Gonzo Filmmaking: The Art of Debbie Rochon

It’s a hot summer day when I get the chance to talk to Debbie Rochon. This summer has been an absolute bear in terms of the heat, and we commiserate for a moment, praising air conditioning and exchanging well-wishes for the other’s comfort. In that instant, the woman on the other end of the phone isn’t just THE Debbbie Rochon, she of such delicious cult classics as The Theatre Bizarre and Tromeo and Juliet. This is a real person, and frankly, that realness translates well into her work. You see, Rochon has recently made her directorial debut with Model Hunger, the story of the inevitable clash between aging, angry, homicidal former model Ginny (Lynn Lowry) and her troubled new neighbor Debbie (Tiffany Shephis). With a script in hand from James Morgart (Won Ton Baby!, Hardcore Ballerinas, Guy With a Camera), Rochon crafts a tale that blends murder, mayhem, and revenge with the social commentary for which underground cinema is famous.

Rochon describes the film as “anti-establishment,” which isn’t off the mark by any means. In fact, Model Hunger packs quite the punch in everything from aging to limited work opportunities to mental health. The best part of all this? “The script was written by a man!” she exclaims, before calling the experience “true collaboration, from James’s wonderful script to him letting me go ape shit with it, in the most positive, creative ways.” In fact, Rochon speaks highly of the freedom that came with her collaborative effort with Morgart, saying, “All credit has to go to James Morgart, who wrote the screenplay. He was kind enough to let me collaborate with him. The cannibal aspect of it: he wanted to do it, yet we know basically why she’s saying she’s doing it: she doesn’t want to let go of that youth. At the same time, she wants to insult it. We don’t spend the movie watching her eat human flesh, either – that would be a different exploitation movie.”

Ah yes, the exploitation factor. Lowry’s Ginny is a cannibal that feeds on the flesh of young women, but that interesting part is that the film isn’t centered on gore. In fact, Lowry’s performance is some of the most fun captured on film of an actress in recent years. Of Lowry’s performance, Rochon says, “She understood that if you want to make it special, it’s there for the taking. And she took it. And that’s all Lynn Lowry. Pheonomenal actress. I couldn’t be happier. I loved that character so much! I just really love it. I love her, and what she brought on screen. She has so much conviciton that it’s wonderful and beautiful. The most interesting monologues are the monologues in her head.” Despite the intensity that the film could sometimes have, Rochon admits that nothing was terribly difficult to film, praising her cast. “We had professional actors who are amazing,” she says with audible pride. “It was a labor of love. … When you’re shooting, you’re either too cold or too hot. I’ve yet in 30-plus years seen perfect weather to shoot. It doesn’t happen. … Everyone just savored it and enjoyed it. Lynn Lowry, she never batted an eye. She just got in there and did her thing, quite literally. I tried to create, as much as I was able to, that atmosphere of safety. Behind the scenes, the actors need to be protected so that they can feel that brave… No matter what’s going on, I needed to keep that sacred ground where the actors go.” The result is a slew of fearless performances in the face of tough subject matter and action.

At the same time, though, Rochon is careful not to hand everything over to the audience, choosing gore that’s (dare I say) tasteful in points where she absolutely has to use it. The impact for the audience is that we’re left to fill in the blanks. “I did not want to treat people like they’re stupid,” Rochon insists, and the impact is just that. For Rochon, this meant that the story had to be driven by the characters and their struggles. “I really wanted to get in that it’s not just the story of Ginny, it’s the story of all of the characters. Just, you know, the flaws of all of the characters. There are some amazing things I wanted and tried to get in. I really wanted to get in that everyone who watched the show was affected. … I really wanted this world to be small. For everyone that comes in contact with everyone else. It’s the ripple effect. …. For me, it’s so incredibly obvious, and you have to remind yourself that it’s not necessarily obvious for everybody. That was what drew me to the movie in the first place. Being able to have fun with it, in the show and the insane measures that Ginny takes. Really, to these completely destroyed women. … The marriage between Sal and Debbie is down the toilet. Sal’s not a bad guy. He moves out of New York to save her. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not sensitive to what she’s going through. You know, like she’s crazy, but she’s really not crazy. How much of it is true and how much of it is her spinning out of control. Is it complete coincidence that all of this is a reaction to her not taking her pills?”

Have to admit, that’s a pretty valid point out there for people of all ages and walks of life: the need to be understood and empathized with, the need to connect and make meaning of the human experience. An additional layer to the already-rich plot comes, curiously, in the form of Suzi’s Secret, a fictional show in the Model Hunger universe that features sexy clothes for real women with a real attitude. Our host, Suzi (Suzi Lorraine), delivers some scathing rants on body acceptance, but is assisted by a model played by none other than Babette Bombshell. Rochon gives us even more commentary, explaining, “You have the show where it’s real women looking at a bombshell. And she’s a bombshell in her own right but she’s not a real woman. She’s not really a girl. So there’s that double-sided thing where you take it out of context.” A fairly smart move, and one that clearly respects the audience’s ability to think.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t fun, though. In fact, part of the beauty of Model Hunger comes from the fact that it can be taken at face value as a shocker, or given a lot more depth if you step back and look at it. Rochon concedes, “Not everyone’s going to get it, but… it’s there if you want to see it. Some will never see it, and that’s okay. That’s totally okay, because the right people will see it, if that makes sense. This is one of those movies that has flaws in the production end of things, but I think on the other side of it, there’s a lot there. As much as you want to think about it, you’re right. Whatever you want to make into it, you’re probably right, because it’s probably been thought about.”

However, Rochon admits that it’s not perfect: “[There were times when] I did fail, and I learned a lot for next time. Let me tell you something, you definitely learn a lot on your first film. I couldn’t be more proud. The film is not without its issues, but at the same time… what more could you really hope for with your first movie?” One thing she learned: the value of a monitor when filming, which came at the cost of an expensive machine used for a seamless effect. “It was very, very important to me that Ginny’s home had that thing where we’ve all been to older ladies’ homes, [and] you can see the dust in the air. There’s a very specific machine for that effect. It was really important to me that she had that. In turn, I never got a monitor. So that was a pretty, pretty big mistake. I don’t regret it because I felt that we needed the effect.”

And so, the burning question of the day: what is Debbie Rochon going to do next? She offers a laugh and a coy answer: “There’s a couple things at once…” And so we wait, chomping at the bit for what this director is going to give us in the future, in her own guerilla style of filmmaking.


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