This writer has been fortunate to have covered all of Richard Bates Jr.’s films ever since he exploded onto the scene in 2012 with his stunner, Excision. Ricky’s latest project is King Knight, which follows the high priest of a modern-day coven (played hilariously by Matthew Gray Gubler), who finds himself dealing with a bit of an existential crisis after he gets invited to attend his 20th high school reunion.
Also written by Bates Jr., King Knight features a brilliant ensemble featuring the likes of the aforementioned Gubler, as well as Angela Sarafayan, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise, Andy Milonakis, Emily Change, Kate Comer, Nelson Franklin, Josh Fadem, Johnny Pemberton, and Swati Kapila.
King Knight celebrated its world premiere this weekend as part of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival, and to mark the occasion, Daily Dead spoke with Richard Bates Jr. about the inspiration behind his heartwarming celebration of Wicca, putting together his cast, and more.
Hey, Ricky. Great to speak with you today. I watched the movie last night because I wanted it to be fresh in my mind and I just gotta say that I really loved King Knight.
Richard Bates Jr.: You could not make me feel any happier by saying that. This was purely made out of love, quite frankly.
When I was watching this movie, I began thinking about the different movies from different phases of your life, because we've been talking for years now. This feels like a really, really personal story in a lot of ways, and I was wondering if you could discuss the inspiration behind it. Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but I got the sense that this project was you finding a new place in the world.
Richard Bates Jr.: Well, let's see. At the time when I was writing it, it felt like the world was crumbling around me with Trump and then all the turmoil and everything. And I realized that I didn't know what I should write right now. Then I realized, “Why am I saying ‘should?’ I'm just going to write what I want to and I think the right thing to do is just to try to make a movie that would make me happy and that will hopefully make other people happy, too.”
And so I just said to myself, "You know what? I'm going to write a movie and I'm going to go make it. I'm not going to ask anyone. I'm not going to go pitch it. I'm not going to take someone's money and do what they want. I'm going to make it with whatever I can figure out." A witch movie had been pitched to me, a horror film. I realized, looking at that, that the witches are the good guys. Like, how are the witches not the good guys? They are probably the most kind, peace-loving people there are out there. I grew up in the South with all my Southern Baptist family members and stuff, where the very notion of a witch or witchcraft was evil and Satanic.
So the idea was to treat witches the way you would treat any characters you loved in a comedy, and then by the end of the movie, viewers will recognize that these are just fun people looking for the same answers to the same questions as everyone else. Then when I started doing that, I created a farcical version of reality, where it's heightened like in a lot of my other movies, but with this, I just approached it without any cynicism. I just tried to love all the characters and I was thinking of what movies make me happy, like '90s John Waters movies. If I watch Pecker, I'm happy. I love it. It's silly and it's provocative, but he loves these characters and their flaws and their insecurities and he treats them with love.
Also, I had to keep myself in check, too, because I want people to love witches, but I can't treat them reverentially or I'm preaching to people. I just have to show their humanity and they're not killing people or committing atrocities or whatever. So I tried to make sure and walk that fine line, and I had my friends who are witches read the script to make sure it was fun and funny to them, without being inconsiderate. So, once we found that balance, I did my thing and we all got together and made a movie.
And it works so well. And I love this idea of kind of creating your own family and the different dynamics between the group, and that really comes through with the performers and everybody. You've worked with Matthew before, multiple times, and there's just something really endearing about him in King Knight and his journey as Thorn here that I just absolutely adored. I was wondering if you could talk about working with Matthew and this cast, because there's just such a real naturalism to the dynamics between all these characters, which made it easy for me to fall in love with everybody.
Richard Bates Jr.: This film was such an ensemble piece. We got to make an art poster for the festival, and I made sure every single member is on the poster because it's such an ensemble movie and I'm so excited about the cast. When you direct a movie, you get approval over a lot of things, but sometimes you don't get final approval over everything about the cast. It's not entirely yours. And I think a huge part of directing is casting. So with this, it was so cool because part of the idea was just us just doing it ourselves. There's not a single person in the movie who I didn't want in that role and even to make doubly sure, I negotiated all the contracts with the agents and did all that myself. I'd never done that before. I had to learn how to do that.
But the cast is so important for this and it was just fun. The idea was to make it feel like we were in my parents' backyard back when I was a kid or something. [Matthew] Gubler's one of my good friends. I was looking through so many female actors for the right Willow. Josh Fadem said, "I think I know who would be great," and then he recommended Angela. It was just like, "Yes." And Angela is the coolest. She is awesome and was so game for everything. She’s also such a great dramatic actress that she just worked so well for our approach to treating everything completely dramatic with Willow. She's so good.
Andy, Kate, and Johnny I'd worked with before. Josh, I'd always wanted to work with. Emily was perfectly paired with Nelson, who I went to college with. He was in all my student films. And Ray is like my fucking hero. I love Ray. I wrote the character of Merlin as a combination of my dad, my favorite film school teacher, and Ray Wise himself. When I called Ray, I thought I was going to maybe have to convince him to play Merlin. I was like, "Ray, who on earth doesn't want to see you as Merlin?" And he paused for a second, and said, totally dead serious, "You know something, Rick? I'd like to see that myself." He just showed up and it was amazing.
And Barbara is someone who I have been a fan of forever. Re-Animator is one of the horror comedies that I saw when I was younger and I was like, "Oh, that tone. I want to make things like that." So it was such an honor that she did this film. I'd never met her before, but she was so nice and now we've grown close. She's amazing. Everyone was amazing, really. It was just so much fun.
Before we go, though, I have a story that I have to tell you. This is a fun one. So you know when Gubes [Matthew] gets in the rideshare, and he doesn't know he had a group ride? The lady in that car is actually the office manager at my psychiatrist's office. It was like two years ago, and I saw she was watching Criminal Minds on her laptop. I went up to her and I was like, "Oh, my friend's on that show." She said, "Who?” I said, "Matthew." And she freaked out. She is a huge fan of his. So, when I was putting King Knight together, I called her at the office, and asked her, "Do you want to be in a movie with Matthew?" And she was like, "Shut up." I was like, "No, I'm serious, Allie. A movie with Matthew." And she was like, "You better not be kidding." So she literally took work off the next day, showed up, and she got to be in a movie with Matthew. The next time I saw my psychiatrist, he said, "You can't put Allie in any more of your movies" [laughs].
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[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of King Knight LLC.]