Money Talks (and Kills): On "Cheap Thrills," a Dark Comedy About Immorality for the 99-Percent

Principles get the middle-finger treatment in this don't-miss indie flick.

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Complex Original

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It was a bizarre and, literally, cheeky case of life imitating art.

Every year in late September, cinephiles who take their weird movies seriously flock to Austin, TX, for Fantastic Fest, the balls-out, incomparable celebration of horror/sci-fi/action cinema from all over the world. Overseen by Alamo Drafthouse founder and raucous ringleader Tim League, Fantastic Fest is the kind of event where audience members aren’t just spectators—they’re willing, fearless participants in the madness right alongside the programmers, filmmakers, and actors in attendance.

One attendee last September, in fact, left Fantastic Fest with a permanent reminder of one particularly crazy film.

After premiering, and winning the Audience Award, at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival in March, director E.L. Katz’s debut feature, Cheap Thrills, made its way to Fantastic Fest, by that time having been acquired for distribution by League’s Drafthouse Films company. The film’s premise begged for something outlandish at Fantastic Fest. It’s about a blue-collar guy named Craig (Pat Healy) who, one shitty day, loses his job and finds an eviction notice on the door to the apartment he shares with his wife and their newborn son. Stopping by a local watering hole for a few sorrow-spiked drinks that night, Craig bumps into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). Their otherwise innocent catch-up time gets interrupted by two much wealthier bar patrons, Colin (David Koechner) and his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), who are looking for a good time during Violet’s birthday night. Their plan: they’ll pay Craig and Vince straight-up cash to perform a few stupid but funny dares, like getting a female stranger to slap them in the face or smacking a stripper’s derriere. As the night progresses, though, all four of them head back to Colin’s swanky loft, where the challenges intensify—as in, bodily dismemberment, infidelity, destruction of private property, and, ultimately, murder.

Saving the homicide for what’s on the big screen, Tim League and his Fantastic Fest team opted to involve the Cheap Thrills audience in a lighter way. With Katz, Healy, Embry, and Koechner all in the theater, League dared one brave audience member to get a free tattoo. The catch, though: he or she couldn’t pick where on their body or what the tat says. And, since Fantastic Fest attracts the coolest and craziest movie lovers, one guy accepted, pulled down his pants in front of everyone there, and left the Alamo Drafthouse with “Cheap Thrills” tatted on his left butt cheek.

“We’ll never have another screening quite like that one,” says Katz six months later while discussing Cheap Thrills before its theatrical release tomorrow (it’s also currently available on VOD). “That guy must have really liked our film.”

That’s not surprising. An intelligent and unpredictable genre subversion, Cheap Thrills is unlike any other movie you’ll see this year, if not any other year. Not quite a comedy, not quite a psychological horror study, and not quite a drama, Katz’s impressive first film is all of those things at once, boldly executed by an ace cast of recognizable character actors and directed with a dangerous, lively energy that wastes none of the film’s compact, filler-free 85-minute duration.

The cast is clearly proud of what they and Katz have accomplished, too. Further tapping into that Fantastic Fest spirit, the Drafthouse Films crew announced their “Share to Dare” campaign last month, in honor of Cheap Thrills’ release. Because enough fans on Twitter shared the movie’s official website using the hashtag #CheapThrills, star Pat Healy gamely dropped trough and posed nude next to a bearskin rug, a la Burt Reynolds back in the day, while Ethan Embry recorded an impersonation of his Can’t Hardly Wait character on camera. You can watch the awkward but endearing results here. And, if you’re up for it, here’s Healy’s in-the-buff moment.

Although he’s yet to publicly embarrass himself to prove it, E.L. Katz couldn’t be happier about the film’s reception. “It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest,” he says, “but it’s also really gratifying. A few years ago, if you would have told me I’d direct a movie, let alone one that people actually like, I would’ve laughed at you.”

Here, Katz reflects on the long and unwieldy road that brought him from being a wayward rap junkie to the director of what’s sure to be one of 2014’s most memorable films come December 31.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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From Hip-Hop to Hollywood

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A Cinematic Wake-Up Call

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Battling Through the Hollywood Machine

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By choosing moviemaking as his career, though, Katz inevitably set himself up for several years’ worth of frustration and letdown. Because, you know, Hollywood. And those damn abominable snowmen.

E.L. Katz: I was struggling my way through being a professional genre writer for ten years. Fuck, man, does that decade go by. [Laughs.] I’d take a step back and think, OK, I’ve been living in L.A. for a long time and trying to make this work. And eventually I got burned out. At first, it’s really fun and exciting; it’s new and you’re getting paid to write. But then you start having enough experiences where the movies you write, if they do get made, you get paid for them but they’re not to your liking, or they mostly don’t get made, or you get dicked around or people rip you off.

You just get to a point where you’re like, "It’s a weird job I’ve chosen." If you’re writing books, even if your books don’t become huge, there’s still a certain percentage of people who are going to see your work. But as a screenwriter, you can spend six months on something and maybe only 14 people will ever read it, because if it doesn’t get made or pushed into circulation, you have your "yes" and "no" people who make the decisions, and if they’re not interested, the thing just kind of dies on the vine. It’s basically the equivalent of an artist creating something, a few people see it, and then he throws it in the trash. Or it gets handed to somebody else and they fuck it up.

There are a lot of things that drive you in life. I think guilt tends to be a big one. Also, the fear of failure. - E.L. Katz

That’s obviously when your career is not incredible. That’s when you’re a working stiff screenwriter—obviously, there are a lot of people who get to see their stuff get made and achieve great success. For me, though, it got very frustrating. I’d see my friends who hadn’t tried taking the mainstream road keep making independent films that were actually getting released and getting into film festivals. It seemed really fucking gratifying for them, and, to be honest, I was really jealous. It felt like I was just writing in a vacuum. I was trying to work for studios and production companies that weren’t as big as a studio but they do movies that cost at least $10 million. I wrote for Sam Raimi’s company, for the producer of the Saw films, and for the producer of Haunting in Connecticut—people like that. They do mainstream genre films. But after a point, I thought that maybe I should try something on my own, independently.

I had some rough experiences. I spent a lot of time writing a draft for the film that became The Possession, so I spent a year-and-a-half to two years literally writing about a haunted Jewish wine cabinet. [Laughs.] That was my life, and that was weird. You just have to suck it up and be like, "Yeah, this is a scary wine cabinet!"

I also had a miserable experience working on an Abominable Snowman movie. This producer I met wanted to do movies for the Sci-Fi Channel, and he wanted to do an Abominable Snowman movie specifically; it was one of the first things I worked on after moving to L.A. He knew of me through Home Sick, and he asked me to write an outline for the Sci-Fi Channel. It was amazing to me—I was going to get paid to write this outline and a script for him. I called my parents and they were all proud of me. But I ended up having to write 20-30 original outlines for an Abominable Snowman movie. We never even made it to the draft stage. I don’t know if he ever even sent it to the Sci-Fi Channel. I had versions with alien Abominable Snowmen, multiple snowmen, creatures running tearing people to pieces. I had the Predator version. It was running the gamut and it was breaking my brain. Honestly, the more I did it, the more it made less sense. It almost made me go, "OK, maybe this isn’t the right career path for me. This way seems to lead to lunacy."

But I kept at it because of, I guess, single-minded mania. [Laughs.] My own crazy tunnel vision. Our family had put money into the shitty slasher movie Adam and I had done, so I didn’t ever want to go back to my parents and not have something realistic to show them. I didn’t want them to look at me as a loser. There are a lot of things that drive you in life. I think guilt tends to be a big one. [Laughs.] Also, the fear of failure. I jumped in, decided that writing genre movies would be my life, and I didn’t have anything else going on. That was all I wanted to focus on.

It’s crazy now; I don’t even know that kid anymore. I can’t write from 9 o’clock at night until 7 o’clock in the morning anymore. I used to do that everyday. There are some things you should probably only do when you’re in your 20s. I’m 33 now, which isn’t that old but that shit does not appeal to me anymore. I can’t do that.

Gaining Inspiration From the Darkest of Places

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Katz grew tired of watching his buddies make and sell their own do-it-yourself movies. It was time he stopped putting himself through the film studio ringer that chews aspiring screenwriters up and spits them out without any shot-and-released screenplays to their names. Hope arrived, fortunately, in the form of a script written by former Troma Entertainment regular Trent Haaga.

E.L. Katz: I got my hands on an early version of the Cheap Thrills script and it was obvious that it could be done for barely any money at all. I was at the point where I couldn’t ask for much money from producers because I was a first-time director and didn’t have much to show them. That was the first part.

The worst decisions you make in your life, and the worst things you do, they kind of start off like they’re good ideas, and you’re having fun. - E.L. Katz

The second thing was, inherently there was something really charged-up about Cheap Thrills that I instantly connected with. It has these two guys basically fighting over the chance to get money by doing this dumb shit for these evil rich people. That just seemed like such a fun recipe to play around with. You could play around with genres and bounce around from being funny to creepy to intense. And I also connected to that concept in the sense that a lot of the writing jobs I’d taken felt like I was fighting with myself to make money by working for evil rich people. [Laughs.] I could relate to in that way.

The concept was so there. If you have an idea that’s straightforward like this one, that’s when you can play around the most. I’ve seen genre films that get into trouble by building all of this crazy complicated mythology, and you don’t know what the fuck is going on—you get so caught up in the mechanics of it. But with this, you had something really simple. OK, so these guys need money badly and get caught up with these bad people who are willing to give money to them for doing bad things. That’s where you can play around and put your stamp on it. As a director, you go, "OK, this is really lean and I can kind of make it my own thing."

Once I realized that the people who had the script originally weren’t able to get the money to make it, I said, "OK, my roommate, Travis [Stevens], is an aspiring producer. Why don’t I just make this with his help?" I told Travis about it and he was at the point where he knew we could pull off something with a low budget. He knew me for a long time and, I think, trusted me enough.

We spent a few years rewriting it. I’m crazy, I’ll just lose myself trying to perfect something. The original draft was cool but it a little different, and the stuff that I was attracted to was the concept. Originally, it was that they’d go out and perform these crazy tasks that they’d capture on camera to prove that they did them. They stole somebody’s wallet, and it had this scavenger hunt element to it. But I liked the idea of keeping it in one location the whole time. In that original script, the villains were villains right off the bat—they kind of announced their evil intentions really early, and you pretty much knew these guys were sinister. I thought it’d be fun if we kept the basic structure but started it off as a fun movie. It starts out like a drama but when you start hanging out with these two guys, it almost feels like a dumb comedy, and the villains aren’t really that villainous. They’re sort of douchey and funny.

Think about it—the worst decisions you make in your life, and the worst things you do, they kind of start off like they’re good ideas, and you’re having fun. The worst shit we do often starts off innocuous. Like, we’re at the bar and having shots. I love the idea of starting a movie that ends up in a fucked-up, evil, primal place with this almost boring, goofy stuff like people playing darts and doing shots.

Laughing While Cringing

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Cheap Thrills, like the best and most unique genre films, is a tough movie to categorize. More often than not, it’s really damn funny, mining serious laughs from its flawed yet relatable characters and tapping into the accessible raunch commonly seen in Will Ferrell projects. But there’s always an underlying malevolence to Katz’s film, a sinister quality that escalates until Cheap Thrills settles into full-blown evilness during its third act.

It’s a narrative high-wire act that Katz and his filmmaking team handle incredibly well. Because of that, Cheap Thrills is a one-of-a-kind cinematic beast.

E.L. Katz: It’s hard trying to pin down a tone for a movie like this. If you’re too conscious of putting in, like, "This is the turning point," you lose that naturalism a film like this needs to be effective. When co-writer David Chirchirillo came onto the project, he almost comes from a Workaholics sensibility, so he was able to find the voice for David Koechner’s character that’s ridiculous and hilarious from beginning to end. For me, the goal was to have Koechner’s character be funny when things start off light, but the movie does get darker, and things that Pat’s character does do become more desperate. It’s horrible but you still have this running commentary from Koechner’s character.

That created an interesting tension. The audience is waiting for me to go, "OK, now it’s a serious fucking movie," but every time I do that there’s this guy who’s making them laugh, but now it’s kind of weird that he’s making them laugh, and they don’t know how to feel about laughing anymore. That creates a weird, nervous energy.

I never went, "This is the point where the movie gets dark." The only time I think that clicks into gear is the last challenge, when it’s finally revealed what this evil rich people ultimately want to happen. But you can’t look at it cinematically—you have to look at it from where the characters are in any given moment. You can’t be like, "So now it’s a horror movie!" It’s more about where the lead guy is, and where his head is at. What these real people do in situations will determine where the film’s tone goes. You can’t overly force that.

People like to talk about tone all the time, and think that filmmakers decide on one tone and work towards that, but that’s really hard, man. When you’re shooting a movie, who fucking knows what it’s going to be? When you’re editing it? Sure, you can figure that out. You can make the score less serious and so forth. But when we were shooting it, we just tried to be real and natural with everything and then see where it all lands.

When Koechner’s character says, near the end, "Well, that was grim," he’s not lying. [Laughs.] It’s pretty ridiculous to have a character see something so dark and grim and then comment on it in such a droll way, basically downplaying this really big moment. This one phrase that kept coming up in my head while we were making Cheap Thrills was "goofy malevolence." If you can have something that’s ridiculous and terrifying simultaneously, you’ll have something that’s really special. With horror-comedies, you either see one extreme or the other—it’s either really silly or it’s totally serious. To me, the craziest, most horrible things that can happen to me in life are sort of ridiculous, too. You can’t help but laugh at some of the ways you can die. I wanted to capture that feeling in a movie.

Champ Kind Gets Dark...Very Dark

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Cheap Thrills wouldn’t work so well if not for its A+ cast of familiar faces.

As the desperate protagonist, Craig, Pat Healy—a veteran character actor (seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, among other films) whose recent performances in The Innkeepers and Compliance have turned him into an indie genre world favorite—is the perfect everyman; playing his one-time friend and current money-needing competitor, Healy’s fellow Hollywood journeyman Ethan Embry (most known for Can’t Hardly Wait, but all grown-up here) gets the chance to show his tougher, more dangerous side, and nails it; and for the film’s female lead, Healy's Innkeepers co-star Sara Paxton (also from The Last House on the Left and Shark Night 3D) brings a delicateness to what’s essentially a femme fatale role.

Cheap Thrills’ M.V.P., though, is David Koechner, the longtime comedy mainstay who, of course, has achieved infamy as Anchorman’s lovable misogynist/racist/sports guy Champ Kind. In Cheap Thrills, Koechner represents the worst of the “haves,” those privileged few who look down on the have-nots with an elitist’s condescension. Though he’s as funny as ever, Koechner gets the chance to show some range, landing some of the film’s best dramatic moments and registering as an at times creepy sociopath. There’s nothing “Whammy!” about it.

E.L. Katz: In an early draft of the script, I thought that we’d need all of the actors to be improv comedians. I just felt like that would be really cool, to have these improv comics play it totally straight. I’d just seen Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace and it was really cool to see all of these British comedians kind of playing a semi-serious, really dark crime story. That’s a weird idea tonally, but there’s also something so appealing about really funny actors. The audience has a relationship with them.

Sometimes you’ll have a serious dramatic actor who’s great at the craft but people don’t give a shit about them. They don’t entertain people in the same way that really funny actors do. There was a point when we secured the budget and there were concerns that we’d need a serious dramatic actor involved so we could ultimately sell the movie. But then I realized, "Oh, shit, that doesn’t mean we can’t get a good dramatic actor who’s also been in a lot of comedies."

In the script, at first, that character was this young, Bret Easton Ellis, Patrick Bateman type kid. He was young and douchey. When I started seeing the actors’ names that were coming in, I thought, well, the indie movie version of this that we’ll be able to make won’t be able to get James Franco, who’d be ideal—we’re going to get some really lousy actor. [Laughs.] There were some funny veteran actors, though, that seemed interesting to me. It seemed like a cool, smart idea to change the character into this funny, entertaining older guy who the audience will actually like to watch and not want to throw a rock at.

David Koechner is somebody whose name came up and it made total sense. It’d be great if we had someone whom the audience already has a great relationship with, and who better than the guy who plays Champ Kind in Anchorman, right? So what if he’s the dude who leads you to the darkest, creepiest place? That, to me, seemed like a fun thing. The movie takes place in mostly one location, so the worst thing would be if the audience checks out or gets bored. We needed someone who’s entertaining and will keep the audience interested.

What Would You Do For Money?

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