Misfits, Outcasts and Lost Kids: Talking With Matthew Lillard About "Fat Kid Rules the World"

I talked to the impeccably marvelous Matthew Lillard, without mentioning my deep and abiding love for camp masterpiece “Hackers” EVEN ONCE.
Publish date:
June 1, 2012
movies, Kickstarter

Last week, one of my awesome Twitter followers sent me a link to a Kickstarter project for a film entitled “Fat Kid Rules the World,” based on the 2003 young adult novel of the same name by K.L. Going.

OBVIOUSLY, if you put “fat” in the title to just about anything, I am instantly drawn to it like a big flabby moth to an oily flame, so I was intrigued. I watched the trailer and I was MORE intrigued. Then I found out it was directed by first-timer Matthew Lillard (best known for his roles in “SLC Punk,” “Scream,” and/or the live-action “Scooby-Doo” movies, depending on your taste in films) and my interest was officially piqued.

“Fat Kid Rules the World” is an underdog story on multiple levels -- the narrative follows depressed and suicidal fat teenager Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki) as he discovers punk rock and begins the long process of figuring out who he is. This evolution is spurred on by his relationship with Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a loopy 18-year-old junkie guitarist with a fan base who follow him as much for his on-stage meltdowns as for his talent. Add in some intervention by Troy’s superstrict former-Marine dad, the stone-faced Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell), and a scrappy soundtrack by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and you’ve got some mad complex relationships going on.

In summation, it's an enthusiastic movie that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, and I really loved it.

But more than that, “Fat Kid” is itself an underdog, produced last June in Seattle on a wee independent budget, and now seeking to fund wider distribution via a Kickstarter project, Kickstarter being where all the radical busting-the-distribution-model kids are hanging out these days, making all kinds of media from music to film to video games.

So I talked to the impeccably marvelous Matthew Lillard about it. And I did THE WHOLE INTERVIEW without mentioning my deep and abiding love for camp masterpiece “Hackers” EVEN ONCE, because I only would have embarrassed myself and I do have occasional spurts of trying to be semi-professional at this whole writing-things-on-the-Internet-for-money thing.

LK: So tell me a bit about how this film came to be made.

ML: I did the book on tape for the young adult book by K.L. Going, and like 20 pages into it I was having this completely emotional epiphany, and was blown away by the story. I saw myself in that kid -- he's like this lost kid and he's overweight, and I was an overweight kid with a severe learning disability. I had braces, I had glasses, I played Dungeons and Dragons, I mean all the things that kind of typify the terrible high school experience.

In that moment, I was like, “I want to make this into a movie.” So I picked up the phone and called my manager and got on the phone with the author and I just said to her, “Look, I've never directed a film, but I promise you I'll make a great movie.”

It took nine years to finally get it done. When I first optioned the book, I thought I was gonna do an independent film for like ten million dollars. Little did I know that ten million bucks and a fat kid in the lead in a movie did not necessarily go together very well. So we finally did it for less than a million bucks and it's been an amazing response.

Matt O'Leary and Jacob Wysocki as Marcus and Troy, respectively.

Fat Kid Rules The World premiered at SXSW -- how did that go?

You know, the first night that it played, we had everyone and their mother there as potential people to buy it, and we had a bunch of agents and a bunch of parents, and all the producers and people who worked on the film were there. And it worked well.

But I had screened it five days previous to that at the Vancouver Film School where I teach, and we had this experience where kids were crying, and Billy Campbell was there and he was sobbing, and like there was this epic emotional experience. When we got to SXSW, at that first screening, it just didn't happen, and I was so disappointed. I mean it played really well, it just didn't go through the roof, which is what I was expecting.

The second screening was a rainy night at 11 pm like 30 miles outside of Austin. The third screening was downtown at 8 o'clock at night, and that's when we had the impromptu applause during the movie, and people standing up saying, “Thank you for making this film.”

Since then, every time it plays, kids go crazy for it. People who have been lost in the world can relate to it. Unless you're like that 4 percent of people who think high school was rad and the best time of your life. It's just been this magical experience.

Are there really 4 percent of people who think high school was rad?

There's really like 2 percent, and the other 2 percent lie to themselves. The movie strikes a chord. It's about this overweight kid, but I think he represents Everyman, every kid who feels like they're just trying to find their way through, to find who they are.

What was the casting process like? I know Jacob Wysocki mostly from “Huge” -- I'm still mad at ABC Family for canceling that show.

Yeah, everyone wants the “Twilight” -- everyone wants really beautiful people with great abs, and everyone's timelessly gorgeous. So when you get something like “Huge,” just like with “Fat Kid,” it doesn't fit inside the normal box. It's just harder to figure out where it goes.

As part of my deal with Whitewater Films, they wanted to do a short together to see if A) we all got along, B) if I could direct and C) if it was a story worth telling. So we did a short, and we cast this non-union thing. We had four overweight kids who kinda fit the bill of what we were looking for, and Wysocki was one of the kids who came in to audition. He's just a genius, he's an angel of an actor and just unbelievably talented, and the movie would be nothing without him.

Him and Matt and Billy, the three of them. I just don't know what I would have done without them.

[For the character of Troy’s dad] we were trying to find someone in Hollywood willing to take a chance on this little movie, and a friend of mine at CAA said, “Well, Billy Campbell just got done doing ‘The Killing,’ what about Billy?”

We were three days into shooting a 21 day movie, and he's in a third of the script, and we didn't have a dad. Thinking about it now, it was just about the stupidest thing we ever could have done. I thought I was going to have to play the dad, which would have been the worst thing in the history of film.

In fact, I was in the movie, and I cut myself even before I got to the rough cut. I was like, “I gotta cut that guy, he's terrible.”

Matt O'Leary was a kid we saw in casting, and I saw in him what I see in myself, the energy that I like to bring to work he brings to work, and he was fearless and funny and dramatic and I just fell in love with him.

Matthew Lillard doing the director thing, with Lili Simmons.

This is sort of a philosophical question -- I have a theory, but I want to hear yours. Why do you think that a story about an outsider kid, in this case a fat outsider kid, finding himself via a subculture -- why is that such a hard sell for people?

Movies in general are about fantasy -- I don't know. I don't really know. If you look at America and you look at what people really are, you'd think there would be a lot more stories about people who are outside that box. But there's not. I think people want to escape real life, they want to escape the drama of their own lives.

If you make an epically serious movie about real life situations, I think that's a hard movie to sell. Like if you were making a hardcore drug addict movie, people are like, “Ugh, that's so depressing.” But “Fat Kid” isn't that – we're a really funny, really charming movie about a kid with real problems.

I think you can do both -- I think Alexander Payne [director of "Sideways" and "The Descendants"], who's a great filmmaker, does both. I don't think that there is only one tone in life. We're so keen to put things in little boxes like comedy or drama. I think if you can make a movie that does both and does it with honesty then you have a chance to find success.

What's your theory?

Oh! I think we like stories about underdogs, but we put specific limits on those stories. We like underdogs who go on to succeed in an acceptable way -- the example I always think of is The Breakfast Club and Ally Sheedy's character. I... um, I assume you're familiar with The Breakfast Club.

Am I familiar with The Breakfast Club? Yes, of course! The minute you said “The Breakfast Club” I was like, “Ally Sheedy!”

Sorry, OK! But that's this great movie with all these outsider kids who come together, but then at the end they take Ally Sheedy and put her in normal clothes and put makeup on her, and even as a 12-year-old kid watching that movie I remember thinking, “This is BULLSHIT.”

Particularly we see it in teen movies, that whole makeover narrative in which the ugly-but-good-hearted girl takes off her glasses and everyone's surprised that she's beautiful.

Sure, like “She's All That,” with Rachel Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze, Jr. You're like, “Really? All of sudden she's that girl?”

It's funny because I kind of hate that -- it was the last thing I wanted to do. It was essential to me to tell the story in an organic way, because I feel like that's the filmmaker I am. Even though this is my first movie. I feel like that's the kind of person I am, and I'm translating that into making movies.

The one thing that we never do, we never give you, “Hey, he's gonna be great!” The end of the movie is a very specific ending, and I keep getting into continual debates about it. Which I love, because it means we've told a story that's striking people enough to want to have conversations after, and that's really exciting.

But it’s a movie that leaves you wanting more, because it doesn't give you that ending you're looking for, that traditional ending that we're built for as filmgoers.

The last thing I wanted to do was get to the end of the movie and have it be all, “Hey, check him out! He's great! Everything's awesome! He's skinny, he's gonna be saved!” That is the last thing that this movie was ever going to represent. In fact one of the biggest mistakes I made in this movie is that I committed so hardcore to this ending that if it wasn't for Mike McCready's music cue, the ending could have been a disaster. But the music saves it.

Want to be a part of MOVIE HISTORY? You can make that happen if you donate to the “Fat Kid Rules the World” Kickstarter project. Also, if you’re in New York, you can see the whole movie on June 8th as part of the Rooftop Films summer series, which looks like a really good time.