Spencer Susser Wreaks a Little Havoc

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Published May 13, 2011

 

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT AND NATALIE PORTMAN IN SPENCER SUSSER’S HESHER.

Filled with destruction, mayhem, and metal, Hesher might be the most unlikely family drama of the year. The film follows TJ (played by a captivating Devin Brochu), an adolescent who suffers the loss of his mother and subsequently roams the neighborhood, ignored by his absent-minded grandmother and his nearly catatonic father (Rainn Wilson). Even the object of TJ’s affection, Natalie Portman, seems to take little notice of him.

It takes Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a violent metalhead who shows up in a flurry of broken glass and fireworks, to pull the family out of their stifling grief. A surreal presence, Hesher pulls no punches—literally—he threatens to cut off TJ’s nose, hits him with a car, and nearly gets him arrested. Forcing TJ and his family to deal with their loss, Hesher ends up as something of a vicious version of Maria Von Trapp. For his first feature film, director Spencer Susser manages to completely blow up the average family drama.

We caught up with Susser to talk about casting Gordon-Levitt as a metalhead and which classic Disney character Hesher most resembles.

GILLIAN MOHNEY: Did you make Hesher look like a period piece on purpose? I thought it had a kind of ’80s or late ’70s feel to it, with the older cars and television.

SPENCER SUSSER: Well, first of all, I wanted the film to be timeless. I didn’t want to say it was today or yesterday. It could be anytime. We all worry about loss, and we all deal with it at some point. I just wasn’t interested in having technology in it. Part of the backstory, I don’t know if it’s clear in the film, but they’re so messed up from this loss that [Wilson’s character] moves back in with his mom. And she’s old, so her stuff is from the ’70s and ’80s. I didn’t want any modern cars. I love the texture of [it]. I was trying to do that in a way without saying [it] and I liked it.MOHNEY: Hesher is such a forceful otherworldly presence, but still real. How did you approach that?

SUSSER: In a lot of ways, I feel like this film is Mary Poppins. It’s a fucked-up Mary Poppins. [She] literally flies out of the sky on her umbrella. You don’t really question that… The other day I watched the trailer. She says this great thing. The dad asks her “What are you doing?” and she says this great thing—she’s like, “I don’t explain myself.” She walks off. I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of like Hesher.”

MOHNEY: I like that Hesher has this great relationship with the grandmother, but it’s never overly saccharine. He still has a very tough edge—even when he teaches her to smoke a bong.

SUSSER: It’s always so much fun to watch that scene, because it’s so ridiculous, but it’s not played to be ridiculous. It’s drama—it’s these two people connecting. In different screenings, I’ve seen people laughing, and then in other screenings there’s just nothing. They’re just listening. I love that.

MOHNEY: How did you cast Devin as TJ? He really holds the whole movie together and manages to be so genuine onscreen.

SUSSER: Really, it’s making it safe for him and protecting him… he gets his ass kicked. Someone also said “He gets put through the wringer, it’s a lot.” But I felt that’s what it feels like to lose somebody… with TJ, it was tricky to find somebody. When I met [Devin], he didn’t have a lot of experience, and he wasn’t a great faker. But he was brave and willing to go to these real places, and I could guide him there. I didn’t know this for sure when I met him. When I cast him, I didn’t have a lot of time, it was a couple weeks before we started shooting. I was really just trusting my gut that I would figure out a way to make it work with him. Everyday you have to come up with a new way to make it fresh for a 12-year-old… I feel like he’s not pretending, he’s real.

MOHNEY: Joseph Gordon-Levitt was amazing in this; how did you know he could pull off playing a violent metalhead?

SUSSER: Yeah, I felt like the character was so specific. I couldn’t picture an actor to do it. But when I met Joe and started to get in a room and work on it—that guy is a fucking amazing actor. He’s super fun—he’s actually just a talented artist. He does a little bit of everything. He’s really a chameleon. He’s really able to transform himself into somebody else. I didn’t believe that anyone could do it until I started to work on it with him and I said, “Oh my God, I’m actually forgetting that’s that guy.” That’s when I knew it worked.

MOHNEY: Was it his choice that he stomps wherever he goes and makes the whole house shake?

SUSSER: There were so many details that we talked about that he made it work—stupid stuff, too. I wanted it to feel grounded. One of the things that I would say to Joe is, Hesher’s like the Grim Reaper in a lot of ways. Why does death have to be a scary thing? Death is always portrayed as scary thing, but it’s not… Hesher doesn’t walk [the family] down this rosy path—he just points them in the right direction and says “You guys are grown-ups, deal with it.”

MOHNEY: You mentioned earlier that Natalie Portman was instrumental in getting the film made; how did she get involved?

SUSSER: Well, I had her in mind when I was writing, but I thought there was no way she was going to do it. But that’s who I imagined. She was the first person I sent the script to… She really responded to the script and my short film. She loved the film and wanted to produce it. We talked a lot about it and really were on the same page. She was really a big part of getting this movie made. She really believed in me and told everyone else they should as well.

HESHER IS OUT TODAY IN LIMITED RELEASE.