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Terrance Zdunich of Repo! The Genetic Opera

Originally published in 2008

After being pushed back from an April release, the highly anticipated movie musical “Repo! The Genetic Opera” will finally be unleashed on November 7, 2008. Based on a stage musical, the sci-fi/horror tale of a future where organs are harvested for profit has one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled. Who would ever have thought that Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy) would appear in a musical with Sarah Brightman (star of several Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals) AND Paris Hilton? In an email interview, co-creator/ co-writer / cast member Terrance Zdunich tolds us a bit about “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and its transition from stage to screen.

CAN YOU ELABORATE A BIT ABOUT THE EARLY HISTORY OF “REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA”?

Repo! is a project that’s been in the works for almost 10 years now. It started in 1999 when Darren Smith, Repo’s co-writer, and I began performing as a duo called “The Gallery”. We would write and play what we called 10-minute operas – short stories put to music – at rock clubs and coffee shops throughout L.A. As “The Gallery”, Darren was a sort of 1-man-band, playing all of the music, and I was a 1-man-theatre troupe, acting out all of the parts. One of our 10-minute operas, “The Necromerchant’s Debt” – the story of a futuristic grave-robber – is the tale that evolved into “Repo! The Genetic Opera”.

In 2001 Darren Smith and I assembled a small group of actors and musicians, and began performing Repo as 45-minute sets at clubs. During this time we work-shopped the music and story, keeping what worked and cutting what didn’t. In 2002 we felt that we were ready to rent a theatre and debut Repo as a full-length play. This was at Hollywood’s John Raitt Theatre. Following this run, we went back to the drawing board again, and then mounted a second version of Repo’s stage play in 2004 at W. Hollywood’s SplitID Theatre. This attracted the attention of an off-Broadway theatre company, Wings Theatre, which staged Repo in NY during the summer of 2005. It’s been a crazy journey, this Repo project.

AT WHAT POINT DID YOU FIRST CONSIDER A FILM VERSION? OR DID YOU HAVE IT IN MIND ALL ALONG?

Darren Smith and I always envisioned a world for Repo that was bigger than what could be done on stage, especially considering the limited funds that we had to produce all of Repo’s stage plays. As such, Repo’s libretto always read sort of like a screenplay. I mean, how are you gonna pull of a character with digital corneas that projects memories in a black box theatre? Plus, throughout Repo’s development I think that both Darren Smith and I were more influenced by film than theatre. In fact, we had “shopped” Repo as a movie to various industry people over the years. We’d always find it to be a tremendously difficult sell, mainly because Repo is really something that you need to see and hear to totally grasp. Imagine that you were asked to judge a song that you had never heard based only the lyrics. This is sort of what Repo was up against. In 2006, we had the opportunity to film a 10-minute short film of Repo, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, which is ultimately what convinced the studio to make Repo The Movie.

WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR THE DELAY IN THE FILM GETTING RELEASED? WHAT FACTORS MIGHT BE SPECIFIC TO A PROJECT LIKE “REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA”, AND HOW MIGHT IT REFLECT THE GENERAL STATE OF TODAY’S FILM INDUSTRY?

First, I want to clear up something: if you look online, it will say that Repo had 3 projected release dates: April, August, and November of ’08, with November 7th being our ACTUAL release date. While it is true that we originally intended to release the film in April, the August release date was the fabrication of someone on the Internet. It was picked up by everyone else and assumed to be true. But yes, our original plan for a release in April was pushed until November. This was due to a number of reasons – the main one being that the film took longer to complete than expected. I think that when Lionsgate set that original April release date, they were assuming that Repo’s post could be handled in the same way as the saw films, which they also distribute – i.e. they thought that Repo could be pumped out and ready to go within the year. They didn’t realize – none of us did, really – just how much work would be needed in the editing process of a movie opera, like Repo, where every bit of dialogue is sung. For example, if, in the editing process of a normal film (normal meaning, not Repo!), you decided you wanted to cut a few lines of dialogue, you could do so fairly easily. In a movie that’s all singing, if you cut a line of dialogue it may effect an entire musical stanza. Often times a change made in Repo’s editing bay would require a substantial musical rewrite, which of course is time-consuming – more time consuming than anyone was really prepared for. Also, Repo has quite a few more visual effects than the Saw films, which added time to our post-production schedule.

WHAT ARE THE MAJOR WAYS “REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA” HAS EVOLVED FROM THE STAGE VERSION TO WHAT WE SEE IN THE MOVIE?

To me, one of the main differences in the way a narrative is driven in a stage play vs. a film is that on stage you typically TELL everything, whereas on film you SHOW everything. As such, some of the songs that were the biggest hits on stage, the real showstoppers, were either cut or trimmed-down for the film. The idea of stopping-the-show in a film doesn’t really work. But on stage, you expect a big aria to end in several moments of applause before going back into the story. In adapting the libretto into a stage play, it was hard because some of our favorite Repo songs were trimmed to the point where they don’t necessary function as songs anymore, but more as brief narratives that forward the action or the story. Even though it was a difficult process, the film works better with these cuts made…much better. We were very committed to the idea of making this a movie experience, not just a recreation of the Repo stage play.

WERE THERE ANY MAJOR CHANGES MADE BASED ON FEEDBACK AT EARLY TEST SCREENINGS?

There were a few changes made following Repo’s early test screening, but most of the changes were problems with the movie that we were already aware of. We just hadn’t gotten to them yet (the test-screening was done way too early in my opinion, and featured a clearly unfinished print of the film.). That said, while I think there is value in listening to the opinion of your audience – Darren Smith and I always polled audiences from Repo’s staged performances – I think that a test screening, particularly for a movie like Repo, is a bad idea. I say this because Repo was never a concept geared toward the mainstream. It’s a goth rock opera for christ’s sake! So looking to a mainstream audience to direct what sort of changes needed to be made was a big mistake. For example, one of the biggest scenes/songs in the movie – and one of the faves amongst actual fans of Repo – is the scene “17″, a moment in the story where Shilo, Repo’s 17-year-old protagonist, rebels against her over-protective father, Nathan. This scene scored poorly with the test audience. Had we listened to that audience, we would have cut the scene from the film. We didn’t listen however, and I think we made the right choice because I don’t think that most of the audience in attendance at that recruited screening were Repo fans, nor will they ever be fans of Repo, no matter how many changes we made. It’s the classic example of trying to please everyone, and in the process, pleasing nobody. If Darren Smith and I set out to do something middle-of-the-road, I don’t think we would have come up with the concept of Repo, let alone stuck with it for almost a decade.

HOW CLOSELY DO YOU FOLLOW INTERNET DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE MOVIE? WHAT ARE YOU GENERAL THOUGHTS ON IT? DO YOU FIND PEOPLE TO BE MORE/LESS CRITICAL THAN THEY ARE WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER THEM IN PERSON, ETC?

Well, the safety of that pulpit of anonymity that we call the internet always makes people bolder than they are in person. To me, performing a 10-minute opera about a grave-robber in a half-full, hippy-dippy coffee shop, screaming “GRAAAAAAAAAAVES” at the top of your lungs, takes a lot more courage than going onto a blog under a pseudonym and posting about how much you hate Paris Hilton, for example. That said, I do follow a lot of the internet buzz surrounding Repo, and I think that it’s great, both the positive and the negative. Over the last few months, I’ve been able to correspond with hundreds of fans who seek me out on myspace, or on Repo’s message boards: http://www.Repo-Opera.com. It’s really great to interact with these people, and see how this thing that I helped to create has inspired tons of absolute strangers to write me, to post their thoughts on the film, to make Repo-inspired art. I love it. I especially love that we’ve created something that just isn’t for everybody. I suppose that you could say that about anything, but Repo really is it’s own beast, and as such, I think it forces you, the audience, to take a side about the material. I think that most good art does this. And so far, we’ve received a lot of critical praise for our efforts, which is really great. We’ve also had the movie screened at a couple of festivals, and people have even showed up dressed as Repo characters.

CAN YOU EXPLAIN A BIT ABOUT HOW THE MOVIE CASTING CAME TOGETHER? WERE THERE PARTICULAR PERFORMERS WHO YOU KNEW YOU WANTED FROM THE START? ANY WHO YOU’D NEVER IMAGINED IN THE ROLES? HOW MUCH OF A ROLE DID MARKETING OF THE FILM HAVE IN CASTING (GETTING NAMES RECOGNIZABLE TO VARIOUS TARGET AUDIENCES)?

Unlike most Hollywood films, ALL of our lead cast had to come in and audition with a Repo song. In a movie like Repo, where everything is sung – and sung in a rather specific style – we needed to hear that the actors could “sell” an entire performance based on their singing ability. Even if we knew somebody was a great actor, for example, we still needed him or her to come in for a singing audition. As the creator, it was great to hear some really “big” actors singing my music, especially since almost everybody treated the material with reverence. It was also great that we pretty much ended up with the cast that we set out to get. Before Repo’s casting process began, the two Darrens and I created our “Repo dream cast” list, which included our top 5 choices for each of the main roles. Out of the 8 principal parts cast, 6 were names that were on our original dream list. And even the 2 that weren’t ended up being better choices than what we originally imagined. Ogre from Skinny Puppy, for example, who plays Pavi in Repo, wasn’t on our initial list, but only because we were being too myopic in our thinking: the original Pavi list was all actors, and didn’t include any singers. When Ogre’s name was brought up as a potential musician for the soundtrack, a bell went off in my head, and I thought, “holy shit, Ogre should be Pavi!”

HAVING MANY RECOGNIZABLE NAMES IN THE CAST, ARE YOU CONCERNED AT ALL THAT IT MIGHT LEAD TO PEOPLE HAVING PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS COMING INTO THE FILM, PERHAPS MAKING THEM MORE CRITICAL? FOR EXAMPLE, THERE MIGHT BE SKINNY PUPPY FANS WHO HAVE LONG THOUGHT THAT OGRE SHOULD BE IN A MUSICAL, SARAH BRIGHTMAN FANS EXPECTING SOMETHING A BIT MORE TRADITIONAL, ETC.

Unfortunately, I think that this is something that you really can’t avoid. That said, Repo presents all of these personalities in a way that hasn’t been seen yet. Not only because everyone is singing, but because each of the characters is physically transformed to fit into this bizarre world of Repo. For example, everyone loves to hate Paris Hilton, and when we released our first clip from the film, we got all these internet responses about how the clip looked great, but that we must have chosen to not feature Paris because obviously she must have sucked. It was fun to then point out to all of these people that actually Paris was in the clip, and was featured rather prominently, but they just didn’t recognize her. A bunch of back peddling followed, and then the conversation shifted to comments like, “oh, well, Paris is still the worst thing in the clip”. The reality is that the response from the handful of people who have actually seen the finished film – both those who responded positively and negatively – all of their comments seem to center on the bizarre world of Repo, and never seem to linger on the cast’s non-Repo personalities.

I THINK THERE’S AN INEVITABLE ‘ROCKY HORROR’ COMPARISON, ESPECIALLY AMONG MAINSTREAM MOVIE AUDIENCES, SIMPLY BECAUSE THERE ARE NOT MANY HORROR MOVIE MUSICALS OUT THERE. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS?

I love Rocky Horror, so I don’t mind the comparison. In fact, if the only relevant reference point for Repo is a legendary film experience that happened only once, and happened over 3 decades ago, then I think we achieved what we set out to do with Repo: something groundbreaking. That said, I think that there are some major differences between our two films: 1) Rocky Horror is a musical. Repo is an opera – i.e. Repo is singing from beginning to end, with no spoken dialogue; 2.) Rocky Horror is a film that completely lives by its camp value and never takes itself too serious. Repo, while it certainly has its share of over-the-top elements, is a real, human, coming-of-age story; and; 3.) Rocky Horror’s roots seem to be driven by the sexual revolution of the ’60′s and ’70′s. Repo, on the other hand, is inspired by the older, more universal themes that you would find in classic operatic tales. All that said, I think there will be some major overlapping between the Rocky Horror audience and the Repo audience, which I think is fantastic. I think that both films appeal to my kind of people: the freaks, geeks, and misfits of society.

ARE THERE ANY PLANS FOR FURTHER STAGE VERSIONS OF “REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA”?

I would love to see Repo brought to the stage again, but I think that this will all depend on how the movie performs. If we can achieve Rocky Horror status, then I imagine that Repo will be produced, and reproduced, and reproduced again. I’ve already received multiple requests by theatre companies throughout the world inquiring about Repo’s stage rights. Either-way, I suspect that there will be official, and unofficial, Repo stage shows for years to come. I look forward to the possibility of sneaking into a rogue Repo performance, incognito, and watching other people do their own interpretations of the world of Repo, and of my alter-ego, GraveRobber. Honestly, nothing could be more flattering.

DOES THE DVD VERSION HAVE ANY SPECIAL CONTENT THAT YOU’D LIKE TO POINT OUT?

I honestly don’t know what will be included on the DVD. I turned over some 2002 footage of Repo being performed at a club in Hollywood to Lionsgate, so it stands to reason that some of this will make it onto the Repo DVD. Also, there was about 40-minutes of filmed footage that was cut from the theatrical print of Repo. I hope to see some of this on the DVD as well.