Go Behind the Scenes on ‘Lila Cheney: I Will Steal Your Heart’ with the Cast and Director Arvin Bautista [Interview]
Fan films have been on the rise over the last few years, with characters from Black Panther to Power Rangers receiving gritty reboots courtesy of aspiring filmmakers. Director Arvin Bautista has managed to stand out from the crowd, first with his glittery and glamorous music video "Sight of the Sound," starring Gentry Ross as the brightest star in the Marvel Universe, Dazzler, and now with his follow-up, "I Will Steal Your Heart," which puts Marvel punk-pop-rocker supreme Lila Cheney at center-stage, as played with flair by Sage Montclair.
Lila is joined by a whole cast of New Mutants (and several other surprise cameos), and Ross reprises her role as Dazzler for an 80s-tastic foray into the underground club scene, which surely must be driving those poor Morlocks insane by now. The videos are fantastic fun, so ComicsAllaince took the time to chat with Bautista, Ross (Dazzler), and Montclair (Lila Cheney) about the experience, with Dazzler's eternal advice to "go for it!" ringing always in our ears.
CA: Arvin, it’s clear that you’re a pretty keen comics fan, but what inspired you to make a Dazzler music video?
Arvin Bautista: I really related to her wanting to be known as an artist first, and a mutant superhero second, and this was the character element that I really wanted to explore in the video and the song.
I can't remember exactly when I wanted to make a video, but I've also always had a thing for the underdog characters that people don't like... it's much easier to play pretend when you're a kid when you just pick the character that nobody else wants to pick, you know? I knew I couldn't ever make a real X-Men fan film and have it compete with the movies. Having Dazzler as the main character gave me freedom to explore, and the music video format made it especially unique among fan films.
CA: What was it about Gentry’s performance which sold you on her as the Dazzler?
AB: Casting in film is usually my favorite part of the process, but casting these characters [is] especially hard. Not only did they have to look the part, they needed to sound the part and act the part. I sent out feelers among friends in the industry for such a triple threat talent, and I got a bunch of dead ends: there was always at least one aspect of them that was wrong for the character.
Luckily my longtime musician friend Taiwo Heard (who wrote and produced the music for both songs, as well as plays the guitarist) thought of Gentry while I was feeling around, and we had a meeting. She not only nailed it (looks, voice, acting ability), she really embodied the character of Alison I wanted to portray: the young, talented musician/actress trying to make it in the industry. We basically cast her on the spot, and she ran with it.
CA: Gentry, how did you first come to get involved in the video with Arvin?
Gentry Roth: I was running errands as a PA for a music video, when I stopped into an electronics shop where Taiwo was working. We exchanged information, kept up with each other's artistic projects, and a few months later he messaged me saying his friend was looking for a short haired, blonde singer. And you can imagine, the rest is history!
I didn't know too much about Dazzler, but I immediately was drawn to her. I read up on everything I could find, and fell in love with Longshot too!
CA: What do you want people to take away from your version of Dazzler? What did you want to bring out with the character?
GR: I wanted to bring out her free spirit, ambition and playfulness. I admire her drive to chase her dreams, and I hope people can find inspiration through her story.
CA: Were you any good at rollerskating before you strapped them on for the shoot?
GR: I hadn't put on skates since I was a teenager, so it was a great feeling to reignite that part of my childhood that I had enjoyed so much! We had a stunt double, Brooke Dawon, for the shots I knew I wouldn't be able to execute as gracefully. Since the video, I've been taking skate lessons to ultimately choreograph a clown roller skating act.
CA: How hard is it to write these songs, Arvin? Both “Sight of the Sound” and “I Will Steal Your Heart!” feel true to the characters, while being really catchy pop songs in their own right.
AB: Let me preface by saying I wrote only the lyrics to both songs; Taiwo Heard wrote and produced the music, with guidance and direction from me.
Writing "Sight of the Sound" was very hard, in that I felt like I needed to write the definitive Dazzler song, and I'd obviously never written a song before (nor recorded one, produced one, etc). I had specific character beats I wanted to hit, and to lock in the themes of light and sound and balancing art and heroism. Gentry contributed some lines while exploring the character as well. Soundwise, I had decided to go with '80s Dazzler, and I was listening to a lot of Robyn at the time anyway, so I just gorged on her some more, along with other '80s pop.
"I Will Steal Your Heart" was easier, probably because of my experience from the previous one, and because there's less backstory for Lila that I needed to pay homage to: she's a bad/good girl, she likes to have fun, she steals things, she hops around the galaxy. In fact I wrote "Sight of the Sound" after hearing Taiwo's music, but Lila's song I was able to write beforehand, mostly by listening to Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, and rediscovering my love for Sahara Hotnights, which ended up becoming my main source of inspiration.
CA: What did you want the videos to evoke? Was the idea always to lean heavily into the '80s, flowing hair and all?
AB: Visually I wanted them both to look like the music videos of the era. For Dazzler I watched a lot of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" has always been a favorite), and my wife made me watch Flashdance, which I'd surprisingly never watched before --- but was a huge influence after. For Lila we watched a lot of punk and hair metal videos, again especially Joan Jett and Pat Benatar.
To put it another way, I wanted Dazzler to look like a Jem and the Holograms video, and I wanted Lila to look like a Misfits video! (This was also my wife's influence, she introduced me to Jem!)
CA: How does the casting process work? Everybody in both videos seems to absolutely nail their characters!
AB: Taiwo struck gold again with finding Sage. We were ready to put out a casting call when he found her, through a friend of a friend (who played the drummer in the Dazzler video) for whom Sage had auditioned but did not get the part. It was a very rushed meeting in a Starbucks in the OC, but again I got that gut feeling as soon as I met her. Frankly I felt like we needed to convince her to do the part, since we probably sounded like desperate weirdos trying to explain our project.
The New Mutants was a different type of ordeal, however. For that we did do a casting call, thanks to the help of our producer John Cleland who also works in casting. Luckily none of those guys had to sing, but not only did they need to get the look right, they needed to be the correct heights in proportion to each other! Everyone we got was eventually fantastic, but trying to wrangle together that big of a cast (the biggest I'd ever worked with) caused some headaches.
CA: How’ve you found working with Sage, starring as Lila Cheney in the new video?
AB: Sage was tougher to gauge in the beginning; she lived pretty far away (she was working for free so we had to be very respectful of her schedule), she had actually put off acting for a little bit, and she didn't really know much about comics. All I knew was that she was an incredible singer with a fantastic presence, and every time we met she just embodied more and more of the character.
This was such a rushed production time-wise that I didn't get to do much rehearsal with her on set, so again, she just had to trust me when I was telling her to act in front of a green screen, and she did, and then her band performance just blew everybody away. I was so happy when I showed her a work-in-progress version of the video with the effects and she squealed when she saw the effects. I felt like she had done such an incredible job, that I finally got to prove myself to her!
CA: So Sage, what did you know about Lila Cheney before taking part in the video?
Sage Montclair: Absolutely, nothing! I hope that doesn't break any hearts! She’s a little less-known than Dazzler, although plenty awesome too...
CA: Once you got to know the character a little better, what was your reaction to her?
SM: OMG, okay, so I love the fact that she is such a badass! She's this sick rock ’n’ roll babe that lives her life unapologetically; I so respect that. Sure she's a jewel thief and all, but she’s charming as hell at the same time. Haha! I can only imagine what it would be like to live in such a reality! I love her and think her strong suits definitely cover up a major ‘soft side’ in her. She’s a hopeless romantic, but can come off a bit intimidating; I completely resonate with this aspect of her.
Really... it’s the type of role I’ve always wanted to play because I feel like it’s me to the core! Playing the ‘role’ just gave me the courage to do it justice. And it was a full day! So it was rad. Portraying Lila in this video gave me a perspective of myself, and for that I am eternally grateful.
CA: You get to do the Joan Jett strut, act out a little space adventure, and show off a different style to Gentry’s Dazzler. What have you most enjoyed about being Lila Cheney?
SM: What I personally enjoyed most about Lila is the fact that I got to be 100% authentic for the day. That’s how Lila lives her life! 100%. She takes full responsibility in her life, lives her life with integrity, is talented AF, and is an intergalactic teleporting babe!
What more could you ask for in a woman?! I walked the walk and the talk came natural! I got to really experience what it would be like to be a successful rock star on planet earth. I’m certain many of us have had that goal on our bucket list! I for sure get to cross that one off.
CA: How have you both found working with Arvin as director on these videos?
SM: Oh my lord. He is just absolutely wonderful! The team he put together to make this project come to life will have a special place in my heart forever. He is so talented. I am so excited to watch him flourish in his career! Definitely glad I had the opportunity to work with him before he blows up. Love you, Arvin, and all associated!!
GR: Arvin has been one of the best directors to work with. He's professional, communicative and supportive. Oh, and I can't emphasis this enough: so talented! With Sage, it was a joy working with her. Her voice is killer! It's always nice to work with talented, grounded and supportive artists.
CA: What’s the fan-response been like to the videos?
AB: I'll keep this brief because the Lila video is still fresh out there, but I'll say this: when I made Dazzler, I wasn't planning on making a sequel. The fans demanded one. Then I decided that instead of doing just another Dazzler, I would do another character, one that even my biggest X-Men fan friends thought was way too obscure.
And guess what? Lila's racked up more views in a day and a half than the Dazzler's made in its entire run so far. I can't thank everyone enough --- the fans most of all!
SM: What I have seen has made me as giddy as a little girl on a flying pink pony!! I am an artist, and to see people comment on how I successfully portrayed and represented one of their favorite characters makes me so happy and humbled!! I want to be at Comic-Con for you guys and take pictures while we geek out!
GR: I've been so lucky to experience several conventions as Dazzler. I always look forward to putting the costume back on! It's not everyday people see Dazzler out and about, so I love seeing fans get surprised and their eyes light up!
CA: Do you have any plans for more videos in future --- are there any other characters you’d be interested in bringing to film?
AB: As with Dazzler, never say never. I will say that these projects are entirely self-funded and nonprofit, not to mention exhausting or grueling to produce, so if I do, it'll take some time.
CA: What else are you all currently working on? Where can people find you and your projects online?
GR: Besides the clown roller skating act, I'm shooting a feature film and doing some modeling. I would love to do something again with Dazzler... of course! I update my social media pretty often and I love engaging with people around the world. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and Model Mayhem, and you can find my website at www.gentryroth.com!
SM: And so it begins…! You may find my personal projects on Soundcloud and Youtube. I would love if you guys listened to my work… pretty sure I’ll be crying if you guys really do that because this is really what I want to do with my life. Let me know what you guys think! Oh! And let me know if you guys would like Tai and me to keep making music together!!
And seriously... just thank you to everyone who has been a part of this. From the director down to every single comment posted on every blog about this piece ever. I haven’t followed the Marvel comics much in my past, but I have definitely found a new love for the work and the community that supports it. Much love to all of you and I hope all your wildest dreams come true!
AB: Lila and Alison will live on at Superhero Pop, but our main company is Greasy Pig Studios, which produces web series, music videos, commercials, and lots of graphics, VFX, and animation for film and TV.
But let's be honest: I really wanna work in film/TV and comics! This is me putting my name out there to Marvel/Disney (but uh, not their lawyers), saying that I am here and available! So if the fans want a sequel... let's make it an official Marvel one!