By Naomi Roper
King Knight is the latest effort from talented writer/director Richard Bates Junior (Surburban Gothic, Tone Deaf). With an impeccable cast lead by Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds) and Angela Sarafyn (WestWorld) this warm hug of a movie is a total delight. Thorn (Gubler) is the revered high priest of a coven and married to Willow (Sarafyn) but their happy existence is put in jeopardy by the reveal of a dark secret from Thorn’s past.
Richard was kind enough to chat with me ahead of King Knight’s world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival to discuss his love of witches, how hard it was to find the perfect Willow and Matthew Gray Gubler’s dance moves…
Kicking off I have to say I absolutely loved the movie. It’s super adorable. And it’s so so funny.
You could not say anything that I would love more. Yeah, that makes me very happy.
I was wondering, how did this project come about for you and in particular what inspired you to write about Wicca?
The beginning of all this was that I finished my last project, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And politically, everything was just so crazy around here, and you know, things just felt so ominous. I just knew I didn’t want to do something dark. I just couldn’t. So I kind of started writing a movie to make myself happy. And that would hopefully make other people happy too.
So my first point of reference was OK what movie have I seen 1000 times that makes me happy. And why does it make me happy? So I think of this movie, this 90’s John Water’s movie called Pecker. I’ve seen it a 1000 times. I love it. So it’s edgy, and it’s perverted and it’s provocative, but it’s so sweet.
And he (Waters) just, he loves all these characters. I usually approach my writing a lot more cynically. But I made a very concerted effort to make sure that I stripped every ounce of cynicism that I could out of my writing, and just loved every single character.
So that was sort of my starting place. So it takes place in the same kind of heightened version of reality as my other movies, although it’s a little bit more farcical. But the big difference is it’s stripped of cynicism. Primarily because a lot of the time I’m satirizing things that I don’t like, and now I’m making a movie about witches, and I love witches.
So how did witches become a thing? Well, I was pitched, you know, a director for hire thing. A witch movie, but an evil witch and it was a pretty good script but I realized that I really like witches. I was thinking that when I was in college, I made a documentary about this Wiccan store in the East Village. And you know I own books like the Witches Bible and all kinds of libraries and stuff about witches that I love and it helped me to strip the movie of cynicism. Because I was really writing about a religion that I like, and then that started to make me realize the purpose of this movie, which is really to show people that witches aren’t evil. You know, I grew up in the south, right? And to Southern Baptists, the very notion of witchcraft is evil. It’s evil to some people. So the idea was to show witches, and to just treat them as regular people and that in a comedy, in and of itself, seemed exciting to me, because I hadn’t really seen it.
So the idea was, okay, well, I’m not certainly not going to do the thing that I hate and preach to someone. So you know, we’re not going to treat these witches in a holier than thou way we’re just trying to show you that they’re regular human beings, and hopefully, you know, by the end of the movie, you’re not thinking of them the way that you thought of witches before, you know what I’m saying?
I loved what you said about stripping your writing of all cynicism because I thought that came across so very clearly in the movie and I loved that it had this very warm, non-judgmental and inclusive message. Do you think we could all learn a little bit from Thorn’s coven?
That is Wicca. It just feels so inclusive. That’s the point of the movie with everything that’s been going on. You know, we’re all searching for the same answers to the same questions. We’re all trying to find common ground and in our own way, we’re all hypocrites. That was really the point of the movie to hopefully get across to the audience that we’re all in this together. It felt like the thing to do at the time (writing a more hopeful movie), and still feels like the thing to do.
The cast is incredible in this. I know, you’ve worked with Matthew Gray Gubler a number of times and I think he’s just brilliant in this. But I wasn’t expecting to fall as much in love with Angela Sarafyn as I did, so I was wondering, how did you pull this incredible cast together?
So when I realized the movie that I wanted to make, I knew because I’ve pitched a lot of movies that it wasn’t going to get financed. So I decided I’m not even going to go down that road. I’m not going to go ask people if I can make a movie. I’m just going to go and make it.
So I used my own money and then I took out a loan. And the cool thing about that was that I had full control over casting. As a director, you have a lot of say over a lot of things but you never really have full control. I mean, there’s not a single person in the movie who I didn’t want to be in the movie. I even learned to negotiate actors contracts. I did the contracts for their agents and stuff, which I hadn’t done before.
So, once I realized, the approach to the comedy, Angela seemed like a perfect fit. It was very hard for me to find the right Willow. I was going through so many actresses, and my friend Josh Fadem brought up Angela. And she was just perfect. She’s this incredible, dramatic actress. And the whole idea was because I cast everyone that I wanted, I don’t have to micromanage, right, like, I know, they all get it.
I would give sort of blanket direction, as opposed to being you know, super meticulous with their performances, because I’m excited to see what they do. So the overall note, for everyone from the beginning, was I sat them down and I said, “Look, no matter how ridiculous the line of dialogue seems to you, or preposterous or whatever you are not acting in a comedy you are acting in Sophie’s Choice”. And Angela, just got it. And everyone got it. Then as we crossover from Act one to Act two, and remember I’m casting like-minded individuals, so I can give what would typically be very obscure direction to them, because I know they’ll understand it, so I could say, hey, look, now I want you to imagine that the movie is like if “Nickelodeon remade The Holy Mountain“. And everyone got it.
One quick question to wrap up – I just wanted to ask about the incredible dance sequence at the end. Did you have to coax Matthew Gray Gubler into dancing? It’s such a wonderful moment of self-acceptance for Thorn.
I’ll tell you right now, I sure as hell didn’t have to coax Matthew to dance. Matthew was very excited. I don’t know a goddamn thing about dancing. I had the song that he dances to, that was in the script. So from the very beginning, I knew that I wanted a dance sequence to that song. I just loved it. And, so the idea was for Matthew not to act silly, or try to dance poorly. I called my friend Angela Trimbur and she’s a dancer and she had a choreographer friend (Erin Murray) who choreographed the dance. And Matthew met with her a couple of times, just enough times to know the routine, but not enough to be like great at it, which was the sweet spot we were looking for.
King Knight has its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival on 8 August 2021. Buy your tickets now!