Interview: Darren Stein Talks 'G.B.F.' Distribution and a 'Jawbreaker' Musical
Last week in New York City, in a small dance studio near Union Square, we were invited to attend the very first preview performance of Jawbreaker: The Musical, an adaptation of the 1999 cult film starring Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, and Judy Greer as high-schoolers caught up in the merciless throes of high school social politics and the accidental (or was it?) death of their friend.
The writer/director of the film is Darren Stein, and it's Stein who is writing the book for its musical adaptation. This new musical features a talented cast (Liz Gilles, pop star Jojo, American Idol alum Diana DeGarmo) and an impressive array of pop-influenced show tunes. Moreover, it's one more creative outlet now available for directors whose cult films are crying out for a second life.
Stein was here in New York this past spring as his new film, the gay teen comedy G.B.F., premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film now is set to premiere nationwide with an exclusive DirecTV release in November, followed by a general VOD/theater platform in January.
We sat down to talk to Stein about Jawbreaker, G.B.F., and the different ways in which his work is making its way to the public.
Tribeca: So to start, did someone come to you with the idea for Jawbreaker [as a musical]?
Darren Stein: I had always fantasized about it. When I wrote the screenplay, it crossed my mind that maybe it could be a musical too.
Jawbreaker was ahead of its time in that the level of darkness wasn’t as digestible back then as it is now –- like in a post-Ryan Murphy world.
Tribeca: The movie definitely has musical portions to it.
DS: It’s very heightened. The hallway strut, the colors, the makeover montage -- I think are all part of an iambic pentameter interlude. Bob Fosse is one of my major influences, especially ‘All That Jazz,’ so everything came through that lens. A fledgling producer from New York called me about five years ago saying, “Would you be interested in doing a Jawbreaker musical?” I said, “YES.” Then he said, “Well let me introduce you to some composers and lyricists,” and I'm like, "Okay, Stephen Trask! Let's go right to the source. I love Hedwig. But we couldn’t get to him, so he introduced me to Jeff [Thomson] and Jordan [Mann] – the composer and lyricist – and I sent them a bunch of music that I liked, that I thought was the tone of Jawbreaker. So stuff like Alphabeat, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Courtney Love -- edgier female vocalists. I wanted to include some new wave and like shoegaze stuff, and then they processed everything and brought the musical theatre aspect into it and wrote three spec songs that blew me away. So they came out to L.A. for about ten days, and we beat out the entire narrative together – what the songs are called, where they land, and every emotional beat of the story.
Tribeca: It’s been about 14 years since Jawbreaker. Was there a balance you wanted to strike between the story and the movie as something set in stone, versus ideas and experiences that have evolved over time, being that it's your own work?
DS: You have to reinvent what you did. You have to sort of throw it away and reinvent it, but keep the essence of the original thing. Music in musicals is intrinsically emotional in a way that, for film, it never was. So I think the new version of Jawbreaker has added a whole emotional undercurrent to the film, particularly with the Rebecca Gayheart character and with Fern Mayo's transformation into Vylette. I think Jawbreaker is considered a cult film because it didn’t address emotion in a way that is pleasing to the human mind and soul. So what’s exciting now is making a dark story accessible to a broader audience through music. I think Jawbreaker was ahead of its time in that the level of darkness wasn’t as digestible back then as it is now –- like in a post-Ryan Murphy world.
I think as a filmmaker, you’re just lucky if your film ages in a way that somehow merits a musical.
Tribeca: Movie-to-musical has become a genre in itself. Are there specific examples you’ve seen in the past several years that were able to make the transition while still maintaining the originality and edge?
DS: Hairspray is the first that comes to mind. It’s by John Waters, so it’s immediately subversive. You have Divine -- a drag queen, you have Ricki Lake, you have Debbie Harry –- it’s very underground. I think the musical made it more populist and it actually made it more fun in a way. John Waters himself has said that he made more money making ‘Hairspray the Musical’ than he was his entire career making movies.
Tribeca: Living in Hollywood and being among a community of filmmakers, is this a new outlet for artists to imagine their work? Creating a musical version of a film?
DS: I think it’s still a New York thing. I believe the theatre community is trying to translate the right movies into musicals. I think as a filmmaker, you’re just lucky if your film ages in a way that somehow merits a musical. I think it takes a confluence of elements to make that successful. I think a perfect movie shouldn't be made into a musical, because what else can you do with it? Whereas a film that may be a bit more flawed could have that potential because it has the seeds for something interesting.
Like Jawbreaker, for instance, is a Faustian story. Fern is essentially selling herself to the devil, and the devil is a high school student, and that translates. Someone who came to the musical said, “I was watching this and it felt like Richard III in high school.”
Tribeca: That’s a great point. You definitely see that kind of stalwart theatre and Shakespeare translate really well to teenage, high school stories.
DS: A lot of that was brought in by the composer and lyricists - the whole notion of a drama club being a safe haven for the outcasts and the way they out Courtney at the end with the production at prom. It’s exciting.
Tribeca: Between Jawbreaker and G.B.F. there is a high archness to the work you do. As you mentioned before, a musical can bring an undercurrent of emotion. Is that something you were interested in exploring for a while now? That these characters had an inner, emotional part of them.
DS: Yes. When I was writing Jawbreaker, I was so young. I was probably 24 or 25 and I feel I’ve grown so much as a writer. I was much more interested in the darkness of it, you know Jawbreaker began as a horror movie, and then it became a dark comedy, which dark comedies are essentially horror films with more humor than scare, I guess. I don't want to sound syrupy, but I think I’m a much more spiritual person than I was back then and I’m much more interested in the goodness of characters and the human experience. So it’s fun to go back to Jawbreaker and embrace that side – not just the darkness, but also the light.
Tribeca: Jojo's character [in the musical, Julie] – in the film she’s a protagonist but in the musical version she seems more of the protagonist, like this is Julie’s film.
DS: Once again, that’s why Jawbreaker is cult because it involved the whole Mommie Dearest anti-hero. And the musical has a good guy that wins, while in Jawbreaker the movie, you’re reveling in Rose [McGowan]'s comeuppance at the end but you’re still rooting for her – you still think she’s fabulous.
I think Diablo Cody’s debut has a three-week exclusive on Direct TV as well, so when I saw that I was like, “We’re in good company.”
Tribeca: So this is a lengthy process, translating a film to a musical. What is the next step for you?
DS: The next step is putting this on the stage as a production.
Tribeca: Are you looking to start in L.A. or somewhere else, or is the goal to be on the New York stage?
DS: The goal is eventually New York. It would be nice to do this at a prestigious regional theatre with an audience that would embrace it. We really want to make this musical that will appeal to all audiences, not just teenagers and twentysomethings. So we’re hoping to find a theatre, work out the kinks, discover the style and look of the show, and then hopefully bring it to New York.
Tribeca: What is the timetable on this?
DS: I think we went to get production up and running in about two to three months – soon. Talent like Jojo and Liz Gillies and Diana [DeGarmo] -- I want to get them while they’re invested in it, because someone else will get them.
I’m excited because you pay $6.99 or whatever it may be, invite your friends over, split the cost, and have viewing parties.
Tribeca: I want to switch gears to G.B.F. for a second. Can you talk about the Direct TV distribution deal? You premiere in November?
DS: I think Direct TV saw the movie at Tribeca and loved it. And they have a new business model where they get a three-week exclusive on a movie that’s only available on Direct TV, not iTunes or any other viewing platforms. In a way, it’s like a theatrical release because it’s positioned alongside big studio films, and it’s available to everyone in every nook and cranny in the country that have Direct TV. Whereas if you release something in ten art house theatres, you have to live in Seattle, L.A., or wherever major markets. I’m excited because you pay $6.99 or whatever it may be, invite your friends over, split the cost, and have viewing parties.
Tribeca: After the three-week exclusive does it go into general VOD or iTunes?
DS: The exclusive for Direct TV starts in mid-November and goes through early December. Then on January 17th, it’s released in ten cities, theatrically. After that, it’s VOD everywhere, then DVD, Blu-ray, and all of that. I think Diablo Cody’s debut has a three-week exclusive on Direct TV as well, so when I saw that I was like, “We’re in good company.”
Tribeca: So you did festivals with Sparkler and Jawbreaker, which premiered at Sundance. Now with digital platforms becoming more prevalent, does that relieve some of the pressure of having to sell your film at a festival because there are so many more outlets?
DS: The most important festival is the first festival. You lose your virginity to the distributors. With G.B.F., I felt a sense of pressure at Tribeca because all the distributors were there and I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if Searchlight or Focus released this?” A big studio means being released on a thousand screens. But the writer, George [Northy] actually brought the script to studios earlier, and they all passed on it because of the writing, like “We don’t make teen films anymore and we’re not going to make a teen film with a gay protagonist.” It’s frustrating; we still have a long way to go. Years from now if we look back at G.B.F. we’ll see it’s the first movie that did that, which is good. That being said, I did feel pressure at Tribeca. Also, there are a lot of movies that aren’t very good that are getting VOD releases. So in a way, the VOD market is releasing a lot of the pressure for independent filmmakers because films that aren’t exactly considered great are popping up on iTunes.
What’s really exciting is that kids in small towns will have access to the movie.
Tribeca: But also, before, VOD seemed to be a purgatory, but now it’s a viable destination for movies with good pedigrees.
DS: It’s still in transition, they aren’t exactly sure how to monetize it yet. With a theatrical release, the grosses are released to the public, but that’s not happening with VOD. That will happen eventually, when they figure out how to do that. So there’s a bit of a concern for me as a producer on G.B.F. to see how much money this makes – if it’s per download or whatnot. The great thing about DirecTV is that they’re treating it like a studio release. They’re spending money to market the movie, it’s going to be in their booklets, and I think they’re running an ad in Entertainment Weekly. What’s really exciting is that kids in small towns will have access to the movie because just because Hollywood merits my film as a ten-city release, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available to the whole public at large.
Tribeca: Because you can make a small-budget film that can appear on different platforms, you don’t have to make it appeal only to New York or L.A. I wonder if it will change the way these independent films are written because now you can appeal to a very broad audience. Do you find this liberating?
DS: I like the idea that there’s no more middleman. To me it’s not about commerciality or lack thereof, it’s about telling a story that you have a chance to see and have access to.
My music supervisor knew Tegan and Sara, and they loved the movie. Then Taylor Swift discovered their song in the trailer for G.B.F., and that's why she invited them on stage to sing at her concert.
Tribeca: Is that an ultimate goal? To have as direct a path from filmmaker to audience as possible?
DS: I think it’s an exciting, smart way to approach a process. Especially since studios are only making tent-pole movies and remakes. There are only a handful of American filmmakers who have the luxury of making big studio films that are independent, like the Coen Brothers or David Lynch.
Tribeca: I feel like the flip side of that is complicated. You have a name. You have a cult following for Jawbreaker. In a marketplace, like VOD, where there is no middleman, do you worry the noise of having every movie available will drown out the "good" movies, so to speak?
DS: I think no matter what, important movies will generate attention, mainly because people will write about them. If you see G.B.F. on iTunes, and you’re like, “Oh, I read about that,” chances are you’ll rent it. G.B.F. got a ton of press out of Tribeca, and the trailer got a ton of press. I wasn’t expecting that. I think it was because we had the Tegan and Sara song, “Closer,” and Ellie Goulding. There are elements to G.B.F. that only a big studio film should have been able to merit. But my music supervisor knew Tegan and Sara, and they loved the movie. Then Taylor Swift discovered their song in the trailer for G.B.F., and that's why she invited them on stage to sing at her concert. Then Ellie Goulding loved the movie, and I got in touch with her attorney at Interscope and thought, there’s no way we’ll be able to afford having her song, but it stayed in the movie.
Tribeca: That’s an underrated aspect as well, that cost of getting good music.
DS: Definitely. There are 29 songs in G.B.F. There are certain cues an audience needs to understand this is not only a teen comedy, but also a teen comedy that can stand up against Clueless and Mean Girls.