Director Spencer Susser works with Natalie Portman on the set of "Hesher." (Merrick Morton, Wrekin…)
With a cast including Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rainn Wilson, "Hesher" rode a wave of anticipation into the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010. But when audiences actually got a look at the movie, the response was decidedly mixed, leaving some enthralled and others scratching their heads.
The story of a boy and his father dealing with the death of the boy's mother and the arrival of an anarchic speed-metal enthusiast who wanders into their lives, "Hesher" is deliriously odd. Many who saw it at Sundance wondered: Is it a sad comedy or a rambunctious drama? Is its title character a real person or not?
Now, nearly a year and a half later, "Hesher" is opening in theaters Friday. But it's a slightly different version than the one audiences saw in Park City, Utah.
Director and co-writer Spencer Susser says that the film was rushed and essentially unfinished when it screened at Sundance, without final music, sound mix or color correction. After its debut, he went back to the editing room to tighten the film, create a new version of the emotional climax and add a score by Australian composer Francois Tétaz, plus a handful of Metallica songs.
"I knew when we got accepted to Sundance that we didn't have enough time to finish the movie," Susser said recently over lunch in Los Angeles. "It was everybody else that was like, 'All right!,' and I knew I didn't have enough time to finish the movie, because I'm sitting there finishing the movie." Still, he said, he had no regrets. "We got the film sold and the people who bought the film loved it and saw what it was and let me complete it."
The movie was bought by Newmarket Films, which has released such challenging fare as "Donnie Darko" and "Memento." But last fall, some key executives left Newmarket to form Wrekin Hill Entertainment, taking "Hesher" with them. "We bought the film essentially the day we saw it and have been working hard on it ever since," said Chris Ball, president and chief executive of Wrekin Hill. "Yes, me and my team leaving Newmarket changed things, but it really changed the name on the door, the same people are involved with the same passion for the movie."
Susser, now 34, grew up in Los Angeles. After high school, he began working as a runner for editor Angus Wall (who won an Oscar this year for "The Social Network"). After learning to edit projects himself, Susser began directing commercials and music videos.
Susser met Portman while directing behind-the-scenes footage for "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones," where he also fell in with a group of young Australian filmmakers who would become his collaborators in the loose collective known as Blue-Tongue Films. Other members include David Michôd, co-writer of "Hesher" and writer-director of last year's "Animal Kingdom." Susser had been working on "Hesher" for years; Portman was the first person to whom he sent the finished screenplay. She signed on not only as costar but also made the film her first foray into producing. The experience was eye-opening for the actress, who won an Oscar this year for her performance in "Black Swan."
"I realized, and I appreciated, how much I'd been sheltered from all the craziness that goes on to make a film," Portman said.
Gordon-Levitt plays the character known only as Hesher, a shirtless, stringy-haired vagabond who speaks in filthy parables and seems to genuinely care about people (if not property or social propriety). Yet for viewers, there is a constant tension that Hesher could simply be a projection of the boy's inner turmoil and deep yearning for freedom.
"That's kind of the question," said Devin Brochu, who plays the boy and was 12 when the film was shot and is now 14. "It's what you want to think, if he's real or not. I definitely believe that he's there, and in a weird way he puts me through all these adventures and teaches me I have more to live for, brings the family together and … guides us through tough times."
Gordon-Levitt said he and Susser discussed how the character was designed with ambiguity in mind.
"I love movies where it's up for debate, that can cause a conversation, different people can take it different ways," said Gordon-Levitt. That uncertainty was one of the biggest challenges for Susser, navigating the tonal shifts between sincere, emotional scenes and more absurdist, comedic ones.
"Tone is one of the hardest things to describe and to write," he said. "I know what it is in my head, but when someone reads it, they say, 'This is really funny.' And it is funny, but it's not played funny, so for me the tone is, it's real. I just wanted everything to be played really straight, no matter how ridiculous it was."
Next, Susser hopes to make a feature film based on his 2008 short, "I Love Sarah Jane" (which starred Mia Wasikowska, who would go on to fame in 2010 for "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Kids Are All Right"). But for the next few weeks, at least, he's focused on seeing "Hesher" through its final stages of release.
"It just feels like this giant mountain," he said, "and I'm just doing it one bit at a time."