EXCLUSIVE: Chris Colfer Talks Dying Young in Struck by Lightning
Chris Colfer makes his feature film writing and acting debut with Struck by Lightning, in theaters this weekend
Having made a name for himself as both a singer and an actor on Glee, breakout star Chris Colfer is now moving into the realm of screenplay writing with his first theatrical feature Struck by Lightning, which also finds him taking on the lead role. The story follows the final months in the life of a bitter high school student, who struggles to inspire his classmates artistically. He has big plans for his future, but those plans are put on hold when he is struck down by a bolt of lightning in the high school parking lot.
Its an inspirational tale, one that focuses on Chris's own love of writing, and his frustrations with this generation's lack of an imagination. The multi-hyphenate already has a best selling children's novel to his name, and he also penned a book based on his original screenplay for Struck by Lightning.
Watching this movie, I felt that maybe you are frustrated with the younger generation, and their inability to utilize their imagination. That there isn't any fantasy aspect to their daydreams any more. That, maybe, writing has become a lost art form amongst the youth of today...
Chris Colfer: (Laughs) You got me. You saw right through me.
Why do you think kids today have lost that ability to not only have, but enjoy, an imagination?
Chris Colfer: For one, writing has become a choir for mostly anyone in the world. Teachers are teaching these kids that they have to write in a certain format. It used to drive me nuts, being in English class, and being told there is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay. That there is only one way to convey or get my point across. It wasn't that way with art. I would go to art class, and we were allowed to paint how we wanted. I just couldn't understand why we couldn't write the way we wanted, too. Kids just don't understand the therapeutic qualities that can come with writing.
Land of Stories and the book version of this movie came out around the same time, right?
One is based in fantasy, and one is based in reality. How did you find that divide within yourself, and why was it important for you to work in both genres as a writer?
Chris Colfer: I think each story was so different. One story is about kids running around a fairy tale world. The other is about a really jaded high school teenager. I think they are just two very different stories, and I had to find two different ways to tell them. It was fun to jump from telling everything in third person to doing Carson's journal all in first person. It was all a lot of fun.
Which came first? The screenplay or the book for Struck by Lightning?
Chris Colfer: It was completely backwards. I wrote the screenplay first, and then we got the movie made. It was only then that I decided to turn it into a novel. (Laughs)
What made you think this could work as a novel? I read some of the book, and it doesn't read like a screenplay at all. It is very different...
Chris Colfer: Yeah. No, it wasn't my idea, actually. My publisher on Land of Stories came to one of the first screenings I had for Struck by Lightning. They support me, and they fell in love with the story. They asked me if I'd ever want to adapt it into a novel. I thought about it, and my only hesitation was that I wouldn't know how to tell the story. The movie starts off so unique. It shows you the end, and then it goes backwards. It flips between the past and the present, and shows you a little bit of the future. So I didn't really know how to turn that into a novel. I felt the best way to do it would be to write Carson's journal, that he kept the last few months of his life. Which I think was a good decision. If you read the book, you see his story from his perspective. When you watch the movie, you see that same story from an outside perspective. So, I think they go together really well.
You strike me as one of those people who is willing to try anything in terms of your creativity. You write, you sing, you act...What is your main passion at this point? Or do you find enough enthusiasm to spreads throughout each project equally?
Chris Colfer: To me, it's all storytelling. When I got bit by the acting bug, I think I got bit by the writing bug at the same time, too. I was very young. It was in kindergarten that I decided I really enjoy telling stories. Whether I am behind the camera, in front of the camera, writing for the camera, or just writing a book, I think as long as I am somewhat entertaining someone...I think that's where my enthusiasm lives.
What I've noticed is that kids are reading this book, and they are falling in love with this book, Land of Stories. And these kids don't know you from Glee. How does that make you feel, to know that you are creating something that is resonating with a certain audience, on that doesn't know the other side of your career, who don't know you as an actor?
Chris Colfer: Oh, that makes me so happy. Thank you for telling me that. Its one thing to have a huge demographic from being on Glee. But you are always hoping that this demographic isn't making all of your other ventures too easy for you. Because they are just following you. It is really heartwarming to know that I am pleasing other people through other venues.
How autobiographical is the Carson we see in Struck by Lightening? Or is this a completely fictional character? Do Carson and Chris share any thing in common?
Chris Colfer: I think about 10% is autobiographical. I think a lot of it is based on experiences I had in high school. Like, frustrations with trying to start a writers' club, in a public high school, where no one wanted to write for fun. That was difficult. That was the inspiration for the movie. Being an ambitious, frustrated person was the drive behind this.
I know you've heard this a thousand times, but this kid that plays the younger version of you throughout the movie...I saw that kid and was dumbstruck. I was like, "Did he shoot these scenes six or seven years ago?' This is like time travel. It's disorienting. Where did you find this kid?
Chris Colfer: (Laughs) From Glee, actually. His name is Adam Kolkin, and they cast him in Glee as a young Kurt for this episode called Grilled Cheesus. It flashbacked to when Kurt was younger. He looked so much like me, it was weird. When we were doing the movie, we gave him a call. He was available, so we cast him in the movie. It's so funny. because since then, he has grown like three feet. He is much taller than me. I think soon, I will be playing the younger version of him.
Does he still look like you?
Chris Colfer: He does. It is so weird. He looks exactly like me. He looks like a younger version of me now. But when I was his age, I looked nothing like him. It is very trippy.
It is trippy. I thought maybe they CGI'd your face to look younger, like Jeff Bridges in Tron...
Chris Colfer: I assure you, there was no budget for CGI. (Laughs)
What was the timing between when you wrote this screenplay and when it was greenlit as a movie? Was it always going to be a movie from its very inception?
Chris Colfer: By the time I had finished a draft that I was comfortable with, that I could show to people besides my close friends and my grandmother, I think it was maybe a year and a half to get a start date. It went fairly quickly in movie terms.
How much input did you have on the cast? Did you have people in mind when you were writing this, and then go after those people?
Chris Colfer: I had a lot of input on casting. Input that I wish I didn't have. I said from the very beginning that I always wanted Allison Janney as the mom. She is the only actress that I ever imagined while writing it. We hit the jackpot from there on. There was no one I had an issue with casting. It was like, "They want to be in it? Yeah, of course! Absolutely! Please, please, please be in the movie!"
Are you a big Dirty Steve fan?
Chris Colfer: I don't think so...
That's Dermot Mulroney's character from Young Guns...
Chris Colfer: Oh, no! I haven't seen it! Of course I know him from everything else, but I don't think I've seen that...
You haven't seen Young Guns?
Chris Colfer: Uh-uh.
Oh, my gosh. Ok. Moving on. Rebel Wilson is in the film. She's really hit a stride here in the last few months. Did you know she was going to be such a big deal when you cast her in the film?
Chris Colfer: No. No, she had just done Bridesmaids. That had just come out. It's funny. We saw that movie right after we wrapped, and then she flew to Florida to start filming Pitch Perfect. So, we really caught her right before the whole Rebel storm. We were lucky. I am so glad that we got her.
What do you hope people who see Struck by Lightning take away from it?
Chris Colfer: I don't know. I hope its one of those movies that is different for everyone. But, for most people, I hope they get inspired, aspiration.
You are branching out and doing so well in your other projects, do you think you are going to stay with Glee another year? Or has that even crossed your mind at this point, here in the second half of this season?
Chris Colfer: To be honest, I don't know. We'll see. I don't know if they are going to continue having older characters fly out to New York, or where. We'll see. But I don't know.
How has this year worked out for you, being away from the core cast?
Chris Colfer: It's been wonderful for us, because we are not all working sixteen hours a day. Everyone gets to have a few days off while they film scenes in other cities. It is great for the actors. Not so great for the crew, unfortunately, but the actors are loving it.
What do you have planned in terms of your future writing career?
Chris Colfer: I have a few screenplays in the works. I won't announce anything until I really get the ball rolling. Right now, I think I am working on a sequel to Land of Stories. I believe that will come out next year.
Any plans to turn the first book into a movie?
Chris Colfer: No, not as of right now. I've had some meetings and some phone calls. But for right now, I think I want the Land of Stories to be a book for a while. I would rather it be a good book that one hundred kids read than a bad movie that about a thousand people see. We'll see. There has been a little bit of development on that.
Not wanting to turn it into a movie, though, that goes back to the core concept of Struck by Lightning. It's allowing kids to have an imagination, instead of Hollywood handing it to them. They can see the story in their own head the way they want it to be.
Chris Colfer: I agree. One of the most heartwarming things that I have gotten from this experience with Land of Stories is the fan art, from these kids that have drawn the pictures of the characters. Every illustration is completely different, yet they are the same as what I described. There is something beautiful about that. If a movie were to come out in the next year or so, I would hate for that individual interpretation element to be lost. But that is just for now.
Maybe we can see some of that fan art in the next book...
Chris Colfer: We'll see. I would like to do a Land of Stories fan art coffee table book. That would be great.