Walter was waiting at a table when I arrived. It wasn’t awkward. He had more to gain from our meeting than I did, but this was the rare festival encounter that didn’t feel inherently transactional; we were just two people sharing a civilized moment in the eye of a massive storm.
Since our meeting was spurred because I “HATED” his movie, it’s not like some early morning charm offensive could wipe the slate clean. Besides, I was only keen to meet with him because we both effectively wanted the same thing: To better understand why I HATED his film. Walter seemed much less interested in changing my mind than he was in wrapping his own head around it. There’s a vast distance between making a movie and seeing a movie; it was in that gap that our conversation took place.
“Some people feel a little bit raped by it,” Walter said when I told him that I objected to how the film treats cancer like a fun reveal. “Some people felt the same way about my short film, ‘Helium.’” Walter’s Oscar-winner tells the story of a hospital janitor who comforts a terminally ill child by telling him about the magical place he’ll go when he dies. “I’m feeding him lies,” the janitor tells a nurse. “You’re giving him hope,” she replies. The short was nothing if not a persuasive audition for adapting “I Kill Giants.”
“I have to accept that it’s a kind of taste and voice and sensibility that I have as an artist,” Walter said. “It’s why I’m totally fine with you not liking the movie, because it’s a balance, and people tend to fall on different sides of something like that. Some people go with it, and some people feel ass-fucked.”
Walter may have made a YA film, but that wasn’t going to stop him from sounding like Lars von Trier. “The big theme for me as a storyteller for the last couple years is kids’ ability to use fantasy to reduce pain. Obviously Barbara takes it a little too far, but I wanted to cope with how it feels to have shit coming your way with such force that you have to develop a kind of armor. How do you stop it? What do we do to cope once we’re grown-ups?”
I couldn’t tell if it was a rhetorical question, but I didn’t know the answer either way. Watching “I Kill Giants,” it bothered me that the answer came so easily to Barbara; only a few minutes pass between when we learn that her mother is dying of cancer, and when the film’s young heroine begins to make peace with it. Walter asked if it all felt too fast for me, and I told him that it did.
He argued that it was better than the alternative: “In ‘A Monster Calls,’ I believe they tell you right away that the kid’s mother is going to die so please, audience, feel sorry for him from now until the end. What I liked about ‘I Kill Giants’ is that it was totally upside down. You didn’t realize what was going on in the plot, so it was more about the ride, more about Barbara and trying to get into her world. I like that we don’t ask for your pity until the end.”
I told Walter that I prefer “I Kill Giants” to “A Monster Calls,” that Barbara’s fantasy world is hatched directly from her fears, whereas the kid from the other movie often seems like a poor vessel for some even poorer special effects. Walter laughed: “I actually haven’t seen ‘A Monster Calls!’ I haven’t seen it on purpose. I know the premise, because everyone was warning me about it when we were trying to finance ‘I Kill Giants.’ I said, ‘Fine, but I’m too in love with our script, so don’t talk to me about it anymore.’”
Walter snapped forward, a warm grin on his face. He had the giddiness of a proud mechanic popping open the hood of a car he just fixed. “Barbara is a sassy bastard! When we were test-screening the movie, people had a problem falling in love with her, and I was like, ‘That’s fucking okay with me!’ The producers told me that American audiences need to fall in love with her right away, but I loved that she was so eager to push everyone away. It makes you focus on how she relates to everyone else. For me, ‘I Kill Giants’ isn’t even really about the mother dying. For me, it’s a story about friendship — about how we build human relationships to slowly find our way back from the brink. You can see it in the scenes between Barbara and Zoe Saldana’s character, the school psychologist. This may be a film defined by fantasy, but it builds to that truth. That’s how it goes for anyone, regardless of their age or sensibilities. You heal through recognition in other people.”
Well, yeah. That’s why someone like me would see a movie like this — for solidarity, not schadenfreude. To Walter’s credit, I think I saw too much of myself in his film. Like Barbara, I struggled to confront a parent’s illness. When my dad came home for hospice care, it changed the entire geometry of our house. His deathbed was parked in the guest room, and even walking past that door felt like an act of denial; I always knew when it was open, and I was always frightened by how easy it was to close. Barbara reminded me of my cowardice, and it’s possible I resented her for that.
It’s also possible that I resented “I Kill Giants” for how closely the film approximated my experience without actually representing it. Movies can function as both a window and a mirror, but losing sight of which you’re watching — or how you’re watching it — can result in an uncanny valley of emotions. It looks right, but it feels wrong.
“I haven’t had to sit with a sick parent in my grown-up years,” Walter said, “but if films get too close to feelings you’ve been living with, and process them too easily … if you feel like they don’t get your pain or treat it with a certain respect … ” He trailed off. We both stared at our food. Then he continued: “But you can’t think like that as a storyteller. You can’t think about who the film is for. People ask you about that all the time when you try to presell a film and shop it to Hollywood. People loved this script, but they couldn’t wrap their heads around who the fuck it was for.”
“I guess it has to be for you,” I said. Walter responded with the readiness of someone who had been thinking about that notion for a long time.
“I have a strong reaction to this story because I had to find my own courage from a fantasy world when I was young,” he said. “I worked with six producers on this, all men from 40 to 60, and they felt the same way. I hope that any teenage boy or girl can find themselves in Barbara, not because has to face the fact that her mom is dying, but because she’s an outsider who has to accept certain realities.”
I winced as I felt myself grow more sympathetic to his argument. “I like that we didn’t talk about cancer until the end of the film because it casts a wider net,” he said. “You can be Barbara if you’re being bullied at school. You can be Barbara because you like to play ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and dress up weird. Sometimes, that kind of fandom or extreme imagination divorces you from reality, and sometimes it brings you closer to it.”
Grief makes us all outsiders, even if we’re grieving together. Everyone’s lost someone, or everyone will, but the process of going through it always makes you feel like a kind of accidental pioneer, tossed into an uncharted corner of the world and forced to push forward until you find your way back on the map. Looking to the movies for a sense of direction really isn’t all that different from what Barbara is doing; I went to see “I Kill Giants” in search of perspective more than denial, but we all face different demons, and we all need different weapons to fight them.
That was where we left things. I had other movies to see, and he had other people to talk to about this one. “I like your articles,” Walter said as we shook hands, “and I like to follow you on IndieWire, and I hope I can keep doing that without hating you.” I smiled and said I hoped for the same thing, though I couldn’t make any promises.
To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know if I like “I Kill Giants,” but talking to Walter made it easier for me to appreciate our roles in this mess. Watching “Helium” before we met, it was easy to cast myself as the nurse, and he as the janitor. But, in the short’s tearjerking final moments, it’s the nurse who makes it possible for the janitor tell the end of his story to the dying boy. Not necessarily because she’s been convinced that hope is worth the lies needed to keep it alive, but rather because she recognizes how those lies might be true for someone else.
“I Kill Giants” opens in theaters March 23.