October, 2012. Another in my indie horror series. This interview with debut director Richard Bates Jr. marked the release of his excellent Excision. Originally published at Empire, but didn’t survive the migration to a new site. Here’s the full transcript.
Excision, a story of high-school awkwardness, peculiar proclivities, dangerous fantasies and horrifying amateur surgery, marks the debut of a unique new directing talent in Richard Bates Jr. After a successful life on the festival circuit, a small theatrical run and a massive five stars from Empire’s Kim Newman, the film hits DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. We donned our scrubs and rubber gloves and approached Mr Bates with legitimate caution…
Tell us about the first incarnation of Excision.
I made a short film version of Excision first. I grew up in Virginia and I went to college at NYU, and I made this 18-minute short, also called Excision, in my senior year. It was a personal film. I love horror films, but I guess at art school they’re not really very popular. They prefer films about people smoking cigarettes and stuff. But I wanted to sort of satirise where I grew up as a dark comedy, and then it quickly just got darker and a little bit more weird. I made a point of making the feature have moments of levity because I wouldn’t want to drag the audience through the mud like that. Still, people at Q&As ask where the ideas came from, and all I can say is that it’s about growing up in Virginia. That always gets a laugh. Some kids came up to me at Sundance and said they really thought I nailed Virginia, for whatever that’s worth.
So the film is autobiographical?!
Haha, I wouldn’t go that far. It is quite personal though. I get cold sores. I used to have to go to Cotillion classes, and I have been to a Cotillion class with a cold sore on my face. I’ll never forget that; it was awful. You do that in like middle school when it’s already scary talking to a girl.
I have to admit I had to look up what Cotillion is.
Cotillion is mostly a Southern thing. My mom is from Mississippi, and it’s a sort of antiquated thing, like manners classes. They don’t even really have that on the west coast of the United States.
Who acted in the short version?
The reason Excision stars a girl is because when I was in film school, I’d watch all these student films that were visually innovative and interesting, but they didn’t work because no one could find an actor worth a damn, and no one was smart enough to have their actor either not talk, or just find a fucking good actor and write a film around them. I set out to find a good actor, and the best actor I knew was a girl named Tessa Ferrer, who was at school with me in New York. Did you ever see Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains? Oh my god, get ready to fall in love with Diane Lane. You need to watch it. Her character kind of inspired Pauline. I write women pretty much the same way I’d write a guy. I’ve been asked several times in interviews if I grew up around women, and it’s like, ‘God, dude, if only I could get a woman to talk to me when I was growing up.’ I most certainly did not. I wish! I just kind of started writing, and what you have is what you have.
So how did the short become a feature film?
The short being successful surprised me. You never think anything you do is going to be successful, y’know? I moved out to LA and got all these meetings because of this short. It played at fifty festivals and won 24 awards. I started writing the feature as I was editing the short, because the short was always intended as a vehicle to get me a feature. I got all these meetings and everyone turned it down. They just thought it was the most crazy script ever and nobody would ever see it or want to make it. In Hollywood, if someone really likes what you do, the thing they say is, ‘We really love what you did. Now never, ever do that again!’ So I couldn’t get financing or anything. I PA’d for a long time, getting people coffee and stuff, and I wrote several other scripts, but they were just garbage. I had sort of resigned myself to the fact that if I got to make one movie in my life it had to be Excision, and if I got make more, at the very least that had to be the first. I couldn’t get it off my mind.
How did you finally get it going if nobody would support it?
It was very therapeutic to make it. I literally got thirty of my friends from Virginia and one of my friends from New York together, and they all financed the movie for me. We raised the money ourselves. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I started calling casting agencies, setting up meetings, finding numbers on IMDb Pro and stuff. It was hilarious! I was pretending I had X amount of money, and then I started getting these meetings and thinking, ‘Oh shit! Am I going to have to pay this person?’ I was casting the movie and raising the finance simultaneously. I thought I was going to get blacklisted from Hollywood. It was insane. We had very little money. We built all the sets in my friend’s garage. We couldn’t afford a crew so my whole crew was freshmen from Long Beech State. It was ghetto, man. We just literally threw this thing together. I was just super-grateful that we had what we had.
Those methods seemed to land you a pretty impressive cast…
I sent them all the short and I sent them all the script. I kind of lost it and said, ‘Dammit I’m going to make this thing!’ If I hadn’t made this film I think I’d have become a drug addict. It took over my whole life. You can only lose for so long, so I started calling all these agencies I had no business calling and saying whatever I had to say to get these meetings, and I’d send the short and the script and just kind of bug’em. The whole movie is sort of a love-letter to cult, art-house horror filmmakers and ‘80s teen comedy directors that sort of got me through my childhood. Irreverent as the film is, it’s pretty reverent towards the filmmakers that inspired it. So I tried to get as many actors involved that were involved in these kinds of projects that were important to me, involved in this too. Twin Peaks is my all-time favourite TV show, so I had to get Ray Wise. I love A Clockwork Orange, and especially If… so I had to get Malcolm McDowell.
And John Waters!
John Waters is one of my all-time heroes: I think my sense of humour kind of comes from him and Todd Solondz. Traci Lords actually introduced me to John. I became friends with her and she knew I was a big fan of his, so she sent him the script. Then John called me one morning, and said [very passable Waters impression]: ‘Well Ricky, I read the script, and I have to say it’s very strange.’ I thought he was going to turn me down, but then he said, ‘Well I don’t fly coach and I’m not shaving my moustache, but I’m going to do it.’ And we flew him out and he was awesome. I had my most responsible friend, Alex, pick him up from the airport, and he got them lost for an hour. We almost didn’t get to shoot on that day. When John finally got to set, he said, ‘Ricky, your friend Alex is cute as a button but he’s dumb as a bag of toy hammers.’ He was the coolest though. It looks like he’s actually going to be in my new movie that I’m shooting.
I notice Traci is also listed as a producer.
Traci is the first person I cast. Some of those ‘associate producer’ credits are for actual producers, and some are really just thank yous. She was the first person to support the movie, and for a long time it was just Traci and I. Everyone was calling me saying, ‘She’s a porn star: what the hell are you doing?’ but I’d met several people for her role at that point and still not found the right one. So I met her and she was just like super-serene and interesting. She’s a mom, she’s in her forties, she’s got a three-year-old. She hasn’t done porn for years and years and years. And she was so thoughtful and I guess just good that I started instantly getting very defensive about her. I auditioned her, and at that point I knew she could do it, and I just got so fed up of people talking shit about her that I really wanted to cast her, hopefully as the ultimate fuck-you to anyone that doubts her. She’s fantastic in it.
How did you find AnnaLynne McCord? She’s pretty unrecognisable as the girl from 90210…
We set out to cast against type with everyone. The only person that I didn’t want to cast was AnnaLynne. It’s funny, after all those years of nobody wanting to talk to me, suddenly my script is getting passed around and I’m getting a call from this agency that this TV star AnnaLynne McCord wants to be in the movie, and immediately I’m the dick! I’m like, ‘Fuck no!’ She’s on 90210, which I think is mostly watched by younger girls, and I just thought she’d be offensive to my audience! But I think she was wanting to reinvent herself and they persuaded me to have a meeting with her, and we went to this restaurant and she came in character as Pauline, and she looked nothing like the pictures you find of her online from that show. She’s nuts. She’s actually nuts, man. She brought all these pictures of herself from her childhood. She grew up in a trailer park with very religious parents and she basically escaped. She’s completely self-made, and the movie actually was very personal for her too. I guess I started to push her buttons a little and I told her she’d have to shave her head at the end of the movie. She took a steak knife off the lunch table and started cutting off her hair with it, right in front of me. I’d looked for Pauline for so long… It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of luck, man.
Stylistically, as a director, I notice you very rarely move the camera. Is that always your approach, or did you just find it worked for this particular film?
That’s a style that took me a while to develop. When you’re a young filmmaker you start out only moving the camera, doing weird shots and fucking around, and I think as I started to mature as a filmmaker I started to leave that behind. I kind of set this rule for myself that, the crazier things are on screen, the less helpful it is if we move the camera while they’re happening. I’m very careful about unwarranted camera moves now. I kind of set everything up as a stage play. My blocking is super-weird, and I don’t ever let the actors move out of a certain space. I think my films are like going to a play where I keep getting to switch which seat you’re in in the theatre. That’s sort of inspired by early Jim Jarmusch, and great David Cronenberg stuff like Spider. He rarely moves the camera in that and it creates a very odd sense of feeling. It helps with the dry humour too. It’s hard for the actors. In all the close-ups, the actors aren’t acting to each other, they’re acting to a marker on the lens. That took everyone a lot of getting used to.
And for a horror film, it’s very bright.
I told the DP that the lighting should never look like anything other than a Walt Disney children’s show. The whole thing is lit really poppy and warm and inviting, and completely the opposite of what you’re used to in a horror film. When things go awry in a perfect world like that, audiences don’t really know what to make of it.
Are you actually happy with it being called a horror film? It strikes me that doesn’t quite describe it accurately.
It’s a horror comedy, but hopefully to some degree it’s my own unique brand. For people that maybe don’t quite know what to make of it, my new one is the same exact style! Hopefully once I get more material out there, those who like it will know what to expect. This is just the way I make movies. It’s a cross between a John Hughes movie and a David Cronenberg movie. Some Kind of Wonderful crossed with Dead Ringers! And the dream sequence stuff is very inspired by Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, and also by Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle. Everything violent in the movie, until the garage at the end, is supposed to look beautiful and pretty and kind of sexy. In a lot of ways it’s a reaction to the Saw films. But I kind of have a problem with it being marketed as a tits and blood movie, simply because that audience isn’t going to like this movie, man! It’s almost designed as a middle finger to those types of films. It’s kind of a curiosity and something you have to look up, and it’s developed this awesome following. I’m getting messages from people saying either, ‘This is the best movie I’ve ever seen,’ or ‘I hate you and I want to kill you.’ It gets the extremes.
What’s with the poster image of Pauline dressed as Elizabeth I? That’s not in the film.
I love that poster, dude. It’s actually from a dream sequence I cut from the movie. Y’know, in the dream sequences she’s beautiful because that’s how she sees herself. Is it saying something about Pauline? Yes. Is it literal? Certainly not. The scenes around it got cut, and it didn’t really work without their context, so it got cut out too. I don’t even think it’ll be included as a deleted scene on the DVD.
How does Excision play to non-horror crowds at places like Sundance?
If I hadn’t got into Sundance, I wouldn’t have a career right now. That said, it’s a very ‘industry’ festival and you don’t get audiences cheering and jeering and reacting. The goal of the film is to take you through every emotion, from comedy to horror to tragedy, and everyone at the Sundance audience is kind of dry. I made bloody tampons for everyone, which I guess was fairly controversial. I tried to do whatever I could to get everyone in the spirit of the movie and get involved with it. So it plays interesting… The best screening was at Fantasia in Canada. We sold out an 800-seat theatre, all to fans of this type of movie. It was the greatest night of my fucking life. It was so cool, I almost started crying.
You mentioned the Saw films as kind of the enemy: what do you think is the ‘state’ of modern horror?
Horror gets a bad rap, but it’s the studios that keep pushing all the crap. The independent moviemakers are where it’s going on. There’s a bunch of great young horror filmmakers right now doing their thing, hopefully bringing some sort of cache back to the genre. Horror films are timely and important. Todd Browning made Freaks as a response to all these soldiers coming back mutilated from the war. Vampire films in the ‘80s like The Hunger start to come along in the wake of AIDS. The surgery thing in Excision is kind of a comment on entitlement. Like you hear people saying, ‘Anyone can make a movie; all you need is a camera.’ So Pauline too is like, ‘I’m a smart girl; why can’t I do this?’ Without putting the work in.
You mentioned your next film…
I wrote it with a friend while I was editing this. It’s about a kid in the big city who has moved away from his family in the deep south of the United States and has become fairly metropolitan and whatnot. He graduates but can’t get a job and has to move back home to his old room in his parents’ basement, and the house is now haunted, so he and the punk-rock girl at the bar and all the town outcasts band together to try to solve the mystery of what happened while he was gone. It’s like, imagine if the guy that made Excision made a Ghostbusters movie. It should be a fun one. I’ve got a few pretty cool surprises in there. And yeah, John Waters is always travelling speaking, but he says he’s totally down for it. I get pretty excited about this stuff. I love casting.
My contract just finished being negotiated for that, although I’ve actually been in pre-production on it for the last couple of months. I wanted to get started on it, and I got a little extra money for Excision where I could pay rent for a month or two. That said, I’d better get paid soon or I’m in trouble! It’s amazing. For four or five years I couldn’t get anyone in this town to even call me back, and now I get to do another script I wrote, and I just got another offer for something else I can’t really talk about. That’s kind of cool, man!
Excision is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Monster Pictures.