Writer-director Spencer Susser discusses Hesher

Writer-director Spencer Susser discusses his feature debut Hesher, assembling this terrific ensemble cast, securing Metallica's music, future projects, and more.

Like many filmmakers trying to break through in Hollywood, writer-director Spencer Susser began his career by making short films. Like many excellent filmmakers, those short films became long films, and Spencer Susser made his feature directorial debut with the fantastic indie Hesher, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD on September 13. Hesher is still one of my favorite movies of the year thus far, centering around a grieving, broken family (Rainn Wilson, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie) whose lives are given a bizarre jolt when a mysterious long-haired rocker named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes his way into their lives... and their garage. I recently had the chance to speak with director Spencer Susser (who co-wrote the script with Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michôd) over the phone to discuss his directorial debut. Here's what he had to say below.

I actually caught the movie on Saturday of opening weekend at the Arclight, with the Q&A.

Spencer Susser: Oh, awesome.

I really enjoyed it. It's still one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

Spencer Susser: Awesome. That's cool.

I was wondering if you could talk about the inception of this project. I know you co-wrote it with David, but there is a story credit from a different writer. I was curious how that script came to you, and how did that original version change?

Spencer Susser: Well, basically, I was told about this script called Hesher and I was like, 'Oh, I know what a Hesher is. I like that' (Laughs). I got very excited about the name, so I read it and it was just this super broad comedy about a group of teenage nerds that meet this heavy metal character and he teaches them how to play for their battle of the bands. The main kid was this albino kid, who's such a nerd. It said in the first couple of pages that he was so white that he took his shirt off at the beach and it blinded everyone around him, they're all covering their faces. His mom is a teacher at the high school and his dad is a janitor, I don't know, it was just very, very silly. But, I loved the title, and that's kind of where I started. I guess that was sort of the seed planted that got me going, but I didn't know what movie I was going to write. I didn't have any idea what it was going to be. As I started writing, it just started out going into this place and I ended up just writing about something that I knew, something that was honest. It wasn't really until later that I added the Hesher and I just loved that title. That's really where that all comes from, but it's a very personal story, something that I experienced. It's not something that was in some script.

So it was just that name, and your experience and this bizarre character that all meshed together?

Spencer Susser: Yeah. I started to write this film about a boy and his dad who had experienced a loss. I just didn't want to make a totally depressing film. Part of it was I wanted it to be really honest and sincere in those ways, but I thought by introducing this crazy character, it would make this film fun to watch, so it wasn't just this heavy-handed stuff. I like movies that make you laugh and cry and feel all kinds of different emotions. One thing I heard from one of the reviewers was that it would confuse people. Is it a comedy or a drama? Well, it's both. Life is not one thing or the other. It's everything all the time. Why do you have to pick one? I guess because it's easier to sell.

I think we're starting to move out of just these one-genre movies. Hesher is the perfect example of both a drama and a comedy and it's hard to picture it in either category.

Spencer Susser: If you think about it, what are the greatest comedies? I don't know what they are, but I guarantee you care about those characters and there's a lot more drama in there that makes you want to know what's going to happen to those people. It's not just non-stop laughs. It can't be. That's not enough.

Yeah, I totally understand that. Now, you have a really amazing cast here, but I was actually quite blown away by Devin and his performance. Can you talk about discovering him and how that really tied the movie together?

Spencer Susser: Yeah, there were a couple of big challenges in making this movie, and one of them was to find a 12-year-old boy who can carry a movie. He's basically in every scene, it's his story, and the emotional journey that he has to go on is a big ask for a young boy. How do you find someone with that experience, either acting that in a film or that life experience to pull from. It's pretty difficult, and I couldn't find either, really. We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids. I had these wonderful casting directors Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner, and they worked on Where the Wild Things Are. They had basically seen every kid, all around the world, who was in that age group. It just wasn't that simple. We saw tons of kids and there was just something about Devin. He hasn't experienced the stuff that the character went through, but he had this real honesty. I knew that if I could figure out how to get him to be honest in these scenes, that it would work. At the end of the day, he was just so brave, a smart kid, and he was willing to go to these kind of scary places and experience this stuff. I think it would be hard for anyone to say that it's not good acting, because he's not acting, he's feeling. That stuff is real. That's him experiencing something like that. That goes for Joe and Rainn and Natalie (Portman). Both Natalie and Joe also come from acting as a child, and I feel like it's a completely different process when you're a kid. You don't have much stuff to draw from. It's just a really honest thing. I don't know. I always think kid actors are the best, because they don't know how to act, but they know how to feel. We all know how to feel, but sometimes kids can access that stuff easily. Not all kids can do it, but the kids that can, you can't deny it. There's no way anyone could ever say that Natalie's acting isn't better than anyone's in The Professional. She's just a kid going through that stuff. They find it and it's so special. Devin just went there, and it was scary because when I cast him, I wasn't sure he could do it. It wasn't until we really got into it that it started to make sense.

You talked about how the character of Hesher evolved when you were writing the script. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt came on board, did the character go to another level? Did you rework the character once he signed on?

Spencer Susser: Not really. That was another big challenge, finding Hesher. When I was writing it, I couldn't picture an actor who I knew playing the role. I just wanted him to be Hesher. When you meet him for the first time, I wanted the audience to go, 'Oh, that's Hesher.' Not, 'Oh, that's so-and-so dressed as a character.' With that being said, it was such a specific tone and note that he needed to play, that I had to look at the best actors I could. I was really lucky. I like to say that I had an embarrassment of riches with the actors who were interested in playing Hesher. I wanted the actors to audition me as much as I was auditioning them, because I knew I needed them to trust me 100% and to go to new places and to really feel safe in my hands. I got into a room with a handful of different actors, and we just played with it. Joe is someone... typically, I would have lunch or a coffee with the actor and we'd talk about it and I would give them a lot of back story and a lot of information to think about it. Then, a few days later, we would go try it, just me and the actor, and have a play. Auditions are weird as well. It's like, 'Here's this thing I've been working on for the past five years. Have a read and I'll see you tomorrow and let's see what you've got.' I really was not looking for someone's take on the character. I didn't want your version of Hesher. I had a very, very specific idea of who he was and how he was and how he spoke and how he moved. I needed to find someone who was willing to do that, and capable of doing that, and who could make it feel raw. When I met with Joe initially, I thought, 'He's just such a nice guy and he's just the opposite of Hesher.' But, I knew he was a great actor and, once I got in the room with him, it was like, 'Holy shit. This guy is the real deal.' He really transformed. His performance in the film is quite a technical performance, but it feels so loose, even though there is very little improv in the film. It's all very tightly scripted and choreographed and the fact that he makes it feel so off-the-cuff, it's really amazing what he's capable of. He really turned into that guy.

I even said after the movie that, I know he's had a wonderful career, but that was one of my favorite performances of his. I was blown away. It was just so fun to watch him.

Spencer Susser: It's funny. When I first started working with Joe, I knew Joe, and as we got into it, he slowly became Hesher, and he was Hesher for a long time. When I cut the movie, I hadn't seen him, I was just in this bubble, making the movie, living with this character, and then afterwards, when we caught up again and started to hang out, I didn't recognize him. I was like, 'Who the f&%k is this nice guy, this Joe guy?' Not that Hesher isn't nice, he's just nice in a different way. He was a different person, you know.

I remember during the Q&A at the Arclight, there was some talk about getting the rights to Metallica's songs and how that was a bit of a challenge. Can you talk a bit about that, and was there ever a backup plan if it fell through?

Spencer Susser: Well, I didn't have a backup plan. I don't know if it was a struggle so much, but everybody told me that it was never going to happen. The Metallica songs are in the script, and everyone said, 'Yeah, you've got to take that out. They're not going to give us the music, and even if they did, we couldn't afford it.' I said, 'No, that's what it's supposed to be. That's what it is.' They said, 'Well, OK, we'll just change it later.' So I shot the film and cut the film and I put in those songs that I thought were the right ones and everyone said, 'You've got to take those out. We're not going to get those.' I said, 'How do you know?' I just kept pushing that it was right and, eventually, we sent the film to Metallica and I wrote them a letter and told them how I ended up there and why I thought it was important and they loved the film and basically gave us the music. They were awesome the whole time.

Were you listening to these songs on the set, to get you into the mindset?

Spencer Susser: Certainly for Joe, I would send him all kinds of articles and videos and songs, yeah, a lot of Metallica, but I also sent him these mixed CD's for his collection. He's quite a unique character and there's a lot to him that's not on the surface. There's so much buried under the surface. But yeah, Joe listens to music a lot when he works, and it helps, but I know he did listen to a lot of Metallica. It was also specific Metallica, the older, earlier Metallica stuff, the Cliff Burton stuff, that Hesher responds to more than anything.

Is there anything that you're working on right now that you can talk about? Anything you're writing or looking to direct in the near future?

Spencer Susser: Yeah. I made a short film a couple of years ago called I Love Sarah Jane. I'm working on the script for a feature version, which is something I'm really excited about. Hopefully that will be my next project, but I have a couple of other things that I'm working on as well, but that's my main focus right now.

Are you looking at any cast members for that yet?

Spencer Susser: Not yet. I'm just focusing on the story. I have a couple of people in mind, but it's still early days.

For people who didn't get a chance to see Hesher in theaters, or people who might be on the fence about the movie, what would you like to say about why they should pick up the Blu-ray and DVD on September 13?

Spencer Susser: If you're on the fence, get off and spend two hours and watch a movie. I don't know. I tried to make a film that was different, that I hadn't seen before but that I had wanted to see. In a lot of ways, I think there's a lot in it for everybody. There are a lot of layers to the film, and I'm always surprised at who likes the film. There are certain people who I know are going to like it. I remember after one of the first Sundance screenings, we were in the parking lot and these two older women in their 60s were slowly making their way towards me in the parking lot. I was like, 'Oh shit. Here we go.' They said, 'We love your movie!' I was like, 'Really? Why?' They said, "We just love that guy.' I said, 'What about all the language and this and that?' They said, 'That's that guy. They needed that guy.' They totally got it! It was really nice. In a lot of the screenings, there are always a lot of really interesting and different types of people who like the movie, who really respond to it. That's always nice to hear. People who have experiences loss respond to the movie in a different way. A lot of people have thanked me for taking this subject very seriously and treating it with respect. It's all based on your life experience. I think all art is. Why do you like a song? Because it rings true to you. But yeah, I think there's a lot in it. Some people can't get past the "F word" and they hate the movie. There are a lot of "F words" in the movie, but its from a person who talks like that. It's who he is.

Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Spencer. Thanks so much for your time, and I really enjoyed the film. I'm definitely looking forward to your next project.

Spencer Susser: Thank you so much. Take care.

You can pick up director Spencer Susser's fantastic feature debut Hesher when it hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD on September 13.