This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 293: Writer/Director Richard Bates Jr. On His New Horror / Thriller, Tone-Deaf.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #293 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer and director Richard Bates Jr. He’s a writer and director who just did a cool horror film called Tone-Deaf. We’ll be talking through his career, he’s written and directed four features, and then of course we’ll dig into this new film as well. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s jump into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer and director Richard Bates Jr. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Richard to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Richard: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it as well.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Richard: I grew up in Virginia and I always was so fascinated by different kinds of people and different places. I didn’t get to travel that much so I would just spend every weekend, every second I could [inaudible 00:03:04] movies and discovering all these different interesting kinds of people and places and it was as close to travelling and experiencing new things as I could get. I know what a profound impact that had on me so I wanted to try to do that for someone else.
Ashley: Yeah. So growing up in Virginia, how did you kind of feel like you were gonna actually make that happen? I actually grew up in Maryland, so not too far from there. And I always just sort of felt like… you know, I didn’t have a lot of role models. I didn’t know people that were in the business, so it was difficult to try and make that leap. How did you feel about it? How did you go about trying to make that leap?
Richard: Let’s see. So I moved to New York after high school and I went to a film school and I made a short film senior year. And then I moved out to Hollywood or to Los Angeles, whatever the hell you wanna call it, and I PA’d for a while and I wrote this feature version of it and I sent it to a bunch of people and they all said it was a terrible piece of shit. Luckily I was in my early 20’s and arrogant enough not to listen to anyone. I just spent the next few years getting people coffee and raising the money myself to go make it and try to prove them wrong. I didn’t change a single thing in the script, I had about 30 plus producers, tons of people that I grew up with. I would walk around my high school with a video camera.
I was always like this movie nerd, so everyone from back in the day sort of knew me as that, so people were interested in investing. We didn’t change a thing in the script and then we shot it and then it got into Sundance and I sort of got a manager and I got to start my career.
Ashley: I see. Perfect. Yeah, that’s a good summation. Thank you for that. Let’s dig into your latest film, Tone-Deaf. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Richard: I just simply put it as a satire about the generational divide in the United States of America right now, from one man’s perspective.
Ashley: I see. And where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of it?
Richard: Well, I mean, there’s no sense in really intellectualizing it. I was watching the news with my wife and I asked her what scares her the most in the world right now and she simply turned to me and said, “Old men.” And I walked into my little writing corner and I started trying to figure out a way to concoct a movie about that that I thought was worth making. And so I guess from a story perspective and a structural perspective I was most inspired by music. I’m out there every week trying to sell scripts, ideas, and you really have to work with five or six story structures if you do wanna get something sold, which is crazy now because there’s more content being made that ever, but I do… my experience is that the rules are more rigid than ever.
So music excites me more than anything right now because there are no rules. Experimentation is almost mainstream when it comes to music. No one ever complains about a rain stick being in the background of an indie rock. The approach to this movie was to create a movie as if we were creating like a dance track or a hip hop album, so to create it through sampling. So we jumped form coming of age to slasher horror to absurdist comedy in equal increments throughout the film and hopefully that represents what this sort of bombardment of social media and information that over the course of 24 hours it feels like you can be living in 15 different movies.
Richard: Yeah. That’s fascinating. Let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Just a couple of quick questions to kinda understand how you write. Where do you typically write? Do you have a home office, do you like to go out to Starbucks and be around people?
Richard: Oh, I don’t wanna be around people when I’m writing or when I’m not writing.
Ashley: I got you [laughs].
Richard: I have a dog, I have a wife, I like them both. That’s about it. When I wrote this I was living in for about 10 years my wife and I lived in this one-bedroom apartment. She made a nice little corner for me to write so I guess I’ve written every movie I’ve made in my living room. But we just moved into a little house and now I’ve got a garage that I write in.
Ashley: Nice. When do you typically write? Are you a morning person, evening person? What is your… when you’re gonna spend a day writing, what does your day look like?
Richard: Let’s see, when I wrote Excision and Suburban Gothic I wrote at night. I usually start writing at midnight and end writing at six am. And then now I usually with Trash Fire and with Tone-Deaf I usually start writing at like 7:00 am and stop at 6:00 pm.
Ashley: Okay, so like a normal work day. How much time do you spend preparing when you’re writing a script, and we can use Tone-Deaf as the example. How much time do you spend doing the outline, the index cards versus how much time are you actually in final draft actually writing the pages?
Richard: I usually spend, let’s see, with my earlier films, right, there’s sort of sequence. There’s a, b and c and then it’s progressive then yes. These films, especially a film like Tone-Deaf it’s your more typical story structure, so I spend a good amount of time with that and what makes it different is that if I were to have shot Tone-Deaf straight forward and grounded and not created this heightened reality and added a satirical bend basically I think what I’m trying to say is, if you wanna get away with these tonal shifts and all these crazy things you have to have a very heightened structure. And then you can start subverting it.
But usually now I start with a very basic structure, plot it all out and then I start rearranging then puzzle pieces and I start, usually I delineate x number of pages for genre because I am completely committed right now to creating these kind of mashups because I do think or I hope that film will get there and that there will not be these kind of rules that, you know, a lot of filmmakers, and it’s a thing, there’s film schools now and I went to one and you were taught these rules that you had to adhere to, you know, this sustain tone, this sort of speaking in vagaries and I think that a lot of filmmakers only watch movies and I think that films become more and more interesting when you are inspired by other things. You go to museums, you look at photography, music, sculpture.
I think you have to have a well-rounded artistic background to attempt to do anything interesting. But that’s, you know, I’m just one asshole.
Ashley: No I got you. I totally agree. So how do you post your screenplay structure? You keep mentioning with this one that the structure it was kind of a mashup so you want it to have a really tight structure. What does that actually mean to you? Maybe you can kinda talk about your feelings of structure. The Blake Snyder has a very, you know, sort of paradigm that he uses. How do you feel about that? Maybe just your take on structure in general and what you did with Tone-Deaf?
Richard: Well, yeah. I mean, I’m sure I hit most of those Save The Cat beats right, on the first show around. And then it… you can only do so much with that. I don’t have these grand aspirations to make the next Hollywood blockbuster, I’m trying to create a catalogue of unique personal films. I use that as a foundation but I try to break free from it afterwards. But I think you have to start with something grounded and you have to know structure. You have to know these things and spend a lot of time teaching yourself before you can start fucking with them.
Ashley: Yeah. For sure. What does your development process look like? You wrote a draft of the script, do you have some trusted writer, producer, director friends that you pass it to? What does that look like for you, how do you get notes and how do you take those notes and who do you send it to?
Richard: Well, you gotta… let’s see, what do I usually do? I usually knock out a first draft quickly, it’s a piece of shit and then I… by about the third or fourth draft it’s good enough to show someone. I see what people think then I push it to the limit for the first time I have people, I do things that are maybe even more bizarre than I necessarily want to because I just wanna get sort of a litmus test to see if it’s even in the ball park of maybe getting away with, and then I see what the consensus is and I have several friends that are more, that take a more Hollywood approach and they have very valid opinions, and then I have other writer friends that are more experimental and they have valid opinions the I try to take everything with a grain of salt but listen because it is important. It is important to be able to take notes.
Ashley: Sure. Once you had a script that you thought was pretty good, you’re comfortable with it, what were those next steps to actually raising the money, getting it to a producer and getting this thing produced?
Richard: Well, let’s see, I sent out my scripts to my management company [inaudible 00:13:56], no one wanted to make it, I guess some guy called the company and asked… said, “I got a lot of money I wanna release a movie. Send me some scripts.” He picked mine. We were getting ready to go and shoot and then he dropped out so I lost it and then, you know, usually I always lose a movie once or twice before it actually happens, you just get used to being fucked with.
Ashley: Yeah, no kidding.
Richard: Or fucked over. I mean, I don’t celebrate making a movie until it’s even, till it’s cut. I certainly don’t put it out there beforehand, it feels like jinxing it. You’re asking for trouble by even trying to do something as insane as this. These things eventually come together and it did. It’s sort of like, I call it the Oprah Winfrey test. It’s like I could make a movie that’s totally fucking insane that my mother would hate, right? But that very same movie if Oprah Winfrey said it was good my mom would love it. And when you have a script that is maybe weird, for instance, what happened with Tone-Deaf was I don’t think it was particularly well received then someone else expressed interest in it then they paid closer attention to it, right?
So it’s completely and started to the process of getting it made. I think that’s kinda how it works. Now there’s a million ways to make a movie and there’s absolutely no right way to do it, you just have to do it. My next movie, I’ve got one sort of bigger one down the pipeline, but I’ve got this pagan comedy I wrote that no one would finance by virtue of the fact it’s a pagan comedy and you try selling that shit. So I send it to my buddy Matthew Gray Gubler and he liked it and we just said, “Screw it, we’re just gonna make it.” We’re actually in pre-production on it now and we’ll be shooting in a little less than a month but we’re just shooting at our houses and friends’ houses and all that.
I get sick and tired of people with more money than I’ll ever see in my life complaining they can’t get their movies made. If I waited for the perfect situation to make one movie I wouldn’t have a single movie. It’s about doing the work, right? So I’m not gonna let anyone stop me.
Ashley: Yeah. That’s great advice and I hope people really listen to what you just said because I couldn’t agree with you more. How can people see Tone-Deaf? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Richard: It’s actually next Friday, the 23rd, it comes out I think it’s 15 theater theatrical. I know for a fact it’s playing in New York, in LA and I think Cleveland. Forget the other locations I need to get sent that but it’s also gonna have a Blu-ray release, it’ll be Video On Demand, iTunes. All that stuff. The Blu-ray was really good and there’s a featurette on it chronicling my weight fluctuation that I think everyone will enjoy.
Ashley: Alright. We’ll definitely check that out. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up and put in the show notes but you can just tell us what that is now.
Richard: Yeah, there’s really no good way. I mean, I don’t like social media, I don’t do it, it makes me sad. I’m on Facebook for five more days or whatever until the movie comes out and then I’m off of it until the next one. If you wanna see them I guess seek them out if you don’t there’s plenty of other movies out there.
Ashley: Yeah. Perfect. Well, thank you Richard for coming on and talking with me. Good luck with this film and good luck with your future projects as well.
Richard: Hey, thanks for having me man, I really appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select Screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service. You can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS Podcast Episode #222. I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get success to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the Newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads. We have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.
There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They’re looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots- all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years. So you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about please got to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing director Shaun Ku. He just directed a film called A Score To Settle and we talk about this film and what he looks for in a screenplay, so keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Richard. I thought it was interesting that his next film is gonna be a small micro-budget Indie film. I admire that attitude just so much. Almost everyone who’s ever worked in Hollywood has trouble getting films financed and I think it’s great that he’s not gonna wait around for something to happen, he’s not gonna wait around for someone to green-light him, he’s going to green-light himself on whatever budget he can pull together. And I think this is really a great attitude and I think it’s the attitude you really need in this business if you’re going to be successful.
Hopefully you’re not in this just for the money so the love of doing a cool project, even if it doesn’t make any money, hopefully that appeals to you. And I think ultimately doing what Richard said, building a body of work that you’re proud of can only lead to good things. Even if those good things are just feeling creatively fulfilled, getting out there, doing the work, pushing stuff out there for the world to see, that’s moving your career forward and it doesn’t always feel like it. Doing a short film, it may not make into Sundance or some of these other things and it may feel like a disappointment in some regards but trust me, if you’re consistently doing work and consistently getting better people will eventually notice and you will make contacts.
You will build a network of people and you will move up the ladder. So, really go out there, make your short film, make your micro-budget feature. In this day and age there’s really no excuses for not doing it at whatever budget level you can. Cameras, editing equipment, all this stuff is inexpensive and readily available. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.