Director Evan “E.L.” Katz’s Cheap Thrills was one of the breakout hits of the 2103 South By Southwest Festival, winning the Midnighter’s Audience Award and being picked up for distribution by Drafthouse Films. The news was even more impressive as it was Katz’s first film behind the camera lens, after over a decade as a genre screenwriter in Los Angeles following his 2002 graduation from Full Sail’s Film program.
Released in select theaters and on-demand this spring, we caught up with Evan to talk about the inspiration and production of his directorial debut.
“I wanted to take the reigns a little bit more and try something that I would be completely responsible for,” he says. “I would throw these dinners together once a month where all of my writer buddies would get together, and one of the guys showed me this script. I felt like the concept was there, it was really contained, and there was such obvious inherent conflict. It was just designed to be an independent movie.”
Cheap Thrills is a sort of comedy/drama/horror hybrid, and follows a night in the lives of two estranged friends who happen to meet one night at the same bar. The pair, played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry, are soon introduced to a married couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) who begin to offer them a series of dares. For each dare the cash-starved friends complete, the couple gives them increasingly higher amounts of money.
Things start off with a shot of tequila for $50 and quickly escalate into the outrageous, violent, and often disturbing. Cited by reviewers as a comment on the effect of power and wealth – on those who both have it and want it – Evan explained that while he didn’t set out to make something explicitly topical, it does reflect certain views he has on modern society.
“It definitely feels like we can lack empathy, whether that’s in our entertainment or how we treat people, it seems like sometimes it’s very easy for us to disconnect with each other and ultimately be cruel,” he says. “You can look at Cheap Thrills and say it’s dark and nihilistic, but I think what’s nihilistic are most of the reality shows we watch. There’s no empathy there a lot of times. If that’s enjoyment for people, we have to look at that more than we look at a horror film.”
The film’s pacing is fueled with a palpable aggression as the set pieces and character’s nerves amplify over its 85-minute running time. That manic energy carried over into the production, not only through the intensity of the actor’s performances, but the constraints under which they were shot. The crew only had 14 days to capture the entire movie, allowing very little room for error.
“We had no time to pause, everything was just go go go,” Evan says. “You’d have one or two takes, no time to catch your breath. It was fun but exhausting, so the great time for me is right now, when we all get to hang out and promote it. We did this movie for little money, not the most easiest circumstances, and I was a first-timer. To have people respond to it like this has been crazy. It’s exciting.”
Since its release Cheap Thrills has been embraced by horror fans and critics, and Evan hopes to take use that warm reception as fuel for future projects. It’s an impressive start for the writer-turned director, and he now joins other successful genre filmmakers like his fellow classmate and close friend Adam Wingard (V/H/S/2, You’re Next). Looking back at their time together in and out of class, he has fond memories of the day-to-day moments that helped shape his passion for film and unique eye for visuals.
“I was living and breathing film 24 hours a day when I was at Full Sail,” Evan says. “We went to Stardust and rented a ton of movies, just pillaged that place. Because I was in film school there I had the support to do nothing but watch five movies a day. I think it was really important to me now to have had that permission to go nuts and really absorb as much of that information as I could.”