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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 03.12.19] horror comedy

Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. has made a name for himself with a string of horror comedies featuring strong female characters who don't take crap from anyone and his latest Tone-Deaf, is no different.

Amanda Crew stars as Olive, a smart-mouthed young woman who loses her job for talking truth to her boss. Needing a break to clear her mind before starting a job search, she rents a house outside for the weekend from an old man named Harvey (Robert Patrick) who is also on a sould searching trip of his own: he has decided he's lived a law-abiding life long enough and he's ready to give into his inner urge to kill. His victim? You guessed it but Olive isn't as easy to kill as Harvey hoped.

Tone-Deaf is a little less visceral than Bates Jr.'s previous movies but it also feels a bit more finessed. Crew is perfectly cast as Olive and delivers a hugely entertaining performance while the movie's balance of comedy, horror and drama makes for an exceptionally fun romp.

I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Bates Jr. shortly after the film's premiere at SXSW and he was kind enough to provide some details on the inspiration for the story, casting his lead and his writing process.

Quiet Earth: What prompted this story? Did you start with an idea or did it start with a specific scene?

Richard Bates Jr.: It started with an idea; it was inspired by this Norman Rockwell painting the connoisseur in which he's satirizing the artwork of Jackson Pollock. I just saw this portrait of a frightened and confused old man, afraid of modernism and the direction that the modern art world was going. That was the genesis of Harvey. From there we had fun pitting these two people at completely different stages of their lives against one another. Someone who is completely open to everything, trying to figuring out who she is and what she stands for in the world against this man who has completely stopped growing altogether he's not an open book like she is. There's a lot of sadness about that and there's a lot of comedy in that.

Your balance of comedy and horror is always so refreshing. What's your process for writing, specifically the jokes? How do you work through them and do you ever get to the shooting process and realize that something that worked on paper doesn't work on film and how do you deal with that?

There are always those moments, but what I do is before the movie I sit with the actors and we read every line outline rather than doing imporv on set. I shoot with one camera and I try to make sure every single frame is as perfect as possible. I do all this prep work to ensure that and there is a limited time to shoot. Rather than encourage tons of improv on set, I sit with the actors and we read the lines together in my apartment or wherever and if a line is not working we change it in the script before we go and shoot. Which is not to say there are not a few moments of improv, particularly Robert Patrick did a piece or two of improv that I thought was really great.

Most of the things that I find funny, I am a depressed person, are sad too. It helps me deal with things and I found it helps a lot of other people deal with things. My sense of humor is rooted in that.

you leave room in your scripts for improvisation or is everything pretty much written down?

Everything is pretty much written down, but after we get the takes right if we do have a little time I will allow the actors to have a little fun, hopefully they're having fun the whole time.

I try to create a very safe and fun environment for them to really let their freak flags fly if you will. Improv in the sense of adding lines is one thing but I would say in every scene these actors are reacting and improvising facial expressions and movements and all these other things that we don't necessarily think of as improv but they're doing that throughout the film and when they do something I love, I will adjust the frame for it.

They're doing so many things at once, it's exciting and cool to watch. I love the actors; it's probably my favorite part of the process.

Your films always feature strong female leads. Did you write this with Amanda Crew in mind or did she come to the film later? If the latter, what was it about her that led you to cast her?

She came to the film later.

I actually wanted to work with her several years ago. I love the show silicon valley and she is so smart, so talented and so confidant in whom she is. I love working with people like that and that's her in a nutshell.

We had so much fun because she's not afraid to not be liked. A lot like Anna Lynn and many of the actresses I've worked with, they are limited in the roles they're offered, they have to be pretty and likable and I don't encourage that at all. I want them to play human beings; damaged, interesting human beings like so many male actors get to play. She leaned into that heavy, every actor did, but she put particular delighted in it and we had so much fun.

The sound design of Harvey's visions is horrifying and particularly unsettling and shocking to the senses. How did you come up with that concept?

Essentiality there's this noise band I like called “Wolfs Eyes” and I came into the project knowing that we needed this artistic melding of sound on that vein, and from there it's a game of guess and check.

We spent countless hours finding all the right sounds and layering them for those sequences. Our sound team was incredible and wanted to murder me, but once you get it right, the second we got it right we all stood up and that's so exciting. It's fun, I do want the best from everyone and I want everyone to participate, it's such a collaborative art.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot and why?

I would say the finale because I didn't want to go hand held and just shoot the sequence on the fly and get as much coverage as possible. I wanted to really plan it out so that it cut together well and times such a factor when you're doing that. That's one of those days where you do go into over time, but I know what its like to have regrets and I didn't want to. So we went full on and it's just a matter of what coverage you can get in what amount of time and how well it pieces together

What's next for you?

I'm working on a romantic of comedy, mind you a very very strange romantic comedy.

It's been my dream project for many years now, this actress Aubrey Plaza and I have been working on that so I'm very excited.

I just finished an action comedy with a lot of horror in it based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald book. I revamped it if you will, I'm sure it'll piss a lot of people off.

Recommended Release: Excision

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