Shoot to Thrill

Sara Paxton on all the awkward and awesome moving parts behind E.L. Katz's 'Cheap Thrills'

Shoot to Thrill

Acting is a game of dares. Sometimes those dares can get pretty awkward. Just ask Sara Paxton, who had to get hot and heavy with her co-star Pat Healy for new morality play Cheap Thrills, and that's just one step on a shadowy path. "There were so many moments when I just didn't want to be there," she said. "When we finished, I was in a dark place. I was like, 'I need to go watch You've Got Mail.'"

Cheap Thrills follows the worst night possible for Craig (Healy), a failed author-turned-auto-mechanic who suddenly finds himself unemployed. That's when he runs into high-school-friend-turned-loan-shark-enforcer Vince (Ethan Embry), who introduces him to a mysterious couple, Violet (Paxton) and Colin (Anchorman's David Koechner). They have money to burn, and they're willing to drop some of that cash on Vince and Craig in a series of escalating dares and challenges. Things get weird and messy pretty fast. Think of it as a twisted kin to Brewster's Millions or Trading Places, as the super-rich duo stack bills on bills in front of their blue-collar puppets. After premiering at South by Southwest 2013, it was acquired by local distribution house Drafthouse Films in a torrent of festival audience buzz and rave reviews. Paxton said, "I liked the film, obviously, but you just don't expect that kind of response. People were being turned away because of the lines." Part of its allure was two simple underlying questions: How far would you go for money, and how much money would it take you to go even further? "The message that really grossed me out and made me question things is: 'Everyone has a price. What's yours?' What would you do if you were in Craig's position, being evicted, with his baby?" mused Paxton. "Anyone can be bought, and that really freaked me out."

As the bored and seemingly endlessly wealthy Violet, Paxton becomes the silent instigator of the increasingly perverse challenges. Paxton said, "A lot of the time, the camera isn't on me, or I'm just on the other side of the room playing with my phone, so I got to watch a lot of the action." Her view included a critically lauded performance from Koechner, with the former star of The Office defying expectations as the charming but manipulative money man. Paxton said, "Maybe with someone else, they would have played him straight-up malevolent the whole time, and that's boring." Yet when she first heard the Anchorman star's name attached to the project, she worked through the same preconceptions as everyone else. "I'm just thinking, 'Champ Kind?' But you need his comedy. In a way, it's funny, but it makes it scarier. You don't feel safe with him, then there's the moments where he goes full-blown dark and you think, 'Holy shit, this is an actor. He's not being a comedian anymore.' There's this darkness that is terrifying."

She had a similar blast of cognitive dissonance when she heard that Nineties geeky teen heartthrob Embry would play troubled heavy Vince. "I'm going, 'Can't Hardly Wait?' I grew up with him, and I'm remembering his baby face. All of a sudden, he walks in and he's fucking ripped. He's got the tats and the beard and the shaved head, and I'm like, 'This is not the Ethan Embry I remember.'"

At least she was on familiar ground with Pat Healy, whom she called "my bro." They became close friends on the set of Ti West's 2011 classic contemporary ghost story The Innkeepers, but that isn't this film's only connection to the lo-fi, character-driven horror scene sometimes known as mumblegore. Cheap Thrills director E.L. Katz worked on two films (A Horrible Way to Die and What Fun We Were Having) with two scene mainstays, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, who in turn cast West in another SXSW favorite, 2013 home-invasion black comedy You're Next. Paxton said, "[Katz] called me because he was a big fan of Innkeepers. He told me, 'I thought you were really great, and it would be really interesting to do completely the opposite of why I liked you in Innkeepers.'"

Few people watching Paxton's previous films would expect a character as malicious as Violet. Most recently seen in Bryan Poyser's Austin-set relationship comedy Love & Air Sex, she's famous in horror circles as the blond victim in multiplex fare like Shark Night 3D and the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left. That said, she's quick to admit that she's most like The Innkeepers' mousy desk clerk, Claire. She credits/blames Healy, who played the lovelorn wannabe ghosthunter Luke, for convincing her to jump into Cheap Thrills' cesspit. "Most of the time, when I get a script and read about the character, I think, 'Oh, there's a small sliver of this person in me,' or 'I've met this person,'" she said. Not so with the moral black hole that is Violet. "There's not a shred of this girl in me. She's a psychopath, and it takes all this crap to get her off. So I was terrified and didn't think I could pull this off. Then Pat called me and said, 'I know you're thinking about this, and I think it would be really great if we worked together again.'"

Healy's brilliance as an actor ("One word: Compliance.") as well as their close friendship convinced her to get over her fear. Yet having a good friend on set still didn't make filming easier. It was an intense, 14-night shoot, most of it sealed in "a cramped room, middle of summer, no air conditioning, with these tensions rising." As the voyeuristic and manipulative Violet, she had a ringside seat as Craig and Vince edge further into horror in search of a quick but far-from-easy buck. She said, "Seeing Pat scream like that, it really shook me. I was terrified."

But the gore was nothing compared to what Paxton gleefully calls "the creepy sex scene," as Violet sees exactly what her money can buy. What makes it most shocking is that, for much of the film, Violet lounges in the background as Colin eggs Craig and Vince on. Paxton calls those scenes "a different kind of acting challenge. I can't just sit there and be set dressing. I have to portray something with just facial expressions and my natural creepy energy."

That particular scene, however, required her to be much more hands-on. Literally. "I don't remember anything from that day," said Paxton. "It was so uncomfortable. I had to erase all things in my brain that I'm not using because Pat's like a brother to me." Before shooting, she told Katz, "It has to be choreographed somewhat, otherwise I'm going to get nervous. That way, I can let everything else fall aside.'" Not that she thinks the sequence was any easier on Healy. "We came to this unspoken agreement: 'We know that this is uncomfortable; let's just zero in and do it.'" She credits Koechner with blocking out much of the scene's pacing, and making the scene one of the movie's most disturbing and meaningful sequences. "Every person has their own little mini-moment in that moment, so we had to choreograph every beat." The result is one of the most deliberately and profoundly unerotic sex scenes in cinematic history, as Violet and Craig engage in mirthless, joyless, no-eye-contact rutting. Paxton recalled, "Pat's in a Speedo and I'm humping him. I'm just, 'Ew, I can't handle it.'"

Cheap Thrills opens in theatres Friday, March 21, and is available on VOD now. For a complete review, see Film Listings.

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Cheap Thrills, E.L. Katz, Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Drafthouse Films, Ti West, Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, South by Southwest

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