For his fourth feature film, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. chronicles a darkly comic conflict between a millennial and a baby boomer who are both out of touch with reality. At SXSW 2019, Culture Crypt asked the filmmaker for his thoughts about “Tone-Deaf,” its themes, and the personal connection to his storytelling style.
Culture Crypt: At the Screamfest premiere of “Trash Fire” in 2016, Adrian Grenier did a video introduction in which he affectionately referred to you as an “auteur nutjob.”
Richard Bates Jr.: Well yeah, I guess some people keep saying that.
Culture Crypt: Do you think that’s accurate for a two-word summary of your style?
Richard Bates Jr.: I just make movies the way I like them. I try to intellectualize the script, but then in the process I just do what I like. I guess it’s weird to some people. But I think the thing is you have to make movies you want to watch. That’s the most important thing, right?
Culture Crypt: “Excision” had a high school backdrop. “Suburban Gothic” progressed to post-college adulthood. “Trash Fire” included a coupling aspect. Now “Tone-Deaf” sees a breakup being a catalyst for finding one’s identity through independence once again.
Richard Bates Jr.: For me, I always wanted to be able to watch every movie I made and have it give me a sense of that time in my life. It was kind of like high school, college, trying to be an adult, 20-year-old idiot me, you know. And with this movie, I actually decided to step back because the other movies sort of deal with the minutiae of people’s personal traumas.
Richard Bates Jr.: With “Tone-Deaf,” I tried to make a cultural artifact. Something that would say something about the generational divide that exists, that always exists, but specifically the current one. Clearly with the 2016 election and all that stuff, I’ve become fascinated with how we are going to be viewed in the context of history. And movies have value in terms of being cultural artifacts, so I wanted to just contribute a little crazy something to that.
Culture Crypt: So you’re conscious of that timeline progression when you write your scripts?
Richard Bates Jr.: Yes, I’m conscious of it every time I go into it because it has to be something I can look back on and it matters to me. It’s a whole lot of work, but you want it to be entertaining too. I’m a showman at heart more than anything. That’s why we created this heightened reality in “Tone-Deaf.” So that you didn’t feel like you were watching the news and bogged down in this dumb sh*t. That there is still a sense of escapism.
Culture Crypt: What goes into creating that texture? Specifically, you always include minor character moments that can go unnoticed. Like when Agnes spits as she comes off the porch after meeting Olive. What goes into making that moment?
Richard Bates Jr.: The throughline of the movie is we are all full of sh*t. Everyone’s a hypocrite. So the idea was if I’m trying to make a point about anything, I’ve got to go just as hard on everyone. You can’t be one-sided and you’ve got to make the audience laugh if they’re going to take anything away from it. So we made every character a hypocrite even down to such ridiculous degrees as when Agnes says, “keep the place clean,” and then makes a mess herself. Every little character nuance is thematic. Every ridiculous thing has a pretentious thought behind it.
Culture Crypt: Harvey has multiple monologues bemoaning millennials. There are a number of buzzwords and references in there about coexist bumper stickers, fedora wearing hipsters, etc. Does that commentary come from you mirroring some of those same sentiments or is the intention to satirize those kinds of criticisms?
Richard Bates Jr.: Well no, I’m a millennial Liberal Arts student! The most important thing was not to make a “conservatives are bad” movie because I could do that with my eyes closed. It was to make fun of myself just as much, even in the title of the movie, which was the title from the second I wrote the script.
Richard Bates Jr.: I do these genre mash-ups always in every movie. They’re kind of more inspired by music in the sense that, you know, I’d rather shoot myself than listen to a one-note tone poem. So the idea is like these Girl Talk albums. Here’s a dance song with samples of every genre of music, but it’s a dance song. My biggest thing is here’s a horror movie, but we’re sampling, and we’re consistently hitting the beats over and over and over again. That’s the approach. Everyone had to be marked; otherwise I’m not doing anything interesting if I’m just preaching to the choir. I had to make fun of myself too.
Culture Crypt: What would you like to say about “Tone-Deaf” that no one has really brought up yet?
Richard Bates Jr.: Hopefully the movie speaks for itself and hopefully people enjoy it. Every filmmaker obviously wants their movie to be watched in a theater. “Tone-Deaf” was made for a theater. It requires audience participation. The hero and villain, and again, the line’s very blurred between them, are competing for the audience’s favor because it’s supposed to be this cultural artifact where everyone’s a star on social media. The idea is they can’t be contained by this movie. Harvey has something to say to you and he’s going to say it. And Olive doesn’t even know she’s in a horror movie until the third act. She has no idea. Harvey accidentally opens her eyes to the fact that this world is f*cked up, then she’s apathetic at the piano, and then she does something about it. She breaks the wall and says, “this is my movie going forward you f*ck” while he’s just finished living his John Wayne fantasy.
Richard Bates Jr.: The idea was to really have the characters be fighting for the movie. Not even for the audience, but for it to be their movie. The idea behind the Awkwafina song playing was, what song would Harvey hate the f*cking most? Olive would pick that song, you know what I mean? It’s about them fighting each other. We had a lot of fun with it.