King Knight is an outsider’s comedy starring Matthew Gray Gubler and Angela Sarafyan as Thorn and Willow, husband-and-wife high priest and priestess of a coven of witches in a small California community. When Willow unearths a secret from Thorn’s past, their lives are thrown into turmoil in this kooky, clever treat, decked with a wild cast that includes Nelson Franklin, Johnny Pemberton, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise, Andy Milonakis, and the voices of Aubrey Plaza and AnnaLynne McCord.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with writer/director Richard Bates Jr. about his new comedy film King Knight, his appreciation of character development, and his journey in making his first horror feature film Excision.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially inspired this story?
Richard Bates Jr.: When I started writing it, with everything going on, everything just felt so ominous. I knew I just didn't feel like making a horror film. And I'd been pitched this witch movie, like a director for hire thing, and I realized that I wanted to make a witch movie, but I like witches. So, the thing I always do is I sat at my desk, staring at a white wall, and wrote until I had something that I thought was worth making. When you read something like this, you're simultaneously trying to make yourself happy and in turn, hopefully, make an audience happy. I started thinking about what movies do I return to most and make me happy? And the one that stuck out was 90s John Waters movies, they are like my sweet spot, because they're so nice. And this movie called Pecker, I've seen it 1000 times, if I’m being honest, it's probably my favorite movie. I realized what made that work was that it's provocative and edgy, but it's very sweet. And he loves his characters. Usually, I take a very cynical approach, I think it'd be fair to say with my previous movies, but with everything going on, it just didn't feel right. And I just made it a point of stripping all the cynicism from the script. Just making sure before we shot it, that I genuinely loved every character. And so, that was the starting point. And then, god, half of my library books is witch stuff. I’m very fascinated with Wicca and witchcraft, probably since I first left home and moved to New York. I tried to make sure that the script wasn't particularly insensitive, I have a bunch of friends who are witches. So before making it, I had them all read it and made sure it felt like the characters were sort of in on the jokes and once they were satisfied, I set out to make it.
You kind of have to just make it an equal playing field, so that a viewer’s defenses are lowered, and they sort of give themselves to the characters rather than feel like they're being preached to because that's the last thing I want.
Sadie: Right and be able to relate in some way. I thought you handled that well. Taking a step back, your previous film work skews very heavy in horror. I had the actual pleasure of seeing your movie Excision at Sundance and I was totally floored and equally grossed out, but also, still to this day, I remember how rich and memorable your characters were.
Richard: I think that's the favorite part of every movie, if I'm quite honest, is the characters.
Sadie: Yeah, so I'm curious, what is your character development process like? Do you tackle your characters first before breaking your story?
Richard: You know, I mean, it totally depends on the movie, right? With Excision, it was all character first, because the story is told in vignettes. I would say Trash Fire is an interesting thing, because in the entire script, there's no third act - it's a movie in two acts. It just depends on, what I'm trying to say with the movie. There's no third act in Trash Fire because the point of the movie is Dr. Phil is wrong, it can be too late to change, so get it the fuck together, know what I mean? And how do I hammer that point home, as just noxious as possible - there's no third act. With something like this, it started out with the characters, and then I knew where the two-act breaks were. But with comedy, you have to be a little bit looser, right? My first act is maybe like 10-15 minutes longer than a traditional first. If you're doing a thriller or something, you really do need to be mathematical and precise. When it's a comedy, you really have to open yourself up to the characters. I felt like when I made Tone-Deaf, I sort of underwrote some of the dialogue, just to make it read well as a script, and I said to myself, I'm never going to do that again, so I overwrote the dialogue on this, just so that I had options.
Sadie: And speaking of dialogue, there's a line that Thorn says that really struck me and it's "I'm a work in progress" and that definitely resonates and carries through every single character within his Wicca circle to even people back at his high school reunion. Was that your North Star for character development?
Richard: Absolutely! It almost starts off as like I'm writing like a self-help book for myself. [laughs] The only rule that I had for the cast, because the cool thing about this was, I used my own money, and I took out a little loan to pay for it myself. I had full control over the cast and as a director, you have control, but you don't have total control, so this time, there's not a single person in the movie that I didn't want in the movie. I went so far as to negotiate the contracts with the agents myself, and the big rule was that no matter how sort of ridiculous something you're saying or reads to you, you're not in a comedy. In fact, you are in Sophie's Choice. And they all got a kick out of that and committed to it.
All my movies kind of take place in a heightened version of reality. And this one, we pushed it even further into the farce.
Sadie: With your writing process, do you write with the intention to direct?
Richard: Yes, the intention is to direct. I look at all my movies so far as kind of like journal entries, like Excision would be like high school, you have Suburban Gothic post-college and Trash Fire for a young adult. I guess I'm sort of just like trying to chronicle my life in some strange, abstract way. Clearly, very abstract.
I make sure that it's feasible to make one way or the other. So, if I don't have the budget that I want, I can still make it this way. I hate it when so many filmmakers say, "Oh, yeah, you know, I've been sitting on this project for 20 years. No, you know, I can't make it." It's like, you won't let yourself. I've never had the budget I want for one movie, you know what I mean? Who gives a shit. Part of the artistic process is part of the fun in figuring out how to make these things work and the most exciting thing about a movie to me anyways is the actors and then the special effects. Especially with the kind of performances I really like are these heightened things.
Sadie: Yeah, I've been having this conversation with a lot with other filmmakers, and even myself and it’s just the idea of getting yourself out of the way of yourself. You need to push forward creatively, and not try to limit yourself just because you don't have a million-dollar budget. There are still opportunities to make your thing, especially with technology now, the sky is the limit to a certain degree.
Richard: Yeah, I mean, I've never even had a million dollars.
Sadie: I hope you do get that budget someday, and in 20 years I’m still able to track your career through your film journal entries. I love that. Now, taking a step back, I’d love to learn more about your filmmaking journey and what was it that got you excited to become a filmmaker and who your influences were and still are in your filmmaking?
Richard: Awesome, sweet. Well, the first thing would be every Saturday morning I'd wake up early with my dad and watch a movie that he loved. That was a special bonding thing. And that really made me love movies and love sharing them. I would love the way he would react to Dean Martin, stumbling drunk in Rio Bravo. And from there, I was going to film camp in high school and my friends are going to like baseball camp. I went to North Carolina to go to film camp. It's kind of like all I ever wanted to do. I walked around with a camera in middle school and high school and everyone knew me as the weird movie guy, and it ended up working out, because when I made Excision, I got to move out here, I made a short and had some success, so I got a bunch of meetings, and I had a feature version. And everyone told me that it was terrible. And not even that nice. [laughs] Terrible and so I decided, ‘well, fuck this’ I've been a PA for a few years and I tried to just make it myself and prove people wrong. I had 40 investors to make that movie. And tons of them were people from my hometown, who had always known that that's all I ever wanted to do and were excited to be a part of it. That's kind of how Excision took off. When I made Excision, I dropped a DVD in a box on the last day that Sundance was accepting things. I assumed they wouldn't even find the DVD in the box, there are like 1,000 DVDs. And then it got in, that was the craziest thing that's ever happened. Because the idea that at 27, and the idea of a movie at Sundance was like, “God, I hope that happens by the time I’m 80.” It was sort of unbelievable and it was all thanks to my friends. When I made Excision, I made it with my friends from school. I bought bunk beds and put them in my studio apartment. And it was like six or seven of us living in there. My friends just flew out to work on it. A lot of the crew were kids in film school, who didn't even know how to set up C stands. And we made a Sundance movie. It's crazy. And I got John Waters in it, and he's one of my heroes. And Ray Wise from Twin Peaks. And now I'm close with both of them, which is just not even like something I would have believed. It's been very crazy.
Sadie: Any advice for writers and directors gearing up to make their first indie film? What is maybe something that you've carried through from your first film to King Knight?
Richard: Give yourself a few extra days to shoot, because you're going to be figuring things out. I remember a camera broke down a bunch on Excision, we had to keep exchanging them. And also look, when I made Excision, I went into Innovative which is a talent agency, because I knew I needed to attach the cast and I told them I had $300,000 and I wanted to make pay or play offers, and I made one and I actually had like, $15,000 - I guess this is the worst advice, but the best - dig such a big fucking hole for yourself, that you have to get out of it. Or you're fucked forever. Because that way you will get out. You'll find a way. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] That’s awesome advice! Well, Richard, thank you and I’m looking forward to what you have next in the pipeline of journal entries.
Richard: Thank you, I appreciate it.
King Knight will have its world premiere at Fantasia Festival with virtual screenings on August 8th and 10th.