While director Spencer Susser has spent more than a decade working on everything from The Offspring music videos to “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” documentaries, it wasn’t until his short film, “I Love Sarah Jane,” and debut feature, “Hesher,” that he caught the public’s eye.
Starring then-unknown Mia Wasikowska, who has since dazzled audiences in films such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Jane Eyre,” “Sarah Jane” told the story of a young boy’s crush on the titular Sarah Jane against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse.
It’s that same sense of dark humor and fantasy that Susser has brought to his debut feature, “Hesher,” which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson and comes out on DVD and Blu-ray via Lionsgate Home Entertainment today.
Susser said some of these fantasy elements have sneaked their way into his film, and could even be compared to a recent blockbuster.
“I read somewhere that somebody compared it to ‘Super 8,'” he said. “They said if you get rid of the alien and put Hesher in there, you’d have the same movie.”
The film follows Hesher (Levitt), who mysteriously arrives and begins to wreak havoc upon the family of a young boy named T.J., who is dealing with the recent loss of his mother.
“I really just wanted to make an honest film because a lot of us have either dealt with a loss or at some point will, and this is what it feels like from my point of view,” Susser said. “Then, you know, the idea of having the Hesher character makes the film fun to watch, so it’s not just a totally depressing thing they’re dealing with.”
Susser said having a character like Hesher keeps the film from being just another sullen look at a family dealing with loss.
“I was just doing what I wanted to see and what I hadn’t seen because I want to make a movie that makes you feel something,” he said. “When I go to the movies, I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to feel all those things and not just have one tone throughout the entire film.”
While many critics have complained about the film’s genre-mashing style, along with its more extreme moments of violence, Susser said the film has more layers than can be picked up in one viewing. Specifically concerning Hesher, Susser said he sees him more as a walking metaphor for the film’s central themes.
“He’s a complex character with a complicated backstory, so it’s important that he’s grounded,” he said. “In a lot of ways, he represents death. He’s this scary thing that shows up at this family’s door, and there’s nothing they can do about it, so they have to learn to live with him.”
Yet, Susser said there’s also a duality to Hesher’s existence.
“Though in a lot of ways, he could also represent life – the life this family is looking to get back to,” he said. “He sort of lives life to the fullest – he doesn’t worry about tomorrow or yesterday, he just worries about right now. He almost teaches these people how to live.”
Another important aspect to the film for Susser is Portman’s character, Nicole. Susser said he sees her as a motherly figure to T.J. in the loss of his own mother, and thinks the criticism of Portman’s performance as a lowly grocery store clerk is unwarranted.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh God, Mr. Director, you can’t make Natalie Portman look ugly by putting glasses on her,'” he said. “I didn’t want her to look ugly. I see her as someone who’s very concerned with the way she looks – she was once very social and outgoing until she realized it was time to function like an adult. She grew up, and it wasn’t about looks anymore, it was about functionality.”
Susser said, for him, the surface details of his intricately drawn characters are only there to serve what he considers the two pillars of filmmaking.
“All that stuff starts with character and story,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about for me.”
What most interested Susser about working with the cast, he said, was having them all play against type – specifically Wilson, best known as the dorky Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” who plays T.J.’s self-destructive father in a surprising, assured performance.
“I liked that I hadn’t seen Rainn in a role like that, and it’s valuable to the character,” Susser said. “You go, ‘Here’s this funny guy who’s in such a state of loss,’ that you go, ‘What the f— happened to this guy?'”
As for Susser’s future projects, he’s looking to develop a full-length version of “I Love Sarah Jane” with “Animal Kingdom” director and “Hesher” co-writer David Michod. While the zombie genre continues to overflow with television shows like “The Walking Dead” and films like “Zombieland,” Susser said it won’t be the typical zombie adventure.
“Again, I am just trying to do something I haven’t seen,” he said. “There’s so much of everything out there that now it’s about how you do it. You look at ‘Let the Right One In,’ how many vampire movies have you seen? You watch it and go, ‘Holy s—, it’s brand new.'”