Violent, rotten deaths are well-trodden terrain for Darren Bousman, the filmmaker perhaps best known for directing Saw II, III and IV. But there are other situations more profoundly stomach-churning for him than, say, the infamous head trap scene that opened Saw II, like when he first learned that his last two films were going to be released straight-to-video. "As an artist that's a horrible thing. You spend years and years of your life on something, and one day you get a phone call saying 'We're not going to release your movie,'" he says.
Years later, he may have found a way around the stifling Hollywood bureaucracy. His newest project, a musical-slash-rock show called The Devil's Carnival, screening tonight at the Laemmle's Monica 4-plex in Santa Monica, offers strong proof that the constraints of the conventional distribution model need not have a vice grip on the creativity and success of filmmakers. More on that in a second.
The easiest way to describe The Devil's Carnival would be Glee-meets-Rocky Horror Picture Show-meets-Tales From the Crypt. And if that's still too confusing to swallow, Bousman says, even better. "It's a mish-mash of insanity. Part musical, part horror film, part undefinable...a carnival in every sense of the word," he says.
Created with writer, actor and long-time collaborator Terrence Zdunich, The Devil's Carnival is a horror-fantasy musical film set in Hell, where characters are forced to contend with issues of morality through three different Aesop's Fables. Questions surrounding gullibility, greed and grief are framed through, respectively the tales of "The Dog and The Shadow," "The Scorpion and The Frog" and "Grief and His Due." Oh, and thanks to a simple inversion, God is evil and Lucifer (played by Zdunich) is good.
Rather than releasing the film through a distributor, Bousman and Zdunich decided to go the punk rock DIY route and self-release by packing up the gang in a tour bus and doing one-night only screening events in theaters across the country. In the spring, The Devil's Carnival went on a 40-city tour, and at every stop fans and first-timers showed up dressed up as different characters, turning a regular screening into a bonafide carnivalesque event. Most nights were sold out.
The Devil's Carnival's 26-city encore run, which kicked off at Comic-Con last month, is coming to a close this weekend, with its penultimate show taking place in Santa Monica.
Up next: their previous project, Repo! The Genetic Opera
TDC's five-person crew are alternately roadies and rockstars. They book theaters, promote the shows, drive to the theaters, set up for the show, man the merch tables, do Q&As, hang out with fans, take pictures, do social media, then, when it's over at the end of the night, they strike everything, load up the bus, drive 18 hours to the next city and do it all over again. It's a lot of work, but Bousman and Zdunich relish it.
"[The Devil's Carnival] is fun, playful, devilish ... but more importantly it's a statement. That as as an artist, you can create something that's undefinable and still have it be successful," says Bousman.
The project is a giant experiment in revamping the film industry's distribution model that got its start with Bousman and Zdunich's last collaboration.
The two met more than 10 years ago when Zdunich was working on his previous musical project, Repo! The Genetic Opera. Bousman read a libretto, heard some of the music from the stage play and fell in love with the project. He ended up directing the first stage play and, eight years later, the film version.
While they were working on Repo!, Bousman dropped a couple ideas he had for a musical, including one involving the concept of heaven and hell. After the enthusiastic audience reaction to Repo!, the pair knew they wanted to do another musical together and came back to the idea of not just hell, but of stories that contained moral tales. They settled on the idea of using fables as a device to get characters to confront their sins. For the backbone, they picked Aesop's Fables, stories that most people could relate to, even if they never heard them firsthand.
The idea of self-distribution initially emerged out of necessity. Repo! started out as a stage play, before it became a short film and then a feature film, starring Paul Sorvino and Paris Hilton. "When it came out, I think [Darren and I] were sort of naive, thinking we were doing something more mainstream than it actually was," says Zdunich. The distributor decided to hold press screenings for the film in the middle of the day, when it was clearly a darker film meant to be experienced in the middle of the night. After negative responses, the pair were informed that the film was going to be shelved.
Dejected and totally certain of the film's demise, Zdunich and Bousman screened Repo! for a film festival. "We kind of knew the fate of the film and were expecting no one would be there," Zdunich says. When they showed up, they were shocked: not only was the theater packed with fans, but people showed up dressed up as the film's characters, down to spot-on makeup and elaborate costumes. Until that night, Zdunich and Bousman had only released promo material for the film, which included a couple of videos and maybe some photos; but here was what looked like a devoted following, totally enthused and ready to bring Zdunich and Bousman's titular carnival to life.
Up next: why distribute your own movie
Zdunich and Bousman realized they had stumbled on a way to appeal to their audience in a more deeply connected and interactive manner. And they didn't need Hollywood's permission to do it. They reclaimed their film and toured it across the country, in a manner similar to that of TDC and gained a cult following.
When Bousman and Zdunich started talking about doing another musical together, they decided they didn't want to deal with signing their souls away to distributors and started brainstorming new ways to present their film. They wanted the audience to have a non-passive experience where they had to participate.
"We wanted to do something that you couldn't download, and even if you could, you wouldn't want to because you wanted to be in the theater with like-minded weirdos and freakshows," says Bousman.
If some of the actors' faces seem familiar, that's probably because Bousman and Zdunich nabbed the likes of Sorvino (Goodfellas), Jessica Lowndes (90210), Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints) and M. Shawn "Clown" Crahan (of the band Slipknot).
"The thing that's insane is that we can't afford these actors. You don't go to them based on money. They get approached to do horror films all the time. It's easier to get them to do these movies if you appeal to their creativity," Bousman says.
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Zdunich adds, "I think it falls in line with the whole punk rock film distribution angle we're doing ... We're appealing to people's creativity and passion. It's not often that Paul Sorvino gets offered to do a wacky musical set in hell and then have people dress up like the character he plays and have this ongoing life after the event ends."
As exhausting as the touring experience has been, it has been a process of liberation. Unlike other writers and directors, Zdunich and Bousman have to deal with venue bookings, insurance certificates, seller's permits and seating capacity.
"The beauty and frustration with the project is that it doesn't fit into any perfect box ... It sinks or swims with us," Bousman says. " If it dies a horrible death, it's because of us, and if it blossoms, it's because of us."