Richard Bates Jr. Says We're All Targets in 'Tone-Deaf'

We talk with the writer/director about his latest horror film and why we're all culpable for the world we've inherited.

Tone Deaf
Saban Films

The world sucks. You know, I know it. What we can’t agree upon is why the world sucks. Old vs. young. Right vs. left. Baby boomer vs. millennial. Robert Patrick vs. Amanda Crew. The latest horror from writer/director Richard Bates Jr, Tone-Deaf, pits these sides against each other in vicious combat. The result is a wild whip of emotions that targets everyone involved and makes sure they all walk away bloody. No one is innocent. You’re all guilty.

If you’ve seen Bates’ previous films (Excision, Trash Fire) then you know he’s a creator who delights in getting grim and is all too eager to drag polite notions through the muck. Tone-Deaf is no different. Crew’s Olive has hit an all-time low. With her relationship recently flatlined and her job eradicated, she decides to flee her worries for the country. She rents a home from the pleasantly seeming Harvey (Patrick), but vacation quickly transforms into a stalk-n-slash nightmare that targets ideology as much as it does flesh.

Tone Deaf

I spoke to Bates shortly after the film premiered at SXSW. He’s clearly happy to be free from the stress of production and excited to see his film in front of audiences. Our conversation starts with his preference for juggling tones within horror films, descends into chatter about pet ownership, and recovers thanks to our mutual adoration of Robert Patrick. The film will not see proper distribution until later this year and be warned that we discuss a few spoilers during the middle chunk of our chat. Don’t worry though, I threw up some warnings if you would like to go into the film unsullied.

Here is our conversation in full:

Hey Ricky, thanks for chatting today. I seriously appreciate the conversation. 

Yeah. No problem.

Where I-

I don’t get to talk to people a lot these days. I’m sitting in a corner writing. I leave for a little while, make a movie and then I’m back in my corner.

Well, welcome out of the box for a little while.

Thank you.

I think where I wanted to start with Tone-Deaf is the title itself. Your films tend to run the gamut of tone. Where do you find that balance, or where do you shatter it?

When I was at college, there were the Girl Talk music albums that everyone was listening to, at parties and things. They were sort of created by sampling. So all these different kinds of music pieced together to create a dance song. It kind of excited me and kept me engaged musically, so when I started making movies, I try to take that approach, to use all these various vibes to make it kind of like a patchwork quilt of things that added up to a horror film. So with this, it was super fun. To really lean into that and create these defined bubbles everyone’s living in, little worlds right within each other. I just kind of had fun with it and I think that’s that. That’s the answer. That do anything for you?

Yeah, sure, I guess. Honesty, I would be nervous, I think, formulating from all these tones. Not so for you? Total confidence in execution?

No. The only thing I would be afraid of is creating a tone poem. Like a one tone sort of a deal. With this, we did balance it. I spent a lot of time on the script, balancing it out. Because when you do do this kind of thing, you have to be very mindful of it in set rules. So, my previous movie Trash Fire, it was a romantic comedy until act two and as they drive the car through this row, it’s a horror movie. The performances are going to be heightened and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

So with this, we set all these rules for all of the little worlds. It came, meeting with the actors, talking to the actors, having fun with them … But, yeah, it’s kind of about doing all the preparation beforehand, instead of, when you go in there, you can just focus on letting them let their freak flags fly if you will. I don’t really micromanage them too much. I spend a lot of time on the casting and then try to create a very fun face-to-face for them to try any idea they have in their head. We picked a script. I think there were two little bits of improv in the movie that I really liked. “Don’t hold back on the cherries”, Robert improvised, because I didn’t tell him that his character was going to be drinking a Shirley Temple. He said that, and that actually went along, gave a little bit in the movie. We usually stick to script, but then we do a few takes like that. Then I just let them be nuts.

We have a lot of fun. It’s about controlled chaos and then if they’re nuts in this scene, then they’ve got to be nuts in the adjoining scene or they’re not connected. You end up with a bunch of scribbles on a page.

What do you mean by rules?

Part of the fun was to make both characters sort of hypocrites, in their own way. Harvey, for instance, he thinks all these kids are self-obsessed and all-knowing, and yet it’s his complete preoccupation with his place in the world that leads to his undoing. So he’s not necessarily as self-aware as he’d like to think either. But part of the fun was pitting someone against him who’s at the stage in their life where they’re just starting to figure themselves out. Olive’s reading these self-help books, she’s trying to figure out what her place is in the world and pitting her up against Harvey, who’s completely stopped growing. He’s at the stage in his life where he’s not open to anything.

So we had a ton of fun with that. I always go through the script with the actors, make any necessary tweaks. This is one of the first times where they really rolled with everything. So they were both excited. I go through line by line. We read in my tiny little apartment. They both really just embrace these characters, you know. Patrick got to push things further than he ever has before and I’m sure there’s something exciting about playing this guy out and manifesting his desire to live out this insane John Wayne fantasy that was thrust upon him as a child. We end up taking that quite literally.

SPOILER WARNING →→ The hands that kill Harvey at the end, you know when she stabs him in the heart, I had Patrick bring his own daughter to set, who’s a millennial and I use her hands to kill him in the movie.

Oh my God!

[Laughter] He loved that idea. You know what I mean? And so did she. I remember, I said, “Thanks for doing this.” She’s covered in blood. She said, “We love blood in the Patrick family.” That was very cool. They’re very close, but it is fun because she is very much into the liberal arts and in school in New York. END SPOILER WARNING.

Alright, well we gotta talk about Robert Patrick. Obviously, we love him from so many movies, and he has played more than just the T1000, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Harvey from Patrick. How did you land on him to play that character?

Well, I’ll tell you the truth. It started with the X-Files.

Yes! Was not expecting that influence.

I think agent Doggett is insanely underrated. I love the X-Files.

Yes! Ditto! Ditto!

I believe my favorite show of all time. So I was a huge, huge fan. Then I met him and he was incredibly nice. Probably the most masculine man I have ever met in my life. I feel like a little boy talking to him. You know? Which is intimidating at first, but he’s so kind and open and had so much fun with this. Certainly don’t judge a book by its cover with Robert, because that guy embraced every single interesting fun thing. Doing his own inserts, having a blast. He had never broken the fourth wall before in a film, which was sort of an exciting thing, because while we’re dealing or touching upon all these things that are going on in society right now, I definitely wanted to maintain a heightened reality so that, there’s still an attempt at escapism. You weren’t just going to the movies to be bogged down in the same bullshit that you’re already bogged down in at home. So, it is satirical and it is a bit larger than life for that reason.

Sorry, one second. [Dog barking in the background]

That’s all right. Take your time.

My dog’s being nuts here. All right buddy? [Dog stops barking] Sorry about that.

No, that’s okay. All good.

I’m a recent dog father.

Oh, well congratulations.

It’s real work. Know what I mean?

Sure, sure. I’m a snake-father myself. No dogs.

You have a snake?

Oh yeah. Well, technically it’s my wife’s snake. I married into it. But yeah, I’m staring her down right now as we speak.

Man, I wanted a snake so bad last year.

Oh yeah? Well, you should get one because they are so easy.

Yes, I begged my wife.

You two should get one. They get along with animals just fine. As long as they stay in their place.

My wife won’t do it. My wife won’t do it.

She might surprise you.

No way. My wife won’t do it.

Okay. Getting back to Tone-Deaf. For a lot of the film, as we start with Olive, I thought this was going to be an attack on millennials. Then Harvey appears and it becomes boomers versus millennials.

I’ll be upfront with you. I’m a complete bleeding heart liberal. I went to art school in New York. I’d still be wearing skinny jeans to this day if I could fit into them, but I no longer can. So I identify with Olive. That was, again, another fun thing about working with Amanda, because I heard the same thing from AnnaLynne [McCord] when we made Excision and we pushed things further. These actresses, they’re asked so often to be pretty, be likable. That to me is not interesting at all and it’s not to them either. When we do get these opportunities to work with each other, we don’t necessarily concern ourselves with those things at all. It encourages them to really, the actors, to really lean in and have more fun with it all.

The idea for Harvey started from, when I was younger, I loved this Norman Rockwell painting “The Connoisseur”. I’m not a huge Norman Rockwell fan, which isn’t to say he’s not an incredibly talented painter, but he did this painting of this old gentleman in a business suit staring up at a Jackson Pollock recreation. Apparently, he created it to satirize the abstract expressionist movement. He didn’t get it. It was just sort of this odd decision from a master artist who was criticizing abstract expressionism and taking a stab at Pollock, sort like a frightening old man confused with the direction of the modern art world. That’s the reason why we put Harvey’s nightmare sequences in kind of an art gallery, with these performance art pieces. His nightmares being enacted around him as performance art pieces. Yeah. We had a lot of fun with that.

If you’re trying to make a point to a bunch of people, you have to try to be as open to not being one-sided as possible. I’d rather millennials watching the movie be able to see things that they don’t like in themselves, or that they want to change. Not just be tickled by the idea of seeing everything they hate in the world get murdered.


Tone-Deaf will be released later this year from Saban Films.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.