On February 8th, St. Agatha will be making its way to theaters and VOD services and I recently caught up with director Darren Lynn Bousman to talk about his latest horror film. We discussed a range of topics, from updates to the film's story and working with his team from The Tension Experience, to fatherhood changing the types of stories he wants to tell, and creating an iconic villain in Carolyn Hennesy’s Mother Superior.
Can you talk about where the idea for this movie came from and what drew you to this project? Did you have any experiences with the Catholic Church or schooling growing up?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Ironically, no. One of the writers, Sara [Sometti Michaels], absolutely did, though. When I got the script, I was actually in the middle of doing The Tension Experience and the line producer of The Tension Experience says, "Hey, I've got this script. Would you read it?" And I'm horrible at reading scripts, but I said "Yeah, sure, I'll read it" and he snuck it in my backpack and I forgot about it for literally months and he would always check in with me, "Have you read that script?"
And one day, I was going through my bag and I found it in there. I opened it up and the original draft was so repulsive and just horrific in the viciousness and violence of it that I couldn't put it down. I eventually said I wasn't going to make that version because being a father has changed me a little bit [in terms of] what I'm okay doing and not doing, but I was just so humored by just how horrific and intense it was.
At the time that I did the film, there was a huge issue online about Planned Parenthood and a woman's right to be able to do what they want to their body, and I felt that it mirrored a lot of things in the script, because it's set in the 1950s when it was a social taboo to be pregnant without a husband and it was a huge deal. So, I like the idea of exploring all of these things, and that's kind of what drew me to it.
What were some of the changes that you made to the story when you came on board?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I wanted to create a very intense villain in Mother Superior, but I wanted her to be human. I was very lucky early in my career to be able to do movies in the Saw franchise and work with someone like Tobin Bell, and then I was able to go to something like Mother's Day and work with Rebecca De Mornay. It made me realize what it took to really speak to an audience from a villainous standpoint. She couldn't just be mean-spirited, spitting venom and hate. There had to be a sweet nature to her, there had to be something that on the surface you kind of liked and then you began to pull back the onion layer, and you saw this woman was really crazy. Carolyn Hennesy, who is Mother Superior, is fantastic. She just killed it and created a very iconic villain.
Another thing I really wanted to do is make the characters each stand out, as opposed to just being there to be killed or tortured. I wanted each of them getting a scene that showed you who they were. And so I think we did a lot of character work to the script and tried to bring it more in the realm of realism, and that was the big thing I wanted to do when I first met with the writers.
We’ve talked recently about your work on immersive experiences like Theater Macabre and The Tension Experience. Has your time developing immersive entertainment changed how you work with actors and approach your films?
Darren Lynn Bousman: The older I get, the more I just want to work with people I like, and one of the first things about me doing St. Agatha was that I wanted to bring on my family in the immersive theater world. It started with Clint Sears, who is the writer of The Tension Experience and came on to do the rewrite on this, but then included Sabrina Kern, who plays Agatha, and all of these other people that I worked with [on The Tension Experience].
You have to trust your actors and, with immersive theater, it’s a lot of improv. Now, there wasn’t improv in this movie, but it comes to having to trust your actors. The older I've gotten, and the more that I've actually done, a lot of it comes to me trusting them and saying, “You know what, Carolyn Hennesy knows what the f--k she's doing. I'm going to let her do what she does, and that went all the way through the cast.
Can you talk about working with Sabrina on this film, because you really put her through the wringer. When it comes to those torture scenes, how did you two prepare for that to make it not as grueling as it appears on the screen?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Sabrina has been the lead of three or four things I've done. First off, this is kind of a crazy story. I met Sabrina on a blind ad on Backstage. I was casting for something in immersive theater and I put an ad out on Backstage. I didn't put my name on top of it, I just said, "I'm looking for Middle America, girl-next-door look" and Sabrina answered. Now, she didn't know who I was at that time, I didn't put my name on it, and I talked to her back and forth via email. Then, I eventually met her and I thought she was smart, funny, and charming, and I cast in The Tension Experience.
A fact about Sabrina that is insane to me is that she's from Switzerland, and she's Swiss German, but she's only been here a few years, yet she has zero accent and English is not her first language. Not only is this the first movie she's ever done, but this is the first time that she's speaking a completely different language and it was really fun watching it, because a lot of times you work with people and they're counting the days until they get to go home. But with Sabrina, she continued to excite me every day that I was on set because she was so excited. When you're doing something like this, you need to work with people that are excited.
Sabrina jumped into her very first film being the lead and title of the movie, and so it was grueling. How did we deal with it? A lot of scotch, a lot of drinking and crying... it was a grueling shoot. It was a very indie film and so there was never enough time or money. And luckily, I think that might have benefited us because we didn't have a lot of time to second-guess. We’d just jump to set every day, we had ten pages to film and one take, so there wasn’t time to second-guess.
With St. Agatha out everywhere for horror fans to watch, what other projects have you turned your attention to? Anything new on the immersive front?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I'm working on a new immersive theater production, which we hope to mount mid-this year. I can't get into a lot of it, but I'm really excited about my immersive theater [projects]. And I've got a movie that I just finished called The Death of Me, with Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth, which I'm really happy with as well. And then, I have another movie I’m working on that again, I wish I could tell you more about, but I can't just say what it is yet, and I've got another kind of surprise movie that kind of popped out of nowhere—it's pretty exciting.
I'm trying to stay busy, but I'm also trying to be a dad. My wife gave birth to our daughter and I left two weeks later to be gone for six weeks to film this movie and this other movie, and so I think my wife just wants me to be home and be present for a little bit before I jump back in, so I'm also just being a dad right now, which is my biggest production.
I encourage your readers on February 8th to go on iTunes and check out St. Agatha. It's a cool little female-led cast, and I think we have incredible performances and the birth of a new super villain. Carolyn Hennesy just destroys it as Mother Superior and I’m so excited I got to work with her. And again, like Sabrina, when I find someone I like working with, I work with them again and again, and so I think Carolyn's going to be someone that you see in a lot of my productions moving forward.