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For his debut feature, director Jeffrey St. Jules, much like his leading lady, Stephanie Holiday (Jane Levy), had a dream: “a dream of making a film that throws everything out the window — that has that dream logic.” Also like Stephy, the road to achieving this dream was not without its bumps. When you create a film with such an open concept, “you’re throwing away all your crutches of story and you’re relying on something else to keep people engaged.” For Bang Bang Baby,this method of engagement came from tapping into the emotional core of the central character and was developed via song.

St. Jules discovered the power of the musical while filming his short film, The Sadness of Johnson Joe Jangles, in 2014. Initially an absurdist, Western comedy, St. Jules “had this off-the-cuff whim to put in a musical number, so I wrote a song with my friend and put it in there. In the film, it was this really touching, romantic moment between these two characters, but it was also this absurd situation. It’s an inherently absurd thing to break into song for no reason. I just love that contrast; I love those two things going together — being funny and absurd — but still being emotionally engaging. That’s kind of what I love about musicals.” Shortly after, St. Jules began to write Bang Bang Baby.

[Bang Bang Baby is] a film about a dream that becomes a nightmare, and with that freedom of being a dream — being in that type of world — you kind of do whatever you want, whatever makes sense for the emotional arc of the character.

The central idea for Bang Bang Baby was “initially inspired by the Ann-Margret character in Viva Las Vegas. There was something compelling about her character. There’s a certain manic madness when she does her dancing and singing, and I kind of imagined her as this character that is stuck in a musical. She can’t relate to the people around her and it’s slowly driving her crazy. There’s a specific quality to that performance, especially in the subtext, which was really interesting.” This led to the creation of Stephanie Holiday, a girl from Lonely Arms (a small town in Canada), who dreams of becoming a big movie star. Her story line was tailor-made for the genre. “[A musical] made sense for this character because that’s her escapism —that’s the shape of her fantasies. She’s constantly trying to escape into the fantasies of the musical world.”

The film draws upon a wealth of styles. When it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014,Bang Bang Baby was billed as a sci-fi musical, but that never crossed St. Jules’ mind while filming. “It seems almost stupid to say this now, but I never thought of it as sci-fi or body horror. Instead, I was looking at films like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is one of my favourite movies. I was drawing on it a lot for references for colour and for talking about the style of the film. I was thinking about Douglas Sirk and Far From Heaven, and referencing a lot more of those kinds of works—older movies—and, of course, the Elvis films. The body horror stuff, I don’t know where that came out of. I wasn’t referencing other films; it just sort of emerged as part of the story. But I feel like I’m always stealing subconsciously from everywhere.”

“[Bang Bang Baby is] a film about a dream that becomes a nightmare, and with that freedom of being a dream — being in that type of world — you kind of do whatever you want, whatever makes sense for the emotional arc of the character. I just took ideas and things from anywhere that felt right for the scene and character. When she’s dreaming, you have this beautiful musical world and when she’s scared, it kind of becomes this mutated, body horror world. I wasn’t necessarily thinking, ‘I’m going to take something from this genre and that genre’; it was more organic than that.”

I never thought of it as sci-fi or body horror. Instead, I was looking at films like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is one of my favourite movies. I was thinking about Douglas Sirk and Far From Heaven, and referencing a lot more of those kinds of works—older movies—and, of course, the Elvis films.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t meticulous planning involved to balance all the disparate elements and influences. To keep things consistent and the production team synced, St. Jules created a page-by-page graph of the movie to share with his art director, cinematographer, costume designer and other crew members. “The middle of the graph represented reality, which we are never really quite on. Above that line is fantasy and below is nightmare. I kind of made a gradual line based upon the story that gives you an indication of where you are. It was always meant to be an expressionistic film, conveying where Stephy is at in the moment. Is she in a fantasy? Is she in a nightmare? Is she closer to reality? The important places were those points when it crossed the line and went from fantasy into nightmare.”

The use of musical numbers was a big part of this. Following in the style of Demy, the songs of Bang Bang Baby are less of a “visual feast for the eyes” and more character driven. The breaking into song is already a departure from reality and via the melodies, helped orient the audience to the emotional state of Stephy. “Most of the songs were meant to be, like, ’60s pop songs, but I didn’t want to have big musical numbers; I wanted to have little, quiet musical numbers where [Stephy’s] singing and you’re connecting with her in a certain way.”

This allows the wide range of genres to comingle seamlessly. “For this film, I wasn’t trying to recreate a dream and I never wanted to state definitively whether this was a dream or reality.” As a result, Bang Bang Baby gives us a glimpse into the mind of a young girl dreaming of the day she’ll make it big and escape the confines of her dreary hometown. Her dreams and fears manifest themselves in a fantastical and horrific fantasy world. Bang Bang Baby works as a sci-fi musical precisely because that was never its intention.