It’s safe to say that no one makes genre movies quite like writer/director Richard Bates Jr. His distinctively personal pictures—Excision, Suburban Gothic and Trash Fire—display ample elements of twisted horror and dark humor. His latest movie, the SXSW and Fantasia festivals hit Tone-Deaf, adds a sharp satirical element to Bates’ usual quirky mix, putting today’s current political divide and culture clash under the microscope.
In Tone-Deaf, Amanda (Silicon Valley) Crew stars as Olive, a young woman whose bad luck streak turns into an even worse one when she leaves the big city to rent out the country home of crotchety widower Harvey (Robert Patrick, delightfully chewing the scenery). It takes Olive a while to catch on, but mad-at-the-world (and just plain mad!) Harvey wants to indulge a few violent tendencies… In this exclusive interview, Bates explores the current generation gap that inspired his subversive fright flick. (Saban Films releases Tone-Deaf theatrically and on VOD August 23.)
Dread Central: Tone-Deaf is a collision course between a MAGA-hat-wearing psycho and a clueless millennial. What made you want to explore that culture clash?
Richard Bates Jr.: The idea for writing the movie came right after the election. My wife and I were watching the news, and I asked her, “What scares you the most in the world right now?” And she just turned to me and frankly said, “Old men.” And I walked away to my little writing corner and I thought about it and I kept thinking about it and I started compiling all these posts from various relatives on both sides from Facebook and Twitter and all these things and talking to people. We’ve been going through all these highs and lows after the election, it started to feel like, in the course of 24 hours, I was living in 20 different movies, 20 different genres of movies.
I really became inspired by music where there are no rules, where no one complains about a rainstick in a rock ’n’ roll song. And, it was so freeing. So, I decided to treat it like a dance track or a hip-hop song and create a movie about right now through the use of almost sampling. In equal increments, Tone-Deaf is a coming-of-age story, horror slasher and absurdist comedy. Script-wise, I parsed it out evenly, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, and used a more standard narrative thread so that we could hopefully get away with literally treating the movie like it was a song.
DC: Would this film have been possible in any other time but Trump America?
RB: Well, that’s an interesting thing, right? I would say yes, but I don’t know that I would’ve written it. We’ve got Harvey, this guy who’s stopped growing; he’s open to nothing at this point in his life. And then you’ve got Olive who doesn’t know anything really about herself yet. So, she’s open to everything. And we’ve got them pitted against each other. Olive doesn’t even know she’s in a horror movie until the third act. And that’s when she becomes a participant in her life and in the movie. So, it’s about all these things that have been going on that all of a sudden everyone cares about because now there’s a magnifying glass over it. But these things have been going on for a long time. I’m just as guilty of it myself, living in my own little bubble. The themes and the characters make sense over the course of the past many, many years. But I’m just as full of shit as anyone else. So, I needed this magnifying glass myself to become proactive, in terms of being a lot more political right now.
DC: Your setting in the town of Peru harbors two serial killers. Is that a statement on small-town America?
RB: Not necessarily. I grew up in the south, and most of my family is from the south. It was important to me that everyone in the movie is a hypocrite. Everyone is full of shit. That’s the common ground. I didn’t want it to be pure black and white here. The reason I cast Robert for Harvey is because Robert’s political leanings are a lot more conservative than my own, and I didn’t want an actor who was going to make fun of this character. I wanted someone who was going to try to sort of represent him and bring something of himself to it. So, that’s why I go so hard on Olive as well.
The characters are equally obnoxious if not more so in the big city. Some people are out there trying to change the world and help things no matter how ill-conceived their approach is. And then there are people completely motivated by self-interest, and they’re both wrong. But one person’s trying to do right, and that is as close to a hero as I would ever write. The movie really ends with Olive beginning her life as a participant in it.
DC: Do you find horror films a good place to make satirical jabs?
RB: Yeah, certainly. Things that are horrific, certainly with me, with someone who’s depressed or whatever, you never know what you’re going to laugh at or what you’re going to cringe at. There’s a weird little middle ground there. And with this, I looked at it as, “We’re going to make a horror movie. We’re going to make a dance track, but we’re going to sample from all these other different types of music.”
DC: Robert Patrick is so wonderful as Harvey, but you make him look older and unglamorous throughout the film. Did he embrace that?
RB: Well, here’s the cool thing. Now that I’ve made three movies, when I’m casting, an actor is not going to say yes to me without going back and watching one of my other movies to see what the hell they’re getting into. And I’m in this cool little area where I don’t really have to argue or coax the actors into doing these things because they’re going to watch one of my other movies, and they’re either gonna say, “Fuck no, I’m not getting in bed with this guy,” or “Let’s do it, this just sounds crazy. I want to do something more out there than I normally would.” So, every actor in this movie was totally game for everything.
Robert Patrick improvised my favorite line in the movie. We kept messing with him in the bar [scene], and I was thinking behind the camera, “You know what? Robert has never in his damn life ordered a Shirley Temple at a bar.” So, I had them sneak him a Shirley Temple just to see how Harvey would react to it. And he said, “Don’t hold back on the cherries.” And that was such a perfect line. He just was in it. His role and everything. And we had a really good time. Amanda Crew and I are pretty far left on the liberal side of things. And the movie brought us together with Robert. It was nice to make friends with Robert who we don’t necessarily agree with on some things but we admire him, and he’s a good man. It was just a fascinating experience all around.
DC: Harvey isn’t the kind of name you’d associate with a serial killer.
RB: You know the movie Harvey with the rabbit? I took the dementia idea from that.
DC: What made you break the fourth wall and have Harvey talk directly to the audience?
RB: Well, that was sort of the fun of it, right? In my other movies, I get really deep into the characters, and with this, I wanted to create sort of a cultural artifact, quite frankly. For me, this movie is going to be super interesting to watch in five, 10 years more than anything. “Wow! That was going on then?!” So, the idea was that, with social media and everyone having a voice, subtlety is dead. People have no problem saying what they feel. The age of the tone poem meaning something to me is over. And people speaking in vagaries, which I guess is artistic or elegant, it’s just not representative of how people talk. I wanted to just completely suck out any and all subtlety from the film. And I was thinking of these two characters fighting for the movie. Olive breaks the wall at the end, too, once she realizes that she’s in this horror movie. And I thought, “Harvey would chastise the millennials in the audience. He wouldn’t let the screen contain him.” I thought that’d be a fun thing to add into this world, because I create this heightened, heightened reality, so that we’re dealing with certain things that are going on right now. But it’s also important to me that there’s a sense of midnight movie escapism, sort of a little nice fun William Castle gag, to actually have our villain go after our “hero” if you want to call her that and to go after the audience as well.
DC: The scene with the contact lenses is bound to give contact lens wearers like myself nightmares. How’d you come up with that?
RB: Well, my wife is always losing her contacts everywhere, all over the house. One day while I was writing, I was also cleaning up dried contact lenses off the floor. So… [laughs]
DC: Talk about shooting the dream sequence with the babies.
RB: That was a lot of fun. That was all inspired by a Norman Rockwell painting that I was obsessed with. It showed this old man bemusedly staring at a Jackson Pollock painting. This showed, even an artist as esteemed as Norman Rockwell, at a certain age was completely turned off by what was going on in the art world. For Rockwell to take a stab at Jackson Pollock, it’s just almost ridiculous. So, imagining as a parent, what would Harvey’s nightmare be? What is the parent’s nightmare? It’s maybe their kid goes to art school, right? But it’s worse, it’s every parent’s nightmare to go visit their kid at school and they’re a performance artist. So, Harvey’s trapped in these performance art pieces. It’s his nightmare vision of the changing world.
DC: What’s your next project?
RB: It’s pretty fucking crazy, man. I wrote this pagan comedy. And I really liked it, but no one would finance it. No one in their right mind by virtue of the fact that it’s a pagan comedy. [Actor] Matthew Gray Gubler said, “This is your Hairspray.”
DC: Wait, did you say “pagan comedy”?
RB: Right. See how you said that? That’s why I couldn’t get it financed! [Laughs] That’s what it is. So, Gubler really liked it, and we’re just talking and I was like, “Man, I just can’t get this one out of my brain, but I know no one will pay for it.” Gubler said, “Fuck it. Let’s just go make it.” And we’re just thinking about all these filmmakers who have way more money than I’ll ever have complaining about not getting their projects off the ground. And after a while it’s like, “I’ve never had the amount of money I’ve wanted to make one movie. If I waited for a perfect situation, I wouldn’t have a single film. So, fuck it. I’m just going to go make it.” I’m actually producing it myself right now. I’m putting the budget together, opened an LLC, all that stuff. We’re shooting in less than a month at our houses, friends’ houses, we’re not going to let anything get in the way.
DC: What’s the title?
RB: It’s called King Knight. And I’ll tell you this: You’re not gonna see anything like this movie next year. Not a damn thing. For better or for worse [laughs].