The 13th Floor

Terrance Zdunich on the set of ALLELUIA! THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL

Terrance Zdunich is an artist in every sense of the word. And it’s hard not to be in awe of his output when you consider the fact that he’s written, created and starred in 3 musicals, all of which he (and director Darren Lynn Bousman) toured throughout the country. And while he’s currently on tour in support of his latest creative endeavor ALLELUIA! THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL, the sequel to 2012’s THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL, we were lucky enough to chat with him on the “heaven” set mid-way through the production. We get the full scoop on the evolution of the project, his collaborative process crafting the music with Saar Hendelman and the status of his ambitious comic book series THE MOLTING.

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Blumhouse.com: I never thought I’d get into heaven but today is the day!

Terrance Zdunich: (Laughs)

Blumhouse.com: Let’s talk about picking up with THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL again, because when you had done the first one there was always the intent to do more episodes. As goes with the business, there were multiple delays and it didn’t come together when you thought it would, but here we are. So what’s changed or evolved since you finished the last one in terms of what your initial ideas for a sequel were?

Terrance Zdunich: Well the whole thing has been sort of a process of expansion, and one that’s been completely unpredictable. Mostly for the best. Even with the first one, initially when Darren and I were talking about it, the concept – it’s so far back now, that you just get used to what is, as opposed to what was – we wanted to do something short form and inexpensive that we could control on our own, and not have to raise a gazillion dollars to make and then continue to make them. I think initially we were looking to do a 15 minute thing. Kind of like Michael Jackson’s THRILLER; an expanded music video. And then it went from 15 minutes to 30 to 45 to 60 minutes. So the thing grew even faster than we were ready. Which was a great thing. But then, it was like OK, we need to go bigger. No one quite understands what it takes to get the music ready and this is a musical. You could do off-the-shelf bullshit, or you can do like GLEE which is karaoke songs, but that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re writing music that’s building a world and that world is as crazy as we decide it to be. The first one is a 60 minute movie with 32 minutes worth of music. Half the film! And all that music not only needs to be written, but recorded, because you have to play it on set. So that also means it has to be cast and recorded before anyone even shows up on set. What’s typical on films, especially for low budget ones is that people tend to meet each other for the first time the day they’re filming. You’re lucky these days to get a rehearsal. But DEVIL’S CARNIVAL simply can’t work that way. Not only will you have poor results but you just can’t do it. This requires learning music, recording it and us editing it for a performance. So it’s grown crazy, but when all is said and done, it took a year to write the music for this. If you think about it, to write a musical in a year is pretty crazy. Even filming won’t take that long. The music from a writing stand point – not recording, not arranging, just writing lyrics and characters and melodies to tell the story took a year’s worth of full time work.

BH: Saar (Hendelman) was telling me a bit about your process and explained that you guys do a lot of meticulous research too when to comes to writing.

TZ: Yeah, the heaven segments are modeled after a 1930’s golden age of Hollywood. And hell is modeled after a 1930’s Great Depression, so there’s an inherent class struggle as well as an ideological one, which often comes with class struggles. Heaven is what the golden age of Hollywood was, which was everything is bright and shiny, everyone’s pretending everyone is happy, but meanwhile, there’s real suffering happening under the surface as you’re pretty and made up and saying snappy dialogue. “Everything OK.” That’s our version of heaven.

BH: Pretty amazing take!

TZ: Thank you! And then in hell, they’re actually suffering and doing a lot of work. Having real souls perhaps. (Laughs) The irony! Heaven is the baddie in this. Or God is. His team may just be like Isaac and Abraham, victims of the creator!

BH: Was it always a given that you would play the Devil and Paul Sorvino would be God?

TZ: No, and that’s what’s crazy. I mean, yes, to be the devil, I really wanted to do that.

BH: Who wouldn’t want to do that?

TZ: Of course, you get the cool make up but the truth is, I think with both those characters, they can’t react the way anyone else does. They have to be above it all (or below it all). So finding how to do that and do it in a way that hasn’t been seen a million times before has been a challenge. So God in the first one was really a cameo and we didn’t know this was a direction we were going to go in at the time. It turns out we lucked out. Because the God we have now who is very featured in Part Two was made for (Paul) Sorvino. I’ve gotten to know him in the last few years so there’s definitely little bits of him in there, both good and bad. (Laughs) But both God and the Devil have been a process of discovery from what’s been done as opposed to what’s been planned. When we started, I didn’t know that’s what the make up was going to look like for Lucifer.

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BH: Which is awesome, by the way. Probably my favorite depiction yet! And I mean, the representation of the Devil in art and other films is always so fascinating. I guess it ties into my fascination with heavy metal record covers! And of course, there’s Tim Curry in LEGEND. Can you talk a bit about the design and working with Vincent Guastini to get the right look?

TZ: Now we know, because we did the first one. But this particular story, there is a past and present aspect in it and you get to see two looks to the Devil.

BH: Is this technically a sequel and a prequel?

TZ: In a roundabout way, yeah. You get to learn a bit more about how things became the way they are, as well as moving the story forward in where we left off on the first one. Lucifer is kicking the hornet’s nest at the beginning of this one. He’s provoking some kind of action, or chaos if nothing else. To answer your question, initially I didn’t know if Lucifer was going to be just me with pointed ears or what. LEGEND was brought up a lot, but we knew we couldn’t do exactly that. How can our design fit in with this world of a carnival, which is performers? He has to be a little bit of a showman. And that’s where we came up with the jester’s mask. And I fought it for a bit, because is it even me anymore? Is the make-up doing the work for me? Any notions of subtly went out the door. But I’ve come to love it. I love the process of getting the make-up on, which took 5 and a half hours the other day. But once you get in that make-up, it was an awesome moment walking onto this set for the first time. The people I’ve been chumming with all week that just see me as Terrance, the writer and Darren’s aid, they were not making eye contact when I came out in make-up. I could tell that they were intimidated. I love that. It’s freaky and perfect. It’s hard not to get into the character when you’re that transformed physically.

BH: I was talking to Saar earlier about influences, whether they be from other films or literature, when you’re dealing with themes like heaven and hell and the Devil, there has to be some stuff from your childhood’s that seeps in, because of how indelible that all is. So are there some things, either conscious or unconscious influencing either DEVIL’S CARNIVAL movie?

TZ: Well yeah, I’m sure undoubtedly. There’s some obvious cues that happen visually throughout it, but initially we were calling this TALES FROM THE CRYPT meets the Anti-GLEE. That’s evocative of what it became but I don’t know if that’s exactly what it was. This has been present in REPO and the first one and now this one; we often reference things like Mr. Toad or DICK TRACY. Often times, it doesn’t make sense, but looking back at the footage, it really does look like DICK TRACY got evil! Or Roger Rabbit! That has a noir-ish feel. This is 1930’s style so it’s not quite noir but it has that “toons that are breathing” vibe. It’s our heavy metal influences mixed with Disneyland somehow. It’s tongue in cheek. But it is a mixture of things I’ve always loved. Rock music, crazy cartoons, sexy woman and the Devil. (Laughs)

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BH: Being on set, this looks more like a comic book movie than any comic book movie does these days! It ties into your cartoon influences.

TZ: My background is in drawing and I wanted to be an animator growing up. One of the things we talked about through this whole process is that every character needs to feel like it could be a trading card. That’s not some crass marketing thing. No, we’re making a world here. A red Devil has to walk around and be taken somewhat seriously while at the same time winking. Heaven, while it could not be that extreme because it’s trying to pull off a facade, every character needs to seem like they could be on a trading card which is to say “bigger than life, cartoony,” whatever it is. You have architypes walking around.

BH: That’s cool and that’s what’s missing from a lot of modern movies. I mean, you look at something like THE WARRIORS. You know every group in that movie because of their distinct looks. That’s not merchandising, you just want every character to stand out and look cool.

TZ: Yeah, and even if it is merchandising, it’s merchandise we would want to have ourselves! As filmmakers, we’re going “that’s cool and I want that trading card.” I’m hoping that others of course would want to too. But it’s not coming from that place. These are things we like and we want it to look that way. If it’s normal, we have to change it. It has to be iconic. People are singing, you know what I mean? Typically I don’t like musicals, but we’ve created a space where it all makes sense. It’s crazy and it makes sense.

BH: What comes first – the script or the music? Or how do they play into each other?

TZ: There’s a rough story. So for this because it’s all based on fables, we had a rough idea. We knew we wanted to go to heaven and we wanted to define that world in the same way we defined hell in the first one. How it operates. What’s the hierarchy? What’s the structure? So we knew that was going to be a part of it. We’re going to heaven. That’s how the first one ended. But beyond that, there was very little. So I went through and read some 600 odd fables, which I had done in the first one as well, but to try to find things that might jump out and inspire a direction. I picked a handful and start making outlines basically of the way things could work and how characters that could function to fulfill those tales. But like with everything, you start with this outline and as you start adding music, the outline changes. It’s a constant breathing thing. And in our case, the music really defines the character. Every character has a song, and I think the most exciting but difficult challenges for this one were in creating the music for heaven. It needed to fit with this era, but it couldn’t just be that. It’d be lame if it was just GREAT GATSBY. It had to felt like it was in the world of THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL, but with this new aesthetic. There’s a stylization there. But here’s the tricky thing. Because heaven is all façade in our script, nobody could sing what they’re feeling, it’s actually forebode. Everything needs to be happy, even if you’re feeling just the opposite. As opposed to a normal musical where everyone belts out their feelings, in this case, no one could. It was not allowed. And everything needs to feel a bit devotional. So we wrote songs that had to tell you the dysfunction, tell you the conflict, all through subtext. So for example, the opening song in heaven, which we’re filming today, is called “All Aboard (Everybody’s Doing The Ark).” And here was what the mandate of the song was. Welcome to heaven. Be good. Follow the rules. Or you get kicked out down to hell. But we could never say that and heaven would never say that. What they’re saying is that everything is perfect and as it should be, and it’s great. So we went through 50 drafts. How do we make a welcoming song where we never say welcome? And add the conflict without ever acknowledging the conflict? So through 50-odd drafts, we finally came up with the idea of a dance. And what that did was by saying that was a dance, without having to say it, you’re acknowledging there’s artifice. It’s a motion you have to go through and it’s a fad. And we made the song and the dance about Noah’s Ark. It feels like “ok you’ve been chosen to come aboard this vessel, so you’re special. And everyone else doesn’t matter. Whatever other suffering is happening, it doesn’t matter, because you’re on the boat.” The dance is basically, the boat’s rockin’ so keep up, if you can’t? You get knocked off. So it’s really just a dance. Everybody dance, it’s the happiest thing in the world and don’t fall overboard. We say all the things I just told you about without actually saying them. It feels like a big smiley happy production, but you completely feel the teeth of it without having to show them. We did that with every aspect of this. In some ways, that’s redefining the musical. Where no one can sing their feelings.

BH: And it’s very dense! It makes the entire thing so dense. Since a lot of the music comes from you and Saar, how does Darren as the director fit into the creation of the story?

TZ: Well, obviously there are a handful of people involved with every aspect. Darren is one of them, of course. He doesn’t have a music background, so he has to trust him and we send him stuff all along the way. But I think in terms of the creative part, a lot of that doesn’t come together until we’re on set, and that’s all him. Along the way, we’re constantly talking and sometimes the mandate comes from the cast. This person is available or interested. So, what kind of thing can we do in this world that plays to their strengths and gives you what you like about them, but it doesn’t make it that easy because you’re getting something you haven’t seen from them yet. In this case, we have Tech N9ne, who’s this hardcore rapper. And he’s playing a librarian. The most calm kind of character you can imagine. So with that comes built in conflict. It’s always give or take. What Saar and I do is make scratch recordings as we’re writing and we’ll throw out tons before we even show them to Darren, because there’s no point. Because there’s also always the worry that if there’s something we hate, and he loves it, we’re stuck with it. (Laughs) We’ll basically do little cell phone recordings and it goes from there. For the cast, we make a more realized version of those scratch recordings for the actors to learn.

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BH: Let’s talk about the cast, because one of the fun things about the original is seeing a lot of familiar faces. People that Darren’s worked with in the past. It’s fun seeing someone like Paul Sorvino playing God! So going into the second one, were you and Saar thinking about the people coming back? And then, did Darren also did give you a list of names of new people he wanted to bring in for Part 2? How’s the casting fit into what you guys are doing initially?

TZ: Honestly, it plays a small role. And partly because in this one, you’re brought into a new world and that world is heaven, so with the exception of God, none of those characters have been introduced. They haven’t been written yet! So, there were a few people like Tech N9ne that were interested. So we knew that that was one character we were writing for. Other than that, it was us figuring out how heaven worked, how story beats would work out and how these characters would fit. In terms of returning cast, they’re not all featured in the same way they were in the first. It’s a different story and meant to be a bigger picture. But we ran into some cases where some of the people from the first we would have loved to worked with again but they were just not available. Then we’ve had examples of someone that was cast and then at the last minute couldn’t do it. That’s been the case with every film we’ve done together. So in some ways I think you just need to write what’s best and realize that while the actors are an important part of the process, they’re really the shortest part of the process. In this case, it’s 3 weeks. And even the person working the longest is here for 2 of those. So to utterly write to them is a mistake. You have to write to the story, to the world, and go with it. The person influences it, of course, but ultimately this is punk rock and we’re just – we got a notice the other day that one of our actors can’t come back, so we said OK. And we rush in there and reshape it and it gives us the opportunity to figure it out. This is heaven and hell. It’s bigger than one character!

BH: Has there been anyone that surprised you with what they’ve been able to bring to the table?

TZ: In terms of the new characters, there are people like Barry Bostwick, who came in and really added something to his character that was on the page, but that he really added to it. In terms of surprises, some of the God stuff surprises me. Because he’s written as an old testament type figure, he just doesn’t give a shit. He’s temperamental and narcissistic and is wrapped up in creation and not so much on how that effects his creations. It could very easily be played as this bigger than life, unintentional villain. But I think Paul, especially in the dialogue scenes brought a real human element to it, which makes him all the more tragic as opposed to just bad. That surprised me. Watching him and Adam Pascal, watching their performances and their gravitas that came from it inspired me. Seeing what was there and what they’re doing, it grounds the cartooniness of it. That’s good. We need to ground the craziness of this thing with stuff that’s a bit more emotional. That was a great surprise. We’ve got the camp down. That we never had a problem with. But I think that’s the hardest thing to do, make this craziness and yet go on an emotional journey. I think we did that successful in a few moments in REPO. I’m hoping we’ll get a few moments like that in this.

BH: Unlike the first film, which was about an hour, this one is feature length, correct?

TZ: Yeah. I think we wrote 21 songs that involved singing on camera. The reality of our budget and the time, it’s now about 16. But that still represents about 45 minutes of our movie. Again, if this is about 90 minutes, half of it is music, so it’ll follow the basic balance of dialogue to music as the first film did.

BH: Obviously you got to see the reaction first hand with audiences when you toured the first movie across the US, but how has the reception been now that THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL is on Blu-Ray and DVD overseas and in other places where you weren’t able to tour it? Have you heard much about that?

TZ: Obviously with You Tube and the like, people can see it, but our fans have been very respectful. I think they didn’t pirate it because they were a part of it. They are the reason it got green lit. If it wasn’t for those fans, it would’ve been so improbable to make this. Really think about that. I’ve now written 3 horror/cult-ish musicals. With awesome talent in it, crazy visuals and costumes. Who else is doing that? We’re doing something right. And we’re making something for a specific audience that is hungry for those things and that no one else is filling. And as such, they are part of it. On set today, there are fans that are now in the movie. Our script supervisor has a REPO tattoo on her ankle. And so, they’re part of the fold. We’re not just singing to them, we’re singing with them. And I think it’s a cool, and crazy and unusual and sometimes exhausting process, but it’s cool.

BH: It’s amazing. No major studio is taking a gamble with this crazy vibrant musicals. They used to! You look at something like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, but that was 40 years ago. They don’t make them like that anymore! You guys are the only ones these days trying.

TZ: Not just doing it, but doing it with quality. This could very easily be novel and nothing more. Everyone involved is doing it because they like this stuff. And of course, we practically kill ourselves trying to write interesting tunes and new ways to make music. It’s no coincidence the talent we’re getting, and by the way. No one’s making money. Myself included! It’s a ton of work. It’s difficult material to sing. The songs in this one are even more complicated than they were for the first one. And we can get someone like Adam Pascal, from the original RENT! He’s a legend. He can headline a Broadway show. And yet he’s coming in to do carnie shit with us, because it’s real. Love it or hate it, you can tell it’s born of something genuine.

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BH: I wanted to touch upon your other creative endeavors, because between these two DEVIL’S CARNIVAL movies, you were self-publishing a comic book called THE MOLTING. And I was really enjoying it! But then you abruptly stopped! Every issue, you’d send me with a little post-it note and I really appreciated that extra effort. On top of asking if you plan to finish THE MOLTING, are there comic book possibilities for things like THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL too?

TZ: I’m so glad you appreciated THE MOLTING. That personal touch is also in this, THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL in a different way. THE MOLTING was a labor of love and I’m certainly not done with it. But there’s only so many hours in the day, and there’s also only so much money. And THE MOLTING was very expensive. Hugely time consuming and ultimately, I couldn’t survive doing it. I love THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL no more or less, but at least there’s an ability to – look, THE MOLTING is an indie comic about a dysfunctional family and there’s no singing. (Laughs) So it almost was like a different genre for the fans of the other stuff I do.

BH: How many of the 12 did you finish?

TZ: I made 7 out of 12. It’s all written. I wrote it first and now it needs to be illustrated. It took me about 3 months to do each issue and a lot of money to print and hire the letterer and the colorist and everything else. I’m glad you mentioned that. So much of that work, even if people are appreciating it, you just never know. And so I would do that, I’m talking to the print shop, acting as the editor and the financier and you do all this and you send them out and you hear nothing. So just even hearing now that it was appreciated (by you) (pause), I guess I have to get back and start drawing the next issue! (Laughs)

For tour dates on when and where you can see Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, visit the official website: http://thedevilscarnival.com/

*All photos by Paula Burr

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