After over twenty years starring in films and TV shows ranging from Scream, SLC Punk, and Scooby Doo, to the Oscar-winning film The Descendents, Matthew Lillard knows his way around a shooting script and a set. But it was an audiobook booking that put the source material for his directorial debut into the seasoned actor's hands in the form of young adult novel Fat Kid Rules The World, by KL Going. The redemptive tale of a depressed, overweight teen, the story shares a struggle to overcome to the odds and a willingness to take new approaches with the creation process of the film itself.
Buzzine's Stefan Goldby sat down with Matthew Lillard backstage at the Irvine, CA date of the 2012 Vans Warped Tour to talk artistic inspirations, the brave new indie world approaches of Kickstarter and Tugg.com and his love for the film audience he connected with and now nurtures at America's longest-running traveling summer music festival.
Stefan Goldby: We know you first discovered The Fat Kid Rules the World novel when you were hired to read the audio book. Was it a case of you wanting to direct and you found the right project or was this the project that made you want to direct?
Matthew Lillard: I think that in my life I was always on a trajectory to direct. When I was in high school I was doing things in college, when I was in college I was doing things in Los Angeles. So I’ve always been a guy that’s way more active than passive. I think that it was the perfect combination of finding the right piece and really hanging my hat on something that I loved. And it took me nine years to get it done. In between, I’ve been trying to do other things but this one finally is the first thing that landed.
SG: Film development is a painful process at the best of times, no matter who you are. Obviously it wasn’t continuous for nine years, but was there a moment when the ball really started to roll for you getting it into production?
ML: Sure. I mean, getting a film made is difficult for anyone. Spielberg excluded, everyone else has a difficult time getting a project up. And there are times in the lifecycle of a film that you think it's going, it doesn’t go. You think it's going and it doesn’t go. And there are elements of that that you just have to continually make a choice. Do you want to stay with it? Do you believe in it enough to keep pushing it through the process? So every time there was a failure there was a success and it's just the creative evolutionary process and eventually it's either going to happen or it's not.
SG: Initially you said that you had a ten million dollar budget in mind, but the industry has changed over time. Do you think that was a case of the world catching up to you, and the filmmaking process evolving over time?
ML: Right… when I first read the book, in my mind’s eye doing this movie, I couldn’t do it for less than ten million dollars. I had just come off of Scooby Doo and I was inundated in the world of studio films. It took us nine years to get it done. And in that time there was a complete technological revolution, in terms of making an independent film. Even back then a small independent film was three or four million dollars.
We made this movie now nine years later after my original concept of what it was for far less than a million dollars. I mean, we are a micro budgeted film by every definition. And I think that is was kind of like that perfect combination of timing and having the right project and me being in the right headspace and being the right person in that moment to direct the movie.
SG: When you finally got on set, it was clearly not the first set you’ve been on. What were the biggest surprises to you as the director?
ML: We shot the film last summer in Seattle, WA. And I guess the biggest surprise for me was just how difficult it is to get fifty people hitting the same target every day. I mean, I understood that there was going to be adjustments along the way, and everyday would present a different problem, and we would just have to make rapid decisions to make the best decision we could in the given circumstances of that moment.
And I love that. I love making creative choices out of limitations that were provided by budget and timing and the day and execution. The thing I think that surprised me the most was that just gathering creative forces and putting them on the same page. What having no money does is that you just have to work that much harder to communicate a specific kind of idea of what you’re looking for.
Because like I always equate to every day we’d throw up a target. And the more I talked about it, and the more clear I was, the bigger the target was. And every department has a different size gun. And some days those guns change. Some days the wardrobe department has a big gun and some days the sound department has a big gun. And some days they just have no gun and they have a bow and arrow. And so it's just trying to get the creative army to hit the same target at the same time. That was the thing that surprised me the most is how difficult it was to wrangle creative visions on a single day.
SG: Is there a day or a particular scene that kind of most stands out in your mind in terms of the difficulty in shooting it?
ML: There [are] serious big sequences in the movie. We have several concert sequences. We have an outdoor shot that we shot. It's the end of the movie that we shot on a rooftop in downtown Seattle, which we lit up all of downtown Seattle. And we were shooting in the middle of summer so our night actually began at 10:00 at night and it got light at 5:00 in the morning. And we had an hour lunch in between.
It's the end of the movie and we have one camera, a hundred and fifty extras, and we have to kind of wrap out every single storyline in this one sequence. So that kind of thing where you are just muscling through a shot list as best you can and adapting it, overcoming it as you go through, I mean that certainly stands out in my mind… and at the end of that day it was the end of a long week. I sat there and wrapped cable with the entire crew for two hours afterwards. So that was a day I’ll ever forget.
SG: In terms of promotion and advertising, you’ve worked the system in a lot of very interesting ways and taken advantages of new methods that weren’t there before. How much of that was something you were looking for and how much has just been rolling with the punches and opportunities?
ML: That’s a great question. I love that question. Thank you for asking that question. We, as an independent film, I think are in a very interesting trajectory. We are collectively trying to shift the paradigm of independent film release, and a lot of that was planned and some of that is on the fly.
I came out to the Van’s Warped Tour three years ago, and I saw these kids and these disenfranchised, kind of lost youth kids and I saw an opportunity to make a movie for them. I was in a movie called SLC Punk. And if I walk down the street, if I have ten kids or ten people in the world that recognize me, five of them will be from that movie. So I have the benefit of understanding the connection that kids have to that film.
So for me, on the producer side of my head I was like, we can do that again. Like Tyler Perry does for [the] African American community, we can make movies for this demographic and be very specific. And so when I saw the Warped Tour I saw in it not only a base of kids to make a movie for, but a machine in which you can push it around the country and market the film specifically for those kids.
So that was very much planned and that was – I think one of the reasons that I ended up finding the money was because I went in and said here’s my creative vision, which is great and fine and dandy but here’s my business plan that I think is really smart and interesting and outside the box. Now, within that we made the movie. The idea was to take it to the Warp Film people and do the Warp Tour but …
If I could have been the belle of the ball and been bought by Focus Features and sold for three million dollars, or four million dollars and kick back and watch the movie play and just do film festivals and take reviews, that would have been awesome. That didn’t happen to us. So instead of just letting the movie go into oblivion we decided to go to Kickstarter, raise funds for that to help support this.
And also, that generates a really strong base for our film. If people are giving you money to buy a t-shirt, they want to see the movie. So there’s an incentive there to get the movie to those people and that’s what Tugg did for us. If you go to www.tuggthefatkid.com, anyone anywhere in America can set up a screening of our film.
It's a really interesting way to kind of get to our base. We’ve identified the base and now we’ve got this mechanism in which to deliver it to them. Now it's just a matter of educating and spreading the word to our base. And all of it's really exciting. Would I love to have been the guy that was found at Sundance and now I’m off doing Spiderman 5 because Hollywood’s like, oh, you’re the new anointed king. That would be amazing. But that hasn’t happened.
SG: But don’t you feel a sense of pride that you were able to make the film without just taking the regular route?
ML: There’s no doubt. I have a huge sense of pride in terms of how we’re attacking this distribution model. First of all, I love the film. I made a movie that I’m really proud of and I think that really works on a lot of levels. I think it works for kids, I think it works for adults. And I like being a filmmaker and I like being a director, and I like being that storyteller. And I like the fact that I have something I’m proud of in that we collectively, as a team, really believe in it and we think it works.
But yeah, there’s a huge sense of pride in going, you know what, I’m going to do it myself. And to some extent, we’re off to a great start. I don’t know if it works yet but if it does… it's just it's pride. And so often in our business it's just robbed of you, certainly as an actor. You’re just a gun for hire and you’re saying lines that you don’t always like and you’re trying to feed your kids and you end up making decisions that you’re not really proud of. But this is a moment in my life where I’m proud. And I think that everyone on our film’s proud of it. if we find success I will definitely appreciate how we got there.
SG: So if the Warped Tour was a huge part of this plan from the beginning, how’s it going? How has the reality measured up to your intentions?
ML: The Warped Tour was a plan from the beginning. We’re on our fourth date. Look, we made more adjustments on the first day than [we] ever could have. [We] sat in a war room and pontificated and decided, well, what about this, what about that, and all these great lofty ideas all went out the window the first day of execution. I mean I kind of feel like I’m a general on D Day going, don’t! Not that way. Go that way.
We’re adapting and overcoming. We launched last week. We’re five days into our Tugg the Fat Kid Campaign. And we have three hundred and seventy-one requested screenings. That’s a huge number. Whether they all go off, whether they all hit their number, whether they all screen, that’s a wholly different, totally different thing. But we’ve struck a chord in enough, in three hundred and seventy-one people, in five days, to go, “I want to see that movie.”
And that’s a good sign. We will know soon enough whether we’re on to something great. Right now, I’m just like this. Oh my God. Every day I look for updates, I look for like some kind of recipe in the tea leaves. I have yet to find it but the good news is that we’re touching these kids, we’re having conversations and it feels like it's working.
But, again, all of it's all hype and it's all crap unless it actually does something, right. Look, the one thing I know is that I am not a guy that likes bullshit and I’m not a guy that likes Hollywood kind of hype. We’ll know when we know. And when we know you’ll know and everyone else will know, and we won’t have to say a thing. It’ll just be what it is.
SG: Can you explain the system for us a little bit? Kickstarter is maturing, and Tugg is a newer entity. How does it all work together?
ML: Well, Kickstarter is kind of a known entity. Crowd funding has now kind of come into the zeitgeist of the culture of America. And the one thing that is new to this kind of recipe of what we’re trying to attack, this company called Tugg. Tugg was a company that launched at South By Southwest. We were there at the same time. We won the audience award at South By Southwest, and we had a conversation with them.
Basically anywhere anyone in America can go to www.tuggthefatkid.com and request a screening of our film in their local theater, and it works a little like Groupon. So in the way that Groupon works, somebody will post a service but forty people have to subscribe to that service before it actually goes into activation. It's the same thing for our film. A promoter, anyone in America, in Anchorage, AL, or Brighton, MI can say, "I want to see Fat Kid Rules the World in my local theater at this time, I want to charge this price."
They go to www.tuggthefatkid.com and they’ll say, “I want to see this movie in this town at this place at this time.” We’ll go out and set up that screening with that local theater and we’ll come back to you with all the mechanics that you need to make that screening go off. All you need to do is get enough people into your screening for us to fire the movie off to the theater at that time. It's a really interesting idea.
The biggest challenge we have is just educating people as to what it is and how simple it is. And the other exciting part is that as the promoter of a project, as the promoter of the film, you get five percent of the box office return. So you get five percent of everything you take in. And there’s any number of kids out there that can see the movie. All you need is a certain amount of people.
SG: We’ve talked a lot about the system and mechanics of getting this film made. Can you tell us, when you read the book, what was it about this story that really connected with you and made you want to spend ten years of your life on it?
ML: Sure. So when I read the book I think the thing that struck me the most was that I saw myself in this kid. I wasn’t obese. I was not an obese teenager, but I was an overweight kid. I had a severe learning disability. I had braces. I had glasses. I was lost. And I feel like when I was reading the book, twenty pages in the book he tries to kill himself, and I had these tears running down my face because I saw myself in this kid’s plight. I saw who I was in high school in this kid’s plight. And it just struck this crazy emotional cord in me.
And I knew that look that I think that that resonates with kids. I think there are a lot of kids out there who just don’t feel like they fit in high school and are just trying to fight through. And you see it. I mean you see it with the bullying thing right now, which is so popular. But I just think that like ninety-eight percent of these kids in the world are like, I am not like other kids and I don’t know who I am and what am I going to be and what am I going to do. And I think that those questions are all really relevant.
And I feel that people – kids struggle. And I just found in the book, the hero of our book is struggling as well. Look, the good thing about the movie is we’re not ever, hey, get skinny. Hey, you’ll get the girl, be punk rock, and everything’s cool. All we do is show this kid and finding a place in the world to kind of be and I don’t know. I think that that’s why it's an underdog story, but I think it relates to people because I think everyone has that in their life somewhere.
SG: You mentioned that this kind of reminds you of you in high school to a degree. Whether it was Nickelodeon shows, Scream, Serial Mom, in your earliest work, you were playing teenagers. And now you’re making a movie about teenagers. How has this film brought you full circle?
ML: Yeah, I started my career playing young people. Obviously I was a young kid and I was lost. I think that if you’re making art the only thing you can do is represent what’s true to you. If you’re telling a story, if you’re a storyteller or an actor, all you have to prolong is your life and your life experiences. So in that respect I saw myself in this movie and I brought as much of myself into this film as I could, and I think that that’s our goal as artists, as storytellers, as actors.
Our goal is to try to pull on our life to be honest and tell the truth. And I think that that’s how people in our culture find something to identify with and it helps change life. I mean I think that that’s, not to get really crazy deep and bananas, but I think that that’s the purpose of art. That’s the muscle of art, to identify real experiences in truth and life and help shape people’s lives because of it.
SG: That’s not crazy at all! We’re at Warped Tour right now – let’s talk music. You got Mike McCready to score your film. That’s pretty cool. How did that happen?
ML: Mike McCready of Pearl Jam did our music for the film, which crazy. I mean when I say we’re a micro budget film, we are a micro budget film. It was one of the few times in Hollywood that talking to agents actually made a huge difference in our lives. I went into my agent and he said, “Don’t you need somebody to do music? Because we have Mike McCready and he wants to do scores.”
And so a week later I was sitting at a table with the guitar player from Pearl Jam who is a rock and roll icon, and he had already read the book cover to cover, and he had already read the script. It was one of those rare occasions in my life where I was pitching him as much as he was pitching me, in terms of doing the movie. And half way through the conversation I was like, oh, this is going to happen.
And I will say it's one of the greatest collaborative efforts of experiences in my life, in that he completely was subservient to the film and he’s the most egoless artist I think I’ve ever worked with. All he wanted to do was help tell the story. I’m a first time filmmaker. I made mistakes. And the film was definitely flawed, but he helps you sit through them because he’s so amazing with that guitar. It's so amazing with what he did with the music. I mean emotionally he just underscores the entire film in such a way that I think he’s a critical piece to our success as a film overall.
SG: Lastly, why does somebody need to see this film?
ML: Why does somebody need to see Fat Kid Rules the World? Our movie has a message. Our movie tells a really great story in a really fun and loving way. I think it's funny. I think it's traumatic. I think it has a story that people connect with. And it has a message that I think that there are a lot of people in the world, there are a lot of kids at the Van’s Warped Tour right now, there are a lot of people that are lost that need to hear the story or see the story told in this way.
It's fun. It's funny. It's dramatic. It has both. And it's everything you don’t expect it to be. And we’re a very big movie in a little; small movie body, and I think that when you leave, my experience has been that people feel better. They’re excited and they’re happy. And we take them on an emotional ride. And we’re telling an honest story and I think that there’s room for that in this world.
I mean, I love The Avengers. The Avengers is like one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I love it. But there’s a ying to that yang, and there are small stories out there that need to be found. And I feel like, well, one of them. I mean it's not just hype and bullsh*t. I feel like the people [that] have seen our movie have experiences that changes them in some small way. And I think that’s exciting.
'Fat Kid Rules The World' is currently touring America on the Warped Tour. Why not demand that it comes to your town at tuggthefatkid.com?