There’s nothing better than a film that grabs you by the throat and knocks you square on your ass. Cheap Thrills, out now on VOD and arriving in select theaters this weekend, is one of those all too rare films. Director E.L. Katz takes a simple premise – a pair of old friends who’ve fallen on hard times participate in a series of escalating dares for fast cash – and turns it into a brutal, funny, surprisingly emotional, and occasionally deranged exploration of just how low we’ll go when fueled by desperation. Cheap Thrills stars David Koechner, Pat Healy, Ethan Embry and Sara Paxton.
I recently had the opportunity to jump on the phone for an exclusive interview with director E.L. Katz. He talked about his transition from screenwriter to director, what surprised him about being a first time director, landing the excellent ensemble cast, how the script evolved through re-writes, setting the film in LA, what’s up next, and more. Hit the jump to see what he had to say.
E.L. KATZ: I’ve been writing for a while, I’m trying to think how long, maybe it had been eight years, and primarily I did a lot of assignment work. What that mostly entailed is some production company has an idea, whether it’s a property- in the genre you get sent all kinds of crazy stuff, you really never know what they’re going to try and turn into a movie; a haunted eBay auction item or like a fucking newspaper article about caskets down in Indonesia. You’re just like, “Okay somehow I have to fucking make sense of this and figure a way to turn it into a real movie.” I did it for several years and not a lot of stuff that I did got made, I had some stuff, but mostly on the indie level. I got stuck in development a lot where it’s like one to two years you’d be working on one project, just going over different versions of it and it just never really comes together. Meanwhile, I had my friends who got into this stuff kind of around the same time, my buddy Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, people like that, they were doing indie movies on their own. They would get the money and the movie would actually play some festivals and it would get out, and I did kind of look at that and go, “Oh man, I’d really love to see something that I do actually fucking happen.” I didn’t necessarily sign up for a job where I basically write 100 pages of something and then I throw it in the trash can and get paid for it. You know, that’s not why anybody wants to get into filmmaking. At some point you want there to be a film, you don’t just want it to be an outline.
I knew a bunch of other screen writers and I used to throw this dinner once a month and just kind of complain about being a screenwriter, and I ultimately came upon this screenplay by Trent Haaga who did a movie called Dead Girl, which I really liked, and it was called “Money for Something”. At first I found it for some friends that were trying to get a production company going, but that didn’t work out and I had this thing that I’d read that was so contained and had such a clear sense of stakes and drama and conflict, and it’s such the ideal thing for no budget. I was just like, “If this can be done for so little then maybe I can get the money, because it’s not that much, and even thought I don’t have a track record if the budget can be so low maybe somebody will trust me with barely anything at all”, but that was enough for this. That was why initially, it had a strong idea and it was logistically possible.
So I understand that you went through multiple drafts of the screenplay. You had the original draft by Trent Haaga, then you had a second writer come along, and then you sort of polished the final draft. Can you talk about how the script evolved through that process?
KATZ: It’s just a long process to get this stuff- to play with this stuff. I liked the script that I got from Trent, it wasn’t that it wasn’t a good script. It was a good script, Trent’s a fucking great writer, the thing was I just kind of wanted to do a different movie, but with the same concept. So while originally it is sort of clear that you’re watching a thriller and the villains are villains, I kind of thought it might be fun to pay it where at first you don’t know what genre the movie is going to be in. Is this just going to be a little comedy? Is this going to be a drama? Is this going to be like a low-budget Hangover? I wanted it to be a little unclear about how ultimately screwed up things were going to be. So part of that was finding a writer that could come up with a voice for a villain that would be maybe a little disarming and not as clear what the fuck is going on, because he’s just such a funny ridiculous guy. So David [Chirchirillo] being a young guy with a great sense of humor was just able to play with it and experiment with it, and found ways to slowly arrive to place where it’s very heightened and obviously a little more suspenseful and violent. But at first we really tried to play with where things felt that maybe this could end up in a way where this is just funny, it’s not as dark. So I worked with him and then after I worked with him for a while- before you direct something I think it is good to sort of wrap your head around it a little more. For me it was kind of just getting to live in the script a bit, kind of going through the scenes and playing them out in your head. If you can’t visualize it, you shouldn’t go to set with it. If there’s a scene where you’re like, “Okay, I really don’t see this movie in my mind right now.” It just makes sense and go and shape it until it is something you can actually see yourself creating. That’s a lot of it you need to find your own flow too, on top of everything else, because it can be overly theoretical or conceptual until you actually get into the script and see how you might do it.
You assembled such a great cast and they all give wonderful performances, how did you manage to pull all these great actors in on such a deranged film with a first time director?
KATZ: [Laughs] Well I think essentially the all get to do something that they usually have never had the chance to do, and that’s ultimately always going to be the most attractive thing for an actor. For David, he gets to be in a movie where he’s fucking trying to get people to kill each other. He doesn’t get to be in a lot of dark movies typically, now maybe more, but for a while it was mostly comedies. He loves the Cohen brothers, he loves Tracy Letts, he loves ickier stuff, so I think it was really appealing that he gets to play a villain like this, because he’s never played a villain. Patrick is a villain. This is a horrible person, really really bad evil person. Pat, he hasn’t had the chances to play the lead in films- I know Great World of Sound and The Innkeepers, but it’s just that he was really excited by playing somebody who goes on such a big, transformative arc. He gets to play the good guy, gets to play the bad guy, goes on this whole range. Sara, at first I didn’t think she really- at first she was kind of like, “I don’t know about this role, this character doesn’t say much,” but once she really got into it and realized this woman is sort of controlling everything and has to hide all her intentions, I think she got really excited to play somebody that’s this puppet master. Ethan just wanted to show that he’s not the Can’t Hardly Wait guy anymore. I know that he’s done that in other movies, but I could just see from the response from people that it’s really shocking to them that he’s not this teen heartthrob. It’s been many years [laughs] people’s bodies change, they look different. The thing is Ethan responded because he liked the script, he got the concept and he understood the stakes. I think all of them understood the basic idea and were excited by that, but there was also something in their characters that they really wanted to try out too.
Talk a little bit about your first time directing a feature, how was it like what you thought it was going to be like and how was it different from what you expected?
KATZ: Hmm, I’m trying to think what I thought it was going to be like, because I knew it was going to be tough. I really knew it was going to be hard, there was no question. Every time I talk to my friends after they shoot a movie they’re completely fucked and totally demolished, so I knew that. I didn’t know how physically, emotionally and psychologically engaged I was going to be, that it would be an experience that felt athletic. You feel like you’re running, you’re doing it and every part of your body is wound up, coiled up tight, nervous, you’re adrenaline is going. It’s such a taxing experience, but it can be a really interesting emotional one too. There’s something transformative about it, because you’re getting put through such a pressure cooker. I think it’s probably similar in some ways to what the actors are experiencing. You’re so exposed, you’re trying to pay so much attention, you’re trying to be really quick, you’re trying to do all these things, it’s just engaging every part of you and wiping you out. But if something really works out, if something feels real and you’re in tune with it, that’s fucking exciting! And that’s touching on things you don’t get to feel that much when you’re writing, because for me as a writer I can be incredibly- I take my time, I really try to structure things out and those moments of kind of plugged in physicality are very rare and only happen like twice a year or something. Most of the time its really me building a fucking house, so this was something that felt like a totally different thing.
KATZ: Yeah, I grabbed as much advice as I could. I had an interview tour where I tried to take all my friends out for a beer and find out what would help me. I talked to Wingard and he was one of the biggest helps because he got me my composer, who had worked on You’re Next, Mads Heldtberg who also worked on some of the Pusher films. That was a huge help because he got me basically the house that I shot in, my DP. I’m trying to think of what’s the advice I got- some really good advice I got from my friend Greg Marcks, who did a movie called 11:14- it was sort of how you break down the script in terms of re-staging, and every certain amount of pages to essentially shuffle things around, because if you’re doing something that’s all dialogue it could really become just one big scene in this house. There would be nothing more boring than if we were basically filming these guys in a corner and that’s all we get, so it was kind of going like- Okay, look at your house, how are you going to motivate them to do a lap around all the corners of the house? So we can get a sense of movement, look at different things, it doesn’t feel like we’re stuck, and then making sure that it’s not boring, because it’s a lot of talking and all that stuff takes movement and planning and shuffling things around.
Talk a little bit about setting the film in LA. The location is both mentioned and highlighted in some shots, was the film meant to present any commentary on the city or the industry?
KATZ: I love LA noirs, I love The Long Goodbye, I love old LA movies, I do feel like they’re a great setting for pulpy, evil, psychotic noir stories, and it speaks to it too, because it’s a city with many faces. It’s a city that can be incredible, seductive [laughs] and also psychotic and crazy and destructive. It has so much, it has so many characters. Really, it does feel like anything can happen. If you go out in LA, you don’t have an agenda and you just go to some random bar, some weird sort of adventure could happen. It felt possible. In some other cities I just didn’t imagine the story taking place. I grew up in San Diego, I can’t imagine this happening in San Diego the exact same way. It would be a lot more bro, surfer dudes, it would be a completely kind of vibe. This felt like an LA story, but I don’t know if I necessarily felt like it was an sort of real criticism in LA or culture in LA, but maybe just some of my experiences of LA in terms of an atmospheric kind of thing. That kind of danger and possibility that exists around here.
Now that you have Cheap Thrills, which was a big festival success, everybody loves it, it’s just a fantastic film- what are you hoping to do now that you’ve built such a great base for yourself to jump off of?
KATZ: It’s just got to have a good story. Hopefully it has to be something worthwhile, because if it’s not it doesn’t matter what I bring to it, I’m not going to bring enough. Now it really does come down to trying to find something that feels worth making. Honestly, I’m down to do something that’s just purely genre, but it if it is, it has to have something else to it as well. You’re on the hunt for good material. That’s what the job becomes. It’s like, alright I really need to find the next movie, if that involves writing it, having somebody else write something, looking at books. You just have to keep your eyes open. You don’t want take the first job that’s handed to you, but you also aren’t going to find the perfect film. Cheap Thrills wasn’t the perfect film, no film is the perfect film. You really got to find something that you’re genuinely excited for and you like, that you’re not just doing for the paycheck.
KATZ: I’m open to any scenario. I’m working on a script with Pat right now for the producers of You’re Next and that one- it’s funny because, we spent a lot of time at these film festivals and we were just like, “Fuck we should write something together.” Pat actually made his living as a screenwriter for a while, we’re both actually screenwriters.
Oh, that’s right. I totally forgot, didn’t he write for In Treatment?
KATZ: Yeah, he worked on In Treatment, he sold a bunch of scripts, he optioned a lot of scripts, he’s a pretty accomplished writer.
Can you talk at all about what you guys are writing?
KATZ: We’re still playing on it, but it is sort of this sort of this heist thriller with some dark humor. I feel like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford are some influences, but you know, it might not even be that ultimately. It’s just stuff we talk about. It’s trying to do a character driven crime thing. We’re still in the outlining stage.