Cheap Thrills with E.L. Katz

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The up-and-coming director on horror, comedy, and being a humanist at heart.

Evan Katz’s debut feature Cheap Thrills has the set-up of a seedy genre film: two guys one-up each other in order to win some cash. But Katz’s success comes from the banality of the characterisation and the pointed social commentary; there’s an everydayness that injects a lot more resonance into the B-movie premise.

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I always have a basic question that I start with: why film?

E.L. KATZ: It’s interesting. I initially went to a media trade school, where you have a couple of options. One of them was video game design, and film was one of the electives. Initially I loved music. I had a musical background. I used to be a journalist for a lot of punk magazines and things like that. I felt like my job was in live sound or producing. I didn’t really like the audio kids and I made friends with Adam Wingard, and at the last minute I chose film. I loved movies and I grew up with a video store down the street, and they had this great section where you could see Sam Raimi or John Woo, so I had a taste for cult stuff early on. I didn’t necessarily know that it was a job. It was this magic gift given to me. I could get stoned with my friends and watch these films.

BG: So it was the genre stuff that attracted you?

EK: I started with the genre stuff but I opened up when I went to film school. There was another video store that would categorise every single director into a section. I’m pretty crazy if I get into something; I get very passionate about it. I’m only going to watch Ingmar Bergman films until I finish the section. I’m only going to watch Jodorowsky, Buñuel etc. I felt like my school was so superficial in terms of the curriculum. You get a month learning how to do electric shit, then a month of screenwriting. I was set on it that I had to teach myself, or at least watch the films. I always loved genre, but I put myself through the paces of watching all of the European stuff, and seeing what else was out there and letting it soak in. I have a Fulci tattoo. I’m just a film geek.

BG: I sense there’s a community with these guys, Adam Wingard, Ti West—

EK: Yeah, I worked on Pop Skull.

BG: Do you help each other out?

EK: Wingard helped me edit this movie, and Ti helped me to get Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, so I think there’s definitely a community. There’s a greater community of the horror filmmakers in general—they go to the same screenings, and they run into each other and these cliques  form. Wingard, that goes beyond just an L.A. thing, we grew up together going to school. And then I met Simon Barrett  on the set of this movie Dead Birds, which they shot in Alabama, and I met when they all kind of met. We were all friends when I moved to L.A. I remember when Ti moved to L.A. and he was working in the mall. I don’t think we’re all doing the same thing. You might know more than me if there are certain similarities in our stuff, or if there’s some united stylistic element? I’m not sure. It’s hard to know. We’re all genre fans and we’re all trying not to do Evil Dead homages and Friday the 13th rip-offs.

BG: I think it’s more the ethos, rather than what you’re making.

EK: Yeah, I think so. Style-wise and tone-wise, they’re different. We’re trying to do things a little outside of the rigid genre stuff.

BG: Do you worry you’ll get typecast as a genre filmmaker?

EK: No. Ultimately the stuff I’m going to do is people being bad to each other. I don’t think I have a romance in me. I don’t think I have a straight drama. I think everything I have is at least going to have some sort of artillery or weapons. I feel like I wrote supernatural stuff as a job for ten years. I don’t have an urge to do that at all. I don’t have an urge to do a straight-up horror movie. I don’t think I have that in me anymore. I think I put all of that on the page for hire; now it’s more like thrillers, crime, stuff like that. I think they’ll still have genre elements. I think they’ll still be creepy here and there, but I don’t think I want to do a ghost movie ever.

BG: What attracted you to this script? What did you see that everyone else seemed to reject?

EK: At first it was more of a pragmatic choice because it was contained. I felt like if you’re a first-timer, no-one’s going to really trust you with money, and second of all, I don’t want to take on anything overly ambitious production-wise. What was cool about this is that it was mostly one place, and there was a conflict inherent in the concept. Coming from a screenwriting background, I just know if you don’t have that, you gas out. It doesn’t matter how many cool shots or angles you have. I don’t really know aesthetics as much as some of my friends, but I understand at least story structure and conflict and drama. This concept seems pretty ripe with all of that. The writer Trent Haaga, he was a good friend of mine. I didn’t want him to work on the script for free because he’s got kids, so I had another friend look at it and play with it. Some time passed and finally I met this young guy called David Chirchirillo who was 22, has no kids, and was really funny. The Haaga script was more of a straightforward thriller, which is cool, but I felt like it’d be fun to do something a little weirder and play with tone a little bit. They had already done Saw so I couldn’t capitalise on that. There’s no novelty in just shocking people with gore, so I thought it’d be funny to make them laugh and then not know how they were supposed to feel rather than having them lay in this ugly place. David was able to add a fresh young comedy voice. Then I worked on the script a little bit and make it all cohere.

BG: I imagine this was a difficult film tonally, if you take the audience too far, too soon?

EK: A lot of genre stuff: it lives in these moments that are big and fun, but they also keep people outside of the reality so you’re not as personally invested. The whole idea was to build some stuff that’s crazy and outlandish, but to have people think that this is a real story. It’s personal. It could be a drama, even before the comedy hits. That was one thing too I had some producers say, “shouldn’t we have something really funny or really crazy.” If anything, I was really happy with it being dull. I like it flatly shot, and let it play out, so when things start to change, there’s an actual progression and people have already bought a ticket.

BG: Obviously you wanted it to be ‘normal’. How important was the casting?

EK: It was so fucking important. First when I was going to do it for a lower budget, I was going to use improv comedians. After watching Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace, I thought that was class A. He just had these comedy guys do this shit and it had a really interesting vibe. Because there’s a nature to the development of this that almost feels like it was improv. It’s building on top of each other. I thought it’d be fun to get comedy people. Once we had more money, I was like, “okay, now I’ll try to get some people who have done this shit and have a bit of a name.” [David] Koechner gave me everything I needed because he comes from Saturday Night Live and Chicago Theatre, so he understands drama and improv, and physically he can be imposing even though he’s funny.

BG: There’s a menace to him.

EK: If people are stuck in a house for most of the movie, how do they not get bored? A lot of it is conversation. I need someone charismatic. Same with Ethan [Embry]. He turned out to be just as funny as a comedy actor. I met him and he’s kind of funny just who he is. He’s a rough dude and game, and he’s sort of playing himself.

BG: He and Pat had a really good relationship on screen.

EK: It’s all chemistry.

BG: The other couple aren’t as pivotal.

EK: No, they’re interesting. You almost want to have no dynamic with them at first, but you see traces of something at the end. It’s really Pat and Ethan. It could have failed, but it was incredibly lucky how that landed. One missing component, I could have been fucked. The casting plays with the tone. If you had Koechner, and then had funny people underneath him, also big comedy guys, maybe the tone comes off the rails. If you don’t have Koechner, maybe it’s too dry. I was really lucky. You can take all of the credit you want, but a lot of it at this budget is luck.

BG: So you shot for 12 days in a heat wave. Tough shoot?

EK: Horribly difficult. Really tough. You can’t do anything wrong. There’s no time to explore. Everything needs to work, but things break. In production things go wrong even more. It’s like doing a construction job and a theatre production at the same time. There’s technical elements, artistic elements, psychological things, so much shit you’re constantly juggling. We had a blackout for half a day. That just fucks you. We lost some footage, someone lost some pivotal footage. God bless video. It’s really hard because we got to a point where we only had the last couple of days, moving at turbo speed, really fast. This is stuff that’s going to be forever. You’re having to make decisions [so quickly]. It’s really dangerous. We only had time for one or two takes, and some of those things are stunts, some of those things are special effects. If you fuck up, that’s your movie. It was my first time. I’m a screenwriter. I come from a place where I can take my time, get comfortable. Suddenly I’m in a place where there’s a lot of pressure and demands on me, and I can make some big mistakes. But it worked out.

BG: I know you’ve denied political messages, but it’s there, and everyone’s talking about it.

EK: It’s there. You can’t avoid it. The concept is going to create that. I think that I never set out to make something political, but I’m a really liberal guy. There are going to be things there that come from my point of view.

BG: Did the film need something there, an aspect of morality?

EK: I think so. The thing is, I don’t feel like I’m above any of these people. I don’t feel like I’m laughing at these guys humiliating themselves. I’m humiliating myself too. All of us are doing this weird embarrassing dance. It’s hard. But you have to give a shit. If you’re just doing this and you’re outside of it and thinking you’re better than everybody it does nothing. I don’t think it’s going to connect to people. It’s going to feel alien and cold. I’m a humanist at heart. Ultimately it’s kind of sad that people would have to fuck themselves up like that. It’s awful. I can laugh at the same time because I have a sick sense of humour, but I think the movie captures that. I’m kind of conflicted.

BG: I guess you don’t want to make a torture porn film.

EK: No, I don’t think I have that in me. You know I wrote shit like that in my twenties but my punk rock days are over. I’m not just trying to shock. I have more stuff that haunts me; it’s not just “fuck you, world.” When you just watch the news, you can get depressed, so that stuff filters in.

BG: What’s your plan after this?

EK: More film festivals, a lot of film festivals, and then Drafthouse is going to put it out in February, and I’m sure the other distributors will follow suit. We have a little bit of audio fine-tuning, and then they’re going to figure out what to do. Because it’s not a straight-forward horror movie, it’s got a bit of comedy, so we’ll see how they do it. I’m working on the ABCs of Death 2 with Ant [Timpson], and I’ve got some stuff I’m playing around with. It’s going to be easier for me to write when I’m not travelling around and being hungover.

Cheap Thrills’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.