Strides ahead

Elza Kephart on villainy, fast fashion and Slaxx

by Jennie Kermode

Elza Kephart working with cinematographer Steve Asselin
Elza Kephart working with cinematographer Steve Asselin Photo: B Calmeau

When you watch a film about a murderous pair of jeans you don’t expect to be impressed by the structure or the acting. You don’t expect complex characters and you certainly don’t expect political comment. Elza Kephart’s Slaxx has all of these and more, making it a real treat for fans at this year’s Fantasia. Chatting to Elza in the run-up to the festival, I asked her which came first – the killer jeans or the critique of the fashion industry.

“It was actually the idea of killer jeans,” she says definitively. “It was a totally different first draft. It was just a silly high school slasher, and then over the years as I grew more and more aware of the grotesque nature of fast fashion – and my co-writer, Patricia Gomez, worked at the Gap, so she contributed a lot to that – it changed. Things came together in the process of writing so it had to be a critique of fast fashion. It’s really strange that it didn’t happen first.”

Behind the scenes - eyeing up the enemy
Behind the scenes - eyeing up the enemy Photo: Marlene Gelineau Payette

A lot of the strength of the film is in its characters. There’s Libby (Romance Denis) the wide-eyed ingénue on her very first day in her dream job; Shruti (Sehar Bhojani), the cynical established employee who does as little as possible; and Craig (Brett Donahue), the store manager desperate to make everything go by the book as they launch their new product, a pair of jeans which change shape to flatter the wearer. I particularly like the latter, I say, with his combination of innocence and ruthless ambition.

“I love writing villains. They’re sort of my favourite,” says Elza. “All my films have a main character who is either villainous or has a really strong flaw. I really got into the skin of that character, that hyperkinetic, innocent yet totally evil follower. From when we decided to set it in the store, I had that idea. That character just drew me the most – after Slaxx, of course. At first he wasn’t a villain but it’s when I realised that he had to become a villain that he came to life. I’m always fascinated by people who really want to conform, to find identity by conforming to an ideal, so I really dove into that character.”

Brett, it seems, was perfect for the role.

“He really understood the character, almost from the beginning. He gave such a powerful audition that I knew he just understood. It was really just explaining the background of the character and helping him track the level of psychosis, and I would just tweak his performance here and there but I really didn’t have to do much.”

Shruti and Libby at work
Shruti and Libby at work Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

The same is true of Romane, she says.

“Romane’s been acting since she was ten, which I was astounded to find. She really understood the character and again I barely had to direct her. I mainly had to direct her about remembering to be scared of the pants!” She laughs. “When we shot it of course, the puppeteer was always present. But she just really understood it – she had a real affinity for the character. And she’s primarily French speaking, so the fact that she delivered a flawless is mind-boggling.

“We were super lucky that the cast came together and they were so fun to work with and so easy to work with. I was imagining that it would be a bit kitsch but when I actually saw the actors in the room together I thought ‘It’s going to reach a whole new level with these performers.’ I was really excited.”

Initially, it plotting out the film, she focused on what kind of kills would be possible. One of the more iconic kills came from an idea by the sound supervisor, she says. Otherwise it was just a lot of laughing and playing around with jeans.

“I sat down with Patricia and she’s really a kill fanatic so it was really just a matter of putting all our thoughts together. We have a few friends we collaborated with who are really creative and we had a pair of pants so we just tried to figure out what they could potentially do. We tried different kills.”

Behind the scenes - getting ready for the main event
Behind the scenes - getting ready for the main event Photo: Marlene Gelineau Payette

We discuss the dance number in the middle of the film and I ask if it was an intentional reference to Bollywood film.

“Absolutely! We hired a Bollywood choreographer who lives in Montreal,” she says, explaining that she wanted to give the spirit possessing the jeans a moment of joy. “There’s a link, also, with Shruti. Sehar is Pakistani but the character of Shruti is Indian. It’s like a weird sisterhood because Shruti won’t admit she likes Bollywood music.”

There’s a lot of violence involved in the film but we don’t see much of it directly. Was that partly a budgetary issue?

“Not always,” she says. “it’s more my style. I don’t like to just show everything. I think a lot of horror works better if you intimate something and the audience gets to imagine the worst in their minds. I would say it’s a bit of both but in my first feature, Graveyard Alive, a lot of people were like ‘How are you going to shoot this? You have no money!’ and I said ‘No, I don’t want to show everything, I want to suggest.’ I think sometimes seeing a suggestive image that works like a symbol is more interesting than just showing all the graphic details because I think a symbol can permeate your unconscious and have a more long-lasting, disturbing effect than just seeing it all at once, when you’re grossed out on the spot but it doesn’t linger. At least not for me.”

Is that still more the case with an unusual villain like Slaxx, where the audience has to be persuaded to feel afraid of something that looks innocuous?

Shruti and Craig have a falling out
Shruti and Craig have a falling out Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

“Yeah, exactly – because obviously we didn’t have the money to show Slaxx doing everything, it helped that that’s the visual grammar of the film. Like sometimes we show something and sometimes we don’t, so as not to ruin the fact that Slaxx can’t do everything.”

I ask if the limited budget was also a factor in the choice to shoot almost everything in one location, but it turns out that the store is not the single space it appears to be.

“We actually shot in three locations and then melded it so it looks like one,” she says. “The store we shot in an empty store in a suburb. It was just the bones so we had to recreate everything in the storefront. All the corridors and the offices, that was shot in another suburban mall after dark. We had two weeks of night shoots. And then the warehouse was shot in a drapery warehouse, which was humungous, and that one creepy aisle had been closed off so we were able to have access to it, and we had to shoot at night and the producer, Patricia, sais ‘That’s totally not believable. We would never have such a big warehouse,’ and I said ‘I don’t care! It’s a horror film!’”

The locations blend together really well. Was that achieved partly through lighting?

“Partly that and partly that we did a lot of location research. I worked in locations in the art department when I was worked in production, so I learned the art of location scouting... I wanted to have a downgrading of the look of each set so the floor was really pristine and almost artificial and then the back rooms and offices and corridors were more corporate and bland, and then the warehouse really had this creepy vibe.”

Slaxx poster
Slaxx poster

It helps the viewer to relate to Libby as she’s finding out more about the business, I suggest.

“Exactly, yeah. That was part of my design.”

So how does she feel about the film being selected by Fantasia?

“Oh, it’s great! I’m from Montreal so I’ve been going to Fantasia since I was, like, 17. They played my first feature. They’re so warm and they really support local filmmakers. We shot here so it’s good for Montreal people to have the chance to see it, and it’s the biggest genre festival in North America. It’s so exciting!”

Next up for her is a French language possession film, she tells me, with a middle aged female protagonist who tries to solve a serious problem in her life by learning from the spirit that’s haunting her house. It will be the first time she’s made a film in French and she’s looking forward to it.

Slaxx screens at Fantasia on Sunday, 23 August.

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