Originally, it seemed like any film adaptation of Joe Kelly and the 2009 graphic novel by J.M. Ken Niimura I Kill Giants should be encouraged. The book follows a struggling fifth grader named Barbara, who wears animal ears, engages in strange rituals, and is cataloged as a giant hunter. Her strange behavior makes her a pariah in her school, and especially attracts the attention of some vicious thugs. But readers can see what bullies can not: that Barbara is surrounded by fairies and strange creatures, and that there is a strange and threatening magic to her world. When she forges an uncomfortable friendship with another girl, Sophia, she slowly begins to lower her guard. But that is dangerous for her balance, given what she is struggling with.
Danish filmmaker Anders Walter may not have been the most obvious person to shepherd the book on screen – he is a new director, who comes from an illustrated background – but his short films caught the attention of the producers, especially Helium, an Oscar – WINNER short on a dying child who periodically slips into a fantasy world through the stories told to him by a hospital janitor. The mix of fairytale and grim reality suggested that Walter was the right person for the movie. And it was: her live action movie about I Kill Giants is a vivid and beautiful film, centered on a strong performance by child actor Madison Wolfe, with supporting roles of Zoe Saldana of Star Trek as Barbara's school counselor and Imogen Poots as his mother . After the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, I sat down with Walter to talk about how he managed to get a strange and problematic character on the screen, why it was so important to respect the original material and how his session He was perversely concerned about the sunny and pleasant weather.
Who am I Kill Giants for, ultimately? Do you mean that it is accessible for children or families?
I do not know! Obviously I've been in meetings for three years trying to finance this, and sometimes I found myself lying about it, just to try to get people's money. [Laughs] It's a strange hybrid. I always ask this question to people, and people have very different answers. Obviously, as a narrator, I think it's for everyone. Why not? People make distinctions between adult films and children's films, but I think the emotional impact is so universal that it is for everyone. But you can not say that! You're supposed to choose one thing
The film version respects the graphic novel a lot, even in places where it becomes unconventional for a film story.
Obviously it was a difficult thing. Barbara is quite a character, and you can see how some people trying to finance this wanted to do certain things with the way they acted, and make it sweeter. But I was lucky to have producers who really understood that you do it and you stay true to the graphic novel, because that is the charm of the story, or you do something completely different and you screw it up.
Who came to whom? How did you find this book?
I won that Oscar for Helium in 2014, and obviously because of that, I got an agent in Hollywood. And I said: "I will go back to Denmark and I will make my own Danish film, and I will speak with my strong Danish voice, because this Hollywood thing is not going to work, I am sure". Many Danes try to translate the voice of their director to Hollywood productions, and it did not work for many of them. My agent says, "What are you talking about? You just won an Academy Award, you have to stay here and do a function!" Then he kept sending me scripts to Copenhagen. And I said: "These are good scripts, I can definitely see why you would send them to me." But no."
Then I Kill Giants came to me, and I fell madly in love with the script. I found out that it was based on a graphic novel, and I went to see my local cartoonist and I got a copy and read it, and I said, "Wow, what a story, Oh shit, now I have to go back to Los Angeles." I had a first Skype meeting with the producers, and we got along well. At that time, it was with 1492, the producer of Chris Columbus. Then I spoke with Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus's producing partner. He produced Harry Potter for Chris Columbus. We really get along, and we keep talking. Finally I said: "Look, instead of all this talk, I want to make a sizzle, a trailer of some kind."
At that time, I really had not been given the job. I felt we had good energy, but obviously he was a beginner, and they really had to trust me to give me the job. And then we would have to start looking for the money, it was not like there was money waiting for this to turn green. I recorded original images with a Danish girl in Denmark, with shots of specific comic scenes. And we cut that along with all kinds of material from previous and existing films, and that was really nice. People loved that version of the movie. Then, officially, they offered me the movie and we started a long trip with her.
How did you end up working with Joe Kelly?
I liked the script as it was. Joe had already done a tremendous job in that. It was fantastic. It felt like something bigger, like a feature film, and not as much as a graphic novel. Chris Columbus, for a couple of years before I joined, wanted to lead this himself. But he was doing all sorts of other things, and it cost him to find the amount of money he normally worked with for a budget, because this is a weird hybrid of a movie. Then, at a certain moment, he only said: "This is not for me, but I want to continue as a producer". Joe Kelly was very impatient, because this had been going on for years.
So in me, I think he found a soul mate, and I definitely found my soul mate in Joe Kelly. We worked very closely on the script, and I think I was respectful of what he did, and I did not start doing my thing over him. I had my ideas, but I wanted him to write, so he stayed all the time. And also for Joe, he was like, "I do not need the movie." All this was done in greeting agreements. There was no contract Joe did not want to sign anything. So, basically, at any time, he could have said: "Fuck you, Anders", or remove 1492 from the project. But he has been a gentleman throughout the process. He said: "I love the graphic novel, it's something very special to me, and it's already out there, so I do not need this movie, unless I write it myself, and I work with someone who understands what I want to happen with she ".
So we got along, and he trusted me with his beautiful work, which was obviously very nice. And I think I delivered the film that I promised to deliver, which pleases me tremendously. Because even when you think you're on the same page with a scriptwriter, with the producers, with the whole world, a lot of things can happen, because people also want to get their money back. Barbara is a very difficult character, and she is not so warm. It takes a while to enter their world and is very daring. She is not a character of Tom Hanks that you will fall in love with from the beginning. So I was always a little worried that in a moment, someone would come to touch me on the shoulder and say: "Anders, we have to get attention in this movie, we have to mitigate the darkness". But it never happened.
And I think people got it, because I went to the first meeting saying, "We can not do this for $ 35 million, we can not, we can not do this as a studio film, we have to try to do this as an independent film and keep ourselves faithful to the original material, or it will not be the movie we want to end with ".
Then, the producers understood why Barbara had to be picky and difficult, but were you worried about the audience catching her too?
A bit. When we entered the editing room, there were definitely things that I modified in one direction to let the audience like it a little earlier. Obviously, you do not want to keep the audience out for the entire movie. The first time I read the script, it took me 20 to 25 pages to enter it. At first I was a little irritated with her. I almost took off the script after 50 pages. [Laughs] But then slowly you begin to understand, and you fall in love with their attitude. The first cut of the film, actually took 40 or 45 minutes to reach that point. That was maybe a little too long. So there were definitely adjustments to make people feel a little easier.
It seems that one of the biggest changes there, in terms of appreciating their point of view, was to show the giants from the beginning. Change the tone of the movie and take you to the reality of your world.
I wanted the audience to believe what Barbara was believing. In the graphic novel, we have all these fairies as well. And I think it's very obvious to the audience that those are fantasy things. So, if you have something that is obviously a fantasy, of course you will also discard the giants as a fantasy. So my concept was to remove the fairies and create a world in which you would establish a contract with the audience that these types exist. So, instead of thinking, "Oh, this girl is a lunatic," I want to create a walk for the audience of "What is the truth here?"
It is a difficult movie to do, because you only have one opportunity to understand what is happening. Once you have read the book or script once, you can not go back and have that experience. I had to try it many times on people who did not know anything about the graphic novel, wondering when they began to guess the story. You can guess and be irritated, which is not a good thing, or you can guess and be curious, which is nice for the audience.
A good part of the history of this film is told through the use of intense colors. How did you get close to the design of I Kill Giants?
I think we approach it in a very Danish way! [Laughs] The DP that I worked with here, and in all my shorts, is Danish. And, like me, he likes to make natural lighting. For most movies with children, or if you go to a family-oriented audience, you work with lots of light. Make sure the characters have a large ball of warm light on their faces. You do not want to lose anything in the dark. For me and for Rasmus [Heise] the DP, we wanted to use as much natural light as we could, since we were in nature. And that definitely creates a certain palette that feels very real.
In addition, I made some precise decisions about the costumes and turned the wardrobe into something that I found very iconic. The bright yellow for Sophia, the blue jacket for Barbara: they come out among all that nature, in the forest. I come from a graphic novel background, I made my own illustrations for 15 years and made my own graphic novels, so I'm used to composing still images and I tried to translate part of that into the movie. Also, we shot this movie in Ireland in October. I expected it to be a flat, gray-looking movie. But we had the most beautiful month, with beautiful sunsets and sunrises. That is not something you can plan. It ended up having a quality. There were things there that looked like paintings, because of the light. But that, you can not plan.
How was the great sequence of storms created at the end? How much of that are special effects?
We had to create a 100 percent replica of the beach in a sound stage. So we photograph everything that leads to them standing on the beach, and then everything moves inside, and to the green screen. There, we could control the wind. I remember shooting some of the things with the rain in the initial part of the storm sequence, and that was filmed in full sun. That was weird, because we thought it would be the easiest part of filming in Ireland: "It's going to rain all day, and it will look gray, that will be the easy part of a peasant." And then the sun was shining for the whole week. So that was a bit problematic.
Shooting that sequence was difficult for the girls, because shooting them in the air with big fans of wind and lots of rain, they had to wear dry suits, and they were really freezing. But they were brave.
What else did you fight with?
For me, this is a character piece. It has a fantastic backdrop in the giants, which interests me because of my illustration background. I love that part of that. But really, I fell in love with the character. I thought Barbara was unique. So, for me, the hardest part was choosing Barbara, and getting her to act to be able to sustain the whole movie. You could do a fantastic design, you could do all kinds of crazy things with this movie, but without a fantastic Barbara, you would not have a movie. So, for me, the challenge was to guide Madison Wolfe in the right direction.
But she was simply fantastic. He showed up and basically prepared this part for three or four months, and he knew exactly how he wanted to go from A to B, from where the movie begins to where it ends. And that's just incredible, that a 13-year-old girl appears and is very prepared.
We looked at 800 girls, and Madison was the one who stood out. By choosing the right one, you are halfway there. With my shorts, I've worked with so many children and teenagers, and I think the way they approach acting is based on feelings and instincts. Then you must allow those things and let them know that you trust their visceral reactions. With children, you do not want to talk too much. You will not want to fill their heads with too many words and directions, unless they go totally in the wrong direction. Most of the time, it's about creating a space where they are allowed to fail, and they feel safe, and they can increase their self-confidence, feeling that what they came for is what I want. You avoid doing things that would make them feel insecure.
With adult actors, sometimes you can do that on purpose, make them feel a little insecure. Not so much, but you can manipulate the situation a little more, because they can handle it. With children, it is about creating a warm environment where they can take risks and feel confident about what they have prepared.
So many times, I would direct, direct and direct, and say all kinds of things. And then I just said, "Okay, Madison, forget all that I just said, and just erase the board and go on with your instinct." And most of the time, that would be the shot I would use. That's why casting is so important. With the children, I really believe that directing is becoming their friends. I think that a good children's director is someone who can understand them, not only as actors, but also as children and adolescents. I try to meet them in their own environment, at eye level, and I just have fun with them. The children are fun and they are very inspiring. They have a very honest way of acting. When you grow up, you tend to analyze things more. And sometimes that can hinder the simple fact of having that strong presence, because you have become too scared to trust your instincts, or you begin to doubt certain things. Some actors do not like you to talk to them a lot, and some like to talk for hours. It is varied But children never demand anything. They accept what you throw at them.
I Kill Giants is currently on a limited theater run, and was simultaneously launched to broadcast platforms such as Amazon, iTunes and others.