When I caught Matthew Lillard halfway through a lunch of rice and beans, jokingly cursing his publicist for the timing of our interview, I knew he'd have some interesting things to say about his directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules the World. An actor known best for his roles in Scream and She's All That, Lillard affirms that neither onscreen performing or behind-the-scenes creating have been easy endeavors for him — as he states, "It’s not like anyone has ever written a part for Matthew Lillard," although many would sing the praises of his turns in both teen movie staples. But despite this, the budding filmmaker has big dreams. Like, explosion big.
This isn't exactly a thought that comes to mind upon watching Fat Kid Rules the World, an intimate, poignant, and funny story about a teenager's journey to identify and love himself via the avenue of punk rock music. Lillard loves and appreciates the message of this movie, which he adapted from a novel by author KL Going. But Lillard affirms that he's interested in expanding his scope beyond smaller pictures like this one and into the realm of the likes of superhero adventures, specifically citing a few Marvel properties he wouldn't mind tackling.
Lillard and I began chatting about the story behind Fat Kid Rules the World, what drew him to the project, and the creative decisions that produced a heartwarming and often laugh-out-loud piece of film:
Matthew Lillard: I have to say, it’s been a pretty amazing week. We haven’t stopped. Mostly because people really like the movie and have been responding to the movie. That’s all you can hope for, really.
Can you tell a little bit about what the response has been like?
ML: I don’t know if it’s whether people don’t expect it from me, or they don’t know what they’re going to get when they’re getting into the movie. But we’ve screened it a bunch of times, and we’ve had reviewers see it all week. It’s just kind of an astronomical response. You deliver a movie that has heart — look, I think it has heart — and is telling an emotional story, and doing it with humor. When you get a good story going, and people find it, it’s fun.
I think it’s interesting that you say people don’t know what to expect from you. This is your first feature. A lot of people know you as an actor, from your Scream days. What exactly was the motivation to pick this as your breakout into directing?
ML: Well, I found it. I did the book on tape. I had never done a book on tape in my life, I haven’t done one since. As I was reading the book, I was blown away by the storytelling. I was moved by his journey. I saw an opportunity to tell a story that hummed inside of me. At some points, I had tears running down my face reading the book on tape. That doesn’t happen very often. I saw a potential to make a movie out of it. I begged the writer to let me direct it, and she said yes. It took ten years to get it done, but we finally got it done. Directing has been in my DNA for years, but I finally got an opportunity to express it. The combination of finding money and finding material and finding someone who will say yes to you is tough as a filmmaker.
This might be a difficult thing to articulate, but is there any specific reason the story spoke to you so strongly?
ML: Sure. Not hard to articulate at all. My life was difficult. I was an overweight kid. I had come from overweight parents. I had a severe learning disability. I wore glasses my whole life. I had braces in high school and junior high school. I was a guy on the outside looking in. I was a lost kid. The movie is called Fat Kid Rules the World, but it’s not just about fat kids. It’s about kids who don’t have a place in the world. It’s the story of the 95 percent of the world that doesn’t feel like they fit in in high school. I was one of those kids. I found drama, I found acting. Acting shifted my paradigm, it changed my life, it defined who I was. Troy in the movie finds punk rock music, and that changes his life. The similarities between me and that kid were palpable. I think that’s why the story lived in me.
With a similar personal background, I had the same reaction to the movie. So I get where you’re coming from.
ML: Good! If you can combine art and the idea that movies can help people transcend and change and grow, and you can do that in a way that’s entertaining and doesn’t bash you on the head, that’s a great combination.
I think a lot of the progress that Troy made came just from identifying himself with something. Do you think it needed to be punk rock for Troy?
ML: No, of course not. It could have been anything. It could have been art, it could have been acting, it could have been zoology. Pets, animals, friends, chess, anything. And that’s the truth of any kid. Those kids who are lost and who need this movie, the idea isn’t that they’ll go find punk rock music, but that they’ll find something that means something to them. I have three kids. One of them finds books, one of them finds sports, and one of them finds Barbie dolls. It doesn’t matter as long as you find something that you love… by the way, not one of my kids has ever owned a Barbie doll. I don’t know why I just said ‘Barbie dolls.’ That’s the weirdest thing I’ve said in 30 straight hours of interviews. People are going to define themselves — whether it’s tattoos on their arms of crazy purple hair — they’re going to find and define themselves any way that they get inspired to do so.
Is that a theme you hope to continue in your projects?
ML: No, not really. I liked telling this story, and I like being an independent filmmaker. But my goal is to make big movies. I want to keep finding entertainment. If I can find stuff that has weight and can live in people, that’d be great. But I would like to make movies that end with explosions at some point. Those are fun too. You know what I mean? I’ve kind of explored this. I never have to talk about this idea again.
You delivered it pretty effectively.
ML: There’s a movie that we’re circling right now. It’s a book. I can’t really talk about it, but it’s about how far parents will go to protect their kids. There are all kinds of themes and art that I’d love to explore.
Lillard went into detail on bringing the film to life — a process that included reshaping some of Going's characters and elements for the screen.
ML: We definitely changed elements in the adaptation. We added cinematic elements. We added Lily Simmons’ character. There is no girl throughout the book. But we felt that we wanted to add the allure of a woman. We never wanted to answer that question. We never wanted to be like, ‘Hey, he gets the girl in the end!’ That was never the case. It was very important to me to not end the movie in a way like, ‘Everything’s awesome!’ Because I just don’t think that’s honest. What else did we add? It was set in New York originally, which I think added to the idea of being surrounded by people, and always being conscious of people staring at him. So we lost that element because it was put in Seattle. It was more of his journey than his fear that other people around him were mocking him. There are a lot of translations. He has newspaper headlines throughout the book that are a way to look into his life. We don’t really have those. We have those little flash-outs. The fantasy sequences. So we take what she had in a literary device and we translate it to a cinematic device.
That’s a unique tool that I think we’re seeing come up a little more in a few different types of movies. The showing of the inside of the character’s mind in a scene, and then you cut away and you realize that it’s not real life. It’s kind of a risky tool in certain movies — I like the way it was done in Fat Kid Rules the World, so I’m interested in knowing how you handled that in a way that didn’t seem like you were just jumping into his mind haphazardly or veering from the story. Were there more? Were there times when you thought, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do it now?’
We definitely used it more in the first third of the movie to get into his mind. A film is motivated by story — you have to be progressing the story, you can’t just be adding things for the sake of adding them. In fact, there’s a sequence in the movie where I play a part as the guidance counselor, and it becomes a huge fantasy sequence. It didn’t serve the movie. It didn’t move the movie forward. So at the end of the day, we cut it. I think for us, those elements had to land, or they were gone. They had to show us something we didn’t know, or they had to leave. If you can hold that litmus test up to the whole script, you get a movie that has a real forward momentum. Those elements came and went all the way through the writing process, as you can imagine. ‘What can we do here? Do we need to make it funnier?’ You’re adding little bits. You have to be judicious with what you end up using. You have to make sure it serves not only the character, but the movie.
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