Sometimes you meet a director and feel like they come from another plane of existence, fully formed as Godlike masters of your destiny. And then there's Spencer Susser, the director of this week's heavy metal-tinged independent release, Hesher: he's sitting on a couch in jeans and a t-shirt, patiently waiting to nourish himself on room service as you conduct the interview. Not the boisterous type, but passionate about his craft, the very talented Mr. Susser sat down with me to talk about his first feature film, Hesher, about an anarchic freeloader (inception's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who crashes the home of a deeply troubled boy suffering from the recent death of his mother. Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie and Rainn Wilson co-star in the drama, which has dark parallels to Mary Poppins. Spencer Susser had a lot to say about his film, from the construction of the characters, to casting the leads, to acquiring the music rights to Metallica (no small task), the original ending of the film and his upcoming projects.
Photo Credit Merrick Morton. Courtesy of Wrekin Hill Entertainment
Crave Online: How many people today have told you how much they love Hesher?
Spencer Susser: Uh, a few.
Crave Online: A few? It should be more. It’s a good movie.
Spencer Susser: Thanks!
Crave Online: Everyone I talked to has loved it. Have you heard that yet or has it not trickled down to you?
Spencer Susser: No, I mean I’ve heard that people are really positive, which is awesome.
Crave Online: Does that surprise you at all, or were you in the bathroom giving Oscar acceptance speeches throughout the shoot?
Spencer Susser: No, no. Are you kidding?
Crave Online: We’ve all done it…
Spencer Susser: Not me. You don’t think people… I think making a movie, in a way… You do it in a bubble. I try to just make something I would want to see and try and make it honest. So I don’t really… I think the second you start to think about what people are going to think, you second guess everything and you end up watering it down, and I think that’s why there’s so many pretty mediocre films, because they try to make it for everybody? And I think some people are really not going to like this movie, but some people love it, you know? And I think the art that I like, you either love or hate.
Crave Online: You want people to love and hate this.
Spencer Susser: Yeah. But no, I don’t mind when some people say that “I hate that with a passion.” I’m like, “Great!” I think the worst thing people can say is that “I saw you movie. Yeah, it was a good movie. It was pretty cool. It was alright…” I don’t want to make that movie.
Crave Online: No one wants to make that movie. That would suck… The thing that struck me about Hesher is that there are a lot of movies that portray a kid who has lost a parent and then gets some sort of cosmic gift. You know? God says, “I’m sorry about your dead father… Here’s a dog who can play basketball.”
Spencer Susser: “Here’s a dollar.”
Crave Online: Yeah. Pretty much. And here’s a kid who gets… almost horror. You almost wonder if this is even a good thing, that Hesher has entered their life.
Spencer Susser: I would say that there are a couple of ways to look at Hesher. One is, he is a complicated character – person – that is the way he is for a lot of reasons because of his backstory, but maybe he represents all these other things. Like the idea that Hesher represents Death, you know? Here’s this terrible thing – that’s scary, and mean – and [it] shows up at this family’s door really, and moves in. And there’s nothing to about it, there’s nothing they can say to make him go. And once they learn how to function with him, he goes away in a sense.
Crave Online: That’s a good point. On the other hand, in a way, it does have some of those family movie tropes. What’s the first thing he does when he moves in? He gives them this magical gift. He gives them free cable.
Spencer Susser: Exactly, he helps them right away. In his way. He gives them all the channels. He picks porn, but… that’s helpful. (Laughs)
Crave Online: God knows it is… (Laughs) – But it seems that he doesn’t always help. It doesn’t fit that theme very well; it only touches upon it. Were you a fan of those kinds of movies as a kid, or did they annoy you and that’s why you made Hesher?
Spencer Susser: I mean, I never really thought about it. I’ve never seen that many. It’s funny, a lot of people have compared the film to other films I’ve seen, or a lot of films I haven’t seen, but yeah. You can compare it. I certainly wasn’t referencing any other movie. There are a lot of similarities to Mary Poppins, but I didn’t think about that. Someone had pointed out that it was a lot like Being There, which I like a lot. You just see this sort of Chance Gardner guy; he’s this kind of beautiful character. I’m not saying Hesher is like that at all…
Crave Online: They’re sort of pure, in that they don’t care what anyone else thinks of them. They do their own thing.
Spencer Susser: Yeah, and he becomes whatever you want him to be. But I love at the end of Being There, when he walks onto the water, and you’re like, “Wait…! Huh? Does he…?” And I hope people will think about Hesher in that sense. For me, he’s grounded. He’s real. You know, one thing I’d say to Joe[-seph Gordon-Levitt] when we were making the movie is, “Hesher is 100% real. Yes, he’s real. But… maybe he’s not.” “What? Is he real or is he not?” “No, he’s real… but maybe he’s not.”
Crave Online: He sort of represents something in the story. In that way he’s not ‘real.’ He’s a sort of force of nature.
Spencer Susser: Yeah. But I wanted the film to be grounded.
Crave Online: It’s very grounded.
Spencer Susser: I needed it to be motivated and real. Someone said to me, “God, this kid gets his ass kicked a lot.” Isn’t that a little much? And I said, “Well, that’s what it feels like when you lose your Mom, or you lose someone.” And so the film, it has a lot of layers, and sometimes maybe some of them feel a little heightened but at the same time maybe some of the other ones are kicking in a little more. So it’s kind of a weird balance of reality and heightened reality.
Crave Online: How much of Hesher’s character was in your head before Joseph Gordon-Levitt came on? Or did he bring a lot of that to the film?
Spencer Susser: He brought a lot, but it was very specific. Someone was saying before, “Was it a lot of improv?” Well, no. It’s all very scripted. And the thing that’s amazing about Joe is that he’s able to take this thing and make it quite raw and feel very loose, but hit all these very technical notes. Yeah, it was very specific. When I was casting it I wasn’t looking for some great actor’s take on the character. It was really hard to find someone who could pull it off and do it the way I imagined. That’s why Joe was so great, because he has a real honesty but he’s also a very technical actor.
Crave Online: The actor’s performance who really surprised me was Piper Laurie, because I’m used to seeing her be so vital in all of her roles. And she’s very meek and timid and lovable [in Hesher]. Did you intentionally cast against that?
Spencer Susser: I think everybody in a way plays against type, you know? I hadn’t watched Carrie for years, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. And she’s the complete opposite of the character in Carrie. She’s amazing. She’s Piper Laurie. She’s a legend. She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards. She’s no joke. And so, you take someone like that, or any of these actors, and you kind of push them in the right direction and you kind of guide them, and they’re… It’s like driving racecars. You push on the gas and it goes.
Crave Online: This is your first feature, but you’ve done a s**t-ton of commercials. What surprised you most about making a long form movie?
Spencer Susser: Well, I didn’t realize how much endurance you need. I’m used to short form, and the way that I work is I kind of start, and I don’t stop until it’s done. I don’t sleep, I just go-go-go-go-go-go-go. And that’s how I work. That’s just my thing. With a feature that’s a long time to push hard, and sometimes you’ve just got to careful not to burn out. So that I wasn’t really prepared for. No matter how many times someone tells you, you don’t know. This is a horrible thing to say…
Crave Online: Oh, but please say it.
Spencer Susser: … just to compare it to, and I have no idea because I’ve never given birth, but the idea of having a baby. I know it’s hard. But I have a feeling that you don’t really know until you do it. And again, I don’t want to compare this at all to… But I knew that making a movie was hard…
Crave Online: Compare it to passing a stone. You’re allowed to do that.
Spencer Susser: (Laughs) – Well, I’ve never done that either.
Crave Online: But at some point wecould, so we’ve got a free pass.
Spencer Susser: Yeah, and I’m sure it’s worse…
Crave Online: I’m sure it sucks. There’s an inordinate amount of Metallica in this film. Were they supportive?
Spencer Susser: They were. And when I wrote the script I put those songs in there, and everyone was like, “Yeah, right.”
Crave Online: “Good f***ing luck.”
Spencer Susser: Yeah, but those were the songs. Hesher likes metal, more specifically he likes Metallica, and even more specifically he likes the early Metallica. And that’s just what it needed to be. It’s really just an extension of the character. You know, when I finished the film, again everyone was like, “You can’t have that in there.” I said, “But that’s what it is.” So I wrote a letter to Metallica and sent them the film, and they watched it and really responded to it, and gave us the music.
Crave Online: Well, that’s nice!
Spencer Susser: It was amazing!
Crave Online: That’s really nice. And it fits!
Spencer Susser: And I think the other thing, a lot of films with heavy metal characters, they’re always these clichéd versions… Really on the nose. They’re jokes. Hesher is a real guy. He’s a complicated guy. And we don’t get too deep into his personal story, because it’s not his story, it’s about this boy… but he’s taken for real.
Crave Online: I liked what I read in the press notes, that he responded to early Metallica because of Cliff Burton, who died young. And obviously that fits thematically, but it also sort of fits his… I don’t want to say ‘nihilistic’ mindset…
Spencer Susser: Well, I think the one thing that was great about Cliff Burton, and also that Hesher is similar [to] in a way, is that… and look, I don’t know [Cliff Burton], I’ve never met him, but I’ve seen bits and clips and I imagine what I think he would be, this sort of fantasy of who he is… But one thing I was reading is like, in the 80’s he used to wear bellbottoms like as kind of a hangover from the 70’s, probably. And they were so out of style, people just gave him s**t for it. He was like, “Whatever, this is what I wear. F**k you. This is my thing. I don’t care what you think.” And he was never about being a rock star; he was about making music. He just wasn’t interested in all that other stuff. And I feel like Hesher [is] like that. He doesn’t care what people think. He does what he wants to do, because it’s his unique voice.
Crave Online: Do you think that he cares more about what people think towards the end? He does seem to be trying to make amends a bit in the last act.
Spencer Susser: He grows! He grows up, you know? He learns from them just as much as they learn from him. You know, here’s a guy who’s really put up these walls to protect himself from being hurt, essentially… someone who was hurt as a young person. He’s like a child, Hesher, but he has this very tough exterior. And he doesn’t want friends or family because he’d probably been hurt by them in the past. And so by this relationship with this family, in a way they become his family. And he does become vulnerable. Hedoes care what they think.
Crave Online: Do you think – and I’m not saying necessarily that you should do a sequel – but do you think that his character would go on to have more stories? I have this image in my head of Hesher going on to like… coach a little league team. Do you have any thoughts on where he goes from here?
Spencer Susser: I mean, I definitely thought about him moving on but for me the movie ends where it ends, and I kind of want people to wonder what happens to Hesher. And yeah, maybe one day you answer that, but for now it’s definitely for people who saw it. It’s funny, but I don’t know why I just forgot about that, but in the script […]after the credits I had this little button which was, I was going [film] a little mouse, in a little lawn chair, with CG hands – so it looked very real – but it was this mouse sitting in a lawn chair, shelling peanuts. And I don’t know if you remember but there was quite a long scene with Piper Laurie, where [Hesher] tells this story about this thing… And the idea is, it’s sort of the metaphorical quality of the film, sort of leaving you wondering, you know, “Was he real, was he not?” And the idea of photographing this mouse doing something that you know is impossible, but you’ve just seen it, and it was real. I don’t know, there’s just something interesting about that. That was more of an idea I had at one point…
Crave Online: It’s an interesting idea…!
Spencer Susser: I had actually written a prequel to the film, and it was Hesher’s story. And I was going to make it as a way to pitch the film…
Crave Online: Was it going to be a short or was it a whole feature?
Spencer Susser: No, it wasn’t a feature. It was a short film. And it was really about Hesher, and what he’s like and sort of in a way that could be a prequel or sequel, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s sort of what Hesher does every day and how he functions. Like, this movie is T.J.’s story from his point of view, the film is from this kid’s point of view, the whole thing, but the other idea is to do that story from Hesher’s point of view, which is very different.
Crave Online: The other person who comes into the film is Natalie Portman’s character. She came on board really early.
Spencer Susser: Yeah.
Crave Online: Was she the first person…?
Spencer Susser: She was the first person I sent the script.
Crave Online: And again, it’s a little bit casting against type because: Natalie Portman, playing something of a mousey figure.
Spencer Susser: No, it’s weird. […] People have said, “By the way, you can’t make Natalie Portman ugly by giving her glasses.” And I’m like, dude, just because she wears glasses doesn’t mean she’s ugly. I’m not trying to make her look ugly.
Crave Online: She needs glasses, damn it!
Spencer Susser: Her character is also someone whose life was probably quite social, and at some point a lot of her friends grew up and went and got jobs or whatever, and then she looked around and… Where did everybody go?
Crave Online: I really associated with her character, and granted that’s largely because of where I am in my life, or where I’ve just been anyway…
Spencer Susser: A lot of people do!
Crave Online: You had all these dreams, and you’ve just kind of gotten stuck on getting by.
Spencer Susser: Exactly! And you go, “How do people…? I never learned how to deal with this stuff! They don’t teach you this in school!”
Crave Online: It’s weird. Why the f**k didn’t anyone teach us this?!
Spencer Susser: This is what you need to know!
Crave Online: This is the important stuff. It’s a quarter-life crisis, and it’s getting really prevalent. I’m seeing it in movies more but nobody’s really talking about it. She seemed to really be feeling it, in a way that absolutely struck me.
Spencer Susser: It’s something that a lot of us grow through, and it’s a very simple growing pain in a way. And she’s right in the thick of it. It’s funny, her glasses, for example: for me she used to wear contact lenses. Now she can’t afford them, and it’s really about function. She needs to see. She’s wearing her glasses from elementary school. They don’t even fit her! I’m not trying to make her look anything. She just wants to see. That’s all it is!
Crave Online: I think we’re just about done, and I think you did a very, very good job on this film. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next. Do you have anything that’s coming up?
Spencer Susser: Well, I’m working on… I made a short film called I Love Sarah Jane a couple of years ago…
Crave Online: With Mia Wasikowska [of Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are Alright]?
Spencer Susser: Yeah, yeah, and I’m working on a feature version.
Crave Online: Oh, that’s fantastic!
Spencer Susser: So hopefully that’ll be next.
Crave Online: Is Mia coming back for that?
Spencer Susser: We’ll see! I’m still writing, so it’s kind of early days. You know, you always want to work with the best. I love her.
Crave Online: She’s great.
Spencer Susser: She’s amazing. But you know, I think when you make stuff, at least for me, all I have is this kind of emotional meter, and that’s how I make stuff. That’s how I edit. My background is editing, but I never learned how to edit. For me it’s very much an emotional thing. I do it and if I feel it, it’s done, and if I don’t, it’s not. And so for me it’s funny because, I’ve seen [Hesher] way more than I’ve seen any film, obviously, and it’s annoying for me to watch it because I know every single word. But sometimes it gets me. Most of the time it doesn’t because I know it so well, I can smell the edits coming. I know it backwards and forwards. But yeah, it’s really about the emotion. And I feel that when people watch it, and for me that’s what I want from the movie. I want people to get sucked into it.