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Hesher – Director Spencer Susser on how life is funny and sad all the time

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Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt and director Spencer Susser
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and director Spencer Susser © 2011 Newmarket Films

Director/Producer/Writer Spencer Susser was an established film editor by the time he was 22, and made his transition to directing making commercials, music videos and short films.

His movie Hesher marks his feature film debut as a director. It tells the story of TJ (Devin Brochu) a 13-year-old boy, whose mother was killed in a car accident. In a state of grief his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), walks around like a zombie, unable to deal with the loss.

Then TJ encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an eccentric heavy metal unhinged drifter who appears from nowhere and changes their lives forever.

What was the most important element in Hesher for you?

Hesher - Natalie Portman and director Spencer Susser
Natalie Portman and director Spencer Susser © 2011 Newmarket Films

I didn’t want to make a movie just about loss, so I invented this character that’s crazy. Life isn’t funny or sad. It’s both, all the time. I like watching the film with audiences because they’re laughing one minute and a second later you can hear a pin drop they’re being so attentive.

The term ‘hesher’ is a diehard heavy mental enthusiast, is that why you called the character that?

I always wondered what heshers were up to, but I didn’t want my Hesher to be a cliché or a caricature. Hesher is, in part, based on someone that I knew growing up. He was a troubled kid whose parents didn’t look after him. He would get sent home from school and his parents didn’t care. Eventually, he wasn’t able to live at home and was shipped off to his grandmother’s.

I based his character on a loner that puts up walls to protect himself because he never wants to be hurt that badly again. I wanted to make him very human and to explore what happens to a kid abandoned by his parents, to try to understand how he would go about being in the world.

How would you describe Hesher?

Hesher can be looked at as a heavy metal Mary Poppins. Like Hesher, Mary shows up out of nowhere and is just accepted. Granted she’s a lot less threatening than Hesher, but she still arrives as a nanny via umbrella from the sky. He’s a fantastical as she is.

You’ve described this as a dark fairytale. The way Hesher is introduced, it really seems like he’s haunting the family. Was there ever a point when the audience should doubt if he’s real or just a figment of the family’s grief?

I want people to talk about it. It’s whatever you want it to be. For me, when I was making the film one thing Joe and I would talk about was if Hesher was real or not? Hesher is 100 percent real, there’s no doubt about it, but maybe he’s not!

Joe talked about how he had to literally persuade you that he was right for the role. What did he finally do where you went, ‘Okay.’

Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman and director Spencer Susser
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman and director Spencer Susser © 2011 Newmarket Films

I couldn’t imagine an actor whose name I knew playing the role. When you meet Luke Skywalker, you’re like, ‘That’s Luke Skywalker.’ You don’t know the actor’s name, of course we do now, but at the time we were like, ‘That’s Luke.’ And I wanted Hesher to be Hesher.

With that said, you want to work with the best actors you can, and I had an embarrassment of riches when I was casting, because these amazing actors were putting their hands up to play the role.

The role is really specific. I didn’t want someone’s take on it. I wanted the Hesher that I had in my head and it was hard to find that. So I had this funny audition process where I would typically meet with an actor, I would give him a whole bunch of back story of why Hesher’s the way he is, and then we would get in a room and we would just try it. And I wanted them to audition me as much as I was auditioning them. I knew I needed someone to have a lot faith and trust in me.

When I met with Joe I thought, ‘He’s the nicest guy ever. He’s the opposite of Hesher.’ But the fact that he was so persistent and wanted to really show me, once we started to get into it I was like, ‘This guy is the real deal. He is a real actor. He’s incredible.’ He transformed himself into another person.

What would you say the movie is about?

This film is about dealing with loss, it’s something that we all go through at some point in our lives and it’s a hard thing. It’s really talking about how it affects the people that are left behind. In a way, death is easy for [the person who passes on], it’s hard for everyone else, and this is what happens to a 13-year-old boy.

For me there are a lot of ways to look at Hesher as a character. He’s a complicated person, with a tricky back story. Everything he does typically has a double meaning in the film. If you just look at it on the surface it might turn you off, but if you listen to what he’s saying, not how he’s saying it, there’s a lot in there.

Hesher represents death perhaps. Here’s this scary, terrible ‘thing’ that shows up at this family’s door and moves in and there’s nothing they can do about it, and he’s not going anywhere. And once they learn how to function with him, in a sense he goes away. That’s the movie as well.

He also represents life in a lot of ways, and living your life. He’s very free, he doesn’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, he’s very much in the now. He’s lost but he’s a guy that’s got nothing to lose. There is also nothing more scary than a guy with nothing to lose, that’s dangerous. But because of it he’s free, so I think he represents living your life in a free way.