This week saw the release of the 1960s-set musical fantasy film Bang Bang Baby. The film is the debut feature film for director Jeffrey St. Jules, who developed the film in the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation. Bang Bang Baby had its premiere at the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Canadian First Feature. I had the opportunity to speak to Jeffrey St. Jules and discuss Bang Bang Baby.
Interview: Jeffrey St. Jules on Bang Bang Baby
The initial idea for Bang Bang Baby arrived for Jeffrey St. Jules about a decade ago when he was watching the Anne Margaret character in Viva Las Vegas. “There was something really compelling about her performance and when she danced, she had something a bit manic and intense and crazy about her,” says St. Jules. “I sort of imagined this subplot of the movie that she was this character, who was trying to live in a world of a musical, but she couldn’t really relate to these two dimensional characters. It was slowly driving her insane.” One of the main inspirations for the looks and colours of the film was Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which also had themes of life an reality that appealed to St. Jules. “Even though it’s so over the top, I wanted to end on a more life-affirming note that’s not fantasy, but reality,” says St. Jules on how Cherbourg influenced the plot of Bang Bang Baby. Other influences on Bang Bang Baby include the 1960s Elvis Presley films, as well as An American in Paris.
At the centre of the story of Bang Bang Baby is the character of Stepphy, who is the typical small town girl with big dreams. Throughout the writing process, Jeffrey St. Jules would make a list of potential actresses, who he could see playing Stepphy. “I had my list, but it was pretty short,” says St. Jules about casting Stepphy. “It’s just such a specific character in my head, I didn’t feel that it could just be anybody.” Ultimately, the role of Stepphy went to actress Jane Levy, who is best known for her role on the TV series Suburgatory, as well as the 2013 remake of Evil Dead. “Jane was actually the first person we offered it to and luckily enough, she was into it,” says St. Jules about Levy’s casting.
The casting of Jane Levy opened the doors for the rest of the cast to come on board, particularly Justin Chatwin (Shameless) in the lead male role of Elvis-like rock star Bobby Shore. “We were pretty excited about him from the beginning and he just got the naivety of his character and he just sort of inhabited it so well,” says St. Jules about Chatwin. A slightly more unlikely bit of casting in the film was Peter Stormare (Fargo) as Stepphy’s alcoholic father. “He wasn’t really how we originally imagined the character. He was more a sad sack, wimpy kind of character in my head originally,” says St. Jules of the character. “I think it was my producer, who had the idea of Peter Stormare and it was kind of inspiring to have the craziness of him and the sort of volatility of the character. So, we just put out an offer to him, which we didn’t finally confirm until a week into shooting.”
The songs for Bang Bang Baby were developed throughout the writing process, with Jeffrey St. Jules writing the songs into the script. However, since the writing process for the film was so long, many musical numbers went unused. The final songs that appear in the film were created in collaboration with the film’s composers Richard Pell and Darren Fung. “I would write the lyrics myself, with a little musical idea, I would strum on a guitar, and I’d bring it to main composer Richard Pell,” says St. Jules of the songwriting process. “He would more often not just throw away my musical ideas and just come up with something better, but it would sort of give an idea of the tone I was going for the song.”
Many of the actors in the film, including Jane Levy, sang their own songs, though Justin Chatwin, who is admittedly not a singer, was dubbed over by other performers. However, Jeffrey St. Jules likes this overdubbing, since he wanted for there to be an unrealistic feeling when Bobby Shore was singing. “He supposed to be an amazing singer, so we had other people record his parts and it kind of adds this artificiality to when he’s singing,” says St. Jules about Bobby Shore’s singing. “You can tell that his lips aren’t really moving exactly with how the singing’s going and we liked that stylistically.”
In addition to being a 1960s-influenced musical, Bang Bang Baby also sports a science fiction element, involving a leak at the nearby Purple Mist Plant, which causes strange mutations to happen throughout the town. This eventually results in the film making a somewhat dark tonal shift in the second half. In talking about this shift in tone, St, Jules said that he wanted to have the suggestion that this wasn’t going to be the average happy musical and that there were clues peppered throughout, which he hoped that would make it feel earned when the film headed into darker territory. “I always think of it as a beautiful dream that turns into a nightmare for [Stepphy],” says St. Jules of the tonal shift. “I wanted it to feel like she was in some kind of dream, like an unreality. And the more she was trying to live in that beautiful fantasy, the darker reality seemed to her, so it started to appear more like a nightmare, but it was all through her interpretation. The fantasy and the nightmare I hoped would always be connecting to how that character is at that moment, what she’s going through.”
Bang Bang Baby ended up having a bit of a divided reaction when it debuted at TIFF, with some people loving the film and others not loving it so much. However, the film still ended up winning the Best Canadian First Feature Award, which St. Jules considered to be an unexpected and pleasant way to end the festival. “It was a jury that I really respected and it was just nice to have other filmmakers and people getting on board and saying ‘I get what you’re doing’.”
Jeffrey St. Jules is currently writing his follow-up to Bang Bang Baby, which he describes as a Nancy Drew-type teen detective story. “It’s not as over-the-top as Bang Bang Baby, it’s a little more of a straight detective story, but that said, I’m sort of playing with some similar tonal feelings,” says St. Jules about this film. “I want [the main character] to grow out of the Nancy Drew character and become a complex person and right person.”
Bang Bang Baby is now playing at the Cineplex Varsity Cinema