Writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. and lead actor Matthew Gray Gubler talk to Ian Sandwell about Suburban Gothic, which world premiered at Fantasia.

When Richard Bates, Jr. last visited Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, he came equipped with fake bloodied tampons for his debut feature, the twisted coming-of-age tale Excision.

This time, he’s brought Ectoplasm for the sold-out crowd of the world premiere of his second feature Suburban Gothic. Trust us when we say it makes sense when you see it.

“The audience is very important to me, everything in the movie is for them, and I love doing stuff like that,” says writer/director Bates, Jr. “I wish I could do more. If I had a giant budget one day, I’d do 800 things.”

Suburban Gothic centres on quirky young Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) who, after having to move back in with his parents, finds himself beset upon by spirits and teams up with a local bartender (Kat Dennings) to unravel the mystery of a century-old murder.

“I’m really honoured that Suburban Gothic is my first lead role, merely because it was a movie made by weirdos for weirdos,” states Gubler. “Anyone who ever felt like an outcast or shunned is going to respond well to the film.”

Like Excision, which was a hit on the genre film circuit back in 2012, Suburban Gothic comes from a very personal place for Bates, Jr. With a lack of work coming in, the film-maker went through a bout of depression.

“I felt I put everything into that and I thought, maybe too naively, that I would be able to be a working director and that’s just not the way the business is,” explains Bates, Jr.

“I got very depressed for almost a year I would say and I couldn’t watch those kinds of films, I was just watching things I loved from my childhood; things that were very comforting, spooky but not gory, silly but not cold. The film is inspired by things that made me happy when I was a kid.”

The nostalgic element appealed to Gubler as well. “I grew up making films in my backyard with my friends. This [and Life After Beth] felt like they were harking back to that of just having a great time with people you love, but also making a project that a lot of people want to see.”

And it shows. The film is a playful and lovably offbeat ghost story, with elements of coming-of-age drama and rom-com – to name a few – thrown into the mix. As the film-maker puts it himself, it’s like a music album.

“When you buy an album, you expect a bunch of different influences. Then I see people who watch a film and they can’t wrap their mind around it unless it’s one genre exclusively. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a genre, but there certainly shouldn’t be any rule that says you have to.”

Without Gubler, the film wouldn’t have existed though as Bates, Jr. developed it with the actor – one of the film-maker’s best friends – in mind. For Gubler, it meant his first leading role, so was there added pressure?

“When a film’s more centred on you, you have the responsibility of being the anchor and the straight man which is a different style,” explains the actor.

“But I approach everything, whether it’s doing a movie or painting a picture, with the exact same feelings and intentions of just trying to do my best in the part I’m in.”

While marking both a continuation of genre films for Bates, Jr. and one of the first forays (along with Life After Beth) into genre for Gubler, they both see themselves staying with them.

“I would make anything, but if you’re asking me where my heart is, it’s these films,” notes Bates Jr. “I’ve no plans to stop making them and while I don’t think one kind of film is better than the other, I definitely have more of an attachment to genre films.”

Gubler adds: “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do truthfully, even when I was making films in film school or as a kid. You get to be surreal, fantastic and creative as the same rules don’t apply to genre films.”

Next up for Gubler is the tenth season of Criminal Minds, of which he’ll direct two episodes, as well as producing and starring in a modern-day adaptation of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

For Bates, Jr., he’s almost finished writing another “personal, strange genre film”. “It’s the darkest of the three but it’s still a part of that world. It’s definitely gallows humour but I don’t think it’s too different.

“If you like one of them, you’ll like this one. If you’re with me now, you’ll stick with me.”