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Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #3: 'Cheap Thrills' Rejects the American Dream and a 'Big Ass Spider!' Destroys LA

By Indiewire | Indiewire February 27, 2013 at 12:58PM

Producer Travis Stevens of Snowfort Pictures has two films premiering in the SXSW "Midnighters" category this year, one veering on the more series side as an honest, yet funny commentary on the American Dream, and the other as a fun, ridiculous monster movie. "Cheap Thrills," the directorial debut of E.L. Katz, is what Stevens describes as a mix between Michael Haneke, Nicholas Winding Refn, and the Coen Brothers about the myth of attaining financial prosperity. Inspired by the likes of "Ghostbusters" and "Tremors," "Big Ass Spider!," directed by Mike Mendez ("Killer"), is about the destruction of Los Angeles by a giant alien spider.
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Travis Stevens
Travis Stevens

Producer Travis Stevens of Snowfort Pictures has two films premiering in the SXSW "Midnighters" category this year, one veering on the more series side as an honest, yet funny commentary on the American Dream, and the other as a fun, ridiculous monster movie. "Cheap Thrills," the directorial debut of E.L. Katz, is what Stevens describes as a mix between Michael Haneke, Nicholas Winding Refn, and the Coen Brothers about the myth of attaining financial prosperity. Inspired by the likes of "Ghostbusters" and "Tremors," "Big Ass Spider!," directed by Mike Mendez ("Killer"), is about the destruction of Los Angeles by a giant alien spider.

What they're about: "Cheap Thrills" is our bloody take on the American Dream. "Big Ass Spider!" is fun bit of monster mayhem.

What else do you want audiences to know about your films? "Cheap Thrills" is a slightly exaggerated look at what it takes to really improve your lot in life. Unless you win the lottery, come in to an inheritance, or invent something as wonderful as the Shamwow, chances are you'll spend this life in the same economic bracket you were born in to. This myth that a more prosperous future is just around the corner is complete bullshit. What it really takes to change your financial situation seems a lot more ruthless than simply waking up and hoping things will change. We tried to make a movie as funny, fucked up and honest about that idea as we could.

"Big Ass Spider!" has far less serious goals. We simply set out to make a FUN monster movie. Something that had the energy, humour and excitement of "Tremors" the camaraderie and tone of "Ghostbusters" and the wanton destruction of the "Rampage" videogame.

"Cheap Thrills."
"Cheap Thrills."

What's been your path to filmmaking? I founded Snowfort Pictures to focus on the development, financing, production and sales of commercial genre films.

My first production was Adam Wingard's "A Horrible Way to Die" that premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival before being picked up for theatrical distribution by Anchor Bay Films.

Since then I've made 10 movies in 2 years including Adam Wingard's "What Fun We Were Having: 4 Stories About Date Rape" that premiered at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival, the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and AFI Film Fest entry "All In All", The Butcher Brothers' "The Thompsons" (an international co-production with Lionsgate UK), Frank Pavich's "Jodorowsky's Dune" (an international co-production with Koch Media in Germany and Camera One in France), the 2012 SXSW hit "The Aggression Scale" from director Steven C. Miller (Anchor Bay), "Cheap Thrills" from director E.L. Katz with New Artist Alliance and Epic Picture's "Big Ass Spider!" from director Mike Mendez both of which will premiere in the midnight program at SXSW 2013.

What was your biggest challenge in developing these projects? I was living with "Cheap Thrills" director E.L. Katz for a few years, and despite how messy the bathroom was, really respected him.

He had read a script from our homie Trent Haaga ("Deadgirl") about two blue collar guys who meet a wealthy couple who offer them an opportunity. It had a great premise and a blueprint for a fun economy themed thriller.

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to ground this premise in reality. We wanted each step forward in the story to feel reasonable, for the audience to understand why a character was making that choice. With the help of screenwriter David Chirchirillo we were able to dial it in. However the process took 2 years, several meetings at Coffeebean and 4 or 5 bottles of bourbon.

Mike Mendez's "Big Ass Spider!"
Mike Mendez's "Big Ass Spider!"

"Big Ass Spider!" was all about dialing in the tone of the film. It was initially called "Dino-Spider" so we've come a long way. A giant monster movie is such a ridiculous concept, that most low budget films sort of revel in the cheesiness. Unless you're a studio who can spend the money to present the concept in a serious way. But that approach has its own limitations, because the concept IS kind of silly.

So we settled on the idea that everyone in our movie takes the events happening VERY seriously EXCEPT our two main characters. They look around them and go "this makes no sense!". Once we had that approach figured out, the challenge became figuring out how to destroy LA on a budget similar to the cost a small 2 bedroom home.

What's the film that most inspired you? We tried to combine the bleakness of Haneke and the naturalistic, grounded approach to violence of Refn with the absurdity of the Coen Brothers for "Cheap Thrills."

"Big Ass Spider!" looked to "Ghostbusters," "Aliens," "Tremors," "Battle: LA," "Monsters," and "District 9" for inspiration.

What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film? I'd love for them to play along with the main character Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) in "Cheap Thrills." I'd love for them be asking themselves throughout the film if they would be willing to make the same choice for the same amount of money.

And for "Big Ass Spider!" we just want the audience to enjoy the ride. This is a twenty-scoop ice cream sundae you eat with all your friends at your 12th birthday party.

Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.

This article is related to: SXSW Film Festival, Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers





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