The past couple of years seemed to see a rash of films dealing with the somewhat similar plot device of people doing increasingly dangerous, disgusting or risky things for cold, hard cash. 13 Sins, Would You Rather and others deal with the idea in different ways, but one of the most celebrated of the bunch is E.L. Katz‘s Cheap Thrills.
The film follows a down on his luck man named Craig (Pat Healy) who’s fired from his job on the same day he receives an eviction notice. With a wife and baby son counting on him he willingly steps into a bizarre scenario involving a wealthy, thrill-seeking couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) willing to pay Craig and his friend (Ethan Embry) to take part in a series of often grotesque challenges. Things go about as well as you’d expect.
It’s an alternately funny and tragic film that walks an incredibly fine and blackly-comic line, and it’s just been released on Blu-ray/DVD from Drafthouse Films. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Cheap Thrills.
Cheap Thrills (2013)
Commentators: E.L. Katz (director), Pat Healy (actor)
1. The only name Pat Healy recognized when he received the original script and offer was Adam Wingard’s. Luckily that was enough of a reason for him to give it a read.
2. E.L. Katz wanted Healy for the lead role after seeing his work in Great World of Sound.
3. Healy is proud of the accuracy he displays in the scene where he’s seen changing a car’s oil. It only took one day of training.
4. The bar scene where Ethan Embry’s character first appears leads Healy to comment that “you’ll see he keeps hitting me, which I did not know he was going to do.” He goes on to say that “it’s no secret at this point that we didn’t get a long much after this, we tolerated each other.” Happily the two are friends now.
5. An earlier draft of the script featured David Koechner’s character as a more traditional villain named Ramsey.
6. Embry had a broken rib during filming leading Katz to nix a fall the actor was supposed to take in one scene. Embry really wanted to do it anyway.
7. The film’s fake cocaine is actually powdered milk. The fake finger is string cheese shaped into a digit. The fake vomit is grape-skin and oatmeal.
8. The line where Craig turns down cocaine because he’ll “get diarrhea” was an ad-lib. “That’s an ad-lib out of reality,” Healy says. “I’ve tried cocaine, sorry mom and dad, a couple times in my life and was lucky enough to not like it at all. First time I did it I had mad diarrhea.”
9. The “Filipino Target” store in Eagle Rock apparently smells like seafood.
10. The reunion between Healy and Paxton, who starred together in Ti West’s excellent The Innkeepers, was not intentional. Katz and the casting director were seeing other girls including one who wanted to play it as a “Paris Hilton-type” — a comment which leads Healy to say that no one would want to spend ninety minutes with Paris Hilton — but Healy lured Paxton in to the role with the realization that her character is the story’s ultimate puppet master. They love how she underplays the performance.
11. Healy interjects during the scene where his character is breaking into the couple’s safe to explain that because he’s such a cinephile he often will recognize later that he’s imitating other performers and films. This scene was his “Bruce Willis as John McClane” as he imitates the Die Hard character walking around and anxiously talking to himself. He points out another “unconscious actor steal” at the end when he’s walking away from the house. He’s stealing it from Tom Hanks and the ending of The ‘Burbs.
12. The house where most of the movie was filmed has been used in numerous porn shoots. It was also currently occupied by a four-member band and their dog who would occasionally interrupt takes with the sounds of barks or guitar strums. Presumably it was not the dog playing the guitar.
13. They acknowledge that the cutaway to a photo of Koechner as a karate champion was their broadest gag, but they’re happy they went for it all the same.
14. Katz’s background is in horror where he says dialogue is never that high of a priority. That’s one of the reasons why this script appealed to him so much.
15. The Healy vs Embry relationship is revisited when Healy points out his line “Get your fucking finger out of my face” was not scripted. His irritation with Embry was at a high point — or as Katz volunteers “they were at the perfect place with each other” — and the scene culminates with Embry grabbing Healy by the neck and shoving him to the ground “without telling me he was going to do it. There we get an idea of the kind of shenanigans we were up to on this picture.” Katz wonders if he went too far by telling Embry not to hurt him but that “it’s okay to keep the energy negative.”
16. For all of the problems Healy had with Embry, he was most uncomfortable during his sex scene with Paxton. “That is not my real fuck face,” he says, “but rather an awful, sort of like a Bosch painting or like ‘The Scream’ by Munch.” He does like how Paxton’s eyes are black and dead which leads Katz to compare her to the shark in Jaws.
17. They toyed with adding a line of dialogue to the scene where Craig leaves and Violet (Paxton) chases after him to bring him back. Once she realized he was gone they wanted her to look into the camera and say simply “for shame.”
18. Healy and Katz are writing a script together now, something he brings up as they discuss the film’s theme of “horrible winning” which Healy adds could have been this film’s alternate title.
19. The infamous pinkie-cutting scene is one of Healy’s favorites across his body of work, but the thrill of it is dampened slightly by two incidents. First, as he runs in agony to the couch he accidentally rammed his elbow into some furniture, and he still feels occasional pain from it to this day. Second, after shooting “the most emotionally, physically, intellectually challenging thing I ever had to do” he found out the next day that the footage had accidentally been erased and they had to shoot it again.
20. The cooked dog is actually rotisserie chicken done up with fur by the art department.
21. Healy “accidentally” gave Embry a black eye during their fight scene towards the end of the film. He was supposed to slowly lower his boot onto Embry’s face, but instead he dropped it. He felt so bad about it that he bought Embry a carton of cigarettes as an apology.
Best in Commentary
- Katz – “He [Embry] doesn’t know any boundaries either. He grabbed Pat’s balls. He pushes it so much.”
- Healy – “We talk about this movie like a mini Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now situation.”
- Healy – “I will say that as much as he [Embry] likes to hit he likes being hit in equal measure if not more so.”
- Healy – “We shot more coverage on this [scene] than I think I’ve shot on any movie, and I worked with Michael Bay twice.”
- Katz – “Everything became like a crackhead circus by the end of this.”
Cheap Thrills is one of those films that continues to grow on me over repeat viewings, and much of that is due to the simple effectiveness of the cast. Katz and Healy share praise for each other, but they never shy away from an opportunity to credit and compliment the other actors and crew. One of this particular commentary’s strengths is also its inherent honesty as Healy recounts his difficulties with Embry, something he easily could have glossed over. You believe the two are friends now (as he’s quick to point out), but you can almost hear his emotion rise as he watches the scenes and remembers the incidents. It’s a great listen all around as both men are knowledgeable film buffs and entertaining speakers, and along with the other extras on Drafthouse Films’ Blu-ray/DVD the commentary makes for yet another reason for fans of the film to pick up a copy of their very own.