I missed the theatrical premiere of Suburban Gothic while I was at Sundance, but you can still catch it on VOD and check local theaters. It is Richard Bates, Jr.’s second film after Excision, and stars Matthew Gray Gubler as a man forced to return to his family home, where the ghosts of his childhood come back to visit him revealing even more about his childhood.
I spoke with Bates by phone about his crazy film, which includes goth dancing and boner breaking, but with a good social message. He told me about the very personal journey Suburban Gothic represents to him. If you haven’t seen Excision either, know that Bates is friends with the Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, so he’s in good company and if you like crazy horror, you should check out Suburban Gothic.
Nuke the Fridge: What has the journey been from making Excision to making Suburban Gothic?
Richard Bates Jr.: It’s been pretty wild. Let me backtrack super far. So I made a short called Excision back in New York. It won all these awards and I got all these meetings out in Los Angeles. I’d written a feature version, and every meeting went terribly. Everyone told me the script was terrible, it would never get made. So then I PAed for a few years and spent all that time trying to raise the money for this terrible movie Excision and my friends and I made it.
It was insane. Half my crew I literally got off Craigslist. There was a bunch of 26-year-old kids, maybe 25 at the time, making this movie. Then ended up selling at Sundance and all this stuff, so it was pretty wild. We were all more than pleased. No one even saw that coming. So I guess I expected at that point, there was some sort of proof of concept that maybe I would be invited into the club or be allowed to direct a movie or something. I thought I more than made my calling card, but of course that was not the case. No one would touch whoever the hell made Excision out here, so I really couldn’t get a movie made at all.
I actually got super depressed and I was just watching things that made me happy when I was a kid, everything from Scooby-Doo to reading Hardy Boys books. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Eerie, Indiana, all that stuff. I couldn’t watch the kind of movies that inspired Excision because I was so disillusioned. So I sort of wrote this movie to kind of make myself happy again.
I approached it like I approached making a movie in high school when there were no consequences and it was just pure fun. I called my best friend from growing up and I said, “Let’s write this together. I want to write it with someone. I want to have fun.” He wrote it with me and I called Matthew Gray Gubler who’s one of my closest friends. We wrote it for him to star in. We approached the whole thing like that, sort of this live-action cartoon for adults. A children’s movie for adults I guess. It sort of made me fall in love with making movies again and it worked.
Nuke: You know a lot of success stories begin with people telling you you can’t do that.
RB: Sure, sure, always. Two times now. It certainly didn’t take as much time, but it was very hard to get Suburban Gothic made. We went through various budgets. It’s very hard to make a comedy horror, I would call it, that doesn’t have blood and breasts. That was kind of a rule for making it because it was supposed to be perverted and silly, but it couldn’t cross the line over into sex because it had to still have this feeling of innocence and it had to be very childlike and juvenile. The way that I compare it to Excision is Excision is a movie that’s had so much sex it’s sort of jaded. Suburban Gothic is a movie that’s dreaming of one day having sex.
Nuke: Do you still work with any of that first Craigslist crew?
RB: Yeah, Anthony Tran is fantastic. He’s the best. He’s our costume designer. He’s worked on tons of stuff so I would never not work with him. He’s the best, but I think from that crew he’s the only one that’s still working.
Nuke: Were the others so disillusioned by filmmaking they quit?
RB: A lot of my crew ended up being freshmen in college too on Excision. A few helped out actually on Suburban Gothic also. I will always have a job for those kids forever, but yeah, everyone wants to be a filmmaker until they realize it’s really, really hard and it’s not glamorous at all.
Nuke: Yeah. How autobiographical is Suburban Gothic?
RB: I want to say both the films are fairly autobiographical. Obviously, things are exaggerated but bits and pieces are. It was at a time where I was not making any money and there was the overarching threat of having to move back to Virginia and go back to my parents’ house, so that inspired the whole thing. From there on, I’ve become more acutely aware of stereotypes and stereotyping being in a relationship. My girlfriend’s Mexican so we sort of turned every character in the film Suburban Gothic into a stereotype and lampooned them all.
Nuke: You’re dealing with homophobia and bullying, aren’t you?
RB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the most important message of the movie hopefully. Everything from racism to homophobia, bullying… I even outright wrote a speech about it that I have Matthew deliver into the camera. Certainly subtlety is not a thing in this movie. I watch so many films with so much time-lapse photography of plants growing, I’m just not even interested in subtlety. I don’t necessarily see the virtue in it. It doesn’t appeal to me, so everything’s pretty over the top. Even the acting style of this movie, I had them model it after a lot of silent films and had everyone go bigger.
Nuke: The slow motion dance scene in the bar, did you slow that down or shoot it like that?
RB: That was all in camera. We shot it in slow motion. Actually, it’s funny. We couldn’t have done it more than three or four times but I was actually playing Du Hast just to get them psyched up and screaming at them while they were dancing. We had a lot of fun with that.
Nuke: Did you think of the boner breaking early on, or did it come later?
RB: Oh yeah, that was always in the script. It was a long process making this movie. When I first wrote it, essentially I rewrote it with Mark [Bruner] about 10 times for 10 various budgets. But a lot of characters that were in it were gone, because I kind of wanted to make it this kooky insane sort of Robert Altman type comedy horror. So we ended up losing a lot of maybe actually superfluous characters, but I wanted to just create this community. I didn’t have a huge budget to start with, but I wrote dialogue as if it was my special effects sequences because I knew we couldn’t afford to do a lot of other stuff. I almost wrote dialogue as if it’s scare scenes and explosions. Everything has to be firing on all cylinders.
Nuke: What would the bigger budget version of Suburban Gothic look like?
RB: Well, initially it was to be made for three million and it ended up being made for well, well under a million.
Nuke: So would it have had more visual effects?
RB: Yeah, there were more visual effects in the third act certainly. And also there were more characters. There was this couple I really liked that was in the film that Matthew’s always telling people that they used to go out, but they never dated and she has no memory of it. The script was always about 90 pages, never more, but there were certainly a lot more big effects sequences and what not in the third act.
Nuke: What do you want to do next?
RB: Well, I wrote a script and I think it’s the best thing I ever wrote. It’s my favorite script so far. Having said that, I deeply, deeply love the last two movies, especially everything we all went through to make them. As just a piece of writing, I think it’s my favorite script. So I’ve got two actors it looks like tentatively attached right now and I might be shooting it this spring hopefully. I’m very excited. Very, very excited. It’s kind of a return to the dark side. It’s more in the vein of Excision I would say.
Nuke: Was that one any easier to set up than the first two?
RB: A little bit, just in the sense that people will return my phone calls now. Even if they won’t do anything or help out, they’ll return my phone calls. It took years and years and years of just shamelessly begging for favors to get to that point. It’s been interesting because you get into the arts because you feel sort of weird and you want to communicate something and you want to be around people like you. So I’d always pictured moving to this place, Los Angeles, and being around all these wonderful bizarre people but I’ve actually never felt like as much of an outcast as I do here. With my movies, they’re always I guess misunderstood in a sense. I’m certainly not in the cool group. I’m not a cool horror guy. I don’t quite know where I fit in. Maybe it’s because I approach it all as horror-comedy. That’s the way I approach life. I’m pretty much always outside my body, shaking my head at all my ridiculous life choices. It’s been a wonderful coping mechanism but it’s interesting. I hope this new film lands and crosses over to some degree, but who knows? I never know. This growing up trilogy, Excision was high school, then you’ve got Suburban Gothic which is college/post-collegiate. The new one is sort of about becoming a man.
Nuke: Is it still horror?
RB: Yeah, yeah, it’s a psychological thriller but it’s a dark comedy. Dark comedy horror.
Nuke: Do you think you’ll always be a writer-director or could you entertain looking at other scripts?
RB: Oh, I’m totally up for director for hire jobs if I can find something about it that I think I can do. After I finish my new film, I’m very interested in doing some director for hire stuff. I was attached to do a project that I’m still loosely attached to do in the fall now that is a director for hire project. But I can never really 100% count on anyone doing anything for me. That’s a big mistake a lot of people make. I only know it’s going to happen if I’m making it happen and I’m not interested in waiting around for anyone to help anymore, which is a wonderful lesson I got to learn early on with Excision. No on was going to. I think it’s an important lesson for most filmmakers. You’ve got to go make it.
Nuke: What is that possible for hire job coming up?
RB: It is a killer squirrel movie for Timur Bekmambetov and Adam Sidman, who did Unfriended. Our films played together at Fantasia and he saw Suburban Gothic and thought that I might be the right fit for it. So who knows? Who knows what’s going to happen with that at this point? I’ve sort of taken a little bit of a leave to do my script with my cast. I’ve got Matthew and Ray and two really cool big surprises.