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Through films like Excision, Suburban Gothic, and Tone-Deaf, Richard Bates Jr. has built out a career out of taking certain familiar genre movie concepts and giving them a quirky twist. So of course, when it came time to make a film about witches, Bates moved against the grain of dreadful figures sneering over cauldrons.
"So after my last movie, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and politically, everything seemed so ominous, and I just didn't feel like going dark," Bates told SYFY WIRE. "And I'd been pitched this witch movie, it was actually pretty good, but it was an evil witch thing, and that's when I realized, I'd love to make a witch movie, but I love witches."
Armed with a love of witches, a coven of personal friends who happened to be witches, and years' worth of research into modern witchcraft, Bates began working on what would become King Knight, his latest feature, which premiered at Canada's renowned Fantasia Fest last year. Funny, trippy, and made with a sense of eccentric conviction, the film is Bates' effort to tell a story about witches you might meet in real life, free of not just darkness, but also of judgment, with a tone inspired by one of Bates' cinematic heroes: John Waters.
"All my movies take place in a heightened version of reality. This one's a little more farcical than the rest, but I knew that I couldn't take the cynical approach that I did with most of my other films, so I stripped every character of cynicism and really approached it with love, and made sure that I loved every character the way that I feel like [Waters] does when he makes a movie."
In that cynicism-free spirit, King Knight sets out to tell the story of Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler), the leader of a supporting coven of witches who, thanks to an encounter from his past, must confront everything from his looming high school reunion to his judgmental mother. As Thorn's own journey to rediscovering who he is begins, his coven-mates must also undertake a journey, in search of both who they are without Thorn, and that Thorn gave them that they may now have lost.
To pull the largely self-financed film off, Bates went in search of an ensemble cast made up of both frequent collaborators like Gubler and first-time collaborators like Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), who joined the project just a week before shooting to play Thorn's partner, Willow.
"I usually know very early on in reading a script if I'm going to be attracted to it, and I thought the humor, the style of the writing was just very different from anything else I've done," Sarafyan said. "And I was curious about going into it and exploring that. And prior to that, I'd been in more dramas than comedy. So there were a lot of different elements of it that I loved."
To play Ruth, Thorn's estranged mother, Bates recruited genre legend Barbara Crampton (Jakob's Wife), who was pleased to find she could make a meal out of a relatively small amount of screen time with the character.
"I just really appreciated the part of Ruth," Crampton said. "She had some fun things to do, some mean things to do, and then you kind of feel a little sorry for her. So even though she has a small amount of screen time, she's pretty much a fully rounded character."
Though King Knight deals with some heavy themes — What does your future look like if you can't face your past? Does who you are when you're young define you for the rest of your life? — and faces them in its own time, it's all wrapped up in a particular kind of comedic tone, which was evident on the page even before the cast and crew translated it into film.
"I could see where it was going, and I could tell that it was a dark comedy, but I didn't really know how funny, or how clever, or how sweet it was going to be until I saw it in its final form," Crampton recalled.
When it came time to actually shoot his rather specific script, Bates helped his actors get into the right tonal space by throwing out some very interesting references. There aren't a lot of sets where a director might tell you to pretend you're in a Nickelodeon remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, but apparently, King Knight was one of them.
"I knew if we were going to do this, I wanted to have as many friends around me as possible so that it would be fun, and people like Matthew get my sense of humor," Bates said. "When I say to the cast, 'No matter how ridiculous a line of dialogue seems to you, make sure that you are not acting in a comedy, you're acting in Sophie's Choice.' So that was my one big rule."
Sarafyan added, "He kept saying, 'Remember, this is a very serious, serious movie. OK? We're making a drama.' I'm the kind of actor that I always think it's a drama, meaning even if it's comedy, I think that you have to play the truth of the circumstances and the comedy comes out of that. Obviously, there's rhythm and tone and style and all of those things, but in this case, we really found it easily and I really trusted his guidance. So that helped me, having a director that knew exactly what he wanted. He knew exactly what he wanted and that was great."
Bates' directorial style was also a hit with Crampton, who's spent her career working with everyone from Stuart Gordon to Adam Wingard.
"He's very collaborative, talking to you about this scene, what he wants in the scene, and then just giving you the opportunity to show him what you have, and then he can fine-tune it," Crampton said. "But he's very much of a craftsman and really does help you fine-tune the performance. Which I like. I like being collaborative, and I really like people talking to me about the scene and what they're seeing, because I'm not seeing what they're seeing. And sometimes I don't know, and I might get a better point of view if the director talks to me."
Over the course of the film, as Thorn undertakes his journey to reconcile his past with his present, Bates leans heavily into trippy genre elements that range from third eyes appearing out of nowhere to talking pine cones and beyond. Though it deals with modern-day witches with lives and homes and places in society rather than fantastical figures on broomsticks, the magical element of King Knight is very much a part of the weird comedic trip. But in telling the story of the parallel journeys of Thorn and his friends, Bates was also keen to focus on the more universal concerns at the emotional heart of the film.
"Every one of my movies is like a journal entry of where I am at the time when I made it, so I guess I'm just trying to chronicle my life with each one," Bates said. "A lot [the story] was a lot of thoughts of making sure that I can be the great husband to my wife, that I could be the great father that I want to be, and all that stuff, and these discussions of, 'Are you ready to do this?'"
He continued, "So all kinds of things influence this movie, for sure, but I do know that when I make movies, my joy, the sense of purpose that I get from it that makes it more than a job is when [I'm] speaking to someone who doesn't feel like they have movies made for them. And I do deal with alienation a lot, because I do feel... in a much lesser sense, it's like my friends say out here, 'You're an outsider in an industry of outsiders.' Movies seem to matter a lot to these people in the same way that they mattered a lot to me when I felt stuck, before I got out of Virginia and moved to New York and followed my dreams."
King Knight was shot way back in 2019, and is finally making its way out into the world this week via a theatrical and digital release after a successful festival premiere in 2021. Despite the distance from his time making the film, though, Bates remains convinced of one of its central tenets: Witches, at least the ones in his world, are good.
"The Wiccans in my movie are eclectic Wiccans. Now, there are Wiccans that don't even believe that should be a thing, because you take various things from all different spiritualities and blend them together," Bates said. "So there are similar dynamics to other organized religions, but there's also, I think, this underlying respect for and love for each other's differences that I really wanted to get across in the movie. Because everyone says, 'We wouldn't turn you away,' but I really feel like witches would never turn anyone away, and that's beautiful."
King Knight arrives February 17 in theaters and on digital video-on-demand services.
(A version of this article was previously published in August, 2021)