Who would have thought Hesher, a film named after its foul-mouthed, heavy metal loving antagonist (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) would owe a debt to Star Wars? But if you trace the story back ten years, sure enough it was on the Sydney set of the Star Wars prequels that writer/director Spencer Susser befriended Natalie Portman (Hesher’s co-star and producer) and the Edgerton brothers, Nash and Joel, who would go on to found Blue-Tongue Films, a creative collective that also includes David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and Luke Doolan (Oscar nominated short Miracle Fish). In fact Michôd ended up co-writing Hesher with Susser, while Nash and Doolan are both brought on board as editing consultants.
“I was on Nash’s film, The Square, and there would be days when Nash couldn’t see straight, and I could say, ‘well this is actually working, it’s cool.’ Then there’d be days on my set when I’m freaking out and he’s calm as can be,” Susser says. “I think when the pressure’s not on you, it’s a lot easier to see [clearly]. So sometimes it’s nice to have someone point that out.”
“It’s worked out in a cool way because there’s no real ego involved, it’s just like ‘oh you’re my friend and I want [your work] to be as good as it can be.’”
Hesher’s Australian connection continues in the writing (“we wrote a lot of it in Sydney.”), as well as in Susser’s singular regret, “If I could do one thing all over again, I would shoot the movie in Australia,” he says. “I really like working there and there’s a freedom that comes with it that you don’t get [in Hollywood].”
“I started making films by myself with no budget and just some friends, so I really want to put every penny on the screen. When you make a film with all the unions here, which are all set up for great reasons to protect people, there’s just so much money that gets spent that doesn’t go on the screen, and I find that really frustrating.”
“We had a pretty big crew, which I didn’t want, but you just have to, those are the rules and you need 100 people to do what you’re trying to do and I’m like, ‘but why? I feel like I only need 10 of these people, the other 90 people I don’t need and they actually just make it very slow.’”
Having a big name cast with the likes of Joseph Gordon Levitt ((500) Days of Summer, Brick) and Natalie Portman (Garden State, V for Vendetta) also came with its own surprises.
“Some days were tricky, because when you work with movie stars it comes with other things, for example paparazzi, which I had never experienced before,” he says. “Trying to shoot with ten guys clicking cameras, it’s a whole new challenge. And it’s frustrating for me, but the poor actors who have to try and stay focused with these people clicking away. I wasn’t crazy about that.”
Nevertheless, Susser is incredibly happy with his cast. In creating the titular Hesher, Susser lucked out with Gordon Levitt, “He’s such a chameleon, he really is able to become a different person and I was so impressed when I met him,” he says. “We got on really well and he’s just really talented and really smart and really, really hardworking. It was too important to me to work with someone who wasn’t going to do that, and so I was lucky, everybody just worked their arse off.”
“I was very, very fortunately to get a great cast,” he says. “Natalie was someone that I had in mind when I was writing and she was the first person I sent the script to when I felt like it was ready to go. And she signed on the next day; she just really loved it and she wanted to produce it.”
“The film is about a [13 year old] boy and his dad dealing with the death of the mum. So it’s really about dealing with loss, and then there’s this crazy, heavy metal anarchist who comes into their lives and helps them learn to deal with this loss.”
“When I was that age I also had experienced a loss,” he says. “They say write what you know, and so I did and maybe it was one way of dealing with this stuff that never goes away. But I also didn’t want to make a depressing movie, so the idea of this Hesher, [is as a] crazy character makes this sad story entertaining. He’s a liability, you never know what he’s going to do, and hopefully he always surprises you. He’s fun to watch, he likes to blow shit up and he’s got a foul mouth.”
With such a singular lead character, Susser is also quick to quash rumours of the film’s name change (to Rebel). “It’s such bullshit,” he says, explaining that it was part of a sales agent’s packaging process, “I don’t know why they did it, and I don’t really care because it doesn’t mean anything.”
Hesher will be presented (name intact) at the Sydney Film Festival in its second-ever screening in the world. After screening the film at Sundance, Susser has returned to the editing suite to wrestle with the sound design.
“I’m going to finish mixing, then that night get on a plane, [then] arrive in Sydney with the film under my arm and then it will screen that night.”
“For me it’s really important. I do see Sydney as a second home and I want to make films there and I really want to be a part of the film community there.”“I just hope I can walk by the time I get there!”
Published by Street Press Australia
Hesher screened at the Sydney Film Festival
***Update 21/9/2011: HESHER is now available to purchase on DVD