Ethan Embry and E.L. Katz Talk Dares, Blood, Guts, ‘Cheap Thrills’
In first-time director E.L. Katz’s gruesome Cheap Thrills, two former high school friends (Ethan Embry and Pat Healy) run into each other at a bar. A rich married couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) entice the drunken buddies (both in financial straits) into coming to their place, where they strike up a series of dares-for-money that escalates to horrific, revolting levels of madness. The film explores the tug of war between greed and morality as the two friends begin to lose themselves in the sadistic couple’s wicked game.
We spoke to Katz about the challenges of filming predominantly in a living room, why the film has a punk rock feel to it, casting the famously comic Koechner in a darker role, brain-dead genre films, and more. Following our phone conversation with Katz, we spoke to Embry about disliking Pat Healy, being familiar with dark head spaces, why he doesn’t play nice-guys anymore, and more.
Cheap Thrills opens this Friday, March 28th at the Roxie in San Francisco, and is available on VOD and Movies On Demand now. For more, visit cheapthrillsmovie.com
This is a relatively contained story, taking place mostly in one location with four characters. Was operating mostly in one place freeing in that you could focus more on being creative as opposed to the logistics that come with bigger productions?
Katz: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. Yes, we don’t have a lot of company moves. But if you have the money for the company moves, that stuff isn’t hard. It’s actually easier, because you’re shooting in new places. When you’re shooting the action in one living room, essentially, and you’ve got four people talking for most of the movie, it’s kind of a tough to make it cinematic. That was a challenge. Being a first time director, maybe I initially thought, “Oh, if it’s just people in a house, it’s not a big deal,” but you’ve got to find ways to film the actors that are interesting.
The house that you shot in has an interesting, alternative look to it. Did it already look like that, or did you design it?
Katz: There’s some design involved. In the original screenplay, the house was more American Psycho, super-modernist, like an old De Palma movie. But…we didn’t have the money for that shit! We could have done a really crummy version of that, but instead I thought, “What’s another world we can play in?” Right outside my door in Silver Lake and Los Feliz, there are people who live up in the hills there, and their houses are a little artier, a little warmer, a little more inviting. I met these guys who used to be in rock bands. I think one played in Guns n’ roses at one point and another was an architect. They were really colorful, interesting people. They had all this art there from an artist who had died, so they owned the rights to it.
Their place just seemed like it would throw the audience off the trail a little bit. You look at it, and there really isn’t a thematic shorthand that it speaks to. As soon as you see modernist furniture and white walls, you think, “Alright, they’re going to fucking spray those walls with blood.” With this…you don’t really know what to think about the house. It kinda seems nice, but you look at it a little longer and you’re like, “Is it crazy? I don’t know.” It’s not trying to be anything.
There’s a very punk rock feel to the film that I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s the bloody nose on the poster, or the fact that the four main characters are so different, yet complement and play off of each other like a band.
Katz: Pat Healy’s character has a Black Flag tattoo if you look closely. Ethan and Pat both used to be punks. Sara’s always playing music in the script. In a weird way, I wanted this character, who barely anything, to be sort of like this Greek chorus and make the movie feel like it’s carrying you into this musical place. What we did with the score was, we started it off playing this douche-y dance music that you’d imagine would be playing at a coke-head party. It feels ridiculous, but it also makes you feel kinda safe because of how ridiculous it is. Then you can slowly take the music away and have Sara play her own strange music, or the ambient score which sounds kinda creepy.
The film explores how money can reveal the ugliest side of us as human beings. Do you think genre films are best when they have sophisticated ideas running underneath all the blood and guts?
Katz: I’m a big horror fan, so I would say that I also enjoy them when they’re brain-dead, mean things. I’m fine with that. It’s kind of what I was raised on. I think that genre movies can be tools to be sneaky and subversive, but I kind of like them when they’re straight-up a dude in a rubber costume ripping people’s heads off. They’re both fun to me.
Your cast is very balanced. They all bring something different to the table and read each other well.
Katz: I try to imagine the movie with different actors, and I can’t do it. It’s such a random process, and it’s so hard to get actors to do movies like this, where there isn’t a lot of money and the circumstances aren’t ideal. David hasn’t had a chance to play something this dark. I’ve seen Ethan play edgier parts, but I don’t think many people are as familiar with that side of him. I was a big fan of Pat and all of his moments where he’d steal the show in Magnolia, Ghost World, and Great World of Sound. I knew I wanted to reach out to him, and he responded immediately.
Ethan cruised in on his motorcycle to have a conversation about the film, and he just looked like a badass. We talked at length about edgier movies. He and Pat are an interesting combination. I’ve always been a fan of David’s work. I wasn’t being sneaky with his casting. I knew he was capable of [this role]. Even though he’s known for comedy, it’s still all character creation. It’s just as hard doing comedy as it is doing drama. I wasn’t thinking of casting Sara as sort of an Innkeepers reunion, but I did have Ti West and Pat help me get her interested. At first, she was like, “Violet doesn’t talk or do so much.” But as we talked about it more and Pat told her that, really, she was kind of controlling everything, she got excited.
For a while, it does seem like her character isn’t paying fucking attention and she’s just another person in the room. But after a while, it’s almost as if she gets a little more bold in her spine. She’s getting closer to them, becoming more animated, and you begin to see how interested she is in watching them do these things. By the end, her face is twisted into this evil grin.
Following our call with E.L., we called back Ethan Embry, who had been trying to get on the line for the past five minutes.
Hey Ethan! Apologies for not picking up your call. I was on the line with E.L. Katz.
Ethan: That asshole?! Anything he says is a fucking lie! I’m sure you saw that piece of shit he calls a movie.
I did see that piece of shit he calls a movie! But seriously, I enjoyed the film, so congrats my friend.
Ethan: (laughs) E.L. had no part in making it good!
That’s a question I asked him. “Why did you contribute nothing of value whatsoever to the project?”
Ethan: Yeah! “Why didn’t Ethan Embry get directing credit?!”
Seriously now, I want to ask you a question I asked him. The film is quite a compact story. Did its small size attract you to it?
Ethan: The undertone of the story deals with the economic situation that 99% of Americans find themselves in. It’s a moral question, underlined with all the comedic material we have. It takes a lot of material and condenses it down to 88 minutes. That’s what drew me to it in the beginning. It starts off and you’re watching a dramatic father’s struggle, turns into a comedy, and then starts ripping your gut out.
I asked E.L. this as well: Do you think genre films are better when they have sophisticated ideas at their core?
Ethan: Yeah. I think any art form, period, is going to lend itself a hand when it has a foundation of something that we can all identify with on a deeper level. Unless you’re doing something that’s really just for the ride of it, like Cabin in the Woods or Drag Me To Hell. I think why Cheap Thrills works is that you can be so ridiculous and cross so many boundaries because it has this realistic foundation. I think that’s what makes it as gut-wrenching as it is.
You and Pat have a great dynamic in the film. It’s very subtle. You start out as friends it seems, but that slowly melts away as the film wears on. You convey this through short glances you exchange or little jabs that become more and more offensive and brutal.
Ethan: First of all, I have a lot of respect for Pat. I think he’s a really smart man, and he’s very talented. When we started shooting, I made a conscious decision to look at the things I don’t like about Pat, personally. There had to be a reason why, in the film, we didn’t speak for five years. That being said, it couldn’t be so much that we wouldn’t have that drink in the bar together. I just started looking for the things in Pat that I don’t like. I never talked to him about it–I just did it. There was real tension there when we were shooting, but it was a calculated decision on my part. We had two weeks to shoot the movie–what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll bully him around for two weeks, and then it’ll be over. (laughs) I’ve talked to him since then, and now I treat him like I treat everybody else. You look for the good things in people. I’ve gone back to treating him like an actual person. (laughs)
Like you said, the film really guts you as it goes on. Did you have to go to a dark head space, and is that difficult for you as an actor, or is that just the gig?
Ethan: It’s a familiar place for me. I’m not a stranger to dark head spaces. That being said, I’m a happy person. But I’ve been to dark places before. I really like doing it for work. Most of the time, I’m allowed to go to a darker place than I allow myself to go in real life, so it’s a great outlet. If I can do that at work and convince myself that I’ve gone dark enough, I actually have a happier life after the job.
It’s cathartic for you.
When I was younger, all of my girl friends had crushes on you.
You were this cute kid in all these movies, and now you’re doing edgier roles. Do you relish those days of doing nice-guy roles, or do you prefer the tough-guy stuff? You’re great at both.
Ethan: First of all, I appreciate that you think I can pull off both. Yeah…I appreciate that. I was completely oblivious to any popularity when I was a kid. I never went to school, so I was never around my peers until my late twenties. I never had a peer group that was my age. All the films that I did back then took a long time to get popular. They had these slow burns to them. I like what I’m doing now because it feels truer to who I am right now. I was a crazy kid. The guy in That Thing You Do wasn’t so far off from what I was when I was sixteen, seventeen, you know?
I think putting on that goofy, over-the-top energy “thing” was me figuring out a way to not deal with the darker side of me. Now I’ve decided that it’s okay to be darker, bitter and pissed off all the time. (laughs) I’m a man now, you know? I’m a late bloomer. I don’t think I could pull of those nice-guy characters anymore, physically. I’d look like someone with a disability. “Why is that guy with Aspergers so ripped?” (laughs)