E.L. Katz is chatting with me via Skype from Denmark early on Tuesday morning, but not because someone is dared him to go there or is paying him to be there. He’s actually generously giving me some of his now hard earned downtime to talk about his debut feature Cheap Thrills (opening this weekend in Toronto at The Royal, and actually opening up here before it opens in the U.S.). He tries to play it off humbly, chuckling that he’s “literally working on nothing” at the moment, but the acclaim his most recent film has received suggests he won’t stay without work for much longer.
Although he’s predominantly known as a screenwriter (including co-writing one of Adam Wingard’s earliest features, Pop Skull), Katz chose a story that he didn’t directly write himself to work on as his first foray behind the camera. The coal black comedy plays out like an increasingly nightmarish and uncomfortably hilarious series of escalating dares that finds two recently reconnected former best friends – hard luck tough guy Vince (played by Ethan Embry) and genial, equally hard luck family man Craig (Pat Healy) – caught up in a sick game by a malevolent, fun loving rich douche (David Koechner) and his hot wife (Sara Paxton) who will keep paying large amounts of cash in exchange for watching the friends compete and nearly kill each other doing dumb, unsafe, and increasingly reprehensible shit.
It’s a deceptively simple film on paper, but a hard one to make work in practice, and it was that very challenge that drew Katz to the material. It was an effort that paid off, with the film playing very well on the festival circuit last year, winning the Midnight Audience Award at SXSW and the Jury Prize at Fantasia before playing as one of the closing night films at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in October. Pretty great for a low budget film shot in 14 days that holds a mirror up to personal greed and increasing misery and yet still somehow finds a way to make it seem funny and exciting throughout.
I chatted with Katz about why he made Cheap Thrills his first feature, how he second guesses himself more as a writer, why the opening of the film is almost purposefully slow, the art of escalation, how his two leads essentially became method actors, why the set was physically uncomfortable to be on, and what it’s like trying to create “a human cockfight.”
Dork Shelf: Cheap Thrills isn’t the first movie you’ve worked on. You’ve done quite a bit or writing. So what really was the impetus for making your directorial debut something that you didn’t initially write?
E.L. Katz: I don’t know. The writing process is always a difficult thing for me. I tend to get really close to stuff, and a lot of the writing that I have done has always been for other people, and I feel, especially now that I have opportunities to write stuff that I can then turn around and direct, is that you tend to really over think things. I think you can become super self-aware about the process and everything that can happen. As a director, that’s hard because you’re trying to visualize this movie and lay down all this groundwork, so it’s a very logical thing while as a writer you’re trying to do something a lot less logical and a lot more… I don’t know… intuitive? All that stuff kind of coming together gets really busy in my brain.
I did a lot of assignment work, and that was fine, but then I thought with this film, “Okay, this is something that is there and I can just go right into it.” I mean, there was still some writing that had to be done on it. I participated in varying degrees, but there was already enough of a foundation built so that I could kind of just focus on what it could look like. It’s not me trying to break script and story for six months. This was a very different kind of thing.
DS: It’s advantageous that something like this would come along because in terms of set up and execution it’s simple in terms of production design, but really interesting in terms of figuring out where it leads.
ELK: Yeah! You’re totally right. It’s logistically very straightforward. In some ways it’s kind of like this perfect kind of classic drive-in kind of high concept, you know? When you think about it, there’s a movie that kind of plays out when you just hear the pitch and part of the fun of it is being able to colour in between those lines and watch how it all plays out, so you’re totally right.
DS: I think just from hearing the concept that a lot of people might be tempted to just go straight into showing the film’s escalating series of dares, but here, you slowly build to it over the course of half an hour or so, and it’s a really great opening that establishes the dynamic between these four characters. I mean, the dares are there, but you can never tell that it’s going to lead to this one really dark place where everything is going to get even worse.
ELK: I was actually almost totally okay with the first part of my movie being boring. I almost wanted there to be a scene where they were just throwing darts and nothing else. I never wanted it to be anything spectacular and I never wanted to push it. I shouldn’t be trying to make it exciting, because what makes me laugh, ultimately, and that has any sort of an impact on people is that contrast between where the film begins and where it ultimately lands. But it’s not necessarily incremental in terms of the extremity of the acts. It lands in the most extreme place, but this is a film that’s really about the desperation that leads to that place. We could be at any part of the movie where we could be asking for people to be cutting off fucking fingers and shit like that, but we’re like, “No. Make me a mixed drink.” The dynamic between these two guys is so screwed up by that seemingly innocuous point that they would do anything to top each other. And that to me is the real escalation and that’s something that’s more interesting to me. When you’re getting mad at somebody, it’s always these small little things that are making you want to kill them, and it’s just these little pats on the back and all that passive aggressive shit that just makes me want to crank things up.
DS: And it helps that you have four actors that can deliver those kinds of natural instincts that are necessary to make that escalation really play out later on down the line.
ELK: It was a very theoretical project. If I didn’t have that cast, I don’t know what this movie would have ended up being. It’s not written enough like a genre movie to feel like an experience or a thrill ride with guys from Central Casting that were just fodder or meat puppets for the stuff that happens. There isn’t enough really gruesome things that ultimately happen in terms of the escalation, like you were saying. So this really does have to become a bit of a performer’s piece. You need actors that can actually do it or else the whole thing would have felt pretty damned flat.
DS: I was really struck by how well Pat and Ethan created this dynamic of people who used to be really cool with each other, but who fell out and are only just starting to get back into each other’s lives before ultimately realizing why they stopped hanging out in the first place.
ELK: Yeah! They don’t really like each other. When you kind of meet up again with these old friends the bad habits start to slowly fall back into place and you just remember “Oh, yeah, I remember this person. They make me mad.” (laughs)
And they were both really good at conveying that, but they were also kind of living it a little bit. They did sort of go method. When we started off the movie, we basically had them go off and get lunch and hang out and they were like buddies. But through the process, Ethan did turn things up a bit in terms of how he treated Pat, and it did sort of come out in the performances. I don’t know. It was an interesting thing to see because this was my first time directing anything, and you hear about people that go method and sometimes that sounds kind of wacky and unnecessary, but in this case it really worked. But this was also benefiting from being a pretty compact relationship with a really defined arc.
DS: Also, people going to those places might work better on a production like this where you only have 14 days to film the entire movie. Maybe that approach works better when you don’t have as much time to talk things over or over think them, as you were talking about earlier.
ELK: It’s true! And we shot in order for the most part so it was great that it could all fall into place like this relationship-wise. And we also shot during one of the worst heatwaves ever in the history of California, and we shot in this house where there was no air conditioning. We couldn’t use it. It was miserable. By the end of the movie everyone was sweating, and dehydrated, and kinda manic, and ultimately it felt like if we had extra days of shooting in that house, it probably would have played out like we would have been killing each other, basically. It wasn’t a healthy environment at all, so I guess it was a healthy environment for this mean spirited, ugly movie. (laughs)
I mean, I just saw a behind the scenes look at the making of the film that a friend of mine had put together, and I just watched it and it brought it all back. Making this movie was actually intense, and that’s something that comes across even in this little behind the scenes look back. There was really no way else to even look at it. It was rough at times.
DS: It’s also interesting that David’s character is as old as he is, because if you told someone this story on paper it sounds like the kind of character that would be more of a young and rich douchbag than a rich, older, stunted adolescent.
ELK: He is kind of like a big kid, but he’s also that kind of douchebag that we’ve all seen before, you know? He’s not that kind of moustache stroking, over-the-top villain that only exists in movies. It was important that that character be like one of those villains that exists in real life. You know, he shouldn’t be out at these bars. He shouldn’t be wearing a fedora because he’s way too old for that shit, but he kind of exists in his own world where he’s convinced that it doesn’t look totally fucking ridiculous. It’s kind of a fun bad guy.
In the script, we actually did have a pretty young dude, and I feel like we had seen that sort of Brett Easton Ellis kind of guy, so it was nice to have this guy who doesn’t really always seem that malevolent, and even as he goes along, he’s still kind of goofy. There is ultimately a malevolence, but that goes along with what you said, which is that kind of adolescent dick and fart jokes sense of humour.
DS: At what point as a director, was there a logical point with the dares that you saw logically as the worst that it would get, or was there anything in there originally that you didn’t think was going to quite work for the story?
ELK: I don’t really know, because in a lot of ways it was also kind of an improv exercise, too. You have to just sort of use what’s in the room and what seems like it would be possible there. Everything needed to flow to the next thing. I had a version of it from before where there were different dares. The very first version of the script had them going out and doing a bit more of a scavenger hunt and they would have to record themselves doing it. You know, like going out and stealing a wallet or something like that. And that was a little more of an action oriented version of the script, and I was just thinking about what would could just do over here and have things happen and make sense in an intimate setting.
The main thing I was trying to do was to force a human cockfight. Anything I could do to get these guys to butt heads and every single thing that I could do to make them competitive with each other in a very realistic way was what I was willing to do. To me, it felt like that was the best way to get them to the place where they make the decisions they make at the end of the movie. I really didn’t try to think too elaborate in terms of the dares because I felt like if they got too creative and wacky and themed, it steps outside of anything recognizable. It needed to seem like we could be at this party and that this would happen.
DS: And the viewer in a lot of ways is complacent in letting all of this happen in the first place.
ELK: Absolutely! Because we’re watching it happen and we’re having a good time with it. It’s not like I’m making something like Funny Games and I’m pointing at the audience and saying “Aren’t you cruel for enjoying these FUNNY GAMES?” I wanted people to be there at the party and sort of go on that range of emotions where at first it really is fun, and it doesn’t feel evil up front.