Thomas Sangster-Brodie in "Death of a Superhero"

Interview: Ian FitzGibbon on Pulling the Light Out of “Death of a Superhero”

All our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage can be found here.

Despite its epic title, “Death of a Superhero” is a coming-of-age story told on a decidedly human scale, though there’s no doubt its central character Donald shares an inner strength with Hulk or Superman. As easy to spot on the street without a whit of hair on his head, the 15-year-old (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) also knows what it’s like to fight adversity on a daily basis, having been recently diagnosed with cancer. Yet Ian FitzGibbon’s adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s novel of the same name doesn’t let Donald’s story descend into a weepy struggle against time, but rather make it the boy’s raison d’être, putting all of his teenage pursuits of sketching comic book characters and chasing girls on an expedited schedule and giving him an accomplice in his therapist (Andy Serkis).

Just as FitzGibbon’s last film “Perrier’s Bounty” put its own unusual spin on the noir genre, “Death of a Superhero” does the same for a chronicle of teenage angst, showing Donald’s personal torment manifesting itself into his artwork — his creation The Glove comes to life in the film through animation. But ultimately, it’s a film about finding the light before seeing it in the great beyond and for FitzGibbon, it clearly radiates the glow of being what he’s called his most personal film to date. While at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Irish actor-turned-director spoke about the influence of his own teenagers, seeing his homeland through a different perspective and why he’s hated by the film’s animators.

What attracted you to the story?

It was the boy really, this 15-year-old kid who is prepared to face and take on what the adults around him can’t even bear to contemplate. I thought there was something quite heroic and admirable about that.

Noticing your own children were among the “Teenage Crowd” extras in the credits, was that something that spurred your curiosity about a character that age?

That’s right. My daughter and my son are in there. When I sat down and rewrote the screenplay with my friend Mark Doherty — initially, it was set in New Zealand — and one of the things I said was we should set this story within six square miles of my house. As you say, I have two teenage kids who are 17 and 19 and they go to school every day on that dart train and that was a world that Mark and I really knew and we were able to describe authentically.

And it was great to be able to have my children as a barometer for my script — I came home and I said to them, “Oh, I wrote a scene today about them going on a date,” and [my daughter] went, “What? Kids don’t go on a date, Dad. Nobody uses that word of our generation.” So it was nice to be able to pinpoint inaccuracies in that teenage world. [laughs]

It had to be difficult finding the right tone for this since it’s a coming-of-age story and yet it’s upfront with the fact that there’s not much life ahead for Donald.

One of the rules I had was nobody’s allowed to cry. There was a cut where that literally was the case and then somebody felt it could do with a little bit more. In one particular scene where [Donald’s] mother is crying when they’ve been given the bad news by the doctor, I think I had a take in there where she didn’t cry and I relented. But that’s the only place really where I let that kind of emotion come out.

Even though the film is more intimate than the title implies, did you familiarize yourself with comic books and comic book movies to create some of the stylish touches for the film, particularly the way Donald’s creations, The Glove and the Nurse, come to life?

When I became attached to the film, [animators] had done quite a bit of work on the animation already, so that was very evolved. It was stunning, kind of 3D [and] photorealistic, very detailed and the movement in the animation was very sophisticated and frame accurate. I just had a big problem with connecting that to a 15-year-old and I wanted the drawings to be a lot rougher, less accomplished, but to have a kind of an urgency and a visceral quality. [They needed] to feel more like the feverish imagination of a teenage boy in terms of his sexual fantasies, his fears of death and his obsession with pain, so I had to go to the people who had done all that conceptual work and say, “I think this needs to be revisited.”

That may have been what you were referring to in another interview I read, but you said the animation served a different purpose than you initially thought it would. How so?

Initially, they came up with this construct of the animation serving as an illustration or a metaphor for the boy’s emotional growth —in the screenplay that I initially read, not the book, which I thought was really good, but the screenplay I wasn’t so keen on, it was about the shrink becoming almost an art teacher, teaching [Donald] to draw, particularly women. Through the medium of drawing, [Donald] was trying to express his emotional maturity and coming to see women as something other than sexual fantasies. But that didn’t really interest me. I was much more interested in the idea of the animation expressing something far more intimate and something that the audience would not otherwise be privy to because he’s quite inscrutable.

Speaking of things you might not otherwise see, were there touchstones in your neighborhood you wanted to show off because they haven’t been seen before? [Vague comments about the ending ahead]

I think the aspect of Dublin that is really unusual is the proximity of the sea. That kind of coastline is fairly unusual and beautiful in its mix of it’s a little bit industrial, but it also seems quite picturesque. I love that combination because I don’t know if you noticed this, but when the kids get together on that rock at the end, there are two massive cargo ships on the sea. Somebody came in to me and said, “I can take those out and give you a perfect shot.” No, I really like the fact that it makes you feel that they’re just trying to find shelter from somewhere in the world, but the world still goes on. I like that imperfection. It hopefully rescues the film from feeling kitsch in any way.

It was interesting because I had spoke to Neil Jordan a while back for “Ondine,” and he too had a strong desire to show off a side of Ireland that few had seen before.

“Ondine” is set in a really beautiful part of [Ireland], I think it’s West Cork, that you never see in films. It’s really stunning down there. But I think Ireland has a lot of places like that that we take for granted and when my German [cinematographer Tom Fährmann] saw these places, he was jumping up and down. He said, “Do you have any idea of how special this place is? How unusual it is?” He couldn’t get over the texture of the skies. He says, “We never get these skies in Germany. Never.” He just couldn’t get over how quickly they changed and the layers of cloud and different kinds of light. You’re blind to these things because you see them every day. You just don’t question it. Things that I thought were utterly familiar and exhausted, he just made me feel…he made me look at them in a slightly different way.

You actually voiced The Glove, which is a small part, but still notable. How did that come about?

Yeah, do you know how that happened? I improvised a lot of it and I sat down with the animators and I tended to act out the scenes and I had done it so much that by the end, the producers just said, “Why don’t you just do it?” I thought maybe I should because I just wanted to be sure that all the beats that I could find were going to be there and I felt very close to the material, so before I knew it, I was standing behind a microphone looking at pictures of the glove and saying those lines. I was an actor for about 10 years, so I felt comfortable doing that. Either that or my ego knows no boundaries. I don’t know.

What was it that drew you from in front of the camera to behind it?

I’ll tell you what it is. I think I got a little bit bored [as an actor]. I did plenty of TV and I was always the weird brother or the sad cousin or the incompetent policeman. I felt very comfortable. I never felt stretched and the thought of directing always appealed to me, but I was always a bit frightened of it. And I still am a bit frightened of it. I still turn up on set a lot of the time going, “What the hell am I doing?” But it’s a very powerful feeling to take that on in some way and get through the day. It offers me a lot more satisfaction having done it. So I think what draws me to it is the fact that I always feel like it’s slightly out of my reach in some way. It’s a very frustrating thing, directing, It’s always about compromise, the compromise in your imagination. But I just love doing it. I can’t really explain it.

Recently, you’ve been busy directing a comedy series for British TV, which seems like quite a departure for you. Has the line blurred for you between film and television?

This movie was a very personal film for me and it took 18 months of my life and it was a brilliant process, an exhausting process, a very emotional process. To be honest, to turn to TV where you have a very limited schedule and you’ve got to get through your stuff, I found that very refreshing in a way. It’s very useful, certainly for me, to keep turning over. The more I turn over, the more likely I am to become a better director because I have to keep doing it. It’s like a muscle and it’s a muscle I have to keep flexing because it’s quite demanding. It becomes easier to express yourself as a director once you are experienced enough not to worry about the technical aspects of it and the crew aspect of it. At the beginning, they were quite daunting to me, but they aren’t anymore and the more I do it, the more I feel it’s actually very simple ­— just point the camera at the story.

“Death of a Superhero” is available on demand and online through Amazon, iTunes and Vudu nationwide and will show at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28th at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea 9 at 7:30 p.m. and 29th at the AMC Loews Village 7 at 1 p.m. It will next play at the SIFF Cinema in Seattle beginning May 4th.

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