Since directing SAW II-IV and REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA!, Darren Lynn Bousman has moved on to more quietly directing a series of quirky, interesting lower-budget films. The most recent entry in this catalog is ST. AGATHA, a film that some might label “nunsploitation,” about an unmarried pregnant woman who takes refuge in a convent in the 1950s, only to experience abuse at the hands of the nuns, and to realize the convent is not what it seems. Bousman brings on board some of the cast from his live-action production THE TENSION EXPERIENCE, including Sabrina Kern and Trin Miller, who give stellar performances in a tense horror-drama fueled by an inspired score by Mark Sayfritz. Daily Grindhouse got a chance to talk to Bousman about why or why not he considers his film “nunsploitation,” what’s it’s been like to work on smaller, more personal projects, and what real events from the 1950s inspired him in the making of this film. ST. AGATHA was released in theaters and on demand on February 8th by Uncork’d Entertainment.
Daily Grindhouse: What attracted you to this script?
Darren Lynn Bousman: A couple of different things, not sure how to answer. Number one is, I always look at a movie as, am I going to have an enjoyable experience. Am I going to have the ability to make the film under the right circumstances. And this was one of those movies where all the pieces lined up. I just finished this production called THE TENSION EXPERIENCE which was live-action, have you ever seen David Fincher’s THE GAME, I was doing that, where basically we would create this real-world storyline which took place in the real world, and the audience interacted with live characters, from bars to alleyways to warehouses. The line producer on that snuck a script into my bag. I’m kind of allergic to scripts. I don’t have a big attention span, so I would always joke that I hate reading scripts. One night during THE TENSION EXPERIENCE he snuck the script into my bag. I got home a few days later and opened my bag up, and I saw it and kind of cracked the script open, and it’s one of those scripts where it’s like wait, what? And I kept reading it and it was one of those things where it was not only shocking, but I had no idea where it was gonna go. So I finished the script and I called the line producer back. I kind of jokingly said let’s just do it, and let’s bring our TENSION EXPERIENCE family with it. So we ended up talking to our lead actor in THE TENSION EXPERIENCE, which is Sabrina Kern, who plays Mary in it, or St. Agatha, Paula, who is the one who gets the unfortunate end at the very end with the disgusting body part, and a few others. We cast quite a few of the TENSION EXPERIENCE family in this thing. Then I set it up so I could work with my old cinematographer Joe White. We’ve done fourteen projects together, and I love working with that guy. So then you start with those pieces and think, there’s a chance this could be a really cool film. So then it all came together.
Daily Grindhouse: What is it like going from projects like SAW to something a little more low-budget and quieter?
Darren Lynn Bousman: It’s hard because I think I always had a joke that SAW was like riding the best roller coaster first at an amusement park. You know, you go to wherever, Six Flags, and you get to jump up on the first roller coaster and it happens to be the best one. Everything after that is kind of like “oh, okay.” With SAW I had all the tools I needed, and I had all the time I needed, and there was publicity, but that’s not reality. That was a very particular time and a very particular place, and with something like this here if it’s attended well, it’s a lot more complicated. You don’t have all the toys at your disposal and you don’t have the support that you would on something like a SAW movie. The thing about directing movies like this is you get a little more freedom. More freedom to experiment, more freedom to take risks on certain people, which would never happen in a movie with as much riding on it as SAW.
Daily Grindhouse: A lot of people are calling this a “nunsploitation” movie. How do you think this film fits into this genre?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I mean, it doesn’t. First of all, I love the term “nunsploitation.” But you know what, I think nunsploitation is completely wrong for this. When I think of nunsploitation, I think of nude nuns with big guns, or you know, ridiculous, over-the-top, behind-convent-walls, secret-flesh, like these movies where nuns are more, like, badasses with shotguns, killing people or doing horrible things. We do actually have nuns with shotguns doing terrible, horrible things. But I don’t know if I would call this movie exploitative. Like, those movies glorify — well, now you kind of caught me, ‘cause everything I was gonna tell you a nunsploitation movie is or has we do, but I think that this film has a more serious approach to it than what I think some of these nunsploitation films have. Those movies were of a very particular time and style, and I don’t think we’re as crazy or as insane as some of those movies. But again, it’s awesome to be called that, because I think I love nunsploitation films.
Daily Grindhouse: Why do you think it was important that the film was set in the 1950s?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I have a big problem with, there was a time a few years back, with CHILDREN OF THE CORN, the remake, because I love that film, but they were trying to modernize it. And I couldn’t wrap my head around how to modernize that film, due to the believability factor. So an entire town kills off their parents, and no one knows about it with cell phones and the Internet? I had a big problem. So I think that certain movies need to be set in a certain time for the believability of yeah, that could happen. This nun convent could take babies, they could disappear them, they could do that, and possibly keep it a secret for awhile, number one. Number two, in the early 1950s, mid-1950s, there were a lot of these articles about atrocities that took place in convents. You don’t have to Google much to see some evil, vile, horrible things that took place. So I think that was another thing, that I kind of had a hard time when I first read it believing some of the things, and our producer, Sarah Michaels, kind of showed me some of these newspaper articles that I was shocked and surprised by. I think it was that. Also honestly, I love the 1950s. If you look at my last few films, they’ve always had that 1950s era feel, from ABBATOIR to THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL, so I just love that look and style. But it also had to do with believability, how could you tell this story in a more modern setting without people knowing about it. I don’t think you could. When you start researching the 1950s, and you start researching things that really did take place in the 1950s, it kind of fell into that, and became a much more believable tale to tell.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you use sound in the movie to build tension?
Darren Lynn Bousman: One of the things I was going to tell you, it’s funny, I was just looking at, I just opened my email, it’s so crazy, that you just asked this question. The Catholic Church was apologizing for their role in forced adoption over a 30-year period — the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The Catholic Church of England apologized to young unmarried women, who said they felt pressured to give their babies up for adoption. Again, that’s another interesting thing to keep in mind when watching this film. Regarding sound and music, to me sound is a character in the movie, as important as Mother Superior or St. Agatha herself. I used a composer I’d used before, a guy named Mark Sayfritz, he is a fucking genius. And I gave him three scores. I said ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE OMEN, and SUSPIRIA, I wanted a Goblin feel to it. And he came out and just destroyed it. Just killed what I wanted to do with it. I really really wanted the music to be a character that pullled you on your knees, and I wanted it to sound batshit crazy, and I think he did a great job. I went through it again and it’s like you’ve got hints of ROSEMARY’S BABY with the lullaby, throughout the middle of it you’ve got hints of THE OMEN with the crazy chanting, and by the very end it goes crazy like Goblin, so I feel like he nailed what I was looking for in this.
Daily Grindhouse: What was the significance of the color in the film? It seemed like you had a very specific color palette.
Darren Lynn Bousman: Joe White and I, he’s my cinematographer, he and I have worked on fourteen or fifteen projects together, and we have a very similar sensibility as it relates to the art of storytelling. I always like to push things into an exaggerated tone. If you look at some of the movie, there’s harsh blues, harsh whites, harsh greens. And we kind of bonded over our love for the color palette. If you go back and look at DICK TRACY, that cinematographer has a line of gels which are extreme colors. I’ve used them in everything, from REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA! to THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL and onwards. So, I just wanted it to have a more dark fairy-tale kind of look, and not to be completely normal, I wanted to go more extreme. I think that’s what I was trying to do, some of the more intense lighting designs.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you work with your cast to create such an intense atmosphere?
Darren Lynn Bousman: You know, I didn’t do much, I ended up being very lucky in casting these incredible talents. Everyone talks about Mother Superior, because she’s a force. I mean, when you watch her on the screen you really feel, as I feel, that you’re looking at the birth of a new super-villain. I mean, she’s just intense and scary, and yet, her sweetness and her smile and the way she turns a phrase, I mean it’s just amazing. Sabrina Kern is someone I’ve worked with in a theater production before this. I just fell in love with her passion and her energy. You know, a fun side note I’ve been telling everyone, this is her first movie she’s ever been in, and number two, she’s actually from Switzerland, and this is the first English-speaking thing that she’s done. Her main language is Swiss-German. So I just threw her into this intense main role, and had this be her first film, and she blew me out of the water, she’s fantastic. And in the supporting cast, you know Courtney Halverson, who plays Catherine in the film, Hannah (Fierman), and the others are just fantastic, and I think their subtlety, the way they play things with just their eyes, and the most subtle notions conveyed so much to me. The scene early on where Courtney’s character is forced to eat something so unpleasant, the way she played it could have been so over-the-top and comical, and instead it just makes me sad every time I watch it.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you manage the scenes in the movie that were more extremely violent or disgusting?
Darren Lynn Bousman: It’s crazy with this. We shot it so quickly, there was no time to second-guess or even think about things, in the way you normally might talk yourself out of doing things. There wasn’t. Even that big horrific scene in the movie, the strangulation scene. We had one take to shoot it, we had no rehearsal. We were on the last day of shooting, and we had forty minutes before the sun set, and then it would be complete darkness, and it was literally like “Here’s what you’re doing, here’s how you’re gonna do it, action.” So, you know, I wish at another point in my career I would get forty days to make a film, but we only had seventeen days, you just run and gun, and you hope it works out. You just have one take to do it. And again, credit to an amazing cast, they would nail it right out the gate, they would hit it right off the bat.
Daily Grindhouse: What are some of the films that maybe influenced you in making this one?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I love Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, which is just a shocking story set in a convent, which I really liked. You know, one I’m going to reference that has nothing to do with convents, is FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. I love that film. I love the book. If don’t know if you’ve ever read a V.C. Andrews book. But it’s basically the story of these children growing up stuck in an attic while the world happens outside of them, and they’re kind of forced into this. When to eat, when to drink, when to take a bath. They make up their own reality, and they’re kind of under the oppressive thumb of this evil matriarch, and that was something I’ve always wanted to make, but never had the ability to. So this was definitely an homage to parts of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC.
Daily Grindhouse: How did your former projects, like the SAW films and REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA!, prepare you for making this movie?
Darren Lynn Bousman: This movie is completely different, and the minute I think I know what I’m doing, I don’t make it, and nothing’s gonna help me, every movie I feel like it’s my first time making a movie. I always feel like I’m starting over again. Every movie has its own set of challenges and hurdles, and you think you can prepare and show up, and then you’re not prepared at all.
Daily Grindhouse: Has anything surprised you about the audience reception to the movie?
Darren Lynn Bousman: You know, it’s crazy. So far, knock on wood, the reviews have been very favorable. You never know when you’re making something like this. Horror’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Violence is not everyone’s cup of tea. So, I saw it the first time at the Overlook Film Festival, and kind of watching this movie with the audience and seeing them reacting to some of these scenes, we had no idea how they’d play. We had no idea how that was going to go off. Again, spoiler alert, someone gets strangled with umbilical cords. It could have been a trainwreck of such epic proportion, but it’s had such a great reaction every time I’ve seen it in a theater. What I find most exciting is when people pick up things. An example is, again, spoiler alert. This is not a real convent. It’s just a con. It’s a grift. And these women, while they may have been nuns in a previous life or years earlier, are perpetrating a con on all these girls. They take their babies and sell them. And so if you watch the movie again, or if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that things don’t add up. The habits don’t fit right. They’re too small or too big. They’re wearing them completely wrong. Their religious iconography in the background doesn’t make sense. They’re not Catholic or Christian. They shouldn’t exist in the same space. We tried to do a kind of subtle nod that this is not what you think it is. I love when audiences ask me about that and pick up on that the most.