Celebrating the collaboration of entertainment’s finest up-and-comers and veterans is a powerful, vital theme of the new video game-inspired movie, ‘Hero Mode.’ Filmmaker AJ Tesler, who made his narrative feature directing debut with the comedy, effortlessly spotlights the gripping talents of Chris Carpenter in his breakout lead acting role. With standout supporting performances by seasoned actress Mira Sorvino and actor Sean Astin, the family movie provides hope to all teenagers and their parents that if they work together, they can achieve their goals.
The equally humorous and emotional film, which was written by Jeff Carpenter, also stars Indiana Massara, Mary Lynn Rasjkub, Erik Griffin, Creed Brattton and influencers from the gaming world, including MatPat, Wood Hawker, Scott the Woz, Sonja Reid and Ify Nwadiwe. Under the guidance of those gaming influencers, Tesler infused ‘Hero Mode’ with stunning visuals and a striking score that allows viewers to feel as though they’re truly immersed in a video game. The comedy’s brilliant production value is naturally combined with its heartfelt message that everyone needs their family and friends to help advise them in making important life decisions.
‘Hero Mode,’ which is is now playing on VOD, courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment, follows video game enthusiast Troy Mayfield (Chris Carpenter), who, after he’s suspended from school, decides to help save his family’s struggling indie video game business, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. The teenage coding genius assures his mom, Kate (Sorvino), that he can save the company by creating the world’s greatest video game in just 30 days, before they’re slated to present their latest project at one of the market’s leading conferences.
Despite the initial disbelief by the company’s employees, including fellow game coder and developer, Jimmy (Astin), Troy is determined to prove that his passion for video games isn’t just a hobby. The teen also sets out to show he can truly help save his family’s beloved business.
Tesler generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Hero Mode’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he had originally only signed on to produce the feature, but his fellow producers convinced him to also direct the comedy, as they liked his vision of how to bring the story to the screen. The helmer-producer also noted that he appreciated that the cast agreed to star in the movie, as he feels their performances will naturally resonate with audiences.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new comedy, ‘Hero Mode,’ which was written by Jeff Carpenter. What was it about the script that convinced you to helm the film, and how did you become involved in directing the feature?
AJ Tesler (AT): I was originally attached to only produce the film. One of my friends, who was one of the producers on the film, called me because of its genre, and thought I would be a good partner on it. So he called and asked me to produce it.
My first inclination was to say, “I can find you guys a really solid director, and I’d love to produce this script.” It was in pretty good shape, and it had an interesting story and heart, which are all things I look for when I’m looking to become involved in a project.
So we met with a bunch of directors, but some of them ended up not being available when we wanted to shoot the film. Others were ready and available, and would have brought unique things to the project.
But the other producers, including Marcy Carpenter and the Carpenter family (who worked on the film’s story and script) and E.J. Kavounas, told me, “We like all of these other directors, but we really like you and your take on the movie, and we feel really comfortable with you. So would you consider directing this movie?”
I said, “I’m going to need to sleep on it.” It’s a whole other level when you become attached to a film as a director and producer, instead of only being a producer, including the time commitment.
So I thought about it and consulted with my wife. She said, “You have to do this; you’d be out of your mind if you don’t.
So I read through the script a few more times, and created a creative deck of what I wanted the movie to be, and we all talked about it. The producers said, “You have to be the one who directs this movie.”
I’m glad that I made the decision to direct it, because we all put a lot of heart and soul into the movie. We made an effort to make a feel-good family movie that you can watch over and over again, and I think we accomplished that.
SY: Like you mentioned, besides directing the movie you also served as one of its producers. How did you balance your helming and producing duties during the production?
AT: Well, I come from a producing background, and I’ve produced everything from reality TV to other feature films. So that part comes relatively easy to me at this point. One of the things that I like about producing is that since I’ve worked on it for so long, I know all of the people who fit into each individual role needed for each individual project.
As a director, I was able to make all of those choices, too. So I was able to build the team that I wanted to help make the film; I called all of the people who I worked with over the years, and told them, “This is one that I’m going to be directing, so I’m going to have to lean on your creativity, too.” I think all of my collaborators responded to that.
I was lucky that my cinematographer, Jonathan Hall, was available to come in and help. Eva Fredrickson was our costume designer, and I’ve worked with her for about 15 years. Christina Eunji Kim was our production designer, and I’ve worked with her a couple of times. Padraic Culham worked wonders on our visual effects team. We were so lucky to have Dorian Frankel as our casting director. I’ve worked with all of these people over the years throughout my career, and they were also willing to come in and work on this film, and really helped me steer this project in the direction I felt it needed to go.
SY: Speaking of the comedy’s visuals in particular, what was the process like of creating the visuals for the feature, particularly for the video games? What was your collaboration process like with the film’s director of photographer, Jonathan Hall, who you just mentioned?
AT: It was an interesting process. A lot of the designs for the video games weren’t created right away, so they only existed in my head. They were ultimately based on what I imagined was possible. I spoke to Martin Hall, who worked as the visual effects supervisor on the film, and asked him if what I was thinking was possible. He was really helpful in making sure that he would be able to fix whatever we were designing.
While I was working with Jonathan, we played with the coloring and lighting, as well as the aspect ratio. So the screen changes when Troy is imagining things, so you really get a sense of how he sees, and interacts with, the world.
In order for everything to work, everything had to be thought out and in the right place, so that we can see the ordered chaos of what was happening in the story. We tried to do that on the production side, too. We made sure that everyone got their say and collaborate, so that we could build the best version of the film possible.
SY: ‘Hero Mode’ stars Chris Carpenter, Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Indiana Massara, Erik Griffin and Bobby Lee. What was the casting process like for the movie?
AT: We got lucky in being able to secure this incredible cast. Our casting director, Dorian Frankel, helped a ton, and she’s amazing to work with; she identified who might be interested in the film’s subject matter, and would be willing to help make the film. I didn’t know some of the people she recommended.
The kids were people I didn’t know. Indiana Massara is amazing in this movie, so I was happy to work with her. Chris Carpenter came with the project, but working with him to help mold the character was a real highlight for me.
Mira Sorvino and Sean Astin are these two heavyweights who I’ve admired for so long. I felt that it was worth going after big names like them with this project, and I was fortunate that they responded to it.
I already know a lot of the other actors, including Erik Griffin and Bobby Lee. I felt really lucky that all of these people came together for this particular movie, and it would be a totally different movie with a different cast. So all of the pieces fell together exactly the way they were supposed to, and I hope that it resonates with audiences in the same way that it resonated with us.
SY: Once the actors signed on to star in the comedy, what was the process like of working with them to build the characters’ motivations and backstories?
AT: The way that I like to work is to allow everyone bring their own ideas to their parts. We all had ideas of what the characters should look and sound like, and I felt that as long as we all went in with an open mind, and we were open to collaborations, we would come out the best version of the film.
In my first meeting with Mira, I told her that at the end of this, I wanted to be the only director she ever wanted to work with again. (Tesler laughs.) I don’t know if I accomplished that, but overall, working with her was great. There’s no one else who would have worked as hard as she did to assure that the part worked as well as it did. Sean, meanwhile, was the easiest actor in the world to work with because everything he does is great.
With all of the actors, I was able to watch them play in the sandbox that I created for them. So overall, it was an incredible experience to work with the entire cast.
SY: Blue Fox Entertainment (released) ‘Hero Mode’ in select theaters and on VOD (last month). What was the process like of securing the dual distribution for the comedy, and why do you think the digital release is beneficial for this type of movie?
AT: Whenever you make any film, you hope that it’s going to make it into theaters or on to the best streaming platform. But ultimately, what you really want is for people to see the movie. We were able to find a distributor in Blue Fox, which had the same vision of where we wanted the movie to go that we did.
Then the pandemic hit, so in the midst of that, we thought, we’re probably not going to be in theaters. But we hoped that people would still be able to see the movie because we worked really hard on it, and thought people would enjoy it.
Then the vaccine started to open things up, and people started to become more interested in going back to theaters. So then there was an opportunity for us to release the movie in a way that people could go see it. That’s the hope when you make a movie-you hope that people can see it in theaters.
When you make a movie, you assume that it’s going to be consumed in the same way that you imagine that it’s going to be seen. So we’re all thrilled and excited that this turned into this opportunity that people can see it in the way that we intended them to see it. I’m really excited that audiences are going to be able to see the movie in theaters.