As the skulking Graverobber in the modern camp sensation that is Repo! The Genetic Opera, he drew Alexa Vega to the dark side and gave Paris Hilton her neon painkilling fix. And it turns out he wrote half the thing as well. In our chat with Terrance Zdunich, he took us through the decade-long zigzag that is the creation of a sci-fi rock opera — including the not-so-sexy part where Lionsgate took one look at the film and ran the other way. He came clean about his Sarah Brightman geek-outs, his frightening brush with a Botox party, his hope for a Repo! comic book, and of course, his love of internet porn.io9: I think Repo!, being a rock opera, is an a category by itself. I'd like to see the opera format come back, to have many more movies like this. TZ: Well, obviously this is my baby — at least one-half my baby — so I'm in agreement with you. I'd love to see more of this sort of thing, and I think there is a market for it. I just think because it hasn't really been fully done, at least not successfully, people aren't really aware that there is a market for twenty-first century opera. io9: You've garnered a great internet buzz. TZ: We're doing great in that regard, at least great by my standards. io9: The internet has the power to make movies these days — Snakes on a Plane is my major example. I think the web can do a lot. TZ: It's true. I've watched some of my favorite porn there. io9: How did your collaboration with [co-writer] Darren Smith start? TZ: It's been a really long journey from stage to screen. It's kind of hard to fully pinpoint when it went from just being a wacky, fragmented collection of ideas into a cohesive story that is now Repo! But in a nutshell — Darren Smith and I began writing what we call ten-minute operas, and they were ten-minute stories put to music that we would do just as a duo in clubs and coffee shops in L.A. That was in 1999, 2000. And one of those short stories, ultimately, is what grew into Repo! The Genetic Opera. It was called The Necromerchant's Debt, and it was this ten-minute opera about a futuristic graverobber and what this graverobber sees. Basically, he sees the underbelly of society from lurking in the shadows in the graveyard. That concept is what grew into Repo! How we came up with that concept ... ? [laughs] I think what it was is that I've always had a love for the macabre and the occult, so I had this idea for a graverobber. I think I was thinking something along the lines of a Victorian melodrama, and Darren Smith, rightfully so, said, "I've seen this done so many times, this sort of Edgar Allen Poe or Tim Burton take. So why don't we put it in the future?" And so that's sort of how it grew. At the time, Darren Smith also had a friend who was going through a bankruptcy, and a lot of his possessions were in danger of being repossessed. So as we were coming up with ideas for what this graverobber might be seeing in the graveyard, we came up the idea of him witnessing a Repo Man. And in the future, the Repo Man's not just taking your car or your TV — he's literally coming and taking your body parts. So that was the germ of the story.
io9: That's interesting, because I got the feeling from the movie that the Graverobber was sort of the unofficial narrator. He framed the story. Was that intentional? TZ: Yes, it was. It's sort of ironic how the story has shaped and reshaped itself over the years. When we began the ten-minute operas, just because it was just the two of us, I was acting out the parts and Darren Smith was playing the music. Just by that nature alone, it had a narratorial vibe and aspect to it. And as we expanded the story and added more characters and locations and the whole thing, the Graverobber sort of started to become more worked into the plot, as opposed to this disenfranchised observer. By the time we came around to the finished movie, ironically, it kind of went back to being much closer to what the original short story was. io9: Were there things that you were really surprised by when you were translating The Necromerchant's Debt? Were there parts that were particularly challenging to adapt? TZ: The whole thing is difficult. I guess I should say first that the journey from The Necromerchant's Debt to Repo! The Genetic Opera the stage play to Repo! The Genetic Opera the movie was an almost decade-long process. It went from being a two-person show into a full-length play that Darren Smith and I self-produced in L.A. It ran there twice, successfully, and then it got picked up by an off-Broadway theatre company and we took it to New York in 2005. From there, we made a ten-minute Repo short film, which we used to help finance getting the movie made. So the whole process has been one of adaptation. When we knew that it was going to be a movie, when it was a sure thing, we had to re-evaluate a lot of the script. We especially found that one of the major differences, which is a real problem between stage and screen, is that on stage you want to tell everything, and on screen you need to show everything. As such, some of the songs that might have been the biggest hit on the stage — the ones that people called showstoppers — well, the reason they call them that is that you literally stop the show, you stop the action so that people can sing a big number and then the audience will applaud and then you go back into the story. That doesn't work so well in movies. In fact, I've seen a few musical films that have tried to manufacture the place for a curtain call and applause, and it always feels weird. It always feels fake and forced. So some of our best standalone numbers, in my opinion, had to be either cut or trimmed from the film, in order to make a film where the action was driving the plot, as opposed to a bunch of fancy singing. io9: I guess one of the things that emerged was the graphic novel introductions to the characters. Or was that always there? TZ: There was always, I think, a comic-book-type vibe to Repo! It's sci-fi, it's set in the future, the characters wear cool, outlandish outfits — and for Christ's sake, it's called Repo! and there are singing graverobbers! I think it always had a comic-book graphic quality with it. But when it came to the movie, we had a couple of things going against us right off the bat, and the main one was budget. We were attempting to do an opera, which of course is supposed to be grand and big, and it's all singing, which presents a whole new level of complication in terms of how you can edit, choreography, all that stuff. So a lot of the reason comic books became a real option is that we didn't have the money to shoot everything we wanted. That said, I think it was one of those happy accidents where the role of the comics kept growing. And if you think about traditional opera, the type our parents — or somebody's parents — might have liked, every one of those comes with a program or a playbill. So when you see it, you actually have in front of you an entire detailed synopsis of the play. You know who dies, you know what happens, right from the get-go. It's not a surprise. You're just there to enjoy the opera aspect, to enjoy the music, and you're not necessarily trying to follow along. Even if they were singing in perfect clear English and they over-enunciated every word, you still wouldn't catch it all on the first listen. You're absorbed by the music and the visuals. So I look at the comics as though they're almost like a twenty-first century version of an operatic playbill. io9: I really liked them. TZ: I fuckin' like 'em too! io9: You're working on a graphic novel of your own right now. Was doing those bits for Repo! what got you into comics, or were you always into comics? TZ: I don't know if I was necessarily always into comics, as such. I've become a real fan of the graphic novel medium in the last few years — and ironically, more for the writing than the drawing. That said, I think it's best when you get both. My background is actually in illustration. That's what I went to school for, that's how I earned my living ... pretty much up until Repo! I did storyboards for movies and advertising. I actually worked in animation for two years, as a board artist. My background has always been in the visual arts, and Repo! has been an amazing vehicle for me to get to showcase a little bit of a lot of talents. Every one of those talents, though, whether it's drawing or writing or singing — they all come down to hopefully being able to tell a good story. As an illustrator, I always try to have pictures that set up some sort of drama, or create the idea for some sort of narrative, whether it's explicit or abstract. For me, drawing is very much about telling a story; writing is obviously about telling a story; performing is about telling a story. That's what drives me. A lot of people have asked me, "What do you like more?" and I'm like, "I don't know! I like storytelling!" But the reason I'm interested in working on a graphic novel right now is partly related to the whole experience I had with making Repo! It's been so overwhelming and so long — not just making the film, which has its own huge struggle, but there were years of trying to get it off the ground as a play. By the nature of what it is, you have to involve tons of people. And that's great in many ways, you know, you have collaborators, you have partners, you have cast members and crew members and all this. But I think it's been so many years of working in that sort of art by committee that I'm really interested in my next piece — or at least one of my next pieces — being a little bit more small, a bit more of a singular voice, a unique vision. I think the graphic novel medium is really good for that.
io9: How much did you work with the cinematographer to fashion the visual look of the film? I didn't get to see the stage play, so I don't know how it looked before, but it looked really different compared to other movies. How much did you get to work on that? TZ: My experience on Repo!, as far as I know from everyone that I've spoken with who is a writer or director or producer, has been rare. For one, it's rare to get a gothic opera financed; somehow I managed to do that. [laughs] Beyond that, it's rare that any writer has as much creative involvement as I did with Repo! I've been involved from the get-go and I'm still involved today; literally, just before you called I was preparing some images to send to a magazine, and I've kind of been doing a little bit of everything, from helping to promote the film, to drawing pictures — everything. We worked with some really, really talented people that clearly brought a lot to the world of Repo! that wasn't there before. Joe White is our cinematographer, and David Hackl, who has now gone on to become a director himself, was our production designer, and Harvey Rosenstock was our editor. Repo! had such a long life on the stage, and existed for much longer than most movies ever do in a visual sense — you know, a script might be floating around for years, but not necessarily a script with actors attached and costumes that have been made and photos of sets. When I came on set initially and met the entire production crew, it was actually really awesome how much reverence they were giving to the artwork that had already been created. I'd go into, for example, the costume designer's office — Alex Kavanagh, who's amazing — and she'd have all these images from my old stage play sketchbooks taped up on the walls. They were treating it almost as though it was the Bible. That's not to say they didn't add to it, because they did, and it most cases they really improved upon whatever my initial concept was. It was so cool to see. They could have come in and said, "Screw these guys! Who are they?! They did some cheap black-box theatre play. I'm going to go in and redesign everything." They didn't do that. They treated it with a lot of respect and looked at it as a starting point, as opposed to something to just disregard. io9: Did you get that same feeling from the actors? You worked with a lot of people I consider famous, like Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton — did you get to see what they thought of Repo! and the whole idea of a rock opera dystopia? TZ: I consider them famous, too! There were moments, of course, when I'd have my geeking out. On the one hand, I was a collaborator with them, as a performer, but on the other hand, I was in a managerial-type role, as a creator. You want to maintain an air of professionalism, but there were plenty of days where I was just kind of like, "I'm going to excuse myself for a minute and go geek out in the bathroom." And come back and be cool. But everybody that got involved with Repo! the movie — and honestly, as far back as I can remember — has always gotten involved with the project because they got the project. Everyone that signed up for what we were doing knew what they were getting into, and as such they embraced it. Now that's not to say that everybody didn't bring a lot of themselves to each of the roles and modify what might have been exactly on the page, but everyone was really reverential towards the source material. We didn't have any actors coming and saying, "You know what? I'm kind of moonlighting as a singer-songwriter. Can we just throw away this 'Legal Assassin' song and put in my own little pop jam?" Nobody did that. Nobody came in with that diva nonsense. Everybody understood they were doing an opera, which meant it wasn't just a mashup of songs, like an MTV lineup. It really was an opera; it was a twenty-first century opera. The fact that everybody got involved for very little money bespoke the fact that they were onboard for the fact that we were doing something different, we were doing something culty, and they liked it. They embraced it. io9: As far as Lionsgate dropping out of promoting the film — was that because they were nervous because it was different? What was their concern? TZ: It's unfortunate. And I should also say that they're not necessarily the bad guys right now; they just don't believe the market for Repo! is as big as we do. So our job, and the job of people who see the movie and like it, is to talk about it and show them, "No, no, no — I'm a real ticket-buying member of the public, and I like what you're doing. And I want to patronize it. And I want to buy Halloween costumes. And I want to buy the soundtrack. I want to buy the Repo comic book, if it ever comes out!" One of the eye-opening things for me was that as we were making the movie, I had no idea about the separation between the producers of the film and the distributors of the film. They're two completely different entities, and they don't necessarily come at the project in the same way, and they don't necessarily even consult with each other. All along, before I had made a movie, I always just thought, "Oh yeah, producers! They do everything!" We had a group of producers, Twisted Pictures, who for the most part financed the movie, financed the making of the movie, were involved with the creative building and editing and the final product, and then once that was done, they were basically done. Now it got handed over to Lionsgate, who — while they were involved with the production — were involved in a much more limited way. And their job is not to make movies; their job is to sell movies. And they looked at it and they said, "Okaaaay." Even Rocky Horror, which I love and which a lot of people compare Repo! to, was a box-office failure when it came out. It did horribly. It wasn't until years later that it caught on with the whole midnight-movie thing. I think they just looked at what we had, and maybe they were assuming we might have done something more along the lines of Dreamgirls [laughs] or even Sweeney Todd. And then we come and give them this trashy culty twenty-first century opera, and you know, I almost don't even blame them. They kind of went, "Well, what the fuck do you want us to do with this?" When that happened, I was pretty mortified. I thought the hardest thing was going to be getting the movie made, and getting it made well. I had no idea that now getting it actually seen by people was going to be one of our biggest battles. So when they said, "There's not a market for this. There's a niche group of weirdos that'll enjoy this. Otherwise no one will like it, you're going to be ridiculed by the press, and it's a straight-to-DVD movie." And of course, that was a huge blow. I thought, "Oh, well, shit. Is that true?" After years of making it, and after looking at the end result and being happy with it ... I know plenty of writers who get something made, who see it, and who say "I don't like it at all, that's not my original vision." Thankfully that's not the case for me with Repo! Anyway, even though that was a blow to my ego, and to the two Darrens' egos, we of our own volition entered Repo! in a couple of festivals, and we'd sit there with a real audience. And we realized: Maybe they're wrong! These real audiences were eating it up. Every festival that we've gone to we've sold out, with people angry that they can't get in. We've had people coming to these things dressed up as the characters ... to a movie they haven't even seen yet! I think it's awesome, because when does that happen? I talked to someone from Lionsgate about this who had been at the company for fifteen years or something, and he told me, "You know, there's never been a Lionsgate movie that I've been involved in where anyone has dressed up as the characters — certainly not beforehand." The closest thing they had was Saw, and people didn't even dress up as Saw characters until Saw III, when the company started actually licensing Halloween outfits. It wasn't people going, "Hmm, I saw a trailer on a website, and I'm going to go into my laboratory and construct my own Amber Sweet outfit." This Halloween, I've probably gotten fifty separate MySpace messages from fans who made their own Repo! costumes. And I mean, they're elaborate. There were three or four Repo Men — they actually made the Repo Man outfit, with the light in the helmet and the whole thing. That's not easy! I wouldn't know how to do that! So the point is, I think we appeal to a group of people who are hungry for more than just your typical moviegoing experience. They're hungry for something that feels like an event, that feels like a community — in the way that I think Rocky Horror appealed to people. I think that they're at least projecting that on Repo! Now, will we live up to that, in the end result? I hope so. io9: You mention people hungering for more of this type of entertainment. Is there anything that influenced you while you were writing Repo!, something that you think everyone should have seen or read if they're a fan of this kind of stuff? TZ: I think probably one of my favorite — I guess you can call it a rock opera, although technically it's more of a rock musical — of late is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I think that's a wonderful movie and play — in fact, in many ways it's a better play than a movie. What I really like about Hedwig and the Angry Inch is that I think it has a lot of the fun, camp, cult, draggy, trashy element that movies like Rocky Horror or Moulin Rouge or Repo! have, but it has something, I think, more than what Rocky does, for example. It has this story revolving around a character that on face value, seems like someone that most people would never be able to relate to. I mean, most people don't walk through life with a botched sex change operation! But yet, when I watched it, I got choked up. I cared for that character, I rooted for that character, I sympathized with that character. So when we were doing Repo! — even though Repo! is nothing like Hedwig except for the fact there's music involved — Darren Smith and I were really interested in trying to have all the camp and fun and the spectacle that you see in a lot of musicals and operas, but to try to have a human story with real heart and real emotion at the center of it.
io9: I have one final kind of funny question. Do you think it's likely that this dystopian future will come to pass and that we might, in the future, have the whole organs-becoming-currency thing? And if so, would you be more of a Zydrate addict or a Repo Man? Where would you be in that society? TZ: I'd be a scalpel slut! io9: Nice. TZ: I'd be a Gentern, if I could fit in the costume. [laughs] Well, that's a great question, and when Darren Smith and I were researching and doing the writing of Repo!, we actually had some really cool interviews and some cool stories we found with surgeons and transplant doctors. We just studied what's really out there. The reality is, a lot of what's happening in Repo! isn't as far-fetched as it may seem. And certainly, perhaps not that far off in the future. Organs are used as currency. Maybe not at Walmart, but there is a market around body parts — and ironically, right now, at least in the States, the only people that don't profit from organ donations are the actual donors. Everyone else literally makes a killing off of it. And in other countries, there are tons of stories, in South America, for example, of people who are selling, like, a kidney to fat rich Americans. And they're doing it for a price that you'd be kind of like — "Woah, you're losing a kidney for just, you know, a Whopper combo super-sized? That's pretty intense." And even recently, the Chinese government, which has denied it for ages, came clean on the fact that they had been in many cases executing prisoners and then taking their organs and selling them again to rich, fat Americans. So I don't think it's that far off. Do I ever think that Big Brother's going to come in and actually on-the-books sanction murder? I don't think so. But do I think that there's perhaps a lot of social commentary and satire in what we're doing? Yes, that was definitely intentional. But in terms of what I would be in that future ... aw, jeez. I think I'd be a graverobber. I wrote that character for myself and it's definitely a big part of my life and my personality, not just in the fact that I've been doing it for so long, that it feels like — but I think that what really is appealing to me about that character is the fact that he is kind of like the bastard son, you know, he's very much like a Shakespearean archetype in that he witnesses and he can clearly see what's wrong, and in many cases what's right, with the picture. But he doesn't get caught up in it. He's outside of it. He's like, "You know what, you guys have your own dramas, you have your own families, the laws are fucked up, and I'm not going to get involved. I'm just going to watch from the sidelines and I'm going to take care of me." That sort of character appeals to me. I suppose if the choice was either going under the knife to perfect my image (and being repossessed) or actually being forced to repossessed organs almost like as a mercenary, I'd rather be on the sidelines just watching. io9: What got me about the story was what you mentioned, the social commentary on the whole crazy world of body image and perfection. TZ: Well, one of the things that made me realize we were on the right path with the story is that maybe four years ago, I was teaching art at a small private little art school in Calabasas, California. The school was in kind of a popular area; there was a little shopping plaza there. At the end of the shopping plaza was what I always thought was a spa. It was a private art school, so obviously my students, my clientele, were often times wealthy people — and more often than not, unfortunately, they were kind of like single, kept mothers who would pay sitters to take their kids to and from while they "got their nails did" and whatever else. And they'd often go to this spa. And I thought they were there just getting the massages, getting some sort of oil treatment, maybe getting a tan. What I didn't realize was that they were really going in there and getting plastic surgery. I walked by one day and there were little balloons up and little fucking cookies and stuff to grab, you know, and I said, "Oh, what's going on? Are you guys having a sale or something?" This group of women looked at me with a straight face — there was no irony in what they were saying — and they were like, "No, no, we're having a Botox party!" I was just like "Hooooly" — what do you say to that? "I didn't get the invitation." Repo! screencaps by Amber Loves Zydrate at Repo-Opera.com. Repo-Opera.com TerranceZdunich.com