It's always interesting when an actor or director whose work you have almost across-the-board loathed for the entirety of his/her career is the person you're about the interview. I had no idea going into this interview with Matthew Lillard whether he had any clue what my or anyone's opinion at Ain't It Cool was about his work, and that didn't really matter since I was there to talk about something of his that I truly did enjoy: his feature directing debut FAT KID RULES THE WORLD.
I somehow managed to miss the film at SXSW this year, but I saw Lillard all over Austin before or after screenings of the great little movie starring Jacob Wysocki (TERRI) and Matt O'Leary (BRICK) as a couple of high school misfits that find meaning in punk rock music. It's an awkward, emotional journey that manages a few laughs along the way and features a whole lot of great music, including a score and a couple of songs written by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.
FAT KID shares more than a little DNA with one of Lillard's better works as an actor, a little-seen 1998 indie film SLC PUNK! And what I found amusing about Lillard's career is that even people who claim to hate the guy as an actor, they always seem to be able to name two or three films that he was actually pretty good in. Watch him in HACKERS, SCREAM, LOVE LABOUR'S LOST, or THE GROOMSMEN and see what I mean. As was there any actor more suited to playing Shaggy in the SCOOBY DOO movies than Lillard? I think not. I'm not giving the guy a pass for his long string of over-the-top performances, but I'm also not pushing his entire career off a cliff either.
His acting career had become a little quiet in the last few years, but then something happened right around the time FAT KID was coming together: he got to high-profile supporting roles. Marking one of my favorite performance by him ever, he played the man having an affair with George Clooney's wife in THE DESCENDANTS; more recently he got tapped to go toe to toe with Clint Eastwood as competing baseball scouts in TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, and it was clear Eastwood had almost as much fun hating his character as we did.
Based on FAT KID's outstanding results, I'm very curious to see what Lillard has up his sleeves as a director. And I certainly had a great time chatting with him last week about the film and what's next for him. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD opens in Los Angeles this Friday, October 12 and hits VOD and iTunes on the October 25.
Enjoy my wonderfully candid conversation with Matthew Lillard…
Matthew Lillard: Hey, what’s up Steve?
Capone: Hi, Matthew. How are you?
ML: Great, dude. How are you?
Capone: Good. You know, I probably saw you about 50 times at SXSW just running around the streets of Austin before and after your screenings.
ML: That was good times.
Capone: But I didn’t actually see it there, but I have seen it now.
ML: Oh, you have. Good.
Capone: Yeah, absolutely. I ran into Jacob at Roger Ebert’s film festival I think about a month after SXSW. Roger had picked TERRI as one of his overlooked films and I ran into him there and was congratulating him on what I had heard about this movie. What a sweet kid. He’s such a nice guy.
ML: He is such a sweet kid. His whole family is sweet. It’s funny, I’ll be doing a screening in San Diego, and there they are. They wont ask for a ticket, they’ll just come down and they just love watching that movie. In fact, that was one of the great rewards at SXSW, they had never seen the film. After the premiere, they were waiting in the audience, and I ran over right after we did the Q&A and they had tears running down their faces. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it, because they were so proud of him. I just think he turned in this epic, amazing performance. I just think he’s great in the movie.
Capone: Was it in an audition that you found him in? Had you seen something before?
ML: I had optioned the book 10 years ago, and I finally found these guys at Whitewater Films. They produced MEAN CREEK, and their whole M.O. is first-time filmmakers and independent films, and we sat down. They weren’t really sure if it was a story that they wanted to tell. We got along great, but they were like “I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t a movie that…” They had a couple of ideas of things they wanted to change. And they came up with this idea of doing a short. It’s pretty genius actually, you can find out if a director can direct and you can find out if you’re compatible to work together and you can do it without spending $750,000.
So in this meeting they said, “Would you be willing to shoot a couple of scenes?” I said, “Yes. I will spend $5,000, and you’ll spend $5,000, and we'll split it down the middle and we'll do it.” I think they were thinking like $500 and $500 [laughs], but I took the opportunity to get it filmed, because I just wanted to direct. So they said yes, and we did the short and we did a casting session between Christmas and New Years, and we had three kids come in to audition, because we were three days after New Years in Seattle.” All the agents were like, “There’s nothing in that for us, $100 a day. And so we finally convinced this one woman to send in Jacob, and she did, and he did the short. By the end of the short he became a lynchpin for the financing. So without him, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to make the movie.
Capone: So had TERRI already come out? Did people know about it already?
ML: He was going to Sundance three weeks later. So I knew he had done a movie with John C. Reilly, and it had been accepted, but I had no idea.
Capone: So you hadn’t seen it though?
ML: Yeah, and I still haven’t seen it. I was in Australia, and it came on TV, and I started watching it in the middle and was like, “I don’t want to watch it.” It’s a little like watching your mom and dad have sex.
Capone: Wow, okay. Is it really?
ML: [Laughs] It’s just weird, like I have a special relationship with him, so I’m not used to sharing actors. Everything’s new to me, so I see him saying something else with someone else’s stuff, and I’m like “Ew, I don’t like that.”
Capone: I’m not sure how that relates to your mom and dad having sex, but okay…
ML: [Laughs] It’s a weird feeling.
Capone: I thought maybe you meant that you wanted to see it from the beginning.
Capone: If you’re going to be traumatized, you might as well get the whole show.
ML: If you’re going to watch your mom and dad have sex, you really want to see them take their clothes off first.
Capone: So you said you optioned the book 10 years ago. What was the context under which you came into contact with the book?
ML: I did the book on tape. So a random offer came in one day. It’s so funny, because it’s never happened since. It hadn’t happened before. It’s the only offer I’ve ever received like this, and 20 pages in I was having this completely emotional experience reading this book, and so at a break, I picked up the phone and called my manager and said “I want to sit and talk to this writer about maybe optioning it and making this into a movie.” A week later I was on the phone with [K.L. Going, author] and I was convincing her, “I promise you I want to make this movie and I can get it done and I know I’ve never directed, but my whole life…” I mean, I was the artistic director of two theater companies. I’ve always done this, I’ve just never made a movie, so “I promise you I can do it.” And 10 years later, I finally came through on the promise.
Capone: Do you remember specifically what it was that you responded to and what you felt like you could build on?
ML: For sure, yeah. It’s everything in the movie. Look, I was a kid who found drama. I was overweight, had a severe learning disability, I had glasses and braces, and high school fucking sucked. Until I found drama, that one thing I was good at, I was lost and I liked that in the movie, the fact that here’s this kid--and it’s not about a fat kid, it’s just about a kid who is an underdog and finds something to hold on to and give him hope. I liked the fact that at the end of the book and at the end of the movie, he’s not “fixed.” He’s never fixed; we try to avoid all clichés.
Capone: When I watched it, I kept thinking that it shared a certain DNA with SLC PUNK!, with it's idea that music brings people together.
ML: Sure. I definitely think that Stevo is just in that world of SLC PUNK! There’s definitely a correlation, and I embrace that and lean into it, because for me I understand the effect that [writer-director] James Merendino’s SLC PUNK has had on kids, because I walk it. I walk down the street and I see it. If 10 people a day come up to me, three of them come up with SCREAM, three of them come up with two other movies, and however many left over come up to me and say "SLC PUNK! changed my life." So I realize the power that making a movie for a neglected demographic has, so that’s definitely a conscious choice to be making a movie in that world instead of like the football world or a setting where he becomes a free-throw expert or soccer player.
Capone: Was part of the reason that you wanted it to premiere at SXSW because of that music component? Was that important to you?
ML: No. I mean I could say “Yes,” but then I’d be lying and just look like a douche. We wanted Sundance. Te cliché is, you want Sundance and for better or worse that’s what the independent world kind of gears towards. I think that our movie was way better served at SXSW and having premiered my movie at SXSW, I love SXSW now and consider myself an alumni of that world. I’ve been to Sundance three times as an actor, but for me I’d rather be at SXSW.
I will say there’s a detriment to the movie in the way that SXSW isn’t nearly as strong of a buying market as Sundance is, and I think that if we had been to Sundance we may have had a different reaction and we may have sold. If we had been at Sundance two years ago, I would have bet we would have sold for sure. Once you’re at Sundance, you’re that thing in some how and some way, it’s hard to be the cool kid in the Hollywood club, and Sundance kind of opens up those doors. Yet again I’ve missed the cool club, so I have to go back to just fighting and trying to find my way in.
Capone: It has been funny since SXSW how people have been discovering the film in waves at these different festivals, and every so often on Twitter, I’ll just see a bunch of posts from people who have seen it at a festival and everyone loves it. You’re doing something unique with the distribution too, right? You’re doing these Tugg screenings, for instance.
ML: Yeah. I mean look, what’s funny as filmmakers, we make independent films and then when studios don’t buy them, we are like “Aw. They didn’t accept us coming in, why do we think they are going to accept us after we’re made.” We had offers at SXSW; they were just all terrible. The only think we would have gotten out of it is a moniker that says “Focus Features” and never a chance to make our money back. I just think it’s irresponsible to not give somebody a chance to make their money back. We are a modestly budgeted film, and if we like independent films being made in the world, we have to figure out a way for people to make money back or else they’ll just stop being made. Sorry, that was diatribe.
Capone: It’s fine, and you're right.
ML: Instead of taking that bad deal, we went out and raised $158,000 on Kickstarter. We did that with a big help from Reddit.com, and it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen the internet make a direct change of trajectory with something, obviously except for the Middle East uprising--the Arab spring. We did Reddit.com, and we had a huge outreach from Mike McCready of Pearl Jam.
I have fans, the book has fans, at SXSW and all of the festivals we’ve played people were supporting us, and we raises a lot of money in 33 days. So we took that money, and instead of buying into the machine, we crafted our own plan and that was to go to Tugg, and still today we’ve had 1,000 screening requests over the last eight weeks. The movie has played all over the place, and people are finding it and creating an opportunity to see it, and that’s a pretty exciting method.
Capone: I was going to ask you about Mike McCready. How did you get him to do a couple of songs and your score? That’s pretty impressive.
ML: He did the whole score. I mean look, it was one of those things where an agent said, “I’m going to see about Mike McCready,” and in the back of your mind you’re like, “Like that’s going to happen.” By the time we sat down, I had laid out how I would beg for him to come onboard, and to his credit he was as interested in doing the movie as I was in having him do it.
He wanted the chance to start something from beginning to end and he dug in with this unabashed zeal and was excited to be there. He was an amazing collaborator. It’s not easy to give a guitar legend notes, especially when you're ignorant to music, because I’m not really music-centric. It’s not like I’m like, “This is exactly what I want.” But as we started to go through, I got more and more specific, and he kept changing, and it cost him a fortune. But the work he does is amazing.
Capone: I ask that question as someone who has been in he Pearl Jam fan club since the early '90s, so I’m always paying attention to what those guys are doing.
ML: It’s funny, we continue to try to reach that base. I think the people will love his work in this movie.
Capone: I agree. Are you releasing a soundtrack of some sort?
ML: Not really. Again, it comes back to if we were a big movie and people had seen us, I think we would have a chance to get a record deal, but we haven’t really put that together.
Capone: You’ve had a hell of a year in the last 12 months or so just acting-wise between THE DESCENDANTS and then with TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE and working with these incredibly actors and directors. When you’re trying to get this movie done and then suddenly these acting jobs come in, is that kind of like an embarrassment of riches?
ML: Oh yeah. It’s very funny. I said to the universe, “Look, I just want to direct.” And the universe is just sending me acting jobs, it’s hilarious. Yeah, you’re on Alexander Payne’s set with George Clooney and you realize that in a month, you’re going to be in Seattle shooting your own movie…
Capone: Some of us have to suffer like that I guess.
ML: [Laughs] If it was like that all the time, if my life was that pimp all of the time, I wouldn’t talk about it. But it’s that thing where I'm like, “I have no idea how I got here and I’m lucky to have the job.” Yeah, it’s been nice. I mean my career has ebbed and flowed as everyone else’s and I was in the abyss for a while, and a movie like DESCENDANTS brings you back and it punches your time card, and you get to stay a little while longer. It’s the same thing with TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, when you’re working with Eastwood and John Goodman, and you’re looking across at them like ,“I want to be those guys.” Those guys have been around for a long time.
Capone: You’re such an incredible asshole to Clint Eastwood. That must have been so much fun. Was that intimidating in any way?
ML: No, I fucking loved every second of it. It’s funny, because he only does one take, and he’s very famous with that. It’s a legendary set, and you do one take, and he does that line a couple of times in the one take. I have this distinct memory of standing right next to the camera, off camera line, and looking down the barrel of this lens. They still shoot on film, which is amazing, and you’re sitting there and you’re listening to the film roll, and you’re off camera to Clint Eastwood and he’s yelling at you, “That’s what you call trouble with the curve, jackass!” or "That's what you call trouble with the curve, cocksucker!" He’s throwing name after name after name at me, and it was awesome. That was really cool.
Capone: Do you have any other acting gigs coming up?
ML: I have a couple of things happening, but that’s the thing I’ve learned at this point, you talk about them when they are done. I just did an episode of "Criminal Minds" and did NIM’S ISLAND 2, and I’m still putting together that patchwork.
Capone: You said that you're getting these requests for the screenings of the FAT KID. Are you getting this response that younger people are reacting and seeing themselves in these characters? Either in Jacob’s character or Matt’s character?
ML: That’s a good question. I think so. Something in the movie strikes a chord, whether it’s the relationship between the son and the dad, whether it’s the relationship between two best friends or having an addict friend. I don’t know where they're connecting. I do know that at the end of the movie, people have an epiphany; they have an emotional reaction, which means that we are doing the job right. I think that we're a movie that has something to say, that has a “message,” although that sounds so douchey to say, but we're a positive film and we’ve got something to say, and I think we do it in a way that respects the people in the movie and respects the audience. I think that we earn a lot of the jokes. It’s just good old-fashioned storytelling to be honest, and collectively we're proud of that. We like that. We like the fact that people are having those responses.
Capone: Matt has been in so many great movies in his career, and I don’t think anybody realizes it’s all the same guy, because he’s such a chameleon. How did you decide on him for this? He does tend to play a lot of troubled teenagers.
ML: He does. I think that he's amazing. He is a chameleon, and it’s funny, we gave him the boots in his wardrobe and he wore them the whole time. He’s that kid that brings so much, and it’s like “Okay, slow down, dude.” You have to go through the ideas with him, because he’ll just keep saying, “Yes, and…” and giving you more and more and more.
A great story about Matt, I gave him the lyrics to the song, to “Fat Kid’s Revenge” and I’m like “Here are the lyrics, I can either have somebody write something, or you can write something,” and 45 minutes later he sent me an audio file with a song of the song that he'd recorded off of his shitty old phone. That’s Matt: you give him something and say, “What about this?” He will come back with three pages of answers, and that’s what you want. I said to them all, “I want you to be brilliant and I’m going to give you every chance in the world to be amazing,” and I think they all leaned into that challenge, and I just think that the one thing that we can hang our hat on is, more than my directing or the cinematography or anything, is these performances I think are really electric.
Capone: Certainly no one is going half assed on this, that’s for sure.
ML: I’m not a big fan of half assed. I don’t know if you’ve seen anything I’ve ever been in, but if I make a face, it’s a big face.
Capone: I’ve seen most of what you’ve been in, yeah.
ML: Well thank you, dude. It’s nice to have a conversation with somebody from Ain’t It Cool and have them like me, because in general they used to hate my guts.
Capone: Here we go… [Laughs]
ML: We got great reviews right off the bat with Ain’t It Cool. That was the thing that we hung our hat on, and it’s so nice to make a movie that people over there like.
Capone: Yeah, well best of luck with this, man. I think this is something that people will discover over the next couple of years, and I hope that translates into something for you guys.
ML: Whatever it is, we just want people to see the movie. It’s going to be what it’s going to be, but you guys are a part of that, so thanks for helping.