After taking the international genre festival circuit by storm, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist is ready to explode like a giant blood-drenched empathy bomb in your living room, now streaming on ARROW. A labour of love whose origins stretch back to the 2016 short film of the same name, both star Najarra Townsend as the eponymous hair stylist with a dark secret – a nasty habit of removing her clients’ hair and wearing them as wigs, posing in her gloomy lair in an attempt to assuage her debilitating loneliness and self-loathing.
While such a character on the surface should be nothing short of repulsive, through their collaboration both Gevargizian and Townsend bring to life in the extended feature version of the story both a richly detailed and sympathetic portrait of a woman paralysed by social anxiety and isolation, and a good old-fashioned banger of a horror film. We recently spoke to Gevargizian about her relationship to the project and the killer art of collaboration.
Much has been made out of your own background as a stylist and the chosen profession of your titular killer. Is there a link between these two artistic endeavours being linked, in a way, about the act of cutting, be it hair or editing a film together?
You are right – that the cuts of a film and a haircut led to a final work of art. I’ve never thought of it that way! I definitely view it as a creative and artistic profession, that’s half of what I love about it. The other half being I love people, caring for them, creating a safe space for them to not feel judged.
My whole life has been consumed by different avenues of creativity and art. I grew up playing piano and dancing. I always had a deep interest in fashion, hair, and makeup. I was messing around with hair colour and haircuts on my friends and myself long before I went to cosmetology school.
How did this interest run in terms of your passion for filmmaking?
In junior high and high school I fell in love with theatre and photography. My friends and I would remake our favourite films and shoot them on VHS with my dad’s giant camcorder. We’d also write our own comedy sketches and shoot them. Even younger than that, I’d orchestrate entire “plays” with a couple friends with the intention to perform it for whoever’s parents. Funny thing was, I think I was always a director deep down. I’d orchestrate these things, but I’d have to play a part in it too, as there were normally only 3-4 of us there to play every single character (haha!). But I would always chicken out when it came down to performing it. I loved the planning of it and the shooting though.
When did horror enter the equation?
I’ve been a horror film fan since I was 8 years old. Around 13, I stopped making VHS films with friends, and really didn’t do anything in the film world again until my first short film, Call Girl, in 2014.
The inspiration came in my late 20s when I attended my first horror convention. There I saw some independent horror films and met the filmmakers behind it. That is the moment I learned real people make movies. And when I finally made the leap to directing my first short, I realized this was an art form and combined all art forms (almost all), including hairstyling. That is one of my most favourite things about it.
The collaborative relationship between yourself and Najarra Townsend feels so deep and connected, it’s one of those roles I just can’t imagine anyone else playing. What made her so perfect for the role do you think?
While working on the character itself, I had concerns because I knew I was trying to do two possibly contradicting things at once. I wanted Claire to feel very human and raw and sympathetic. But I also knew what she did, her serial killer routine, was very theatrical. I never wanted her to be an “over the top” character, but admittedly what she does is that.
Najarra’s nuanced performance is why it works. I’m wowed by how she can say so much about what Claire is thinking and feeling with the most subtle actions and expressions.
The collaboration between Najarra and I on The Stylist feels extremely special. We made the short film together in 2015. For the following 3 years we worked on the feature script while celebrating the success of the short film. Najarra read every iteration of the script and gave us her thoughts – we truly built this character together. Her backstory is a combination of Najarra and my ideas. It’s a collection of memories. She is so much of Najarra's creation that I can turn to her when I’m unsure of something. Especially when we were shooting the film, I’d often ask her about a blocking idea, “Would Claire do that?” I trusted her answer always, because she knew her as well as I did, if not more.
A similar question I guess with Brea Grant; she’s so perfect as Olivia, was she always the person you had in mind for the role? What was the experience of directing someone who themselves has worked as a director themselves?
Brea and I met through another project in 2017 and from then on, I imagined her as Olivia. She exudes so much of what Olivia is to me – which is a strong, positive, friendly, open, welcoming, boisterous person who is a leader, self-made, and not to be underestimated.
I did not ask her about playing the role until we decided to take the film into our own hands and raise the budget independently (via Kickstarter and investors) in mid-2019. She was very enthusiastic about doing it. The big question was, did she have the time?! Like you said, and especially in the last couple years, Brea has been on fire as they say. Directing and writing 12 Hour Shift, writing and starring in Lucky, starring in this, directing and writing on CW’s Pandora series. That’s probably not even half of it!
The behind-the-scenes brains trust that really went into making The Stylist so special is a fascinating story in itself; I wonder if having a woman director can sometimes avert attention from that more collaborative dynamic in terms of the people you choose to work with. How do you feel about the label “woman horror director”?
I long for the day when we aren’t pointing out that it’s a “female directed” film. But on the other hand, I get really excited when I find out a film is directed by a woman and tend to mention that to people when talking about said film. My reason for that being I want to bring awareness to the fact that women make films! I understand that the need to even the playing field often means we need to over-correct.
Which leads us to Eric Havens and Eric Stolze, who worked so closely with you on the screenplay process. Can you tell us some more about that dynamic?
I’ve been working with Eric Havens since my start in filmmaking. They wrote my short film directorial debut, Call Girl. I think that is a very feminist piece, based on the idea that sex workers are treated like a disposable part of society – even the police treat them like they have no rights, like they are not human.
I don’t personally focus on trying to make feminist work. I think it happens naturally being feminist and being a woman. Like my micro short film Grammy which I wrote with my friend Jill Towerman. That was based on my resentment toward the idea that women are still for the most part expected to present themselves in a certain way, do their hair and make up, or people look at them like, “What’s wrong, honey? Bad day?”
The same thing happened with The Stylist. When I did my first break down of the script is when I realized there were almost no male roles – there’s really no male lead. It wasn’t something I set out to do. It just served the story.
Eric Havens came out as nonbinary and pansexual in the last couple years. I think that part of them naturally is in the script. Eric Stolze is a male, so we have so many perspectives on this script. And honestly, both of the Erics are probably more feminist-focused than I am when it comes to writing!
So they brought a lot to the film that might not have been there if it was you flying solo?
When I set out to write the stylist short film, I had zero experience writing a script or really writing anything that anyone would see! Eric Havens wrote Call Girl. So when I had the idea for The Stylist there was no one else in mind that would help me figure this out.
Havens and I spent a couple years writing multiple drafts of the feature script and then sending it out to production companies and financiers. People really seemed to love the short and the concept for the feature, but we kept getting notes that it needed more. We had been working on it for so long that I felt like it needed some fresh eyes on it.
The same project I met Brea on, Permanent Address, was written by Eric Stolze. That’s how we met, too. I really enjoyed working with him and I was always amazed by his ideas and his ability to problem solve. And even more, I was amazed by how fast he works as a writer. He turned out a significant revision of the script in a matter of weeks. I don’t know what the correct term is because it wasn't just a revision nor was it a complete rewrite, but it was a very significant change. Very. He elevated the entire story and found ways to say more precisely what Havens and I originally intended. He also made it way more of a horror film…which I know everyone wants!