Cheap Thrills director E.L. Katz discusses black comedy, audience complicity and being a leftie

Cheap Thrills premiered in the UK at last August’s FrightFest festival and director E.L. Katz was kind enough to sit down with in us after the screening to discuss the film and the many difficult choices he had to make in telling the story. The film is available now on VOD in the US and will be heading out into Stateside cinemas on Friday March 21st, so now is the perfect time to share our conversation.

When you introduced the film you said you would tell us nothing about Cheap Thrills.

I feel like that’s a fun way to experience it. I always like walking into things and having them surprise me. In genre movies these little tricks and turns are the only things we have. We don’t have a lot of money so you want to use everything at our disposal. I’d like people to walk in and think they’re watching a drama, then they think they’re watching a comedy and then they’re like, where is this going? That to me is fun. I like genre that kind of bleeds around.

Did you front load it with laughs at all do you think?

I wanted the laughs to co-exist with the really evil stuff. One thing I really like is a dual vibe going on. It’s not like it just becomes ominous and that’s it, the movie sort of circles things that could be creepy, someone saying something retarded at the same time. Just playing on both engines and seeing what that does. A bit more of an experiment I think. Because you look at a lot of horror comedies and you’re gonna see the gore, here’s the laughs and it’s not supposed to be dark per se. it’s just gruesome and goofy. I thought it would be fun to play with something where I guess you could feel it’s a dark thriller, horrorish sort of thing but it’s also kind of silly at the same time. But the dark stuff is still dark. No matter how goofy the lines are there’s something evil going on. I thought it would be a weird way to play with people.

You’re gonna laugh at something fucked up and you’re gonna laugh at something goofy. When he gets his finger cut off it’s really funny and you’re laughing but it’s also really horrible. And then when he starts really feeling the pain if you’re laughing, you’re laughing because it’s awkward. We’re staying with his pain. You think am I not supposed to be laughing, is it bad to be laughing. It’s just fun to do.

A finger being chopped off is a good way to initially fuck with someone’s body without killing them or losing an arm. We felt like we could progress from there, we could even pull back and pretend it’s not as bad. A lot of it is like a game of improv where you don’t want to progress too much in an obvious way otherwise you’re just chipping somebody to pieces, then they’re a skeleton and it just becomes episodic. It’s not Saw. So it’s got to be really menacing and then the next challenge is, make me cocktail. And you think, where the fuck is this thing going to land.

Did you show it to a lot of people to test that balance?

Yeah, we showed it a lot of people. I think that’s the one thing that’s helped, we played it in front of a lot of friends, a lot of strangers and you start to understand the sort of rhythm of the audience. How much time they need to recover from a moment, how much time they need for a laugh to register, are we pushing a laugh too hard? Because you realise that it’s for an audience and you need to be aware of it and not just do your own thing. It’s not a Tarkovsky movie, it’s for people that need to be plugged in from beginning to end and you need to play with where their head’s at.

Sarah Paxton’s character is at a strange register for a lot of the film. What were some of the conversations you had with her about getting that right?

A lot of it was about gauging her [the character’s] interest and if things aren’t going where she wants them to she’s either going to be bored, or if it looks like they’re really not going where she wants them to she going to get fucking nervous. And if things start to get really going where she wants them to then the adrenaline is going to start going and start maybe even getting a little turned on. It’s a tricky thing because she has to communicate a lot whilst saying nothing. Or barely anything at all. I told her that a lot of what you’re doing is hiding. You’re going to try to spy on them but you don’t want them to really notice that you’re doing that and you don’t want them to notice that you’re checking in. You don’t want them to notice that when you’re texting you’re really texting your husband to do this. Because you want to observe to see what pisses them off, to work out what their dynamic is. And I think that she’s pretty good at gauging ultimately who these guys are, and what it’ll take to make them really mad.

And there’s the sense that we’re complicit, we’re her in the room, watching.

Yeah, totally. Because it’s fun. When she takes the picture of him getting the iron, we laugh at that. We’re there. It’s one of those rubbernecking moments. I feel like we do that now, instinctually. When something fucked up happens you see all these pictures of people standing there with their phones. Which is really weird to me.

And upsetting.

It’s very upsetting. I think something like Funny Games is condemning horror films, but I’ve been writing horror films for ten years. I love them, so it’s not about punishing people for liking horror films. I don’t think horror films are the culprit at all. I think reality shows are more ghastly than any horror film that has ever been created. I think how desensitised we are to people and human suffering, and how we interact with people and how we can Tweet or Instagram someone getting hit by a car versus trying to help them. That stuff bothers me more than any sort of violence in cinema or video games. But that is something that I can’t necessarily pinpoint where it’s coming from or if it’s just always been there and now we have the tools to show that maybe this is what people want to do. What they’re drawn to.

The film really shows that side of human nature. Perhaps it really is just human nature, and now we just have phones.

Yeah, I think so. People bring up class warfare and capitalism and I’m like, “Those are parts of it, for sure” but I’m really interested in people and what makes us want to see people do horrible things to themselves. What makes us allow ourselves to be demeaned and humiliated for attention and money or whatever. How far are we willing to go? I live in LA, so there’s a lot of that.

There’s a point in the film where the motivation sways from money to competition.

Yeah, definitely. It’s a very male thing.

There are many moments, like the one in which that change happens, that feel like very strong statements. Are you worried at all about making statements, as many filmmakers are?

I think there’s a fear of alienating a right wing audience if you go ahead and say you’re a leftie. But, y’know, I am a leftie. My wife’s from Denmark, I’m part of a union, I used to be really into punk rock. Obviously I have my beliefs. But I don’t want to lead with them to the point where it’s preaching. I think that would be incredibly boring, even to people who agreed with me, like this is a really on the nose movie. And I’m sure there are parts of it that are. I’m also interested in human behaviour. I think that stuff to me is very interesting … what drives people to make all kinds of decisions and these systems that we’re put in we find ways to do horrible, stupid human shit in all sorts of systems and all sorts of governments. And all sorts of places. It’s not just America. I’ve been going around to these film festivals, so I see a lot of movies and a lot of common themes are that this is a Chinese film and this is the problem of living in China. This is how people treat each other badly there. This is in Turkey, this is here. I think humans create these systems. The systems are not things that arise on their own. There’s no Matrix, it’s humans. That’s what interests me.

What sort of state was the script in when you came to it and what sort of things did you add?

The themes were all there. There are a couple of differences though. One is that they were in a hotel room and the lead bad guy was not a funny guy. He was a villain. And he was going, “You will entertain us for money. The underclass will struggle.” He was a bad guy. It wasn’t under a party guise. But there was still this very strong conflict between this guy who is a family guy and this guy who is a bit more of a thug, that knew each other. And they’re dealing with a rich guy and his girl. Violet didn’t speak at all in that draft. She said nothing. Which I thought was too bizarre and I thought it would be nice to give her a little something. She’s still quiet. Then I found this writer David Chirchirillo, who is friends with Trent Haaga [who wrote the original script] and who Trent sort of mentored. And he’s twenty-two so he’s able to add a lot of young comedy to it, which I thought would be kind of fun because you have this contained movie, sort of a lean thriller concept, but it has to be engaging beyond just “When is someone going to cut their finger off?” It’s interesting for people to step into this and not know what sort of movie it is. It’s kind of goofy, David Koechner is in it, they’re having a good time. There are jokes in it. I learnt a lot from [Ben] Wheatley. When I first saw Down Terrace it was so strange. You hear these comedians that are joking around. They look funny, they are funny and then they brutally kill each other and there are these heavy themes. That was very disorientating but there’s something very effective about that. I totally ripped that off. I thought, I’m going to cast comedy people to do this really depressing story and see what that does. It was really fun to try out.

The two old friends coming back together, meeting up with each other for the first time in a long time, is a rich subject too.

Yeah, and that’s happened to me too. I remember I met a friend and it had been a long time. We went to school together. For a short amount of time after I dropped out of high school I was in a pretty stupid place in my life, a pretty shitty place, but I ultimately went in a much more straightforward direction. But I do have friends who went off in other places. And we have a beer and it seems normal and then he’ll say, “Yeah, two weeks ago I stabbed this bouncer because we got in a fight. This and that.” So casual. And I thought “We are so different now. Not even in that long of a time, we’ve completely changed. I don’t even fucking recognise you.” It was a very weird night. So, I thought it would be very interesting for a guy who was in a bad place, it would be easy for him to fall into some old habits or at least be drawn to this friend who represented a time when there was no responsibility, no kid, no job. This guy lives a different life. It’s very intimidating but it also seems like he doesn’t have the same problems that he has.

Even on the bottom people look at each other jealously or aggressively. Everyone’s judging someone else. “At least I’m not doing this.” They’re both broke. They both didn’t win. Someone told me that winning is a very American concept. With American films the studio execs are very much like, “How do we make sure that it shows that this person won at the end?” In British films that’s not always as dominant a theme. I was very interested in the concept of, “What does it mean to win and how do we identify with that? Who are we? A winner or a loser?” So at the end when Pat is like “I did it” it’s a very victorious moment. I liked the idea of him playing it like he really fucking did it.

It’s an interesting moment when he comes back. In this room [at FrightFest] it was interesting as people cheered. But it’s a sad moment.

Yeah, but I think it’s okay to laugh if you’re processing it in one. Because it is funny that someone would enthusiastically return to this horrible competition. It’s also really depressing that this guy who obviously has a lot to live for is coming back to this really horrible situation wilfully. It’s like a weird inverse of a home invasion movie, where the people volunteer themselves to be terrorised. Like House at the Edge of the Park, almost. The people that are kidnapped turn the tables and then have them entertain them and do horrible stuff to themselves. There is a sadness to the whole thing. I think Pat embodies that and I think Ethan embodies that. They have it in their faces. But to me a lot of my favourite kind of humour is sort of existential and depressing and that’s just who I am. It’s how I look at the world. I can laugh at something that’s awful and makes me sad and maybe that helps me process it but I think the movie is hilarious and really depressing.

Could you talk a little about Koechner’s hat?

Koechner’s hat. it’s his youth. It’s his armour in the movie. He ages the moment he takes it off. The same with Ethan. They all have a version of themselves. We all have armour. My tattoos, my style is armour. Everything is a narrative that we create for ourselves. Pat is like, “I’m a family man, I’m a worker.” But he starts to take all that stuff off and he becomes something different. Pat changes visually. I told the effects guys that I wanted him to become like a monster. Turn him into a zombie creature by the end. I wanted it to be like full on corruption in his face. Ethan gets old. He takes his hat off and he’s old. He looks grizzled. The whole movie, he’s joking about never growing up, he’s like Peter Pan, but by the end you realise he’s a sad, desperate old guy who has nothing. It’s depressing.

But Koechner’s hat… he’s funny and poppy, but who else is he? We don’t 100% know. Violet changes her clothes in the middle of the movie. She comes out in a different outfit. It’s a different costume. But if anything, she starts acting more true to herself. In her nightgown she’s now more relaxed. Because it doesn’t matter if they now notice her doing something weird. They’re so caught up in the game that she doesn’t have to pretend so much that she’s normal and not interested, that’s she’s just bored and texting. Now she’s fucking watching. The whole thing was to have her get closer and closer and more intense.

And how did you work with that in camera?

Yeah, yeah, she’s out of focus. You treat her like a ghost in a horror movie. And by the end she right there.

And how did you generally approach the blocking and framing of the scenes?

You have to make it have depth. Because you’re in a house that could be very small. I watched a lot of ‘one house thrillers.’ It’s very hard to make that visually appealing and not boring so it was really cool to have a house with wood. White walls look fucking awful, like porn or something amateur. We have all this art, which creates depth and bit of character. Then you always have her [Violet] always as far back as you can. Really far away and then closer and cooer as the movie goes on. She’s circling them. How we staged it is we found one part of the house and we made sure we could do a whole lap round and get back to the couch or the table.

You play with the music in that regard too.

Yeah, you start off with drunk party music and then it kind of shifts into something that is more kind of thriller. The composer Mads Heldtberg, who also did You’re Next and worked with Refn on some movies, loves horror, but he also comes from that European crime trashy techno thing. He knows that kind of genre, so we could be like, “Lets have it be coke music and that’ll be the soundtrack for a while.” It’ll all sound like it’s party but then as things get more bent it gets a little more discordant and noisy and then it’s just darkness and pulsing.

Cheap Thrills is out in US cinemas on the 21st of March and in the UK on the 2nd of May.