Guest Column: Chris Pappas of Elle Belle on writing a horror film, his new LP

Chris Pappas, Elle Belle, Sarah Strange

Chris Pappas of Elle Belle, Courtesy: Casey Curry.

New-Hampshire-born Angeleno Chris Pappas didn’t set up to be a multi-media artist, but that’s where he’s landed. He’s written two TV pilots, has a horror film in development and has also written music for the soundtracks to two NASA documentaries. As Elle Belle, he’s set to release his third album, Post Everything, on Nov. 13. 

The album confronts Pappas’ emotional and mental fatigue that made him misplace his hope and replace it with nihilism. He’s compared the songs to raking through the ashes of the last few years and trying to figure out where to go next. He does this with a blend of psychedelia, prog rock and electronica. Elle Belle’s Post Everything will be released by Little Record Company, run by Rilo Kiley bassist Pierre de Reeder.

My writing partner Justin Moran and I have worked together for a while. We were college buddies that wrote this silly musical called “Pope! An Epic Musical.” It was us basically just writing the silliest shit we could think of, and the show took off. It became the fastest-selling show in Fringe Fest NYC history and got crazy good reviews.

After that, we didn’t really know what our next project would be, but Justin had this new musical idea called “Sarah Strange.” It was cool and had a “Little Shop of Horrors” vibe to it, but I wasn’t interested in writing another typical musical. So I pitched him the idea of making it more of a horror movie, but with psych-rock musical numbers. It was this weird hybrid thing that was more John Carpenter and Goblin than Rodgers and Hammerstein. He loved it, and we rolled with it.

In the meantime, I had finished two TV pilots: a sci-fi drama and an absurdist/surreal comedy about a K-POP band, and both got optioned by a production company here in L.A. They’ve been developing the shows with me, and so, during one of our meetings, I pitched them the “Sarah Strange” project as well, and they loved it. Justin and I have been working with them to finish the project.

“Sarah Strange” is about a girl who, through a freak science experiment gone wrong, gains the power to take command of people’s minds. However, she learns too late that once their minds have turned, they cannot go back, and they become mindless zombies. I have an immense fear of losing my mind. I saw my grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s, and it affected me deeply. While much of the story is centered around the question of, “What would you do if you had the power to control people’s minds?” a lot of the horror in it comes from my own fears of losing my mind. There is an existential terror that feels unavoidable, Lovecraftian. 

OK, so that’s the background.

I’m a huge fan of horror films. Horror is fascinating to me, especially in regard to what our fears reveal about us. I had read a while back that there is an interesting correlation to the popularity of vampire and zombie movies in the U.S. depending on which party holds the Presidency. When a Republican is in office, zombie movies (as they typically are an allegory for consumerism) tend to be more popular. Vampire movies (often an allegory for vice, sexuality and drug use) tend to rise in popularity when a Democrat is in office.

I started writing as a way to do something creative that wasn’t music-related. I had just finished No Signal and had toured for a bit on that record. I had an idea that I’d been kicking around for a while—this high-concept sci-fi story—so I decided to actually put it to paper. I really had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I didn’t even know basic formatting stuff.

The first draft was a pretty huge fucking mess, but the raw materials were there. I learned a bunch, especially from my writer friends who were gracious enough to humor me by reading it. I worked through a few more drafts, though I was never too concerned because I didn’t think TV writing would really be anything more than a therapeutic exercise. The fact that my TV writing is actually in development right now is pretty wild.

To me, writing kind of feels like playing with dolls. I wind up these characters I’ve created and let them loose in the world. It’s a meditation on empathy. For example, there’s a preacher character in my sci-fi show, and I really tried to avoid him being “religious man = bad.” I wanted to view the world through his eyes and frame his actions under the assumption that he truly believes he is doing good. People are complicated, and I wasn’t interested in writing cartoon characters for these projects.

I don’t feel a lot of overlap between songwriting and TV or movie writing. They must have some relation, but it’s not apparent to me. It feels like a different set of muscles entirely. In songwriting, I’m often looking for the truth. In my writing, I’m looking to express something much different. I like highlighting the power of the narrator, especially in how his or her voice affects what we decide is “the truth.” We all think we’re the lead character in our own story, and so do the people in my writing. It’s the idea that if there’s a car in front of you while you’re in a hurry, they’re the asshole for driving too slow; and if there’s a car tailing you, they’re the asshole for driving too fast. That feels like the only truism of humanity. 

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