Starring Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson and teenager Devin Brochu, “Hesher” features a father and son grieving over the recent death of their wife and mother, respectively, and the perversely philosophical, mayhem-inspiring metal head who appears in their house one day.
Set to have its world premiere as part of the prestigious U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival (which kicks off Thursday), tipped as a hot acquisitions title and consistently in the top 10 buzz rankings on the festival website, “Hesher” -- a slang term to describe a long-haired, cigarette smoking, tight-jeans-wearing burnout of a rocker -- seems like a natural to break out of Park City, Utah.
That is, if the filmmakers can get it finished.
Less than two weeks before the film’s first screening, and the West Hollywood bungalow of director and co-writer Spencer Susser is a hive of activity, someone working at an editing bay against one wall, someone else working the phones on the couch as harried people come and go. A guesthouse is used as a makeshift conference center and screening room. A small crew is to be assembled for a last-minute reshoot. If it feels like they are cutting it a bit close, it’s because they are.
The movie was originally going to shoot last March, but just one day before principal production was to start, casting changes caused a chunk of the film’s financing to fall out. The production had to recast and regroup, shooting in the late summer and leading to the breakneck pace of post-production and extensions of extensions once the film got into Sundance.
“All independent movies are like that, it’s just crazy,” said producer Lucy Cooper. “But this was a particularly messed-up one.”
For Susser, the last-minute changes forced him to creatively rethink his intentions.
“I had a very specific idea of the film I wanted to make, who I wanted to make it with,” he said. “When it all changed at the 11th hour, in the first week or two once we started to shoot, I failed miserably. I thought, ‘This is a disaster.’ And then I said, ‘OK, the movie I wanted to make, it’s not happening anymore. I’m going to embrace what I have.’ And once I figured that out, I made the movie. I think a movie becomes what it is.”
Susser, making his feature debut with “Hesher,” had a short film at Sundance in 2008, “I Love Sarah Jane,” a teenage romance/zombie adventure he co-wrote with David Michôd. The pair would also co-write “Hesher,” with story credit going to Brian Charles Frank (Michôd wrote and directed the feature film “Animal Kingdom,” also playing at Sundance.)
A Los Angeles native, the 33-year-old Susser began working at an editing house straight out of high school. Eventually he cut numerous music videos and commercials for such directors as Mark Romanek, Peter Care and David LaChapelle.
Moving on to directing his own commercial and video work, he began reading feature scripts, eventually coming across Frank’s “Hesher.” The story didn’t really speak to him, but he was taken with the title character.
Having lost an older brother when he was in his early teens, Susser found himself drawn to refocusing the story on grief and moving forward. (Another brother of Susser’s is the cinematographer on “Hesher.”)
“I loved that character, but I didn’t want to make that script,” Susser recalled. “I went through it and basically crossed out everything, I ended up starting from scratch but keeping the idea of the Hesher character, a heavy metal guy. But I started to write the film about a boy and his dad and loss. I didn’t sit down and do it, but it ended up being about this thing I had experienced and then the idea of the Hesher character.”
In the title role, Gordon-Levitt creates a character so epic and indelible that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Thematically a symbol of death -- in that he arrives unexpectedly and the family just has to learn to live with him -- the character of Hesher is imbued by Gordon-Levitt with such a dark charisma that he paradoxically also represents an affirmation of life. Except that Susser nearly didn’t cast the actor in the role.
“I met him and really liked him,” Susser said of Gordon-Levitt, “but I didn’t think he was Hesher. And Joe was willing to sit down with me and we worked on some scenes, and after that I was just, wow, he is able to not be the guy that I met and went, ‘He’s a good guy, but he’s not Hesher.’ ”
Perhaps the most daring aspect of “Hesher” is its mix of tones, the rather serious story of a father and son coming to terms with their grief, individually and as a family unit, bouncing off a more freewheeling tale of rock and ‘n’ roll rebellion.
“It was always about saying this is a grounded story,” Susser said before getting back to the work of actually finishing the film. “This is real, everything is honest. But then you have this crazy character that makes it fun and entertaining to watch. It was always playing with these two things.
“How do you take these two extremes and put them together in the same movie and tonally make it work? When you dream, no matter how crazy the dream is, you believe it, you’re in it and it’s totally real. That was the goal, I hope I did it. I don’t know.”