After helping to turn the “Saw” franchise into the highest-grossing horror series in history, writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman hit a roadblock with his original 2008 horror musical “Repo! The Genetic Opera.” Lionsgate didn’t give the film much of a release, so Bousman and his collaborator, co-writer-composer Terrance Zdunich, turned screenings of “Repo!” into a traveling tour in the vein of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
A bit of a cult fanbase formed around it, and Bousman realized there was an audience out there for a whole different kind of low-budget, scary-funny experience. Even though he then went on to write and/or direct other more straightforward films — a remake of “Mother’s Day,” the originals “11-11-11” and “The Barrens” — Bousman eventually dove back into the traveling horror musical world with “The Devil’s Carnival,” the first in a planned series of audience-interactive song-and-sin spectacles that he created with Zdunich.
In the big-screen version of “Carnival,” Alexa Vega, Marc Senter, Sean Patrick Flanery, Emilie Autumn and Paul Sorvino (as a singing God!) play out a scenario involving lost souls condemned to face their earthly sins. But the real performances came in the never-the-same-show-twice public screenings the “Carnival” filmmaking crew booked around the country, altering the format, elements and prizes each time and encouraging fans to bring their own private freak shows.
After two separate mini-tours during 2012, one in the spring and one in the summer, Bousman was raving about the potential for more and the possibilities for other creative types with the right kind of crazy energy, genre-playful imagination, innovative flexibility and functional drinking problem. Next for him is the second installment in the “Devil’s Carnival” series, revealed here for the first time and scheduled to begin filming early in 2013: “Episode One dealt with establishing the rules of Hell,” Bousman says, “but Episode Two will pull back the curtain on Heaven… and in ‘The Devil’s Carnival,’ God and his angels are a whole lot darker than Lucifer and his carnies.”
With limited copies of the first “Carnival” coming out on DVD and Blu-ray Oct. 23 — along with a slew of commentaries, featurettes and collectibles from the many events — Bousman shared with Indiewire the ingredients that go into making the macabre “Repo!”/“Carnival” stew.
“It’s all about the material. I mean, there are a million movies better than ‘The Devils Carnival’ that wouldn’t work with what we’re doing. You couldn’t take ‘Terms of Endearment’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ out and do a road tour. It just wouldn’t be fun, and it wouldn’t be funny. The movie itself encourages absurdity. I mean, we’re in Hell, we have Lucifer singing, we have Paul Sorvino belting out ridiculous tunes, and it makes it laughable in a way that the audience is encouraged to participate with it. Now, if I’m gonna watch ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ in a touring situation, it’s not gonna be cool. It’s a great movie, I love it, but it’s not fun. It’s the same way that something like ‘The Big Lebowski’ has turned into Lebowski Fest. It’s a fun movie to start off with, you’re watching it, and the Dude is fucking awesome, so a bunch of people can congregate, drink white Russians and have a good time, because the movie encourages it. A movie I think it would work for is ‘Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,’ because a movie like that is ridiculous, and it promotes that.”
“The biggest component that we have going for us is the musicality of it. People like to sing — be it in the shower, in a car, in a club, in a concert, they like to sing. They sing out loud, whether they know how to sing or not.”
“One thing we do in any ‘Devil’s Carnival’ event is embrace the weird and unusual. Everyone feels welcomed to this thing, and there are no cliques. Be it a 600-pound Goth chick wearing a corset 15 sizes too small, a skinny guy with glasses or a jock, no matter who you are you’re embraced here and you’re welcomed. A lot of movies, and a lot of things, are clique-based. ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is the first thing I saw that embraced being who you are, and that’s kind of what this is. You see a lot of people that come out of their selves when they come to ‘The Devil’s Carnival.’ They dress up like Halloween, they wear costumes, they’re involved in it. The biggest component is the interaction. The movie has to be interactive with the fans. There’s a blog on my website called Random Thoughts From the Road, and you can see pictures of the events, the madness and mayhem that surrounds these things.”
“Another thing that happened with ‘Repo’ and what’s happening with this is that, there weren’t billboards saying, ‘Go see ‘Repo,’ it’s cool!’ There weren’t bus stop ads or truck stop ads or commercials or anything else like that. It was word of mouth. If the fans found it, they embraced it, and because of that they felt a part of it from the very beginning. A lot of times you see movies that try to be made a cult, where the promotion is about that. And we were lucky that the fans are the ones that took on the progression of the movie, who took to Facebook and Twitter and basically ran a campaign. So word of mouth was huge coming out of the gate, because it was from them, they were the mouthpiece for it, not a PR company trying to understand what we did and make it sellable. It was the fans. And when you make something like this, it’s all about the fans, it’s the only way it would work.”
“The greatest thing about what we’re doing is, you’re going to know in the first 25 seconds if you’ve made a terrible mistake when you showed up. You see these people right away. When they walk in, they’re like, ‘Holy shit, what did we just do? This is not ‘Magic Mike,” and they immediately walk out. When the movie starts and five minutes in you hear Paul Sorvino belting out music with these ridiculous-looking people running around and singing, you’re either in or you’re not in. The fans get that as well. They know that they’re going to be surrounded by like-minded people, it’s not like people come in with a wall around them. They know right away that it’s okay if you’re a guy to dress like a girl or if you’re a girl to dress like a guy — you can come dressed like a clown, or a demonic whatever, and you’re not going to be judged. You are praised for how individual or crazy you look.”
“We give out prizes, and there are contests, people are called on stage. We give out posters and T-shirts and things like that, of course, but some of the prizes are even cooler than that. We ran a contest where we released the scene of ‘Trust Me’ (the song sung by Marc Senter, Jessica Lowndes and Emilie Autumn), and we went to the fans and said, ‘Do your own version of ‘Trust Me,’record yourself doing it, and we’re going to pick the winners.’ The winners show now before the movie begins. So if you’re a fan in Boise, Idaho, and have aspirations of being a singer or just being ridiculous, you’re now in front of thousands and thousands of people with your song. We also do costume contests, and we’re doing a new thing to try and encourage artists to create art and send it to us, by state, and we’re going to set up an email address for every state that we’re in. And we pick the winner and call them up on stage, and put their art out on stage and on Facebook to encourage other artists not to be scared, to just do what they do, and we’ll help you get it out there.”
Location. (And booze.)
“We’re in a van driving across America, and you look at a map. We appeal to the fringe, the kind of outside-of-the-norm, so you look out for the cities where that is embraced. We choose places that sort of embrace the kind of culture that we’re showing. Dallas is actually one of our bigger successes, but we obviously did all the Alamo Drafthouses. We love going to places that have alcohol, mainly, because I’m an alcoholic and I enjoy a good beverage. Actually, the entire tour is basically just to support my drinking habit. I have a constant stream of Jack Daniels in my system at all times. Outside of the alcohol poising and trying to figure out where we’re going to bury the prostitutes every night, it’s actually a fun adventure.”