Happy spooky day AiPT readers! We metaphorically sat down with Excision writer and director Ricky Bates to talk about his film, the state of horror today and the process it took to get his film on the screen.
The feature length version of Excision was released on DVD on October 16th and it’s safe to say its journey from short film to your living room was a long and laborious one. Talking with Ricky though, it’s obvious it was a journey well worth taking. Being Halloween and all we highly recommend checking this movie out:Ain’t It Cool News rated it the 2nd best horror film of 2012 yesterday. However, before you do, learn how it got made and even some tasty tidbits about what went on behind the camera!
AiPT: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
Ricky: Hey, that was a nice review. I appreciate it big time. I loved the T&A. [laughs]
AiPT: Hey, it’s a good movie and it deserved it. Speaking of which, the last few years must have been a wild ride for you. Starting way back in 2008 with the Excision short film right up to the release of Excision in January at Sundance straight on through to the DVD released this month. How has this rollercoaster ride been?
Ricky: My friend, this has been a very crazy couple of years. I made the short and I had no idea it would be as successful as it is, I mean you never really know, it’s kind of like a personal piece and then it ended up playing at 50 film festivals. It won 24 awards and got all this buzz and what not, and that led to all these meetings out in Los Angeles. I moved out to Los Angeles and I had written a feature version [of Excision] while I was editing the short.
AiPT: That’s interesting, so you made the short film to use as a business card?
Ricky Bates: My goal was to use the short as my calling card for a feature. I got all these meetings and everyone said, “The script is crazy, no one is ever going to watch this movie, you’re a madman,” all this shit. I got some meetings from some pretty big studios too and everyone went “No, no, no.” So I wrote a few more scripts that I just fucking hated man, and this script was always lingering in my head because it was about growing up in Virginia and I knew that whether or not anyone let me make a movie again this had to be my only movie or definitely my first one.
The movie poster for the short film
AiPT: What did you have to do to get this movie off the ground and into production?
Ricky: We spent about 4 years, about 30 of my friends from growing up in Virginia, and one of my friends from college in New York financed the film for me. We all just got together, I made some bunk beds and my apartment in LA was basically turned into a youth hostel for filmmakers. My landlord almost kicked me out twice while we were shooting it. We lost financing twice while we were shooting it. We built all the sets in my friend’s garage, I mean this was the most ghetto assembly. I couldn’t afford to hire a crew, so we got some freshmen from the Long Beach State Film program and had them be the crew. I was showing them how to set up sink fans the first day. It was madness my friend, madness.
AiPT: Coming off the short film, how did that affect the way you approached the script for this?
Ricky: My intention was always for it to be a feature. With a short it hits its marks, you know A.B.C., but there’s really no room for me to play around and I like the short a lot and yet its 18 minutes; that’s a long short. Honestly if I were to make it over again I’d have made it ten minutes tops. But 18 seemed like no time at all when I was making it. I was so ready to develop these characters more and personalize it more. All the nuances and stuff from my childhood I couldn’t fit a lot of it in that short. One funny thing, when everyone knew I was in the process of making the feature, they said, “Oh I can’t wait to see the feature because then finally we get to see what happens after the surgery!” And I was like, “You’re going to be sorely disappointed because that’s the end of the movie.” Just shooting one more frame than we did would do a total disservice to the story.
AiPT: What’s funny is there’s probably tons of people expecting a sequel now.
Ricky: Yeah well, dude, when I was shopping the script around I got all kinds of fucked up terrible notes. I was told, “What do you think about adding a rape and then we find out she’s pregnant in the garage?”
AiPT: Sweet Jesus.
Ricky: Yeah well every studio exec wants to add a rape scene to just about everything.
AiPT: What’s funny is, you said people saw the short and now they want to see the feature, but now that’s gonna be backwards, isn’t it? After I saw the movie I said, “Wait, I want to see the short film!”
Ricky: Hopefully we’ll release the short. I didn’t want anyone watching it before the feature because it spoils the ending. The short is the same beginning middle and end. I really didn’t make any money doing this, no one did, the actors made a very very minimal amount and so one day I’ll get the short out there assuming this gets some sort of following and it gets a DVD with special features. And hopefully, you know, I’ll make enough money to go out to Red Lobster or something.
AiPT: I was doing some Googling before this interview and I saw the short film is on Vimeo but it’s password protected.
Ricky: It sure is brother. It sure is.
AiPT: I was sitting here going, should I attempt to crack the code… no there’s no way I’m going to crack this code.
Ricky: [Laughs] You try and crack the code. If you can crack the code I’m sending you a 15 dollar Red Lobster gift certificate. You know what, that’s going to be a contest now. To the Adventures in Poor Taste readers: The first person who reads this and cracks the code gets a 15 dollar Red Lobster gift certificate from the director.
AiPT: The widespread pandemonium you’ve surely caused is on your hands now, Ricky. I saw that you won the directors award at the Boston Underground film festival.
Ricky at the Boston Underground film festival.
Ricky: Yeah man that’s a great festival.
AiPT: The films that they’ve shown are just amazing.
Ricky: Oh yeah they keep getting better and better films. My short actually played at the festival back in 2008.
AiPT: I saw that. Didn’t it win for best short film?
Ricky: Some sort of special mention of some sort. The people that run that festival are cool as hell. I loved going to that one. It was awesome. I got pretty wasted at that one.
AiPT: [laughs] It’s a good party on top of being a festival?
Ricky: Oh! Oh! Oh! You go my friend, and let’s say you don’t like any of the films that play next year, you go for the party. These are some people you want to party with. I’ll tell you right now.
AiPT: [Laughs] Good tip. So we’ve got a contest for the readers and now some advice. Certainly every actor is exceptional in Excision which in large part is due to the directing. What was it like directing seasoned vets like John Waters or Malcolm McDowell? When McDowell appears in the movie I was like, “Hell yeah, this movie just got 10 times better!” No offense to the film it was just so awesome to see him in this.
Ricky: [Laughs] Malcolm was great man. What I did was, I got a bunch of great outtakes with him, but after we got the scene we kept trying to get it as dry as possible. We only had Malcolm for a day. I was scared at first because I actually owe his son money from a baseball bet from like five years ago. I was like, “Oh shit I hope Malcolm doesn’t bring this up.” He was awesome. Really good dude, really really good guy.
AiPT: Well, now that cat’s out of the bag. Hopefully you didn’t bet on the Red Sox. Could you describe your directing style?
Ricky: Watching Excision to a certain degree is like watching a stage play where I get to pick where you’re sitting in the theater any given second. I use very theatrical blocking. I don’t really let the actors move outside a certain amount of space.
AiPT: Is that hard for the actors?
Ricky: It was very hard for a lot of the actors because I literally had them acting to marks on the lens. So even scenes with other actors they couldn’t look at them, which is really disconcerting. It creates a distance and sort of a coldness which aids in the tone of the film, so that was a rule that I made for the movie before we started shooting. It took awhile for everyone to become comfortable with it. Malcolm was instantly like, “You fucking punk kid what are you doing?” but he was incredibly nice about it. He was a total gentleman.
AiPT: And John Waters must have been a trip?
Ricky: John. John is one of my heroes. I sent him the script and Traci [Lords] actually introduced me, she knows I’m a huge fan and I sent him the script. And I said “I’d love for you to play Reverend William.” I got a call really early in the morning and I picked up and I said “Who is this?” And he says, “Well Ricky it’s John Waters.” He goes, “Well you know this is a really strange script.” And my heart sank. And there was this long pause and I was like, “Oh shit… not you too John” and he goes, “Well, listen. I don’t fly coach and I’m not shaving my mustache, but I’m going to do it.” [Laughs] And that was it.
AiPT: How long was he on set?
Ricky: He was there just one day. He and I are still in touch. Of all my heroes that I’ve met, and it looks like John will be in my new movie too, but you meet people that you admire and they turn out to be assholes. John turned out to be a better dude than I ever imagined. He’s just an across the board legit person.
AiPT: Maybe you should have told him upfront you were half hiring him for the mustache. Am I right?
Ricky: [laughs] Yeah I wouldn’t want to get rid of that. No one would.
AiPT: The structure of Excision is extremely tight. That made me think, were there any scenes you had to cut?
Ricky: Yeah, you know I cut a pretty good amount. Basically when I write I hit marks and I make sure the character arcs get them from point A to point B to point C. From there, after I create the structure and keep the narrative fairly loose. As long as my character is moving towards the final destination that I need the character to get to. I keep things loose so that I can free write. I’ll spend a night and write 15 scenes. Then I’ll plug them in and realize only five of them work in the context of this story and I’ll throw the rest in a binder and maybe I’ll use one or two of these scenes in another movie some day.
AiPT: On that note, I was impressed by how well paced it was too.
Ricky: Right, I have no interest in making a movie too drawn out. Part of me is really concerned with being an entertainer. If this was 100 years ago I’d be a carnival barker by trade. I want to keep it moving and keep it, sort of fun, and I love my sort of gross out moments. In the theater particularly, I want to nail the audience participation moments. Sort of like what William Castle used to do. I think it’s important, in the spirit of the movie, for everyone in unison to go “Oooh” and “Ahhh.” And feel angry and feel sad and I try to take the viewer through some fairly extreme emotions in as short amount of time as possible.
Filmmaker by habit, carnival barker by trade.
AiPT: Right, if it gets boring or stale the audience starts to feel like the film isn’t genuine anymore.
Ricky: Yeah, yeah and I cut it down man. My first cut was actually an hour and forty minutes and I got it down to 80 minutes.
AiPT: When you were writing these deleted scenes, how important did they feel while you were writing them?
Ricky: They were all important while I was writing them. Now I knew this was my first feature, so what I would do in my script is, I would have a backup scene that would create the same kind of emotion that I could use in case a scene didn’t end up working the way I wanted it to. I wrote backup scenes for things that were necessary to move the story forward. So I really wrote this script as a filmmaker more than a screenwriter. My specialty would be, dialogue maybe, and the crazy stuff, the crazy sort of psycho sexual stuff. Something’s wrong in my head and I guess I do an okay job of sharing it with people. [Laughs]
AiPT: I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. I thought those dream sequences were incredibly beautiful. Sure there’s a lot of gore in them, but the way they were shot and the way they felt…
Ricky: That was another rule. Until the garage scene no violence would be disgusting. It was all supposed to be pretty and beautiful. I tested blood on different color palettes, and that’s where I chose the turquoise so that blood would look beautiful on it. Another rule I gave my cinematographer was that at no point should the dream sequences look like anything other than a Disney children show. Everything was brightly lit, because the audience has grown used to feeling comfortable in a horror movie with that classic lighting. If you take them out of it they don’t know what to think. They aren’t programmed to see this kind of stuff in that world.
AiPT: I liked how overly sexualized she looked too. It really hammered home not only her twisted nature but also her obsession.
Ricky: Yeah. The concept was that in her dreams this is how she sees herself. And this is how audacious she is in real life. We also didn’t want to create too much narrative in the dream sequences because that would become boring. We set precedence that the audience could read into them however they like. But hopefully you get what we were going for too.
AiPT: That seems like a really unique idea. What gave you that idea?
Ricky: Honestly just hearing David Lynch talk about filmmaking you know. I’m more concerned with narrative than he is, but he’s definitely a director I admire. The dream sequences were an opportunity to sort of let loose. We set boundaries, but there was a lot of room to play within those boundaries.
AiPT: David Lynch is probably my favorite director. In college I took a Film Noir seminar and I chose to do my seminar paper convincing everyone the man doesn’t try to make Film Noir films; he lives film noir.
Ricky: [laughs] I like that, I like that. His daughter Jennifer is a friend of mine. Her movie Chained is good. You should check it out.
AiPT: What are you working on next?
Ricky: Right now it’s titled The South Will Rise Again. Imagine if the guy who made Excision made a Ghostbusters movie and that would be this movie.
AiPT: The title makes me think of a Western, but I take it it’s not a western then?
Ricky: No, it’s about a kid from the deep south who moves to the big city and becomes fairly metropolitan. Then he has to move back home because he can’t get a job after grad school during the recession blah blah blah and he moves back into his parents house and it’s now haunted. He and the punk rock girl from the bar and the town outcasts band together to find out what happened while he was gone type deal.
AiPT: Are you planning to shoot that in your hometown in Virginia?
Ricky: We are shooting that in Georgia. You get tax benefits in Georgia and the backstory takes place around Sherman’s March.
AiPT: Are there any books that influenced you in particular?
Ricky: Yes dude, yes. Particularly the book We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The author’s name is blanking on me. Stay there sir.
Hear Ricky walk away.
Hear Ricky bobble phone.
AiPT: I’m here.
Ricky: Shirley Jackson is the author. It’s super short. I read it when I was younger and it made no sense to me. I started reading it again and it has one of the most devious, interesting female protagonists I’ve ever read.
AiPT: What else has influenced your writing?
Ricky: I lot of the stuff in my movies reflect my personal life. Like, that scene where the guy goes down on the girl when she’s on her period? My friend. This has happened to me!
AiPT: [laughs] No it hasn’t! Good Lord.
Ricky: It has! That mirror scene [where the boy’s face is covered in blood] is exactly how I remember looking at myself.
AiPT: That just puts new meaning to that scene right there. A lot of horror films these days seem to be geared towards the teen crowd more than anything, which is unfortunate because most of these movies aren’t the slightest bit scary. But something like Insidious has a certain tone that feels original and…
Ricky: I like Insidious. I think it’s a good movie.
AiPT: I have some die hard horror friends that just rip it apart, but I felt something from it that I don’t feel from most horror films today.
Ricky: It’s so unfortunate, it’s so fucking unfortunate that horror fans, and I love them, they are the reason I make these movies. Horror fans don’t go to a movie once a month to try to get laid. They need these movies and they love these movies. They are special to them. What audience would you want to make a movie for more?
But then they are always arguing with each other more vehemently than any other group I think. “That’s fucking bullshit” and “Fuck this person” and a film like Insidious, maybe it’s not perfect but look at the majority of stuff that’s out there. It’s worth watching, faults and all. My god do you want another Chernobyl Diaries? Jesus Christ dude, I watched that movie and I almost fucking slit my throat. A lot of these indie filmmakers are doing ballsy stuff, something like Kill List: these are interesting films made by actual filmmakers. Support them so they get to make more.
AiPT: How has the reaction been to your film?
Ricky: For myself I’ve gotten emails that say either “This is the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life” or “I’m going to kill you.”
AiPT: Are you serious?
Ricky: Yeah. They say stuff like, “You should be killed for making this movie.”
Ricky at Sundance with the cast.
AiPT: Seems a bit harsh. We got your back, Ricky. I liken your film to Insidious to some extent because there’s a certain tone it strikes. You come away from it and think, this isn’t just trying to scare me; it’s doing things on multiple levels and satisfying the avid moviegoer as well.
Ricky: The idea was between an eighties teen comedy and a David Cronenberg movie. Have you ever seen Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains?
AiPT: I haven’t, no.
Ricky: Write that one down dude. You will fall in love with Diane Lane and you will never look back. In fact, Pauline’s character is slightly inspired by Diane Lane’s character.
AiPT: What are your thoughts on the state of horror today?
Ricky: Have you read the book Shock Value yet? Or the Monster Show? These are the two best books about horror culture, you’ve got to read them. They’re fun reads too. They aren’t dry shitty old people stuff either.
AiPT: It sounds like you have a very personal relationship with horror.
Ricky: I love horror, this is what I’m saying. There’s nothing more rewarding than making movies for this fan base. There’s no greater joy you know? These are fans that actually care about the art of making a movie. There’s nothing I’d rather do than make horror movies. My next film is horror, the next after that is horror, that’s all I want to do is be a horror filmmaker. A lot of these filmmakers hopefully we’re trying to re energize horror by kind of like, I don’t know, like making a mash up. We’re making genre hybrids here and we’re trying to get the best out of horror. Excision, as loud as it is, is fairly relevant to all the filmmakers that inspired it you know. We wear a lot of our homage’s on our sleeves. It’s about saying thank you and moving forward.
AiPT: With the deluge of super popular yet crappy horror films in the last 10 years, it makes sense filmmakers like you come up and try to make horror films classier than they’ve been.
Ricky: I get so insulted you know? I’m not a stupid fucking dude. What’s trashy about horror? Why is this considered the junk bin genre? It’s not. I mean, if you just look there are so many people doing such interesting things in horror and they always have been.
I mean, Tod Browning’s Freaks is a response to people coming back from World War 2 with deformities. As horror filmmakers we’re always holding up a mirror to society hopefully. For me it’s the best genre. It’s artistically making points without being too literal. And they are all sort of signs of the time. And there is this energy and they capture the youth and anger. And the outcasts are the heroes. It’s special. I could talk forever about this, I fucking love horror movies.
AiPT: A lot of horror films feel like they were made by a producer who has 2 million dollars to spend and doesn’t care about making a good film.
Ricky: I don’t get much money to make these things and I fucking make them. I have a little bit more money to make the next one but it ain’t much. Once you get past the agents these actors want to do interesting stuff. Their agents don’t make a killing off it so they very rarely get these projects to their actors. They stop them from the get go. I had a certain amount of luck of casting a lot of my heroes in Excision. It was through perseverance and honestly irritating the shit out of people. If this movie wasn’t successful to whatever degree it is I’d be like, blacklisted by every agency in Hollywood.
AiPT: How do you know you’re not?
Ricky: That’s a good point. Inevitably when you get some success people just…I’m sure I have pissed people off, but not on purpose. The only thing you can do to those people is work harder than them. I gave up everything to make this movie, and I didn’t even know if I would ever get to make another one. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to finish this one halfway through. Inevitably people are going to be angry, but it’s all about entitlement. Excision is about entitlement. This girl thinks she can do this thing without really learning how to you know? She’s your typical modern teenager. Like some people say, “Anyone can make a movie” you know, all you need is the camera right? Look. I’m just happy I got to make a goddamn movie.
AiPT: And it’s a good one. Thanks for the time Ricky. Appreciate it.
Ricky: This was awesome. Thanks.
Ricky would like to give a special thanks to Atshan the “best car mechanic in LA.”