In my travels, I’ve found that the people who don’t like Matthew Lillard know him only from Scooby Doo, Scream, or any number of disposable teen rom-coms from the late ‘90s, but have never seen SLC Punk! or his wonderfully understated performance in The Descendants.
For anyone in the SLC Punk! cult (myself included) Lillard will always have a place in our heart, and his film sins (he admits Scooby Doo was a sell-out move, and that many of the films he’s appeared in have been awful) are pardoned. With his directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules the World, Lillard isn’t asking you to like him. He’s simply trying to get a film about an obese teenager whose life is transformed by punk rock out to the world. Having viewed a screener, I believe that the film could resonate with any kid feeling alienated, bullied or lost in the world—if they actually get a chance to see it.
Fat Kid’s made its debut at SXSW (in fact, it was one of our best films from the event) and was greeted with overwhelmingly positive response. But distributors, for whatever reason, balked. In an attempt to self-finance, Lillard launched a Kickstarter campaign on May 10 with a goal of $150,000. In the short interim between interviewing Lillard and writing this piece, the financial goal was reached (and then some) and Arc Entertainment has acquired Fat Kid for North American distribution rights. Finally, it seems that Fat Kid may get a chance to rule the world, or at least get into some theaters.
What first attracted you to the literary source material of Fat Kid Rules the World, and how did the project get rolling?
Matthew Lillard: I was doing Scooby Doo at the time, and I got the offer to do the book on tape. It came across my desk, or my manager’s desk, and I was like “whatever.” It wasn’t a lot of money, and it wasn’t like I had always dreamed of doing a book on tape. It was the only offer I’ve gotten to do a book on tape, and I haven’t gotten another offer since. I had to decide by noon, and the book had been on my desk for two months because I was working and hadn’t looked at it. My manager finally said, “Look, you’ve got to give me an answer right now. It’s about an obese teenager that finds punk rock music. I think you should do it.” I said, “Okay fine, I’ll do it.” I started to read the book and I was twenty pages in, and I found myself completely moved by the whole thing. I saw myself in him. I saw myself in that character. I had a really emotional reaction to it, and I thought that this could be a movie.
What’s the process for securing the rights to a literary property like? Did you have to win over author K.L. Going?
Lillard: I offered her agent a piece of money, and it wasn’t a lot, because it was my money; a personal investment. At the time, I was a relative name, but I’m not hugely famous by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, and I offered her something like ten grand, which was a considerable piece of money for me. I got on the phone, the offer was out there, and I’ll never forget because I was on my way home from Palm Springs on Memorial Day weekend, probably ten years ago, and I just said to her “Look, I believe in this movie. I’ve never directed, and you have no reason to believe in me, but I’m passionate about this kid and I’m not going to let you down.” She said yes, and I had the script written on spec, which basically means that I had a guy work on it for free. So I figured I’d take it out into the world and do it for ten million bucks. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to do a story about an obese teenager and punk rock for $10 million. So it finally took me about nine years to find someone who would take that leap of faith with me. At the time, the least I thought I could do it for was ten million. And we ended up doing it for way less than a million bucks.
Did you have a lot of trepidation stepping into the director’s chair?
Lillard: It was something I always wanted to do, ever since I started acting. It was always the trajectory I wanted to go. It felt completely natural. I finally found something that I completely loved. I love the craft of acting, but doing the same line or the same scene over the course of a day isn’t really exhilarating. It’s a good job, but the parts I get aren’t really that amazing. Being a director of a movie, you get to do a lot more. There’s a lot more at stake and a lot more responsibility. It’s more of a challenge and way more fun than just hitting your mark and saying your line. There’s risk and challenge, and that’s exhilarating.
I’ve always heard actors turned directors have a natural rapport with actors. Did you feel that instantly?
Lillard: I did, and I will. I love acting and actors. I think that’s my strength, in being able to relate to people and have them trust you and lead them towards an emotional performance. I think that’s my biggest asset as a director.
When you mentioned not getting great roles as an actor, one of the exceptions surely is The Descendants.
Lillard: I auditioned for The Descendants, and I think I was the last person in the world that they thought they would ever cast for that role. It’s one of those cases where I think Alexander Payne is kind of a genius. If they hired a Hollywood ten for my role, it wouldn’t have been nearly as emotionally resonating as opposed to it being just a normal looking guy. That’s a movie that I did two years ago now, and working on that movie was the highlight of my career as an actor, or certainly one of the highlights. I worked for a week, and I think that was the only movie that I did that year.
Fat Kid feels like a bookend to SLC Punk! Is punk a big part of your life? I can’t imagine it’s coincidental.
Lillard: It is actually. I’m not a punk rock guy or a fan at all. I walk down the street every day and I know the emotional connection that people have to SLC Punk! With Fat Kid, the meta producer in me wanted to make a movie that tapped into that world and make a movie that made sense for kids, and make a movie that resonated for a new generation like SLC did. I pitched to the producers a sequel to SLC Punk! Funny enough, one of the scenes that I cut was Troy outside the counselor’s office and me playing Stevo grown up as the guidance counselor. He’s got blue Docs on and a shaved head and it was kind of my homage to SLC Punk! It just didn’t really work in the movie.
I discovered SLC Punk! in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I still blast the soundtrack.
Lillard: Sex and violence! Sex and violence! We actually played the soundtrack on the set. But I agree with you. I think that movie has weight in the world. I wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just popcorn. I tried to make a movie that has something to say, and that is funny and dramatic at the same time.
Are there certain directors that you took advice from or tried to imitate on set? What’s the secret to creating a civil, happy film set?
Lillard: There’s no one particular director, it’s a collection of a lifetime of work. I’ve been acting since I was fourteen, so it’s a little piece of everyone. I think that happiness on set comes from respect. If everyone respects each other and gets along, then things go pretty well. It all starts at the top. If the director and actors get along, then usually everyone else falls in line and has a great time.
I’ve heard Wes Craven is really calm and chill on set.
Lillard: He’s awesome. Ken Branagh’s awesome. Alexander [Payne]’s awesome. There are definitely stand-outs in my life, and you also learn from the negative. I’ve had people screaming at me from across an entire set. There’s good and there’s bad.
This is a really tacky question, so I apologize in advance. As an actor, do you have an all-time favorite and least favorite project?
Lillard: My all-time favorite is SLC Punk! That was my opportunity to be in every frame of the movie and not have to do everything in four minutes of screen time. The least favorite? Look, am I in bad movies? Yes. Lots and lots and lots of bad movies. But, they’re all like your kids. I think In the Name Of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale is a terrible film, but I still loved it. I got to dress up in armor and sword fight and hang out with Uwe Boll, who’s the most charismatic guy around. But do I think it’s a good movie? Fuck no dude, it’s terrible.
What’s a perfect day for Matthew Lillard?
Lillard: Seeing my Kickstarter go over 150k and taking my wife and kids out to celebrate. That’s a good day. That’d be el bueno.