thing. She did not know who I was when I cast her, because she didn’t know it was Darren Bousman. And cut to two weeks later, I wrote her the lead of The Tension Experience because she was just- I thought she was great. Come to find out, she’d only been in America a couple of years. She’s not an American. She’s from Switzerland. She’s Swiss German. And I had no idea. Her ability to lose her accent, her ability to memorize pages on the fly, I mean, literally, I’ve heard of people that have a photographic memory, she is that person. You hand her ten pages she glances at it for maybe two minutes, three minutes, then she’s like okay, let’s go, let’s do this, let’s do this. So, they’re such different stories on how I came about casting this thing. I think they’re both just insanely unique.
Going back to your attraction to religious horror, what is the compulsion to look into these institutions, to either repel from or attack them?
Well, here was one of the things which was interesting about this movie, and it’s subtle, and it’s something that I’m most proud of in the movie. I’ll answer your question by going back to some of my other movies that really get into that. 11-11-11, Abattoir, The Devil’s Carnival, all of my films touch on the idea of belief and religion. When I was doing those films, it was because I myself was dealing with my own insecurity or questioning about what was real, what wasn’t real, these beliefs we’re brought up with.
But, when I made St. Agatha, I hired one of my friends to do a rewrite on it. A guy named Clint Sears, a very talented writer that’s written for me for years now. And he is a very devout Catholic. He’s like, “This is sacrilegious. We’re not playing it this way, you’re going to offend an entire group of people in the way it was originally written and constructed.” He brought up an idea that I actually fell in love with, which was, we find out that Agatha is a con woman. The very first time we see her in her flashback, she’s conning this man out of his money by playing poker and cheating.
So, here this con woman who thinks that she’s going to go to a convent and perpetrate a con on a bunch of nuns and deliver her baby, only to find out that this convent is actually just full of con women themselves. What’s interesting, if you watch the movie, it is so not a real convent it’s not even funny. I think it was a fine line for us to kind of balance. Maybe at one time these women were nuns, but that’s long past. They were wearing costumes, they’re wearing outfits. If you look in the backgrounds of scenes, you’ll see that none of the religious iconographies matches up.
It’s part of Catholicism, part of other religions. And that was, I think a really cool subtle thing if you watch the film, you realize that she’s literally inside a true con being perpetrated on all these people. So, I thought that was another interesting level, which Clint brilliantly did, which I never thought of.
Then, a couple of times where Sabrina’s character Mary says, do they know that this isn’t a real convent? There’s a great scene in the garden where they have this conversation. But for me, I’m fascinated with religion because how many wars have been fought over religion? How many people have been executed, murdered, tortured because of a belief? It’s a fascinating thing. There are a million stories that could be told and not crossover to the same material twice.
St. Agatha is now playing in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD.