I was at the screening at SXSW right before CHEAP THRILLS was bought by Drafthouse Films in a bidding war. You could feel the excitement in the room when the screening was over; it was palpable. You really couldn't ask for a better audience reception for a movie like that, especially since CHEAP THRILLS goes to some really dark places. There's a balancing act - go too far and risk alienating and disgusting the audience, or walking that line and keeping them with you until the end. CHEAP THRILLS walks that tightrope, and some weeks later the movie will not leave my mind.
I think Drafthouse Films did a great thing in buying it, because it's a movie that deserves to be seen. Like many great horror movies, it comes from a place of real fear - this time it's fear of being helpless in the face of greed, and being poor, and that desperation that it brings. The best horror movies aren't frightening because of gore or easy jump scares - they're frightening because they tap into something universal, a primordial scream at what truly makes us afraid. CHEAP THRILLS has that in spades.
Through email, I was able to talk to E. L. Katz and David Koechner about their work on the film. Koechner is revelatory - he's created in Colin a character that is both terrifying and at the same time incredibly funny, relatable, and even sympathetic. It's banner work from him. As for Katz, it's hard to believe that CHEAP THRILLS is his first feature, so confidently it is directed. CHEAP THRILLS premieres at the Boston Underground Film Festival tonight, and if you're attending you really shouldn't miss it.
Evan, you first started your career writing about horror movies, then you've made the leap into making them. How was that transition for you and any piece of advice for people wanting to make movies?
EVAN: It was definitely something that I’d always wanted to do. I think especially in the case of genre films, it’s much more exciting, and easy to dive into making them if you actually enjoy them. Horror journalism (at The Creature Corner, Dread Central, and Fangoria) really gave me access to all sorts of lesser-known horror and crime films, from all around the world. I think it’s really beneficial to explore everything that’s out there; it inspires and educates you, so you’re not just riffing on the same ten horror films that are canon. One of the best experiences of my life was spending a month in a hostel in Montreal so I could watch and review every single film playing at the Fantasia Film festival. I got to meet tons of creative, awesome filmmakers, and watched movies that are still an influence on my work to this day.
If you want to make movies, you need to have infinite patience, and be okay with being ignored, or treated like shit for a very long time. You need to be prepared to write your dream project, over and over and over again… and slowly realize that you weren’t really writing a dream project, you were just learning how to write. You have to be okay with rejection, and find the correct coping mechanisms so you don’t crash and burn. Know what you want, but don’t have an ego. Be okay with asking advice, being wrong. I came into directing this movie with not a very extensive technical background, so I met with every single one of my director friends, had a couple beers, and really picked their brain.
David, Colin is a great character - he could be considered a villain, but you still want to have a beer with the guy (not unlike a former President!). When you first read the role, what did you think you could bring to it that would be unique?
DAVID: I loved the script when I read it. What did I think I could bring to the role of Colin? I thought of Colin as a guy who would do anything to save his marriage. He is also competitive and has a shallow desire to win through manipulation, I personally have a large family and a wife I adore, so I tapped into providing for them. I only hope my wife doesn't ask me to do something similar.
How did the script come about for you - did Trent (Haaga) and David (Chirchirillo) bring it to you with you in mind to direct it, or was this an idea the three of you came to together? Was there any particular event that inspired you to make this?
EVAN: I was initially trying to find projects for some friends of mine that wanted to start a low budget genre production company, basically a place where we could produce independent horror films that were unique, or risky. The money never came together, but during the process I asked Trent to send me something, and he did. I absolutely loved the script, and felt that the concept was strong, there was tons of potential for drama, and that it was contained enough to be pulled off for little money. I got my roommate at the time, Travis Stevens to option it, and then we spent time playing around with the tone, characters, and set pieces with our mutual friend David. I really wanted to inject some humor into it, make it a little playful at first… try to disguise which genre it would ultimately land. I think one of the toughest things about horror films is audience expectation… we come into these films with so much baggage, that I thought it would be fun to make it sort of goofy and innocent for a while.
These past several years have given rise to what I like to call "economic horror" films, of which CHEAP THRILLS certainly falls into. Do you think the current social and economic climate is conducive to genre storytelling to get to those themes?
EVAN: I think it’s great as long as it isn’t preachy. Horror films are always a reflection of the times, and that is definitely what we’re experiencing right now, but I also set out to make something that in my mind reflected things in people that I think are present no matter where the economy is. I’m always interested in why people do really horrifying things… what drives them. There’s deep, bad, ugly, primal urges in all of us, and they’re not nearly as abstract or far away as we’d like to admit. I think a bad economy can definitely push those urges to the surface a little quicker, but they’re there no matter what.
DAVID: When I first met with Evan and Travis they discussed those themes in relation to the script. At the same time they did not want to hit the audience over the head with it. So yes the story does have an allegoric correlation to our current conduct in our money is king, money is cool culture. What I responded to most was the opportunity to play a character unlike anything I have done before. I am grateful for the opportunity Travis and Evan gave me.
Tell me about casting David Koechner for Colin. How did that come about? Or Pat Healy, so good in COMPLIANCE?
EVAN: Pat Healy was somebody that I wanted very early on. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I saw The Great World of Sound, and definitely in his great bit parts in stuff like Ghost World or Magnolia. He’s an actor that can play a real, fully dimensional person… and is also able to tap into more violent, disturbing energy, something that I knew I’d need for the later stretches of the film. I just knew that he could ride that arc better than anybody.
David was a surprise, because the script originally called for a much younger character, but as soon as I sat down with David, I got really inspired. He’d never done darker stuff like this, so the audiences’ relationship with him would be mostly of positive, fun movies. He’s an incredibly likable performer, and you just want to trust him. I knew that he would help people sign on to what was going on without too much suspicion, so they could just let their guard down and enjoy themselves. It was also great to work with somebody who could improv his ass off, and just keep things feeling natural.
We first meet Colin at the bar celebrating his wife's birthday, and David, you and Sara Paxton have a nice give-and-take with each other in your performances together. How did you two prepare for your roles together and what did Sara bring to her role that made you figure out yours easier?
DAVID: I met Sara on our first day of filming. This was a film made with a modest budget and there was not time for rehearsal. We were blessed with a terrifically talented cast. This show had a feeling from the first scene of play that was begging to be played. I distinctly remember thinking after the first day, "Oooh, this feels good!"
Colin is very subversive of the roles you've played in the past. What about Colin was different for you and was it difficult to get into the part?
DAVID: I think every character in any movie has an agenda and a personal secret. I loved the fact that Colin is different than any other role I have played. I guess the difference, if I had to think of something, is that you are only focused on the scene and not hitting any jokes.
Each bet in the movie gets topped by the one after it. Was there ever a bet that didn't make it to the finished film? Were there no holds barred? Was there a limit, or a bet too outrageous for the movie?
EVAN: There were several bets waaaaaay too outrageous for the film. Some of the earliest work we did with the script was just exploring… Sometimes you push things too far, and it goes from disturbing to just numbing. There was some stuff early on that would have just made people check out, or they would have enjoyed it perhaps in a cathartic way, but they wouldn’t really be connected with the characters or the situation anymore. There was some stuff early on that was a little more Serbian Film in tone, but we pulled back, because it just didn’t seem organic to this one. It needed to get fucked up, but we wanted to stay connected to the real world.
There was so much buzz about the film coming out of that screening that it felt like it was inevitable that the movie would be picked up. What was that SXSW screening that led to the movie getting picked up by Drafthouse Films like?
EVAN: I was nervous as hell. This was my first time experiencing something like this, so my anxiety was cranking up pretty high. The scariest moments were really right before I went on stage and introduced the film… because I’m terrible with stuff like that, I probably looked like I’d just run a marathon or something. Once the film started playing, and I could hear the audience connect with it… it wasn’t like I calmed down or anything, but it was a different kind of energy. Still very intense, but in a positive way. You work so hard on something, for so long, and then you’re sitting there, realizing that it was all leading up to this, and there’s a real surrender. It was mind-blowing, and I’ll probably never experience anything quite like it again.
This is E.L. Katz's feature directorial debut, and it's a very confident movie. David, how was it like working with him on his first movie? What about him as a director did you admire the most?
DAVID: I am very impressed with Evan. His passion, intelligence and thoughtfulness struck me from our first meeting. He had a very full plate and never got rattled. This thing was a pressure cooker. He only had 12 days to shoot an entire feature and it was during a September heat wave. On the hottest day we were subjected to a rolling blackout and lost power, but Evan kept it cool. He has a nice touch with the actors. Before scenes, and between takes he would just have a quiet conversation about where we were in the script, what is happening with the character and was very collaborative.
What's next for you, Evan? Any dream stories you want to tell or adapt?
EVAN: I’m looking at a bunch of projects, but I want to make sure that it’s right. Making a film is never a casual commitment, you’re going to be living with it intensely for a while, and then it’s on your resume for the rest of your life. I’m trying to find projects that are scary and character driven, but also a little weird.
Couldn't let this go without an ANCHORMAN 2 question. So... Champ. Ron. That apartment together. Is that still a thing for Champ? And what's with the chicken?
DAVID: We are in the middle of shooting Anchorman 2 and having a blast every moment of every day. The news team is back together and I'm happy as a pig just to watch everyone work. God damn, it's funny!
I'm not sure when CHEAP THRILLS opens later this year, but do not miss it. And if you're attending the Boston Underground Film Festival, it's playing tonight at 9:15 PM at the Brattle Theater. I think once the year ends CHEAP THRILLS is definitely going to be a part of the conversation.