Searching to find your rightful place in the world, where you’re unquestionably accepted and embraced by the people around you, can be an disheartening prospect for some people. Not only does Raymond, the quirky protagonist in the independent horror comedy, ‘Suburban Gothic,’ which was directed by Richard Bates Jr., struggle to find a job he enjoys and excels at, but also discover the real meaning of having true friends and family. But the process of making the film, which the helmer also co-wrote with Mark Bruner, wasn’t as intimidating of a process for the filmmaker once he began penning the script. Not only did Bates Jr. naturally reunite with Matthew Gray Gubler, one of the actors who starred in the first feature film he wrote and directed, the 2012 horror drama, ‘Excision,’ but he also embraced the creative freedom he garnered from producing his second movie independently.
‘Suburban Gothic,’ which is now available on VOD, follows the slightly immature Raymond (Gubler), who recently graduated from college with an MBA and has a strong desire to launch his career. However, he hasn’t yet reached his potential to work in his goal of upper management. After not being able to find a job, he’s forced to move back in with his ever-happy mom, Eve (Barbara Niven), who’s excited to have her son return home, and his high-school-coach dad, Donald (Ray Wise), who’s not as tolerant as his wife.
When the family’s landscaper Hector (Mel Rodriguez) and his crew accidentally discover the skeleton of a young girl who was buried in their backyard, they unleash a vengeful spirit. The girl’s spirit soon begins making her presence known, through visions and nightmares, to Raymond, who used to be able to interact with the paranormal as a child. While he lost the ability as he grew older, he’s reminded of his true calling as he begins interacting with the girl’s spirit. So he recruits the help of a fellow misfit, the sarcastic local bartender, Becca (Kat Dennings), in order to appease the vengeful spirit and return his house and family to normal.
Bates Jr. generously took the time to talk about filming ‘Southern Gothic’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director-producer discussed how he considers himself to be a director first and foremost, but he also found it helpful to write the scripts for the films he helms, as he’s able to incorporate camera moves and stylistic choices into the screenplays, which help him carry out his vision on the set; how he wrote the script for the horror comedy with Gubler in mind, as they’re not only close friends, but he also tries to write his scripts to reflect himself personally, and he and the actor are similar in personality; and how filming the movie posed challenges, such as having a small budget, crew and amount of time to film, but the process also helped build the energy of the movie.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the horror comedy, ‘Suburban Gothic,’ with Mark Bruner. How did you decide to work together on the script? What was your writing collaboration like once you started penning the screenplay?
Richard Bates Jr. (RBJ): Mark has been one of my best friends since high school, so we’ve know each other forever. After I made ‘Excision,’ the process of starting my next film was very strange. I couldn’t seem to get a movie made, because even though my first film played at Sundance and was relatively well received, it was shocking to audiences. Studios didn’t want to work with me, so I fell into a depression, and couldn’t get anything made.
So I wanted to make filmmaking fun again, like it was when I was in high school, and making movies in my backyard with a video camera and my best friends. So I came up with a concept, and then called Mark. I sad, “Hey man, lets d this like we did in high school. Let’s make it fun.” So he came over, and we started writing the script.
SY: Besides writing the script, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to both write and helm the horror comedy? Do you find it to be beneficial to work on the screenplays of the movies you helm?
RBJ: Yes, it definitely helps to write the scripts I direct. Before a writer, I always consider myself a director, but I’ve written all my own material. I like to write everything I direct, because I find it helpful. When I do that, I’m able to incorporate camera moves and stylistic choices into my script. Everyone knows if you’re selling your script (which be helmed by a director-for-hire), that’s not acceptable. So I always write the films I direct practically, with the shoot in mind.
SY: Before making ‘Suburban Gothic,’ you wrote and directed your first feature film, the 2012 horror drama, ‘Excision.’ Were there any writing and directing lessons you learned from your first film that influenced the way you approached making this new movie?
RBJ: The two films were completely different experiences, quite frankly. With ‘Excision,’ I had a lot more time to prepare, and 10 more days to shoot it. With ‘Suburban Gothic,’ it was very tough, because we put the whole movie together in a very short amount of time. I initially wrote it as a $3 million movie, and then we kept progressively changing it, to make it with a lower budget.
When I fell into my depression, I couldn’t watch the movies that inspired ‘Excision,’ like David Cronenberg movies. I ended up watching cartoons and reading things that made me happy as a kid. So when you watch ‘Suburban Gothic,’ it’s this love letter to everything that made me happy. Quite frankly, I made it to make myself happy again, and hopefully make some kids happy. It worked, as it was a lot of fun to make and watch; it’s like a children’s film for adults.
SY: Are there any filmmakers or movies, particularly in the horror genre, that have influenced the way you approached making both of your films?
RBJ: Well, ‘Excision’ had a different set of influences, including art films made by Cronenberg and Dario Argento. With ‘Suburban Gothic,’ I tried to throw out that kind of stuff, and make the film purely from the heart. I took influences for this film from places like ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?,’ ‘Scooby-Doo’ cartoons and ‘The Hardy Boys Mysteries.’ I took influences from the things my friends and I would literally watch in my parents’ basement growing up. Those films and shows were very special to us. So I wanted to make a film teens in middle school and high school could discover, and it would be very special to them.
SY: What was the casting process like for the cast, particularly for Matthew Gray Gubler and Kat Dennings, who play the main characters, Raymond and Becca?
RBJ: Well, I wrote the film with Matthew Gray Gubler in mind, as he’s one of my best friends. With this project, I wanted us to all remember why we moved to Los Angeles from Virginia, and how filmmaking was supposed to bring us such joy. So I gathered a bunch of like-minded weirdos, as the film really needed to have that feeling that we were in my parents’ backyard with a camera, like we were little kids again, and we were having fun.
So the film had to start with Matthew, because I’ve known him for so long. He’s super talented, and he’s my kind of leading man. In a lot of ways, I try to write this stuff to be personal, and Matthew and I are very similar. So it just makes sense to have him star in stuff that I write. He was also briefly in ‘Excision,’ and I’m making a new film with him. But we collaborate really well together, and we’re good friends.
SY: Did you rehearse with the actors, or discuss the story with them at all, to help build their characters’ histories, motivations and relationships?
RBJ: Yes, most certainly. I approached this film very differently than ‘Excision,’ during which I didn’t allow improv. But with the spirit of ‘Suburban Gothic,’ we wrote the script, and then I got the whole cast together after we finished casting. I had them read the script and told them “to change anything you want, and if I like it, we’re going to put it in the script right now.”
So it was a very interactive process. I built the original characters, and then built them around the talent that I cast. So it was just about finding a bunch of wonderful and interesting personalities that I thought would be entertaining together. I then built the characters and story around them.
SY: Speaking of improvising, did you encourage the cast to offer suggestions about their characters while you’re filming on the set? Do you feel having the cast improvise helps add authenticity to the characters and the story?
RBJ: Well, improvising may not necessarily help the story, but it definitely does bring an extra entertainment value, and helps with the character building. Your job as a director when you’re really young is to learn how to put everything together, and do the work, beforehand. You have to be very prepared, and know the roles well.
But you also have to let the characters fly. Occasionally, I will say, “You can’t say that, because it doesn’t work-in Act III, your character has to be here.” But if I think something they say is funny, I’ll use it. I don’t want to encourage the actors not to get weird. I wanted to create the safest set for anyone to try anything they want.
If something didn’t work, that’s fine-I just wouldn’t use it. But I certainly didn’t want to limit the film by limiting the actors. With a film like this, it’s all about the characters and their journeys. So it’s about stepping back, and being the director, but not playing the director.
SY: Besides writing and directing ‘Suburban Gothic,’ you also served as an executive producer on the film. why did you decide to also produce the movie? Did serving as a producer influence the way you approached directing the film?
RBJ: I served as one of the producers because I had a big hand in getting the film made, which was no easy task. We certainly didn’t have a lot of money to make it, but we gave it all we had. I don’t have a lot of options to film the things that interest me and I want to make movies about, or make movies that have big budget that I don’t have to produce.
I’m not willing to sit around for someone else to help me; I’m going to get it done at any cost. I can’t afford not to help produce projects like this, and I hope I never get lazy and stop producing. I think in order to maintain control, like how I was able to get final cut on both of my feature films, which is a rarity these days, you have to have a hand in the producing world. But Dylan Hale Lewis was the main producer on ‘Suburban Gothic.’
SY: What was the overall process of filming the horror comedy independently? Did that process influence the creativity, or pose any challenges, on the set at all?
RBJ: It was an insane process. Sure, it posed challenges, as we shot on a super-tight budget with a small crew and very little time, but it felt right. We came into the film with such full hearts, which helped with the energy of the movie. Shooting it this way was very similar to the spirit of the film that we began with.
Yes, filming independently does pose challenges, but I certainly can’t complain-I’ve gotten to make two movies. I used to just dream about hopefully just making one. I still get emotional talking about, because it’s a dream come true.
SY: Since you’ve made both ‘Suburban Gothic’ and ‘Excision’ independently, do you prefer shooting them on location? Do you think filming on location helps with the story’s authenticity?
RBJ: I definitely prefer it-I’ve always only shot on location. But in the process of making my films, I learned to always make sure you find out what the flight plans are where you’re shooting. That way you don’t always have to yell “Cut!” a million times when airplanes are flying over.
I’m actually a huge stickler for sound, as well, and I hate ADRing. There’s almost no ADR (automated dialogue replacement) in this film, which is very rare. The process can be a real nightmare, because a lot of times, you’ll be pushed to keep filming through any background noise you may experience. I think any little thing like that can take you out of the filming process.
SY: The movie has received a theatrical and On Demand release. Are you personally a fan of watching films on VOD? Do you think the platform is beneficial to independent movies like ‘Suburban Gothic?’
RBJ: I do think VOD is super important, but I wish everyone had the chance to see ‘Suburban Gothic’ in a theater-I think it plays best in the theater. It’s very much a love letter to weirdos, like myself and my friends, and I hope people watch it together. It’s a group movie, and hopefully everyone can have fun as they watch it together.
SY: The horror comedy has played at several film festivals around the world to positive reviews, including having its world premiere at last summer’s Fantasia International Film Festival, as well as Toronto After Dark and the Sydney Underground Film Festival. What was the experience like of bringing the film to the festivals? What does it mean to you that audiences embraced the movie at the festivals?
RBJ: Well, it’s strange. With a movie like ‘Excision,’ I didn’t care what anyone thought, as it was filled with angst. But with this film, it’s a totally different feeling, because I so genuinely want to make kids, especially alternative kids who don’t always fit in, happy with it. That’s very important to me, and is the main reason why I made the film.
This film lives and dies within the festival circuit. No one bought this film outright, and it had to earn its strips over the course of the year. It traveled around to the festivals, including the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, which I honestly think is one of the greatest festivals in the world. They premiered the film, and packed the theater with 800 people. I recommend any independent filmmaker to submit their project to Fantasia, as it can make you.
The festival circuit is the only reason a film like this can survive, and eventually be sold. So it took that word of mouth to get to where it is now.
SY: With ‘Suburban Gothic’ and ‘Excision’ both having horror elements that help drive the characters and story, do you prefer using practical effects while you’re filming, as opposed to adding them during post production?
RBJ: It’s funny, because with ‘Excision,’ everything was practical, and this film was inspired by so many different television show and old boardwalk amusement rides. So the effects on this film were in a totally different ballgame. Depending on the project, you have to serve the script as the director.
So with ‘Suburban Gothic,’ we used a lot of silly and campy effects that hopefully look like effects that were used on ’90s television shows. Whereas with ‘Excision,’ everything had to look clean and slick, and this film went in a totally different direction. I love both films very much, but I didn’t want to repeat myself.
SY: Besides ‘Suburban Gothic,’ do you any upcoming projects, whether writing, directing and/or producing, that you can discuss? Are you interested in continuing in the horror genre?
RBJ: Yes, I wrote a script that I’ll hopefully be making this spring. I’m also attached to possibly make another film in the fall. I’m not interested in waiting on anyone else making my life and career happen, so I’m working everyday, trying to get the next film made. A lot of times I’ll hear other people complain about not getting their movie made, but I truly believe that if you want something bad enough, you can do it.
Written by: Karen Benardello