Terrance Zdunich is the writer and producer of musical cult sensations Repo: The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival. Over the past few years, I have gotten to know Terrance and had the privilege of attending one of his midnight screenings of The Devil’s Carnival. The guy is a multi-talented writer and artist and is currently at work on the sequel to The Devil’s Carnival, which he plans to take on the road again.
Terrance agreed to talk to Renegade Cinema about this upcoming movie, his memories from the first Devil’s Carnival tour and an update on his comic book series, The Molting.
Shawn S. Lealos: How have you been doing?
Terrance Zdunich: It’s been a while man. You know, it has been busy and a bit schizophrenic – schedules and such. How about yourself, you said you were starting a new business?
Shawn: Starting my own website with Renegade Cinema, working with some great writers from down in Texas. It’s exciting, writing what I want to, when I want to.
Terrance: Well, good luck man. It is a very scary and time consuming process to start your own thing, so good luck with that, my friend. We are in the small sphere of people who actually can pursue and thrive in what we like instead of what just pays us.
I tried years ago, even in the arts working in animation, I thought that was going to be the gig for me. I studied illustration, loved animation, and got into story boarding. I got hired at Sony after years of submitting portfolios and being told no, you know how it goes, and then I got the gig and I realized I hate this, I really hated sitting in a cubicle. While it was drawing, it was very much a corporate environment, you clocked in, went to your little sterile space, you draw on post it notes all day, you took a lunch break when they told you to, and I just realized almost immediately that this wasn’t for me. I liked elements of it obviously, but that sort of rigid structure, that corporate structure just was devastating to me. And had I stayed in there I probably would have been climbing up on the watch tower with a rifle by this point and start picking off peasants.
Shawn: Let’s start off with the Devil’s Carnival Tour. How did that end up going for you? Did it go the way that you pictured it before you set off or was it better?
Terrance: Well it definitely exceeded our expectations. You know, the last time we did this was with Repo and that was in 2008. When we took Repo on the road, it was a much smaller, way less ambitious tour schedule. We did 15 screenings total. At the time it just seemed like a gigantic undertaking, and of course, it was successful. So when we came back and said okay we are doing Devil’s Carnival now, we are going to tour it, we were really just hopeful, really optimistic, perhaps naively optimistic, that those same people that showed up for Repo almost five years ago would show up now, and not only that, but do it on many more stops.
I mean we did a total of 60 cities in North America, and overwhelmingly we had a few less, I don’t know, less successful nights, but as a whole, it was a huge success. We had people coming out every night. We were having our work seen by the people that we made it for, on our terms, so we didn’t have to wait for some studio to say this, that and the other thing. I think, most importantly, that people came out had a great time and that is kind of why we did it.
So yeah, it was a huge success and we proved that we can do this, we can make independent arty musical films, on a budget, and take it directly to the fan base and basically, you know, recoup your money. And that is something that a lot of people have been struggling with for awhile, especially with the way the state of movies have been changing. So, it was a huge success. Now, that said, successful in the terms of how Hollywood would think of success, probably not. But in terms of what we are doing, it was hugely successful and it is hopefully just beginning.
So the ideas, you know like how you were talking about with your career, you learn each step of the way, you figure out what works, what doesn’t what people like, what they don’t, the most cost effective way to do things and you keep building. And so we are hoping to do it all over again this year, in fact we are doing it all over again, and hopefully do it bigger and better and keep building on this brand we have established.
Shawn: so I am guessing that you did make enough money through the touring to be able to afford to finance the second movie in the series, or did you find financers to help you out this time because of how successful the first one was?
Terrance: It’s the later. I mean the tour was hugely successful, and while we also have the DVD and have merchandise and stuff available online, the lion’s share of the profits we made were from the tour. The tour not only paid for the first film, and every aspect of it, but it paid for the tour itself. And that is actually a lot more expensive then I would have thought. Traveling, the team you need to bring with you and pay, the rental of the theaters, insurance, there is a whole myriad of expenses you wouldn’t think about, but touring is very expensive, and then lastly of course, the manufacturing. So the manufacturing of DVDs, Blu-rays – the whole thing we did from the tour paid for all that. And we still ended up in the black in profit by the end of it, but not in the actual way that it is like, hey here is a million dollars in profit that we can go film the next one. Sadly it wasn’t that much of a success, and I don’t know if it could have been honestly, but I think if we continue building – maybe at some point.
But it paid for itself, paid back our investors plus interest, and we get to do what we love to do which is create art. So now that we are gearing up for the second one. We have put together our press packages and our still reels and basically highlighted what we did, how it was successful. We have gone out to secure new money to do a second one and to do a second one even bigger and better – which of course, unfortunately, means more expensively.
Shawn: I am guessing one of the best parts about going out on tour was also getting to meet the fans, the die-hards who just follow everything and love what you guys do. Do you have any interesting stories from when you were out on the road, the kinds of people you got to meet, anything that happened that sticks in your mind?
Terrance: Every night was an adventure, and I am not saying that in a cliche way. So it is hard to kind of go here with one event or moment or fan that just completely stood out from all others, and I think that part of that was because every night was great. The fans were great across the board, and I think everything is just the nature of that kind of tour. You really are moving so quickly. The first tour was 35 cities and it was in something like 40 or 42 days. So you literally are driving to a city, you know oftentimes six to eight hours between stops, arriving to the city just in time to set up, do the show, go to sleep and drive again the next day. So it becomes like this whirlwind, and it is an awesome whirlwind, there is a lot of energy and passion and creativity happening.
But I think for me it is like a cool thing what we are doing, and this maybe answers your question a little bit, I think people come out, and while we hope that they enjoy the material, and I think obviously many of them do, or they enjoy some aspect of the films and the story and the music, I think more importantly they enjoy the experience. They all know that they can watch it at home on DVD or watch it illegally on a torrent site, or whatever the case may be, but they prefer to go out and come to our shows because it is an experience. The experience is not just the film, or even getting to meet the director or myself, they get to meet each other, to dress up and show off their costumes and really create a whole, and in many cases days or weeks out of it, because people road trip. While we were touring there was sets of people that we would see at several stops, and these stops weren’t necessarily right next door to each other, so these people would make their own little mini road tour, and they would all hop in the van, a friend’s van, and drive partly across the country as well. I think that is because the experience was really the most important thing to them.
So in that regard, I mean the whole thing kind of felt like one big experience and of course there were outrageous costumes or outrageous personalities here and there. But, as a whole, it is a very similar type of person, I have to say it is people like us, and that is artistic, passionate, nerdy and definitely outside of the box, who really just want to have a good time and not hurt anyone. And I think that I am very happy, for whatever reason, the work I have created seems to speak to those types of people.
Shawn: It almost seems like a rock tour when you are talking about it that way, the traveling city to city, the people following you around the country, you hear about people following Iron Maiden from city to city, you have them following you guys. The difference though is it seems like you are out there every day, at the front door, saying hello to all the fans, meeting them. And that just seems to, I would think, make your project even more personal to the fan base than if they were following a rock band around because they actually feel like they are a part of it, and you care about talking to them when you are there in their city.
Terrance: Well you know, I suppose, I mean it is weird to think of it in those terms because I don’t think of myself in that way. I have done appearances at conventions that, even though of late I have been on the side of the table meeting fans, I definitely feel like I am still on the other side waiting in line to meet the stars, so it is a bit weird to think that is part of the attraction, but you are right, it definitely is.
And I think there is something, I wouldn’t change that, there is something very rewarding about getting to see in real time how people feel about the artwork – which is of course a reflection of you, so it is about how they feel about you to some degree. So I wouldn’t want that to change, you know obviously doing 60 cities almost straight in a row, I don’t know if I could do that until I am 80. It takes its toll in many ways on your brain, your health, I mean we were all getting sick and fat, but I think but most importantly it takes your energies away from creating.
I tried to write on the van, and it is just not a place conducive for that, and at least not for my process which tends to be rather intensive and isolated. It was very hard to create in those conditions, so I think in my perfect world I would like to create some sort of balance where I could set a portion of the year aside for this, and any other portion which is to keep creating the work that hopefully not only brought people there in the first place but continues to bring them there down the road.
Shawn: In the first movie we visited Hell, and in the second movie we are going to be visiting Heaven. Could you tell me a little bit about what we can be expecting from the Devil’s Carnival 2?
Terrance: Well, we are really excited, and we hope to be shooting – actually, you know it is not 100% locked yet – but it is looking like we might be shooting in June of this year. And this Heaven, which of course as you said is a big part of episode two, is the star of this show, or of this episode. And this episode is bigger than the first one, so that means longer running time, longer songs and more characters. I think we have learned from our journeys, including the first one, so we are trying to not only bring people more of what they want, but make it better. So, Heaven in particular is a very different aesthetic than hell, without giving too much away, think Golden Age of Hollywood. You have fancy suits and everything is tailored, an air that everything is perfect and glamorous, but meanwhile in the backdrop of that era you also have the Great Depression.
So, we are sort of modeling Heaven after that and the music sounds sort of 1930ish. The wardrobe – coming from us – there is something twisted about it all. So imagine, I don’t know, Clark Gabel on acid. So it is twisted, and it has been really exciting to research not only the era but what made the music of that time sound the way it did. So really our task is to create something that feels like it is a throwback, and it is a throwback because this is an era that Heaven is saying is manicured. It is cool, everything is perfect, there is no reason to have any worries or concern yourself with what is happening in Hell below. So it is really cool, and I think that the sort of old timey nostalgic vibe that Heaven will have will be in direct contrast with Hell, which is very over the top and chaotic and colorful.
So, I think it is basically showing that those two worlds are incompatible, and that they are on a collision train towards each other. So, you know, I am speaking a little bit cryptically because I don’t want to give away too much. But I am very excited, and the co-composers, Saar Hendelman and I, have been working feverishly because you know, as I said being on the tour, it sort of put us behind in the creation process so, pretty much since about December, we have been working around the clock on the music and story and all the components, and if we can pull off what we are attempting to, it is going to be really cool, and definitely a version of Heaven that I don’t think has been done before.
Shawn: You mentioned in the first movie that the carnival style music that you used was all something you could hear with practical instruments, there was nothing fabricated in that. Are you changing the style of the music up for this movie since you are changing the feel of the locations and the era with heaven?
Terrance: Again, without giving too much away, the film balances back between Heaven and Hell, so you are basically seeing how events that took place in Hell that were kicked off at the end of the first episode are affecting Heaven, and what Heaven’s response is. So, you also get to see the mechanism which we didn’t really describe in the first one, of how someone could actually fall. So, you see how Heaven is set up and how basically, what that transitory process looks like from, I guess, being one of God’s children to falling into Lucifer’s circus.
As for the music, it will be different for Heaven. You know, there is going to be some going back and forth so, the carnies and the denizens of Hell, they are back. They are not going anywhere, some are featured in different ways of course in this storyline. But, you are definitely getting still some of the old, you are going to have some Hell songs that will feel more of the world that we created in the first one. And you are going to have Heaven stuff, which is of course Heaven sounds, and then you are going to have some places where the two things are colliding.
Shawn: Your first teaser, The Librarian – tell me a little bit about bringing in Tech N9ne and a little bit about creating that teaser. It was almost like it was a nine-minute silent film with no dialogue, just real great visual touches and very unique. Tell me a little bit about that teaser and what you hope to accomplish with that.
Terrance: We released that, around the beginning of this year, which was pretty much one year to the date that we released our first teaser for episode one. We took a similar approach, and that was really long format, I think that the first one was actually 11 minutes long. It featured Emilie Autumn, who of course plays the Painted Doll in the first one, and we basically said okay we are going to do a teaser that is, you know, atypical. It is more about a sense, more of a tone of what you were going to watch, than anything specific in story or characterization. So that one was I guess 11 or 12 minutes, and it was one camera shot and there was no dialogue but there were hints at music to come in the first episode. There were also hints at the Aesop fables that were going to be addressed in the first one.
So, at the time, and because no one knew what we were up to, they just saw this wacky 12 minute piece. More than anything, it truly was a teaser, because you had no idea what this is about, it is more like you are getting a stylization in the hope that all these little clues will pay off in the real thing. I think they did for those that did watch that teaser.
So, a year later, a year older, hopefully a year better, we decided to kind of repeat that model with episode two, and instead of giving you a long format, almost silent movie version of Hell, we would pull back the curtain a little bit on Heaven. You know, there is a list of characters that make Heaven function in the same way that the list of characters that make Hell function, and one of those is the Librarian, and that is played by Tech N9ne. Tech N9ne is an artist that Darren [Bousman], the director, and I obviously both like, not only because of his rapping and such and his technique, but I think more so because he and his fan base also embody that indie spirit that we do, or try to at least.
He is, I think, one of the most successful independent rappers out there and he is a really nice guy and we had actually met him on episode one and talked with him about doing a part that didn’t work out at that time, but we stayed in touch. He said he definitely wanted to be involved in the future if he could be, and so the role of the Librarian seemed to be perfect for him because it is so against type. I think that is something we have been able to successfully do with our casting both in Repo and in The Devil’s Carnival, and that is to bring you familiar faces and then put them in positions and roles that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from them, even if it is singing. You know a lot of times we cast people you would never would have thought of as singing, now they are doing that. In the case of Tech N9ne, who obviously is a very kind of aggressive style of rap artist, we thought it should be ironic, and little bit out of the norm, to put him in a role that is more about keeping calm, keeping quiet, keeping the peace, keeping a library in order.
That character pays off in a big way in the second episode which people will see, but in terms of shooting the trailer, we just got together some of the old crew. We found a location, wrote a script up, and basically planned to follow the model that we did with the Emily Autumn trailer, hopefully bigger and better. We did a lot of the same things, we hinted at some of the music to come, there are hints in there of which fables we feature in the second episode, and of course you get to see and be introduced to one of the main characters which is a Librarian.
Shawn: Who is going to be coming back from the first movie for the second one? Do you have people already lined up to come back and reprise roles?
Terrance: Yeah, I mean obviously, with our schedule not 100% locked right now, we are hoping we can get everybody back, and that people’s schedules don’t eliminate them. But, there are some of the main characters that are 100% coming back because they are featured elements of the main story line. But our hope is, without going into too many details, that everyone can come back even if it is just for a cameo. The fans get more of the same, but in the script, as it is currently written, all the carnies come back and have a moment. Some have more than others, as is the case with storytelling. But, the world of Hell definitely continues and the characters that everyone sort of met in the first one will not only be back, but be expanded upon.
Shawn: I noticed since the last time we talked, you were able to get the seventh book of The Molting out. That is pretty nice that you were able to get that done.
Terrance: The reality is that the seventh issue had been done for some time. It is hard. The Molting, as of now, is the only casualty of The Devil’s Carnival, and I don’t mean casualty in the sense that it’s at its finality, because I am going to finish the series. That is going to happen unless both my arms get cut off, and then I will have to invent technology that will allow me to draw.
You know when you are doing something like The Devil’s Carnival, and doing it indie fashion like we are, including touring, it’s an all consuming project, and literally since filming episode one, which began in January of last year, actually well before that with the writing, it has been nonstop. It’s a great learning experience, but really a few people, including myself and Daren Bousman, were really overseeing every aspect of the project even the non-fun non-artistic ones like accounting and brokering deals and distribution and booking tours. So there hasn’t really been any down time yet. I mean the shape of my roles and my jobs have changed slightly with each phase of the project, but it hasn’t let up and that includes finding money and making business proposals and all that stuff that’s un-fun stuff that goes on behind the scenes.
So in terms of that issue of The Molting, it was finished, but it didn’t make sense to release it in the midst of The Devil’s Carnival touring, and all that, I kind of felt like it just wouldn’t have gotten the attention I would have liked to have given it, and I think it probably would have been eaten in the process. So I waited until the tour was done to release it. My hope is that if we can get a system that is a little bit more forgiving on my schedule, that I can get back into releasing the remaining five issues of the series in a little bit more of a consistent fashion. But as you know, those books are independent as well, and their length, unlike your typical book, are like over 60 pages each, full color and you know, they are months of work on their own to do each issue.
To purchase issues of The Molting, please visit Terrance Zdunich’s online store at http://www.terrancezdunich.com/store.
To purchase The Devil’s Carnival on DVD or Blu-ray, visit http://thedevilscarnival.com/store.