Interview: Director Spencer Susser on the Chaos, Spontaneity and Symbolism of ‘Hesher’

By  · Published on May 10th, 2011

Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a character that represents almost all different sides of life, and mainly, childhood. He’s reckless, narcissistic, always looking for fun, and you never know whether or not he’s your friend or your greatest enemy. Hesher is a cypher, someone that you can never truly understand or grasp. Many will love him and many will hate him.

A character such as Hesher can’t be easy to write. If he becomes too extremist, he can lose any hints at humanity and could become a total cartoon. But director Spencer Susser and co-writer David Michôd (the director behind last year’s tremendous Animal Kingdom) managed to find an authentic grounding in this coming-of-age film that chronicles the extreme emotions of childhood. Hesher isn’t the star of the film, but he represents everything about childhood and what the lead, T.J., is going through.

Here’s what Susser had to say about writing a jarring tone, the max levels Hesher goes to, and writing spontaneity:

Do you like seeing the film with an audience?

Yeah, I really do. You know, you make a film for an audience, so it’s really nice to be in the room and feel it with them. You know, sometimes not everyone loves the movie or any movie. And you read about them sometimes and you’re like, “Aaah.” But when you’re in the room you know if the film plays or not. And that’s really… that’s what you really get back.

So I love it. You know, because the movie has a strange tone to it. It’s really funny at times, and then at other times, it’s sad. I enjoy people laughing and then like a second later you can hear a pin drop. Like, “OK, they’re watching it. They’re really in it.”

Can you actually talk about finding that tone and structure with David?

You know, David and I spent so much time talking about who Hesher was. You see a lot of heavy metal characters in movies, but they always seem to be clichéd version and caricatures. But they’re not that. There’s a lot of guys that like Metallica, just like Hesher, and they’re complicated people. Not all of them, but some of them.

And I just thought why not treat one like a real person, you know? It’s not about the long hair and the music. It’s about who he is, in a way. And I don’t really get into his backstory in the film because it’s not his story.

Tonally, it was so important to kind of…I feel like life is not funny all the time or sad all the time. It’s kind of everything all the time. And so I tried to make the movie feel like that.

You never get to know about Hesher’s personal life or outside life. What was the intention behind that?

Hesher represents a lot of things. Like, first and foremost, he’s a complicated character. But he also represents death, in a way. Here’s this terrible thing, scary thing maybe, that shows up at this family’s door and moves in. And there’s nothing that they can do about it and he’s not going anywhere. And once they learn how to function with him there it goes away, in a sense.

I mean, they will always remember him and he will always be a part of their lives. So, for me it’s T.J.’s story. You know, and Mary Poppins, like, she literally flies out of the fucking sky underneath an umbrella and you don’t question it. It doesn’t matter where Hesher comes from.

And I think because we had flushed out who he is, and Joe is so good at being Hesher, you know there’s more to it than just some crazy guy. I think we meet people all the time where we don’t know where they’re from or what their real story is. Who cares? The story is about the boy.

Does Hesher represent T.J.’s wish fulfillment come to life?

Yeah, I mean he definitely could be that too. For me, he represents a lot of things. One of them is life. But I think, yeah, he says the things that T.J. would want to say or do, or the things that we want to do sometimes that we don’t have the balls to do.

I think Hesher is so free. Someone was saying, “Oh, he’s so angry.” Actually, he’s not angry at all. He’s past angry. He has nothing to lose. And I think there’s nothing more scary than someone with nothing to lose. But he’s very peaceful. He’s so comfortable in his own skin. He doesn’t care if he lives or if he dies. He’s just in the moment. He doesn’t care about yesterday or tomorrow. He’s just living in the now. He’s like a monk. Isn’t that what the Buddhists do? It’s all about now in the present.

Would you call Hesher likable?

I think he is likeable. I think he has to be likable.

Well, could you talk about that balance of how extreme you could take Hesher, but without making him lose a sense of humanity?

Well, the thing is Hesher does take things too far, for sure. And I think T.J. also realizes that he’s far from perfect. He is fucked up. He is a mess, that guy. But he guides them in a way, you know? I think something that Joe really brings is… Joe is very charismatic. He’s very likeable. And it’s a good question: How far can you push it before you don’t like the guy? I don’t know, you didn’t like the guy?

I definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with him, but that’s not a flaw.

Yeah, I wouldn’t. Some days I might. But you also wouldn’t want to deal with losing a loved one, you know? It’s not something you ask for or want, and it’s not fun all the time or any of the time. But it’s about growing. And it’s about… sometimes we meet people and they come into our lives and then they’re gone. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because they needed to be there. I don’t know.

For me, he is a likable. I think that’s fun to watch. Like, I don’t know what he’s going to do or what he’s going to say, and I’m curious. He’s like a train wreck, in a way. He’s dangerous.

So I don’t know. I think you could push it pretty far.

Hesher is very spontaneous. Is it difficult writing realistic spontaneity when you have, say, hours or days to think about it?

Working with David, we had this great way of working together, which is like 99% of the writing was just talking. Very little actual typing. It was very spontaneous the way that we would talk about ideas. “Ah, what if this happens?” “You know, actually, what about this?” “What if he does that?” And it was kind of like that. We would keep pushing it further and further. Sometimes when you write by yourself you go, “Ah, here’s a cool idea.” Then you write it and you kinda go off on this path. And sometimes you have to go back… more times than not you have to go back and rethink it.

But working together we always had to defend ideas or convince each other what was a better idea. But it was just very free. It was very spontaneous. And to pretend to be Hesher and to go… You know, I spend so much time as Hesher in the writing, even before I started working with David, writing in the wrong directions that I feel like I know what Hesher would do in any situation and what he would say. I think that was a big part of it.

And it’s not what you think. It’s usually the opposite of what you would think. I think there’s a couple of scenes in the movie where you go, “Oh, fuck. I know what he’s going to do here.” And then he does something different and you go, “Uh, what the fuck?”

And there’s that scene in the bathroom where a lot of people are like, “Oh, my God. I was sure he was going to save him.” Like, “Nope! That’s not him. He’s not… You know, he talks in metaphors. There’s another scene in the film where he’s talking about the mouse because the grandmother says, “Why do you hang out with T.J.?” He says, “Well, I used to have this snake” and he tells this weird story. And for me, I mean, do you want to hear this? This might be boring.

No, please go ahead.

To back up a little further, Hesher, because of his past, he’s put up these walls to protect himself from friends and family, because he was rejected as a kid. And he never wants to be hurt like that ever again. So he’s blocked out the idea of friends and family.

And as he befriends this boy and his family, they become his family in a way. And when he sees the grandmother get sad, he’s affected. He doesn’t know what that is. It’s this torn feeling. He hasn’t felt it since he was a kid, so he’s confused.

So the reason he goes into that room to talk to her is because he wants to know more about this feeling. And so, in a way, that’s like a therapy session for Hesher. He never talks about himself. So he’s opening up. And he does it disguised in this weird story about a mouse. But she says to him, “Why are you hanging out with T.J.?” And he tells this story about the mouse. To me, he is talking about himself. He is the mouse. He goes, “In the scheme of things, I’m nothing. I’m a little fucking mouse. But I’m surviving. So I’m standing up and I’m punching the snake in the face. And not only am I surviving, I’m kind of kicking ass.”

And he kinda goes on, and she says, “So is T.J. the mouse?” And he says, “I don’t know. Maybe.” And what does that mean? For me, he’s dropping the mouse, if T.J.’s the mouse, and the snake in a car with the snake leaving him in the bathroom, leaving him with the burning car. Is he trying to see if T.J. is like him?

Because I think when he first meets T.J., here’s a kid who’s been hurt so badly because of his mother dying, there’s nothing you can do to hurt him. I mean anything physical, that doesn’t hurt. He’s hurt way worse. And so, in a way, he has nothing to lose.

And I think Hesher sees that there is this kid that has nothing to lose. It reminds him of himself.

Is the idea that one day T.J. will become another Hesher?

No, I think it’s more that just Hesher goes, “I was like that kid.” This kid, I don’t know, just reminds him that he feels like he could relate to this kid and he’s curious. He follows the kid. He wants to know more. And he’s kind of testing him.

I don’t know, Hesher, because he lives in the moment, likes chaos. He likes to entertain himself. He likes to make a mess because it’s more fun to watch. And so he just happens to follow this kid. I mean, yes he got him kicked out of his place. But more importantly, it’s like Hesher doesn’t care. He’s curious.

And when he kind of finds his way in that house, he assesses the situation very quickly. And I don’t think Hesher can move into anyone’s house because the fact that the dad is so numb to the world, he’s shut down, that, in a way, here’s T.J.’s friend, he hasn’t been a good dad at all, so maybe T.J. does need a friend. And maybe by simply allowing this to happen without thinking about it too much, maybe it’s the best thing for his son.

The grandmother… I know I’m going off on a crazy tangent. But the grandmother, she’s a lonely old lady. And the idea of her grandson and her son coming to visit her is great. And the fact that they come and stay with her seems like a great idea. But they’re so messed up from the loss that she’s actually more lonely with them living there than she probably had been.

And there’s nothing she can say or do to help. She probably feels terrible. Hesher shows up and he’s like, “Oh, free food? Sure, I’ll listen to this old lady talk. I don’t care.” And all of a sudden, now she has someone to tell stories to.

So she really needs it in a way. And Hesher learns to like her. She doesn’t judge him, and he hasn’t had that for a long time either. So it’s this weird natural puzzle piece that kinda fits into that world.

My final question: Would you say Hesher is a lot different than The Square and Animal Kingdom, in how you’re actually hopeful? Do you see it that way?

I do, for sure. Absolutely. I see the film as hopeful. I guess The Square is kind of…that’s pretty dark. Animal Kingdom is pretty dark. But, you know, it’s funny because we’re all great friends and we all have very similar sensibilities, but we all are very different in the way we make films and the way we want to tell stories. But I think we all try to be original and do things in a new way. But yeah, I do see the film as hopeful.

Hesher opens in limited release this Friday, May 13th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.