A lot of first-time filmmakers play it safe, or trade in cutesy, emo-stamped, indie-friendly cliches, seeking to woo audiences (and critics) with witty and slightly canted takes on extraordinarily familiar material, and then trade on that to-scale success for a call-up to big-league, studio filmmaking. For his feature film debut, Spencer Susser did no such thing. Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a gonzo turn in the title role, and featuring engaging supporting performances by Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie and Rainn Wilson, is a weird little thing — a warped, seriocomic effort about a sociopathic burnout who intrudes on the life of a shy, gangly teenager who has just lost his mother. It may not be for all tastes, but it’s definitely not boring or safe. We had a chance to speak with Susser recently, and the conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: You were one of these Super 8 kids growing up, so you must be stoked for the J.J. Abrams summer movie of the same name, right? Kids today have no idea about the difficulties involved in making movies or videos with Super 8 –
Spencer Susser: They’re all going to be iPhone kids!
ShockYa: Take me back to your adolescent A/V club days, then, because filmmaking was very different just a generation ago.
SS: It was very different, because even to have a videocamera when I was young was kind of a big deal. Most people didn’t have videocameras, and if they did they were these big expensive things that kind of only adults could really play with. I never really thought about it, but to go back even further I think my dad had a three-quarter-inch camera. It was black-and-white, and the lenses were so slow that you had to really light it, but we used to make videos on the weekends when we were kids. So that planted the seed (of moviemaking), but as I got a little older I remember being at my friends’ houses, and their parents would go out for dinner and a movie or whatever, and when they were away we would steal their cameras and make little movies, too. Then we’d put it away before they got home because we didn’t want to get in trouble. So we would tell these stupid little stories mainly to make each other laugh, and that then turned into making skateboard videos and doing other tricks that turned into stories. It just kind of kept building on that idea, of telling stories we liked. Finally, I think when I was a teenager, I had a job at a sandwich shop and saved up a bunch of money and was able to get a videocamera. I used to make movies, and I would edit them between the cheap camera and cheap VCR. I was so jealous that a friend of mine had a VCR with what was called a flying eraserhead, which basically meant that when you hit the record button it started to record. The one I had, when you hit record at took two or three seconds before it engaged, so you had to time it before it engaged. But you know what — that’s timing, that’s editing. That was my first lesson: the shot starts here, and you want it synched up on the record side. That’s how I learned how to edit.
ShockYa: The seeds of collaboration for this film were actually first born on the set of the Star Wars prequel, is that right?
SS: I met Natalie (Portman) and (cowriter) David Michod in Australia. (ed. note: Susser was doing some work on a TV special centering around R2-D2.) And then the whole thing probably started about six years ago. Really, though, I’ve been wanting to make movies since I was a kid. I started editing, and that was my background and my film school, essentially. I put a lot of people’s stuff together and that’s how I learned a lot of it. I still approach the world very much from an editing point-of-view. ThenI started making commercials and music videos, and really practicing.
ShockYa: Do you think that editing background gives you a different perspective than maybe a lot of other directors with whom you worked?
SS: Definitely. I still don’t understand first-time filmmakers, I’m so impressed – because there’s so much to know about making a film, and the details and tools that make it up. And even the best guys are still learning. I spent thousands of hours on set making things, putting them together and really trying to learn how to use all these tools. So I’m impressed when people don’t have that background (and still excel), because there is a lot to know, to be able to wrap your head around being able to use these tools to tell a story not only in a very technically effecient way, but also from your own point-of-view. You collaborate with great people, but for me one of the most exciting things about film is that you have an idea in your head, and you get to realize it and turn it into something tangible that you can look at and show to people. It’s like a drug, there’s nothing better than that. Even if I had a real job, this is what I would do on the weekends.
ShockYa: Your cast is pretty amazing. You have Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, who’s an Oscar winner now. And Piper Laurie is kind of this forgotten gem. But if you don’t have the right kid at the center of this story, as with Devin Brochu, the whole thing could very easily fall apart.
SS: You’re absolutely right, without the kid working the film itself doesn’t work. There were a lot of challenges in how I was going to cast this film. Where do you find a 13-year-old boy who can carry a movie, and have this much emotional weight? There’s very few kids that have that experience. And Hesher was so specific in my head that I couldn’t imagine an actor that I knew playing the role. So I knew those roles would be super-challenging. When I was writing, I always had Natalie in my mind; when I closed my eyes that’s who I saw in that role. She was the first person I sent the script, I guess about two years ago, and the next day we talked about it and she signed on. She really liked it so much that she wanted to produce it and help me make it.
With the casting of Hesher, it was kind of an embarassment of riches. I had these incredible actors who were putting their hands up to play the role, and I felt really honored and lucky, but I had a funny audition process in that I wanted the actors to audition me as much as I was auditioning them. Because I knew I needed someone’s trust in every which way, and I needed to know that these were people I could work with, and that they would go out on this crazy rollercoaster ride with me and trust me. So basically I’d meet with someone and I’d give them a lot of backstory about who Hesher was and why he is the way he is, and then we’d just get in a room, the actor and I, and we’d try it for a couple hours, play with it. I spent so much time writing the script and thinking about this character. …I didn’t want some actor’s take on it, it was fairly specific (in my mind). Joe was someone I met with, and he was such a nice and good guy — pretty much the opposite of Hesher in every way — that I wasn’t sure he could do it. And then we just got into a room together, just the two of us, and I realized this guy is the real deal. The film is so specific, but he makes it feel so loose [while also] hitting all these technical notes. The fact that it feels almost improvised is part of the charm of it, I think. It’s this amazing dance he does, and it’s not an easy thing.
ShockYa: You mentioned the specificity of your vision for the character of Hesher, who’s kind of this punk-rock Jesus, like a discipline of G.G. Allin. He speaks in these metaphorical riddles at times, which render him ambiguous and representational. How did you toe that line of finding his voice and crafting dialogue for someone who sometimes speaks and behaves in such an elliptical manner.
SS: Well, there’s a long backstory for him. He was played real, everything he does is motivated, even though it seems random. But almost everything he does and says has a double-meaning, it’s all how you look at it. We always played it as a character, [very real], coming from the way he grew up and what he knows about the world. It was never played as anything but grounded. With that said, there is this fairytale element to it, but I never wanted to (overtly) play it that way.
ShockYa: As far as the backstory, it was based around a loss you experienced yourself, is this right?
SS: Yeah, I experienced the loss [of a loved one] when I was that age, and a lot of the film is really about what that feels like. And people look at TJ and say, “Wow, he really gets his ass kicked. Isn’t that a bit much?” But that’s what it feels like, it feels like you’re getting your ass kicked from every direction, all the time. I just want everything to be grounded, and every detail needed to feel real. I just didn’t want any of it to feel like a movie. We’re very sensitive to what’s real and what’s not, even in terms of the performances. As humans, and this sounds silly, but we’re experts at judging what people are feeling — we’re all actors too. And so I think when you see someone on a screen, you know the difference between a performance and something that’s essentially honest. And you just try to get it as honest as possible.
ShockYa: The title has a regional specificity to it that some people might not get. How difficult and/or protracted was the fight to keep it?
SS: Yeah, not everyone knows what it means, but I like that. And it had some meaning for me. A “hesher” is a term for a heavy-metal guy. You probably wouldn’t call yourself Hesher. It’s a bit like the Dude in The Big Lebowski. Everybody knows what a dude is, but you don’t really call yourself the Dude. So I think it’s similar in that sense. And I think if you go back into his backstory and the way he looks at the world, if somebody asked Hesher how old he was he’d probably say, “I don’t know, I don’t care, what the fuck does that number mean?” Hesher was someone who was probably hurt when he was young, he was probably abandoned when he was young, and he basically put up these walls to protect himself from being hurt: “I don’t want family, I don’t want friends.” The truth is he really needed a hug and someone to say that they cared about him, and so the fact that he doesn’t even really have a name is to separate himself from that past. He doesn’t want to be reminded about being abandoned. He’s got a huge heart, but doesn’t get to use it very often.
ShockYa: Your short film I Love Sarah Jane was very well received on the festival circuit. Are you now working on an adaptation of it into a feature?
SS: I am, currently. I’m writing and definitely looking forward to making that.
ShockYa: And will Mia Wasikowska (who starred in the short) be back on board?
SS: It’s a little too early to say, but you always want to work with the best actors that you can, and I love Mia and I was her number one fan before she was popular, and I still am. Like Natalie, she’s incredibly talented but is also a great, great person, and smart as can be. I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways.
Written by: Brent Simon