EL Katz’s Cheap Thrills was one of the most talked about films at last year’s FrightFest; a razor-sharp pitch-black comedy that pitches two friends into a profitable but increasingly violent game of one-upmanship.
When struggling Craig (The Innkeepers‘ Pat Healy) meets old friend Vince (Ethan Embry) at a bar, the two bump into brash, wealthy Colin (David Koechner) who is out with his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) for her birthday. Colin challenges the duo to a series of dares, for which he’ll pay them, but when they all go back to Colin and Violet’s house, the dares get increasingly dangerous…
We spoke to Katz at FrightFest about why he wants to put the audience on edge, why Anchorman star David Koechner is the perfect tour guide to hell, and why he won’t make a horror film for the hell of it.
The tone of Cheap Thrills is pretty challenging; it’s very funny and energetic but it’s very dark…
Yeah, it’s weird because my background is in genre. I was a horror screenwriter for 10 years, I used to be a horror journalist, so I think there’s always going to be that edge, but I’ve always had a pretty fucked up sense of humour. So I found the script that Trent Haaga did, he did Deadgirl, it had the same concepts, there was a little bit of his fucked up sensibility there already.
But then I think what was interesting to me is that it’s a contained piece, mostly one location, and I was like “Well, it would be really weird if this thriller structure’s going on, sort of, but it feels like a ridiculous party movie, and that might make it even more uncomfortable in a weird way.” Whereas if I tried to pretend that this is the most serious thing ever, I was like playing with the tone in a way where people didn’t really know where it was going to land and how they were supposed to feel about the bad shit that was happening.
I think a lot of the most sinister things that are happening in our pop culture are done very cheerfully and are very self-aware, a lot of reality shows, horrible shit like that. What hooks people in is this lack of consequence, even though people are doing things that are going to ruin them forever. So to have that tone and to make it inviting and fun, I felt like it would open peoples’ minds up so when things got completely awful.
Colin does keep reminding them that it’s a party even when it gets nasty
Yeah, “Come on, it’s just a party!” And to me it was like Koechner, getting the guy from Anchorman, just a real popcorn Hollywood comedy, I was like he’d be the perfect tour guide into hell because he doesn’t look scary and he’s not scary; he’s friendly and fun and goofy. And it was interesting to have a host who would just be like a really charming enjoyable guy.
He’s a great choice for it, he’s such an unexpected presence in a film like this
I wish that people would all walk into the movie not knowing what it was going to be at all. Because in fact we wrote the script in a way that it starts off feeling like a drama and then Koechner shows up and it’s like “What?” and then it shifts into this comedy and I like him being a bit of a surprise. You don’t know where the hell he came from, too, and you’re like “OK, I guess this drama…he’s part of this now.” But that’s always fun for me. I like a lot of weird fiction where it starts off very grounded and then it takes these impossible bizarre turns.
Did you shoot the film in sequence?
Pretty much, yeah. The only…I think we shot the stuff at [Craig’s] apartment first, on the second day of shooting. That was fucking horrible to do, because to get to that extreme of a place on my second day of filming was really fucking tough, we had make-up effects, we had a crying baby, just a lot of balls to juggle. But once we got into the house everything was shot in order, which saved my ass. That fucking saved my life because there’s a visual progression to things, everything sort of needs to be calibrated and I think that, emotionally, it would have been very difficult to jump from this point of the movie to this point, to keep track, it would have been really stressful, so that manic energy organically builds. So when you see the people at the end of the film, they really are feeling a lot more fucked up and ragged, so it really does help with the reality of that.
The cast is excellent; did you have anyone in mind when you came on board?
Yeah, David Koechner was somebody that I really wanted. We had a list of people that we wanted to meet, and it was like “These are the ones that are willing to meet with you.” Pat was someone I wanted to work with, I’d been a fan of his before Innkeepers, in Compliance, Great Wall Of Sound, just a really solid fucking actor. I wanted to get someone like that that I knew could be a grounded real person who could also take it to a really intense place, who could also be funny. So he kind of encapsulated all of that.
And then Koechner, he was a name on the list at the agency and initially in the script he was written as a young douchebag, you know, like a young guy, and I felt like there was a chance he could be too douche-hole if he was like a Bret Easton Ellis young rich guy and a little too slick, and I was like “It might be more interesting if it’s David Koechner getting him to do this really horrible shit,” and he read the script and he met with me, and was like “Listen, I’ve always wanted to work on darker stuff, I’d love to work with the Coen brothers but they won’t hire me so I’m yours.” And I was like “Cool. Let’s do it.”
It’s strange, but it’s still realistic. It’s strange because if you go to LA, there’s a lot of guys that are in their late 40s that are acting as if they’re 20 and that’s how it is. I’ve definitely seen that person around, so it was nice to have a great LA character.
It’s funny, because some people thought it was an economic thriller. I was more interested in the moral implications and commenting on our culture and how we’re sometimes so willing to be the really cruel voyeur and how we’re also willing to be the base, and there’s no way to avoid it, having those things, but I never set out to make a political film. I do have a liberal background, I used to throw punk rock shows and I used to be a punk rock journalist and I think that is going to inform everything that I do, but I don’t have a thesis when I start out, it’s more of an emotional thing or a tone.
It’s great there’s obviously a past to Colin and Violet too; they seem genuinely excited at how far Craig and Vince will go.
Totally! Yeah, they’re like OK! Like wow! The fact that he’s playing the game too and he’s also surprised, was fun to me. Because it’s not like these guys are serial killers, I don’t think that they’ve ever had it work out. I think they’ve probably played the game before but it ended prematurely. So they’re constantly in suspense too and I thought that would be fun for the stakes, if these guys are in it for the money but Sara Paxton’s in it to see if it works out, David Koechner’s in it to see if she’s happy, “I hope it works out for our sake,” so keeping them on the edge of their seat had an interesting tension and suspense for everyone involved.
Was there a lot of improv on set?
Totally. And my background, I’m a screenwriter, I worked with Adam Wingard on Popskull and that was a movie that was 100% improvised, we had little structural ideas that we were even changing as we were making it, so even though I had a script that I really liked, I kind of loved…it’s funny, there’s one example, we were doing the scene and there’s a guitar in the house, and Ethan Embry picks up the guitar and Pat wakes up having been knocked out, and Ethan asked “Is this weird if I’m playing the guitar?” “If you want to play the guitar you should play the guitar! It’s fun!” That sort of weird random shit just makes it feel a little bit more living. And that’s what I really wanted, I didn’t want it to feel too rigid or structured. I wanted these characters to be walking around that house and just being themselves. And that’s also my filming style, I didn’t overly storyboard with cameras here and lightings here. We lit it so that you could walk around the whole house which I’ve always really wanted to do. It can become like theatre so they can really fucking perform, you know?
Exactly. They’re doing the thing, we’re not super…I don’t know, perhaps there’s a judgmental shot or two but I really tried to just be a witness and not overly…cause it hurts too. When really bad shit happens, I tried to make a lot of it really painful, because it’s kind of like there’s definitley fun violence in horror films but I felt like this would be a good example of violence that’s kind of like cringeworthy and not always celebratory. It hurts.
The plot of the film is reminiscent of Michael Haneke, particularly Funny Games. Was he someone you were looking at while making Cheap Thrills?
I think Haneke is an incredible filmmaker that I should never be compared to. I’m like…there’s certain things of Haneke that I stole from because I think that how he presents evil and violence, being very casual about it, sometimes I feel like that makes it more impactful, he doesn’t overstylise and there’s a naturalism. But I feel like he’s also so controlled. His shots are so perfect, and for me I was thinking more in terms of later Friedkin or old Tobe Hooper because it’s just madness and chaos, so you do have a couple of shots that have a little bit more of that but I think really it’s only one. I only have two shots in the whole movie that are fixed, every other shot in the movie is handheld. So I don’t think my brain works like his, he’s a scientist like Cronenberg. I’ll think things out intellectually but not so technically.
Do you think you might make something that’s more of a horror in the classic sense?
It’s very difficult because I love the genre. I’m not going to rush out and make a horror film just because people are offering them to me. I’ve worked on enough, I’ve written enough, I’ve dealt with the process. And I would only really do it if I felt like I could actually add to the genre. It’ll have black comedy, it’ll have the creepy horror elements, because that’s just who I am, but a lot of the horrors that are made in Hollywood, it’s like a CGI heavy ghost movie that’s convoluted and not very scary. Or teen horrror, icon sort of stuff, so it’s just really tricky. I have friends who are doing really good shit, [Adam] Wingard and Simon [Barrett] are buddies of mine and I think what they’re doing is really cool, but I also don’t know if I have a straight horror movie in me at the moment and I haven’t read a lot of scripts that were that great. But at some point I’m sure I’ll have to because I’ve spent my whole fucking life invested in them. So I have to do something that actually contributes to the genre because a lot of the horror films I’ve written, I don’t know if they necessarily do! I think some of them are kind of junk [laughs] but we’ll see.
Cheap Thrills is released in cinemas on 6 June in the UK.