SORORITY ROW is only director Stewart Hendler second feature film, after 2007's WHISPER (which never received a proper theatrical release). I met up with the young helmer on the Pittsburgh set of his first big-budget feature, and he explained his vision for the remake, how he dealt with the cold weather, and what it's like being the ringmaster for a bevy of young beauties.
How did you become involved with the project?
HENDLER: I got the script from my agents. I wasn't familiar with the original, and I read the title, and I thought, "This is going to be an interesting use of my Thursday night." I got 10 pages into it, to this scene, and I was just flipping pages, one after another. By the time I got to the end, I was like, "Oh my god, this would be amazing." So I had a meeting with the studio. The script is very tongue-in-cheek, it's very self-aware, it's sort've having fun with the genre, and I went in there and was basically like, it could go two ways: It can be campy horror, exploitative, hot girls getting murdered and boobs all over the place, or it can be really fun, it can be one of those movies that's in the world of SCREAM, that is playing with the conventions and having a good time. I figured I'd risk it, and I went in there and said "This is like MEAN GIRLS meets SCREAM. And you can kick me out of the room if you want." And they're like, "Totally, that's exactly the movie we want to make." And from there on out we've been on the same page.
Did you ever go back and watch the original?
HENDLER: Of course. And the fun thing is, the original is awesome in its classic 80s camp way. It's a trip, it's a great movie to sit there and have a great time with. The script is not - aside from sharing the set piece, sharing the concept of the prank gone wrong - it doesn't share all that much more. So it was actually a little bit of a relief, because there's a world out there that reveres this movie for what it was, and remakes are always a little touch and go, because you've got a base of people who don't want to see the original fucked with, and a group of people who are judging you against the original. To me it was nice to be able to say, okay we're using the original as kind've a jumping off point, and we can make something that's very current, that's very updated, not necessarily trying to be what the other one was.
So no crazy son in the attic?
HENDLER: (laughs) Not yet, not yet. Maybe reshoots. We'll see.
Can you talk about the cast? How they came about, what may have interested one actress over another for some of the roles?
HENDLER: From the beginning it was kind've cool project because it's such an ensemble piece. Briana [Evigan] was the first person on board, she had a relationship with Summit because of STEP UP 2, and I knew her from STEP UP, the director of that movie is a good friend of mine, so she was kind've first out of everyone's mouth. She plays a very street-smart girl in the movies she does, and I said "Can you be a sorority girl? You know, definitely the outsider of the bunch, but this is a bit of a departure for you." She said, "As long as the movie's having fun with that culture, a send-up - and a celebration - of sorority life, then I'm totally in." The movies that we're referencing are BRING IT ON or HEATHERS, movies that are taking a world and having a good time just dissecting it, being brutally honest about it, and making as much fun of it as they are enjoying it. She and I were in sync on that. Then the fun was just packaging the rest of the girls around her. I could not be more thrilled with where we ended up. Leah [Pipes] is sort've her counterpart in the movie, they're always at each other's throats. And Leah is a relative unknown, so to be able to cast someone like that, to watch her audition and say "Yeah, she's the best actress for the role" is kind've a rare thing. She's just awesome. And the rest of the girls filled out the niches in different ways.
How about Audrina [Partridge]? She's a little different in that people know who she is, but...
HENDLER: Totally... All of us liked the idea of pulling in a girl who had a lot of notoriety, good and bad, from her role on T.V. And the funny thing is, she's the sweetest thing in person, sweet as pie. But you know, that show ["THE HILLS"] pulls out every side of people's characters and amplifies them.
So knowing it's a sorority, is there a big shower scene?
HENDLER: (laughs) There's some skin, there's no shower. Yet.
HENDLER: The son in the attic, and the shower... But no - it's definitely a movie that has fun with that stuff.
What guys brought you out here?
HENDLER: Why Pittsburgh, or why this location?
Well, in general. Were you looking for the cold weather? What were you looking for?
HENDLER: Pittsburgh has become a filming city in the last couple of years, they've been very proactive about getting movies out here, and very welcoming. It's been sort've a hotspot for everybody to look at. The topography and the scenery really lent itself, so we came out here, we scouted, and it's perfect... Then it got cold. (Laughs)
I'm not sure where you're from, are you used to the cold weather, or is this a shock to you?
HENDLER: I'm an L.A. boy, so when it gets windy, it's exciting. It's like a weather event. So this is all the clothes I own...I've been in L.A. my whole life and it's monotonously beautiful. So a departure is great.
Knowing that you like the script, are there any specific kills that you are putting your own personal touch on?
I'm very lucky in that - even though this movie came together really fast - Josh and Pete, the writers, and I got to sit down right away in the process. I had my first meeting, then a week later a second meeting, then I got hired, and literally an afternoon later I was sitting in a coffeeshop with them talking about stuff. We did another draft - a big revision of the script - together, and that became the fundamentals of the shooting draft. They're genre experts, which is awesome, because their resources and being able to reference any movie ever shot is great and we all wanted to come in and say "How do we make this fresh and interesting, and the kills have to be great and they have to tie in to their characters, so how do we do that and make people gasp"?
Is there one kill in particular that you're either looking forward to shooting, or seeing people's reaction to?
HENDLER: There's one that I think is all of our's pet favorite that we shot part of on Monday, which is Chugs [Margo Harshman], sort've the alcoholic of the bunch, and she is basically at her psychiatrist's office, waiting for an appointment, she's grabbed a bottle of wine, she wandering around the house - he's been killed, she doesn't know where he went - and she lays down on the therapy couch, and she's drinking from the wine, and the bottle gets stomped down her throat. (Everyone reacts.) So she's gagging on the wine, and its draining down her throat, and the killer smashes the bottle in her throat. She basically drowns in her own wine and blood.
I noticed that you have storyboards next to the monitors. Do you like to plan everything out, or do you like to leave room to discover things on the set?
HENDLER: I'm kinda half way in between. Definitely not in M. Night's world, where everything is framed before we even get to the set. I don't know if you've been at the monitors at all, but we're shooting a lot of handheld, a lot of observational doc style, like we just happened to catch it even though it looks really beautiful. The boards are always a guide, and for the technical stuff we board it out as specifically as we can, and then the crews quickly adapted to the ability to be flexible.
Is horror one of your favorite genres? Is it something you strive to continue working in?
HENDLER: Yeah, totally. I come from a place where I've always loved the genre, but I definitely love movies from outside the genre too, and would love to make movies outside the genre. The last movie I made was a horror-thriller kind've thing, and I was reading everything to see where to go from there, and like I said when I got the script from my agents, I was a little bit wary, because if I was going to do another horror, I wanted to make sure it was something with a voice and something interesting and fun. And so this was that project, which was exciting. We feel like it's not your typical slasher movie, it's got a personality to it, and an energy to it that's fun and will appeal to people outside the genre base.
I have not read the script, but a friend of mine read it and said that - I forgot the name of Audrina's character - Megan - but her sister shows up and supposedly looks just like her.
HENDLER: Maggie, yeah.
So is it being played by another actress or is it being played by Audrina?
HENDLER: It is a different actress that looks very similar to her, so once we cast Audrina, we did a sweep to figure out who that would be. It's a girl named Caroline D'Amore, who is awesome.
Did you ever have any thoughts of actually having Audrina play her?
HENDLER: We did, we thought about it, and kind've weighed the options, and loved what Caroline brought to it. And also with Audrina's schedule, it was very hard - even having her here for a couple of days took sort've an act of congress, so we're very lucky.
That actress was cast just a few days ago, right?
HENDLER: It was released a few days ago, we cast her probably three or four weeks ago.
Is there anything coming up for you next?
HENDLER: Right now I'm just in this. I'm reading stuff, but I'll be thick into this at least until the middle of Spring, so...
What do you think of all these horror remakes? How do you want to make this one different from the ones that have already been remade?
HENDLER: I get just as wary of these remakes as other people do, especially when they're fucking with the classics, when you get to the type of movies that should probably never be touched, I always get a little annoyed, but that's the fin of this, this is a movie that not a lot of people know about, and we're not doing it exactly the same, so I feel like this is a fun way to reinvent this setting in our own shell.