Director E.L. Katz wanted to make a party movie with shades of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” With his debut feature “Cheap Thrills”–think Michael Haneke’s class critique “Funny Games” by way of a meat grinder– he has done just that, and then some.
A viscera-splattered symphony of goriness, and a hit among Midnight audiences at SXSW 2013, the film stars funny-men Pat Healy and Ethan Embry as two estranged pals broke and desperate enough to do anything — once more with feeling: anything — for some chump change.
After Healy’s character loses his thankless blue collar job, what begins as an innocent night of bar-side wallowing soon devolves into a gut-churning nightmare that runs the gamut from vandalism to cannibalism and beyond. The pals get roped under the spell of a charming married couple, flush with money and eager to hand it out — but at the very high price of one outrageous dare after another. (Read Beth Hanna’s TOH! review of the film here.)
“Cheap Thrills” is already out on VOD, and opens in select theaters this Friday, March 21 via (who else but) Drafthouse Films. Uber-charming first-time director Katz, who shot the film in two weeks on a dime, spoke to me on the phone.
Ryan Lattanzio: Congratulations. This is the first film to make me vomit. Was that your intention?
E.L. Katz: I don’t know if that was my goal. When you’ve done genre — and I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for awhile — you look at it aesthetically. [The goal isn’t] “I’m gonna fuck with people”; you draw the scenario out and it’s about whatever organically happens. Even if that thing is kind of gross. I’m not trying to be shocking. But that’s how the story feels in my head.
This movie will be off-putting to many. Were there any hurdles, along the way, in getting it made?
We made the movie for $100,000. But even so, there were still a lot of conversations about what actors you need to justify any money. Everybody always wants a cast that sells movies, regardless of how much they’re spending. The casting process took longer than I would’ve liked but it was for the best. It was a matter of figuring out what the best version of the movie was. It’s never about, “what’s the biggest name I can drop?” It’s about what movie works and what feels natural at a small-scale.
“Cheap Thrills” came out on VOD before hitting theaters. What are your thoughts on that release model?
This movie is about as independent as it fucking gets. It helps if people watch it [legally] rather than torrent it. It’s so hard to be in a position where you’re making a movie. The more the profit margin goes away, the less incentive there is for distribution companies to buy these small films. There’s less incentive for producers to invest. It’s not like an album where anybody can sit in their studio, cut a track and mix it; it takes a lot of fucking manpower to make a movie, even on a low budget. Financial investment is never sound anyway. If you take away any prospects, there are going to be less and less weird, fucked-up, irresponsible movies out there.
So this was your first feature as a director?
I directed a movie-inside-a-movie in Adam Wingard’s “Pop Skull.” That was my directorial debut. It’s a fake vampire movie. My contribution was fucking ridiculous. Adam Wingard plays a vampire hunter in the movie. His name is Raymond and the vampire he’s hunting has a ridiculous name. Like Ramsay.
You’ve written many shorts. What’s different about directing for you?
As a writer, for the most part, you can take your time. When you’re on set, all those question and problems that need to be solved, if they don’t get solved quickly, everything falls apart. [Directing]’s so much less pliable. You have room to play around, depending on the budget, but your multitasking needs to be cranked up to a high degree.
Without spoiling much, how did you achieve some of the really gory scenes in the film — such as Pat Healy cutting off his finger? Some of these dares are just horrifying.
No worries about spoilers because our trailer tells the entire movie [laughs]. I do like gore. It’s fucking great. But sometimes my favorite violence is in a De Palma or David Lynch movie, where there’s not tons of violence, but the one or two violent moments are incredibly shocking. The goal wasn’t to have tons of violence but when it does happen, let’s make it count. It can all become a bunch of plastic gooey mush that washes over you. But in this movie we had to pick and choose our moments.
What directors and films were in your head while making this movie?
It was a weird mixture of crazy influences. I love Scandinavian crime movies — Nicolas Refn, and Lars von Trier — and a lot of European filmmakers. And then you bring it down to American guys like Tobe Hooper. How do you do a party/conversation movie but underneath it, the Texas chainsaw massacre is happening? Tracy Letts’ “Bug” and “Killer Joe ” were influences. Even Ben Wheatley. He’s one of those guys who’s managed to be really funny but also incredibly horrific, sometimes in the same scene. People who can be tonal mutants [rather than] just one thing.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of emerging filmmakers, particularly working in genre, to acknowledge cinema history in their films?
I think we should know it. There’s no rule, but if you want to fuck around and try different things, it’s nice to know what has come before you, to be aware of the tradition of film and it’s a fucking pleasure to embrace it and enjoy these movies and learn. I think that chefs should take classic cooking lessons before they should try and jump in and break all the rules or whatever-the-fuck. It’s a craft. But that’s just me.
Lately I’ve been disheartened about the state of horror movies. What’s your take?
We’re getting a mixture of weird thriller stuff, like “Big Bad Wolves,” Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” and I think Jim Mickle is doing exciting things. Their movies maybe don’t sit 100% in the horror space but they’re definitely made by horror fans. Of course I love horror films but I don’t even know how to classify [“Cheap Thrills”]. I’ve had some people tell me it’s not really a horror film. I couldn’t fucking tell you. What does that matter? It’s hard for me to write a normal horror film because it can feel so singular. That’s just one muscle and if you’re focusing only on that, it can be limiting.