Repo! Repossessing The Modern Rock Opera

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Picture the future: it’s the year 2056. The medical companies are thriving, financing any and all operations imaginable. Kidneys, eyes, spines, faces, breasts—you name it. However, congress has just made it legal for organs to be repossessed, so miss a payment and a man will show up at your door to take back that liver and whatever else you signed up for. Now that you’ve got a clear vision in your head, there’s only one thing left to do: put it to music.

Part Rocky Horror and part Ray Bradbury, REPO! The Genetic Opera tells the story of one of the many Repo Men working for GeneCo (think of the biotech equivalent of Wal-Mart) and his daughter Shiloh, locked away from the world by a loving father who hasn’t told her what he really does for a living. And all the while, REPO!’s story gets told through a soundtrack that varies from industrial goth-rock to punk to classical opera. “The music and the story just came together,” says Terrance Zdunich, co-creator and actor for the film. The concept started in 1999 as a series of 10 minute mini-operas written and performed by both Zdunich and his fellow REPO! co-creator, Darren Smith. “One of the stories told was that of the Necro-Merchant—a futuristic grave robber and observer from the underbelly of society—and an organ repo man. It’s that story that grew into REPO!. That two-person cast evolved into a small cast of actors doing 45-minute vignettes, into a fully-mounted production.” The series started running in L.A. in 2002, and was running off-Broadway in 2004. During its stage run, Smith and Zdunich befriended director Darren Lynn Bousman (director of the Saw series), and by 2006 the three had created a short film of REPO! hoping to find funding for a fulllength film. Nearly 10 years later, REPO! is ready for release.

“If I had to guess, I’d say about 60% of the movie is different from the stage play,” Zdunich says. The additions range from scene adaptations and cuts to entirely new songs. “I don’t think we changed it because we were unhappy with it. I think it’s because REPO! was somewhat of an unproven play…It was always a cult, blackbox sort of thing done in smaller venues.” Without the large Broadway fan-base musicals such as Rent or Chicago enjoyed, Zdunich claims they were able to truly adapt the play to film properly. As a result, he now feels that the result is a better adaptation than most film musicals.

The script and music weren’t the only things that saw a facelift. While Zdunich is reprising his role as the Necro-Merchant, now known as Graverobber, the film features a star-studded cast with names like Anthony Head, Sarah Brightman, Ogre and Paris Hilton topping the bill. “There were many times in the casting project that I had to quietly get up and excuse myself,” says Zdunich. “It’s awesome because you’re sitting there and thinking, ‘Holy fuck, that’s Sarah Brightman, sitting four feet from me, singing something I helped write!’ And it’s not just the singers, either.” In addition to an amazing cast, the soundtrack features a slew of incredible musicians: Clown (Slipknot), Melora Craeger (Rasputina), Ray Luzier (Korn) and Richard Fortus (Guns ‘N Roses) just to name a few.

“When we set out to do the casting—both the singers and the musicians—we set out to get people who were as eclectic and strange as the concept we had,” Zdunich says. And Zdunich is quick to defend his cast. “I know some of it may seem odd at a glance. Say the casting of Paris Hilton for example. But we were like, ‘no, no, that makes perfect sense.’ We’re doing a story that’s not only a twenty-first century opera, but also a sort of commentary on pop culture. Sure, its got some of the camp elements that Rocky Horror had in it, but it also has some of those gigantic themes like vengeance and lust and murder. The eclectic cast just echoes the wackiness of the project we’re doing. I think we’re slowly being noticed.” Slowly being the key word. After finishing the movie, the REPO! team encountered a startling roadblock.

“We always assumed the hard part would be getting the movie made,” Zdunich says. “We didn’t really anticipate that getting it seen was going to be such a battle. Our distributor, Lionsgate, doesn’t really seem to understand what we’re doing. We finished the movie, they looked at it and said, ‘well, what the hell do you want us to do with it?’ I understand their position. This project is not your cookie-cutter, easily marketed movie. It doesn’t really fit into a demographic, so they sent it straight to DVD.”

But Zdunich wasn’t going to go down quietly. “I think most filmmakers might have allowed that to happen. But the director and I said, ‘well, we don’t agree with that.’ We think people need to see this movie, and they need to see it with their community. If I’d seen Rocky Horror for the first time, alone, on my laptop, I don’t know that I would have gotten it.” Instead, Zdunich knew they had to take the film to the masses.

Zdunich and Bousman organized a road trip, an intense seven-day tour where they screened the movie in seven cities across the country. And they did it on their own. The tour was a great success – all seven of the shows sold out and numerous fans arrived in full-costume, not unlike Rocky Horror fans. “The significant thing about that—beyond them actually dressing up—is that most of these people have never even seen the film. They’ve been looking at the concept art, watched the clips we have online, and they start thinking, ‘holy shit, I want to see this,’ and, ‘not only do I want to see this, I want to see it with a group of my fellow freaks.’ We’ve somehow tapped into that.”

Could REPO! be the next Rocky Horror? “I think there is a group of people who have been hungry for that type of experience,” Zdunich says, “I don’t say that because I think REPO! is the next Rocky Horror, or that it’s even trying to be. But I think what Rocky Horror and REPO! have in common is that sort of a community aspect to it. And I think for people who like to dress up, who like to go out and sing at the screen or in their car, this is going to be their kind of movie.” And people liked it so much that the REPO! team scheduled a second tour.

The success at the screens has been heartening, and the fan response, astounding. “We sort of got ridiculed by the main stream media at first,” Zdunich says. “But I think it’s kind of typical toward projects like ours that are different.”

Is REPO! the future of a newer, darker generation of musical? Zdunich hopes so. “I mean, I don’t know, and if you were in some of our meetings with our distributors, you would probably think, ‘no, it’s never going to happen.’ They’re not really embracing the idea at all, even after we show them the footage of people in costumes, singing the songs out in the streets. I honestly don’t know. But I hope this starts a trend. And, hell yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing REPO! be at the forefront of that trend…I want to do more shows like this. I want there to be a market for it.”

But for now, the moment belongs to REPO!. “It really forces viewers to take a side. You either get it, or you don’t. If you get it, I think you’re going to be in for an amazing time. If you don’t, it’s probably going to be a very uncomfortable 93 minutes.”

REPO! will be released on DVD on Jan. 20. The film will open in SLC at The Tower Theater on Tuesday, Jan. 13.