Interview: Richard Bates Jr. (‘King Knight’)

If you have seen one or more of Richard Bates Jr.‘s films, you know that his work has a vibe all its own. Whether it’s his stunningly horrific debut (Excision), a turn towards lighter-hearted horror comedy (Suburban Gothic), or far darker musings (Trash Fire, Tone-Deaf), his movies are one-of-a-kind experiences guaranteed to leave a mark on each viewer. King Knight, which recently made its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival, is no different.

I was lucky enough to get to speak with Richard about both King Knight and his career in general. I hope you enjoy what came of that conversation…

Your films have a very specific flavor to them. Obviously this one’s a more lighter-hearted like Suburban Gothic, but a Richard Bates Jr. film is a very distinctive thing, often with very dark themes that tend to polarize audiences.

That’s what I’m told!

It’s a good thing! It’s a big part of why I always make it a point to see your work. Which brings us to your latest film, of course. What was the inspiration behind King Knight?

When I wrote it, the whole world was falling apart around me. I was so bogged down by the news and everything going on around me. There was so much turmoil. What should I write right now? I said “You should write something to make yourself happy and maybe it will make someone else happy too.” I just had to erase the shit in the world. I also sort of realized I would like to make a movie about witches, but as my protagonists. I love witches. Half my library of books are Wiccan and I have friends who are Wiccan. So the idea was to flip things around and make a lighthearted movie about really eclectic Wiccans. I grew up in the south with Southern Baptist family members and the very notion of witchcraft is evil to them. But [Wiccans] are really just lovely people looking for the same answers to the same questions as everyone else. Frankly, that religion probably appeals to me more than any other religion that I’ve discovered.

So the idea was to do that and treat it like this almost this kind of…you know all my movies are farcical and take place in a heightened version of reality, but I stripped this one of the cynicism. I really tried to love everyone. Every character. I though, “What movies make me happy. What do I come back to?” ’90s John Waters movies. They’re all so nice and I was thinking about Pecker. If I’m bummed as fuck or some shit, I will watch Pecker, because that movie cheers me up. It’s silly and it’s provocative, but it’s also so sweet. You know, he loves these characters no matter what ridiculous thing they’re doing. So [I wanted to] treat everyone kind of like that, so I’m not preaching to the audience myself. I’m not treating these witches as holier than thou or reverential. It’s an equal playing field so people aren’t hesitant to sort of fall in love with them. They just hopefully will over time.

The influence of John Waters is apparent on your films, even setting aside the fact that he’s in both of your first two movies. I can really see all of that and the film itself has a really strong message about accepting other people’s differences and beliefs. Accepting for who they are, even if it runs counter to your own beliefs in life. That’s a very powerful and positive message, especially with the way the world has gone over the past 5 or 6 years. I mentioned earlier that your movies have a very specific vibe to them. Obviously that vibe might not gel with a lot of people, so I also found that message of acceptance to possibly be a bit of a meta-commentary on an audience’s relationship with your films. As though you are also saying it’s ok if people don’t like your movies. People can like what they like. Let everyone be who they are as long as they’re not hurting anyone.

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely there. You know, I’m certain of it. It’s sort of like being at peace with it, if you will. Embracing that and it’s sort of a reason… you know it’s a lot of work to make a movie. Maybe even more so to put a small movie together, especially if you’re doing a number of the tasks yourself. I need some reason that motivates me, that drives me, to make it. So like what you just said, the reactions to my life and the world around me are in there. What you see is what you get with the film and that’s kind of what I try to do with every one of these movies. Just make them like journal entries, you know? Because I can watch any of my things and know and feel what was happening in my life then. I don’t know, maybe I’m making some sort of a record something to leave behind one day? I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. I’m just trying to really go with my gut.

I think you are doing just that. I enjoy all kinds of films, but I tend to find ones that are more personal statements…no matter what the subject matter or the tone…are generally my favorite kinds of movies. Even as someone who doesn’t make movies, I can watch a movie again and still remember what kind of frame of mind I was in the first time I watched it. So I can absolutely see that being the same for you watching one of your own movies. I’m sure it recalls all the memories that went behind the writing of it and then the making of it as well.

Absolutely, yeah.

All five of your movies have a runtime between 80 to 90 minutes and I bring that up not as any sort of negative, but simply because a lot of films these days tend to run between 2 and 2 1/2 hours long. Even indie movies. I was just curious if you had a preference for more concise storytelling or if it’s merely just a coincidence that it’s worked out that way?

I have a preference for more concise storytelling. That’s a fact. There’s probably 5 minutes I wish I would have cut out of Suburban Gothic. In the moment, you fall in love with all these little bits and pieces, but I do try to keep them concise. It’s almost more important to me that someone watches one of them more than once, than if they sit through a long movie one time. I’m hoping for repeat viewings because I’m hoping that there’s enough beneath the surface to discover where it feels worth every repeat viewing. Look, with my movies, some people really like them. Some people really hate them. But then there’s that handful that love them and don’t feel like they’re getting movies made for them. That’s my sweet spot, you know what I mean? That gives me purpose. That’s a reason to do this.

Do you have anything coming up next? I know you had mentioned a few years back that you also had a thriller in the works, but I was just curious as to what you currently have on the way.

In January, my father passed away. He was kind of my hero. I love my dad. So I’m trying to write a movie about him. I want it to be perfect and it’s not good enough yet. I’m not gonna do anything until I do that; anything in the world. So eventually I will make that movie, but it’s just not good enough yet. On a lighter note, my dad did see King Knight before he passed. His final review of one of my movies is “You know son, I really enjoyed it, but I could have done without all the poop stuff.” That’s his immortalized final review.

That’s a pretty great one. My condolences for losing your father earlier this year.

Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

Well, I’ll let you go. Hopefully I can talk to you again on whatever your next movie is, whether it’s the one about your dad or something else.

Yes, please! Daniel, for the love of God, please do!

I will go out of my way to do it, I promise!

I urge you all to seek King Knight out once it arrives, as well as backtrack and see Excision (if you haven’t already). It’s easily one of my favorite films of the last 20 years. And maybe take a gander John Waters’ Pecker too, while you’re at it, because it makes Richard happy.

King Knight is an original indie comedy. It was written and directed by Richard Bates Jr.. The film was produced by Robert Higginbotham, Colin Tanner, Richard Bates Jr., Brit DeLillo, Leigh Poindexter, and Shaheen Seth. It stars Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Kate Comer, Andy Milonakis, Josh Fadem, Johnny Pemberton, Shane Brady, Swati Kapila, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise, Alice Glass, AnnaLynne McCord, and Aubrey Plaza.

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