After the success and acclaim of her short film, The Stylist, back in 2016, director Jill Gevargizian decided to transform the short into her feature film debut. Following the lonely hairstylist Claire, played by Najarra Townsend, as she becomes obsessed with her clients lives, wanting to connect with others but instead feeding her own disturbed desires. As well as directing the film, Gevargizian is also a co-writer, producer and even has a cameo. Ahead of the Final Girls Berlin festival this month, we caught up with Gevargizian to talk about how this elegant horror came into being.
Filmhounds: Where did you get the idea for The Stylist?
Jill Gevargizian: It dawned on me one day, ‘how is there not already a slasher movie about a hairstylist?'. It seems an obvious idea but I think the reason is because it's such a female-dominated industry and not a lot of women have made horror films until recent times. Maybe a man just never thought of that world before. At the beginning the basic concept was that there were so many, this sounds morbid, but there were so many ways to torture or kill someone in a salon, there are quite a few tools that you could use. I was thinking of the film as more of a silly slasher, but wondering why doesn't this already exist, like Dr Giggles. I like that sort of film but I'm not passionate about making it so when I started to form the idea, I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do. I'm more interested in anti-heroes and character pieces. I fused the ideas together and created a complicated, technically bad person as I've always loved those kinds of stories about people that aren't just black and white, they're just bad or good, it's very layered and complex. Leatherface is one of my favourite villains, he's sad and complicated too, so she (the stylist) started as a female version of him, like the wearing of the skin and I envisioned her wearing the hair scalps in a room with all her trophies on manikin heads. She'd be wearing one and be dancing around like she was happy, but only when she was wearing the hair. That's where the idea came from, that this was an escape for her which is how Leatherface is with his masks. Also, a lot of indie filmmakers follow these parameters of what do I know, which is also something writers do, and what do I have access to that is unique to me, such as the salon to shoot in, and me being a hairstylist, knowing how they actually operate, what it's like to talk to a client and I thought this was something unique I could do, unlike anyone else.
FH: I was thinking about whether there was any other film I could compare it to and I couldn't think of a film where a hairstylist was the main protagonist or villain so in that respect, it is unique. As a hairstylist yourself, you know how they work, what techniques to use. In other films you can see that this level of detail isn't always taken into account. Did you want to show the details which Najarra (plays Claire) uses throughout the film, in the opening scene in particular?
JG: I wanted other hairstylists to watch the movie and to realise we did it as close to reality as possible. As you said you see people playing a profession in other films and sometimes it looks very weird. When it came down to the salon scenes, the scheduling of it, my mind started melting, what was I thinking, having a scene where's she's styling someone's hair. At the start of the scene, the hair is normal, and then by the end it's styled and we have all this conversation in the middle. We had to shoot from all these angles, it was a nightmare for continuity. Plus everything that was going on in the background. This is probably why no one has made a film about a hairstylist. This is insane!
JG: The opening scene we shot in sections, we broke it down to, at this point, this is what the background looks like, this is what stage her hair is in, phase two, these people have left, she's standing on this side. We tricked some of these parts with shooting so you're not seeing exactly where she's painting the hair colour. The continuity for these scenes were very challenging. We had Najarra, our lead actress, really study and practice. I just really wanted it to look natural, the way she has her hands in the hair which is something that becomes effortless after years. She had a manikin head which we work within cosmetology schools, she would blow-dry its hair every day and brushed it at home for months ahead of the shoot. She even practised cutting some of her friends' hair, I'm sorry to those people. In close-ups, as there are a lot of extreme close-ups of blow-drying and hair washing, that looks all romantic and in slow motion, they are actually someone else's hands. We have stunt hands technically, in the movie. That's Sarah Sharpe our production designer and one of the main producers. She also has a cosmetology license so we just painted her nails the same colour as Najarra's and had her doing the hair washing and curling in close-ups. This kind of technique takes years to look like it's like second nature but any time you see Najarra and more than just her hands she had to do, she put a lot of work into it.
FH: How long did the opening scene actually take to shoot?
JG: We shot in the salon specifically for 3 days, maybe 4. But we shot the opening scene in one day. The special effects themselves takes up a whole day. We had Jennifer Seward (plays Sarah) come in on a different day to do all the dialogue and the special effects on another. Putting on all the prosthetics takes hours and then shooting and then praying it's going to work the first time. Getting the salon was challenging because everyone was still working there during the day then we'd shoot at night. On our budget, we had to shoot it very quickly, in 19 days.
FH: That is a very quick shoot.
JG: It's long for a low budget feature. Even a couple of million-dollar films do 20 days or so.
FH: Just thinking about how long it takes to do the prosthetics, the first shocking moment is when we get to see the first victim's scalp, which is in the salon, taking that into account, can you tell me how this was done? What was the process?
JG: It's takes a lot of preparation before the shoot, not even the hours before we are going to shoot it, but months of prepping goes into it. What was extra challenging about these prosthetics compared to just doing someone's skin, with taking someone's hair off we had to think about casting. Whoever we cast; their hair needed to be easy for us to find a wig that looks like the same because we're not a 100-million-dollar film where we can ask actors if we can colour their hair. We needed the best performer but we also needed to turn their hair into a wig AND we had to cast them earlier than normal as we needed time to create the whole prosthetic. I even had Jennifer meet me at a wig shop because I needed her there to make sure it was going to work. They weren't perfect matches, but with lighting and colour correction you can make things look good on screen. We worked with a special effect's artist, Colleen May who also worked with us on the short film and we recreated the opening scene for the feature, with a few little changes but it is almost shot for shot the same as the short. Colleen has experience in making wigs and creates all kinds of things as she's not just special effects, she works on the Nutcracker ballet every year in Kansas City where she does wig work. To make the scalp and hair, she would remove the front part of the wigs we bought, used all different types of material to create fake skin but then she'd feed fake hair through that skin so the front looks better than just being a wig, it's incredibly detailed. When it comes down to putting the wig on the actor, she put a bald cap first to cover the real hair and there are all these disgusting muscles that she puts on there with tons of fake blood then places the scalp on top of that. It's a layered effect that when you pull it off, you're just hoping that whatever is underneath still in the right spot or looks good. In the opening scene there are actually tubes of blood underneath the fake scalp so that we could pump fresh blood out of it when Najarra is cutting the scalp with scissors. Another cool thing we did was have another tube hiding behind the blade so that blood is coming out of the scissors in the close-ups, so we could use the real skin. We would say ‘we need the regular shears, we need the blood shears for this shot!'. It's not as much of a slasher compared to Maniac for instance where there are ten kills. We had a manageable number of special effects where we would only be dealing with them for about 3 big days. So we knew they would be the most nerve-racking because you just don't know what's going to happen until you film it.
We had a lot of actual challenges on set, we didn't know how it was going to turn out but then when we cut it together it looked awesome and disgusting but it was very challenging especially with all the practical effects. That's why a lot of films use digital effects and none of us horror fans like that. But with digital, they know what it will be. When you're shooting blood spraying across the room you don't know if it's going to be on camera or land in the wrong place. It's the time and uncertainty that filmmakers don't want to gamble on. But with horror that's a huge part of the art of it.
FH: An audience want to see something that looks real. It's said too often ‘we'll fix it in post' if it doesn't go according to plan.
JG: You just feel something about it with in-camera effects. Not to belittle CGI because there is a place for it and it can look incredible and often, we fused the two together, practical and digital, as there are actually tiny amounts of CGI in The Stylist which you may or may not notice, just to enhance the practical.
FH: I don't think I'd be able to pick out when that happens, probably being enthralled about the practical effects.
FH: You mention that The Stylist is not like a traditional slasher film, it has a different pacing, the amount of gore included is elegant, if you can say that about horror. This rather feeds into the character of Claire as she doesn't seem like ‘a typical killer' and there's a lot we don't know about her. We aren't given an insight to her character through words, it's through expressions, her emotions and her lair. What was the thought process behind her character? She becomes obsessed and enthralled by her clients lives and wanting to be a part of their lives yet she herself looks like a fully formed person that you wouldn't thought needed to be attached to anyone else.
JG: We always to structure the film like a psychological thriller, which there are lot I like from the 90s and 70s, that's what we were trying to do but then once we get to the kills it is like a full-on horror movie. I do like gore but when there is substance in the movie still, it's not that is all there is. Elegance in general was our aim in everything. We're making an elegant version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With Claire, I always envisioned her as a very methodical, she's very planned out which is why this isn't a fast pace kill kill slasher story and I don't think any real killer operates that way, that's like losing your mind and going on a spree verses someone is methodical and gets away with it for years. Everything about Claire we connected to the idea that she is very internal, introverted, everything is planned out, mapped out which probably comes from me as that's how I am. Her wardrobe, which I was obsessed with, was an idea that came about when I was listening to our wardrobe stylist, Halley Sharp talking about the difference between Claire's and Olivia's characters that everything Claire wears be fitted, a lot of thought and effort was put into it, connects to her personality. Compared to Olivia who was casual in t-shirts and loose, a go with the flow feeling. We were trying to get those feelings into their wardrobe. The specific look of Claire's wardrobe was that I wanted to feel as if her whole life she was from another time like she stands out everywhere. Her personal colour palette is this 70s warm, yellows and browns and everything else around her is cool coloured. We wanted her to feel out of place even though she is gorgeous and her outfits are awesome. She's not a part of this world except when she's at home or the salon where it matches her vibe. That was our idea with the look. Claire is such a quiet character and that's how she's always been written and we were just so fortunate to have worked with Najarra who can say so much by barely moving her face. There are so many instances in the movie where she reacts to something where I just think she just nails reaction without even saying anything. It's such an understated kind of role and half of it is just her by herself not talking, the actor needs a presence for that to work.
FH: Was Najarra there from the beginning when you were writing The Stylist?
JG: We wrote the short film first and I had met her the year prior when I saw her film Contracted, another horror film she stars in and she stuck in my mind ever since I saw her in that film. She was striking in her appearance but also in her presence in a film. After we shot the short back in 2014/15 and started writing the feature immediately after and she was involved in reading every draft so since the short she's been there to develop the character with us which I think makes all the difference. She knows her (Claire) as much as I do, we created her together. On set I'd be blocking a moment with my cinematographer and AD and I'd ask Najarra, ‘would Claire do that?' and she'd say ‘no!'. It would something as simple as walking a certain way, but she would say the camera needs to be over there because Claire would never do that. We had this trust in each other, we'd just know what she (Claire) would do.
FH: It's great that you were both connected to the character, I think it really shows. The fact that Najarra was involved on that level, it really comes across that you both put everything into this and it came out amazing.
The film is currently being shown at festivals at the moment and will be streaming on Arrow player from March, is that right?
JG: The film will be streaming on Arrow Player from March 1st and in June released on VOD and Bluray which is so exciting as we've been working on close with Arrow on the artwork, special features and there's going to be a lot of exciting stuff.
FH: I'm a big fan of physical media so this is extra exciting news about the Arrow release.
JG: We were so excited to work with Arrow because people collect their releases and you know, as a filmmaker, there's no doubt you can trust them 100%, these are people who love movies. They've completely made us apart of the team to put it together so that's a really cool experience.
FH: Can you tell us what you're working on next?
JG: I've got a couple of features that are in development that I didn't write but am attached to. I'm really excited about both of them. At the same time, I'm working on all the distribution, sales, festival stuff to do with The Stylist right now. The only discouraging thing is that so much is in the air at the moment because of Covid. I feel it is a challenging time to get something off the ground but people are making films. It's also a challenging time personally, trying to be motivated. I've seen so many people over the last year talk about how creative people have been hard on themselves because we feel like we have all this extra time and thinking that I should have 20 scripts written. But all of this is weighing on us and it's hard to be inspired. These projects we're trying to get off the ground I am excited about them but I can't talk about any of them in detail yet so it's not fun to talk about the story.
FH: Completely understand. I've seen lots of people completing projects and I just think how? But seeing as lots of creative people are feeling the same way, not motivated, I've started to not feel as bad. We shouldn't put this pressure on ourselves even though creative people put the most pressure on themselves.
JG: Exactly, that pressure is like a catch 22 because that's what makes us do something but also makes us feel bad about not doing enough, at least that's how I am. I've been so thankful to have The Stylist, this whole year, as we got it shot right before the world shut down. By some sort of miracle, we somehow knew that was coming. We've gone through post-production in this pandemic and all the film festivals and it kept me productive. It has been good to have this to keep me busy. It is interesting as people always ask, what's next, but there is so much work we're doing such creating all these special features for the blu ray release, for instance, I've got a commentary to do which I am excited to do.
The Stylist will be screening at Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 4-7 February 2021
Before being released on premium Blu-ray and Digital HD in June 2021, you can see it first on ARROW from March 1st 2021.