Hesher screened at Austin’s SXSW film fest a few months ago and writer/director Spencer Susser took the time to sit down with me to discuss his film. We also spoke about his upcoming feature-length zombie apocalypse/romance film based on a short of his called I Love Sarah Jane. In Hesher, we follow an unstable drifter who violently inserts himself into a grieving boy’s life and home. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman star in this indie drama which is heavy on character studies and light on plot.
Gordon-Levitt proved himself as an actor of some caliber. Veering away from his usual comedic role, he nailed the role of Hesher, providing a necessary depth to the unlikable, sometimes uncomfortably brutal psychopath. Susser had nothing but good things to say about Gordon-Levitt. The director told me, “he’s just an amazing actor, he’s like a chameleon. He really is able to become someone else, in a weird way, and I feel like Natalie (Portman) does the same thing like in Black Swan, you just forget that it’s that girl, it’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”
On what drew him to Gordon-Levitt for the role of Hesher, Susser said, “initially…it was always a hard role to cast because Hesher was so specific. I couldn’t imagine an actor whose name I knew playing the role. You know because when you think about…like when you meet Luke Skywalker you’re like ‘that’s Luke Skywalker, I don’t know who the actor is playing him, but that’s Luke Skywalker.’ And I wanted Hesher to be the same.
But you know I met with people that I thought were really talented, some incredible actors, but when I got in the room with Joe (Gordon-Levitt) it was like, that guy can really transform. And the fact that I was like, I actually don’t see any Joe anymore was great. And we just had this really great working relationship where it felt like I could push him really hard and he’d push back and I’d push him further and it was just a really healthy relationship.”
He added, “I heard some people say ‘that’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt? What the hell?’ and the same with Rainn (Wilson). I love that in the film people are playing really against type in a way. I mean Piper Laurie, who is so different, like in Carrie for example, and she’s so sweet in this movie, it’s just different.”
Susser talked about his casting style, and how hands-on he chose to be with the actors on nailing the specifics of their characters. “I think auditions are weird. I live with the script for six or seven years, I understand this character so well and someone reads this script and they’re like here’s my take on it, you know I read it yesterday, and you’re like, ok that’s cool but there’s actually a lot more detail in it that isn’t necessarily on the page right away.
So instead of having people come in and just read it I kind of felt like I want to get in a room with an actor and try it. And I want to audition them to audition me as much as I’m auditioning them. Because I know what I’m after I need them to really trust me. So I got in the room with Joe and we tried it, and by the time I finally earned his trust, we were really working together. And I was really hands-on with those guys. And they’re so good, and all of them. I was so impressed, they’re so hard-working. Joe worked so hard and Natalie, she worked so hard, she doesn’t mess around and it shows. Same with Devon, man that kid really is so brave, and Rainn too, I was really lucky.
And when you’re in this bubble of making the movie you forget about their public life and the fact that they are celebrities, in a way, because that has nothing to do with anything because they’re really talented and hard-working people, and it‘s so awesome to get to work with people like that.”
On what inspired the film, Susser said “a lot of it is just based on some personal stuff. You know I’d experienced loss when I was young and you write what you know I guess. And I started to write this film about these things I had felt, these feelings, and trying to kind of understand…and I still don’t understand it. I don’t know that I ever will, and when you lose someone I’m not sure it ever makes sense.
So I started to write about that stuff, and I didn’t want to make a film about loss or grief, because I don’t know that I wanted to watch a film like that. So I was like how do you tell this honest story about something we all deal with in an entertaining way? Well introducing this crazy character who’s fucking insane. But then you think maybe…maybe he’s not insane at all, maybe everyone else is.”
Susser is working on a feature-length film set in the world of his zombie love-story short film I Love Sarah Jane. “I actually made Sarah Jane when I was in the middle of writing Hesher. And it was originally an idea for a feature that I want to make. And I thought the best way to pitch it was to show people, you know, here‘s this world I‘m talking about, and here‘s this tone that I‘m talking about, and here‘s a zombie movie that isn’t actually a zombie movie at all.
It’s actually not about that, that’s sort of the background. To me, Sarah Jane is a love story. It’s about a boy who’s in love with a girl, simple. And sometimes when you’re in love you’re so blinded by the person that you don’t really see anything else. Like what if you turn the whole world upside down and he doesn’t even notice he’s so in love. That’s one aspect of it.
And it’s also, you know, kids are going to be kids. And that’s another thing that I love. Like kids who are living in places that have been bombed out, they don’t know that that’s not the norm…kids don’t think about that, kids will be kids. And so the fact that that happens in this world where there’s disease and death…kids just adapt. So I’m really excited about that film, and exploring it more. You know I’ve been exploring it for two years now so I’ve thought a lot about what it is. I’m in the process of writing it now. Hopefully if people see Hesher it will help me be able to make that film.”
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Spencer very much for talking to us.
Be sure to check out our Hesher review.