Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Directed by Spencer Susser, HESHER might be the film that shook me up the most at this year's SXSW Film Festival, and a big part of the reason for that is that I could never fully get my arm or brain around what I was watching. I don't think I realized until watching HESHER just how easy or important that is when watching any film, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Once I get comfortable inside a film, it's unlikely that film will every surprise or impress me. Even the most disturbing films have a pattern or formula or rhythm that allow the viewer to get settled in and lazy. But not HESHER.
A big reason for that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's chaos-theory-proving lead performance, but I give a lot of credit to first-time feature director Spencer Susser, who premiered a work-in-progress version of the HESHER at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and has been fine tuning the work ever since. The film was written by Susser, an American, and David Michôd, the Australian filmmaker who made last year's phenomenal ANIMAL KINGDOM.
Susser got his start in film dong "Making Of…documentaries for the DVD releases of the later STAR WARS films, which brought him to Australia where he met and fell in with a group of young Australian filmmakers making short films to get their work out into the stratosphere. It's also where he met Natalie Portman, who also stars in HESHER. Before his feature, Susser was probably best known for directing the exquisite 2008 zombie-themed short I LOVE SARAH JANE, also co-written by Michôd and starring a then-unknown young actress named Mia Wasikowska. You should watch it, if only for the fact that Susser would love to expand it into a feature (although maybe not his next feature).
I spoke with Susser about all of these things and more in Austin last March. Hope you enjoy my conversation with Spencer Susser…
Capone: So, it's been a while since HESHER premiered at Sundance, and word is that you have made some changes to the film since then. Can you start by talking about those? Are we talking significant changes?
Spencer Susser: Oh yeah.
Capone: Oh yeah? Without getting into specific scenes, but can you talk about some of the things that you tried to adjust tonally, character-wise, or story-wise?
SS: Well, I had made the film, and the idea of playing the film at Sundance was always great, but I made the film to tell the story I wanted to tell. And the way it just worked out timing-wise, I was in the middle of editing when we had to send it to Sundance, and everyone is like “Well let’s send it to Sundance.” I was like, “Well, I’m not finished.” “No, come on let’s send it.” “Alright, I’ll send it, but I’m not finished.” Look, it was definitely the movie, it was just I was in the middle of it, and the guy’s at Sundance saw the movie and went “This is really cool,” which is so awesome, but I was like “I’m not done,” and I worked around the clock to try and get to a place where it was more presentable, but I didn’t finish. When I edit, I edit without music, because I try to get the emotion right. A lot of times if you edit with music, you rely on it to make the emotion work with an emotional piece of music, and all of a sudden scenes are working and, then you go, “Okay, try to see it without music” and you go, “Oh, that doesn’t work.”
Capone: Now, you're not talking about the heavy metal music Hesher listens to; you mean the score.
SS: I’m talking about the score.
Capone: Okay, I’ve got you.
SS: A lot of films are filled with music, and the music carries the movie, and that’s great. But if you make it work without music and then you add the music, it elevates it, which is what music is supposed to do in a film. Even if you watched the Steven Spielberg movies, first of all you could watch his movies with the sound turned down and know exactly what’s going on. And those are such great and incredible John Williams scores, but the movies work without it. With it, it’s like, “Crank it up to 11” in a way. So I cut without music and--I’m just talking about things that I changed--at Sundance, I just didn’t have music. I didn’t get to it. I didn’t have any sound design. It wasn’t color corrected. It was kind of a rough cut, and it was longer than I wanted it to be, and so I just finished the movie basically.
SS: It was great that I got to show it. It was great that the guys from NewMarket, who are now Wrekin Hill [Entertainment], saw it and loved the movie and bought the film and said, “You want to finish it? Cool. We like it, but yeah.” So anyways, that’s what I got to do.
Capone: I met David [Michod] last year when he was promoting ANIMAL KINGDOM, and we talked about HESHER a little bit then too. I know you had worked with him before this film on the short. How did you get roped in with that motley Australian crew? I’m fascinated with what’s going on in Australia right now, this resurgence. I feel like it has been a while since we've seen films from Australia in this quantity making it stateside. I love meeting those guys and talking to them and watching their movies. I think they're some of the best crime dramas I’ve seen.
SS: I’m a wannabe Australian, but I worked on STAR WARS on EPISODE II.
Capone: In what capacity?
SS: I did the “Making Of…” the film. When I was there, I made a short as well that kind of turned into a different thing, but it’s called BENEATH THE DOME.
Capone: With R2-D2? I’ve seen that.
SS: Yeah. And that was amazing. Like I basically had front row seats to watch George Lucas make the movie and I could go wherever I wanted and ask him or anybody anything. It was really an amazing experience, but along the way I became friends with Nash Edgerton and Joel Edgerton. Nash doubled Ewan McGregor and did all of the Obi Wan Kenobi stunts and Joel played Uncle Owen. We just became great friends. And Nash was making shorts, I was making music videos. It was just this weird, healthy, and organic process where we became friends and went “What are you doing? Oh, cool. Here’s my two cents.” “What are you doing? Here’s my two cents.”
We just started to work on each other’s films, and I would spend a lot of time in Australia. I really fell in love with Australia and the films there and making films there and the approach there. David was someone that Nash had met, and they became friends, and we all became friends and Luke Doolan who made [the Oscar-nominated short] MIRACLE FISH, he was a friend of Nash’s, and we all just became friends. We were just hanging out and we all make films and talk shit about them and support each other and work on each other’s things, and if Nash were making something I would come out and hold the boom, or if he’s in it, I’m at the monitor saying, “This is what I think.” And when I’m doing something, Nash comes in. It’s just this healthy thing, and with David, we were just friends, and it was kind of fun to write together.
Capone: I remember David saying he was kind of bummed out that he couldn’t visit the HESHER set, because he was too busy working on his film, and he was like “I really want to meet all of those people.”
SS: And likewise. I really wanted to be there for ANIMAL KINGDOM, but we shot at almost the same time.
Capone: So you must have been really excited about Jackie Weaver getting the nomination.
SS: Oh my God, that was so awesome.
Capone: I got to talk to her just before the awards and I was in heaven, because I think she is awesome.
SS: She’s amazing.
Capone: I don’t want to get too sidetrackede, but I’ve got to ask, how did you land that STAR WARS gig? You just kind of threw that out there like, “Oh, I shot the Making Of…” How did you get that?
SS: I started really young making films and I became an editor when I was 18 and I learned to edit from Angus Wall who won for SOCIAL NETWORK. He cut that film and BENJAMIN BUTTON, and it was around the time he cut the credits for SE7EN. Do you remember those cool credits?
Capone: Oh yeah, the opening credits. Now everyone does it that way.
SS: I know, but he was the first. But that’s where I started, and Angus really taught me to edit; he taught me so much. I’m an editor. Like I approach the world through editing, and certainly my directing style is, I’m thinking about editing; that’s where you make the movie. But I never wanted to be an editor. I wanted to direct films, but no one wanted to put my films together, so I had to learn how to do that, and then all of a sudden I was working with people that I idolized. That was really my film school, working with great directors and putting their stuff together, and I did that for a long time and not all of the directors I worked with were so great. I got sick of fixing people’s problems; I was like, “I’m going to fix my own.”
So after do that for several years, I started directing music videos and commercials, and around the time that I stopped editing, because I really had to draw a line in the sand, to go from working on some of the most creative and interesting projects to directing this stuff with no money that no one wanted to do was kind of hard. You go from doing really cool work to kind of starting over, but Angus had cut some of the trailers for EPISODE I, and someone from Lucasfilm said to Angus, “Do you know anyone who is young that can edit and direct? We are looking for someone to do the Making of.” He said, “Oh, you should talk to Spencer.”
I got this call from Jim Ward, who is, I think, the vice president of marketing there, and he said, “Hey it’s Jim Ward from Lucasfilm,” and I was like “Oh, hi.” [Laughs] He’s like “What are you doing tomorrow?” I was like “Uh? What do you mean?” He’s like, “Why don’t you come to the ranch, Angus told us about your work, come and show us some of your directing,” and I was like, “The ranch? What’s the ranch? Oh, The Ranch?” Then the next day I flew up there and went and met with him and I met with Rick McCallum and showed them some of my stuff, and they asked me to work on the film.
Capone: It's that easy, wow. I wrote some notes about HESHER, and two of the first three things I wrote were “Sociopath” and “Anarchy!” First off, I thought Hesher was just nuts and then I realized it was something slightly more organized/disorganized to him. How did you conceive of this character? What did you want him to embody?
SS: First and foremost, to me, he was a complicated character with an interesting backstory that gets someone to be that way. What makes someone want to not have any friends or family? Something. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know. And I think most of us love family and friends, that’s part of being human, but there are people that don’t want anything to do with anybody, and I wonder why. Hesher was someone who I believe was hurt so badly as a child that he decided he never wanted to be hurt like that again, so he was going to put up these walls to protect himself. That’s where it starts.
Someone asked me before , “Is Hesher angry? He’s so angry,” or something. I was like “Actually, he’s not angry at all. He’s actually really calm.” Hesher’s got nothing to lose, which in a way is more scary than being angry. He doesn’t care if he lives or if he dies. He’s so in the moment, like he is living right this second. Whatever is happening now is all that matters. He doesn’t care about tomorrow or yesterday, and in a way he is really peaceful, which sounds weird, because the things he does are not always peaceful, but he likes to stir stuff up for his own entertainment. He likes to cause trouble, it’s more fun. I was talking to Joe [Gordon-Levitt] about it and in a way he’s like a monk.
Capone: Yeah, that’s true. But also an anti-monk.
SS: But he’s so at one with the world and he’s calm and in a way he sees the bigger picture. He certainly does with his family and he goes about it in a way. To me in a lot of ways he’s like Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi is not nice when he meets Daniel; he’s mean, and you kind of don’t like him. Daniel says, “I want to learn how to fight” and he goes, “Okay, paint the fence.” “What? I want to learn how to fight. Okay, I’ll paint the fence. Will you teach me how to fight?” “No, the whole fence. The outside too.” “What? Okay, I’ve done the fence, will you teach me how to fight?” “Sand the floor” or “Wax the car” or whatever. And he kind of shows him the way without ever explaining it, and I feel like Hesher kind of reminds these people of some very simple things that we take for granted everyday and he does it in a weird way. But I always feel like Hesher is the smartest person in the room. He doesn’t want you to think he is, he looks a certain way, and you go, “Oh, that guy is a burnout idiot,” but he’s not. He listens to everything and he gets what he wants out of ever situation while sort of saying as little as possible.
Capone: I always like it when a filmmaker draws that line and says, “Is it more important to like him or to understand what he’s up to?” In this case, clearly you fell on the "understand" part, but were you ever concerned that people might just not like him? That he might turn them off?
SS: To me, I felt like if you don’t like him, the movie doesn’t work and the thing that Joe brings is he's so charismatic. He is so likable, but he’s playing an unlikable character. It was really tricky to try and find that balance. How do you make this guy that is so unlikable likable? I think Joe does that and I think it’s because Hesher is aware what he is doing. He doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s up to and never explains it, but he sees it and kind of keeps his eye on the prize in a way. Like I said, he feels like he has nothing to lose.
When he sees this kid TJ, when he watches him in the hallway and when he meets him initially, he sees that this kid is pretty fucking tough, and in a way TJ has been hurt so badly, he has nothing to lose either. He doesn’t care if he lives. Punching him isn’t going to hurt him, are you kidding? He’s been hurt so bad that there’s nothing you can do to physically harm him, and I think Hesher sees that and it reminds him of himself and he’s curious. He follows him and just wants to know more. He tells the story about the mouse and the snake, and it’s this kind of weird metaphor, but the grandmother says, “You’re a little old to be hanging around TJ, don’t you think?”
Then he tells her this story about a mouse and a snake, like what the fuck does that mean? He's talking about himself. He's opening up about himself, which he doesn’t do. He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t tell anybody about himself, so he has to disguise it, but he basically says, “Look, I’m nothing in the world. I get it, I’m a little tiny mouse, but I’m surviving and so I’m standing up to the mouse and punching him in the face. Not only am I surviving, but I’m kind of kicking ass.” The grandmother says, “Is TJ the mouse?” and he says, “I don’t know, maybe,” because he doesn’t know, and it’s like Hesher keeps dropping that mouse into the cage with the snake to see what he does and he watches it. He leaves him in the bathroom getting beat up. He’s kind of trying to find his mouse. He is trying to see “Is TJ like him in a way?” This is just one weird thing that Hesher does. He’s like a scientist in a weird way.
Capone: I’ve met Joe a couple of times, and he’s just such a strange and wonderful choice to play this part, because I never would have thought he could pull off being this tough. How did you even think to ask him to do this?
SS: When I was writing, I couldn’t imagine an actor to play Hesher; I just didn’t want to imagine someone who’s name I knew as Hesher, because it would always be “So-and-So as Hesher” and I was like “No, I want it to be like Luke Skywalker.” You go “That’s Luke Skywalker.” “I don’t know want to know the actor's name who's playing him. But as far as I’m concerned that’s Hesher.” Of course, I want to meet with talented actors. Originally when I was thinking about it, I pulled a bunch of pictures of people that I had thought of, and actually Natalie [Portman] had said at one stage, “What about Joseph Gordon-Levitt?” I was like “Oh, he was someone I had thought about, but I don’t know. I’ll meet with him.” And the second I met with him, I was like “This guy is really interesting,” and once we got into a room together and actually tried it on…
Like as I was saying last night, it was a weird auditioning process that I had, which was I wanted the actors to audition me just as much as I was auditioning them, because I needed someone to trust me in every way, because I was going to push them and take them to weird places. Anyway, Joe was capable. First of all, I think I earned his trust and once I did, it was really this healthy collaboration, and he’s so amazing at what he does and he’s so capable of being honest. But also, because Hesher was so specific, there were all of these little tiny notes that he would have to hit along the way. I was like “Yes, I know you can play an amazing scale, but can you hit this note, this note, and this note while you are doing it?” “I don’t know, let me try that.” It was just like this weird technical, but honest thing and it just became this very healthy collaboration, and once we got in the room together, I was like, “This guy is amazing.”
Capone: I wrote down a line from the end of the movie and I want to ask you about it. I thought it was really profound, and it came from someone unexpected in the movie during the funeral scene…
SS: I know exactly what you're talking about: “Life is like walking in the rain?”
Capone: “You can hide and take cover or you can get wet.”
SS: That is the movie.
Capone: That is the movie. I love it when a single line in a movie sums it up in a lot of ways. Tell me about that, and giving that line to that character, and not somebody who we have been watching through the whole movie.
SS: I think moviex should be subtle. We are experts. We are experts at watching people and judging, and I don’t know why movies feel like they need to telegraph everything and spoon-feed the audience. That makes no sense to me. I felt by giving that line to a side character…would you even call her a side character?
Capone: No. One scene, done, that’s it.
SS: It throws it away, but if you are listening you go, “Oh, hang on” and then it’s kind of everywhere, but that is the movie. “Life is like walking in the rain, you can either hide and take shelter or you can just get wet.” Either live your fucking life or what are you doing? I love that you caught that.
Capone: “Don’t be a coward,” yeah.
SS: Yeah. And Hesher lives his life. He really does, to an extreme. That’s not necessarily how I live mine [Laughs], but he definitely does it and yeah. But like I said, that’s one of a lot of little notions in the film that reminds us of simple things.
Capone: In recent months, when there was some discussion about changing the title [to REBEL] or a trailer got out that you said was not the right one, you jumped right online and said, “Look, I want to make it clear this is not this.” Not a lot of filmmakers actually do that. Why are you doing that? Why are you jumping into it personally and clearing up any misconceptions?
SS: For me, this is a very honest film, and it’s very personal, but more importantly, I feel like marketing a film is not always the same as what the film is and I just want to be honest with people as much as I can. It’s a different movie. There’s a lot of ways to market the film and a lot of fun ways. HESHER is a lot of fun, and that’s one way, you just focus on that. There’s also a lot of heart in the film, you could focus on that. The film is not just one of those things, it’s all of this stuff, and I don’t know, I just really respect the audience and I know they're smart and I want to treat them in a way where they can use their brains and I don’t want to spoon feed it. Like with the title change, it sort of goes against everything that Hesher is in a way. Yes, he’s a rebel, but not in that sense.
Capone: That goes to like telegraphing again, like you don’t need to say that in the title.
SS: Yeah, but why is he a rebel? Is he really a rebel, or is everyone else the one that’s going against the norm? All of that stuff, ithat’s just not the movie. And look, there was a trailer out there and sure that’s fine, but that’s not really the movie. At the end of the day, some of the marketing stuff is probably going to be leaning in one direction or the other, and that’s fine. I believe that making a movie is you write it, you make it, and it’s not finished until the audience gets it. A lot of times, people make movies and they have to hand them off. This is part of the beauty of making an independent film, hopefully you don’t, but at some point, people get involved and you lose control of it. Bu I feel good about the people that are distributing the movie here, they are really awesome, and I love that they get the movie.
Capone:I read somewhere that you want to do an I LOVE SARAH JANE full length. Is that what you are doing next, do you think?
SS: We’ll see. I’m in the middle of writing it. It’s funny that that’s sort of become news for some reason.
Capone: I discovered it going into my interview with David; I just wanted to see anything he had worked on, and there are a lot of shorts are out there that you guys made. I just talked to Mia [Wasikowska] like a week and a half ago for JANE EYRE.
SS: I just saw her the other day in L.A., yeah.
Capone: If that happens, do you think you could get her to do it again? Like to come back?
SS: It’s still early days. I’m still writing, but…
Capone: Is that the ideal then?
SS: I love Mia. She was one of my favorite actors before she had done anything. I just saw her and went, “That girl is amazing,” and it’s so cool that everyone else thinks so now, too. But yeah, you always want to work with great actors, and so we’ll see.
Capone: That’s a killer short.
SS: Oh thanks.
Capone: It was great to meet you.
SS: Good to meet you. Yeah, thanks.
-- Capone email@example.com
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