Excision director Richard Bates Jr.’s new film Suburban Gothic is opening on VOD platforms today courtesy of FilmBuff. We saw the film back during last year’s Fantasia Festival (review) and it really is something special. A love letter mash-up of Scooby Doo and Are You Afraid of the Dark, the film is about Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler), a college grad who moves back in with his parents and begins experiencing paranormal activity. With the help of a badass bartended named Becca (Kat Dennings), Raymond tracks down the mystery of the vengeful spirit that’s terrorizing his small suburban town. It’s a fairly straightforward plot with a lot of surprises up its sleeves.
I chatted with Bates about the film, his influences and the funk he was in when it was conceived. Returning to the things that made him fall in love with film in the first place, Bates was able to revitalize his passion and craft one kick ass movie. And just wait until you hear about how the film’s groundbreaking opening credits were designed!
Bloody Disgusting: Thanks for talking to me today Richard, how are you?
Richard Bates Jr.: I’ve been on the phone for a while today, man. So I’m kinda losing it. But I’m always kinda losing it, so it’s all good.
Congratulations on the film. I was at Fantasia when it premiered and it played really well.
Thank you so much, Patrick. They premiered the thing in the wrong aspect ratio. (Richard would like me to mention that his wasn’t the festival’s fault, it was something that happened in post). I almost died. You should’ve seen me. But I was so happy the audience was with the characters because the aspect ratio almost gave me a heart attack. Luckily it ended up being a lovely evening.
Excision came out back in 2012. At that time were you already conceiving the film with Mark Bruner?
It’s actually pretty crazy. I made Excision and it sold at Sundance. I crewed most of that film on Craigslist, you know. It was a miracle it got made. But I couldn’t get a job afterwards. No directing gigs. No calls. Nothing. I wound up getting super depressed. And I’m not the type of guy to just lie down and give up. To make a movie you have to give it everything you’ve got. So I sort of created this movie to make myself happy again. I was holed up in my room, quite frankly, just watching things that made my happy. Children’s stuff like Scooby-Doo and Hardy Boys. Are You Afraid of the Dark is probably the biggest influence on this movie. Before that I was watching Cronenberg and Argento. But when I was depressed I couldn’t watch movies like that. I had to sort of like movies again. All I’ve wanted to do since elementary school is make movies and it was kind of tainted. It was starting to feel dirty. So I really made this movie to make myself happy again.
I called Mark and said let’s write this together, man. I told him I want filmmaking to feel special again and fun. And I called Matthew Gray Gubler and I wrote this role for him. He’s one of my good friends, he’s the best dude. In a way I also try and write things fairly personal and he’s kinda similar to me but he’s infinitely more handsome. So he’s like the version of myself you can put on screen and people won’t run away screaming.
After that it was actually very difficult to get made. I wanted it to feel very juvenile and very innocent, so I had a rule that there couldn’t be any nudity or violence in it. But I still wanted the film to be pervy. So the way I explained it to the crew and the cast is that “this movie has never gotten laid.” This movie is dreaming about getting laid. it has to feel like that the whole way though. You know what I mean?
Totally. I guess casting Kat Dennings as the female lead was a good way to make this movie want to get laid.
Yeah, absolutely. Have you seen that film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains?
Yeah, the old Diane Lane punk film.
Kat Dennings’ character is really inspired by Diane Lane’s character in that film. That one is sort of a comfort movie for me. That and Rock and Roll High School.
The two films that I thought of actually that have your similar spirit are Bob Balaban’s Parents. Where the suburban parents are cannibals.
I haven’t seen that one actually. But definitely The ‘Burbs is one of my big inspirations.
Oh right on! So Parents and then also Eating Raoul.
I love Eating Raoul! I love, love, love Eating Raoul.
Yeah I can see it in your films too.
I’ve got it right in front of me. That beautiful yellow Criterion disc. That’s a good reference there. You’re on your game, Patrick. So yeah, this movie in a lot of ways it’s very personal. But then again, what isn’t?
Your first film was set in high school and now Suburban Gothic is a college grad who can’t find a gig and begrudgingly moves back in with his parents. Is that part personal?
Sure, there’s always that threat of having to move back to Virginia. All kinds of things in this film are personal. The way I survived all the many humiliations of my 20s and all the dumb shit that I do is being able to write it into this movie. Like, one day I can use this and make someone else feel not as bad. Or they can feel not alone, you know? So that certainly kept me going through my 20s, I tell you. I’m not quite 30 yet, I’ve got a few more months. But thank god for movies, man. I quite frankly don’t know what I’d do without them.
I feel ya. Now, both your films so far are horror comedies. Which is a hybrid that’s pretty tough to pull off. But you’ve managed to achieve a balance that makes them work. Can you talk about your approach to that?
Yeah, in fact I’ve got another one that hopefully will begin production in the spring. But look, everything to me is a dark comedy. Half of my life I’m kind of watching myself outside my body, watching the stupid fucking situations I get myself into. Life is really the ultimate horror comedy. That’s why I really make my film all about the characters. I never really see anything as anything else, so I don’t even think too much about it. It’s just my approach. As far as genre mash-ups, I just approach it like an album. Not that I’m creating music, but I mean you can’t listen to an indie rock album or whatever and have there not be 800 influences on there. You know what I mean?
But still everyone is so caught off guard when you create something of a mash-up. I’m really bored by subtlety. It’s not exciting to me. And it’s like the first thing they teach you to do in film school. If I see something like a shot of flowers growing, I’m fucking over it! I just…sorry I lost track here, man. I’m staring out the window again, dreaming of being outside. Not that I’m not enjoying this, Patrick. What did you ask again?
Your approach to the horror comedy genre…
Sure, it’s like any mash-up album. Like a Girl Talk album, for instance. I think that type of approach is on the right side of history. Well, hopefully. You know what? That’s my hope because I get so bored by “what we’re supposed to do.” All the films that I’ve almost been involved with, they’ve been these studio films with no budget. Studios don’t want to take any chances. There’s really nothing to those films. So my response to that is like an all-out assault. Especially against the sort of P.C. nature of even children’s films, that’s dangerous. Kids shouldn’t be so coddled. Suburban Gothic is like a cartoon for adults, is really what it is. I still try to wage war on this ridiculous P.C. culture. I’m certainly not the first and I won’t be the last to do so, but it’s really stagnant right now.
Then it’s certainly appropriate for you to have John Waters play an authority figure in both your films.
He’s been a really good dude to me. I got introduced to him on Excision and at the time I couldn’t imagine trying to get a horror film made without blood and breasts. This was not easy. There was a point when there was no financing, nothing, and John was such a cool dude. He was like, “I’ll jump on that Kickstarter campaign. You can use my name and see what happens.” He’s just a really, really good dude.
Awesome. Jumping from Excision to Suburban Gothic, there’s a big jump stylistically. Excision is very bright and the camera is static.
I never moved the camera, yeah.
And Suburban Gothic is really vivid and high energy. Did your approach change up to match the script?
Absolutely. I’m so anal I have a set of movie rules written out in regards to how we’re going to shoot the movie. With Excision, there’s not a single shot that’s not on sticks, so that there’s this sense of monotony in suburban life. For this movie, my main reference points were Are You Afraid of the Dark and Eerie Indiana. It’s all taken from countless hours of watching those shows. And then also sort of boardwalk haunted houses. Nothing is supposed to be scary, I just wanted it to have the spirit of William Castle in a cartoon, you know? Everything’s overstated and bubblegum pop. Bubblegum pop was my rule for the entire thing. Certain things carried over in between films, but in the end I just try and service the script.
Ray Wise is in both of your films as well.
I will never make a movie without Ray Wise.
He seems to have a very natural off-kilter kind of vibe. In my opinion a lot of the funniest moments in Suburban Gothic come from him. What type of direction do you give such a natural like him?
So with Excision I didn’t allow any improv. For this film, before we shot I got the whole cast together and with my co-writer Mark we told them to read the lines how ever they wanted, add anything you want. If I like it I’m gonna write it down and if I don’t like it, it’s not going in. So I gave everyone a chance to become a part of this thing and personalize it. And Ray just thrives on that. He kills. It was a blast. The nightmare is that he makes the entire crew laugh and he just keeps doing it every take.
Is there anything you can tell us about the film that you haven’t said in other interviews yet?
I’ll tell you this. We honestly made this movie with love in our hearts and hopefully it makes weird kids feel fucking cool. So when I was devising a way to personalize the film, I went to Michael’s craft store and I bought a bunch of shit. I then had Matthew and Kat come over for craft day. That’s how we made the opening credits, on craft day.
Oh no kidding.
And I can promise you it’s the only movie that has opening credits made by the stars on craft day.
That actually reminds me, at the Fantastia premiere there were kids who came dressed in the white sheet ghost costumes from the trailer. They hadn’t even seen the movie yet and were already cosplaying. How did that make you feel?
I just couldn’t believe it. This is all I ever wanted since middle school. I used to sit in front of my computer watching trailers, just imagining that I made the movie. Like hours just dreaming of this. In my mind I would literally pretend I made the movie. So it’s so cool that I get to do this at all. I definitely haven’t become jaded by it. I’m so reinvigorated by making Suburban Gothic, I’m ready to go man. I’m excited.
Kinda diverting off here, what’s the last movie that really scared you?
Honestly, I’m more scared by the local news than any movie.
I live in Florida so I can relate to that.
Well there you go. Jesus Christ. Every other 48 Hours mystery I watch on TV is set in Florida or Albuquerque, New Mexico. One or the other.
What’s your favorite Are You Afraid of the Dark episode?
Oh, I can’t do that. It’s honestly like picking a favorite child. You’re talking to a guy who honestly watched nothing but Are You Afraid of the Dark for two weeks straight. In between bouts of crying in my room, so there you go. I have such an affection for it that I don’t feel comfortable answering that question.
That’s really love. I like that.
It will mean something to me forever. It now means more to me in my late 20s than it did when I was a kid. I don’t know what that says about me. Maybe I am crazy. I don’t know.