Artist, writer, musician, producer… Terrance Zdunich is a man of many talents, inviting us into his demented and fantastical creation, The Devil’s Carnival!
An InterView with Terrance Zdunich of Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
After the success of Repo! The Genetic Opera, writer/performer Terrance Zdunich and director Darren Lynn Bousman set about to create a whole new series that would push the boundaries of the medium and deliver a subversive yet darkly enticing experience – The Devil’s Carnival. Featuring an even wider assortment of acting and musical talent, the 56-minute episode presented a lavish vision of hell as a twisted carnival, wherein three tortured souls would endure the torments of damnation as only a pack of deranged carnies can deliver, revolving around variations of Aesop’s Fables, and ending with the Devil’s declaration of war with Heaven. The Devil’s Carnival received numerous accolades and much critical acclaim, making it all too inevitable that a second installment in the series would be forthcoming. Now set as a full feature-length movie, Alleluia! promises not only to expand on the richly dark experience of the first, but even take viewers in unexpected directions, driven by a diverse cast that includes Broadway legends like Adam Pascal (Rent, Cabaret), Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), and Barry Bostwick (Grease, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), actors Dayton Callie (Sons of Anarchy), Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider, Kung Fury), and musicians like Jimmy Urine (Mindless Self Indulgence), rapper Tech N9ne, Carla Harvey and Heidi Shepherd (The Butcher Babies), Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), and Emilie Autumn. With the cast and crew of Alleluia! about to embark on a road show tour to premiere the movie, Terrance Zdunich speaks with ReGen about his fantastical creation and his artistic process.
What happened between the completion of the first episode and this one that affected how you approached the story?
Zdunich: A lot of things. I do want to start off by saying that even though this is a much bigger movie – it’s feature-length, there’s more music, a bigger cast, and a bigger budget – it’s still very much an independent movie. I don’t just mean that because the budget was a certain amount; the entire spirit of it was very independent. And sometimes when you don’t have a committee or a movie mill that you have to answer to, it’s a blessing in a sense. You can do things like change the title at the last minute without needing to go through a bureaucracy. It’s very much in the independent spirit, and I think a movie like Alleluia!, as opposed to a more traditional movie, or certainly a more mainstream movie, is a musical. It’s not even a mainstream musical; it’s a cult thing with the Devil singing with big bang music and this Satanic Disneyland ride. It’s its own thing, and it’s something that obviously we all love. For my part, I’ve been working on this for four years. I started writing it from the tour van for the first Devil’s Carnival, and all we really knew at that point was that we wanted to do something that was bigger and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. In doing so, we started talking about introducing Heaven, and that process led down this rabbit hole of endless revisions and coming up with song ideas, my writing partner Saar Hendelman and I going back and forth, and we probably threw out 10 times more songs than ended up in the final movie. But it’s a constant back and forth, and sometimes you don’t even really know what it’s all about until the ending. In terms of the title Alleluia!, it almost became a pledge or a mantra in the Heaven of our story; it felt kind of nationalistic in one way, or spiritual in another, and it just really came to be the antithesis to the kind of carnie lifestyle that we depicted in the first one. It just seemed right to kind of put that in front of The Devil’s Carnival as a kind of way of saying ‘This is not what you’re used to. We’re shaking it up.’ And we are.
As far as the casting, you have Ted Neeley from the original Jesus Christ Superstar, Adam Pascal from Rent, and Barry Bostwick from the original Broadway run of Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and one could say those were all subversive musicals for their time. What was it like having that kind of history involved and do you feel their presence affected how you approached the material?
Zdunich: They are all icons, and it’s always a little weird when you’re talking to someone like Ted Neeley and you’re giving him musical notes. But you get over that and realize that they are here to make a movie and do a great job, just like you. It’s cool! Darren Bousman and I are both big fans of Jesus Christ Superstar, and getting to work with that… we were definitely fanboy-ing about it on the set. It’s crazy to think that he’s singing a song that I wrote. But in terms of the personalities changing the movie, I don’t think that was really part of the equation. Of course, I’m sure sometimes that’s just going to happen naturally because somebody comes in and breathes life into a role. But I think with a musical movie, it’s a lot harder to do that than with a regular movie. For one, you have to record the singing parts at least well before you shoot, and then they have to lip-sync back to their performance on the set, so you need to have it in advance. And there are so many moving parts of that that have to be locked down – the musical notes, the tempos, what have you. So you don’t really have the freedom to improvise a scene like you might with a traditional movie. It’s a lot more choreographed I suppose in that regard. But that said, if you have someone like Ted Neeley or Adam Pascal, then clearly, you want to play to their strengths, and I think we did. I mean, Ted can still hit those fucking notes like it’s nobody’s business, so as a fan, I want to hear that.
How did your partnership with Saar Hendelman begin, and in what ways do you feel your working relationship with him compares to your earlier association with Darren Smith?
Zdunich: Well, it’s hard to say. Saar and I have been friends for a long time; actually, before I met Darren Smith, I think. I’ve known him for a long time and I was sort of a fan of his work as a piano player, as a singer/songwriter, and as a very gifted arranger and he’s much more sophisticated in that regard than I. He even played piano on a lot of the tracks featured in Repo!, including a lot of prepared piano work on that. So I think when I started working on The Devil’s Carnival, I’d always wanted to work with him, but I think he just seemed the right fit for that body… that sort of Satanic burlesque or something. We started working together on the first one, and I think our writing chemistry and how we work together just flowed really nicely, so I absolutely had to ask him to work on the second one, and we’ve actually subsequently been working on a music project together that we’re hoping to release next year.
You are an artist, a writer, a musician, and an actor/singer/performer, so you are clearly multi-talented, which reminds me of Orson Welles – he too was a stage actor, a painter, a radio performer, magician, and had said that he felt people overspecialized too much in one field, meanwhile stating that criticisms against him for not specializing in one medium or another was a reaction against him not being as good as they felt he should be. Since artists have greater avenues and outlets to work independently thanks to the internet, what are your thoughts on how you as an artist and the world of art in general benefit from this?
Zdunich: Well, I suppose I wear a lot of hats and while some of those hats might seem like I’m doing a lot of everything, clearly there are a lot of collaborators working on any movie. But I think for me personally, a lot of it comes out of necessity. Yes, I’d like to think that I’m talented, but I do have a fine arts background and I kind of stumbled into making movies. As a fine artist, your job is to procure the canvas or make it – you come up with an idea, you execute it, and after you’ve figured it out, you can sell it or hang it. To me, movies are odd in the sense that people are so specialized and do only one thing, and then it gets even more bizarre when you have things like union and you only can do one thing, and if you do something else, then suddenly you’re crossing lines. So for me, I think it all just came naturally in that I just look at a project and I get in there and figure it out. On Repo!, I was never actually planning on doing any drawings for it, but it just happened out of necessity. So it was cool to have that in my corner, and I’m glad I have those skills and they’ve been really helpful in communicating through to my audience, and sometimes if I can sketch out an idea, that will go further than trying to simply describe an idea. In terms of the internet or how that all works out, it’s hard to say. There’s a part of me that goes, ‘Why am I making my life so difficult by writing these musicals that take lots of money and years off my life and require hundreds of people to get off the ground? Maybe I should just go back to painting on a canvas.’ But I think with The Devil’s Carnival, we are certainly utilizing the internet in new ways, especially in the way that we’re engaging with the fan base and trying to make even that part of the process an art project.
It certainly seems so as you’re touring the new movie with the road show, which has something of a more classical theatre or vaudevillian feel, which befits the musical side of things. How do you feel the road show accentuates the experience of the movie, and how do you feel audiences are reacting to the juxtaposition of these different mediums?
Zdunich: Well, first of all, I hope you’ll come out to see it! I think there is something both new and old that we are touching on. On the one hand, it feels very natural, I think, what we are doing with this project, and this was true of Repo! as well. Repo! began originally as a theatre piece, and part of that journey was that it had runs onstage in Los Angeles and New York before it eventually came to be made as a movie. What we’re doing here, generally speaking, is a very communal experience – it’s a cast and crew of people who get together and spend a lot of time together nightly, and in that experience, everyone is doing a little of everything. You might be a performer, but you’re also running the soundboard or hanging lights or putting up the backdrops; it’s very much an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of feel. It breeds this real sense of community, and I think that translates to the audiences that come to see it, which often times is made up of friends and family. So I think knowing where that kind of began, it was a very natural progression to be touring it, and incidentally, I think that sort of theatre feeling of community and family has been present on all of our sets. You’ll see people walking around singing between takes, and that’s true of even the contractors who you would think would normally be there and it’s all business and they’re just removed. But when you’re playing music and you can tell that everyone’s passionate and really in it for the ride, it really creates an energy and I think that energy spills over into the movie itself and how you watch it, and of course, the fans that are into this are into this type of thing are just like us; they like the same shit that we do. Part of that is really that community aspect; yes, you’re coming out, you’re watching a movie, you’re listening to music, but it’s more than that. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s really a lifestyle, and as at least one of the artists behind this community is pretty fucking cool! And even a grandiose Hollywood type of premiere or whatever, which I’m sure would be great, but I’m not sure you would get that same communal experience. So going on the road not only feels very natural for what the project is, but as an artist and for everyone involved – myself, the director, for Saar, the cast – it just feels like you’re part of something that matters, even if it’s just for that moment and for just a handful of people, it really matters and it’s special. To be there and to be one of the spearheads of it is pretty cool! On the one hand, I’m dreading living out of a van for two months, but on the other hand, I’m really excited to not only share the work but to be there for that experience. It’s humbling and it makes it all worthwhile.
The Devil’s Carnival crosses several boundaries of both genre and medium – it’s a movie, it’s a musical, it’s a theatre piece, it’s fantasy/horror, etc. Do you feel that there will ever be a time when the need for labels of that sort may break down so you can just present the work?
Zdunich: I don’t know, and truthfully, I don’t know if I really care, and I don’t mean that to evade the question. I guess when I’m creating, I’m not too concerned about it. Honestly, I think the hardest question as an artist that sometimes is hard to ask or even answer because we get so caught up in the minutiae of whatever it is you’re creating – say amassing funds, assembling a cast of people that you dig, shooting it, editing it, recording it, and all of that has been a four-year-long journey for me, and it’s a lot of work. You could get caught up in the minutiae that you just have to ask if this is something that I would actually like. I try to do that. I don’t know if it always works because of all of the turns that a project tends to take, but I think that’s what I try to do and that’s what Saar and I try to do, so the complexity comes more from trying to do that and to not be boring. So you go back and forth, and I suppose at the very end, you can just say, ‘Okay, well here it is.’ I suppose we need to do that because not everybody was there for the journey, so they just need to know how to digest it. It seems weird to me that people are comparing what we’re doing to Rocky Horror in that regard; I get it in the sense that there are not a lot of things that people know about that are weird musicals with this rabid interactive fan base. On the one hand, I’m flattered by the comparison, but on the other hand, I don’t think there’s really much similarity in it at all, aside from perhaps having an audience that likes them. Ultimately, I just hope that people are compelled enough by what we’re doing, the subversion and the blood, sweat, and tears to want to come out and see the movie. And the one thing about the tour that I’ve found over the years to be true is meeting people who don’t like this kind of movie that probably would never have liked it if they just watched it at home because it just doesn’t translate in the same way that it does when you’re there with the community – I’ve seen people of all ages, all types, all genres come out to these things and say, ‘That was a lot of fun! I’ve never had an experience like that!’ That might be waving our own flag pretty boldly, but I think even if the movie sucks, even if you hate the music, there’s a real energy to the road tour, so I hope that people will come out and experience that… and of course, I hope they will like the movie and like the music as well.
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