In Richard Bates Jnr’s latest film, Trash Fire, the Excision director tackles depression, religion, and relationships in what has the potential to be an uncomfortable experience for many a viewer.
Adrian Grenier plays Owen, a manic depressive battling bulimia on the streets of LA. When his pregnant girlfriend insists they travel South to meet his vicious Grandma and disfigured sister, Trash Fire jumps off the indie comedy springboard and plunges feet first in urban horror.
We managed to grab some time with writer/director Richard Bates Jnr., for a candid conversation about his approach to filmmaking, mental health and his thoughts on critics.
Going in blind, you’d think that Trash Fire is setting itself out to be a black romantic comedy, but then it completely spirals out of control. How difficult was this to sell to people?
“Well, that was part of it. Part of the concept was that it is a romantic comedy and then they drive into a horror movie. So, the rules change! Everything is exaggerated like it is in the South. Everything is larger than life when they get to Grandmother’s house. That kind of cross-genre is a producer’s nightmare over here. (laughs)
“I did this movie called Excision, then I did Suburban Gothic, which I had a nightmare experience on, to be honest. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the movie as a whole, and I got super fucking depressed about that because these things live longer than you, you know? It’s not an easy thing to live with. So, over the course of the year that was I holed up and depressed, I wrote this movie Trash Fire. My whole thing was, ‘I’m never going to make another movie again unless it’s this one.’ And then I meet these guys at [the production company] Snowfort Pictures, and I sent them the script. They loved it, and I’m as shocked as you! I thought this was going to take me like five years to raise the money. But this actually happened all within a year. I’ll never have an experience like this again. I’m super grateful.”
You’ve referred to Trash Fire as a ‘personal exorcism’…
“Yes! In fact, I’m screaming over the title sequence. A lot of the screams that you hear, most of them are me.”
That’s got to be pretty cathartic?
“It was! I mean, it was just supposed to be this sort of completely, unapologetic look at depression. You know how in a lot of these bigger films, it’s sort of treated like these characters are kind of quirky and charming? Their depression is almost seductive.
“[Trash Fire] is like hanging out with the biggest asshole in your office. He’s kind of entertaining sometimes, but he’s a pain in the ass. And then you end up spending so much time with him, you kind of grow to like him and you figure out why he ended up like this. But you don’t apologise for him. We’re not necessarily concerned with liking him, it’s more about holding up a mirror to the audience. Particularly the depressives in the audience who will recognise certain behaviours in themselves.
“Quite frankly, it’s very common for people who suffer from depression to become completely self-involved and only concerned with their own problems. Because that’s their world. And so, the idea was to make this feel like real depression.
“Structurally, it’s crazy because this is a two-act film. We have two acts, and I wrote the third act to be literally ten minutes so that you’re completely fucking blindsided by the end. We literally shut the movie down just as we would be building the beginning of a third act in a regular movie. Which was part of the idea that for the depressives in the audience, you can be shutting yourself off, and we’re slapping you in the face and shaking you awake. And the idea is that it can be too late to change! Look! Now go pull your fucking head out of your ass!”
In a sense, then, it’s saying, ‘This is what life is like and you can be cut adrift…’
“Exactly! Exactly! Just one false, weird move can pull the rug out from underneath you and it’s over. It stops. As I said, I thought I would have to raise the money over years. Everything about this is a producer’s nightmare. This protagonist, for all intents and purposes, is a complete nightmare.”
Were you ever tempted then to soften your characters?
“If we did, it would have completely betrayed the concept, the reason why we were making the movie. Most independent films these days are just lower budget studio films. They’re very traditional. And I love studio films! I’ll watch every single movie; from the most pretentious shit in the world to the most popcorn. I just love movies.
“I grew up in Virginia and didn’t get to see a lot of shit. I only knew there were people like me, and acted like me in the world because of Blockbuster video. I mean that’s way I cast Adrian Greiner… He wanted to do this too, but we could just not make [his character] likable. If you don’t go all in on something, then it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. And luckily Snowfort didn’t ask me to do it once.”
Is that a freeing experience then?
“It was the best time I had making a movie. You know, part of the reason for making it was to apologise to my fiancée. I could not make the character, that was supposed to like me, likable at all. Basically, I was tearing myself to shreds and acknowledging my wrongs, and I just wanted to make it the most public apology ever (laughs)
“And at the premiere at Sundance, I proposed to her. I literally proposed to her at the Q&A. (Laughs) And unless you know the backstory, this is the weirdest fucking movie to ask someone to marry you at the end of! Everyone was like, ‘What the hell?’ (Laughs) Her parents were like, ‘What the fuck? Don’t say yes!’ She did say yes, though. But, I don’t want to have to ever make a film like this again. It took a lot out of me.”
You’ve taken a large part of yourself and put it up on screen for everyone to see, which must leave you feeling quite vulnerable…
“Certainly. Well, I’m working on that. I get it, I mean, I get it. All my movies are fairly personal in one way or another. The older I get and the wiser I get – and I’m certainly not wise, make no mistake – I can sort of distance myself from any sort of criticism or cold words. Because it’s art.
“Lord, it’s a cliché, but it’s not mine anymore. It’s out there to be judged quite frankly. I watch a million different movies and have a million different opinions about them myself. So, who am I to say a million people can’t have a million different opinions about one of mine? But as you say, it is personal. So you have to focus and really make sure you’re prepared to just step back and try to put yourself in everyone else’s shoes.”
Your films as a whole feel like they’re ticking off milestones: high school, graduating college, growing up. Was it always deliberate to have these stages of adulthood?
“All three films are coming of age films. [Trash Fire] is the last of them. One of the actors in it, Matthew Gray Gubler (Suburban Gothic), one of my best friends, we talked about this the whole year that Trash Fire was coming together. This is it; this is about becoming a man. It goes from high school to college, to graduating college, to adulthood. This one is supposed to send me off into the world as a man. Quite frankly, I’m just as confused as ever. (Laughs) But that’s for me to figure out in the next movie I guess. But yeah, the idea was to do this sort of coming of age thing with all three of them.”
Whatever you do next, will it have its roots in horror?
“Well, I love movies. I watch everything. I’m not just a horror person. There’s not a movie I won’t watch. So I’ll do anything. I’ve written two scripts since. I’ve written an ensemble romantic comedy movie; sort of my version of Love, Actually for very very odd couples. And then a sort of horror in post-election America…”
Which would be very topical…
“Yep, we’re not too pleased.”
Being on the outside looking in, the atmosphere seems ripe for being turned into a film…
“Most certainly! It’s been really fascinating. Part of me was worried about Trash Fire losing some of the more Red State [those states which vote predominately republic] viewers, but most of the people that have reached out to me are all from the South. They get it! They’re stuck there for whatever reason. And it’s been fascinating because watching the movie you’ll see it’s anti-extremism. It’s certainly religious anti-extremism. They’re both hypocrites. They’re both full of shit, but it’s not anti-religion. And it’s hard to understand this kind of extremism unless you’ve lived in the south of the United States.
“So, it’s been really interesting listening to these kids who are stuck down there watching this. It makes me feel like it’s worth it in a way. Because when you make something for everyone, it’s nice. But when you make something niche and specific, you have a shot of being someone’s favourite movie and really fucking connecting with them. You can’t do that if you’re running for class president. This week, in particular, has been really validating, because I feel we may have helped a kid or two.”
Trash Fire is out on February 15, 2017. It will also have a screening and DVD launch on February 19, 2017, at BrewCult Bar in Melbourne. For more information, head to the Facebook event page.