Fantastic Fest ’13 Interview: David Koechner on ‘Cheap Thrills’

By March 20, 2014
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Editor’s Note: This interview was initially published on October 8th, 2013 as part of our coverage of Fantastic Fest. Cheap Thrills is available On Demand and in limited theaters tomorrow (Friday, March 21st), so we’re republishing it in case you missed it the first time around. Original interview follows.

David Koechner is best known for playing hilarious, larger than life characters, but occasionally, he waxes philosophical. “Some people are given a great singing voice,” Koechner said recently. “And maybe some people are here to make others laugh.”

But the star of such films as Anchorman, Final Destination 5, Piranha 3DD and the upcoming Cheap Thrills is quick to discount his comment. “That sounds like a horrible answer,” he admits. “It sounds pretentious. You put that in print and you go like, ‘what a fucking asshole.’ Stuff like that makes you sound like that.”

In truth, Koechner is anything but pretentious: nursing a hangover on an early Sunday after participating in what has been described as the drunkest Q&A in the history of Fantastic Fest (Austin’s premier genre film festival), he gamely answers questions about how he works, rising just enough to the bait of being asked if doing comedy is “easy” to offer a few words of wisdom, only to immediately disavow them. And such contrasts are perfectly suited to his latest film, a wildly funny but remarkably dark tale of two friends who subject themselves to an escalating series of dares at the behest of a bored, rich husband and wife.

Koechner spoke to GeekNation about his work in Cheap Thrills, not only talking about his collaboration with writer-director E.L. Katz, but his conception of the character, and his working methods in general – including on Anchorman 2, whose delay he suggests “might have been the most brilliant thing.”

This movie perfectly balances an element of danger with humor. How much of that is Evan [Katz] responsible for, and how hard was that to maintain?

I would give Evan all of the credit. He’s the guy that wrote it, he’s the guy that cast it, and he’s the guy that directed it – so hook, line and sinker, baby! We talked about those things before we started the film, and then you go off and do your work as the actor. Break down the script, scene by scene, line by line, and then you confer with the director again. And then on the day you shoot, he’ll give you little things to think about – where we are in the story, how we’re ramping up here. Where to push where to pull back – that kind of stuff, as he’s supposed to. And he did a wonderful job of it.

What’s interesting about Cheap Thrills is that it’s bleak but it manages not to be totally hopeless.

That’s because you’re making the decisions with them, so it’s not hopeless, it’s hopeful – you want them to win. They’re in a bad situation. So you’re going along, making the decisions with them, and now that you’ve done that, you’re in the game too – so you’re hopeful that it’s going to end up well for everybody. Because that’s what we want out of cinema – we want a story where it turns out good for everybody. Please, button it so I can have help in life too, just like you described. But you keep making the bad decision with them.

Was there a specific point in the script when the story really hooked you, or you had an epiphany about what it could be? Because there was a moment towards the end where I worried about the main character even when it didn’t seem like there was anything to fear.

It got me – it hooked me right away, because you do get stepped into it, little by little. And of course, I know what character I’m reading for, so like any good, egotistical actor, oh goody goody, how wonderful for me. But I believed it, that was the best thing. I bought that it could go down. It never crossed over to, “oh, come on!” It never got there. I bought it, and I think the proof’s in the pudding now that people are buying it too. No one’s going, nah! And like that, you even kept thinking more! That’s when it’s well done.

How did you define this character, who seems aware he’s got a trophy wife, but he doesn’t seem to mind, and who has a curiosity but not a lot of actual concern?

Well, the easiest way to describe him is that he’s a sociopath. He lacks the empathy gene. He doesn’t care – what kind of creep is that? So he’s devious, sinister person, and dangerous, because he doesn’t seem to have any remorse for what he’s doing. And he’s got plenty of time to think about it – it’s all premeditated.

How do you get into the mindset of playing a character like that?

Well, the script, Number One. And for anything that’s going on, and any line, you should be able to have some comparable idea in life, whether it’s taking out the trash, or whatever strikes you. Something does. We’re all troubled, one way or the other. Even the happiest man on earth, I’m sure, has a bad day, or a tough time. Even the most holy person has witnessed or has felt things that are comparable in whatever the line of dialogue might be. So that’s how you get there.

Well, then, what sort of comparable experience did you draw upon to tap into his willingness to encourage people to do these increasingly awful things?

Well, because it’s just winning – on the simplest terms, it’s just ‘what have you won?’ Any little contest, whether it’s cards, or a sporting event or successfully getting your child to do something you want them to do that was necessary, like their homework. Or compete in an event. All of those things are comparable, right? Now, not really to this degree, but it’s really the same action. And then of course, we can all look at a tragedy and go, it doesn’t affect me – I don’t care. That’s there too. Or, I can’t be affected because I don’t live there, and I don’t have the resources to change it. So you can add those things into that build, or that moment. You know – how you convince one man to sleep with your wife? Well, I wouldn’t be thinking about that. I wouldn’t be thinking about getting somebody to sleep with my wife, because it’s not comparable. I would never do that. But I can get someone to join me in some endeavor – let’s go hang out. It’s the same thing – you don’t want to hang out? Oh, you don’t like hanging out with me? It’s really the same thing – you don’t want to fuck my wife? Don’t you think she’s hot?

They mention that they had the plan to go out and meet people, but how premeditated did you feel like their dares were?

He was going to tap into whatever those two were into to pull them on a path to the final game, if you will. So he could operate on his feet well enough to go, oh what’s it take to get these guys going. Because remember, it’s Ethan’s character that says “let’s go to the strip club.” So then it’s all on the spot – okay, do this, do that, hit that guy. Whatever it takes in the moment to pull them deeper into the game.

How many opportunities do you have to make films like this that are outside the sphere of maybe more straightforward comedic projects that you do?

I haven’t. Some people might say that Thank You For Smoking wasn’t just a comedy – it was a satire, that type of thing. But it’s case by case, and these opportunities haven’t come my way, and I think after this I’ll get a lot more opportunities. But I’ve said before, I don’t have a road map of, like, I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do one of these. I just love to work because it’s not work, it’s play, and so I love that. But I do have a wife and five children, so it’s important for me to keep working. And I’m just fortunate that I get to do it – that’s the way I look at it. But what I’d love to do, and what I will do, is a four-camera sitcom that shoots near my house. That’s the greatest thing in the world, because then I can be home, and provide for my family.

Anchorman 2 banner

Thanks to cable, I think I’ve watched Anchorman ten times in the last two months.

That’s what I’ve heard. I’m sure that’s by design. Why wouldn’t they, I guess?

Obviously fans wanted a sequel for so long. What sort of vindication did you feel when the project finally came together? There were obviously external forces preventing it–

They were only the studio. That was it. Everybody wanted to do it. No one said no. We were all down with it immediately. And so it just took the studio that long to decide, “now is the time.” But who knows? It might have been the most brilliant thing. Because we all wanted it at least five or six years ago and then it was just a no. And then I think it was going to get made I think in 2010, and then it went away. But maybe it was just a brilliant thing, because now people’s rabid desire for it has never been more intense.

How did that time sort of galvanize your work on the sequel or benefit the film, since it allowed time for all of you to go off and find individual success?

That’s hard to say. That’s a great question, but I’m not sure that I’m even the guy that should answer it. Every individual will have the chance to answer that exact question. But what does it mean as an actor? Well, it’s such a joy to do it, and it was just a complete thrill. Because we had been anticipating it for so long, and when we did it was just like we’d never left off – and when you’re doing it, you just don’t want it to end. And the final product will be deliriously glorious.

On the first film you ended up with two different cuts, because of the original idea—

One plot, that apparently the studio insisted that a B-plot be put in there. Did you see Wake Up Ron Burgundy?

Oh yeah.

And so that didn’t work. And we had to get that out of there and do a little bit of reshooting. But that won’t be the case here.

It seems like the wait may have allowed you to re-enter the sequel with a clear idea of what you wanted to do, instead of figuring it out as you went along.

Well, that’s [Adam] McKay, and he’s done how many movies since then? He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met in my life. So he learns quickly. And sure, they learned a ton off of that, and every subsequent experience they had. So we benefited from that.

You said you don’t have a specific plan or strategy.

Which might not be very smart!

But how specific or formalized is your preparation for each of the characters you play? There seem to be as many people who work intuitively in comedy as there are those who spend a lot of time refining every line.

It’s really hours in. Did you ever read the book Outliers?

No.

It’s fascinating – you would love it. His thing is basically the 10,000 hours theory, and I had the opportunity in Chicago years ago to be on stage multiple times every week, and that’s what made the difference. That was the preparation, just in doing stage work again and again and again. That made the difference, and so it just sharpens your instincts.

So now it’s easy?

Well, yeah. Well, I would say I’m probably more intuitive. I think you might be blessed — some people are given a great singing voice. And maybe some people are here to make others laugh. So, I don’t know. [pauses] That sounds like a horrible answer – it sounds pretentious. You put that in print and you go like, “what a fucking asshole.” Stuff like that makes you sound like that. But between you and I discussing that idea, your theory is as relevant as mine, whatever it is, or what anybody else’s is. But some people are just funny. Look at Chris Farley! He had no choice. He’s just fucking funny. So somebody made him that way.

Cheap Thrills was acquired by Drafthouse Films and will be released sometime in 2013.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.
  • brianmanu112

    I have heard great things about this film.I really can’t wait until it’s on dvd.

  • SarahKOL

    Excited for the movie, and I enjoyed reading the interview…. Now off to find footage of him on stage.

  • Fics1976

    Can’t wait for this Movie!

  • Jerry Hudge

    Hell yeah….This is gonna be a great movie. I can bet on that!