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Q&A: Director Benni Diez on His Humorous Monster Homage “STUNG”

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“I want to lure the audience in with romance or drama or the fantastical—and then traumatize them,” director Benni Diez tells FANGORIA of his gonzo underappreciated-workaday-caterers-fight-gargantuan-wasps-and-save-overprivildged-rich-snobs’-bacon flick STUNG. “But only a little bit of trauma! I don’t want anyone walking out of the theater feeling worse than when they went in. That is not why I enjoy—or make—movies.

“I do like the idea, though, of creating an experience that leaves people feeling a little bit stronger for going through it,” he continues. “You know, they were terrified at times and maybe I hit them over the head with something they didn’t see coming, but they also had fun and a laugh and are still here and can now go home and make love.”

True to Diez’s word, STUNG (in select theaters and on VOD today from IFC Films) offers up gore, guffaws, lovebird flutters and legitimately affecting family drama with (mostly) equal gusto. “Audiences can become numb to the typical ways of telling stories,” Diez notes. “This is what I have always loved about genre cinema: By taking familiar storylines or ideas and combining them with an outrageous situation, you can find different pathways for understanding this crazy reality of ours and new perspectives on greater truths. The weird can keep the brain fresh just as well as it keeps a movie fresh.”

If the STUNG setup sounds like an episode of PARTY DOWN on psychotropic drugs, but also feels strangely authentic, that’s in large part thanks to screenwriter Adam Aresty’s catering gig during his college days that blossomed into the film’s foundation. “He never saw a party attacked by giant wasps, of course, but he did have a job where he was annoyed by a swarm of ordinary-sized wasps and all the people were awful,” Diez says with a laugh. “That’s where the concept came from. And then we took it in a batshit-crazy direction.”

For Diez (pictured below with Matt O’Leary, Jessica Cook and Lance Henriksen), STUNG represents “a love letter” to classic creature features that got it right—ALIENS, GREMLINS, TREMORS and SLITHER, to name a few of the most notable examples. “These are the movies that imprinted themselves on our minds—that helped shape our filmmaking brains,” Diez says, adding that, although he considers himself “first and foremost a digital artist,” with credits including Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA, he knew from the beginning this homage would require mostly physical creatures and gore.

STUNGDIEZ

“Early on, we decided we would do as many practical effects as our budget and logistics allowed,” he says. “While still fleshing out the script, we were asking the artists over at Design of Illusion, ‘Can we make a wasp do this on this budget? Can we make this transformation happen on this budget?’ Visiting that workshop during preproduction—watching the sculptures and puppets evolve and come to life bit by bit—was like being a kid in a candy store.

“There were points where our budget left us no choice but to turn to CGI,” he continues. “We were always very careful, however, in choosing those moments and favored practical effects whenever possible. It was lots of fun, but not at all easy.”

The hard work nevertheless produced the desired effect. “Having something to actually shoot makes a big difference on set,” Diez explains. “Not just because actors prefer to play against something other than a tennis ball, but also because as a director, it is wonderful to be able to say to a puppeteer, ‘Be a little more menacing in this moment.’ It gives you an opportunity to direct the creature along with your actors, which in turn opens up the way for many happy accidents that would never happen animating frame by frame on a computer.”

Diez took the same organic approach to treading the line between horror and humor that’s so integral to STUNG’s success. “You have to let the balance find itself,” he says. “In this kind of film, the comedy doesn’t really come from thinking up punchlines—it comes from throwing actors whom audiences can believe in and relate to, and who exude real warmth and humanity, into situations that are so far-out and crazy that laughter becomes the only natural reaction—as a protective instinct, almost. This cannot be planned. You have to see what the actors bring to the table.

“Lance Henriksen, for example, turned out to be much funnier than I ever had any idea he would be, and brought a lot of unexpected humor to certain scenes [see our interview with Henriksen here]. Matt O’Leary, who plays Paul, also had a charisma and comic sense about him that seeped into his character. And Jessica Cook, who plays Julia, comes from a modeling background, but it was videos of her being a genuine, funny presence on-line that convinced me to seek her out for this role. As a director, my job much of the time was to build a supportive, collaborative environment that let all these natural things come to the surface, and not get in the way trying to micromanage every single scene or line of dialogue.”

Naturally, as a die-hard ALIENS fanatic, Diez found working with Henriksen to be a unique thrill. “Imagine getting the call that the android of your favorite movie of all time is going to star in your very first feature,” Diez says. “I can’t describe the feeling. We squeezed every possible ALIENS story out of him. I couldn’t help myself.”

On the eve of STUNG’s release, Diez has the calm mien of a man who knows he put his best foot forward and will now let the chips fall where they may. “I can only hope people go in with open minds and don’t have too strict ideas of what a monster movie is or isn’t,” he says, “because there are twists and turns here. I like playing with expectations.”

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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