Richard Bates Jr Interview: Excision, Suburban Gothic, indie horror

Excision director Richard Bates Jr's latest film was a hit at the Fantasia Film Festival. We chat about Suburban Gothic and indie horror...

Richard Bates Jr’s second film Suburban Gothic recently premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, and served as a contrast to his first movie, Excision, a one-of-a-kind horror about a disturbed teen’s precarious mental state. Suburban Gothic, meanwhile, trades in most of the blood and gore for humour, while retaining Bates’ quirky characters and dialogue. Bates’ style is unmistakable, and he’s surely on to something with his latest blend of horror and comedy.

I had the opportunity to meet with Bates after the premiere to discuss Suburban Gothic and his upcoming projects. Here’s what he had to tell us.

The response from the viewers at the premiere was pretty phenomenal.

 I was very happy. When you make independent films, you’re not doing it for the money. That one night, that’s everything I’m doing it for. Getting that response made everything work. It’s the best feeling in the world. I heard there was a big line. I had to go outside and check it out, because I was having an anxiety attack.

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The viewers enjoyed having the opportunity to mingle with you and the cast after the premiere and find out about the process of making Suburban Gothic, which is a great thing about attending movie festivals.

I was just so happy that people would want to come see the movie, and when they’re nice enough to want to talk about the film after − that’s the reason why I make these types of movies. It’s for the fans. This movie is specifically to make myself happy again. So it becomes this kind of mission to do the same for someone else, for another kid.

When I think of my ideal audience for Excision and Suburban Gothic, and really any [other of my movies], I think of a middle school audience, because there are kids that need help. They have needs and desires, but they have no control over their lives. The only way they can experience anything outside of their parents’ world is through movies. It’s really all you have at that age. You have no experience. You can’t travel. I’m really trying to make movies for teenagers, giving them that experience and possibly some sort of positive message about being themselves.

Tell me about the development of the movie. When I interviewed Ray Wise, we talked about other supernatural horror comedies, and there are not that many out there. Wise said that Suburban Gothic was a horror comedy, but he also hinted that it was much more.

It’s a mash-up. I approached Excision like this. I think I approach everything like this. Let’s say you’re listening to a rock album, for example. I think that the fans of that music − or of most music − want variety. They want all sorts of instrumentation. If you don’t do that, it’s frowned upon, almost. It’s playing it safe. With film, I find that people are taken aback from flexing different genres, and I think that’s ridiculous. Why limit film that way?

So I really approach it like a mash-up album, like a Girl Talk album; one of these albums where they take a little bit of everything, and keep the tone consistent. It can’t be a mess. It has to be structured. There has to be a through line. What I have to do − what I put a ton of work into − is keeping that vision the same throughout. If you’re going to work with a lot of genre, you have to keep the tone. You need something to ground it.  So, I put a lot of work in keeping it that way.

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I think film is going in this direction, and I think that most films, one day, will be like this, with a little influence from everything.  I don’t think there is a right or wrong. I wouldn’t say that doing it one way is better than doing it another way. There is no “better.” It’s what I like, and at the end of the day, all I can really do is make films that I would want to see. I’m the biggest movie fan in the world. I just make them for myself, and I have to trust that there is a bunch of other people like me out there who will watch it; enough of them that I’ll be able to have another one made. 

Suburban Gothic is not formula-based then?

It does not reference any other movie. The idea is just to have your heart on your sleeve, bring an authenticity, and be so genuine, pure and innocent about it. I was trying to feel like a kid again. Be happy. I had this overwhelming feeling of innocence about it, even when it got crazy. That was a good fight. I was testing things, trying to stay with innocence. I used bad language, which was okay. You can push it. It can be fun, rambunctious and juvenile. Then if you show violence, real violence, it’s immediately adult. You’ve lost [that innocence].

I love violence, but it’s not for this film. There can’t be any real violence except for that one back story shot in black & white, because I needed to drive that point home − and then nudity. Of course, because it’s a horror movie, people tell you, “put nudity in. We need tits, we need tits.” You don’t know how big of a fight it was for me, having to meet anyone I had to meet, about how there cannot be sex in this movie. The furthest it could go was one dude masturbating. A dude jerking off made sense to me while being in middle school. I didn’t have a girlfriend going through middle school. I didn’t get to kiss a girl. And that’s as far as can take it. The whole thing had to feel like that.

I think you made that very clear in that scene where Kat Dennings tells Matthew Gray Gubler, “stop looking at my tits.” It drove the message home that there wasn’t going to be any sex in this movie.

Exactly. You had to feel, even as an adult watching it, that you’re a kid again.

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The characters are larger than life, but you can still relate to every one of them. They’re all endearing in some way, even the father.

Going into this movie, I had to draw every single character before I went into casting. Every one of them was an action figure. Kat had a crowbar, which was her toy. So I really wanted everyone to be his or her own character. I spent a lot of time with the actors and I spent tons of time working on dialogue. It’s very important, but I’m not too precious about it. I let [the actors] bring their own stuff to the table. For example, some of Ray’s best stuff in this movie is improvised. I wrote a lot of great lines, they wrote a lot of great lines. I can’t take credit for everything.

This was supposed to feel like a bunch of friends in their backyard just learning how to make a movie, having fun and experimenting with each other, and it’s my job to rein it in. I can let them push it as far as they want, but it’s my job to get a ruler and slap them on the wrist if it goes too far, but to let them go ‘almost’ too far. I feel like I treat them like every character is the main character in the movie. I want them all to be fighting for every scene, and they all give their best.

I also like to personalize everything. The tone is like a live action cartoon in some places. But the story is very personal to me. Just like in Excision. I don’t really know how to make a movie that is not personal. It’s so much work, and it’s so exhausting. I don’t see the point of not personalising it. 

It’s an independent movie, but it almost has the feel of a blockbuster. It could be very popular. When I saw people coming in for the screening dressed up as ghosts with sheets over their heads just like Gubler and Dennings in the redband trailer, I thought this movie might have some cult movie potential.

I was so psyched. That night made my life. When that happens, it means everything. It’s the reason why I do this. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s not really for me to decide. We’ll see. I did my job, now it’s out there. I hope it means something to some kids. To some degree I made it because this is the kind of movie I wish we had when I was in high school.  I made it for a younger me, in the hope that it will be special to some kids just like me.

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Do you see this type of movie, this approach, as becoming something of a trend?

I’m really confused because it’s all I’ve ever done. Yes, I think so. I like the craft of filmmaking. I don’t want anything to turn into a giant mess. There should be a plan. I don’t think anything should just be about one thing. Why should we keep doing it that way? It’s boring. There are so many more things we can do with film that we haven’t even tried yet.

What are you working on right now?

I’m five pages into it now. I took a red-eye flight for the screening, and I was trying to outline the script on the flight, but I was a bit too pressured. Whatever you want to call it, I guess it’s a mash-up of other genres. It’s probably the darkest one I’ve ever done. It’s easier for me to do darker material when I’m happy. I do lighter stuff when I’m sad. They are my therapy.

There are so many great lines in the movie. Tell me about the scriptwriting process.

I love the dialogue. I co-wrote it with Mark [Linehan Bruner]. Mark would do most of the structuring, most of the writing. It was my job to write the dialogue, the specifics, and all the scary scenes. I guess he got left with a lot of the shit work. He’s very much the unsung hero of the script. I got away with most of the character and dialogue stuff. They are all bits and pieces of people I know, things I’ve heard. 

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You mentioned that the actors also came up with some of their own lines, and that they also improvised. Can we expect a very long gag reel on the DVD release?

I would love that, because I have so much good stuff. If you enjoyed Suburban Gothic, you would get a real kick out of a gag reel. It kills you in editing. It’s my job to make it tight for pacing, but it kills you to cut scenes.

There are a lot of movies out there where a teenager interrupts his parents’ intimacy. It’s always both funny and awkward, because it’s something that a lot of viewers can relate to. Suburban Gothic offers a very special take on that nightmarish teen experience, and Ray Wise’s line in that scene… I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to come up with it.

When I first wrote that line, I was told I had to remove it, because it was too aggressive, and I said, “there is no way that’s going to happen.”

The best thing when I got to make this movie is that I had final cut decision. That’s very important. I don’t want to make an independent movie right now without final cut. I was lucky enough to be able to shoot Excision with final cut − Suburban Gothic too, and the next one won’t get made without final cut. They are my babies. I’m certainly not doing it for the money, not much money, anyway. I just want to do something nice for the weirdoes, something that will make them feel less weird, because I’m certainly a weirdo.

Like I said, I make these movies for a younger me. I would have felt way cooler about this if I had this movie to watch at that age. This would not have been such a big deal, if I could have seen that in a movie. I would have had something to identify with.

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I guess you couldn’t get away with lines like that in a studio movie…

Never, ever, ever. Studios don’t really talk to me [laughter].

Do you think independent films will always offer more artistic licence?

They’re not like that anymore, already. I’ve read a lot of scripts, and I’ve talked to a lot of people. I would have liked to do my rewrites, and put my stamp on them, but they would say [my ideas were] crazy. Even independent film producers are trying to make big studio films without money. What’s the point? You can’t compete with those films in terms of special effects and so on. You can be more interesting, more special. I saw some scripts, and they’re not even trying to be special. This is the area of formulas. You see a lot of notes, and notes and notes from producers. I try not to impart too much of someone else’s will, because it’s bad for the movie in the end. It loses its focus. It’s not that single vision anymore. That makes for a bad product. There has to be some consistency. 

What does it look like for a release of Suburban Gothic at the moment?

This is the part where it gets even scarier. Now I have to sell it. My scripts don’t pre-sale. It’s very hard for me to go to [producers]. I live in Hollywood. I have had a few meetings, but I’ve never been able to presale some scripts. You have to find a producer willing to take a chance on you, and trust you’ll be able to sell it after. My entire life is riding on that screening. We could sell in a week, or in two. I don’t know. It’s up to the sales agents now.

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Any more festivals lined up?

I think we will do a bunch. I’ll have to travel, but I really want to get back to work. There is one in France and one in London. Typically, based on Excision, people in Europe like my films more. I want everyone, everywhere to connect with my films, but right now Europe seems to enjoy the stuff I’m putting out much more.

Tell me about filming the scene with John Waters.

He’s the best. He’s my hero. I have no idea why he’s talking to me. I’m still shocked. If you had asked me even before I made my first movie if I would ever even get to meet him, I would have said “no,” but for some reason, he’s been so good to me. So I told him I’d really like to have him in that movie.  He asked me what it was about, and I said I’d send him a scene. And only John, at his age, would read that scene and be down with it. He’s the coolest.

Richard, thank you for your time.

Suburban Gothic‘s UK release date has yet to be announced. We’ll be sure to pass one along when it becomes available. Until then, you can read our review here.

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