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The unexpected inspirations for satirical slasher Tone-Deaf

By Kristy Puchko

Whether the topic is politics, pop culture, or avocado toast, the battle of baby boomers versus millennials has been raging across the U.S. — through newspaper headlines, social media, and contentious comment sections. It's a culture war that manifested unflattering stereotypes on both sides. Millennials are accused of being entitled, easily outraged, vain and lazy morons who blame the older generations for problems like systemic injustice and global warming, while baby boomers are allegedly ever-furious, bigoted, out-of-touch blowhards who blame the younger generation for everything from trigger warnings to mall closings to the social securities predicted insecurity. This mounting tension throbs at the heart of the horror-comedy Tone-Deaf.

Amanda Crew stars as Olive, a millennial "coastal elite" who has cool friends, a savage wit, and an array of Instagram-worthy outfits and accessories. But Olive's got troubles. Reeling from losing her job and her boyfriend, she decides to take a weekend away in a cozy country home. It'd be a perfectly blissful break if it weren't for Harvey (Terminator 2: Judgment Day's Robert Patrick), a baby boomer whose hatred of millennials has hit a homicidal fervor. While Olive's trying to center herself, Harvey is creeping in the shadows, plotting to bring her all the suffering to which he feels her generation is entitled.

Following Tone-Deaf's world premiere at SXSW, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with the film's writer/director Richard Bates Jr., as well as his stars, Crew and Patrick, to discuss the political satire/slasher and its unlikely inspirations.

"I was watching one of these slasher films with Jason," Bates began, referencing the immensely popular Friday the 13th franchise, which centers on hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees. "Obviously, an iconic bad guy. So, the idea was to make a villain for the times."

This would be the origin of Harvey, a man who stalks through the woods in long underwear while monologuing direct-to-camera about his loathing of millennial staples like brunch and fedoras. But rather than turning to breathless news coverage or the notorious Twitter rants to understand this vicious baby boomer, Bates looked to a popular 20th-century American painter. 

"I started to become inspired by this Norman Rockwell painting that I'd been thinking about for a long time," Bates explained. "It's called The Connoisseur. It's this older gentleman in a suit looking at a Jackson Pollock [style painting] and saying, 'What the f*ck!'" He noted that Rockwell, who was acclaimed for his illustrator's style, hated the abstract expressionism movement. "For Norman, [The Connoisseur] was a stab at abstract expressionism, at that whole thing," Bates said, adding, "You know, he was submitting fake Pollocks? And he won a whole contest, and he was so pissed!"

As Bates spoke, Patrick obligingly googled The Connoisseur, then presented his phone to me. Even on a small screen, the image is striking. In a white-walled room with a light-grey tiled floor stands an older man, who wears a conservative grey suit that compliments the tiles, the walls, and even his salt-and-pepper hair. He's turned away from the viewer, facing an explosion of color, an abstract painting made of splashes and drips. We cannot see this man's expression. But for Bates, the connoisseur's reaction is clearly WTF. This mix of confusion and outrage sits at the core of Harvey's fury. "That's why in our movie, his nightmares are being reenacted at art installations," Bates said, referencing dream sequences set in a high-art gallery where naked men and women in Sia-wigs and blue body-paint torment Harvey.

Though Harvey is Tone-Deaf's villain, Bates didn't set out to demonize baby boomers, or at least not only them. He feels there's plenty of blame to go around. "We are all hypocrites," Bates said. "At the end of it, everyone is full of shit. Because at the end of the day, are you motivated whether you're doing a good job or whether or not by making the world a better place? Or wanting to make the world a better place for you?"

Bates confessed that making Tone-Deaf pushed him to see things from another perspective, giving this millennial a greater empathy for his parents' generation. And he hopes that's a lesson that the audience will learn too. "This film really tries to, in an entertaining way," Bates said. "Bridge that gap and bring us all together, to at least look at each other."

Crew concurred, sharing that during production, she sided wholeheartedly with her character. "I loved Olive. I thought she was right, and I thought she was just very correct in her thinking and she was entitled to all the things that she was demanding," Crew said. "But then watching the film as just an audience member and not through the lens of Olive, I had a similar experience as Ricky did, where I was like, 'Oh wow!' I really had compassion and understanding towards Patrick's character, which I didn't have when I was reading it, and I didn't have when we were filming it." She turned to Bates and commended him, "It wasn't putting one generation at the stake to burn. You're satirizing both of them."

"It's something that John Waters taught me," Bates said. "He's a lot less cynical than me, but it was, 'If you want to make a point, make people laugh, and don't just attack one side.' So, it was just, we had to keep it consistent. The through line is: everyone's a hypocrite. Everyone's a hypocrite."

Patrick interjected with a deep-toned bravado of a movie trailer narrator, "Tone-Deaf: Everyone's a hypocrite."

Laughing, Bates replied, "You're all full of shit! That's what the poster should say: You're all full of shit."

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