By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. has established a particular brand of idiosyncratic genre cinema over the past decade, since his debut with 2012’s EXCISION. His recent TRASH FIRE and TONE-DEAF have gone to some pretty dark, even cynical places, but his new feature KING KNIGHT, a world premiere at the current Fantasia International Film Festival, is a more upbeat project.
A charming if no less eccentric addition to Bates’ filmography, KING KNIGHT stars Bates regular Matthew Gray Gubler as Thorn, who along with his life partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan) runs a small Southern California Wicca coven. These are benign witches–they wear black “not because it’s scary, but because it flatters every skin tone”–but when a secret from Thorn’s past comes out, the others vote to cast him out, and he goes on a sometimes hallucinatory voyage of self-discovery. Co-starring Barbara Crampton as Thorn’s disapproving mother and Ray Wise as the great magician Merlin, who appears in Thorn’s visions, KING KNIGHT is perhaps Bates’ most accessible film yet, while still fully in keeping with his unique, oddball view of the world.
KING KNIGHT is less savage and cynical than your recent movies, especially regarding relationships. Does that mark a change in attitude for you in general?
You know, I kind of hope so! I definitely approached it differently than the others, in many ways. When I finished TONE-DEAF, everything going on in the world, politically and otherwise, sort of felt ominous, and I didn’t feel like doing that again. Each movie I’ve done has been personal and, in some abstract way, chronicling my life, so I took the approach of writing one to make myself happy, that hopefully would make other people happy. At the time, I’d been pitched a witch movie; it was actually a good script, but it was a director-for-hire thing, which I’d never done before, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. I was sitting around thinking what I would do differently on the subject, and I realized that I really like witches, and some of the nicest human beings I know are witches, and if I did a witch movie, they’d be the protagonists.
Then I thought, what movies make me happy? What have I watched a million times? And John Waters’ ’90s period is my sweet spot; it’s just joy, particularly PECKER, because it’s perverse and it’s provocative, but it’s so sweet, and that’s the reason I keep coming back to it. So I decided, before I put a word on the page, that I was going to approach every character with love and strip it of cynicism. The whole idea was that no matter what religion we follow, we’re all searching for the same answers to the same questions. It takes place in the same kind of heightened version of reality as my other films, but maybe it’s even more farcical.
KING KNIGHT definitely makes an appeal for tolerance. Given the troubling political times you mentioned, how important was that message when you were writing and making the movie?
It was the most important thing. You know, it’s hard making a movie, especially when you’re editing it in your garage and your savings are on the line. I needed a very good reason to do this. So the whole idea that we all have more in common than we are different, we’re all questing for self-growth and that comes with self-acceptance–I thought maybe it would speak to people, and hopefully make a few folks happy.
I also really liked the line, “Keep making art your way, without becoming bitter toward those who don’t appreciate it.” That’s kind of a mantra for all creatives, I think.
Yeah, that’s huge, and that comes with growing up, you know what I mean?
Did you have to do a deep dive into research, or were you already familiar with Wiccan practices?
I was familiar with a number of them, because half my library is books on witchcraft and Wicca. I’ve always been fascinated with it, which I’m sure comes from growing up around Southern Baptists, where the very notion of witchcraft is evil, and then leaving that universe and looking into religion and all that stuff. I was so excited about checking out witchcraft and all these different things I didn’t really know anything about. After I moved to New York from Virginia, I made a documentary in film school about this Wiccan store, I believe it was in the East Village, and they were so nice. Then I did a whole lot more research on top of that, because things have changed since then with witchcraft, with the advent of social media and so on. So I did take a deep dive, and I love them even more now! After I had my first draft, I had a few of my friends who are witches read it, because I wanted to make sure it was funny without being insulting. I felt very good about how they responded, and they kind of gave me the go-ahead.
Given your own history, how much of Thorn, who has fled a strict background, is autobiographical?
Well, all the films are loosely autobiographical, and I guess it would be fair to say that every one has started off where I’m kind of writing myself a self-help book. KING KNIGHT certainly is about me actively wanting to grow up and be the best husband and man I can possibly be, so that I would be a good father. There are elements of my life and career and friends and everything, but really at the heart of it, it’s about fatherhood, for me.
In a sense, Matthew Gray Gubler has been your stand-in in a number of your movies. How does that collaboration work, and does it operate differently now than when you first started out with him?
It’s awesome, because he knows what I want, you know? It’s a shorthand. And that’s why I keep bringing back not just him, but other actors too; we’re creating our own little circus. It’s great to get back together and dive in and get weird every now and then. This movie was particularly exciting for me because I realized when I finished writing it that there was no fucking way I would get financing, having been through that before many times with other projects. So I said, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna make it myself.” I used my own money, and eventually I had to take out a loan to finish it up. When you’re a director you have control over a lot, but not everything, so it was great to be able to cast every single person in this movie, and make sure it was exactly who I wanted in the parts. This was the first time I was doing the actors’ contracts and negotiating with agents myself.
And because everyone was the right person to me, there was no micromanaging. I directed it, like, blanketly. Day one, we sat down and I said, “I don’t care how preposterous a line of dialogue comes across to you, or ridiculous the situation; you’re not acting in a comedy, you’re acting in SOPHIE’S CHOICE.” And everyone just got that, you know what I mean? When we went from act one to act two, I was like, “OK, guys, I want you to imagine if Nickelodeon remade HOLY MOUNTAIN,” and they got it! It was a lot of fun.
Angela Sarafyan is a newcomer to your troupe; how did she get involved?
She’s an awesome dramatic actress, so it was so cool to bring her into this world, because she fully committed, completely. She’s really sweet and kind, and she fit right in. It was exciting because we had trouble figuring out who would be Willow, and my friend Josh Fadem, who’s in the movie, recommended Angela. I looked at her stuff and thought she was perfect, and then I said, “I’ve got to reach out to her agent immediately.” And that turned out to be Melissa Hirschenson, who’s AnnaLynne McCord’s agent and put me in touch with AnnaLynne for EXCISION. Melissa was like, “OK, I’ll tell Angela it’s a Ricky Bates movie, we’ll see if she’s down to get weird!” Melissa is so cool.
It’s especially fun to see Ray Wise as Merlin.
My God, I love Ray. I called him and said, “You know, I can’t imagine who on Earth wouldn’t want to see you as Merlin, the great wizard.” He paused, and he said, completely seriously, “You know something, Rick? I’d like to see that myself!” [Laughs] And then he just showed up and was amazing.
You don’t have him in the traditional beard. I think he’s the first clean-shaven Merlin I’ve seen in a movie.
He is! We looked at a few beards, and they were all kind of like…we would have been going down the road of GETTYSBURG, you know what I mean?
Then there’s Aubrey Plaza as the voice of the pine cone. How did that happen?
I just kind of called her and asked if she wanted to be a talking pine cone, and she said, “Yeah.” That’s actually how it happened. And then it was cool: For the talking rock, I’m a big fan of this musician Alice Glass. I didn’t actually know her before, and I just reached out on-line. She had seen EXCISION, and that was really cool because I’d never have imagined that. She was recording an album, and she recorded the lines and sent them over.
Speaking of actresses, I also have to ask: How do you think Juliette Binoche is going to take to the scene in KING KNIGHT where the characters discuss whether she has “poo in her butt”?
You know what? I hope she loves it! I hope she’s flattered. I’d love for her to be in a sequel. Look, there’s not a lot of people you’d discuss whether or not there’s poo in their butts. Most people, you just assume there is. But Juliette is just such a grand and wonderful lady, it almost makes you question it. So I think that’s complimentary. No one’s questioning whether there’s poo in my butt, I’ll tell you that!