Screamfest begins this week and the opening night film is Trash Fire. I saw Trash Fire at Sundance, and after the premiere midnight screening, writer/director Ricky Bates proposed to his girlfriend, now fiance, Noelle Cruze. I interviewed Bates and star AnnaLynne McCord at Sundance in what became an intimate, revealing interview for all three of us.
Trash Fire stars Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur as Owen and Isabel, a dysfunctional couple who go home to visit Owen’s family. Owen’s mother (Fionnula Flanagan) lives up to his descriptions of her, and his sister Pearl (McCord) won’t come out and see him since her childhood accident. Matthew Gray Gubler from Bates’ second film, Suburban Gothic, costars. Trash Fire plays Tuesday, October 18 at Screamfest and will be released in theaters and VOD November 4.
How long were you planning the proposal?
Ricky Bates: It was this thing actually. I was talking to Gubes with the conceit of making this was that this would be sort of a personal exorcism and I could in some way become a man, whatever that is, afterward. So the idea was that if the film was finished successfully, I was going to. So it was sort of in the works the second the script was written.
What were you going through when you were writing the script?
Ricky Bates: I had a rough time on the second movie and I just got really depressed. It was a fairly unpleasant experience for me and I just stopped leaving the apartment. I really put on like 60-70 pounds. I just sort of destroyed myself. Then I got this video one night. I was drinking and sitting on the couch, and this little girl, all this bad stuff happened to her. She sort of explained how that last movie was one of the only things that made her feel happy. So I cried, woke up the next morning and started writing. Wrote until I was done and then said you know what? Get out of the fucking apartment and go make your movie. No more of this bullshit. So I called my crazy friends and we made a movie.
Excision was such a breakthrough role for you. I had of course seen you on nip/tuck already, but were you aware Ricky was going through something? Did you try to cheer him up?
AnnaLynne McCord: Well, with Excision, that was our first film together and he was 26 and arrogant as fuck. He just was like, “Who is this? I don’t care if anybody knows her. She’s not going to be in my film.” He has a very specific vision about what he wants and I was not it.
Ricky Bates: You love saying that shit.
AnnaLynne McCord: I do. It makes me really happy. It makes me look really good. That’s why I say it. Underneath the blonde hair and the 90210ness of me, there’s a crazy weird little creep inside. He discovered her and then I knew to a certain extent that he’d fallen off the map in between Suburban Gothic, when I personally fell off the map and wasn’t in that film. I was technically kind of supposed to be in it.
Ricky Bates: When I’m losing it, she’s got it together. When she’s losing it…
AnnaLynne McCord: Yeah, we don’t have a bad day on the same day so that’s a good thing. Noelle, par of the reason the proposal was so serendipitous after this film was because Noelle pulled him through so much of the shit and stuck by him. They went through ups and downs and all that jazz. She’s been the pillar of all that stood strong. So the film was a purge. Then of course the movie has a Ricky ending but life has a Noelle ending. So the proposal was really cool, especially for Gubes and I because we were in on it it from the get go. I had to bring the ring. I literally had it in my vest pocket. I was so terrified.
Why do you introduce Trash Fire as a romantic comedy for serial killers?
Ricky Bates: There’s all these films that are so sympathetic towards depression. I wanted to be unflinching about how it made me so consumed with my own problems and selfish and show that side of it.
AnnaLynne McCord: I deal with manic depression in my family. I suffer from hypomania so I’m manic most of the time and then I crash into depression. I’m actually doing an episode of my talk show about mental illness. I’m talking all about being manic and dealing with life. So I fall off and all my friends are like, “Reach out.” I’m like, do you know how not easy it is to reach out? But you do realize that all the people around you suffer when you’re crashing. So having the self-awareness is what’s key. You’re going to go through it and you need to be accepting of that and loving and kind to yourself, and not beat yourself up on top of everything. But you also have to realize that everyone who loves you is in the shits too because you’re depressed.
You’re right, there are some movies about the wacky, kooky depression and we’re just now starting to see entertainment take a really honest look at it. Even Silver Linings Playbook showed how dangerous his episodes could be and the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows it’s not all fun musical numbers.
AnnaLynne McCord: Right, and it’s also not all you can’t get out of bed. For me, I have an anti-trafficking organization in Cambodia. I’ve go to show up. I’ve got to make money and put kids through college. For me, what I noticed when I dig down into a crash is it’s hard for me to do anything. Someone will ask me a question and I’ll fucking want to cry. Literally, it’s just that my brain is on overload. In a way I think it’s the body’s way to respond, to calm down. But it sends you so dark before you’re able to come back out of it. So it really takes a lot of work. I’ve started meditation. I’m trying to get these guys into it. All those things help but I think it’s been such a stigmatized thing. People are so fine to go to the hospital and put their leg in a cast if it’s broken, but they never put their brain in a cast. It’s a stigma. It’s ridiculous.
Thank God someone explained it to me when I was young. She said if you had bad eyesight, you’d wear glasses. You wouldn’t just try to tough it out with your eyes. So if you have a chemical condition, you can take medicine that helps. You don’t have to feel bad about it.
AnnaLynne McCord: Absolutely.
Ricky Bates: I like that. I like that.
When you say you still have to work when you’re having an episode, I wonder if I may be so compartmentalized that nobody even knows if I’m working through a rough time. Can that be bad too? You’ve got to share the right amount of “I’m still working but just so you know, it’s not a good time.”
AnnaLynne McCord: It’s literally what I started doing as of January 1 this year. It was one of my resolutions to let people know that hey, I’m doing this but I’m going through a personal time right now. The extra, the excess, I can’t pick up the slack. I can do what I have to do but I can’t do any more than that right now. Whereas I used to think it made me look weak, now I don’t give a fuck.
Ricky Bates: That also was a fear, honestly, because I didn’t talk about it. I just didn’t leave the apartment. I had two films under my belt, two I’m told weird ones. I didn’t want to make my chances of having a possible career any fewer. The biggest coping mechanism for me has always been comedy. In this one, we really tried to mine the depths of despair for humor.
I think I’m having a breakthrough with you both. I wonder if I take on extra work just to distract myself or overcompensate.
AnnaLynne McCord: I used to do that. I would go into a frenzy of yes, yes, yes to everything. I would actually try to trigger my own mania because I feel comfortable in mania. So I will go and spend money that I don’t need to spend to try and trigger it. Symptoms of mania are hypersexuality, hyper spending, high risk taking, no consequence, grandiosity. I definitely have that on. I tick all the boxes. It’s really exciting. But that would be something I would do to try and snap myself out of it.
Did you both enjoy doing the completely full makeup on Pearl, even to show her tastefully obscured in the shadows?
AnnaLynne McCord: He enjoyed that more than me.
Ricky Bates: It was tough because I wanted her to be able to deliver a performance, but then it was all about the reveal. She really had to come to life in the very end.
AnnaLynne McCord: I’m obsessed with a reveal. I’m all about a reveal.
Ricky Bates: She’s a filmmaker. She gets it a lot more than some actors would be furious, that you’re shooting them in profile or in shadows. I’ve worked with many that I don’t obscure their faces and they want their face in it more. We just have a pretty good rapport.
AnnaLynne McCord: The payoff wouldn’t be half as powerful I think. There are glimpses and I think that’s what’s great. I goes to the Steven Spielberg “don’t show the monster.”
Ricky Bates: There are bits and pieces of me in all the characters. I’ve always been fascinated with circuses and stuff. If you could possibly make a living doing a traveling sideshow that’s what I would probably do for a living is work in a circus, honestly.
AnnaLynne McCord: That’s something new I didn’t know about him.
Ricky Bates: Freaks is my favorite movie probably. The whole thing about disfigurement or whatever was, when I put on all this weight and everything, I didn’t like leaving. I was very ashamed of it. So with Pearl, it was channeling that fear. There’s a little bit of m in every one of these characters. With her, I didn’t even give her a direction the first two takes. We have fun finding the character.
How did you come up with Pearl’s physicality?
AnnaLynne McCord: It’s really funny because Ricky and I experienced this on Excision too. Excision was a lot worse because I wasn’t so self-aware about my brain issues.
Ricky Bates: But we were both little kids.
AnnaLynne McCord: We were little kids. Anxiety helped me. The first two days of any production, I’m freaking the fuck out. I’m like, why did I take this film? I don’t know what I’m doing? Do I really think that I’m actually an actress or I’ve been bullshitting people this whole way through and now they’re going to see the truth that I really can’t act. My brain’s really kind. With Pearl, it was interesting because I’ve had this rapport with Ricky and there’s trust that obviously has been built. We went through the script together, really went through every single detail about Pearl.
Ricky Bates: That was a good thing with this. We had time. The idea was if we’re never allowed to do this again…
AnnaLynne McCord: We always go into it very morbid. If we never work in this town again.
Ricky Bates: No, seriously. Every one. This one was so fucking important.
AnnaLynne McCord: So we found her voice literally on the couch at their place. We were going through lines and it was funny because we both have the same kind of thing. I think I just said one thing and you were like, “That! Do that!” We ran that a lot. We were kind of balancing, because I felt her a certain way at first, but she’s so full on with the face and everything that we wanted to bring it down as much as possible. So Ricky really helped me with keeping that in check. I like strange inflection and weird little ticks and stuff like that. But with Pearl, it was important to be a minimalist about it, but stick with the voice and let that be the carrying factor that defines her.
Ricky Bates: We didn’t want to turn her into a monster.
AnnaLynne McCord: The physicality, I just felt she’s trying to be small because she feels small. That just kind of happened on set.
Your fear the first two days of a shoot reminds me of every time I travel, I get anxiety and second guess the trip for 48 hours before. Even though I take the same trips to the same festivals every year and they go well. At least I recognize it now.
AnnaLynne McCord: I have a 24 hour one on the travel thing. I don’t know what it is. It’s like past lives. Something happened to me when I left home. The truth is, there’s a lot more people like us than there are people that are just like “picket fence and la la la.” That’s all a mask for the shit that we’re dealing with underneath. The reason I love Ricky’s writing and his films is because they talk the truth. What did that person say? It was the first film where everyone actually meant what they actually were saying.
Ricky Bates: Yeah, “I never read a script where everyone actually says what they actually mean.”
AnnaLynne McCord: Oh, that was Fionnula when she read the script.
Ricky Bates: That’s when she took the job. It was this thing we discovered on Excision, the value of having real damaged people with problems. All these people responded, just by virtue of showing these characters, they feel less alone.
AnnaLynne McCord: My friend started a program called I’ll Go First. We speak at colleges and stuff. I’m a sexual assault survivor. She’s an abuse survivor. We talk about these things. What happens, and the reason that your films have that affect, is it sucks all the shame and guilt out of the room when someone else says, “I’ve had this” when you’ve had it too. Suddenly it’s not so exposing and so raw and so revealing to say, “Me too” because we want to relate with each other. Every single time I say to a big group that I was sexually assaulted, and I say it very candidly. I’ve dealt with it. I’ll always have PTSD and stuff that I deal with periodically but I don’t deal with it every day any more and it’s not a residual thing. But every single time I say it, someone says, “It happened to me too.” I’m talking Uber drivers. I’ve had multiple Uber drivers who have told me that they were sexually assaulted when they were kids, male and female. Literally the power of saying, “I’m not perfect. I’m actually flawed” lets everybody else breathe in the room. I’m sick of films that don’t let us breathe.
Ricky Bates: And I’m good at being flawed.
AnnaLynne McCord: And writing flawed people so that’s why I do his movies and will do them for the rest of my life unless I have a nervous breakdown again.
Ricky Bates: Well, you’ll take some time off.
AnnaLynne McCord: I’ll actually use it. I’ll be like, “We’re putting this into the film.”
Is VOD okay if you get to keep making movies?
Ricky Bates: Absolutely, absolutely.
AnnaLynne McCord: I don’t think people go to theaters all that much anymore.
Ricky Bates: It was fascinating because we shot Excision very cinematically but by virtue of the fact that we had no money, we had to shoot it very tight in terms of framing. With Suburban, we got a little bit of release in the U.K. and barely anything theatrically in the United States. So it went straight to Showtime and Starz and they put on a fucking pan and scan. I was devastated. It’s still the only way it’s shown.
You’re in good company with Xavier Dolan’s troubles on Netflix.
Ricky Bates: I felt awful for him. When it came time for Suburban, we actually specifically shot the film because I said, “They’re only going to see it on TVs.” So I shot it like a television show so that if that was the most people are going to see it on their television sets… with this, we were like, “Fuck it, I’m making a movie.” It’s our most cinematic looking and feeling movie.
You shouldn’t have to worry about pan and scan. VOD should still be the correct ratio. They can offer two versions if they want.
Ricky Bates: I freaked out. I put everything into that movie, Excision. I didn’t know if I’d ever get to do it again.
AnnaLynne McCord: But it looks amazing and the DP, Shane Daly, ballsy guy. He’s fantastic.
Ricky Bates: Obviously my dream is to always watch a movie in a theater. Especially the sound design, we put a lot of work into sound. Especially for this movie with a very jarring sound.
You can do that at home too.
AnnaLynne McCord: You can.
Ricky Bates: Yeah, yeah. But most people can’t afford like a really great [sound system], you know what I mean?
AnnaLynne McCord: But the truth is all these TVs, all this new stuff now, you’re getting a cinematic experience at home. You have smart TVs. You have all this stuff now. It’s starting to become the home theater experience. I don’t go to the theater. I’m an actress and I don’t go see movies which is kind of sad.
Ricky Bates: We just don’t want to deal with humans so we’ll see a movie at 11AM only where we know no one will be there. So I’ve accepted that most everything I do will not be seen on a big screen. The dream is at least you get to premiere. That’s really special.
AnnaLynne McCord: I think as a filmmaker, as long as you personally get to see it on a big screen. It’s like when a little girl puts her makeup on in the morning and she sees herself looking good and she thinks for the rest of the day that she looks like that. It’s shit when you come home and you see yourself, like oh my God, I thought I looked great. But you feel good the whole day because you left home looking great.
Is that why you like the complete center framed static shot?
AnnaLynne McCord: He and I both have a symmetry thing.
Ricky Bates: It’s also I think the crazier the stuff on screen, the more elegant and restrained we try and shoot it. It becomes sort of maniacally consistent when things are that symmetrical. It sort of works for what we try and do.