The actor speaks before the Canadian premiere of his directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules The World, at the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival.
When actor Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers) first read KL Going’s young adult novel Fat Kid Rules The World, he had an emotional reaction to the story and decided it would make for a perfect first foray into directing. Nine years later, it will make its Canadian premiere on Saturday at the closing night of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival. Lillard will be in attendance for the screening along with lead actor Jacob Wysocki (Terri).
“I saw myself in Troy,” Lillard said, during a phone conversation. Troy is the titular fat kid, whose life is saved by a transient classmate, Marcus. The two then begin a tenuous friendship built on the spontaneous notion of forming a band, despite the fact that Troy does not know how to play his assigned instrument—the drums. Not surprisingly, the subject matter was a tough sell. “I was coming off Scooby-Doo and thought a small film was $10 million. It was really difficult making the movie for less than a million dollars.”
Lillard has worked with filmmaking elite like Kenneth Branagh (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Robert Towne (Without Limits), and Alexander Payne (last year’s awards darling The Descendants). He feels he has soaked up knowledge from each of his directors throughout his career.
“There’s not one particular stand-out director. I learned something from everyone—it’s osmosis,” he said. “You pick up pieces just being around that world for so long.” He even had kind words for less-renowned coworkers, like notorious critical punching bag (sometimes literally) Uwe Boll.
Like any good director, Lillard heaped copious amounts of praise on his actors, citing Wysocki—who has a background in comedy—for his “fearlessness” and agreeing that the role of Marcus is one that he would have loved to play 20 years ago. “My calling card has always been energy. I see myself in him,” he said, referring to Matt O’Leary. The part of Troy’s father was more difficult to cast.
“He’s the lynchpin, he holds the whole movie together. We started shooting without the dad. It sounds crazy every time I say that.” As Lillard was desperately preparing to play the part himself, he was able to land veteran actor Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) at the last moment. Campbell delivers a nicely understated performance that deftly sidesteps cliché. Lillard had a different assessment: “He gives what I feel is the performance of his career.”
Despite helming a project that was steeped in punk music (and the fact that he once starred in a film called SLC Punk), Lillard admitted to an interesting conundrum. “I’m not at all into punk, don’t listen to punk. But it’s a great backdrop for an outcast story. I love the energy ensconced in punk.” There was, however, one musical cue that he absolutely needed to secure for the film: seminal punk band X’s “The Hungry Wolf.” It came at a hefty cost. “It was the first album I ever bought. And it cost more than I made [on the film].” The musical score, however, was composed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready—a collaboration that was precipitated by Lillard when he hired his first directing agent just weeks before filming. “He said, ‘Mike should read this,’” recalled Lillard. “Before I know it, McCready is pitching me on doing the movie.”
Though the film earned an Audience Award at SXSW where it premiered, it has yet to find distribution. Lillard has found an appropriately punk-rock approach to remedying this, launching a Kickstarter campaign to help with self-distribution. The struggle represents what he feels is the new reality for filmmakers. “It’s easier to get things made, but it’s harder to find distribution,” he said. This modern moviemaking dilemma may not be enough to stop him from pursuing further directorial efforts, but it’s not as if he is about to quit his day job either. “It takes so long to get a movie made, it makes me picky on what I’m going to do next,” he said. “Acting helps to offset the need.”