In the indie dramedy Fat Kid Rules the World, from first-time feature director Matthew Lillard, tells the story of 17-year-old Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki). Overweight and suicidal, Troy meets Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a charming but troubled high school dropout and street musician, just as he’s about to jump in front of a bus and the two begin an uneasy friendship when Marcus enlists him to become the drummer in a new punk rock band.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Matthew Lillard talked about his journey to becoming a director, the 10 years it’s taken him to get this film to the big screen, what it was about this specific story that he most connected to, what he had learned about directing from all of his work as an actor and what he learned from the process itself, how he knew Jacob Wysocki was the film’s star, how Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready came to do the musical score, that directing has made him re-evaluate the place acting holds in his life, and that he’s already thinking about what he’d like to do for his next film. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MATTHEW LILLARD: I think it’s who I am, as a person, and it’s who I am, as an actor. It’s who I’ve always been, as an actor. When I was in high school, I was the guy directing plays after class. I started my first theater company at 19, and my second theater company at 21. I’ve always been a guy who doesn’t do well with the passive nature of being an actor. By definition, you’re waiting for somebody to say yes to you, and that’s the single worst thing that I have to suffer through. I’ve been trying to get a movie made. I optioned the book 10 years ago, and I’ve been trying to make it, ever since. And I’ve been trying to direct, ever since. I’ve been on location scouts, and I’ve done casting for other movies that just haven’t come through. This was the first one that came to fruition.
How many times did you wonder whether it was ever actually going to happen?
LILLARD: It was unbelievable. Ten years ago, I optioned the book and, in my mind’s eye, I was like, “Oh, I’ve been around for a long time. I have tons of friends in the industry. I’ll do this for $10 million.” And then, when we turned in a great script, I took it out and Hollywood looked at me like, “Well, that’s great, but we’re not doing that movie,” to the point where, after banging on doors for seven years, I let the option go. It wasn’t until I figured out the other piece, which is a little more of the business aspect of it, that I could get things going. I found the Vans Warped Tour and saw the kids there, and I just thought to myself, “We’ve gotta be making movies for these kids.” So, I went to the guy who runs it, Kevin Lyman, and I said, “What if I found a movie to make and we put it on the Vans Warped Tour for the kids? Would you be cool with that?” And he said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!” So, in that business model, I was like, “What am I going to do?” And then, I went back and reacquired the rights for Fat Kid, and that’s how we got the money. We had the business idea married to the creative idea, and together we found somebody to say yes, at a much, much, much smaller price tag.
LILLARD: No. I’ve gotta tell you, I think it’s fate, in a weird way. The universe works in strange, strange ways. I have never, in my life, been offered an audiobook before that, nor have I been offered one since. I’m not good at audiobooks. I realize that. I’m a mushy-mouthed motherfucker. To read slow, read every single word and articulate is a disaster, for me. Half-way through this book, I was getting impassioned. I was reading the book and I was in a trance, skipping words, all over the place. They kept trying to stop me, and I was like, “Stop stopping me!” I was having a moment. I had tears running down my face. The book moved me. I had this epiphany, in the middle of it. That hasn’t happened since.
Was there something specific that you connected to, or was it just the overall story?
LILLARD: No, it was definitely something specific. The book is called Fat Kid Rules the World, but it really has nothing to do with a fat kid. It has to do with a kid on the outside, looking in. The reality is that I was that kid. I’m still that kid. I was overweight with a severe learning disability, and I had braces and glasses. I didn’t fit in anywhere. It’s funny that I’m saying this now because I play Dungeons & Dragons when I go out. I don’t go to parties. I don’t go to clubs. My friends and I don’t go drinking, we play D&D. I’m still a weird entity in the world, and that’s what the movie is about. It’s about people that don’t have a place, and then they find a place. That’s the thing I like about the movie. It has this great journey of a hero.
As someone who’s been an actor and been in the business for a long time, what did you know about directing, going into it, that really helped you, and what did you learn about it from the process of actually doing it?
LILLARD: That’s a good question. I’ve done 40 or 50 movies. I had a really strong sense of what it took to be a good director, or how to lead a set. I had a really great sense of what it took to get people from the beginning to the end of a production, and get days done and make days work. I learned a lot, in terms of inspiring people. It became very clear to me, very early on, that directing a movie was a lot like being in a theater company. You can inspire people to give you greatness, or you can micro-manage them into your own one specific kernel of an idea. To me, I think that when you inspire people to give their best, then you’re going to get the best result. As a director, very early on, I thought that I would try to hold onto all these very myopic ideas, but the reality is that the minute I stepped into the process, I was all about giving my simple idea to the wardrobe woman and having her get her own rocks off. My D.P. and I came up with this notion of dirty pretty pictures. Together, we took that notion and explored it. Everything I gave him, I wanted him to take it and make it his own and inspire himself. Going in, I thought, it was really going to be my vision. But, from the very beginning, it wasn’t my vision. It became about our vision and the collective.
When you saw Jacob Wysocki, did you just instantly know that he was the guy?
LILLARD: Yeah. We had three people come in to audition. The part is very specific, and we did a short before we did the feature. So, we only had three guys come in and, of those three guys, the other two guys were fantastic, but he had what I wanted. He comes from comedy, and I love comedic actors. I think everyone is given drama, by virtue of the fact that we all have drama in our lives, but not everyone can make people laugh. That’s a gift, and he has that gift. He can make people laugh, and you fall in love with his eyes. From doing the short, he became such an integral part of the process that he became a linchpin for the financing. He’s great! Matt O’Leary has a very showy part, and people are like, “Wow, he blew me away!” Billy Campbell’s part is written so beautifully and he gets to do so much. And Lili Simmons is breathtakingly beautiful, but awkward and quirky, so you’re like, “Who is she?!” But, the reality is that the whole movie rides on the emotional weight of Jacob Wysocki. He’s just a movie star. I think that he’s just sublime in the part. I’m slightly in love with him.
The relationship between Troy and his father is really beautiful. Even though he’s stern with his sons and expects them to be their best, he also really listens when they have something to say or when they need help.
LILLARD: I totally agree. I’m with you. At a screening in New York, I just went in to make sure the sound was working, but I hadn’t seen the movie in about a month and a half. I sat there and watched the first five minutes, and then 15 minutes later I was still there, and an hour later I was still there. I love the movie. I fall in love with the movie, every time I see it. When he delivers the drum set, he’s making the sweetest gesture that he could make, but at the same time, you’re laughing because he’s still himself. He’s like, “That cost money. This cost money. I want them polished and cleaned.” But, it’s this selfless act, of him trying to help his son. I’m literally getting emotional talking about the movie. When he’s like, “Dad, it’s not your fault I got fat,” his dad doesn’t say anything. He just sits there and listens and takes it in, and then goes right on about his business. Sometimes things happen and you’re like, “I can’t believe that happened!”
How did you end up with Mike McCready, from Pearl Jam, doing the music?
LILLARD: It was totally heavenly! It was very funny. I’d never had a directing agent. I did my own deal. I said, “I’m going to leave to make this movie. I just want to let you know. I probably need a directing agent.” So, my longtime agent sat me down with a directing agent who said, “I read the script. Do you have somebody doing your music?” I was like, “No,” and they said, “Well, we represent Mike McCready, which may be an interesting fit because he’s looking to do something.” Ten days later, I had a meeting set up in Seattle while I was there for prep. I’ll never forget it. I was there with my two associate producers, who are dear friends of mine. We were driving up there and I was prepared to beg him to come on board for the movie. I was like, “I think he could do it. It would be amazing!” We sat down in this restaurant with Mike and we got to know each other for a second. And then, we got to talking about the movie and, within five minutes, I realized that he was just as keen to do the movie as we were passionately interested in him doing the movie. That started one of the great collaborative relationships I made on the movie. I made huge mistakes, as a first-time filmmaker that Mike’s music helps bridge the gap for and, in general, people don’t really notice. We went cue by cue, sound by sound, and thought by thought. He just said, “Whatever works best for the movie, I’m into.” There were a couple times that we didn’t agree and, at some point, he acquiesced to what was best for the film. At the end of the day, what he did for the film should not go unnoticed, that’s for sure.
LILLARD: Yeah! If I could act in theater, my whole life, and never act in film or television again, and just direct the rest of my life, I would gladly do that.
Have you already started to think about what you want to do for your next film?
LILLARD: Yeah, that’s all I think about. All I want is to find out what that thing is. I’ve really enjoyed the independent film world. I’ve had a blast. But, the reality is that I really want to make bigger movies. If I could make movies that carry great characters and great performances and great pathos, and can have an explosion or two, that would be fine with me.
Fat Kid Rules the World is now playing in New York, and opens in Los Angeles on October 12th.