By Clark Collis
Updated September 18, 2013 at 05:38 PM EDT
The darkly comic directorial debut of screenwriter E.L. Katz ( Pop Skull ) stars David Koechner and Sara Paxton as a pair of rich thrill-seekers…

How crazy would you be prepared to get for $50? What about $500? What about a quarter of a million dollars? Such questions form the dramatic spine of the booze- and drugs-fueled black comedy Cheap Thrills, which is screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Anchorman star David Koechner and Sara Paxton play a rich couple who challenge a pair of much poorer new acquaintances — portrayed by Pat Healy and Can’t Hardly Wait actor Ethan Embry — to complete a series of ever more out-there challenges for increasing amounts of cheddar.

Cheap Thrills is the directorial debut of screenwriter Evan “E.L.” Katz, who penned the slasher movie Home Sick, the first film from You’re Next director Adam Wingard, and also co-wrote Wingard’s follow-up, the freakish, psychotropic Pop Skull. Cheap Thrills itself was written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, but Katz says he found it easy to empathize with the cash-poor plight of Healy and Embry’s characters. “I’ve done a lot of dumb s— for money,” he admits.

Below, Katz talks more about Cheap Thrills, how Fantastic Fest helped make him the man he is today, and why he might soon become a big cheese in Brazil.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Cheap Thrills deliberately exudes this desperate, seedy, and morally dubious vibe which seems very specific to Los Angeles. As a New Yorker watching the film, I frequently found myself thinking, “See? This is why I don’t live there!”

E.L. KATZ: [Laughs] A lot of people have said that. A lot of people have said, “Is this a hate letter to L.A.?” It’s weird, because I’ve lived here for 11 years, and I like it. You can only truly love L.A. if you’re willing to love parts of it ironically. Because it is a ridiculous place. A lot of people are here for dreams that are never going to come true. That creates a weird dynamic for a city.

David Koechner is best known for appearing in broad comedies like Anchorman and The Goods as well as The Office. Why did you decide to cast him in a film which is really as much a drama as it is a comedy?

When I first was thinking about the project, I was going to just cast improv comedy actors because I thought that that would be really interesting. Have you seen any of [British director] Ben Wheatley’s movies? He’s fantastic. What he did with [2009 gangster film] Down Terrace, having comedy actors in this really dark movie, was inspiring. There’s something so interesting about that, it creates such a weird tone. I was like, I would like to have comedy actors — playing it serious, obviously — but I felt that would have a nice effect. And somehow we were able to get the top-shelf version of that with Dave Koechner.

Originally in the script, Koechner’s character was a really young douchebag, which could be tiring. You’re watching someone that you don’t really like, who’s just a brat, for a whole movie. In L.A., when you go to these bars sometimes you do see people who are much older living like a 20-year-old. It’s a city of Peter Pans. I could easily see an older guy, who’s got some money, just spending his time hanging out with crazy girls, and partying too much, and doing coke. I was like, “It would be really interesting if that was a guy who was a little older and also someone who’s really funny.” So no matter how dark everything gets, it’s going to be confusing to the audience because they look up and they see Anchorman’s David Koechner walking around.

What about the rest of the cast?

It was always important to me once we started going after names that there was a certain math to it. Every single actor has a different vibe and they bring different baggage and different expectations and they play off each other in different ways. I knew Pat Healy could be an everyman. I’d seen him in some really great independent films and I was like, “Okay, he could be a regular human.” [Laughs] But I also know that he can go to some pretty extreme places.

With Ethan, a lot of people go, “Oh, it’s such a surprise seeing Ethan Embry now.” But I had seen him in a couple of roles where he was closer to this part [such as] this show Brotherhood, which is like an Irish Sopranos. When he showed up, he was this burly-looking dude who rode in on a motorcycle. I was like, Okay!

Sara had worked with Pat (on Ti West’s haunted hotel movie The Innkeepers), so I knew they would have chemistry. Sara is able to be weird too. So you have somebody who’s very big and loud, like David, and then you have Sara who can do so much with just her eyes, and they became an interesting couple.

You’re attending Fantastic Fest with Pat Healy, David Koechner, and Ethan Embry, among others. You’ve been there before, right?

Yeah, a couple of times. The first time I went it was a really wild experience. I didn’t really have a movie there, per se. I was an associate producer on [Adam Wingard’s] A Horrible Way to Die, which means essentially they were my friends, I gave them some advice. But it was really wild. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d been to Fantasia in Montreal, which I really loved, but this had its own brand of mayhem. I got to watch so many cool f—ing movies. Cheap Thrills wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t experienced Fantastic Fest, if I hadn’t experienced Fantasia. Being exposed to such a cross-section of genre in such a short amount of time kind of scrambles your brain.

Do you know what you’re doing next?

I’m doing an ABCs of Death 2 segment and I’m actually writing a script with Pat Healy that’s going to be a really crazy crime thriller to do next year for the producer of You’re Next, Keith Calder. [Calder’s company Snoot Entertainment, in partnership with Drafthouse Films, acquired Cheap Thrills last March.] I also have a family animation zombie movie I wrote that might turn into a Brazilian TV show.

Wait, what?

I’m not sure this is happening. We’ll see. But this zombie family animation script I wrote a long time ago is going to maybe turn into a Brazilian TV show. It’s funny, before I did Cheap Thrills, I’d been writing these genre scripts for so f—ing long and I reached a little bit of exhaustion. I never really had formal screenwriting training. So I was like, “I’m going to take the UCLA extension screenwriting course and I need to find something to write that isn’t about people being chased, or haunted, or whatever.” I wanted to do a classic Hollywood structure. I was like, “What movies are more story-centric than these f—ing animation films? I’ll do Zombie Pet Shop!” It’s Dawn of the Dead meets Toy Story. [Laughs] It’s basically about a pug at a pet store who’s an underdog — I’m not saying that as a joke — and he finds out some weird virus that’s gotten into the water supply and it’s turned most of the pets in the mall into zombies. So, it’s up to him to become a hero.

When I wrote it, it got optioned almost immediately. Suddenly all these animation companies were like, “Who the f— is this guy?” DreamWorks wanted to meet with me, Fox almost bought it, Sony — I was doing pitches for all these guys. So for one year, my reps were like, “Evan, you’re now an animation writer!” “Really?” I was just so tired from working on genre stuff for so long that I thought, “I guess this is the direction I’m going.” I was going on all these pitches and pitching all this crazy s—. And ultimately that became a new kind of frustrating because I’m like, “Why am I doing this? I don’t really understand these stories, I don’t think this is my voice. I just wrote one because it came easy and it was fun but now I can’t sell any of these things. Nobody’s buying this s—-! I’m kind of lost. Holy s—, I’m just going to do this really dark, weird, indie movie that’s none of these things.” And that in many ways cleared everything up for me.

But by the time we speak again you could be a Brazilian billionaire?

I don’t think that’s possible. I have no f—ing clue. If they sell it, that’s fantastic. It’s just super random. But the next thing I’m doing, no matter what happens to Zombie Pet Shop, is going to be another dark, weird thing. That’s where I ultimately feel the most comfortable. You’ve got to keep yourself entertained, otherwise you’ll gas out.

Cheap Thrills screens at Fantastic Fest this Saturday at 9:15 p.m.