This interview originally posted during the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival. We have republished it for the theatrical release of “Cheap Thrills” on Friday, March 21st. You can also pre-order a copy VOD from amazon/iTunes.
E.L. Katz’s deliciously revolting “Cheap Thrills” screened during South by Southwest’s Midnight programming the other day. I sat down with the director, his star Pat Healy (Craig) and his producer Travis Stevens to talk about how they made such a ridiculously plotted film about a weak willed, recently unemployed man’s descent into depravity so believable. Creating a world where increasingly disgusting tasks are accomplished in exchange for ludicrous amounts of money couldn’t have been easy, but Katz and Healy spared no expense when it came to turning stomachs but also grounding the horrors and story in reality.
So I just got finished watching the film. It’s still very fresh, and I’m still very sad about my dog…
Pat Healy: (Laughs) Oh, sorry.
Well, it wasn’t my dog in the movie. Anyway, Pat I wanted to start with you. What I think is so compelling about your character Craig, and what makes your acting fascinating in general, is this quiet intensity that unravels as the film develops. How did that come about?
PH: For me everything has to come from a place of reality. So it’s whatever the crazy situation or genre it may be, whether its horror or comedy, I don’t approach it any differently. It has to all come from a place of being real. It has to be interesting. If you play it real and the script is good and you can chart the performance, then you will trust that whatever is supposed to be funny will be funny and whatever is supposed to be horrifying, will be horrifying.
There’s definitely an image in my mind of a person who—and I can sadly kind of relate, but maybe not to same extreme as Craig—is barely keeping it all together. They may look normal to every other person on the street, but if a switch gets flicked and there’s any opportunity to let that id out it’s just going to explode. When you express that as Ethan’s (Embry) character (Vince) does regularly it’s even, but a person like Craig, who doesn’t express, that [emotion] will just fester inside him. And when it comes out it’s awful.
PH: It is terrifying.
“Cheap Thrills” definitely plays into that, especially as the motivations of the couple (Sara Paxton and David Koechner) are revealed, it’s unnerving how awful they are and how easily Craig and Vince get swept up in their game.
EL Katz: This is why I wanted him. I wanted his style. I know you haven’t done bloody stuff, Pat, but he’s always done these kinds of edgier but grounded movies. There are definitely parts of the script that are heightened and broader and crazy, but I tried to hypnotize myself when I was doing it and pretend that I’m just shooting a drama. And whatever happens, ‘this is a drama.’ And that ultimately was something I tried to do when I got a DP. The first cinematographer was Danish and had mostly done dramas, and I really tried to keep that aesthetic in mind. Ultimately the movie might land wherever it’s going to land due to the content, people are going to laugh or feel disturbed but I tried to approach it the same way as Pat.
Travis Stevens: Since this movie has such an outrageous concept their whole approach was ‘how do you ground it in reality?’ There’s a version of this movie that we talked about when we were doing casting with Colin Hanks as Craig and Michael Madsen as Colin, but that wasn’t what they wanted to go for. The key to pulling this off and making it feel real was casting somebody who feels real and who can give a performance that clicks through and transitions through subtleties.
PH: I was going to say that we shot almost everything in sequence except for the scenes with Amanda [Fuller] (Aubrey) my wife. Because we shot the beginning and end scenes together I knew what I looked like and what Hugo name’s had in mind for makeup, I knew the monster I was going to become and I saw that on the second day of shooting. But then it was up to me figure out how he was going to get from here to there, and I saw how extreme these guys and Hugo all wanted that. And I had to get there personally.
As an audience you kind of have to give yourself up to the story and just go with it, how did you decide that you wanted it to be more realistic rather than heightened and campy?
EK: I think its okay for things to get crazy and screwed up, but I think people can enjoy those things more if they are believable. So even though it ends up in such a crazy place, we started with this real couple, in their apartment and in their life, so that you can establish the stakes. It’s a storytelling thing, it’s not all aesthetic. You want people to believe that this is a real guy and that he’s going through something. So when each increasing thing happens between Pat and Vince the audience is kind of stuck with them. And when it gets really crazy their brain explodes and their like ‘what the fuck happened to the world?’
PH: The script follows very logically so in that way it was easy to play, but it becomes a very subjective experience for me. I were me looking on from the outside I might be like you and say it’s outlandish, but as writers, directors, actors, producers we can’t really judge the material that way because we’ve decided this is going to be a real thing that happens.
So it all makes perfect sense to me, you know, and I feel perfectly justified in my actions.
“Cheap Thrills” came to SXSW without distribution plans but over the weekend Austin-based genre company Drafthouse Films picked up Katz’s film. Congrats!