When a director releases a film, he or she often ends up doing hundreds of interviews with journalists from all over the world. The director quickly learns that these interviews essentially come down to 11 or so questions, endlessly repeated. For my new movie Super, those questions are:
1) You have an A-list cast, including Ellen Page, Rainn Wilson, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion. How did you get such a famous cast to work for a movie of this scale?
2) What’s it like working with Ellen Page?
3) What’s it like working with Rainn Wilson?
4) What’s it like working with Liv Tyler?
5) Wow, now you’re only one degree from Kevin Bacon! What’s it like working with him?
6) This is your second film with Nathan Fillion. What’s it like working with him?
7) After seeing Super, I realize it’s nothing like Kick-Ass, but seeing as they’re both superhero-without-powers movies, how do you feel about comparisons to that film?
8) Is Michael Rooker as crazy in person as he seems on screen?
9) Does Ellen Page have a boyfriend?
10) Does Nathan Fillion have a girlfriend?
11) Who does that “la la la” song in the movie? It’s really catchy.
As you might imagine, answering these same questions over and over becomes interminably boring. So, when MM asked me to write an article on the making of my new film, I thought I’d interview myself for the first time ever so that I can finally answer all the questions I wish I could be asked. Here we go…
The movie is incredible. I have to say, you’re a real genius.
Wow. That’s such a nice thing to say. I’d never call myself a genius. But thanks!
I understand you’re not allowed to say the specific budget of Super, but it’s in the low millions, right?
Yes. The very low millions. When I’m making an ultra-low-budget film, I try to make the movie for free, and I end up making it for a couple million bucks.
I’m sure you get hundreds of questions about the cast, but I want to talk about the amazing camerawork by cinematographer Steve Gainer.
I wrote the first draft of Super in April of 2002 and saw Larry Clark’s Bully, which Steve shot, shortly thereafter. I thought his dirty, handheld style would be perfect for Super. We didn’t meet for another seven years, though. No one can shoot a film as quickly as Steve while maintaining such high quality. On an average Hollywood film you do between 12 and 15 camera setups a day—20 if you’re really rolling. We did between 45 and 55 setups every single day. Essentially, that’s a new setup every 14 minutes. The movie couldn’t have been made with anyone else.
How were you able to do so many setups per day?
First of all, the cast was always there on time. Secondly, we instituted what we called a “culture of speed,” and the frantic pace at which we shot actually became a part of the feel of the movie. Also, I don’t shoot coverage. I’d had every shot of the movie inside my head for seven years, so I only shot what I needed, which is the exact opposite of what you learn in film school.
The work of Super’s composer, Tyler Bates, was also wonderful.
I think so, too! Super is tonally unique, shifting between being an indie drama, a comedy and a violent revenge flick. Tyler’s score is really what ties these disparate elements together into one cohesive film. Tyler wrote some of the score before we started shooting, and we would actually play the music on set, choreographing the movement of the camera and the actors to the music. I did the same thing with some of the pop songs used in the film.
Power pop and Swedish rock songs are featured prominently in the film. How did you choose which songs to use?
Almost all of the songs were chosen before we started shooting, and I listened to many of them while writing the screenplay. In particular, I wrote the animated opening credits to the Tsar song “Calling All Destroyers.”
Among the lesser-known bands on the soundtrack, you also have some bigger acts, like Cheap Trick. Knowing the movie didn’t cost much, how did you afford them?
We begged. I wanted an ’80s pop hit for the flashback where Rainn Wilson and Liv Tyler first kiss and have sex. Cheap Trick’s “If You Want My Love” was perfect. Unfortunately, a song like that normally costs $50,000 or so, which is more than our entire score and song rights budget combined! I’m an enthusiastic fan of Cheap Trick, so I wrote the band a heartfelt letter saying how much their music has meant to me, and asked them if we could use their song for essentially nothing. Then we did a panel at Comic-Con in front of 6,000 people, and Liv Tyler and I begged Cheap Trick to give us the song. It made lots of online press. Finally, Liv found out her dad’s band, Aerosmith, was doing a show with Cheap Trick in Irvine, California, so she took the scene with Cheap Trick’s music in it and showed it to the guys backstage. They were awfully cool about it, and they gave us the song for $1,000 or so. I can’t tell you how good it feels for people who you’ve admired most of your life to live up to all the hype.
What do you mean by the “tonal uniqueness” of the film?
I’m interested in tonal juxtapositions. In Super we combined brutal violence with a pop art style more like the old “Batman” TV show. A fun-filled montage will precede a heartbreaking scene of lost love; a testosterone-driven revenge scene will shift into moral drama and so on. Though such shifts are rare in Western film, they’re commonplace in Asian cinema, which was a big influence on me. Films like Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio combines slapstick, melodrama and scenes featuring the wholesale slaughter of children. You see it in Korean films like The Host and Oldboy. Some people find these shifts disconcerting, but I love this open approach to moviemaking. I like to activate as many parts of my brain as I can at one time.
So why put something in your movie that you know is disconcerting to some people?
I think too many movies today try to be everything to everybody. Studios don’t seem to want to make films that don’t appeal to all four quadrants (young, old, male, female). There are some movies that are pretty successful at doing that—Iron Man and Toy Story 3 are well-made films that almost everyone seems to enjoy—but sometimes I want to feel like a film is specifically meant for me. That’s how I felt when I saw David Cronenberg’s Videodrome as a kid or Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Super is specifically not made for everyone. At best, we’re aimed at a quarter of a quadrant. But, hopefully, that quarter of a quadrant will not just like the movie, but love it. And because we made it for about 1/100th of Iron Man’s budget, we’re still being fiscally responsible.
Were you afraid of releasing a film that features so much talk of God?
Whether you’re a believer or not, God is an important topic in real life. The concept of God is an important part of the lives of many, if not most, Americans. And yet, in films, the idea of God is almost nonexistent. Rarely does an action hero pray in a foxhole, and in romantic comedies the couples never discuss their faith to make sure they’re on the same page. Even within the dying-of-cancer genre, God is rarely mentioned. Unless we’re talking about Christian films—which Super is definitively not—discussions of God in films are more taboo than scenes of incest. But Frank’s relationship to God, or to his concept of God, is the primary relationship in the film.
Finally, can you answer the 11 most often asked questions above in the fewest words possible?
1) Scripts with well-developed characters, especially well-developed female characters, are hard to come by. And some were friends doing me a favor.
3) He was my truest partner on the film. We shared a vision.
4) Like falling in love on every shot.
5) Easiest actor I’ve ever worked with.
6) Great, especially if you love ham.
7) The comparisons are inevitable, but anyone who sees the movie knows they’re very different. Ours is darker and more grounded.
9) Ask her, stalker.
10) Not as of this interview, but knowing Nathan that will change by publication time.
11) It’s part of Tyler Bates’ score. And I love it, too. MM