TORONTO – The original inspiration for “Bang Bang Baby,” a surreal sci-fi musical about a 1960s small town that suffers mass mutations, came from “Viva Las Vegas.”
About a decade ago, Jeffrey St. Jules was watching the classic Elvis movie and found himself captivated by the young starlet in the film.
“I just found Ann-Margret’s performance in that movie was so weirdly intense. I almost felt like she was kind of secretly going mad in the film. Her dance sequences and stuff were so intense,” the 36-year-old writer and director said in a recent interview.
“I just kind of imagined this movie of this woman who is trying to live inside of the world of a musical and it’s kind of driving her insane. That was the original genesis of it, and then it’s evolved from there.”
St. Jules spent 10 years working on the script before finally starting filming in February 2014. “Bang Bang Baby” is his first feature-length movie and it’s set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival with screenings on Sept. 8, 10 and 12.
Set in the fictional Canadian town of Lonely Arms in 1963, the film stars Jane Levy as a Stepphy, a sweet teenager who dreams of becoming a famous singer. When her alcoholic father (Peter Stormare) forbids her from attending a singing competition in New York, it seems she’ll never escape her repressive town — until Bobby Shore himself (Justin Chatwick) shows up with a broken-down car.
Meanwhile, the local chemical plant has sprung a mysterious and menacing leak. Described as “part parody of 1950s sci-fi films and musicals” and “part fever dream,” the film also features a score of pastiche songs with titles like “I Love You Baby Doll.”
“It’s a mix of influences for me,” said St. Jules. “It’s a melodrama, it’s a musical, but ultimately what I feel like grounds it is the lead performance and the lead character of Stepphy, who is played by Jane Levy. I think she really nailed it and I think people are really going to like her.
“But it was important for me that the fantasy elements and the sci-fi elements and the musical elements are all extensions of her emotional journey in the film. So it’s an expressionistic film in that way.”
It’s already picking up buzz. Festival programmer Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo called it a “sly, genre-twisting movie,” while describing St. Jules on the festival’s website as “one of the most brazenly original cinematic voices to emerge from Canada in the last decade.”
Originally from Fall River, N.S., St. Jules now lives in Toronto. The young director is known for his original, stylish short films and his penchant for experimenting with genre and form.
Asked about the surreal elements of “Bang Bang Baby,” St. Jules said that he likes to play with artifice.
“I like to create worlds. That’s what excites me about filmmaking. I generally don’t do very realistic films. My last film I had here was a 3D documentary, though, which did have some realistic aspects to it, but it was also very stylized as well,” he said.
St. Jules began working on the film in 2004 and finished the first draft of the script the next year while doing the Cannes Film Festival residency. He said there were many incarnations of the script over the next decade.
“It wasn’t an easy film to get made, because there are so many different things and you can’t really slot it into one category and say, ‘This is how we’ll sell this film,'” he said.
He said it was a matter of finding the right people to be involved, including producer Dan Bekerman, who didn’t come on board until three years ago. St. Jules said he realized that he needed “somebody who really was going to push to make this crazy film.”
“But I really think if I had made this movie five years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been as good. I think the right circumstances came together, the right people, and my experience as a filmmaker evolved since I started writing it,” he said.
“I don’t believe in fate, but I believe that this was the best incarnation to make this movie.”
— With files from Victoria Ahearn