Go backBack to selection

5 Questions with Fat Kid Rules the World Director Matthew Lillard

For many of us children of the 90s, Matthew Lillard occupies a special place in our pop-culture hearts. He’s the emblem of a particular film movement, woven nostalgically into us like Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson were for those who came of age a decade earlier. He’s the star of Hackers, She’s All That, SLC Punk – the killer in Scream! And his reasoned, career-rejuvenating turn last year in Alexander Payne’s The Descendents reestablished him as a unique on-screen presence.

So it’s interesting to find Lillard moving behind the camera at this juncture in his career. But somehow, Lillard’s first jaunt as director, an adaptation of K.L. Going’s best-selling teen novel Fat Kid Rules the World, seems perfectly in line with the rest of his career. The tale of an overweight, suicidal high schooler coming of age through his involvement in a local punk scene, Fat Kid stands the chance of inspiring a fresh generation of kids, and establishing Lillard in a whole new artistic light.

Filmmaker: The obvious first question – after over two decades as an actor, what inspired you to make the leap towards directing? What was it about this project that drew you in?

Lillard: Two decades? Really? Shit… that’s going to mess me up for the rest of the day.

I made the leap into directing because acting, while it’s my passion, is a very myopic pursuit, and after twenty years I wanted to do something different. To me acting class, doing plays, teaching acting, those things I love. But making movies is my job. Also, before The Descendants came along, let’s just say the movies I was doing weren’t what you would call spiritually fulfilling.

Filmmaker: How did you first discover K.L. Going’s book? How intimately was Going involved in the filmmaking process?

Lillard: I recorded the book on tape, and as an overweight teenager the book struck a chord with me. I read twenty pages and picked up the phone to inquire about obtaining the film rights. I just thought the hero of the book, while being obese, was a pure representation of how ninety percent of the world feels in high school: marginalized, lost, just sort of shitty.

KL’s work was a huge part of the process. There are several passages in our script that are taken directly from the book, and Galvin and Speakman (the film’s writers) were careful to protect the tone that KL crafted in the book. She also had to wait. It took 9 years to find a way to get this movie made. Her patience and belief in me were the reasons we finally found success.

Filmmaker: Jake Wysocki is quickly establishing himself as a very promising new talent, especially after his work in Terri last year. Can you talk a bit about the casting process, and how Wysocki got involved with the project?

Lillard: He was sent on the back of an angel?

Before Whitewater Films pulled the trigger on financing the film, they insisted we shoot a short film together. The objective of shooting the short was to see A) if I could direct, B) if we got along with each other, and C) if the story of Troy Billings was worth telling. We cast the short between Christmas and New Years in December of 2010 and we saw only four overweight teenagers during the casting process. Four! The good news was that one of them was Jacob.

After the short was completed, we were so enamored with him and his overwhelming talent that he became a linchpin in the financing process. Without him attached, Whitewater Films wasn’t interested in making the movie. The opening shot of the film is him getting out of bed shirtless and you see his size… I would argue that by the end of the film you forget just how large he really is. He starts the film as a fat kid and ends it as a hero.

Filmmaker: I’ve always loved your performance in James Merendino’s SLC Punk. In that film, you played a young punk trying to express himself in the stifling, conservative environment of Salt Lake City. And your lead in Fat Kid Rules the World is facing a similar dilemma. Were there any direct takeaways from your experience on SLC Punk that influenced this project?

Lillard: Absolutely. SLC Punk is one of the highlights of my career, and I grew so much throughout that entire experience. It was the first time in my career that I was able to be a leader on set. And as #1 on the call sheet, I took that responsibility seriously. Being a strong leader, I think, is one of the key components to becoming a successful director. I also learned a lot from the way Merendino directed. He was in the moment, and had such energy and this sense of fearlessness that translated into the finished film. I think I have similar energy and passion, and I hope that’s felt in the final analysis of the film.

Filmmaker: What kind of audience do you see Fat Kid Rules the World attracting? What are your long-term goals for the film?

Lillard: First and foremost, there’s a ton of fans of KL’s book and hopefully they love the film as much as they love her book. I also understand firsthand the impact that SLC Punk has had on a generation of kids. If I walk down the street and someone approaches me, I would say fifty-percent of the time they acknowledge SLC Punk as the reason they came over. Ultimately they’re the kids I made the movie for. I visited the Van’s Warped Tour a couple of years ago, and I thought to myself, “I want to make a movie for these kids”.

I can’t imagine a better environment to premiere than SXSW, and I look forward to visiting another film festival or two… but my goal is to sell the film and unleash it on the world. I want to direct again and I know that selling Fat Kid to the right distributor is essential in advancing my directing aspirations… I never thought I would use the word aspirations in a sentence.

© 2023 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham