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Q&A: E.L. Katz on Subversive Horror-Comedy, “CHEAP THRILLS”

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Shock is a cornerstone of horror cinema, but it’s indeed rare for a film to retain lasting bite. CHEAP THRILLS, which you’ve undoubtedly heard about based on its tremendous festival fun, trades in both, ending up a gnashing, hilarious, subversive reflection of the types of indignities we like to watch each other suffer. A microcosm of a society that hosts embarrassment-as-entertainment, self-deception and class conflict, the most surprising thing about E.L. Katz’s feature debut is that it’s just that. FANGORIA spoke with the filmmaker, a longtime collaborator of YOU’RE NEXT’s Adam Wingard, about how he packed a killer cast, clever subtext and more into an accomplished first film.

FANGORIA: What’s admirable about CHEAP THRILLS is you often use handheld, but it’s very mannered. For a feature debut, that assurance and actual verisimilitude is rare.

E.L. KATZ: I think the goal was never to try to ramp up the action by overly informing it with the camera movement, it was really just trying to make sure we were matching it. There’s going to be a level of craziness that happens when you’re chasing somebody around a kitchen, it definitely has to fit the scene and feel organic. My DP is from Denmark and he has a history of doing more grounded, naturalistic dramas. It’s not like the CSI school of handheld where everything has to be completely cranked up to the nines. I wanted it to feel a little nervy, just because you’re going to get that feeling of just a handheld, but I didn’t want it to be really crazy. To me, that always kind of takes you out of shit.

FANG: Which is why it’s so cool to see it accomplished here, where you also really rely on your ensemble. How did that come together?

KATZ: There are always talks with producers when they have really huge names in their head, but for me, I pretty much got every single person that I wanted. I wanted Amanda Fuller, I wanted Pat Healy, I wanted Ethan Embry and Koechner; that shit all came together. Out of all the people we could get, those were the names I wanted. I’ve always wanted to work with Sara. It’s pretty crazy how that happened, especially on a low budget movie like this where everything’s sort of a compromise. At some point, once we had casted it up, there was a comment like, “This is a really eclectic gathering. You have this dude from ANCHORMAN. Pat and Sara from INNKEEPERS. Ethan.” To me, the sort of math of it always seemed to work tone-wise because they all brought something different, but it all complemented each other. It’s really weird. I don’t know how it all worked out.

FANG: Koechner’s incredible because he has a persona that’s fairly buffoonish. He plays on that here, but it’s terrifying, because what if someone with that attitude had this insidious power over you?

KATZ: Exactly. He knows that people look at him like he’s kind of fun. To me, he almost gives a weird, 70s Walter Matthau performance. He’s a little bit older, but he looks like he could fuck you up. He’s funny, but there’s also seriousness to him. I thought it’d be really great to meet this guy at a bar, and he’s kind of douchey, kind of funny and charming, but you don’t look at him and go, “Thriller.” That’s the best thing for this kind of story. You want somebody that’s just going to take you along for a fun ride, so when things get a little weird, you’re just like, “Wait, I didn’t necessarily buy into that experience, or that movie, or that character.” And he stays in that vibe. He’s still the same dude from beginning to end, for the most part. You just get a better glimpse of what he wants.

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FANG: I’m glad you mentioned a ’70s vibe. In a lot of films from that era, the actors had faces. They were people; it wasn’t a homogeneous look, like you came out of a tan. In CHEAP THRILLS, the ensemble looks as if they’ve all lived, done things.

KATZ: Totally, and I fucking love that. That’s the thing. I think the TV look of actors in these kinds of movies just robs me of any sort of—I don’t know if it’s reality—I’m just not connecting to them. These faces that pop, it has character. There is a fucking face that’s interacting with you and it’s just not these glossy VAMPIRE DIARIES-looking models. These guys, you’re experiencing the movie with them and you’re feeling it. I love character actors. I was raised on 70s genre movies and that’s the star of them, these fucking awesome characters.  These awesome, cool actors  are different. They’re unique, you can tell them apart.

FANG:  How involved were you with the initial writing of CHEAP THRILLS alongside Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo?

KATZ: A long time ago, Adam Gierasch was thinking of trying to start an independent production company where we would just find really screwed up, subversive genre films that we could make for not a lot of money. The concept was having it be run by filmmakers. There’d be less of a middleman, less bean-counters and suits, and we could really try to fashion horror films that we would like to see. Take a little chance and not just be going for an easy, safe bet.

So, I love DEADGIRL and I asked Trent if he’d had anything else that we could do for no money. He had this script called MONEY FOR SOMETHING. He showed it to me, I really dug it. It was definitely contained and sort of a similar configuration of characters, but they were in a hotel room for the night. I was like, “This seems this could be pretty ideal.”

Ultimately, the production company didn’t happen, but later I was thinking that I wanted to direct something and I just hit up Trent and hit up my friend Travis [Stevens, producer]: You know, I read this script awhile back, I think it’s really doable. I’d love to play with it. So, he gave it up and then we just spent a long time playing with it because you want to make it your own. We developed it, we played it back and forth, we brought on this other writer I really love, David Chirchirillo. He found a way to play with it where it had the vibe of the douchey, party… He was able to give it a feeling that, you start reading it and you feel like maybe this could be an indie HANGOVER kind of story. It doesn’t necessarily play its hand at which direction its going tone-wise, or genre-wise. He’s just a funny dude. He has almost like that WORKAHOLICS sense of humor, so he was able to play with it and open it up in some ways. Then, I sat down and played with it for awhile and just tried to add the genre elements that I grew up with and tried to ground it a little bit, so it still would have a lot of the humor, but was still within some sort of context what ultimately becomes a pretty dark thriller kind of movie.

FANG: You brought up subversive genre, which CHEAP THRILLS absolutely is. It’s getting at class conflict, and it’s getting at devaluing people as entertainment.

KATZ: Exactly, and it could be fun! That’s a big part of our entertainment. Beyond just the rich kind of terrorizing the poor, we kind of terrorize each other. I think the class warfare is definitely a big part of it, but I also think that we do like to see people when they’re embarrassing themselves. We like to see people when they’re weak. It’s part of our culture and entertainment, and it’s fun. I always thought we’re not that far removed from pushing that a couple degrees and having it be really brutal and horrible. It’s close to there anyway!

There’s so much more fucked up stuff on TV than there is in CHEAP THRILLS, I can’t even say this pushes it further beyond some elements. When it comes to shit on FEAR FACTOR, you just can’t top that in a movie. It would be ridiculous, you shouldn’t even try. We’ve just gotten really brutal and desensitized as a culture. People get tormented on YouTube and want to kill themselves. We’re just really removed from each other, so maybe this is me being cautionary and freaked out about how I feel people treat each other nowadays.

FANG: The great tradition is horror stories being cautionary tales.

KATZ: For sure. I think there are certain parts of this that are going to feel cathartic and fun because we watch this shit. I can’t pretend… It’s like in FUNNY GAMES. I love FUNNY GAMES, but the worst part of FUNNY GAMES to me is when Haneke is like, “Aren’t you enjoying this? You’re horrible.” That was never my approach with this, but I didn’t want to make something that was purely, “let’s just laugh at this dude and let’s have no context beyond that.” It should be something you walk away from and be like, “that was pretty fucked up too, and maybe not in a completely fun way the entire time.”

FANG: There are these no-turning-back points, until it gets to a point there’s just nothing.

KATZ: And it’s a personal thing, too. You think about how easy you could fuck up your life; the bad decisions that are so close to you. We’re always pretty close to doing really, dramatically stupid shit. I see that potential in myself and everybody I know. I don’t want this to be about the other. To me, CHEAP THRILLS really is about us, a lot and what we can do to make really stupid decisions. It’s just that easy to fuck yourself up.

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FANG: At points, it’s resonant of the original Mexican WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and the concept of people who are on a certain poverty level having to “eat each other” to survive.

KATZ: I love that movie. If you look at these two guys [Pat Healy and Ethan Embry], nobody’s holding a gun to their heads. There’s a lot of projection and there’s a lot of blaming. There’s a lot of pointing fingers outwards, and it’s not really pointed at themselves. I think that people are equally being fucked by the powers that be, but they’re also fucking themselves. That’s just a bit of my worldview, it’s never black-and-white. I never feel like everybody is just a pure victim. There are a lot of elements at play that ultimately put us in really bad situations.

FANG: And with Pat and Ethan’s characters, the film also gets at that idea of outgrowing friends and people in your life. You can’t reignite certain things.

KATZ: That’s a horrible feeling when you realize that shit. I’ve had those nights. It hasn’t ended with brutality, but you have these times where you meet an old friend and you’re like, “I just don’t relate to you at all. And maybe, are we judging each other?” When you have that charged feeling when you’re hanging out with somebody, that shouldn’t be there, that was one thing that I was trying to write in a little bit and have it explode by the end. If they hadn’t met these guys, maybe they would’ve had a couple drinks, there’s some passive aggressiveness involved, but then they move on, whatever they never see each other again.

CHEAP THRILLS is available On Demand February 21st, and follows in select theaters from Drafthouse Films March 21st. For more on the film, see our glowing review, and pick up FANGORIA #330.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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