Last month, filmmaker Jill Gevargizian celebrated the release of her feature film, The Stylist, exclusively on the ARROW streaming platform, after enjoying a brief festival run that kicked off last fall at the virtual edition of Fantastic Fest. Now, as she’s gearing up for the home media release of The Stylist that’s coming up in June, Daily Dead thought this made for the perfect time to speak with Gevargizian about her experiences making both the short film and feature film versions of this story about a lonely hair stylist (played by Najarra Townsend) whose obsession with her clients goes too far.
During our interview with Gevargizian, she discussed the five-year journey she embarked on with The Stylist, her decision to launch a Kickstarter in support of the feature film version, her experiences collaborating with Townsend on her character over the years, and what she’s taken away from her experiences working on The Stylist as well.
It’s so great to speak with you today, Jill. And with The Stylist, I love how it’s this intersection of your real life and your creativity, and it’s cool how you've been able to explore that now through the short and the feature. Had you always seen The Stylist as your way of having your worlds collide a little bit and then really leaning into horror, which I know is something that you're extremely passionate about as a storyteller?
Jill Gevargizian: I mean, it's like a combination of all of the things I love and do, but it started as, in that sense, more of a practical thing. First, I just thought, "How is there not already a hairstylist serial killer, slasher, something like that?" Well, there's Sweeney Todd, but he’s not a straight-up hairstylist. And so I was like, "How does this not exist?" And then I was thinking, "Well, I'm a hairstylist. I know that world and I have access to a lot of salons and that whole thing." So it was like a mix of writing what you know, which is a low-budget filmmaking thinking of, "What do I have access to that will up the production value of whatever we're making?" And when the idea came to me, it just felt like, "Well, I have to do this because how does this not already exist?"
I think there's an authenticity that comes with what you've been able to create with both the short and the feature, and so much of that comes through Najarra and her performance. She’s so great—how did you get her immersed into this role and prepare her for the stylist-related parts of her character? She doesn’t really feel like she’s going through the motions at all.
Jill Gevargizian: It was really important to me from the start of it, with the short, that any of the hairstylist action and stuff involving the real-life hair things, was as accurate as possible. And also, almost every decision we made, even if it didn't specifically have to do with hairstyling, we just thought of it like, "What would a hairstylist do?" Or, "How can this more represent that world?" With the short, we didn't need as much preparation with Najarra and her hairstyling, because it was a small amount on camera. The feature was a much bigger undertaking as far as her needing to be comfortable. I wanted where she's standing behind someone in the salon to look really natural, which I feel comes with just doing that for a decade or more.
So, it's funny, with the short film, we actually had another hairstylist on set who was playing the hairstylist who leaves at the beginning. Angela Dupuie is her name, she's in the short film playing a hairstylist in the background in the salon, too. But we had her hands in the short film and all the close-ups, the extreme close-ups where you can't tell who it is, it's someone's hands. I just wanted it to look like second nature, and you'd need like a decade of experience to look that way, I think, especially in close-ups.
But Najarra does look amazing. It was funny because we were working on the short almost five years ago, and she knew we were going to make the feature someday. We've been talking about it since then, but not until we decided to do the Kickstarter, which is like five months before we shot the feature, where we're like, "Okay, now we need to actually get serious about you practicing hair a lot," because there are a lot of scenes with hair in this movie and not all of it's in close-ups, so you can't have it be someone else.
She got a mannequin head, like the kind of heads we use in hair school to practice with, and had it set up in her kitchen, and she even cut some of her friends' hair and her mom's hair, too. But she took it really seriously, and I think she was nervous about it, but it looked great. She really got it. And then she came to town probably a week before we shot and came to work with me a few days, and I could tell she was doing some things that I do in the movie. But the whole process with her was super collaborative and Najarra has been involved in every way since the short, like reading the scripts and giving her feedback and really creating that character.
I was wondering if you'd talk about the decision to use Kickstarter and rely on the horror community, which of course is always so supportive of filmmakers. Did it just make sense to go that route? Obviously, the interest was there, and based on how everything went, you were able to move forward with the feature, which means that clearly, everybody was really excited to be able to support you and support your vision moving forward.
Jill Gevargizian: The Kickstarter was an incredible experience. But before that, leading up to the campaign and the decision to finally do it was really frustrating because I was stuck in the game that all filmmakers are stuck in—trying to get something financed. We were trying to do it the more traditional route for a couple years, sending the script out to all kinds of potential financiers and companies like that. I had another project in that same phase, and after a couple of years of where you get interest, and then you get excited, and then nothing happens, I just felt like, even though the short did really well and we had this script we were really excited about, we thought, "This is going to happen. Someone's going to want to finance this."
Then I kept hearing the advice over and over again about how you just have to go out to do it and not wait for someone to come along. I was also getting advice that this project was too big to try to do on our own, because in defense of that, this film has like 15 locations alone. But finally, it was just a matter of frustration and being reminded that life is short and it's just time to do something about it. So we were trying to make it in a much bigger way before, but this way we got to make exactly what we wanted.
When I reached out to the team from the short film, like the core of it, including Najarra, and asked them what they thought about doing a Kickstarter to start the process, because I knew that wouldn't probably be our full budget, but we would need to start somewhere, they were just all totally about it, and especially Najarra, who was like, "It kind of feels like now is when we would have to do it. If we wait any longer, it might be too long since the short film came out." So we just jumped on it. I emailed them about this in the beginning of July 2019 and we kicked off the Kickstarter at the end of August. We all just hit the ground running the second I asked them if they wanted to do it.
How much did all of that then prepare you for once you guys were ready to embark on making the feature film? Because, again, like you mentioned, this is a very ambitious project.
Jill Gevargizian: I knew if we had the means that we could do it because we had a big team that was really excited about doing it. I knew between all of these super talented people we would be able to figure out, because that's one of the most fun things about filmmaking, is problem-solving these things we're trying to accomplish with very little money. But it was really fun. The team actually from The Stylist short is almost mostly from Chicago because I hadn't developed as big of a film family yet in Kansas City. But then since that short, I've made a lot of shorts here and music videos with different teams in Kansas City. And then for my feature, everyone came together, and it was interesting. I'm a very nervous person in general, so I was very nervous about the feature, directing it, and just how much bigger it was going to be and how we were going to manage it all. I realized, all of that wasn't nearly as scary as I thought, because we had such an incredible team and everyone was on their game, so I could trust everybody.
It was easier than I thought it was going to be in that sense, because I'm used to worrying about everything on smaller projects because I'm doing a lot more at once. But this experience was a relief for me because I remember thinking, "How amazing it is that I can totally trust all these people and I get to just be a director for the first time on set." But it was amazing, and the Kickstarter is such a huge thing to take on top of making a film, though, because it's something that you're still working on until the movie completely releases. But when you have hundreds of people help you make your movie, for a very sappy person like me, it was a very heartwarming thing to get to experience.
Looking at this journey that you’ve been on with this story for the last five years or so, what's been your biggest takeaway from your experience with The Stylist?
Jill Gevargizian: Back in September, when The Stylist was about to play for the first time, it was almost like this realization, like I only then realized other people are actually going to see this movie at some point. Then, it hit me that I was going to be done working on it at some point, and it was a horrifying and exciting idea at the same time. What's funny is, I feel like I'm still working on it in some way, because we were putting [together] their cool package for the Blu-ray and stuff. But the coolest thing that I feel since its release is to see these reactions that I felt are things we didn't consciously think of, but when I read them, I'm like, "Of course that makes sense." Or, it's really exciting to see interpretations that are really personal to people, because we tried to leave Claire open enough, where we didn’t word-for-word explain what happened to her or give her this extensive backstory, either, which I do understand that's a gripe for some people. But we wanted people to be able to relate to her.
In certain ways, I wanted viewers to be able to interject their own interpretation of what this means or where she came from. And I have seen a lot of people talk about how they related to her and their struggles with identity, and that's been just a really cool thing to see. That's something that I put in there. I know that it's about identity, but I never thought how different communities would relate to it and how special that might be. I'm a person who deals with severe anxiety and I've seen a lot of people react to the anxiety in it and say they relate to that. And I was like, "Wow, I never consciously thought about my anxiety in it, but it's clearly all over Claire." It's just been really exciting to see people connect to it personally and not just be like, "It's a cool horror movie," but to really get the personal stuff and the emotional side of her. I really love that.
Go HERE to catch up on all of our Indie Horror Month features!