Chelsea Stardust interview: making Satanic Panic, directing horror

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Director Chelsea Stardust tells us about her smart, sharp horror comedy, Satanic Panic, and just how quickly it all came together.

“It was July of last year when I came aboard, by August we were casting, by September I was in Dallas prepping and then we were shooting in October. It all happened very quickly,” Chelsea Stardust tells us.

Making a movie sounds exhausting. We’re talking to Chelsea Stardust, whose directorial debut Satanic Panic has just been released in the UK, about making the film and even hearing about the shoot is wearing us out.

Satanic Panic is a brilliantly sharp horror comedy. There’s a lot to it. It has a few big set pieces, some killer practical effects, lots of gruesome gore and an emotional gut punch or two. All of that on a limited budget and made in just a little time.

But before you even get to all of that, you’ve got to read Grady Hendrix’s script and you’ve got to land the gig. So that’s where we start.

“I had actually read the script in late 2017 because a friend had sent it to me because I’m a huge fan of Grady’s work, I’ve love his books. She said ‘Oh, you should read this, this is circulating around’. I read it and said ‘this script is awesome, I can’t wait to see it get made.’

“Cut to six months later and my reps reached out to me, my agent and my manager, and they said ‘this script has come to us for your consideration to direct. It’s called Satanic Panic, it’s written by Grady Hendrix’.

“I said ‘Oh my god, I’ve read that script, I love it. Let me reread it and see if anything’s changed.’ Then they also said that Fangoria was attached to produce the film, because they’re back now. And I thought ‘okay, well I would love to work with Fangoria, and I would love to bring Grady Hendrix’s work to life’. So I read the script again and I said ‘yes, I want to do this.’ I pitched my vision for the movie and I gave a bunch of references tonally and sure enough the producers said yes and we immediately went into casting.”

With no time to even catch her breath, then, Stardust barrelled into production. The shoot was brief. Yet, some of the most interesting genre films of the year, including Satanic Panic, Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell and the Soska Sisters’ Rabid, have been shot in 20 days or less. It’s remarkable, on the one hand frustrating that interesting genre films aren’t being afforded more resources, yet inspiring that such creative films are being produced so quickly.

One particularly interesting scene in Satanic Panic balances a crunching emotional outpouring with one of the films most horrifying physical traumas. It’s a brilliant scene, all the more impressive for pulling so much emotion from the audience in a film that’s often funny and as likely to produce a giggle as a wince.

“That scene was pretty intense to film because we were in a practical kitchen, we’re not on a stage, we can’t move walls and there’s hundreds of candles so it’s really hot. We’re using two cameras which are basically on the floor and we’re dealing with fire, you’re dealing with practical effects, you’re dealing with puke and bodily fluids and things like that. It was really intense.

“We shot the movie in 18 days and I think for that scene we maybe had half a day to shoot it, if I remember correctly. We didn’t have a ton of time. We actually got to rehearse that scene with Hayley (Griffith) and Ruby (Modine). I thought it was very important. We didn’t have much time to rehearse, I had to be very particular about what I picked.

“It’s a huge emotional moment in the movie and it’s also when Hayley and Ruby become friends, so that helped a lot because the minute we got in there the girls were ready to go. It was very physically intense, especially for Ruby, because we just couldn’t stop. It was like ‘go, go, go!’ We just pushed and pushed. We shot chronologically in the scene. It was very emotional. There are some great behind the scenes photos of the two girls together prepping.

Then there’s the ending, an outrageous, beautiful and wonderfully bananas climax. We ask about filming that sequence, figuring it to have been a complete nightmare. If you’ve not seen it yet, by all means feel free to skip ahead a bit, but we’ve clipped a few bits from the response for spoilers.

“You know it was actually pretty fun to shoot with the exception of, it was very cold. It was like 49 degrees or something. And, when you’re shooting exteriors at night, you can only go until the sun comes up. Once the sun comes up you have to stop, so you’re up against clock in that sense. But everyone was such a good sport. All of the extras, our Satanists, everyone had a blast.

“It was tough. It was a tough ending to shoot. Rebecca Romijn’s performance in that end sequence is so incredible and she absolutely steals the show.”

With so much of the ending looking like chaos, the idea of bringing it to the screen in an ordered fashion almost seems unintuitive, even if it’s unlikely to have worked without considerable planning.

“We shotlisted and storyboarded out that scene. It’s very specific, what we’re shooting that’s handheld and what’s not. We knew that once things started to get crazy, after Danica does her speech, that we were gonna go handheld. Honestly that’s the only way we were would have been able to get it all done, is going handheld. We just were really organised with it. ”

Of course, you can plan every second of every shot, every frame could be story boarded and every line of dialogue pored over and sanded and polished. Once you’re on the set, unexpected things will happen. Real life is imprecise and messy, and sometimes that can be a great thing.

“Hayley is screaming so much she’s losing her voice, which feels very realistic, because it was. And you’re also dealing with a young child, the girl who plays Samaziel, you’re dealing with a rabbit. So you’re dealing with animals, you’re dealing with children, you’re dealing with special effects. It was a really crazy, I think it was over the span of two evenings.

“It was just being very organised and very prepared.”

We talk over bits and pieces of the production, from influences (“I actually call Satanic Panic my Wizard Of Oz“) to Jerry O’Connell’s underpants (“That’s more of a question for Grady Hendrix because he specifically wanted that character to be in tighty whities in that scene. Jerry knew when he signed on what he would have to wear.”), before ending up, as films will, in the editing process.

With such a short production, we ask Stardust whether that extended to the edit suite. Might this, just slotting the film together, be a chance to slow down a little? It turns out, the shorter shoot actually allowed for more flexibility in the home stretch than we might have imagined, so there was still plenty to do.

“We did have time to play around with it. I think that your movie really comes together in editorial. Your editor can make or break your movie. The story can really transform in editorial. You become aware of things that are working and things that aren’t working, so we had a lot of time to work through the movie. Especially the opening, building the montage where you learn about Sam, building that.

“Originally in the script, the scene where AJ Bowan’s character is puking his intestines out,” she says, causing us both to break out laughing. “That was originally written to be intercut with the scene with the voodoo and Hayley and Ruby’s scene with the skin sealing. Those were all supposed to be cut together in one big, long scene but we found that tonally the scene with Danica and Duncan was so different.”

“The scene with Hayley and Ruby is so emotional, we realised that these need to be separate scenes. We need to keep Duncan and Danica separate from Ruby and Hayley. That’s something we discovered in editorial. We ended up filling out that scene. I can’t imagine it any other way now.

“The editorial process was a lot of fun. We had a lot of time to play around with everything. Granted it was a quick schedule, but we only had 18 days to shoot the movie so we didn’t have a crazy amount of footage. Luckily we were able to get through it pretty quickly. We were also up against the schedule of The Overlook Film Festival, where we had the world premiere.

“The editorial process is one of my favourite parts of movie making. I had a great time.”

Satanic Panic is available to digital download and on Blu-ray and DVD now.

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