Roast dog anyone? Matthew Turner spoke to CHEAP THRILLS director, E I Katz about what inspired his malevolent debut:
Matthew Turner (MJT): How did the project come about, first of all?
E.L. Katz (ELK): So, the project was something that – I used to throw these dinners with a lot of horror screenwriters and one of the guys in the gang thought that it would be cool if we tried to start a production company that was run by horror screenwriters and we would have more control, because we were pretty used to doing a lot of for-hire jobs and having to write shitty stuff that executives thought was a good idea, or the directors fucked it up. In the genre, I think the writer is almost marginalised more than even in a lot of other genres, because it can be such an execution-based kind of thing and I think we just wanted to try to take the power back. So I was put with the job of trying to find material that we could do with a low budget, typically trying to find stuff that was a little bit weirder or subversive or just something that was maybe a little less commercial, a little bit more independent. And I found this script that my friend Trent Haaga wrote Money For Something and I really fucking liked it. And I tried to get my friends to read the scripts – they never fucking read the scripts and ultimately the money never came in. But I still had it and I was just like, you know – it wasn’t initially for me to direct, I was just trying to find stuff and then we would find other directors, but this was something that only had like three or four locations at most and I really liked the ideas in it, like the disparity between the rich couple and the poor guys and like how they turned against each other and how contained it was. And it was just really appealing as an independent film. And I just felt like, ‘Shit, maybe I can do this?’ And I kept it around and I showed my roommate the script at one point and he read it. And he was Travis Stevens, who produced the Adam Wingard film A Horrible Way To Die, he did a movie called The Aggression Scale and he’d done a couple of really low budget indies before and he said, ‘Listen, I think maybe I can get this made, it seems manageable’. So then over the next three years or so, I had friends working on the script, I worked on the script a little bit, it took a long time, but eventually we got it to the point where he took it to these financiers who said, ‘Yeah, we’ll put in a very tiny bit of money and give you a tiny amount of shooting days’ and that’s it.
MJT: What needed to happen to the script? What did you end up changing from that first draft?
ELK: It was a little different in [terms of the characters]. Right now, obviously, [David Koechner’s character, Colin], is a bit of a fun, party animal guy, he’s joking around for the whole movie. Before, he was a little bit more of an obvious villain from the beginning, he was pretty much saying that these guys were performing for his amusement, there was no illusion of anything else going on, he was pretty malevolent, he threatened them, it was clear that he was a bad dude, he was closer to like a Jigsaw[-type figure]. And [Sara Paxton’s character] Violet, her character didn’t speak one word throughout the entire script, which was interesting, but it was pretty extreme. And they were also staying in a hotel room downtown, they had to wear camera glasses to go off and do scavenger hunt-type tasks, like they had to steal like a cop’s hat or a wallet. And my thing was like, ‘Okay, all the themes and the concepts are there and I like the dynamic, but I think what will be interesting is if you start the first part of the movie off where you really don’t know what kind of movie it is, maybe this is just a comedy and then once we get to the couple’s house we’re sort of isolated there and then it really is more of a game of these guys trying to get them to turn against each other and to how all these bets and challenges become more and more personal and more violent and charged. I think it was just the playing with the audience’s idea of where it was going to go, what the experience is and how they’re supposed to enjoy it.
MJT: With such a tightly constructed script, did you insist that the actors stuck to the words on the page or was there room for improvisation?
ELK: You know, in the morning, you wake up and you walk to meet the actors and sometimes they’ve got their marker, you can see where they’ve crossed out some dialogue here and they’ll bring up a different idea and I think that’s always a good thing to do, because ultimately these guys are going to have to say the words and if they don’t feel comfortable then it’s not going to feel natural. So I think before you get into it you can play with it and then once you get into it, if something doesn’t feel right, you switch it around. There’s not much time to really have a lot of improvisation in a bigger way, mostly it’s how a sentence is said or a little bit here and there, but you have the bones of what you’ve got to do and you’ve got to be pretty quick about it, so sometimes it’s little pieces here or there or a word here or there. It’s not a lot, because you don’t have a lot of time to fuck around so much. You lose a sentence here and there. The script’s like 83 pages. I like short scripts!
MJT: You have a great cast, obviously. Had you seen Pat [Healy] and Sara [Paxton] in Ti West’s The Innkeepers?
ELK: Yeah. No, for sure. I really liked them in it. I really like Pat and his other crazy roles – I feel like for a while he had the market cornered on making actresses cry in movies. He made Julianne Moore cry in Magnolia, I think he pissed off Thora Birch or Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World – he’s just a really fun actor, I really like him. And I did like what Ti did with them in The Innkeepers. I can’t say that I was trying to consciously have a reunion, it was just one of those things where it kind of fell into place. I didn’t want to be like, ‘Hey gang! Remember that duo from The Innkeepers? Well, now they’re back! And now they’re fucked up!’ It just kind of happened, you know?
MJT: Did you have any of the actors in mind as you were developing it?
ELK: I think, pretty early, Pat was one of the guys that I thought of. Originally there was one actor that I had in mind for Colin, but he was not interested. But he was a guy who had done some funny stuff in the past, he was sort of like a mascot in one of those weird insurance commercials here and his character was so douchey and kind of manic and ridiculous that I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy would be really fun, to have him involved with all this fucked up shit going on’. But he was not interested in the role. And then, honestly, we had like a $100,000 budget. I didn’t know what actors I could get for that, so it was really hard to have an imagination of these different people showing up, because you have no idea who’s going to be willing to do it for no money at all. And I hadn’t done anything prior, so it’s a really big choice for an actor to say yes to a project that’s really low budget with a first time director – it could go many ways and you could make them look bad and it could be total shit, so I was really lucky that people would read the script, they’d respond to it, come in and meet with me, realise that maybe I’m not a total psychopath or whatever – or maybe I’m just good at hiding it – and then they signed off. And David Koechner, he was one of those guys that I saw on a list of names from his agency and I know, originally, he was supposed to be played by a younger guy and I was picturing him as the guy from Anchorman and then I was like, ‘Okay, would he still be as funny if you put him in a dark room, he’s kind of cornered you and he’s not laughing any more? What would he be then?’ And I was like, ‘That might be weird’. There were just a couple of things that started to stick out when I started thinking about him – I feel like he is definitely drawn to darker material.
MJT: He’s a brilliant character actor, I think. He’s really perfect for this.
ELK: Really fucking good. And I feel like people haven’t given him enough chances to do it – I’d like to see him in more noirish type of movies and kind of Coen Brothers stuff. And I know that’s where his tastes lie. So it’s cool, maybe he’ll do more of it – I know he was in Justified recently, which was great.
MJT: What about Sara? How did Sara come on board?
ELK: Sara came on board, probably because – we were having a really hard time casting Violet. It’s a tough role because she doesn’t say a lot and I can see how that would turn some actresses off. Sara was somebody who – I liked her work quite a bit, so we were like, ‘Okay, we’ll send her the script’ and the producer sent her the script and she didn’t respond. But then once we got Pat, Pat reached out to her, I think Ti West reached out to her and said, ‘Listen, Evan’s okay, it’s alright to work with him’ and sort of vouched for me. And he also told her, ‘I know the character doesn’t say a lot, but she’s really in control of a lot of what’s going on, she’s more of a puppet-master’ and I think once she looked at it from that angle, there was more fun and more things to do – you’re not just supposed to just stand there, you’re really trying to pay attention to these guys and find their weaknesses and communicate to [David’s character]. So she got on board and I met her one day before we started shooting. That’s it. I had no rehearsal time with any of those guys. It was like, ‘Here’s your cast for a day, we’re going to sit on this couch and read the script just once and David Koechner’s not even there.’ So, Travis, one of the producers is reading David’s lines and it’s like, ‘This is not like it’s going to be on set at all – how are we going to do this?’
MJT: Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
ELK: I love when Pat eats his own finger and cheers that he’s the winner. I think that’s one of my favourites. I do like when David tries to get – spoiler alert – Ethan to kill Pat, I like that quite a bit. One of my favourite scenes is really just Ethan getting pitched the chance to cut off his own finger and Sara’s playing this shitty piano song. I just like the weirdness in that room, because it really does feel like somebody’s been at a fucked up coke party and now it’s like three in the morning and things are getting really odd. I don’t want to be there, but I can feel that uncomfortable vibe.
MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
ELK: The hardest thing to get right, I think, is just getting everything on set. And then when you’re editing it, it’s that balance. When I first was editing it, I tried to cut out a lot of the jokes, just to see [what it would look like]. Judd Apatow, who you wouldn’t think would be like an inspiration for this, but was somebody I’d listened to where he said he always gets people to try to edit a drama version of their movie first. Don’t have any jokes at all, just fucking edit it as a drama. And I did that, at first, and it was really interesting, but it was also one of those things where it was like, I edit it that way and then I saw, ‘Okay, there’s a very serious heart to this movie and how do I keep this there while having the humour and the jokes?’ And sometimes it was kind of hard for me to let go of some of the serious stuff, because I wanted it to have a punch, I wanted it to feel real, so it was kind of a process for me, finding that balance where I could still see the reality, but the humour was still coming out, because you need the humour for the audience to drop their guard and have fun, which then makes it subversive because maybe they shouldn’t have fun. It’s a really good tool, but at first, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how far to push it, I don’t know, when does it stop becoming real people?’ and I think finding that tone is really difficult in the edit, it’s really hard to find that balance. But you just have to keep playing with it and show it to people. I think when you first shoot a movie, your brain is kind of dealing with a kind of post-trauma, where your sense of reality might not be a hundred per cent accurate for a little while and you’re very close to what you did and it’s just hard to play with it, it feels like surgery on a body, you know? It’s very tender, it’s very delicate. But after some time goes by, you have some room to play and to be a little more free and to feel a little bit more confident in where it could go.
MJT: Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to see go?
ELK: We didn’t have anything that we could cut out, really. There was only a shot that we got on a shittier camera of Pat riding a bus to work. It felt very indie movie, it’s like that shitty video footage of a guy on a bus going to work, but it didn’t really do anything and who cares? Like, he got to work. But I remember for a moment, I was like, ‘Awww, it’s such a real world thing, like, look, he’s on a bus! There’s real people there that never gave their consent to be in a movie!’ But ultimately, you don’t fucking need it. That was about the only thing that we lost and I don’t miss it. We don’t have time to lose anything else. There was maybe one exterior shot of them walking to their car outside of the bar.
MJT: How did you achieve the gore scenes? Were they all done in camera or was there some visual effects stuff?
ELK: There were no visual effects in the entire movie. There’s not even like one piece. The closest thing to like any sort of CGI – and there really isn’t – is just us in colour correction, kind of like trying to smudge out maybe a little bit of a boom shadow. But I tend to not like CGI gore, there’s barely any evidence of it working in movies that I’ve noticed. But I guess the times it’s worked, you don’t notice it! Like in the Making Of Refn’s Only God Forgives, the quick featurette about the special effects? It’s pretty crazy! Because I watched that movie and I didn’t notice that this was all shit that they had done in post, it felt like stuff that was all in camera and yet it was flawless. All the blood, some gore and all this shit, it was, like, really fucking well done. But obviously, I don’t have that money and I’ve seen a lot of when some of my friends have tried to do CGI and they definitely didn’t do it like Refn. So I kind of set out to do this shit practical, we had a really good special effects artist, this guy Hugo Villasenor, who was building these things, he takes a long time on it, it’s his art and you respect it and when it comes to set you’re like, ‘Wow, okay, this thing is something that you don’t want to fuck it up, you only have two chances at it, you’ve got two cameras to shoot it from two angles and at that point it’s such a mix, because you need the craft to be right and that’s somebody else’s responsibility, you can’t always be in charge of that. They could fuck you, you don’t always have time, but we were lucky in that we had Hugo show up with stuff that was really special and looked like the human body and really gross. And then we were lucky, because the effect worked and that’s not something that’s necessarily my responsibility, that it worked out, you’ve just got to hope, you really have to just try to convey that you really want something a certain way, I told him that I really wanted all the things to really hurt and to be something that was painful and less sort of cathartic and blood and gore everywhere, maybe tone down some of the blood so you can see what happens to the wound. I really love the violence in some of the Cronenberg stuff, old DePalma, David Lynch and I just tried to keep that as a reference. And then you just hope that it doesn’t fuck up and that the finger comes off! This stuff can go wrong so easily, it’s like latex and rubber. It’s not guaranteed to work, but, if it does and you don’t do CGI, sometimes I feel like you do have something that’s very real and physical that the audience can connect with. But I don’t know, we’ll see what happens in the future, like, I might try some CGI, but only if it’s invisible. I think it’s like when people, instead of shooting anything, they just go, ‘Oh, we’ll just make it later’. I think that that’s when they’re fucked, because then you’re not really using it as an illusion, you were just too lazy to shoot anything, you just didn’t even do the work, why not have something. You can’t bring anything to set? And you can tell – you look at it in those movies and it feels like an after-thought, some of those CGI action / horror films where there’s like swarms of hundreds of vampires or whatever-the-fuck, those Underworld type movies or I, Frankenstein or whatever and you’re just like, ‘There’s nothing, none of this is real, this is all just like floppy video game characters’, you know?
MJT: You’ve name-checked quite a few directors already like David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Nicholas Winding Refn. Who are your favourite directors?
ELK: I do love the Coen Brothers. I’ll watch anything they do. I try not to be influenced by them stylistically, because I think that’s a trap. Same thing with David Lynch, whenever I’ve seen films that are overtly influenced by those guys, the style is so distinct that it just feels like a rip-off. So I try not to do that. I really love William Friedkin, I love what he’s been doing recently with the Tracy Letts movies, Bug and Killer Joe, I love Refn, I love Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Ben Wheatley I think is like – when I saw Down Terrace, I thought it was really fascinating, what he was doing with comedy and then like really hard-hitting violence and still some of the broader stuff, then the character stuff and it was a real inspiratio, because I was like, ‘Oh wow, with no money, he managed to make something that goes to so many places’. So there’s definitely guys like that. I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I love the old Tobe Hooper stuff that’s a little bit more black comedy, stuff like The Fun House and Texas Chainsaw 2, some of the crazy shit that he did that people don’t always think about. But that stuff’s fun and I feel like he almost didn’t get credit for that stuff because they just wanted Texas Chainsaw again, but his black humour was really enjoyable to me and I’ve always gotten a kick out of it.
MJT: What’s your next project?
ELK: I’ve got a short in ABCs of Death 2 coming up and I don’t know when that’ll premiere, but I guess they’re wrapping that up. And then I have a couple of things going on, I have something that might become real, it would have some black humour in it, it would have some horror, it would even have a little bit of romance, so it’s a really odd project but I think it could be really fun. And a lot of the stuff that I’m looking at, it’s sort of dancing in more than one genre. I do have one film that’s more of a horror movie, but most of the stuff I’m doing is kind of all over the place, but that’s just where my interests are. Horror, comedy, psychological thriller, everything, throw everything in there, because to me, it’s like I have a bit of a schizophrenic world view, sometimes life feels funny, horrible, tragic and weird at the same time.
MJT: Which letter are you doing in ABCs of Death 2?
ELK: I don’t know if I can even say it. Maybe it says it on imdb. I don’t want to speak out of turn, because I know they’ve told us to be secretive. There’s a chance it might even be listed for everybody to see, I’m not even sure. I don’t want to get in trouble – I always get in trouble!
CHEAP THRILLS IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 6TH JUNE 2014