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Surgical precision

Ahead of its Canadian premiere this Saturday at Fantasia, Screen chats to Excision director Richard Bates Jr.

Of all the things you’d expect to be handed at a film screening, it’s fair to say Richard Bates Jr. has a unique gift for the sold-out crowd at the Canadian premiere of his debut feature Excision at Fantasia International Film Festival on Saturday (4).

“I’m spending the rest of the evening making fake bloodied tampons to give to the audience; I’m terrified of getting stopped by immigration or something and they open up my duffel bag with 500 tampons.”

Trust me when I say that viewed in the context of the film, it makes perfect sense. Excision is an excellent pitch-black comedy/horror, punctuated by beautifully shot dream sequences as awkward teenage outcast Pauline (a brave, deglamorised performance from 90210’s AnnaLynne McCord) attempts to find her place in the world and pursue her dreams of becoming a surgeon.

Developed from Bates Jr. from his 2008 short of the same name – which played around 50 festivals, winning 24 awards – Excision was a labour of love for the director. “I flew out to LA and I took a bunch of meetings because of the success of the short and every single person I met with, said that this is the craziest script they’ve ever had and that there’s no way in hell they would ever touch it.

“So I spent four years getting the finance together and literally the movie is funded by 30 of my friends from back in Virginia and college. We all made the movie together because no one else would let us.”

For a debut feature, Bates Jr. assembled an impressive cast, including the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Traci Lords, John Waters – who’s also set to star in the director’s new film The South Will Rise Again, described as a “hickster Ghostbusters movie” – and Ray Wise, and for the director, it was simply a case of “[having] the balls to call up one of these agencies and ask”.

“I was so driven to make this thing and I figured if no one ever lets me make another one after it, I want to try and get as many of my heroes as possible. It was very tough at first because by that point, I’d only made a successful short film [that was] three/four years ago.”

Excision_1

AnnaLynne McCord as Pauline

What wasn’t tough though was finding his Pauline, even if originally he was sure that McCord wasn’t going to be his choice. “They wanted me to have lunch with her and I said ‘OK, but this isn’t going to happen’. She showed up in character [and] brought all these photographs of what she looked like when she was younger.

“I told her you’re going to have to cut your hair off, so she took the knife on the table and started literally chopping her hair off in front of me. I was like ‘boy, was I wrong about you’. I called the producer and said this is Pauline.”

The shoot wasn’t without its difficulties though, predominantly due to the lack of money available – Excision was made for “well under” $1m – leading to some inconsistency with the crew. “I couldn’t afford to pay a lot of the crew so I had crew that would be there on one day and not show up for three other days. My art director quit the film less than halfway through the movie so I did the art direction with the DP.”

One of the most striking aspects of Excision are Pauline’s vivid, often blood-filled, dream sequences which were inspired by the likes of David LaChappelle, to go along with the film’s other homages to the director’s “heroes” including Waters, Todd Solondz and David Cronenberg. Oddly though, the MPAA took issue with another aspect of the film.

“I thought if anything they’d go after the abortion scene but the weird thing is that hasn’t even been mentioned; it was the girl being on her period, which is sort of strange to me that the one thing they’re attacking is this natural thing every female experiences.”

Bravely, Bates Jr. admits that most of the events of Excision are autobiographical, including the aforementioned scene, and it’s not just personal to him, it’s personal to his friends as well. “All my friends seem to be able to relate to it growing up, we all had to take cotillion classes, we had to go to manners school and all sorts of strange stuff.

“Ideally it’s a slap in the face to the worst things about a conservative upbringing.”

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