After a successful run on Broadway, Charles Busch planned to bring horror-comedy ‘Psycho Beach Party’ to the big screen in 2000.
Now a cult classic for LGBT horror fans, we caught up with Busch to discuss the film’s special anniversary and its legacy in the genre.
Firstly, can you believe the film is 20 years old?
In a way, it feels longer than 20 years. So many things have happened since in my life, and definitely the world. Making that movie almost seems like I dreamed it.
Is it true you were planning to play Chicklet in the original screenplay?
No, it was never supposed to me. I had created the role in the theater in 1987. So many years later when the movie was made, I would have been a rather antiquated Chicklet and having me play the role in drag would have made it a much more stylized movie. However, the director, Bob King and the producers very much wanted me in the movie. My writing and acting style are so merged. There was I think a brief conversation that perhaps I would play the mother, Mrs. Forrest, but that seemed sort of “on the nose.” In the theater, I enjoy surprising the audience with which roles are played by the opposite gender. Mrs. Forrest is so outrageous that she seems the obvious drag role. I wrote it for a wonderful and very flamboyant actress, Meghan Robinson. Many in the audience thought she was a man in drag but then in the flashback scene, she wore a form fitting dress and a soft wig and it was a great theatrical moment that suddenly we saw the character as a vulnerable young woman. Meghan died at a very young age in 1991. Had she lived I would have pushed for her to play the role on film. However, we were extremely fortunate to have Beth Broderick and her more realistic approach proved to be the right one.
When were the first discussions about adapting the stage show into a feature film?
Honestly, I didn’t think the stage play would make a good movie. It was my longtime manager, Jeff Melnick’s idea. I thought the play was very stylized and stage bound. It was Bob King who really saw the possibilities of opening it up for a movie.
How different is Monica Stark’s character to the stage show version?
There are no murders committed in the play. It’s a much lighter sillier story. Bob was a fan of seventies slasher movies and he thought that we could expand the source of parody from strictly sixties beach party movies to the seventies slasher flicks. Therefore if there were actual murders happening, there would have to be detective and then we both thought a tough woman detective would be a great role for me. Except for Chicklet, my stage roles are generally mature women who battle demons from their past. My stage persona is very influenced by actresses from Hollywood’s golden age such as Susan Hayward, Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck. Captain Monica Stark had elements of all of those ladies. It was a fun challenge to work this new character into the story and have her and Kanaka share a romantic past. In the play, Kanaka goes off at the end with the movie star, Bettina Barnes.
What was the biggest difference in translating this to a feature film?
I guess the biggest difference is the slasher movie element and the inclusion of the characters of Monica Stark and Lars. It’s basically an entirely different narrative than the play. What was established in the play was that Chicklet had split personalities and her relationships with all the kids. Bettina Barnes’ scenes are almost entirely intact from the play.
It sounds like quite a rushed shoot, is it a testament to how the film turned out that most shots were done in up to 2 takes?
I believe it was shot in twenty-one days, which is standard for that sort of indie film budget. We had to move quickly. It’s a complicated movie, shot on difficult locations and musical numbers and so many characters. I wrote myself a very complicated monologue where Captain Monica has to figure out a complex anagram. I was dreading the time when we would shoot that scene. It was towards the end of a long night shoot that Bob suddenly said “Let’s shoot that short scene now.” I was barely prepared and perhaps it was all for the best. I wasn’t able to obsess on it. And maybe because I was so exhausted, I wasn’t as tense as I might have been. I believe we shot it in one take. Whew.
What was the atmosphere like on set, it sounds like a fun film to be a part of?
There was a lot to do. For a small movie, it was a big movie. There certainly were tensions because of the ambitious schedule, but overall I would say it was a fun shoot. The cast were all young and full of enthusiasm. They were very glad to be there. And we were fortunate to have an extremely skilled young actress, Lauren Ambrose, in the lead. She was in almost every scene and required very little direction. She knew what to do. And that saves an amazing amount of time.
Psycho Beach Party feels like a Scooby-Doo adventure brought to life, with its bright colours and over the top performances, was this always your intention?
I’m embarrassed that I’ve never seen Scooby-Doo. The intention was to make the film look like the sixties beach party movies we were paying homage to. The movie was shot in the exact same locations. I was so impressed with the art direction. This was the first movie made from one of my plays and I was overwhelmed by the fantastic details of the sets such as Kanaka’s beach shack. A number of the interiors were shot in actual homes but they were completely redone. The set decoration of Bettina’s house was so spot on. The performance style was certainly influenced from the style of my stage work. One of the things that impressed me in Lauren’s performance was the way she was able to meld the bigger than life quality of the stage play with a more internal film technique.
What was it like putting the cast together?
I live in New York and the casting was done in LA. I had very little input. Bob King cast the movie. I suggested my friend Beth Broderick for the role of the mother, Mrs. Forrest. When Bob met her for an interview, it was an instant bonding and they have remained great friends. When the search for the role of Chicklet was between Lauren and one other actress, Bob included me in the selection and sent me both screentests. It was very clear that Lauren was the best choice. Oddly enough, there was some concern about her being a natural redhead. I suppose they were all stuck on the image of blonde Sandra Dee in the original movie Gidget. I remember telling Bob that I actually wore a red wig in the stage play and there is a great film tradition of the zany redhead such as Lucille Ball.
Nicholas Brendan was a big TV star with Buffy at the time, were you surprised he got involved or was he looking to diversify his portfolio?
I suppose at that time, Nicholas Brendan was the biggest name involved. Again, I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t seen Buffy. You gotta remember I was in my forties at the time. I confess that when I saw footage of him, he wasn’t how I pictured the character. He’s not the stereotypical dreamboat. He was great looking in a more original quirky way. However, it was a highly verbal role and he has a beautiful speaking voice and was extremely comfortable speaking in a theatrically elevated way.
Psycho Beach Party comes out around the time the mini-slasher revival was coming to an end with Scream 3, was this an opportunity to cash in on their resurgence?
Bob was a fan of slasher movies so it’s possible that thought we would do well to be a part of that revival. I wasn’t aware of it. Honestly, my manager had been trying to get a movie made of Psycho Beach Party for at least a decade and then amazingly quickly the pieces all came together. Mainly because Bob had directed a very well-received short subject film that Strand Releasing had distributed. They were eager to work with him on his first feature him. I was lucky that he chose Psycho Beach Party as a project.
In terms of the work you have done, where does Psycho Beach Party rank?
It was an important play for me. It was the follow up play to my breakthrough play “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” It further established me an actor/playwright in the New York Theater. The film is important in the trajectory of my career. It really does have its cult following and I would imagine that there are a number of people who only know me from that movie.
When was the last time you saw the film?
I hadn’t seen it in a long, long time. This past year a small gay bar in Greenwich Village showed it in a movie night and asked me to stop by. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing the movie shown a bunch of small monitors around the bar. But I’ve gotta tell you, it was a lovely night. There were hardcore Psycho Beach Party fans present. And I found myself objectively enjoying the movie as I never really have. Each scene has some outrageous twist or surprise. And it looks beautiful and expensive. And it was fun seeing all of those lovely young actors again on the screen. The biggest star to come out of the film was Amy Adams. This was one of her first screen roles and I could tell just meeting her on the set that she was going to be important. There was a seriousness and focus and professionalism that was very present and she was enormously skilled. Too skilled in one way. She had a musical theater background and was a wonderful dancer. Towards the end of the movie in the big luau scene, there is a dance-off competition between her and the actress, Kimberly Davies, who played Bettina Barnes. Kimberly was a delightful comic actress but not particularly a dancer. Bettina is supposed to win but it’s clear that Amy is the vastly superior dancer. It’s a little weird.
The film has a big LGBT cult following, do you feel the gay community is still under-represented in horror to this day?
I’m so glad to hear that. It’s rarely mentioned in any list of gay cult movies. I’m not an expert in the horror genre but it does seem to be pretty heterosexual. Ironic since James Whale, who virtually created the genre, lived an authentically gay life and expressed something of a gay aesthetic in films such as The Old Dark House. I think there is unfortunately a bit of a homophobic tradition of the drag queen slasher. I was actually offered the starring role in a low budget slasher movie a few years ago, where I was to play a male high school principal who dresses up in drag and murders a bunch of students. As much as I’d love to star in another movie, I had to say no to this one.
Was there ever any talk about doing a sequel?
Nope. No talk as far as I know. I don’t think the movie did that well in its original release. It’s one of those movies that found its following on video.
Which do you prefer more, Die Mommie Die or Psycho Beach Party?
Die Mommie Die. Out of the twenty-one shooting days of Psycho Beach Party, I was probably there ten. My presence wasn’t really required. However, I had the starring role in Die Mommie Die. I was in almost every scene. It was one of the greatest experiences of my entire life. I don’t think I’ve ever been so physically, emotionally and creatively engaged. I loved ever minute of the experience. The day after filming ended, the producers shipped me back to New York. I experienced a real sense of withdrawal. For the next two weeks or so, I would lie on the sofa, with my eyes closed and piece together the entire film in my head. I thought the director, Mark Rucker, did a fantastic job. However, I must say that the lessons in screenwriting that Bob King taught me in adapting Psycho Beach Party and the lessons in screen acting that I learned shooting my scenes in Psycho Beach Party were essential to my work on Die Mommie Die.
Watch the trailer for Psycho Beach Party below –