The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Cheap Thrills.
I couldn’t help but think about Compliance while watching Cheap Thrills. In that film, you were the sadist, the controller. There are very similar themes here but in this case you’re on the other side.
It’s kind of interesting. In Great World of Sound, I almost play a version of the Ann Dowd character from Compliance, where I’m in the middle of the higher ups who are telling me to abuse other people and I don’t quite get it, and then in Compliance I graduate to the sadist. And then, for me, I played a sort of sweet character in The Innkeepers. People have said about Cheap Thrills that it’s interesting that there’s this everyman character and within him is this beast, this wild person. In all of these movies – The Innkeepers, Great World of Sound, Compliance – I play repressed, sort of coiled-up characters. This movie was such a treat because I got to play all that initially, and then let it all out, which was very cathartic and fun.
“He may not be heroic, but he’s the hero of this movie.”
Can you talk about working with Director E.L. Katz and developing your character over a compressed 14-day shoot?
We shot the beginning and the end of the movie first, with Amanda Fuller, who plays my wife. So I knew how I started and I knew what I looked like when I was done. That gave me a really good barometer of where I needed to go. The makeup was so good. I was looking at it under fluorescent lights at one point, and there was something that clicked in my mind that this is what this guy really looks like deep down on the inside. Like Breaking Bad, no one wakes up one day and decides to be a bad person, there’s already something about them. I spoke to Evan (E.L.) about it. You can enjoy the movie as a story about a good guy that suddenly turns, or you can look at it like he’s someone that’s not in touch with his feelings. He’s living the life that he thinks he should. There are some hints that maybe he lived a bit of a rougher life before, but now he’s conformed, and has the nice parted hair and the glasses and the job and the family. All it takes for someone like that, who is hanging on by a very slender thread, is the perfect storm of bad external circumstances to bring out whoever is really on the inside. It’s a crazy movie and there are all kinds of crazy things that happen to me, but what I liked is that I got to play this character realistically. If you play this story for laughs, big, then it’s silly. But if you play it realistically, straightforward like a drama, then you believe it. So we got to a place where we were playing it for real.
Did you get a chance to rehearse?
Not really. We did one read through, which David Koechner couldn’t attend. We shot with two cameras, and sometimes we didn’t even know if they were getting what we were doing. We knew what we were doing was great, but we wouldn’t know where the cameras were, which I now realize was by design. It has this sort of voyeuristic feel, like you’re in the house with them, watching from around the corner. Sometimes we were just doing things that we hadn’t rehearsed at all and hopefully everyone knew their lines, which they did. We did one or two takes. There’s nothing we shot that isn’t in the movie except for the first thing we did, where we took a little camera to show me on a bus going to work in the morning. But pretty much everything we shot ended up in the movie, that’s how crazy it was.
Worse things happen in earlier versions of the script, if you can believe it. But we never wanted Craig to leave the house and go and get robbed or some ironic twist. The sort of twist is that there is no twist. He may not be heroic, but he’s the hero of this movie. That last shot certainly gives you something to chew on. Some people will applaud it, some will sit in stunned silence, but everyone talks about it. In South Korea, when we screened the film, I’m told that I was thought of as a superhero, and this is like a superhero origin story, and I am a great father that goes to these great lengths to provide for his family. That was just one interpretation of the movie.
Was there any room for improvisation during such a short shoot?
The script was really tight, so there wasn’t any room for story improvisation. There are little lines and flourishes here and there that David does. It was almost like doing a play. There was a great quote from a writer for the NY Star Ledger, Stephen Whitty, who wrote that it “plays out like some scummy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” That’s kind of what it is. We love Tracy Letts’ plays like Bug and Killer Joe, and this movie is kind of a tightly contained 4-character chamber piece, except with cocaine and cleavers and blood. And because of the way they shot it, with two cameras, it really felt like a play, and there wasn’t too much room for improvisation.