Genre fans should get a thrill when Cheap Thrills, the directorial debut of screenwriter and actor E.L. Katz (Pop Skull), makes its east coast debut at the Boston Underground Film Festival (screening at 9:15 pm on Saturday, March 30 at the Brattle Theatre). The film, co-written by Trent Haaga (Chop, Deadgirl) and David Chirchirillo (Half Bad), has been described as an outrageous, horror version of The Hangover. With the pedigree involved in its creation, Boston genrephiles are guaranteed a disturbing cinematic ride replete with over-the-top gags and grue.
Cheap Thrills stars Pat Healy and Sara Paxton – last seen together in Ti West’s The Innkeepers – as participants in a series of depraved challenges that make Jackass look like an innocuous cooking competition show. The film is about the lengths desperate people will go to the make a quick buck. It’s one-upmanship taken to the utmost extremes – the bastard child of voyeuristic reality television with Grand Guignol, set in a contemporary American landscape.
Diabolique spoke with Mr. Katz about his experience making and screening Cheap Thrills – a film that satirizes our current cultural and economic climate with extremely dark and subversive humor. Katz gave some insight into his experiences making the film, its concepts, and the reaction of viewers…
DIABOLIQUE: Cheap Thrills made its debut at SXSW a few weeks ago. How has reception to the film been so far?
E.L. KATZ: Really positive. The critics have dug it, which is always great, but most importantly, the audiences have responded. You really don’t know what your film is until you’ve put it in front of people… humor, horror… all of it is theoretical until you watch it with a crowd.
DIABOLIQUE: The film is scheduled for its New England premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) in a few days. What’s been your experience with BUFF and the city of Boston so far?
KATZ: Pop Skull, a film I did with Adam Wingard won the audience award at BUFF a couple years back, but this will be my first time actually getting to attend the festival. Pretty excited.
DIABOLIQUE: Trent Haaga is recognized for provocative and darkly humorous screenplays like Chop and Deadgirl. What was it like crafting a film based on his (and co-writer David Chirchirillo) outrageous story-telling style?
KATZ: I share the same sensibilities as those guys. David has a really manic, young sense of humor, and Trent has that great old school, dark, pulpy, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford sort of style. The goal was to really ground the outrageousness as much as possible. I’ve always loved the aesthetic of Scandinavian black comedies and thrillers… they manage to juggle humor, with very serious, dark situations, often at the same time. The key is, no matter how crazy a gag is, you want to approach it as if it’s really happening. You have to shoot it like a drama; the actors have to perform it believably. As soon as you start to wink at the audience too much, they stop believing in the story; they’re no longer as personally invested.
DIABOLIQUE: In a nutshell, what’s the concept of the film?
KATZ: It’s about two old friends who need money desperately, who meet a wealthy couple that are willing to give it to them… but for a series of stupid dares, and challenges. It’s all under the pretense of a birthday party, and it starts off pretty fun and goofy. Doesn’t stay that way.
DIABOLIQUE: Were there any specific real life economic, social, or cultural catalysts behind the film’s story/concept?
KATZ: I know that Trent wrote the first draft of this before the economy really went to shit, but he comes from a blue-collar background, and has a natural distrust of the ultra-wealthy. When David and me started working on the draft, it was impossible not to be influenced by just where we are right now… economically, and culturally. People love to criticize genre films for corrupting our culture, but there is absolutely nothing even remotely as degrading or misanthropic in horror films, then what you can see when you just switch on your television for whatever reality show’s playing. All of America sits there day after day and watches people being humiliated, and broken down. It’s totally accepted. It’s fucking everywhere… and I think it has an effect on how we relate to each other. Look at YouTube, kids are killing themselves because some embarrassing footage of them goes viral and they’re mocked by thousands of strangers. Beyond that, yeah, I’m a union guy, grew up in the ultra liberal hardcore/punk scene… I can’t help but have that color my work.
DIABOLIQUE: As a first time director, what were some the biggest challenges during production? What about rewarding experiences?
KATZ: Shooting a film in 14 days was really tough. Sometimes you have time to get one take of stuff, which is incredibly scary. Things can, and will go wrong at any moment. There was a blackout, and we lost half a day. With such a tight schedule, something like that absolutely kills you. Tensions build, people get tired, stressed. It’s very hard when people have to go to really dramatic, dark places… during rushed circumstances. It’s taxing. I’d come home from a day of shooting, and just feel like I was part of some crackhead circus. Total mayhem. But, you have to embrace it. In some ways, those conditions can help the process. There is nothing like standing there, and watching things come to life, in a vital, unpredictable way. And you know when it clicks… when something just fucking hits. Some of the more violent, intense parts of the film, there was nothing like just standing there and witnessing them. So many times in bigger budgets, everything is very formal, and orderly, so no matter what’s being filmed, it never feels that crazy when you’re there… it’s too controlled. This wasn’t, and it really got my adrenaline pumping to be part of it.
DIABOLIQUE: What’s the most desperate thing you’ve ever had to do to make a film?
KATZ: Before I moved to Los Angeles, I had a producer contact me about possibly writing an Abominable Snowman movie…sci-fi channel stuff. The catch was, I couldn’t get paid until an outline was approved of. I wrote one outline. Twelve pages. He had some notes. So I had to go again, a whole new outline. Twenty pages. This process went on for a year. I probably wrote forty abominable snowman outlines. I was living with my parents, completely depressed, and crazy about this stupid Abominable Snowman story that I couldn’t crack, and then finally, the project just went away. I don’t even think the producer sent it to Sci-Fi for approval. I could have really hung it up over that, it was really discouraging, but something in me must have loved punishment, because instead, I moved to LA, and endured ten more years of treatment like that before I got a chance to make Cheap Thrills.
For more information about Cheap Thrills and the Boston Underground Film Festival, please visit: https://bostonunderground.org/
– By Chris Hallock