It’s not everyday that a filmmaker debuts with a 1950’s sci-fi musical, but director Jeffrey St. Jules is certainly an ambitious director with lots of great influences. Scene Creek sat down with Jeffrey last TIFF where his film Bang Bang Baby had it’s international premiere. The film has since gone on to win the TIFF 2014 Best First Feature award, and is finally hitting theatres for a wider audience on August 21st. Starring Jane Levy and Justin Chatwin, Bang Bang Baby is a wonderful Canadian feature that throws us back to a more fantastical era, and Jeffrey St. Jules gave us a lot of insight into what inspired him to make such an interesting debut feature.
Bang Bang Baby follows Stepphy, a teenage girl with big dreams of becoming a famous singer. She’s portrayed by the very talented Jane Levy, who Jeffrey speaks highly of, “I had been looking over the years as I’ve been writing it; I had been keeping my eye out for young actors for these roles. There were very few people that I thought would be perfect for it. Jane was my first pick for it, we sent her the script and she liked it. It was lucky enough that she could do it. And she could dance, which i didn’t know before,” he says of the casting process. Writing about a teenage girl was a new and different experience for him, “I don’t know why i wanted to write about a teenage girl,” he laughs, “she’s this sort of archetypal character from these movies, there’s something so likeable about [Stepphy]. She’s sweet and perfect in a certain way. But as the movie progresses, she breaks down more and becomes more real. I was interested in playing with that. The script, it’s difficult getting the character arc, as the script was more wild. When Jane came she added a whole new level to the character that I wasn’t expecting. She was someone you could relate to.” He goes on about why the musical choice adds to the element of escapism, “I think my films have always been about escapism. In my short films it’s a theme that I’ve been fussing with. I’ve been watching musicals, Elvis musicals. The film becomes this way of her trying to escape her reality, and she tries to live inside this fantasy world that makes her real life uglier. It becomes more fearful because she tries to ignore it. She has to face reality to take control of her life, and that lent itself to the style of filmmaking.”
On making a musical, Jeffrey insists it wasn’t too difficult and elaborates on why he wanted to try it, “it just seemed like it was appropriate for the story. It’s sort of a movie about escapism and song is a way to escape. I think its a great way to emote. You can express things in song that you can’t with just dialogue. I love the absurdity of breaking out into song. It wasn’t too difficult. Most of the songs were recorded before. We block it out and just do playbacks. We had choreography for a couple of sequences and it was a lot of fun.”
The film has very obvious influences- it’s surrealist and body horror, invoking traces of David Lynch and even David Cronenberg. Jeffrey speaks about these inspirations, “we were referencing a lot of, on the creative side, Douglas Sirk movies like All That Heaven Allows, and [Todd Haynes’] Far from Heaven. I love Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that influenced it for sure. There’s a lot of David Lynch influence. Yeah, but specifically, with the origin of it, it’s old Elvis films.” He goes on about his personal heroes, “there’s so many, Todd Haynes, I really like what he does. David Lynch was when I first got interested in filmmaking. When i saw Blue Velvet as a teenager i realized what filmmaking could be, the possibilities that film could make if you really let yourself go there. That’s always stayed with me.”
Speaking on the fact that Bang Bang Baby is something of a period piece, as it takes place in the 50s, Jeffrey shares his love for the era, “I’m working on [a new] film set in the 1950s. I’m going back to 1959. I didn’t feel ready to leave the era yet. I wanted to make one more. I’m interested in eras that took place before I was born. There’s something out of reach about it, you only see it through films, photographs and literature. It’s sort of dream-like in a way. You have no memories in [your] reality [of bygone eras], just the way people expressed things at the time.” We asked him how he felt about exposing younger audiences to this very retro-inspired filmmaking, and he laughed, ” I didn’t think of it like that. I think even if we haven’t seen these films, they are sort of in our collective [memory]… you’ve seen something. I didn’t grow up watching these films either, but they are in our shared language, in our culture. There are connotations to them, that’s why it’s interesting to play with these things in a film. You’re playing with material that is already in people’s heads.”
Jeffrey started out making short films, like many other directors, and now that he has tried out his first feature, he may be here to stay, “I want to continue making features. It’s so much more of an immersive world, you get totally get immersed in it. And that’s what i like about making films. You spend more time living in this world and you bring all these people with you. I’ll probably still make shorts because I enjoy it. It’s hard to build a career [just] making shorts.”
As for Bang Bang Baby, Jeffrey knows that it’s open to interpretation and may not be for everyone, but he has one resounding hope for the film, “ I just want people to connect with it. I wanted her story to be something you connected with. Ideas and things that are in there, I think people will have their own take on it.”
Bang Bang Baby opens in limited release on August 21st.