Interview by Sean Boelman
Indie horror filmmaker Richard Bates Jr. has made a name for himself on the festival circuit as a writer/director of genre-bending midnight movies that have quite a lasting impact on their fans. His newest film, King Knight, stars an ensemble cast led by Matthew Grey Gubler in a story about the leader of a coven of witches going to his high school reunion. In advance of the film’s Fantasia premiere, we got to talk with Bates about the film, mixing genres, and more. Check out the interview below!
On the Recipe for Midnight Movie Success
disappointment media: Your films generally have a great deal of success on the festival midnight circuit. What is it to you that makes a great midnight movie?
Richard Bates Jr.: I really am drawn to midnight movies about family and sort of people who feel alienated who find each other and form families and groups and whatnot. Like I want it to feel like a party in art school. Everyone's included.
disappointment: So in your films, you really like to blend horror with other genres it seems. In King Knight, it's comedy. What do you like about making films that mix genres together like this?
Bates Jr.: Well, I mean, I'm really drawn to it in sort of all art forms right. Like, you know, I loved growing up listening to Frank Zappa. You know, a Frank Zappa song could be ten different genres. And then, you know, in college, I would love listening to Girl Talk albums, mixtapes, the mash ups, right. A song is like 15 songs. And so I really liked that. And I tried to do that, with my movies. I think the most genres I ever packed into a movie was Tone-Deaf, depending who you ask, could have been too many. But I'm always sort of drawn to that. With King Knight, I would say, I really just kind of set out to make a movie that would make me happy and hopefully make other people happy. I really had my version of a comedy in mind.
disappointment: So you were talking about how you've done a lot of different genres in your films from ghost movies to slashers and witchcraft. Are there any other horror subgenres that you find yourself wanting to riff on?
Bates Jr.: I mean, depending on what I want to write about. What I want to write about influences where I'll go with the genre, you know what I mean? There's absolutely nothing I wouldn't riff on if I felt like it had made sense with the material. Because I typically don't try to think about that, when I do my first pass of a screenplay, then I work it in, you know, systematically afterwards, because when I do my first draft I’m thinking more about the characters, and act breaks. And sometimes it's very sort of experimental act breaks. I mean, like a movie like Trash Fire, right? The whole point of the movie is, it can be too late to change. Dr. Phil is wrong, so get your shit together, and it's a movie and two acts because of that. The other ones are a little different, certainly King Knight has three acts, but it's a comedy. So you find yourself being a little bit looser with it, you know, particularly in the first act.
(L-R) Josh Fadem as Neptune, Johnny Pemberton as Desmond, Angela Sarafyan as Willow, Mathew Gray Gubler as Thorn, Andy Milonakis as Percival, Nelson Franklin as Angus, Emily Chang as Echo and Kate Comer as Rowena in the comedy KING KNIGHT, a King Knight LLC release. Photo courtesy of King Knight LLC.
On How He Makes Movies
disappointment: So King Knight is a film about a coven of witches, but it's definitely an unorthodox witchcraft film at that. What are some of your favorite films about witchcraft?
Bates Jr.: You know, I'm very passionate about the religion, Wicca. I made documentaries on it, it's a lot of my library. I would say I enjoyed watching Practical Magic. And I mean that sincerely. I don't know that there are a ton of movies about witches that I've ever been particularly drawn to. So it's probably why I made this. I mean, quite frankly, you know, once I was done with Tone-Deaf and I was trying to figure out what to do and with things just so ominous in the world, I just tried to write a movie to make myself happy, and will hopefully make other people happy. And at the time, I'd been pitched this director for hire thing, a witch movie about an evil witch, and I realized then that I wanted to make a witch movie, but I really liked witches, I didn't want to do that. And so I kind of took Pecker, the '90s John Waters movie where, you know, it's like, it's perverted, and it's edgy, but it's so sweet. And it keeps you coming back. So most of my movies are pretty cynical. So I really tried to strip this of any and all cynicism and love every character in it, quite frankly. And a lot of my friends are witches, and I had them read it just to make sure that it was all in good fun without being inconsiderate. So the idea at the end of the day is I don't want to preach either. I don't want to tell people witches are better than you. No sort of holier than thou reverential thing, the idea is just to treat them as they should be treated just as characters in a comedy. And then hopefully, by the end of it, you fall in love with them as people. Because as far as religion is concerned, truthfully, we're all searching for the same answers to the same questions.
disappointment: You've worked with some genuine legends in your career: Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, Robert Patrick, Barbara Crampton. Is there anyone else on your bucket list of people you want to work with?
Bates Jr.: Well, I would say, definitely Bill Murray. You know, it's tough, though, I'll tell you, I really try not to think of cast until I'm done writing, and then I will just pour over, I will only think of cast, right, because it's the most important thing to me. So the actor that I would want to work with would have to be a dream actor for the part, you know, and maybe fit in with our sort of troupe that each movie we kind of add to, because it helps, you know, when you make these sort of tonally incongruous movies, that you sort of get the references, and it's like a circus. So when I cast King Knight, I got to cast every single actor who I wanted because I paid for the movie with my own money, and then I took out a little loan to finish it. And I got to have full control over casting, I mean, I even negotiated the actors contracts with their agents. So I just had complete trust in all the actors. So it allowed me to not have to worry about micromanaging, I got to direct in a very sort of exciting way where it's sort of blanket directions. Act one, "I don't care how ridiculous the line of dialogue seems to you, or how preposterous the scenario is, you're not acting in a comedy, you're acting in Sophie's Choice." And everyone got it and committed to it, and then act one to act two, right? That shit was like, "Okay, guys, now it's the spirit quest, I want you to imagine if Nickelodeon remade The Holy Mountain." And this group gets that kind of, more obscure references and stuff. And so it's exciting. And we kind of form a little family of our own.
disappointment: There's something really special about watching horror comedies in specific in a communal setting. And while the circumstances right now have obviously prevented that from happening, virtual festivals, like Fantasia, have worked to really replicate that. Why do you think your films make for such a great shared experience?
Bates Jr.: Well, I think that there are certainly elements of a provocateur in each and every one, and it's fun to sort of react to things like that with groups, right? I will tell you, I think comedies best with a crowd for sure. I know that when I made Tone-Deaf, I really made it specifically for the theater. And now you know, it really never got to play at too many. And maybe it's my own fault. But really, when I imagined Robert Patrick breaking the wall I wanted people in the theater to feel like the villain was chastising them. I wanted it to feel like it was him versus the audience. And that movie was shot so wide that I designed it specifically for theater, whereas a movie like King Knight, I sort of designed for all experiences. A movie that maybe you watch with 10 friends around your VHS player type thing and you find this special little weird thing and you don't know that a lot of other people know about it, but it means so much to you. You know what I mean? That that's my hope at least, that's my sort of dream with a movie like this, that it makes some kids feel empowered, or less alone, or something.
King Knight is screening at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs August 5-25.