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Director Matthew Lillard on Fat Kid Rules the World

Matthew Lillard has been in the movie business for a long time, racking up a sizable resume as an actor in films from SLC Punk and Scream to The Descendants and Trouble with the Curve, but with this , year’s Fat Kid Rules the World, Lillard makes his directorial debut. Fat Kid Rules the World tells the story of Troy Billings, a lonely, overweight teen, and Marcus, the magnetic-yet-troubled local musician/high school dropout as they fight to save each other from their inner demons (depression/attempted suicide and drug addiciton respectively). After a serendipitous offer out of the blue and feeling an instant connection to K.L. Going’s source novel, Lillard spent years nurturing the project and is now feeling the gratification that comes with having followed your heart.

As we sat together in Manhattan, the director brimmed with excitement and enthusiasm saying, “The responses we’ve gotten are just fucking mind-blowing….I saw in the book this story that landed with me in a really amazing way. I fell in love with the characters. I fell in love with Troy and I saw myself in that guy. The movie’s called Fat Kid Rules the World and the hero’s an obese kid but it’s really about kids on the outside looking in. And I think that’s 95% of the high school population of the world. The 5% that thinks they fit in will find out in five years that they didn’t. [laughs] They were just oblivious and/or really beautiful. [laughs] And, so, everyone else outside of that world I think gets it. And that’s why the book and why the movie is really landing with people. And it’s amazing to see that the thing I saw, other people see in the movie.”

Perpetually open, engaging and knowledgeable on his craft, Lillard gleefully leapt into conversation — discussing movie screening memories he cherishes and his thoughts on texting/talking in theaters (not a fan!) — before honing in on his thoughts on the industry, his career, what led him to directing, and the making of Fat Kid Rules the World.

Fat Kid Rules the World is available on VOD now.

Lillard: You know, the funny thing is entertainment has become more and more about making money. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s you had this golden era of filmmakers that were trying to say something and doing stuff — affecting change, And we lost that. We’ve gone into a world of Hollywood that is four quarters: “We want it delivered; big funny joke, big funny joke, set piece, set piece.” TV is being designed by people who are turning dials when they’re excited. I mean, it’s like so gross that we’ve gone from where big studio systems are…look, you know, I want to do big studio movies. I get it. But you’ve got 60 people making the decisions about who should be cast.

The reality is that movies are, in essence, art. You can’t have group art. You can have people — I believe in the tribe developing a movie. I believe in going to my d.p. and being like, “Here’s my idea, let’s go and make it better,” and going to wardrobe and saying, “This is my bullshit idea, it’s tiny. But you take that idea and make it better.”

Filmmaker: It’s all a single starting point.

Lillard: Yeah, a single starting point. And my job is to curate and guide a vision — our collective vision. But the idea of thirty people telling you how to do that guiding of a creative vision is really, really a detriment to filmmakers. A detriment to Hollywood. At the end of the day, you can’t blame them when you’re getting things like Flubber and A Thousand Words. Shit after shit and you’re like, “Of course they’re just using it to close off. They’re just using it as white noise because it means nothing.” It happens and we need to get back to a world where you can have both. You can tell a great story, you can be a piece of art and still be entertaining. That’s perfect.

Filmmaker: You said you want to do Hollywood films, but do you think independent film is where that has to start?

Lillard: No, I don’t. I mean, you have a better chance of telling stories in the independent world. Unless you’re incredibly huge and George Clooney. You know, Alexander Payne can tell that story of The Descendants and everyone will go, “Okay, he’s earned that right.” But the carte blanche of those people is very few and far between. And justifiably so. But in the independent world, those voices are purer.

And that’s what you want as an actor. You want someone at the helm, going, “We’re going this way.” And that’s the thing. You look at Alexander Payne and you’re like, “I’m going to trust him implicitly and do what he says. He’s kind of a fucking genius and I trust him.” And you need people like that and I think, as independent filmmakers, you’re closer to the front of that boat, being able to say, “Let’s go this way,” because there are less stakes and there’s not enough people to tell you what to do.

Lillard on set with actress Lili Simmons

Filmmaker: How then did your experience as an actor go into how you approached your feature directorial debut?

Lillard: I’m an amalgamation of all my experiences. It’s not like I looked at one director in my life and went, “I’m gonna do what Raja Gosnell did.” It’s a collection. You get pieces but you don’t know where they’re coming from. Now, they’re in your life and they’re in your lexicon and they kind of make up the man that you are and the artist you are.

I’ve done 50 movies or whatever and you have a sense what works and doesn’t work. I’m a guy that was in tune very early on as to how to complete a day where production was what works vs. what doesn’t work. But, to be honest with you, I teach at Vancouver Film School and that, to me, was the most beneficial element to my directing.

First of all, it was the first place I ever directed. In teaching, you have to say out loud your beliefs, which lands those beliefs differently in your body than just in theory. It’s like arguing religion or politics. The more we argue, the more I believe what I believe—whether right or wrong. It leads you and gives you a level of conviction that teaching even goes deeper than.

And then you have to affect change in actors in a moment. If we’re talking politics, or economy, or mathematics or English or literature — we can have different opinions on Blake or Thoreau but the reality is you can have your opinion and I can have my opinion. Same thing with acting, but at the end of the day I have to look at two actors and affect change with my theory. I have to get them from one point to a different point. And me being able to say something to a bunch of kids and then affect change in actors directly gave me a sense of confidence that I never would have if I was just an actor. Every scene I got to — if there was a problem — I knew I could get the actors through into a performance that served the movie and that they were going to be pretty incredible.

Filmmaker: Teaching forces you to communicate your ideas as well as translate them in a way that other people will understand and get on the same page.

Lillard: Yeah! It’s so funny, directors will be like, “You should be able to talk to actors.” Yeah for sure, but the idea of taking an acting class or a theory class on acting is different than living the life for 30 years as an actor. Living through the insecurities as an actor; living through the heights and the fears and the challenges of an actor. It definitely grounds me differently, but it doesn’t make me better. It’s just that that’s what I excel at.

If there’s a guy who’s had a camera in his hand since he was four, and knows every in-and-out of every visual effects shot or when to Dutch and what angle to use — that’s not my specialty. I like that aspect. I appreciate that the same way that they appreciate acting, but it is not my strong suit.

Not only that, but a lot of times on a film you are serving somebody’s higher purpose. It’s not a collaboration, and I think in our film — across the board — it’s a collaboration for everyone. On Fat Kid I’m such a fan of “Yes, and…” and there are no bad ideas; only the best idea wins. And that kind of community I think led to a really great experience.

Filmmaker: Before this project came along, was directing always a goal of yours?

Lillard: Yes, it was a goal of mine because it’s in my DNA by virtue of the fact that I’ve always done more than a normal actor. I hate the fact that I have to sit back and wait for somebody to give me the opportunity to act. I’m the product of a workaholic dad and waiting is just the worst thing in the world. I’ve always done more and by virtue of that fact I’ve taken my own initiative so many times that I’ve ended up directing.

Directing’s really about a whole group dynamic and being a leader, being a quarterback and inspiring the people. Acting’s very myopic. It’s really not that interesting. You can do some great work and there’s stuff you get to do, but the reality is that…look, I don’t get great roles. I get good roles. Sometimes I get an amazing role — you know every three or four years I get a role to write back to Mom and Dad about, but the reality is it’s not that exciting. And, if I bought into the hype of Hollywood and all that bullshit, I would’ve been gone 20 years ago. I’m really a blue-collar guy. To me, being able to direct was so much more satisfying than just sitting there and waiting for somebody to say “action.”

I think a lot of people are set on being a director for narcissistic reasons. They want the power and I definitely think that’s the scary thing and the surprising thing for me. I am not that guy. I’ve never been that guy and everyone who knows me understands that. And I think that the movie doesn’t reflect that selfish attitude at all — the good thing is that it has a strong message and, hopefully, a strong point of view. It’s not about being in power.

Filmmaker: Even watching, you could tell that it was fun and collaborative to make. How important was it to have that familial environment on set?

Lillard: It’s huge, definitely important to me. It’s a really good question for everyone else on set, but for me, my goal all the way through was to inspire people to give their greatest. And I think they have. I realize clearly that, for example when it comes to music, that’s not my world. I’m not the guy that lives for music. I knew that as a 42-year-old man with three kids, I am not going to have any kind of a tap or a finger on the pulse of Seattle bands. So, I found a guy who is; I found a guy who was in love with that and inspired by that and I said, “Dude, find music that gets your rocks off. Find something that you love, that has an emotional beat and fits in our budget and bring it back to me.” He brought me 10 songs and I went, “I like this and this, which one do you like?” “I like this.” “Why do you like this?” “What about that?” “Okay, great. Let’s go with this.” You know what I mean?

So, you’re inspiring somebody to give you their best. And that goes back to our movie — it’s not my movie. I think that helps in a really positive way and makes a really great film at the end of the day. It’s also a much more fun place to work. If you’re valuing people, and people feel valued, they like coming to work. It’s fun going in to work with people you like and who are happy.

Filmmaker: How involved were you in everything? Casting, for example.

Lillard: Oh, huge. The one thing I was going to be involved in, through thick and through thin no matter what, was casting—everything, every line, every person. Because again, going back to what are your strengths. You have to know what are your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve spent 30 years watching actors; I think I have a keen eye for talent and what it takes to do what they do.

So, yes I was hugely involved in that world. And finding those kids [Jacob Wysocki and Matt O’Leary], it wasn’t…Jacob was a gift from the gods. We had three kids come in. And we did a short before we did a feature. The short was to figure out three things: one was to see if it was story worth telling; two was to see if I was a narcissistic asshole and if we couldn’t work together, the producer and I; and the third was if I could direct. In that process, we were doing the short and we had three people come in and Jacob was one of them. He was amazing and we got lucky.

Matt O’Leary was kind of genius when he walked in a room. He was kind of kooky and had this energy that I loved. I was like, “Oh, I have this crazy energy in my work and I have this freedom in my work. And a lot of times in my work I kind of spiral into the atmosphere and do too much, and overact and I put my faith in directors who don’t know what to do with me or how to direct me; or don’t really care because they like what I’m doing but they don’t really pay attention to that, they’re paying attention to other things.” The reality is that, in Matt, I knew I had a kid who was a racehorse. That I knew how to help and go high, and big and strong and then come back and be little.

Filmmaker: There are plenty of “kid on the outside” stories, redemption/underdog type stories, but not quite like this one because it’s not a one-way street. Maybe someone helps an underdog but this is really two-way — Marcus is not some knight in shining armor.

Lillard: Right, he’s not like the perfect quarterback who makes the geek famous or popular.

Filmmaker: Exactly, it’s that mutual relationship and I think that’s one of the foundational aspects that sets it apart — and makes it more realistic.

Lillard: Everything in Hollywood just makes it really easy to push it to the extreme. We have no simple comedies, we have big fart comedies. We have no drama, we have like extreme melodrama. The funny thing is, the first time we screened the movie with the producer, we watched it with like 10, 15 people — producer, associate producer, d.p. etc. And we finished the movie and I remember going, “Oh, we fucked up…” and everyone was like “What?” It was a rough, rough cut but my producer who’s just my confidant and mentor said, “That was the best first cut I’ve ever seen,” but I was like, “We’re never gonna get into Sundance.” Because I realized, every chance we had to tell the story like him sucking him off in the bathroom, him shooting heroine into his veins and throwing up—every time we could’ve gone dark, we avoided it; every time we could’ve gone big and bawdy and funny and fat jokes, we avoided it. And that tone is hard to hit.

I think in regular movies, it’s either one or the other. They’re painting in such black-and-whites. I think we were able to kind of maneuver this tone in between. At the end of the day, it’s been really successful for us and the film, but what I think is even more important is that the movie is entertaining. You sit there, and if you see it in a crowd it changes everything. The laughs compile; it builds and peaks. People have fun. One of the things I’m most proud of is we’re delivering a message in a movie that is a good time.

Filmmaker: In relation to doing this film and going forward, what is some advice to indie filmmakers trying to get their movies made?

Lillard: I think it’s a responsibility of a filmmaker to have an idea on how you’re going to make your money back. If you just throw a movie into the abyss, I think it’s really hard to keep making movies. If you make movies that people don’t want to watch, if you’re just making movies for yourself…I do believe you have to have your own voice and have your own stories; and I believe in telling them the way you want to tell them. But it’s a relationship between you and the audience. If you don’t respect that, and if you don’t respect the audience and don’t respect the money, you’re going to have a hard time making movies.

It’s a business. It’s an art and it’s a business and you have to respect both sides. I tried to make this movie for the longest time and it wasn’t until I found Kevin Lyman and the Vans Warped Tour — which is the mechanism with which I went back to White Water Films. I went, “Look, I think we can make this movie and put it on the Vans Warped Tour and expose it to 750,000 kids over the course of the summer and release it to those kids.” That business plan, in conjunction with the artistic vision, is why we made the movie.

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