For his directorial debut, screenwriter E.L. Katz stunned audiences during the 2013 SXSW Film Festival with Cheap Thrills, a wickedly twisted dark comedy that finds two longtime friends at odds when a huge payday is offered to them.
The first film to get nabbed for distribution out of this year’s SXSW, we caught up with Cheap Thrills helmer Katz during the fest to hear more about his experiences working on the project, which was co-written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga (Deadgirl). During our exclusive chat with Katz, he also discussed working with the movie’s fantastic ensemble including Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, David Koechner and Ethan Embry and much more.
Read on for our interview with Katz, and look for more on Cheap Thrills from co-star Sara Paxton soon!
Read our Cheap Thrills review here.
Dread Central: Congrats on a great debut- I really enjoyed the hell out of the movie. Can you start off by talking about your approach to David and Trent’s script? We’ve seen stories like Cheap Thrills before, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen it presented like it was in this film.
E.L. Katz: Oh, thanks so much; I really appreciate that. And yeah, I think there are definitely different ways to tell this story, but I don’t think any of those ways really feels as personal and as intimate as this because we chose to focus on these two friends. To me, that’s what made the story really intimate, and if we would have made this about more people than just these two guys, we would have run the risk of watering down our characters, which can sometimes happen when you’re trying to make sure everyone gets their moment and through lines.
I always knew that this was never going to be a ‘big’ movie; I wanted to have the stuff that was operating here really have the time to find the tension and the drama and the intensity that we all brought to the story so that we could develop these real dynamics between these four characters. So we have these two people who are slowly butting heads and just building intensity between them more and more.
Then you’ve got these two rich people who are basically paying them to do all of this, which just added an entirely new layer to everything.
Dread Central: Yeah, there’s definitely a sort of dark quirkiness that arrives in the film once we meet Colin and Violet.
E.L. Katz: Oh yeah- because it’s all random shit. It’s not like Jigsaw, where they have to put their head in a bear trap or anything like that, but the intensity eventually gets to that level for sure. But for me, we needed to have some other things at play in Cheap Thrills; there really are only so many dynamics to the episodic back and forth of two guys just trying to outdo each other for money. Other things have to be changing so we see this friendship that starts in one place but then goes through some dramatic arcs by the finale, and to me there’s some storytelling there and that’s fun.
You always want it to be something more than just a series of events set amongst some fucked up set pieces because that’s really just an F/X reel; and for as much as I love gore and violence, it’s always going to be more impactful if the characters feel like real people with real relationships. Even (David) Koechner and Sara’s characters- they’re crazy, but you can see underneath the little bits and pieces of them that make them human and relatable.
Dread Central: I think what also makes the film relatable is that it starts off very subtly and then just grows so it’s easy to see how these two friends could get caught up in this because right now most people out there would probably take Colin up on his offer to do stupid things for money.
E.L. Katz: Yeah, I wanted Cheap Thrills to start off casually where they’re drinking and throwing darts and just having some juvenile fun for money. That’s a great place to start, and no matter how far we take this story or the violence, you always think back to those moments because they really cemented these characters.
Plus with where we take things, you can’t start off your story amped up at the beginning; if I walk up to you in a bar and offer you $15k to cut off your finger cold, you’ll never do it. It’s absurd really. But if throughout time you’re getting a little bit of money here and there for these other dares, it’s easy to cross certain thresholds when you’ve already gone a certain distance. When you’ve already compromised parts of your character, it becomes easier and easier to do the more violent things when it reaches that point.
Dread Central: I really thought the entire cast was phenomenal and almost unrecognizable; they’re all actors I’m very familiar with, and in Cheap Thrills they all managed to surprise me with some very unexpected performances, especially Sara and David.
E.L. Katz: It’s a crazy thing really because I’ve been a fan of all of them for some time now, and I was really stoked that I was able to have them be a part of this. The cool thing is that they all got to play something completely different. With Pat, if you look at his roles like Innkeepers or Great World of Sound, he’s just a funny and smart, totally approachable quirky guy; and so for this, to have him play a character who’s coming from such a desperate place and to go through such a violent transformation was really cool.
And with Koechner, there’s definitely a version of this movie where you have a creepy character actor playing the role of Colin. And I love creepy character actors; they’re so fun to watch. But I felt like it would be really fun if the guy who was leading you through this really deranged story was someone who you have a history with and he’s actually really fun and nice. We like this guy. And I love having people we don’t expect to do certain things play against type because it makes it more surprising and it also makes them give a shit because we’re not asking them to do the same thing they’re always asked to do. Actors always invest more when they feel like they’re getting to stretch and challenge themselves.
Dread Central: I know we’ve only got time for one last question so I wanted to ask about your experiences making your directorial debut; you’ve been working in the industry for some time now so I was wondering if you could talk about why the timing felt right and what made Cheap Thrills the perfect debut for you?
E.L. Katz: First and foremost, I thought the script was just really exciting and scary. It was one of those things where creatively I had hit a wall; I had been working on a lot of genre stuff, but I found myself burned out by a lot of assignment work and working in mainstream horror where they don’t really let you branch out at all. I got into this business as a passionate fan of genre films – films in general of course – but I’m such a huge fucking horror nerd. I’m so invested in the genre; not that this is necessarily a straight-up horror movie, but you get what I mean.
So to be able to step outside of that world where you always have to play it safe and do something that felt exciting and menacing and offbeat to me was awesome. Directing it, though, was daunting as hell; I’d never done it. I didn’t have the background really with making a ton of short films or music videos; I’m a screenwriter. So at least I had that experience behind me, as a storyteller, which kept me focused on the characters and where they would be going throughout this story. So maybe I didn’t have the biggest technical prowess when it came to directing, but I did at least have my instincts as a writer to help guide me through some of the tougher moments. It was fucking hard though, definitely.
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