The indie dramedy Struck by Lightning, written by Chris Colfer (who plays Kurt Hummel on the Fox series Glee) and directed by Brian Dannelly (Saved!), tells the story of high school senior Carson Phillips (Colfer), who masterminds a blackmail scheme targeting the popular kids in school, that he carries out with his best friend, Malerie (Rebel Wilson). With a mother (Allison Janney) who’s falling apart and an estranged father (Dermot Mulroney) who suddenly shows back up in his life, Carson’s path to greatness seems like it’s getting further and further out of reach.
At the film’s press day, Collider spoke to Chris Colfer, in both a 1-on-1 and a roundtable interview, about deciding to write a movie script at the age of 16, having always been a very driven person when it comes to his career, that the finished product is pretty close to the structure of his original script, how nervous he was about finding a director, and getting to explore the character deeper in the companion novel, Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal. He also talked about his writing process, what being a best-selling author means to him, that he’s currently writing the sequel to his children’s fantasy The Land of Stories, what’s most surprised him about his journey on Glee, and whether he could ever see himself directing. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: You seem to be very self-assured and like you know who you are.
CHRIS COLFER: Well, thanks!
Do you actually feel that way yourself?
COLFER: I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that every time I see myself on camera, I cringe a little bit. I don’t know if that takes away from me being self-assured. I’ve always been aware and known, ever since I was in kindergarten, what I wanted to do. I think that’s been my biggest blessing.
Wouldn’t you say that it takes a certain level of confidence to go write a movie script while you’re still a teenager?
COLFER: Yeah, what was I thinking?! I was a 16-year-old kid. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a movie, for sure, someday.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but I’m so glad I did.
Have you always found yourself to be a very driven person, when it comes to your career?
COLFER: Yes. Luckily for me, when it all began, I was very young and very ignorant, but not in a bad way. It was the ignorance that comes with youth, and I think that was my best advantages. Just assuming things would work out was ignorant, but it ended up helping me out.
Had you thought about this for awhile before you wrote it, or did you get the idea for the film and immediately get to work on the script?
COLFER: The initial idea was very quick. Whenever I do get an idea for something, it happens really fast and the development of the story happens very quickly. And then, I just get really anxious because I want to write it. I want to get it out of my head and put it on some kind of paper. So, that was easy. But, the hardest part was having the bravery to send something that I wrote to somebody for a referral. I sent it to my acting agent and said, “Do you know anyone who would be interested in representing me on the literary side?” That was one of the hardest moments, opening myself up to that vulnerability and that criticism, which didn’t come, thankfully. And then, just getting it made was a challenge.
What was the most helpful feedback you got, in regard to this film?
COLFER: I didn’t really get any feedback like that, which almost makes it worse. You think, “Are people holding their comments? Are they being passive aggressive?” There really wasn’t anything that I can think of that was about anything on my part that I needed to do differently. People just really fell in love with the story, and hopefully they thought it came from a genuine place. But, there weren’t really any notes or anything, really.
Were there aspects of the story that you changed along the way, or is the finished movie pretty close to what you originally envisioned?
COLFER: The story always stayed exactly the same. Details and lines changed, here and there, but the structure of the story is the same. For the most part, it’s all very intact.
You took the stereotypical characters that people expect to see in a high school movie and made them very unexpected. Was that your intention?
COLFER: I think that was intended. I really wanted to do what I did with the beginning. You know this kid dies and you’ve seen him die, but you really don’t know anything about the character. I think everyone gets shown in a certain way. You think you know them, but then, by the end of the movie, your opinion has changed. I like that Carson is selfishly making these people do something for him, but it ended up helping them, along the way.
When you write a movie and then hand it over to a director, it becomes their vision. Were you nervous about who would direct it?
COLFER: Yeah. At first, I was terrified that someone would take this from me and turn it into something I didn’t want it to be. I would rather it sit on my shelf, for the rest of my life, then become something it wasn’t intended for. Luckily, as soon as I had the first meeting with Brian Dannelly, he looked at me and said, “I really want to do this because I was this kid in high school,” and then I knew he was the perfect director. We never really even had an argument or a fight, ever. Not once. We just saw everything eye-to-eye. It was great!
What was it like to have Allison Janney and Dermot Mulroney play your parents?
COLFER: It was incredible! They’ve been stars, my entire life. Allison was the only person that I ever, ever envisioned as my mom. The fact that we actually got her, I’m still in shock about it. She’s just a genius, and I hope people can really see that.
The friendship between Carson and Malerie (Rebel Wilson) was so beautifully portrayed. Was it important to you to really develop that relationship in the way that you did?
COLFER: It’s funny, I watch the movie now and I’m like, “God, I just love those two! They’re such a fun pair. They’re at the bottom of the food chain, teaming up to get back at everyone.” It was based on a relationship that I had in high school with a friend. I just love those two. Carson doesn’t necessarily appreciate Malerie very much, until the end when he realizes, “Oh, she’s my best friend.”
What has this whole experience been like for you? Have there been major pinch yourself moments, with this actually hitting the big screen?
COLFER: We filmed this last summer, so every single month, there’s been a new addition and a new development that’s been a pinch me moment. When we got into the Tribeca Film Festival, and then when they wanted to buy it and distribute it. That’s crazy! Half of me thought it might end up in a clearance bin somewhere, at a WalMart. I never thought it would become an acclaimed piece, ever.
What was the most surreal moment on set, while you were shooting this film?
COLFER: Oh, gosh! I had that every day. I don’t know if I could narrow it down. Every scene was in my head for years before it went from the page to the screen. Every day that I got up and reminded myself that it was actually happening was a very surreal moment.
Were there many scenes that got cut?
COLFER: There is so much funeral footage that was cut from the movie. By the time we got to it, the movie was already so sad that adding all the funeral monologues and the eulogies, the audience would have just killed themselves. It was so sad! But, that will all be on the DVD. I’m excited for people to see it.
How was it to also get to explore this character deeper by writing the companion novel, Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal, and learn things about him that you hadn’t when you were writing the film?
COLFER: After we wrapped, I really missed it. It had been such a quiet developing part of me for so long that I missed the character. So, in getting able to do the book, it was a very, very intense crash course in revisiting the characters, but it was really fulfilling to visit them again.
What is your writing process like? Are you always writing something?
COLFER: Sometimes you have good days, and sometimes you have bad days. It really depends on how much caffeine you’ve had. I always do skeletons first, just to get whatever is in my head out. It doesn’t even have to be proper English. I just spit it out onto the page, and then I edit as I go along. That’s the best method I’ve found, that works for me.
Are there things that you’ve learned from this experience, that you think will help make it easier the next time?
COLFER: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I think every time a movie gets made, it’s a miracle. I would love to get to a point where it became easier and it wasn’t so much of a struggle to get it done or finished. It’s funny because I think we had a hard time. But, if you think about some movies that don’t get made for 15 years, we had it very easy.
What does being a best-selling author mean to you?
COLFER: Honestly, it just means the world. Some of my happiest memories, growing up, are being at book stores and reading books I couldn’t afford, as a kid, and the midnight parties, waiting for the next Harry Potter book. The fact that I have that straw in my cap means more to me than anything I’ve ever accomplished before.
What are the film possibilities for The Land of Stories?
COLFER: We’ll see. I’ve had some phone calls and some meetings, but as of right now, I want it to be a book that kids read, and I want the movie to be wanted. I don’t want it just to be made, in the hopes that it will be a successful movie. I’d want fans to really want to see the movie.
Are you planning that as a series of books?
COLFER: Yes. The second one comes out next year. I’m working on that now.
And you’re on your fourth printing of that now?
COLFER: Yeah, it’s crazy! People really, really responded to it. I was always worried, when the first and second printing came, that it was my fans from Glee making it easy for me. But, having the letters from little kids who have never seen an episode of Glee, and the continued printings, really validated it for me.
What’s most surprised you about your journey on Glee, and how it’s effected you and your career?
COLFER: It gave me a career. I don’t know. It’s such a huge thing. What surprised me is that, when you’re a part of something, you think that you’ll always be able to recognize it for what it is. But, I’m so in the eye of that Glee storm that I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend what it is or how big it is.
Where is Kurt at on Glee, now that his relationship with Blaine (Darren Criss) has changed?
COLFER: I think it’s amazing, what they represent, and I’m so happy that kids have that relationship to look to. But, I get the fans really mad when I say that I’m really happy they’re taking a break because it gives us something else to do, besides say, “I love you,” and look at each other dreamily. I’m sure there will be more of that, don’t the road, but I think it’s good for those characters, right now, to take a break and establish themselves as characters, rather than just half a character.
As a writer yourself, do you get any input into the scripts for Glee?
COLFER: Not too much. I’ve always had my ideas, and I’ve always recommended songs and situations and maybe a line, here or there, but no more than the average actor does, in any creative process.
Having come out so young, how has that impacted your career?
COLFER: I’ve never made it a big deal. It’s everyone else who’s always made it a big deal. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to be something that I’m not. People do that for you. People try to pigeonhole you. People tried typecasting me, before they even saw me in anything else. I’ve never understood that. I was like, “Why don’t you wait until my next project, before you start telling my what my career is going to look like, for the next 10 years?” I’ve never let it set me back because I always knew the world would try to do that for me, anyway.
Any desire to also try your hand at directing?
COLFER: I don’t know. Everyone that I meet always wants me to direct, but whenever I think of directing, I think of aligning shots. I’d definitely have to write and direct something. I don’t know if I could just direct something.
Struck By Lightning opens in theaters on January 11th.