It’s not often you hear about an actor taking a successful turn to the director’s chair, but when you do, it’s one that counts. Ben Affleck certainly has proved himself three times now with the acclaimed pairing of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” and this weekend's "Argo" proved he could step outside of the grimy streets of Boston and apply his directorial sensibilities to a story larger in scope. On the flipside of that coin, actor Matthew Lillard (“Scream,” “The Descendants,” “Scooby-Doo”) has his directorial debut continuing to roll out this weekend as well, and while it may not have the Oscar buzz or big stars attached to it as “Argo” does, it’s proven to be a success in its own right.
Our own Playlister found Lillard’s first film “Fat Kid Rules The World” to be “a modestly affecting directorial debut,” and word on the film has been mostly positive since its debut at SXSW in March – and rightfully so. In 'Fat Kid,' adapted from a novel by K.L. Going, the story follows a high school dropout named Marcus (Matt O’Leary) who “comes to the aid” of a chubby and suicidal teen by the name of Troy (Jacob Wysocki), and picks him to be the drummer of his new punk-rock band – only Troy has VERY limited experience behind a kit. The film is rounded out by an impressive performance by “The Killing” and “The Rocketeer” actor Billy Campbell, who plays Troy’s tough loving military father that manages to see the best in both his son and his troubled friend Marcus. And in the cinematic lineage of Lillard’s lead role in “SLC Punk” (exemplified by a fantastic score by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready), as a director he’s able to find humanity amid all the great subversive and inspirational moments 'Fat Kid' has to offer. We caught up with Lillard to talk about the film, how he pulled it together and what's next on the horizon.
Lillard first was attracted to Going’s book when he was recording an audio book version of it
Often times a book or property is brought to a filmmaker for them to option as a film if they’d like, but for Lillard it was a very different experience. “I recorded the audiobook and had this crazy – I don’t know—epiphany in the middle of it, so that I was reading the book and it just rocked me in kind of a crazy way," he explained. "That was based on being that kid in high school, being on the outside looking in. I found acting and it changed my life. So immediately I called to see if the movie rights where available for it.” Thankfully for Lillard, they were.
Lillard initially begged Going for the rights to the book, and 'Fat Kid' became a project that started to draw from Lillard’s own pocket book
It took Lillard and 'Fat Kid' screenwriters Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman 10 years to get the film financed and rolling from the time he acquired the rights to the book around 2002, but Lillard contends that his passion along with his fellow writers is what drove him. “I was paying to keep the rights. I don’t have a lot of money, and I had to keep writing her checks over the years." he said. "It grew to the point where I lost the option, It fell out of control from me. I had to go back and get it after we found sort of the machine to put the project together.” Thankfully, Going seems to like the end result. “She loves it, she’s like our biggest fan. The first time I showed it to her, it was in her agent’s office, projected from a shitty projector on a white wall. They had kind laid out white wine and cheese on school tables, and it felt like a conference room," he shared. "We showed it before music, before it was temped, before any of [Mike] McCready’s music, and the lights came up and she had tears running down her face. Her mom and dad had tears running down their face, and so I knew we were in a good place.”
Lillard cites past collaborators as a major influence on the film
A number of Lillard’s past collaborators influenced the filmmaker. “For me, Drake Doermus, I produced his first movie and starred in it called ‘Spooner.’ The way he makes movies with people he works with, made a huge impact on the way I approached this process. Obviously ‘SLC Punk,’ you know I walk down the street and everyday I have a kid come up to me and say ‘That movie changed my life.’ So I knew the impact that kind of movie would have on those kids, so we are trying to make a sister movie to that in a way," he explained. "You know, the energy and the disenfranchised punk rock kid that people never really pay attention to and certainly aren’t fucking making movies for. We wanted to respect that and go out and make that. You know, I’m a product of the ‘80s, so the John Hughes films of course. It’s not like we watched ‘Sixteen Candles’ and said ‘We should make this.’ The kind of movies I loved growing up – I mean I remember where I was when I saw ‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘Breakfast Club’ – those are huge movies in my life. Then just visual style, ‘Amorres Perros.’”
Lillard does mention one of his most recent outings as well, saying of the filmmaker who directed his great role in 2011’s “The Descendants,” “…tonally, I’ve always been a huge fan of Alexander Payne and the idea that there is no such thing as a comedy and no such thing as a drama. I think what Alexander does is pretty remarkable – and I would be lying if I said that didn’t influence me. I don’t think I am him by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly influenced the choices I make.” Ultimately, Lillard says besides all the surface influences, “…to me directing was about, it’s a little like being a Dad. Nobody defines the Dad I am, I mean I sat behind my Dad and watched him be a Dad, but you’re not like, ‘Hey Dad, when your kid is yelling at you, what did you do?’ The reality is, you are just the man you are. The man you are is the father you are, so the man I am is the director I am.”
It was a conscious decision to never use the character of Troy’s weight problems solely for laughs, mostly because 'Fat Kid' is a story about outsiders
Sticking with his love of Payne and mostly deriving the humor of 'Fat Kid' from situations rather than gags, Lillard explained that it was never his intention for the character of Troy’s weight problem to be funny, and the knew from personal experience how difficult it could be. “I was an overweight kid, I have obesity throughout my family. I grew up obese, glasses, braces and a learning disability,” he shared. Though ultimately, he feels the message is broader than that, saying “The reality though is the movie isn’t about obesity, it’s not about size, fatness, or weight — it’s about being on the outside looking in. You know, I’m still that guy. In Hollywood, we’re at South By Southwest, we’re not allowed at Sundance. Everytime people see the movie they fall in love with the movie, the reviews have been through the roof, there’s been emotional responses, but I’m still sort of a Hollywood outcast.”
Though Lillard isn’t blind to his critics, saying of his move into directing: “I think there are plenty directors who are terrible and not actors, and there are plenty of actors who become directors who are atrocious. I think the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter who you are. At no time in my life, no matter how many movies I’ve done, has anybody gone ‘Matthew Lillard? Yeah, he’s the guy we should give this to.’ I’m the guy they say no to everytime, and I come and audition and they say, ‘Wait a sec, that’s not bad.’ The fact that the world isn’t waiting for my first movie, I’m not surprised, nor am I phased.” Lillard compared himself to the other actor turned director with a movie out this weekend, saying “Do I want to be a Ben Affleck right now? And be like, my first movie is ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ which is what, a fourteen million dollar movie? I’d love that. ‘Argo’ is my third movie? That’s awesome man, you’re on an unbelievable journey. My first movie is a $750,000, begging and stealing for 10 years to try to get it made. I’m fine with that, I’m fine with who I am. I would love this to open up opportunities.”
Lillard is candid about the career break "The Descendants" provided
Lillard surprised many with his turn as Brian Speer, a Hawaiian real estate agent who was having an affair with George Clooney’s character’s wife before she was on her deathbed. Lillard says, “That movie like, I was in the abyss, I hadn’t done a movie in a long time. Instead of doing shitty movie after shitty movie, I started shutting it down. We sold our house, changed are life – made our nut smaller so I didn’t have to keep doing bad movies. You know, if ‘Dancing With The Stars’ calls, I don’t want to be tempted to do it.” Lillard recognizes the profile upgrade it provided him, “….doing an Alexander Payne movie, changes your level of respect.”
As for what’s next for the actor-director, Lillard remains mum, but says it could be in the same world as 'Fat Kid'
On the acting front, Lillard has a thriller entitled “Deep Dark Canyon” up next, along with a sequel to the 2008 family adventure film “Nim’s Island” on the way. As for writing and directing, Lillard explains, “There’s a book I just got that I love, which I really want to do, which is in the same world as ‘Fat Kid.’”
“Fat Kid Rules The World” is now playing at Cinema Village in New York, New York, and opens at the Chinese Theater and Laemelle NOHO 7 in Los Angeles, California this weekend. More details can be found here.