I caught up with live theater innovator and legend of horror Darren Lynn Bousman – the director behind Repo! The Genetic Opera, The Devil’s Carnival, Saw II, III, IV – for a chat on horror, world building, the filmmaker’s color palette, film scores, immersive theater as it relates to his productions The Tension Experience, The Lust Experience, and Theatre Macabre, and much more as it relates to his newest film, St. Agatha, out today in theaters and On Demand and Digital HD.

St. Agatha is a most unconventional horror flick with brains, atmosphere, and a lot to say considering the #MeToo age and its story. It's the 1950's in small town Georgia, a pregnant con woman (a fantastic Sabrina Kern) on the run seeks refuge in a convent hidden in deafening isolation. What first starts out as the perfect place to have a child turns into a dark layer where silence is forced, ghastly secrets are masked, and every bit of will power Agatha has is tested. She soon learns the sick and twisted truth of the convent and the odd people that lurk inside its halls. Agatha must now find a way to discover the unyielding strength needed to escape and save her baby before she's caged behind these walls forever.

The immersive theater experiences are well worth checking out too for a potent psychological thrill ride. Start by checking out this link for The Lust Experience to get an idea of just what it is and how it operates – check the link here for Lust's general site.. As Bousman says below, it’s like Westworld meets The Game.

Check out St. Agatha and The Tension Experience today, and stay tuned for my other interview with actress Carolyn Hennesy (who plays the Mother Superior) coming very soon, and enjoy the chat with a insanely-creative, horror master below.

Hello Darren.

Hey Wess, how you doing man?

Oh, I've been better – a little sick today with a fever.

Sorry to hear that.

It happens, thank you though. Getting right into it, what was it that attracted you to Saint Agatha as a project?

A couple of things... You know, a lot of it comes down to who has the project or who can I attach to the project. In the case of St. Agatha, I was able to work with a lot of the same people that I just got off a project with called The Tension Experience. The Tension Experience is a immersive theater production that I operate that's very much like Westworld meets The Game.

It looks incredible. I love a great psychological thriller – will definitely have to check it out.

I had met Sabrina [Kern] on that – she's the lead of The Tension Experience – and I just fell in love with her, I thought she was fantastic. So, you know when I read it and I realized that I could make Sabrina Saint Agatha, I thought that that number one excited me; number two, working with some of the other ancillary players, like the writer of The Tension Experience – Trin Miller – who plays Paula, some of the other people – that was exciting to me.

I imagine. Adds a nice cohesiveness to the film too.

You know what the other thing is is that it was... I love shooting, I just love going and making movies and it was a movie that came to me and they said, "Look, we're ready to go next week are you ready to do this?," and so it was a very easy "yes!" for me because it was something that wasn't going to turn into a huge, long development deal. It was something that was going to be done really quickly, and so that to me was another huge selling point.

Marsha Fee Berger as Sister Susan in the horror film “ST. AGATHA” an Uncork’d Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment.

Well there you go. You know, watching your other movies like Repo! and The Devil's Carnival, one thing that really jumped out at me was the world building. You're exceptional at that part especially. I'm just curious, what were the challenges like building this world in St. Agatha that's very stuck in a particular time (the late 1950s) versus in your other films that weren't so stuck in time?

So that was an interesting question because with something like Repo! or Devil's Carnival, it literally is a flamboyant, boisterous, off center type of thing where the sky's the limit. With St. Agatha you're basically set in a very specific color palette. What they can wear, what the location can look like. I couldn't be flamboyant and over the top. That said, ironically, Joseph White who is a cinematographer, was the same cinematographer as The Devil's Carnival and Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Fascinating. Was just thinking of St. Agatha’s color.

…We still use the same color palette. We're still using the storaro gels, and there's some extreme hypercolor in this. So we tried to basically set it in a realistic environment with a very nightmarish or very hell-like feel in the gels that we would use - the blown out windows, the night being like extreme blue.

Absolutely. It really accentuated the characters' state of mind well.

A simple test to show the non-cinematographer what Storaro gels do with lighting.

When they go in the coffin for example – that really, really vibrant orange. So, there was that. This was much more of a challenge for me because again I couldn't be over the top like I normally would be…

Oh it was still a good horror flick Darren. Interesting how the story's nature shaped your creativity and decisions there.  What were some of the other challenges like on St. Agatha?

So, you know, this was a... first off, it's the first movie I've done in a long time that I didn't create. I wasn't the initial writer on it, so trying to interpret what the script meant and what the writers originally envisioned was one thing. But, on a movie like this, I mean there was no time or no budget. It was a very, very modest budget, and I think we shot the movie in, I want to say 17 days – 17 or 18 – but I think it was 17 days.

Wow, yeah.

And something like this it's one take move on, one take move on. There was no trying things out, there was no experimenting, and there was no second guessing. It was literally, I would talk to the actors for a minute, we would shoot it, and we moved on. There's something liberating about that, but there's also something that's kind of frightening knowing you do it once and that's it.

Interesting. I've read about some directors who like shooting that way, even when they don't have to. Clint Eastwood being one of them.

(L-R) Carolyn Hennesy as Mother Superior and Sabrina Kern in the horror film “ST. AGATHA” an Uncork’d Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment.

Another thing that really comes out for me with it was the score and the music you guys used.

Yeah.

What was your process like with that? I gotta say it really reminded me of Goblin and their work on the original Suspiria.

That's so funny, I literally... literally one minute before I got on the phone with you I was talking to somebody about Goblin. So, when I met with the composer, a guy named Mark Sayfritz, who I've used on a couple of my films. I used him on Abattoir as well which is my film before this.

Interesting. I watched that last night. I liked the horror, film noir mix. But anyway…

I gave him three soundtracks, and I said these are the three soundtracks that I want you to kind of emulate or reference. It was Rosemary's Baby, Omen, and Suspiria – Goblin. Those were the three soundtracks.

And if you go back knowing that, listen to it, I said I loved the lullaby feel of Rosemary's Baby. I loved the chanting – kind of weird satanic chanting – of The Omen. And I loved the insanity and almost... the energy of Goblin. And as the movie progresses, it definitely turns into Suspiria towards the end. His voice and the chanting and all that kind of stuff.

Nice.

So those were, you know, Mark Sayfritz is a crazy person in the most brilliant way possible. So I think he completely, not only nailed the score, he made it a character.

He really did. He absolutely did. I hadn't thought about it as a character, but it's very true.

(L-R) Marsha Fee Berger as Sister Susan, Sabrina Kern as Mary Carolyn Hennesy and Hannah Fierman as Sarah in the horror film “ST. AGATHA” an Uncork’d Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment..

Switching gears just a little bit to a question that I ask most everybody but slightly tweaked: What makes a great horror film?

Well, there's a couple different answers to that and it changes based on what movie I'm talking about, but I think number one it's got to elicit something. Now that could be rage, that could be love, that could be disgust, it's gotta elicit something. And I think it's... the worst are the ones that do nothing, that you watch them and you walk away and you just kind of shrug. It's got to leave you with something. So number one.

Absolutely. Nothing worse than a sterile experience watching a movie.

Number two is I think that you have to be able to find something relatable in it. And I think some of the best work done, there has to be something... maybe you don't know what it's like to be trapped in a coffin, but there has to be something in it that you can relate to. I think why the Saw films worked so well is that, you might not know what it's like to fall into a pit of needles, but you might know what it's like to be scared of a singular needle. And so you take that and you exaggerate it to an extreme thing.

And so, you know, I think to me that's what makes a great horror film.

That's a great answer. It's not one I've ever heard before either – and that's a big question by nature when I ask people. Another one that I'd like to ask about, what films and directors do you consider most influential on you as an artist?

Well that changes, you know. It literally changes by the week. So, I'll go with the classics. I mean, you know, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, and the way that they just did not give a fuck. They just did what they wanted to do, and if you didn't understand what they were doing or you didn't like it, then who cares. They just did not care. I love the kind of balls and brass...they just did what they wanted to do. Terry Gilliam in the same respect. You know, watching Brazil is probably one of my biggest influences as a film maker.

Definitely. Especially with Lynch for me.

And then I look at something like Darren Aronofsky and Requiem for a Dream, which that movie to me is the quintessential horror film. Now most people would not call it a horror film, but it's horrific in every sense of the word. And so I look at somebody who can take a movie that's not traditional horror and they make it horror. I think that's what Requiem for a Dream did.

Agreed. It doesn’t get more real-life scary than that ending. Damn. Will remember it especially forever.

But then I look at something more modern, like the new Suspiria... that movie was so intense, so insane, so crazy, that you know, I look at it and I'm like this is the type of movie I aspire to do. More recently, not as recent as Suspiria, but The Witch, Robert Eggers. I saw that movie and I was just blown away... Those are all fantastic.

The Witch blew me away with how Eggers used natural light and the surroundings to get that intense claustrophobia in the film. That and the elements taken from actual primary historical sources about that time period, like the transcripts of witch trials.

He  created something new and unique. He did not try to rehash something that we've seen before. He did something completely new. So, it kind of is all over the place.

Agreed wholeheartedly. Our last question, what’s next for you?

So, I just finished a movie a few months ago in Thailand called The Death of Me, which will be coming out next year. I'm finishing post on that.

Cool. We’ll watch for it.

I'm still doing a lot of immersive theater stuff, and immersive theater's kind of my passion. And if you don't know anything about what I do, I highly recommend people check out The Tension Experience, The Lust Experience and Theatre Macabre – which are basically real world versions of The Game meets Westworld where an audience is the primary central role in the narrative, and the audience themselves unlock the narrative by the choices they make. It's kind of a... it's a drug, and I'm 100% addicted to it.

ST. AGATHA trailer.

From The Tension Experience on YouTube.

"Mark It Up" from REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA.

THE DEVIL'S CARNIVAL trailer.

SAW II trailer.