E.L. Katz’s first film as a director, the suspenseful, insightful Cheap Thrills, is way too good to be his last. It follows a pair of old friends (played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) who reunite by chance, then strike up a conversation with a rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) and stumble into their escalating series of dares. The wagers begin innocently enough—50 bucks to the first guy to chug a drink—but soon grow more disturbing and dangerous. The simple premise yields an impressively complex glimpse into the darker side of human nature, and a taut, troubling thriller.
Before Katz became a director, he was a writer, first for punk-rock and horror magazines and websites, then for film. He scripted the first two shorts You’re Next director Adam Wingard shot, and produced and wrote Wingard’s first feature, Home Sick. After several more years of writing and producing for Wingard, Katz found the original script for Cheap Thrills and decided to make it his directorial debut. Katz told The Dissolve about his decade-long journey to become a director, the changes he made to the first draft, and how different his filmmaking career might have looked if he’d gotten started a few years earlier.
The Dissolve: You’ve written and produced films before, but this is the first thing you’ve directed. How hard was it to make the transition, and how long did it take?
E.L. Katz: It took 10 years. I did a lot of assignment work, and a lot of pitching and writing other people’s stuff. This was the first time I found a script that made me go, “Oh shit, this concept’s already here; there’s things I want to play with.” I gave it to my roommate, who had produced a couple things that had already played [at Fantastic Fest] and at SXSW: The Aggression Scale and some other stuff. I was like, “I know I don’t have a music video or a short film, but I think you could make this for a very small amount of money. It’s not that big of a risk.”
It took a little while to develop the script, because I wanted to play with the tone a little bit, but then it came together pretty quick. We shot in 14 days for a hundred grand, and it was incredibly tough. When you’re writing something, everything is theoretical. You’re solving all these puzzles in your head. Directing is just a completely different experience. It’s not about “Did I crack this person’s character arc?” It’s, “Is this person going to get hurt in this scene? Are we getting every emotional beat when we only have time for one take?” So it was very difficult, but I’m happy I did it. It’s a life-changing experience.
The Dissolve: When the credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised to see the name Trent Haaga among the writers, who I know from his work on Troma films, where I interned many years ago.
Katz: Me too.
The Dissolve: There’s a kind of Troma vibe to Cheap Thrills. What did you do at Troma? How did it affect your growth as a filmmaker?
Katz: My experience wasn’t as immersive as some people who work directly for [Troma founder] Lloyd [Kaufman]. I started off as a journalist; I did a lot of punk-rock and music and hip-hop journalism, but I also did some film journalism, and I worked for a magazine called While You Were Sleeping, which has the same vibe as one of those Vice kind of magazines, but a little younger. They started a deal with Troma, who wanted people for their website, Tromaville.com. I did a lot of content for them—it was like, “Hey, do you want to do some reviews for them, and they’ll pay you in VHS tapes?”
I don’t know if they’ve influenced me aesthetically, because I don’t point to their stuff as a reference. But there is a punk-rock attitude in Troma’s stuff that I really responded to when I was young. When I first got into genre, to me it was like, “Okay, I don’t want to be part of Hollywood, but I’ll be okay doing horror movies, because maybe that’s the punk-rock version of Hollywood.” Which is very idealistic, because it’s not necessarily true. For me, it felt like this stuff could be a little bit more subversive, and that was really attractive. What did you see that reminded you of Troma?
The Dissolve: Mostly the vibe that people with a lot of money are not to be trusted. They’re usually the villains in both Kaufman’s mind, and in the movies themselves.
Katz: That’s a Trent Haaga thing, too. He has a real blue-collar background, and I think he does sometimes see the world in that sort of way. I come from the perspective that there are rich people who really do take advantage of people, for sure, but there are also poor people who treat each other like shit, because they want what the other person has. I think that was my thing with this movie, too. Yes, you have your cackling arch-villains, but the guys that are the contestants get just as ugly.
The Dissolve: They’re totally willing to participate in these dares. It’s not like they’re being forced at all.
Katz: There’s no gun to their heads. I kind of feel that everybody has the potential to be a piece of shit. It doesn’t matter who they are.
The Dissolve: You mentioned that you wanted to work on the tone before you shot the script. How different is the finished film from that original script?
Katz: The four main characters are the same. And it was a couple making the dares, same thing. Originally, the film was set in a hotel room, and the guys had to go out and do things. It was more of a scavenger hunt. The dares were like, “Go out and get somebody’s wallet,” or, “Go out and take a cop’s hat.” So you had these challenges where you follow the characters trying to attempt these things.
To me, the film needed to be more of a pressure cooker. I wanted to keep them inside that one place, and have them really turn against each other. So the challenges need to be things that made them butt heads. In my mind, these guys start off as friends, but maybe they weren’t really friends after all, and they just start to beat the shit out of each other to get this money.
Trent’s script was strong, and Trent’s a strong writer. As a screenwriter myself, I hate it when people rewrite my shit. But if you really do want to make the movie, and you’re not just spinning your wheels like some asshole development executive, and you know what the film needs practically, that’s different.
The Dissolve: There have been a lot of movies lately that connect greed and wealth with crime and violence. Is that just fortuitous timing? Do you see Cheap Thrills as a timely movie, or a more universal movie?
Katz: I think it’s more of a universal movie. To say it’s a timely movie would suggest that things might get better, or that they were ever really great in the first place. Sure, the world economy is kind of in the shitter right now, but it’s always been kind of lousy. I’ve only been alive for 32 years, but I don’t think in that time it’s been such an idealistic, amazing system where everybody’s happy and healthy and eating well, and people aren’t taking advantage of them. When I first saw the script, it was three years ago. I didn’t think it was timely, I just thought that’s how people can be. It doesn’t matter the circumstances. They’re going to find excuses to treat each other like shit.
The Dissolve: I remember watching Ethan Embry grow up in films like Dutch, Empire Records, and Can’t Hardly Wait. He typically played the sweet, innocent guy. If you have that in your mind—and I’m wondering if you did—seeing him here works into the film’s theme of innocence getting spoiled by the harsh realities of adulthood.
Katz: What’s been funny—and maybe kind of a bummer for Ethan—is sometimes he’ll read these reviews and they’re like, “The surprisingly aged Ethan Embry…” and he’s like “Wow! Never have compliments made me feel so bad!” [Laughs.]
I’ve definitely seen him in his young, kind of cute roles. I also dug him in some more recent stuff, where he did look like he does now. In Vacancy, he played one of the guys chasing this couple around a hotel. He’s tough in that. On Brotherhood, the show on Showtime, he plays a dirty cop. I didn’t think I was being sneaky with that one, but sometimes I just forget about pop-culture baggage. I was just like, “He looks like the guy, I think he’s good for it.” But I’m always happy that there’s extra stuff that affects the audience. I do think Ethan has always had this side, and I think he’s been ready to do these kind of movies for a while.
The Dissolve: I have this urge to bring an autobiographical element to the film. “Does the director have kids? A wife? What’s his background?” Obviously, this isn’t about you, but I want to find you in the Pat Healy character. Do you get a lot of questions about that?
Katz: People ask if I have kids. I don’t, but Trent does. I come from a middle-class background, but when I dropped out of high school, I felt like I had made some bad choices and that my options shrunk. I worked at some factories, I did dumb jobs. I had a job as a traveling magazine salesman for a very short amount of time; I tried to pay my rent playing blackjack. I was kind of foolish; it wasn’t the greatest situation. Luckily, I did have family that could help me out and go, “Hey, maybe you should do something different, like go to this film school in Orlando.”
Does the movie represent my worldview? Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of me in this movie—but there’s also a lot of Pat in this movie, there’s a lot of [co-writer] David [Chirchirillo]. It becomes this weird shared thing, because it’s so much of everybody creating and throwing all this improv and their personality into it. I think that everybody that worked on it, who they are, seeps into it.
The Dissolve: It’s such an interesting time to be a first-time filmmaker, making a little genre movie, because now you have VOD, you have all these ways to get the movie out that didn’t exist a few years ago. Do you ever think how different your life would be if you were at this stage of your career 10 or 15 years ago?
Katz: It would be pretty different. Back then, there was a model for the middle-range-budget movies. There are definitely a lot fewer options for that now, but it’s also a really fantastic time to make movies under $5 million. That’s great. I don’t need $30 million to make a movie, but I do think the business model itself has really changed and shrunk. If you think about Joe Carnahan, he made his first movie, and then he gets Narc. Now it’s a really different time, but there is that money for VOD that allows producers to try stuff that’s a little different. But it’s a hard time for this to be a job now. It’s more a mixture of a job and a hobby. That’s just the reality of the industry.
The Dissolve: You’re forced to be like the guys in the movie, doing what you can for money.
Katz: Each movie takes its own magic to get the money, but that’s fine. This stuff shouldn’t be guaranteed. This is a ridiculous thing to have the opportunity to do. I’m happy that anything happened at all. If at some point down the line, I just teach film, I’m fine with that too, because I never thought I was going to direct, and I never had it in my mind as a career. I just really love film, and wanted to spend my life around it.