Flixclusive Interview: Director of Death of a Superhero
4:00 PM on 04.30.2012 // Hubert Vigilla@HubertVigilla
[From April 19th to the 29th, Flixist will bring you live coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]
Death of a Superhero played the last weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival. It's currently available on VOD and will be released in select cities over the next few months. I got a chance to speak with Ian Fitzgibbon, the director of the film, last Thursday afternoon. The publicist told me before heading in to meet him that he was a really nice guy, and she was right. He was smiling and thoughtful, and occasionally he'd look out the window at the gray city while constructing his thoughts.
When I stepped into the room, I immediately asked him how his festival experience had been so far. (It was something I asked everyone at the festival after the first weekend.) I assumed that he'd been in town for a few days already and had watched a few other movies. Maybe he'd gone to some parties.
"Very brief," he said. "I only arrived last night."
I was also surprised to learn that Fitzgibbon wouldn't be sticking around the city once the film premiered. "I'm going back [to the UK] tomorrow night," he said. "I start shooting a TV series on Monday."
[Editor's note: I reworded some questions and responses in order to avoid spoilers.]
The TV series is called Threesome, right? Could you talk about that?
It's the first original UK comedy that Comedy Central UK have commissioned. We did a series last year, and we're doing another series this year, which I start shooting on Monday. It's seven episodes -- seven half-hours.
What's the show about?
It's about a gay guy, a straight guy, and this chick who's best friends with the gay guy and going out with the straight guy. They live together, they get drunk, a bit drunk-f***ed, and one night they have a threesome. She gets pregnant by the gay guy. So they have a choice to make, and they decide to have the baby together.
[laughs] That sounds cool.
So that's the basic premise of it. [laughs]
With Death of a Superhero, you said you wanted to make a love story rather than a cancer movie. Can you explain that distinction?
I'm not interested in cancer per se. I've seen a lot of very fine films on that subject and I didn't think I could add anything to that. But I had never made a love story before and I was very intrigued by that notion, and I liked the idea of a love story with this sort of dark undertone of death looming its head. And then on top of that, the inner imagination of this boy who draws, who has these creatures to come to life that we're privy to, which are really just a conduit for his sexual fantasies and fear of death and his phobias about his medication and treatment and all that. I felt that those were very interesting elements to create a story. So that's what really drew me to want to do the film.
It's such a heavy and emotional movie but there are these moments of comedy too. How did you balance the tone?
Well that's a good question. I don't think I'm capable of making something without humor in it. There just seems to be some part of me that has to do that. I felt the balance between, as you were saying, those very serious, more emotional elements of the film and the comedy had to be right. I think that the film would just be too depressing without all that comedy in it. I just feel that it helps give the film an emotional shape that an audience can take. I really enjoy hearing the audience laugh and then gasp.
In particular there's that moment where Donald's friends are showing him the pictures of the prostitutes.
And it feels so real.
Because there's that desperation.
I love all those moments because a lot of them are improvised. We knew what story the scene needed to tell but in terms of actual pin-perfect dialogue, we threw a lot of it out and said, "Look, you basically are going to go around school and ask girls if they'd be interested in going out with this guy." So the more we were able to do that, the more those kids felt comfortable doing what they were doing. I didn't want to hear the writer's funny lines coming out.
That's interesting. I was going to ask how much of the film was improvised. Do you rely a lot on improvisation?
There are some key scene that were improvised. There are a couple of scenes between Andy and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. There's one on the boat where the kid freaks out because his parents have really cheesed him off and Andy comes in and says, "That didn't go very well," "You need to calm down a bit," "Your parents mean well," and all that. We has two pages of dialogue written where he was explaining the parents's point of view, but we just sort of turned it into this scene where Andy was challenging him to show more of his anger and to see how much anger there was in there. It just seemed to form a more natural bond between the two of them.
In terms of instincts towards improvisation, was that something you picked up from your acting experience?
Yeah, definitely. I think improvisation is a very useful tool. It only works is you know what the scene is about and if you know the limitations of the story that needs to be told within that scene. I think it's a fantastic weapon. When you don't know where you're heading with it, it can be exhausting and very counterproductive. But the actors really respond to that, I think they really enjoyed that challenge, you know?
Was there something about Thomas's audition that really stuck out to you? Was there a moment when you realized he would be your guy?
Yeah, it was a non-audition, really. He came in -- he's quite shy, he's very, very quiet, very softly spoken. But there was something in his attitude more than his performance that really drew me to him. I think that's the word -- it kind of drew me to him, it made me want to know more about him. And I felt that was a very powerful quality to have for that character. He has something that draws you in, I don't know what it is.
Even just seeing him. There's something about that moment where you see him bald for the first time or you see him walking around. There is that draw to him. There's that pull.
Yeah, he has something. I don't know what it is, but he's very... I think he's very rooted in what he does, so he needs to do very little of it. I think that's what makes him powerful, and I think that's what makes his performance so powerful. It's not flashy, and he doesn't show off, quite a lot of it is thrown away. I think he's got a serious kind of creative engine in there somewhere. I really enjoyed working with him, he's fantastic.
Would consider working with him again.
Oh god, big time. Absolutely. He's terrific. One of the best actors I've worked with.
And of course there's Andy and Ainsling in the film as well. They're both great.
What's working with them like?
Well, it's funny because they have different qualities. I mean, Andy was just coming off Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he has this sort of extraordinary kind of energy about him. I was more interested in exploring stillness with him. You know, getting him to be almost subdued; and trying to explore grief with very little explained, almost like a physicality. I think he did it really beautifully. We talked a lot about how much he should reach out to the boy, how soft he should be with the boy, and I think we both felt that actually he should be quite tough, because the boy had obviously been to several shrinks -- he calls Andy shrink number six -- and in his type of work he had to connect with anybody. So we felt the most important thing was for Andy's character not to be patronizing. And I think that's why the relationship begins to flourish. The boy senses that this guy will take him absolutely on the level. And Aisling is slightly different.
[laughs] I can't pronounce Irish.
Just think of cigarette ash. [Editor's note: I initially pronounced the name "Aisling" as "Ice-ling." It's actually pronounced more like "Ashlyn." Sláinte to Ian for pointing that out.]
There we go.
She was less confident in herself, a little bit more hesitant. I dare say she isn't anymore because she's done a ton of work since, but she was somebody who had to be a little more coaxed and had to be reassured a little bit more. I think Thomas and Andy had a lot of confidence about them, you know, but she's terrific in her own way, I think. Very pleased with her performance.
Can you talk about the animation and where you decided to put it in and not put it in?
Initially the animation was going to be something else before I became attached to the movie. They had done quite a lot of work and a lot of it was fantastic. It looked beautiful. Stunning, and it was 3D and photorealistic and very developed. It looked almost like something out of Avatar, it was amazing, but my problem was I couldn't relate it to this 15-year-old kid. So I had to say, "Guys, you have to go back to the drawing board. You have to imagine yourselves as this 15-year-old boy stuck in the back of the class with no hair and hormones raging through him." You know, fancying girls like mad but feeling he's invisible. What does that do to you? What are you drawing then? So I wanted the style to be much rougher, much more hand drawn, much more flawed, but to have a kind of attitude and broad stroke of energy. And so where we use it was really to describe what's going on inside Donald. So he seems quite cool, but then when you see the animation you realize what's going on in his head, and it's quite a lot. It's sadomasochistic, pornographic sometimes, but he's a teenage kid.
I think that's what I really enjoyed about it because it does tap into that mindset and the sadness of that mindset if you were to die at that age.
Yeah, yeah, and hopefully that's what it does. I wanted to see if we could use the animation in a key scene just as validly -- if that's the word -- as live-action stuff. So when this moment happens, I felt I don't need to see him go through anything in the live-action world because I understand that superhero character is him. I felt there's something very simple, moving, and powerful about the way the animation is used in this moment.
I really appreciated the scene you're talking about too because there are no drawn-out speeches, it's just what it is.
Yeah, and boy, you know, I tried writing stuff. And it just felt very banal. What are you going to say? What are you going to say that's going to elevate this? Which is when we came up with the idea that the animation could do it with no dialogue whatsoever. Sometimes I think the most important decisions that you make are what you leave out. I've never felt that more than with this film. I think the whole process was stripping it away, getting rid of as much dialogue as you could and trying to do it much more intuitively.
Were there any other scenes you can recall where it was about paring down?
Well, in the initial draft of the animation of that scene we were just talking about, I had dialogue from The Glove, the villain, saying, "You're going to die, you're just a little boy, I was always going to win, you're just a puny little virgin." I just thought, "I don't want to hear any of this." I think it's more about what do I need to know.
What other challenges did you face in the adaptation process?
That's a good, good question. You know what it is? I love the book, I really enjoyed it. It was very funny, and I enjoyed the spirit of it, but a book is not a movie. And I didn't like the screenplay that I read, because I felt it didn't reflect the real quality and power of the book. So that was a challenge. And also because the story was initially located in New Zealand, I was shooting it in Dublin and didn't want to pretend that we were shooting it anywhere else, so I completely relocated the story and rewrote the story with this friend of mine, Mark Doherty, and we both worked at it together. And I said, "Look, this is going to be the world: it's going to be six square miles up from where my house is." I have two teenage children who are 19 and 17 so I felt that I knew how these kids talk, and Mark lives in the area and he knows how people talked, so I just felt that we have a really good chance of creating a world that is utterly believable and authentic -- let's just go for that. Then we talked about the animation, because initially the animation served a different purpose and I wanted it to describe something that I wouldn't otherwise know, and so that's why I really like the idea that he has these sexual fantasies or these fears of death -- the obsessive villain, this Glove character, who was always taunting him and all that -- and I just thought if the animation could express that. When you're in the therapy sessions with him and he's kind of going, "No, I'm not afraid, I'm fine." You know that's not the case. I find that quite exciting to create that strand and make the story work in those terms.
Where did the tails on the women come from?
That's from Anthony. Anthoy McCarten came up with that, and I always liked that. It's like this slightly immature notion of women being monsters in some sort of way. It was another way of showing his fear of women essentially. I really loved Anthony's book, the humor of it, the kid's attitude -- I just didn't see it in the screenplay I was approached with, which is why I needed to sit down with Mark and rewrite it.
Were there any scenes that were particularly taxing for you or any of the actors?
You know... [laughs] I think the parent stuff was tough. And I made a rule: I said nobody is allowed to cry. I allowed the parents one scene to shed a tear. I find those scenes very tough because I am a dad, after all. There's a moment toward the end where Donald says something about his parents and you just think, "Bloody hell." They were tough. The rest of it was a lot of fun, though.
I love the one scene with the boys and their dad.
Once again, that's an honest moment that would happen.
Yeah, yeah. It's very interesting, because initially the brother wasn't in that scene. It was just the two of them.
Yeah, and my German producers were very concerned that it was going to puncture any kind of beautiful emotional moment. And I guess it's cultural difference. I said, "No." I think if you put in a laugh there, it's even more heartbreaking.
Were there any other difficulties you faced in crafting this film?
No, I mean, there's a scene at the rock toward the end that has a sort of resonance and significance to the story. And that's in a part of Dublin where I thought we would never be able to shoot it because the tides are so restrictive. We had to have the right tide, the right sky, the right sunset -- all of those things had to be in alignment. We thought, "We're never going to get it." So we booked a studio and a green screen and we were going to photograph all the different elements and stick them together in post and just take our time shooting the scene. And actually what we ended up doing was we were shooting another scene, we looked around, and we saw all these elements.
The rock is there, the sky is there, the sun is just about to set! We have half an hour, we have everybody, so let's just do it. And we did it in half an hour.
How have your kids felt about the movie?
They're in it.
Where in the film?
They're in it as extras. So my girl is one of the girls in the classroom, and she's in the library, and my boy's in the party scenes. So all the extras are their friends, really.
Yeah, so they had a really good time making it. And they served as very good barometers as well of the script because I would talk through scenes. I said, "Oh, I'm writing a scene where the boy goes on a date today," and she said, "Well, you'd never say 'date', Dad." I said, "Really? Oh god." [And she said,] "Nobody our age says 'date.'" So I was able to go, "Okay, well that's not going to be in the script." So it's good to be able to hear firsthand, get the little authentic details right. They were good testers. [laughs]
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