INTERVIEW: Jill Gevargizian (director, THE STYLIST)

“I don’t want everyone to be sad, but I do love tragic stories: they’re beautiful in some crazy way.”

Spoilers

A breakout hit on 2020’s festival circuit, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist premiered on Arrow Player earlier this year and has now received a limited edition Blu-ray release. Here we sit down with the director to discuss some of the films which inspired her terrifying “Cosmo Horror”, from inception to final cut.

PERSONA (1966) dir. Ingmar Bergman

Persona was definitely something I watched after we’d written the script. I was reading Kier-La Janisse’s book House of Psychotic Women, ’cause that’s the Bible of horror films about women losing their minds, and I was reading a specific chapter where she discussed films about the double and how it isn’t always a literal doppelganger. And when I read that it actually made me realize that’s what I was doing in The Stylist: I wasn’t conscious of it until I read that, so I watched all the movies she talked about in that section.

A lot of these films are about women obsessed with another woman, or wanting to become her. And Persona is really poetic visually, it says so much with the blocking of the actors becoming one. I fell in love with the scene where they’re speaking and they’re stacked on top of each other: normally you wouldn’t show two people having a conversation where half of the actor is completely blocked, but it’s so powerful ’cause you know the character who’s obsessed is taking over because of this other image. We completely ripped off that scene in The Stylist: there’s a lot of shots of Najarra Townsend and Brea Grant coming together.

3 WOMEN (1977) dir. Robert Altman

This is another film from that same section of Janisse’s book. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it ’cause it’s two icons, Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. In this one it’s a full transition – Sissy becomes Shelley, they switch characters – and so I got ideas from that too. They do a little bit of split screen stuff where their faces are not perfectly together, they’re a little off. There’s a lot of cool imagery, bringing out that same theme. That film is just so cool, and I just learned that Robert Altman is from here in Kansas City.

SISTERS (1972) dir. Brian De Palma

What’s embarrassing is I hadn’t seen Sisters till I watched 3 Women and Persona, but I trust that book so much I just ordered it on Criterion.

This is a big De Palma thing, but I love his split screen use here – it’s in Carrie too and a lot of his stuff – but in Sisters near the first act there’s this sequence that has a payoff at the end: it reveals something, and I didn’t feel like I’d ever seen that specifically before, like the use of split screen leads to a punch line. The last two shots are two zooms, but going the opposite direction so they reveal they’re looking at the same thing from opposite sides, and when I saw that my brain exploded: it’s such a cool way to reveal something. And I was like “We could do this in the movie”.

We have this whole section of The Stylist where we were mirroring Claire (Townsend) and Olivia (Grant) as the leads: there was always the idea that Olivia was like the anti-Claire, and we tried to have the camera portray her the way Claire sees her – which is not real, it’s a little delusional, as if her life is perfect. We had this sequence where we were mirroring them and the scenes were meant to be back to back, but once I saw that it it was almost like they were destined to be side by side instead, and so I was like “This whole thing would work in split screen and we could even do that reveal like in Sisters”.

What’s scary about shooting split screen is you’re obviously only shooting one part of it at a time, so you’re hoping it works when you put it together. We were trying to put the characters in the same position and drew on a plexiglass to copy it later with the other actor. It’s complicated, and we didn’t know until it was edited together if it worked.

Carrie (1976) dir. Brian De Palma

With Carrie there’s a lot of similarities with Claire: her loneliness and the trajectory she goes on through the film, a spiral into madness. I feel like it’s also similar ’cause in our ending it’s big and theatrical, but also ultimately tragic.

Carrie doesn’t really turn into a horror movie until the last few minutes, even though it’s horrifying – the abuse she endures with her mother and everyone in the school – but it’s really a sad coming-of-age drama for most of the runtime. I feel like you need something like that underneath a film for it to really last, like just horror isn’t enough – not to upset horror fans!

Carrie’s storyline is a lot like classic monster movies – society turns this person into a monster and then they have to deal with the repercussions of what they create, like “It’s all of your faults”.

BLACK SWAN (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky

I feel like we can see with this list that we were looking to thrillers when we made The Stylist: we wanted to have that kind of tone; when we get to the kills we’re in a full-on horror movie, but I love psychological thrillers that get in your head.

Black Swan is such an incredible film. Every time I revisit it I fall in love with it all over again. And it really does have all those similarities with the other films we’ve discussed: Mila Kunis’ character is Natalie Portman’s double, and I also love that it does what is a very Aronofsky thing where you’re not sure what’s actually real anymore. It’s a freaking incredible fantasy fairy-tale horror movie.

Portman’s character just wanted this one moment of perfection: it’s very Shakespearean. I love Shakespearean tragedies, which is a hint of what we were trying to do with The Stylist too. I don’t want everyone to be sad, but I do love tragic stories: they’re beautiful in some crazy way.

I also really love the elegance of Black Swan. Of course that almost comes naturally, with it being a ballet, but that’s something we wanted our film to feel like too.

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) dir. Barbet Schroeder

I shared the script for The Stylist with a friend who’s mentored me a lot through my career and he said “This is like Single White Female if Argento wrote it”. I hadn’t seen it so I watched it and loved it. And there’s so many similarities I was like “There’s no way people are gonna believe I didn’t see this before”. Even her changing her hair to look like her. Plus Jennifer Jason Leigh’s the greatest in the world.

I love that era: there’s a lot of those psycho sexy thrillers – a comical amount – in a certain little time period. I just love Single White Female and I love it when anyone brings it up, it’s a great compliment.

INGRID GOES WEST (2017) dir. Matt Spicer

This movie really surprised me. I watched it one night at home when it was streaming and I don’t know if I expected it to be more funny or less serious, but I was just like “Wow, this is a dark, dark movie”. It’s really unique.

It’s so about consumer technology, and you can’t avoid having phones in a movie if it’s set in modern day, but Claire didn’t feel like someone who was a technology person so I wanted it to be in our film as little as possible: although we could at least reference it for how the characters dealt with it, which is totally another topic.

I spent so much time researching how you deal with text messages in a movie. As crazy as Claire might be, we all know what it feels like to send someone a message and be like “I don’t know if I should have said that.”

I feel like I should have put this on the list too but Euphoria on HBO is absolutely incredible: a visual feast. There’s a sequence near the beginning of the first season that was split screen and because it’s all about teenagers they’re on their phones all the time, so the filmmakers dealing with how you show texting and not make it boring. And in this sequence specifically they did a split screen that lead the people chatting into the same room – which was kind of like a Sisters pay-off too – and since it was a conversation they were having it show up as the person was reading it, so you’re getting the reaction versus just seeing people type, which I thought was unique. That would be our rule: if people are conversing it shows up while they’re reading, but then the rest of the time Claire is basically by herself. Euphoria and another show, Insecure on HBO, is really where I studied lots of the texting.

MAY (2002) dir. Lucky McKee

What I like about May is – like Carrie – it’s not a horror movie till the very end. She’s not a serial killer, she’s someone who just breaks and goes on a spree, which – through a lot of disturbing reading – I’ve learned is a very different mind-frame from someone who’s doing it, hiding it, is very methodical and planned.

I’m very interested in antihero stories: stories about people who are not the typical protagonist, or maybe would normally be the villain, and getting to know them and seeing how complicated that is. And when they do something bad, it’s not as simple as “They’re a monster”: there are reasons why monstrous things are done, not that it excuses them.

I think it’s easy for us, especially in the media – not to get political and talk about the death penalty – to execute people and just think about them as that one horrible thing they did when it’s not that simple. I’m really interested in those confrontational ideas: things aren’t black and white like that, and people are a mix of everything that’s happened to them.

I love that about May: you get to know her and then she does these horrible things and you still feel for her ’cause she’s still a human being that’s been traumatized a lot. Even the short film of The Stylist was really inspired by May: she’s been a big thing for me. We have a nod to her with the vanity that Claire sits at which she puts her scalps on: it’s a lot like the vanity that May has at the end of her film, looking at herself in the mirror. There’s a lot of those images I feel are similarities between May and Claire.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

I’ve always seen Leatherface, at least in the original, as like a little kid in how he acts: he’s scared and cowering all the time, he’s always hunched over and being yelled at. He doesn’t even say a word. And he’s not out there hunting for someone to kill. Someone else pointed this out to me, so I can’t take the credit, but everyone comes to him, they all come to the house one-by-one and the only person he chases is Sally at the end ’cause she escapes and they tell him to do that.

I realize that he doesn’t seem sympathetic when you first see him: there’s that moment, which is terrifying and amazing, where he shows up and hits the guy’s head and slams the door. But I think once you see him with the family, and even a little bit before that after a couple of other kids have come into the house and he’s had to deal with it, he’s pacing in front of the window, padding his head, freaking out. And then you see the interaction of the family and the cook is in charge, but Leatherface is his arm: he doesn’t have the guts to do any of this stuff, so he has him do it for him. I feel like Leatherface grew up this way, he literally knows nothing, and from his perspective he’s just feeding his family. He’s never known any other way of life. There’s something about Leatherface that’s sad to me.

And he’s always acting as whatever mask he’s wearing: at one point he’s like the motherly figure in this fucked up family. There’s a deleted scene in Chain Saw where he’s in his room looking at himself in the mirror, doing the makeup on one of those masks.

The first vision I had of The Stylist was just this woman in a creepy room – what we later called Claire’s Lair –  with wig heads with the scalps hanging on them like hunting trophies, and she’s wearing one, dancing gleefully and it just spun from there.

PSYCHO (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Norman Bates becomes his mom and wears the wig and outfit, which is interesting now that we’re talking about how Leatherface was assuming the motherly role. The inspiration for Psycho was Ed Gein and from what we understand his delusions came from what his mother taught him. I feel like that kind of base psyche from Gein has been used in countless villains: like Maniac isn’t far off; May too. They’re all very similar, in weird ways.

I love so much about Psycho. I love the way Hitchcock uses overhead shots: I really geeked out about shooting from over top. Me and my cinematographer Robert Stern made a lot of rules for The Stylist which came from all these movies. We tried very hard to be intentional with our filmmaking and everything that we did had so much thought put into it, like “We do zooms when this is happening”. We did the overhead in the short where the scalp is being pulled off and loved that shot so much that we decided we were going to overheads in the feature, but only in the kill scenes.

THE NEON DEMON (2016) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

I feel like people need to realize that Neon Demon is a fantasy horror movie. I think it was Heather Buckley, who’s a producer and all-round awesome human in the horror filmmaking world, that suggested looking at it like a Grimm Fairy Tale. And then my mind was reeling and I was like “That’s how it is, ’cause it’s ultimately about these women eating another woman to become beautiful: that’s a fairy tale idea”. And I feel if you approach it that way it’s such a freaking cool movie.

With Neon Demon it also felt like we could start a subgenre with Refn of what we’ve been calling Cosmo Horror: beauty horror. There were a lot of little things we took from it: like we were excited to have a dance club scene in The Stylist and we were trying to think of all the thrillers or horrors that have those moments – Neon Demon; A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night; Black Swan. We were really excited ’cause we were going to see Claire in this setting that’s like her worst nightmare, the most uncomfortable place in the world that she would never go. We designed Claire’s life in a very specific way so that when she went into the real world, she stood out. She looks almost like she’s from another time. We wanted her house and the salon to feel like her, but everywhere else to feel like she’s out of place.

And Neon Demon also has what I realize is an iconic scene that’s done over and over again – the mean bathroom scene. It’s lit in blue and pink and I was studying all these moments but always wanted it to make sense: it wasn’t a full giallo where every scene has bright yellow or pink lighting for no reason, like it’s not coming from somewhere natural. So we really went all out in the club: downstairs we made look like one scene; upstairs we made look like John Wick; the bathroom was a mix. I just love Refn’s work and visually I take tons of inspiration from him.

ROMEO + JULIET (1996) dir. Baz Luhrmann

Luhrmann creates a whole world that’s insane, full of crazy detail. That movie’s inspired me and my life: I love gaudy, over-the-top, theatrical set design and Romeo + Juliet is just a production designer’s dream. It gave me this obsession with religious iconography that’s just all over the film: Juliet’s room looks like it’s in a church with a gazillion angels and Virgin Marys everywhere: I just love that art. I started collecting that stuff when I was young because of that movie and I’ve put it in almost everything I’ve made somehow.

We really wanted Claire’s Lair to feel a lot like that, but a darker version. Our production designer, Sarah Sharp, really nailed how to describe it to the rest of her team when they were putting it together: she’d be like “This isn’t a typical serial killer lair which looks scary and gross and cold; this feels warm and inviting, at least for her. It’s a nest and it needs to feel circular, that way Claire’s safe in this place”.

I always wanted The Stylist to have a tragic ending, not like the a cliff-hanger to a sequel. We had started working on an outline for the film but hadn’t got super serious about writing it till one day that ending came to me when one of my friends was about to get married, and it dawned on me that the ending could be a wedding scene: I realized it would give me everything I wanted out of the finale – design-wise it could be this Gothic, theatrical, religious thing and it would check every box. And then I tried to figure out how we got there.

I was really excited when I figured out the ending, but it was also hard for me to battle with how over-the-top it was, because I wanted Claire to feel grounded still: I credit all that to Najarra, ’cause I feel like the whole thing could have been very campy with the wrong performance.

Tim Coleman

The Stylist is available now on Arrow Player and on a limited edition Blu-ray.

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