Cheap Thrills is experienced screenwriter E.L. Katz‘ directorial debut starring quite the unconventional – yet perfect – cast made up of Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton. Going down amazingly well on the festival circuit around the world Cheap Thrills is a comedic thriller everyone can relate to despite the darker than dark places it takes us to.
The film’s premiere at SXSW lead to a day-long auction between bidders with Drafthouse Films taking the rights home. With the film hitting UK cinemas today, 6 June, we recently spoke to Katz at the FANT festival in Bilbao to discuss the increasingly twisted dares on show in Cheap Thrills and where he plans to go from here. This is what he had to share with us:
So how did the Cheap Thrills script come to rest in your hands?
Well there was a script which had some great ideas in it so I took it but we were never able to find the money with screenwriters and production companies but I kept the script around and I kept playing with it. Finally, I had a roommate who was tired of working in another job and he wanted to be a film producer so he thought he would be able to get a tiny bit of money for this script for me. So I worked on it for another year because I’m crazy and needed it to be right and then we got the money and did it so this is something that’s been with me for a long time.
I understand one of the reasons you turned to directing for Cheap Thrills was because you felt some directors had screwed up some of your scripts previously. Could you elaborate?
Can’t name names. No way man! It would be horrible of me. I’m friends with a lot of people I work with. A lot of times things get fucked up before they ever get made. People can give you notes for a script that maybe could be good but then some of the story suggestions you get are just so wrong-headed that there’s never any chance the film will get made.
So what have you found different about directing a film rather than just writing one?
When you are writing a script it’s perfect and nothing’s going wrong. The power doesn’t go out, the performances are fucking great… When you are directing, everything that would go wrong will go wrong so it’s always theoretical that you get to control everything when you are directing. You really don’t, but at least you have the allusion to control things to some degree.
Here’s the thing! I’ve been writing for ten years and sometimes people don’t notice anything you do even though you are a part of so much stuff. With Cheap Thrills it felt like it was the first time I was getting people to watch what I was doing. That’s such a good feeling.
I did also work as a screenwriter for a lot of productions that didn’t get made. It was how I paid my rent. You work on an asignment for a production company or a studio and sometimes it’s a stupid idea. It’s like they are giving you some ideas because they don’t have a good idea and they just have to go on pretending that they can keep making films. It’s very bad as an artist to just be creating things and them dumping them in the garbage. You could have any other job that would make a lot more sense. So writing can be much more freeing in its own way because there are no restrictions, nothing goes wrong, but directing is my chance to at least try and get things seen.
Would you say the fact you lost your mother at an early age and had to help raise your brothers played a factor in you relating to the Cheap Thrills story, particularly to Pat Healey’s down and out character?
I don’t know. I think responsibility maybe has definitely been a theme in my work and then it’s usually reponsibility that drives me crazy or the aversion of fulfilling the responsibility becomes something destructive. So I guess maybe it could have had something to do with that.
People picked up on a class divide message in the film as the filthy rich characters take advantage by means of these wagers. Was this a message you consciously wanted to highlight when filming?
I think there’s sub-text and then there’s text. I think the text is that there is no way to avoid class divide in the story. It’s got rich people taking advantage of poor people. It’s just one of those things where this theme is so obvious in the film that I never wanted to get up on a soap box because I feel like I’ve done quite a bit of it already in the movie. I’m very left-wing. I come from a very leftist punk rock youth so I think that’s going to be in everything I do. It just seems like it’s better for me not to tell people too much about where I’m coming from. I think that if instinctively people feel these ideas when they watch the film then that will be much more powerful because then it’s not political. Especially in my country where right and left is such that you can’t have a rational discussion that’s nuanced in any way. It has to be right and wrong. That to me is really boring. Shades of grey is where you find truth and I think it’s better that anybody can watch this film, even if they are a Republican, and they feel something. And I’d be curious to hear what they think.
And what about the actors involved? You’ve often said you wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on without these guys? Did you always have them in mind when playing with the script?
I think having David Koechner as the villain, if it had been anybody else then the movie would have been completely different. The tone of the film is really tough so originally in one of the scripts the character of Colin was a young douche bag kind of guy in his 20s. We had the names of some good looking television actors and I just felt that the audience would hate them instantly. I think a big part of this movie is that it is a bit of a trick. You don’t really know how dark it is going to get or where it is going to go. I just felt if you have this goofy comedy guy then you are not going to suspect the film will go as dark as it ultimately goes.
When I met David we talked about things like the Coen Brothers and how he’d like to be in some darker films so I asked him as I thought he would be perfect.
As for the rest of the cast, I was a big fan of Pat Healy and I think Sara Paxton just has really cool eyes and you don’t know what the hell she’s thinking. Sara was actually the one that took a little more convincing as she doesn’t get to say that much in the film. Once she realised that she would be like the ringleader or the Puppet Master she was like “OK. This is kind of cool.” Ti West also convinced her to do it. Ti was definitely a big help in the casting of the movie.
And then there was Ethan Embry who I hadn’t seen in stuff in a very long time. I just thought he looked the part. He drove to our audition on a motorcycle covered in tattoos looking really rough and I knew he was our Vince.
You said Ti West helped in a big way with casting. You’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers in your time such as Adam Wingard. Did these guys serve as mentors for your directorial debut?
It’s funny because Adam Wingard and I kind of came up learning at the same time but did our own thing in many ways. Having said that, I’ve learnt a lot from working with him on stuff. To be honest I didn’t really have that much time with Adam while I made Cheap Thrills. We did have a good meeting here and there and I took that stuff to the set with me but I really didn’t have any ever-present mentors.
Basically I asked people a lot of questions and I found a DP I could talk to and I watched a lot of movies. That stuff just sticks with you and you’ve just got to go out and do it. I just couldn’t have somebody on set watching my back the whole time. Sometimes it’s just better to go in and not have anyone holding your hand the whole duration.
So you say you watched a lot of movies. What kind of movies do you think influence you or stick with you?
I love a lot of Swedish, German and Danish stuff. I love Refn. I love a lot of dark comedies. Haneke is great. I like the weird European style of dark comedy with things like With a Friend Like Harry. Those kinds of films that you can’t get a read on. They are sort of dangerous because they can be genre films in some ways but don’t always look like them. They feel like it could just be a comedy of manners so when people start pushing it it comes as a real surprise.
What about Breaking Bad? I know you are a big fan and Pat Healy’s character is willing to take as many risks for some ready cash as Walter White?
Oh yeah. Cheap Thrills is like that on crack. It’s like Breaking Bad condensed. We hadn’t seen the ending and I’m happy we hadn’t otherwise I would have thought like “Ah. Fuck!” but yeah I love Breaking Bad. The humour in that is so dark.
And what about all the wagers in the film? Where they all in place in the script or where there some you just couldn‘t do or did any more dark and twisted dares arise whilst on set?
Not at all. It was all just written in. We didn’t have time to improvise really. There was really only time for one take so you’ve really just got to fucking go, go, go and shoot, shoot, shoot. You’ve got twelve pages a day so at that point there are no fringes.
So how much of the script did you actually rewrite?
Well I did a certain amount and David Chirchirillo did a certain amount. I developed the wagers with him and I rewrote some of the dialogue and some of the turns and the atmosphere. You just have to tailor it to what you are going to shoot. A script is such a specific thing and it’s not always something that IS a movie. You have to bend it around a little until it’s something that you are comfortable making. But the final Cheap Thrills script wasn’t any more or any less twisted than the original version.
So Cheap Thrills has gone down so well at around the world. Tell me you have more directorial plans.
Well right now there is a thriller novel that I want to adapt that I just optioned called ‘Small Crimes’ by Dave Zeltserman. I’m talking to a production company right now who might hire me to do that one. Then I just got attached to a supernatural horror film which is totally different but which I think will still have some of the stuff I like. That would be a little bigger as it is through a studio and producer who makes a lot of horror films so you might be able to guess who it is. Then I’m also writing a script with Pat Healy for the You’re Next producers. That’s like a De Palma kind of thing. It’s a really twisted thriller.
There’s so much stuff. I might even do a remake of a Spanish movie but I can’t say which one. There are a lot of secrets…
Is your segment in The ABCs of Death 2 a secret too? Can you tell us a bit about that? It must have been pretty daunting making a short film without having any idea what the other filmmakers were up to.
It was very daunting. It was very competitive because these are people that you respect and you don’t want to look like a piece of shit so you’ve got to work hard. I can’t say much but it’s kind of a crime thing. It’s a black comedy. It’s got some good stuff and pokes some fun at movie stereotype that has been overused since the ’80s.
We’d like to thank Evan for taking time to speak with us and we can’t recommend Cheap Thrills enough. Go read our review over here to see how much we loved it. We’ll leave you with a trailer for the film.