Richard Bates Jr. has just released his second feature length film SUBURBAN GOTHIC, which is quite a departure from is first EXCISION. Here he discusses his state of mind and motivation for making SUBURBAN GOTHIC, horror in Hollywood and more. I want to thank ScreenRelish.com for the opportunity to interview him and where this interview was first published. SUBURBAN GOTHIC has been released in limited US theaters and is VOD from January 30. You can read my review here.
Cinemynx: Hi Richard, how are you? I hope you’re not in the ‘snowpocalypse’ nightmare that is the East Coast right now…
Richard Bates Jr.: No, no… I’m in sunny LA, but I did go to school there and lived in Manhattan for four and a half years, so I know the weather there. I spent the first two years in LA complaining about the weather here but now I would never live anywhere else.
C: So SUBURBAN GOTHIC is your second directorial effort, aside from your short film which, I’m going to guess, your feature-length film EXCISION is based on.
R: Yeah, yeah if you can believe it. Yeah – I got to make another one!
C: I think I’m actually a very good critic to interview you because I am not a horror fan, and when I was asked to review your film I needed to get the whole lowdown like “Am I really going to be scared by this film? Do I need to call in my support troops?!? Or do you think I’ll be okay all by myself?”
R: (Laughs) All the scares are based on boardwalk amusement park rides, and shows like ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK, and stuff from my childhood.
C: Right! That’s exactly how it struck me. My overarching thought about the film, aside from the fact that it’s very funny, is the ability that Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) has to see things from the supernatural, and it is a brilliant metaphor for the horror of him having to move back in with his parents who are pretty nuts. The reality of people who are postgraduate and maybe even have a graduate degree and can’t find work having to move back in with their parents is, in fact, truly horrifying and happening all over the country.
R: The ultimate horror!
C: I’d like you to talk about that parallel little bit and it’s very clever that the horror is really just in his parents house – just around Donald (Ray Wise) and Eve (Barbara Niven) and in the space that they hold for Raymond.
R: Sure. Bits and pieces are based on my own experiences, and my parents are by no means racist. All the interracial stuff, it was much darker film when I had written it and I was attached to a bunch of other projects. After EXCISION nothing really worked no one would really touch the film because, I guess, EXCISION was a very provocative movie. I guess critically it was successful, at Sundance for example, but especially out here I think everyone just assumed that whoever made it had to be completely out of his mind. So I couldn’t get a movie made and I and I got super depressed. It was really weird because I’m not a depressed person and have never experienced that before, it was the strangest year of my life and I couldn’t watch the movies that had made me want to make EXCISION… Cronenberg and Argento. I spent a year just trying to find some happiness from my childhood, and I went out and bought a ton of Hardy Boys books and was reading all those and I was watching Scooby Doo cartoons and literally just silly happy things, and at that point I thought, all I ever wanted to do was just make movies and this has got to be fun again. It couldn’t be ruined so I wrote this little blurb, and I got my co-writer, is actually one of my best friends from high school, and I said let’s do this like we did when we were kids. Then I called Matthew Gubler who is also one of my good friends and I said, “I want this to feel like it did when I was in my parents backyard with a tiny camera and it was fun.” So I redid the whole thing and turned it into this juvenile sort of children’s cartoon for adults, and honestly I really made it to make myself happy again. And it did, and will hopefully make a bunch of other kids happy. To make a horror film without blood or nudity, you wouldn’t believe it, it was a fight. It was harder for me, at a certain point, to get this made because I refused to have naked breasts in it, and I’m not opposed to showing nudity, there’s a good amount of nudity in my first film but this had to feel juvenile and in all of its ‘perviness’ still innocent. This movie could not have had sex scenes, you know what I mean? It’s more like a kid dreaming one day to see a woman naked – to feel like that.
C: I do totally understand that, and I think that the viewer takes away my impression which was that it’s a little bit like a more grown-up episode of Scooby Doo, but live-action.
R: It’s whole structure is based exactly on Hardy boys and Scooby-Doo mysteries.
C: Right! It’s sort of the next generation of that and now you have the tools that they didn’t have so it’s just the love child of Hardy boys and Scooby-Doo. You succeeded very well with that lighthearted quality to it, and a campyness which of course harkens to John Waters. I’m sure his presence is no coincidence. His cameo is fantastic the film has that almost hyper-real quality that his films have. That sunshiny bright quality except that it’s quite dark. I would like you to talk a little bit about what you mentioned, which I think is critical to the horror genre, which is, are filmmakers, at least in this country, because I know it’s a little bit different in other countries, being hampered by the new horror formula where there has to be sex and there has to be nudity tied into the gore itself so, is it really truly horror anymore?
R: Well, I am not unnecessarily against that if it makes sense in the context of the story. The problem that I am sort of facing is in a lot of cases it doesn’t make me feel good. Quite frankly I just don’t like to do it and again this is coming from a guy who made an NC-17 picture before this, but it was the character, a young teen, questioning herself and exploiting herself and it all made sense. It’s crazy how difficult and how hard it is and how it decreases value when you’re selling a film to not have boobs and gore and all that stuff. And at that point, looking at that, there would have been no reason to make this movie. And I had to make this movie so I could keep making movies and it did bring the joy back. And I have this wonderful group of weirdos. You know, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have time, we were just a bunch of weird freaky people doing what we do could, and it just felt safe together and it was quite lovely. And when you talk about the Hardy Boys thing, what I would bring to it, and I do believe that this is the future, like in music – like mashup albums which take references from 1 million different places. It’s kind of old being confined to one thing and I don’t think that that’s really on the right side of history. I think it’s stale and I’ve never really been drawn to subtlety. I know the six things you’re supposed to do and the six things you’re not supposed to do, but it almost takes the fun out of the whole thing. Too many independent movies now – most independent movies now – are mainstream movies but just with no money behind them. So I really try to make a point of making these independent movies challenging at least on some level. With this film it was almost a war on PC dialogue; it’s bad for art, it’s bad for people, it’s bad to be that coddled – your bad guys should be bad, and it’s dangerous. Even in a movie as lighthearted as this it was a struggle to have the bad guys say bad things. And the racists be racist. Did I trail off there a little bit? Was that a bit too much?
C: No, no… I think it’s an important conversation to have. To what degree do filmmakers, even independent filmmakers, feel like they’re walking on egg shells…
R: …every time now. Every time.
C:… and that’s not an environment that fosters real creativity or expression and that’s a tragedy.
R: I made two movies and I’ve had to get them going sort of with a group from the ground up. You think of these films that are supposed to be challenging and provocative wouldn’t really be, like, just filled with misogyny.
C: I’d like to switch gears here and talk about the character of Donald for a minute. I don’t read anything about the films I’m going to review before I watch them and, coincidentally, I am in the process of watching TWIN PEAKS with my 15-year-old son who is completely enthralled…
R: …YES! That kid is going to be cool!
C: (Laughs) So I started to watch your film one night, and screamed to him to come in the room upon the first sighting of Ray Wise and he was just absolutely thrilled. And of course Ray is such an idiosyncratic and singular character actor and I see you’ve worked with him previously.
R: I would never make a movie without him…
C: Okay! So there you go… how much of Donald is really a product of this narrative and how much is your knowing Ray and thinking, “I know that Ray can do this, and bring it.”
R: I have faith in Ray – he can do anything my biggest problem with most movies is that he’s not in them. I love Ray. Definitely, he was the only person I offered the part to and when I wrote this I wrote it with certain people in mind. I was never going to make it without Matthew (Gubler), as Raymond, and I really really was pushing and it had to be Ray for the dad. And then everyone else fell into place. In fact it looks like I’m going to do another movie or two with Ray coming up. A lot of people, when they cast Ray, they’re casting him because I think they want him to play a sort of exaggerated version of himself. But even to start this process off I made him part his hair, he’s never done something so simple – no director has never even asked him to part his hair before.
C: Well, it’s so part and parcel of how we summon his image, right? He just always has that great head of hair brushed straight back.
R: Exactly, yeah. And it’s wild and literally it just all fell into place once he parted his hair, he just rocked this guy. A lot of Donald is just based on things I’ve heard, people I know have heard, his own father, but I’m not going to get into that right now. The character, you know, is almost well-meaning and to him this is just the way it is. He is…it’s almost tragic. You’re laughing at the absurdity of racism in and of itself. The idea of having dialogue like that, and using words like that, is to take power away from them. The character is funny as hell to me and he is tragic.
C: Yes, and he’s actually quite real.
R: Yes I think so and I hope so…
C: …and I think too, in part, that it’s a generational kind of thing where back then, especially fathers, God forbid they were your friend. There was a kind of belief I think for many fathers of “I can shape you through hardness and abuse.”
R: Well we ‘millennials,’ I’m 29, and I was definitely much more coddled than that.
C: Matthew and you had a pre-existing relationship and something that struck me strongly upon seeing the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film, was the way in which the film was shot. It has great geometric framing and I thought that it looks a little bit like a Wes Anderson film in that regard, save for the incredibly colorful and vivid color palette, but really in the way in which many of your shots are blocked. Then I went on to read that Matthew had actually interned with Wes, so, was that some kind of a collaboration or was it more so that that’s just where your aesthetic tends to be?
R: I actually did not know Matthew at that time when he worked for Wes. I actually met Matthew when I was casting EXCISION and my casting director was the casting director for this show CRIMINAL MINDS and he said to me, “You know, you’re a really weird guy and there’s this dude who works on this show and I really think you could be friends ,” and I was like, that’s just really awkward. But he walks me on set and forced Gubes (Matthew Gubler) and me to talk to each other for a few minutes and he was standing there like “You guys are weird… Be friends.” And then soon after that Gubes called me and said, “Let’s go drink some whiskey,” and we’ve become the best of friends ever since. In terms of the Wes Anderson stuff, I’m sure that his film RUSHMORE had a profound impact on me when I first saw it and I was younger and I’d never seen anything like it. I was in middle school and I’m sure I had a little Max Fischer in me, but what it comes down to is just symmetry; I’m really thrown off when things aren’t symmetrical and I mean in anything. In my apartment, in my room, my desk – my everything is symmetrical.
C: So it’s a governing principle for you…and that really comes across, which is what we really want in a filmmaker right? I would say that most of the intelligent film-going public doesn’t want things to be generic. Of course there’s a faction that does and that’s fine. But your vision very clearly comes across.
R: I just really wanted to make it feel like a human made it, someone made it. Even the opening credits – I promise you that this is the only movie – I went to Michael’s craft store and I bought a bunch of shit, and I called Matthew and Kat (Dennings) and asked them to come to my apartment and we had a craft day and made the titles to this movie.
C: That is absolutely fantastic!
R: That is it, that’s what I really wanted to do. I want you to know that we really put love into it. The stars even made the titles for you, you know?!? I gave it everything I got.
C: Did you know Kat? Was that a casting directors choice? Or was she a thought that you had?
R: We were running through names and actually Matthew knew Kat quite well and I love her, and she is made for this role, so I went to her apartment and met her. She has a coffee table filled with David Lynch books, and we instantly got along. And then it was done, and we said let’s all get together and try and make this thing. It really fell into place just kind of like that. And we developed a community of ‘us.’
C: Our time is almost up but I have two more questions: I have to touch upon what I call the love child of 1950’s B horror movies and the DONNIE DARKO water arm, except yours is bubbly gray smoke. And I’d like you to just talk for a moment about how you gave birth to that image because it really does harken back to older references…
R: Well sure, and that, and literally all of the affects… Have you seen this children’s show – it was big when I was young in the 90s on Nickelodeon – called ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? You can watch episodes on YouTube, and they have these cheesy wonderful special effects and everything was supposed to feel like that, even my color palette to a certain degree, it was all supposed to feel like 90s children’s ‘been here before.’ So we took references from all these silly little shows and modeled all of our effects after them.
C: Well it made me giggle and that’s fantastic. So what is next for you? what do we have to look forward to?
R: I wrote a script that it looks like…I don’t know how much I can say…I’ll have Gubes and Ray in it and it looks like a pretty cool name will be attached but I just can’t say right now. It looks like in May we will shoot it and then it looks like possibly this other film called SQUIRRELS that has been dangling around for a while with the guys that did the film UNFRIENDED, one of the producers really took to SUBURBAN GOTHIC and we’ve been going back and forth about a film for a while. It’s kind of cool!
C: I want to thank you for massaging your soul with this film and I really look forward to seeing what you do next.
R: Thank you – I really hope you specifically like it!
C: Well thank you so much – I will let you know!